Column: Why are American homes growing while family size shrinks?

Stock image of a suburban mansion.

Stock image of a suburban mansion.

Tim Kitchen/Getty Images

Homes are a mirror of what we value. 

For most people, where we live is our most important investment. Surprisingly that fundamental connection between families and homes has been an irrational one for the last three generations of American homes. As families get smaller, homes get bigger.

America has grown in those generations, from less than 50 million families to nearly 130 million households. About a million or more new homes are built every year, and despite actively accommodating the needs and desires of housing consumers, there is a skewed relationship between family size, home size and the number of unoccupied houses in America.

The United States Census gives clear data of the divergence between shrinking families and growing single family homes. Family size has shrunk in America – from over four people living in a home before World War II, to well under three people today. Families are about 40 percent smaller now, but homes have exploded in size. The average home in America was under 1,000 square feet 70 years ago, but is now an average of 2,500 square feet today.

When the reduced number of people living in each home is factored into the increasing size of the homes they live in, the change in homes is startling. There used to be under 300 square feet of house per person 70 years ago, but now there is over 1,000 square feet per family member living in a home in America. Rather than fewer bedrooms being built per home, the four bedroom home is becoming as common as the three bedroom home.

There is one simple reason for larger homes for smaller families: people are earning more. The average annual income of families has doubled in those years. The Gross National Product also increased. It is not surprising that costs of these larger homes for wealthier people increased too as homes today are over three times as costly, even allowing for inflation.  

The nature of our families has changed as well. Less than 10 percent of families had single parents for the children in their homes in 1950, and now almost 30 percent do. Now, 30 percent of homes are places where single individuals live, where once barely five percent of people lived alone. So fewer family members (parents and children) are being housed in more expensive, larger homes with more bedrooms. These demographic and socioeconomic changes are multi-generational and nationwide.

Why are these changes happening? People are living longer, with life expectancies being on average 15 years longer than they were in 1940. 

People have been living in the wake of suburbanization of America since World War II. Fewer than a quarter of the population lived in the suburbs after World War II; now more than half of the population does. After the pandemic revealed that work can be at home, and that exercise and entertainment can become a homebody activity too, those spatial needs may be added to every home’s size as well. 

But there are largely unspoken consequences of this huge transition of bigger homes for smaller families, increasingly outside of cities. All those urban homes, where most people lived prior to World War II, are now too small and land-locked in urban confinement. What has happened to them? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are approximately 19 million abandoned properties in America. Many cities have neighborhoods of “zombie buildings.” 

For these last two generations there has been an estimated 10 percent of all homes that are simply empty. Perhaps three million of these homes are “unoccupied,” with expectations of future use, but fifteen million are dead buildings standing.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are over 120,000 abandoned homes in Connecticut.  These homes are often in abandoned rural areas where industrialized farming and the relocation of manufacturing has ended the need to house workers. But most of these abandoned homes are in places that are too tight in a world where bigger homes for smaller families is now a requirement. 

Today, society is living in a climate-change-focused world, where all the carbon embodied in millions of abandoned buildings has a greater cultural value than ever before. Simultaneously, we are creating carbon by building new, larger places to live, when 10 percent of homes are simply unused. This is an unsustainable quandary on many levels.