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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

This New House

Air Date: Week of April 29, 2005

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As our waistlines are expanding, so too are our houses. The trend in newly constructed homes is toward bigger is better, to the point that the average new home is too big for the occupants to clean themselves. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Clara Jeffrey, Deputy Editor of Mother Jones magazine, about the trend.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: This is Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Not only are Americans expanding and getting bigger but apparently, so are our houses. Since 1970, the average size of a new home in the United States has grown by 50 percent, a trend that's fueling the ratings for ABC TVs program "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." That reality show recently transformed a modest home into a colossal six-bedroom, seven bath, seven television set house for a family of four. And, that inspired Clara Jeffrey, deputy editor at Mother Jones magazine, to compile a fascinating list of facts about this growing trend. She joins me from San Francisco and Clara, thank you very much for coming in.

JEFFREY: Thank you very much for having me, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Well, I'm going to just read some of the statistics on your list that appear in the April issue of Mother Jones and you call the annotation, "This New House." You write, since 1950 the average new house has increased by 1,247 square feet.

JEFFREY: That's right and meanwhile the average household has shrunk by one person. So, basically, we're getting a lot more house for a smaller family.

GELLERMAN: But 1,247 square feet--that's an increase, if you've got a ten by 12 room, 120 square feet, that's ten, ten by 12 square foot rooms?

JEFFREY: Uh, I'll leave the math to you, but what I will say is that an extra 1,200 square feet is you know quite a generous apartment size in a city like San Francisco or New York. I mean, you're considered pretty lucky if you have an apartment that size. So it's basically taking the house of old and adding an apartment-sized addition of rooms to it.

GELLERMAN: You have this item, the National Association of Homebuilders showcase home for 2005 is 5,950 square feet and that's 15 percent bigger than last year.

JEFFREY: That's right and, actually, the one for next year is scheduled to be something over 8,000 square feet. So, you know, this is really, those are sort of the aspirational homes, but it's also a trend that they recognize that more and more people are building that big and certainly more and more people would like to fantasize that they could have a house that big.

GELLERMAN: Okay, I'm going to list a couple of more stats from "This New House," Okay?

JEFFREY: Yep.

GELLERMAN: More than 50 percent of ex-urban lots are ten acres or more. Wow.

JEFFREY: Yeah and ex-urban homes now account, since 1994, they account for 80 percent of new residential development. So, you know, we're going further and further out and I think to your question earlier, basically people can't afford a home that size in the city or the inner suburbs, so they go further and further out to sort of get the home that they want. And, you know, I think that they do so with sort of good intentions, wanting to provide a house for themselves and their family and all that, but I think that it has a lot of impacts that people don't calculate. I mean, first of all, the commutes are just getting ridiculously long. The number of Americans with commutes longer than 90 minutes each way has increased 95 percent since 1990. And I think there's also a sort of psychological effect. In the sort of suburbs of the '50s that we see on the sitcoms, people knew their neighbors and they, you know, they had a real community there, as many people do in the city. But in the ex-urbs because you're commuting so long because you're working longer hours to support the house basically, you're less likely to know your neighbors or have any sort of ties to the community in which you live.

GELLERMAN: Okay, here's some more stats, Okay? In 1950, one in one hundred homes had two and a half baths or more. Today, one in two.

JEFFREY: Right, you know, which I think people see as a big convenience. But what's interesting about those bathrooms is not just that there are more of them but, especially, in the sort of luxury homes that are being built now, you know, they have things like these multiple showerhead systems which while they feel lovely can drain a hot water tank in four minutes basically, there's so much water coming out of those things.

GELLERMAN: Here are a couple facts that I found really fascinating. You write that sales of subzero and other premium and super-premium refrigerators have been rising by 15 percent a year. So now we're eating more food and we've got fancy places to store it, but here's the one that gets me: the average cost of a luxury kitchen remodel is 57,000 dollars. And, that's ten thousand dollars more than it costs to build a typical habitat for humanity home. That's astonishing.

JEFFREY: Yeah, to me that's really the statistic that should really make us sort of rethink the way we're tending to live now because, you know, through these home improvement shows you definitely see people wanting to build these very elaborate kitchens. Some of these people, you know, actually are good cooks and really cook—a lot of people are probably just bring home takeout and sticking it in their Viking fridge.

GELLERMAN: I knew that people that lived in cities were much more fuel-efficient and energy efficient than suburbanites, but I didn't realize just how much.

JEFFREY: Yeah, it's pretty remarkable that people who live in cities use about half as much energy as suburbanites. Now, a lot of that is transportation.

GELLERMAN: But it seems that fewer and fewer people can actually afford to live where they work or work where they live. You're in San Francisco; you have a statistic here that on 2.7 percent of the city's teachers and 5.7 percent of its policemen can afford to buy a home there.

JEFFREY: Right, and San Francisco is, I think, about the worst in this regard, but the numbers are pretty startling for even, sort of, medium size cities in the Midwest. It's just, you know, we have a housing crisis going on; there is the housing bubble which everyone is preoccupied by but there is also just a lack of affordable housing.

GELLERMAN: You know, Clara, out here in the Boston area we have a lot of places that have these old Victorian houses and they're enormous. So, this is not a new phenomenon.

JEFFREY: That's right. There certainly were big houses built at the turn of the century and earlier. I think what's interesting to note is that A- the family sizes were much bigger, grandparents tended to still live with you and also that there were servants living in some of those houses. You know, it was a different style. There have always been wealthy people. I think what is interesting now is how many people are buying enormous houses who are by no means wealthy and, you know, maybe not even in the upper middle class. And part of that is having low interest rates on mortgages now and people doing things, like in California now, 50 percent of all new mortgages are interest only, which means people are not paying any principle and that could prove a real problem for them when interest rates rise.

GELLERMAN: Sure, when interest rates go south, you have got to wonder, what happens to "this new house."

JEFFREY: Yeah, and you know, I think that when that, when the housing market collapses as I'm sure it will at least in some areas, you know, are some of these suburban track mansions going to sit empty? I think, you know, as the tech bubble has taught us, nothing this crazy can last forever.

GELLERMAN: Clara, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

JEFFREY: Okay, thank you.

GELLERMAN: Clara Jeffrey is Deputy Editor of Mother Jones Magazine.

 

 

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