that’s a big fuckin’ house you got there

The article, “Homes As Hummers”, by Robert J. Samuelson, was printed in the Washington Post last week, but I just heard about it from a reader this evening. Here are a few clips…

We Americans seem to be in the process of becoming wildly overhoused. Since 1970 the size of the average home has increased 55 percent (to 2,330 square feet), while the size of the average family has decreased 13 percent. Especially among the upper crust, homes have more space and fewer people. We now have rooms specialized by appliances (home computers, entertainment systems and exercise equipment) and — who knows? — may soon reserve them for pets. The long-term consequences of this housing extravaganza are unclear, but they may include the overuse of energy and, ironically, a drain on homeowners’ wealth.

By and large, the new American home is a residential SUV. It’s big, gadget-loaded and slightly gaudy. In 2001 about one in eight homes exceeded 3,500 square feet, which was more than triple the average new home in 1950 (983 square feet). We have gone beyond shelter and comfort. A home is now a lifestyle. Buyers want spiral staircases and vaulted ceilings. In one marketing survey by the National Association of Home Builders, 36 percent of buyers under age 35 rated having a “home theater” as important or very important…

Another cause of this relentless upsizing is that the government unwisely promotes it. In 2005, about 80 percent of the estimated $200 billion of federal housing subsidies consists of tax breaks (mainly deductions for mortgage interest payments and preferential treatment for profits on home sales), reports an Urban Institute study. These tax breaks go heavily to upscale Americans, who are thereby encouraged to buy bigger homes. Federal housing benefits average $8,268 for those with incomes between $200,000 and $500,000, estimates the study; by contrast, they’re only $365 for those with incomes of $40,000 to $50,000. It’s nutty for government to subsidize bigger homes for the well-to-do.

But otherwise, why shouldn’t Americans buy what they can afford? No good reason. The trouble is that freedom doesn’t confer infallibility. With hindsight, some homeowners may regret sinking so much money into ever-grander houses. One possible problem is future operating costs. Homes exceeding 3,500 square feet use about 40 percent more energy than those between 2,000 and 2,500 square feet, says the Energy Information Administration. Suppose electricity or natural gas prices rise because (for example) new power plants or terminals for liquefied natural gas aren’t approved.

In a related note, I wanted to mention that a few nights ago I was attending a function at local American history museum and had the opportunity to peek inside of a fully-restored aluminum diner from the mid-1940’s. The thing that struck me, as I stood there, leaning up to the diner’s window with a beer in my hand (by the way, there’s nothing better than drinking free beer in a deserted museum late at night), was how many seats there were. The barstools were seriously one right on top of the other, and the booths, I’m certain, couldn’t have contained your average American fifth grader.

It was like stumbling onto an artifact from a culture of anorexic midgets, a diner that served only laxatives and lettuce leaves… It was seriously freaky to stand there balancing my plate of cheese on my gut, and realize that, had I been around back then, I would have had to have eaten outside, by myself. And it made me wonder if we might be evolving toward something even larger, if we all might one day be as big as the people who now need two seats on airplanes. (And I’m not saying this to be mean to the overweight people in the audience. I’m just really curious as to where our steadily climbing average weight is likely to stop, and what we’re in the process of becomming.)

As for the super-sized houses, I suspect that they’ll all be gone in a few years — a future made possible due to the complimentary forces of shoddy workmanship, poor materials, the costs associated with heating and cooling, and the fact that, more often than not, to live in these houses means having to travel great distances for work, food, etc, something that doesn’t exactly work well in a world of expensive fuel.

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One Comment

  1. Posted July 21, 2005 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    Next thing you know people will start eating large quantities of food, inducing themselves to vomit, then consuming even more food.

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