The median size of a new home in the U.S. now stands at a record 2,435 square feet, almost 1,000 square feet bigger than in 1973. You could almost fit a second house into 1,000 square feet, though it would have to a small one. The data comes to us from the U.S. Census, which has been tracking the size and characteristics of new homes for roughly 45 years. The Census data provide useful guideposts to anyone building a new home concerned about its resale value.
You’d probably want central air, for instance. In 1973, only half of new homes had air conditioning. Today, nearly all new homes (93 percent) do. A similar percentage (92) of new homes have at least one porch, deck, or patio. That’s a big change from the past, when outdoor spaces were more likely to be after-thoughts. Today, architects and designers work overtime to carefully integrate indoor and outdoor spaces into a seamless whole. About half of new homes have two or more of these outdoor spaces
The data raise intriguing questions, not the least of which is: What kind of home does 2,435 square feet get you? A footprint that size will probably get you at least three bedrooms, two full baths and a powder, and two garage bays. If it’s a priority, you might be able to squeeze a fourth bedroom into a home that size. Extra bedrooms and baths account for much of the growth in home size through the years. Forty-five years ago, 80 percent of new homes had two or fewer baths. Families shared bathrooms, which could be problematic on school mornings, and first-floor powders weren’t all that common. Today, a third of new homes have three or more sheds, er bathrooms.
The data also show that some things haven’t changed much. Most homes are still heated with gas (60 in 2018) or electricity (39 in 2018), percentages that have held steady through the years, notwithstanding concern about global warming. And despite the rise in alternative framing methods, the vast majority of new homes (92 percent) are still framed with wood and built on site. Modular construction in factories is actually losing market share, which you would never know by the disproportionate share of medica coverage they receive. Modular accounts for only 1 percent of new homes completed today these days.
Interestingly, the data also show little movement over the years in the percentage of new homes with one or more fireplaces; the number has held steady at around 44 percent. The Census doesn’t publish a number with two or more fireplaces, but I bet that number is quite a bit higher, especially with the advent of unvented, gas fireplaces, which can find all over new homes today — in the bedroom, the keeping room, the basement. Fireplaces are a vital component of many home designs, particularly second homes. It’s hard to imagine a mountain home without a large fireplace anchoring the great room.
Bedroom count is also expanding, even though families are having fewer children, who are probably less likely to share one than they were when I was a kid. Nearly half of new homes (45 percent) today have four or more bedrooms, though with that many one often serves as an office or guest suite. Fewer than a quarter of new homes had this many bedrooms in 1973.
One of the biggest changes in new-home composition is garages. A different set of Census data shows the average household today relies on 2.2 cars. (I guess one of them is a moped. That’s a joke.) But in 1970, 65 percent of households had only one, or no car at all. So, it’s no surprise — going back the original Census series — that less than half (39 percent) of new homes in 1973 had two garage bays. Different story today — sixty-five percent of new homes have two garage bays, and another 20 percent have three.
Another sea change has occurred in the foundations used to support new homes. As home building activity migrated to the Sunbelt, there was a corresponding rise in homes built on slab foundations, rather basements or crawl spaces. A full 60 percent of new homes today are built on slab or “other” foundations, compared to just 38 percent in 1973. During that time, the percentage of new homes with a basement has fallen from 41 to 25.
The data also show a rise in the use of modern materials that require less maintenance. Wood siding, which used to a fairly popular spec at 30 percent of new homes, now finds its way on to less than 5 percent of new homes. During that time, brick’s share of the siding market has fallen from 35 to 21 percent, largely due to its expense. In the meantime, two products that weren’t even tracked in the early 70s, vinyl and fiber cement, now account for almost half of new homes built.
The Census only started keeping data on the number of stories in new homes in 2000. The number hasn’t changed much since then. In the latest year, 2018, half of new homes (49 percent) had 2 stories, 46 percent one story, and 5 percent three stores or more. What’s interesting, though, is the regional breakdown. In the Northeast, where land is expensive and lots smaller, only 20 percent of new homes are one story. In the South, by contrast, 48 percent of new homes have only one story. In the West, the figure stands at 42 percent.
If you are thinking about buying a plan with a second-floor laundry, rest assured – that’s an increasingly popular choice. The data, which the Census hasn’t been keeping that long, show that they are now found in 18 percent of new homes without basements. In the 1970s, when one spouse often stayed home, it was nice to have the laundry near the kitchen or in the basement. For today’s busy families, it’s often better to have it on the second floor, closer to the spot where dirty clothes are discarded.
The median size of a new home may have increased almost 1,000 square feet since your parents built their dream house in the early 1970s. But the reality is that if you built a 1,550 square foot home today, you’d get much more usable living space than your parents did. That’s because today’s new homes are much more open, with family, dining, and kitchen spaces flowing together, and interior spaces looking out on outdoor rooms and spaces. In fact, you can get a pretty damned livable home at 1,550 today working with an inspired architect or designer.
In the early 1970s, small ranch plans were a staple of new construction. You can still buy retro plans in this style, but the floor plans often have been updated. I found a 1555-square-foot ranch plan on a popular house plan site that manages to squeeze three bedrooms and two baths into its tight footprint. It substitutes a great room with an open kitchen for the separate living and dining rooms often found in older plans. The great room connects to a covered lanai in back, creating the impression that the home is much larger than its stated size. Outdoor spaces, of course, aren’t included in the square footage count because they aren’t considered conditioned space.
Here’s how select data has changed in 45 years.
Attribute 1973 2018
With AC 49 93
2.5 bathrooms or more 19 65
4 bedrooms or more 23 45
With Fireplace 44 44
Slab Foundation 38 60
Gas Heating 47 60
2 or more car garage 39 85
U.S. Census, Annual Characteristics of New Housing