Suburban dwellers might finally be embracing what those of us in cities have known for a long time: You don't need a lot of square footage to have a comfortable living environment.

After decades of ever-swelling footprints, the size of Americans’ newly built homes has begun to shrink, as high mortgage rates and increased building costs nudge both developers and buyers to look for ways to trim expenses. The median single-family home completed in 2022 was 2,299 square feet, down from 2,467 in 2015.

I understand the frustration about more homes being squeezed in per neighborhood if you dreamed of having a big yard, but the size of homes around America today is outrageous. It’s likely that those in the millennial and Gen Z cohort who grew up in homes with spacious bedrooms, spare rooms earmarked for the occasional guest and as many bathrooms as bedrooms became acclimated to larger houses. But it’s time to readjust expectations of our own homes to the reality of the current housing market and the environmental toll of living in such big spaces. With the average household hovering at around 2.5 people, we just don’t need such large dwellings.

It has always boggled my mind that many Americans assume 2,000 square feet is needed to accommodate a family of four. I’ve spent my entire post-college adult life living in New York City — one of the areas in the United States known for compact living. I also spent nearly six years of my childhood living in Japan, another place famous for small but efficient living spaces. 

The desire to have extensive square footage is a largely American phenomenon. (Not uniquely American, though. Australia, New Zealand and Canada all have large homes.) Twenty-seven states have an average home size of more than 2,000 square feet, according to the 2022 American Home Size Index, which analyzes Zillow data. The next nine states had square footage north of 1,900.

Compare those numbers with the 1960s, when the median square footage of a single-family home was 1,500 square feet, according to census data, despite generally larger family sizes.

In the 1960s, only 16.8% of homes had four or more bedrooms, and only 10.1% had 2.5 or more bathrooms. By 2009, around one-third of homes had four or more bedrooms and nearly half had at least 2.5 bathrooms, according to a Census Bureau paper. By 2015, 38% of homes had three or more bathrooms, a figure not even tracked until 1987.

What about the emergence of tiny houses or #vanlife, you say? Those fads, in part a reaction to the Great Recession and the housing market crash, attract a lot of attention for their novelty, but zoning laws and practical considerations mean they will likely remain niche causes. 

Personally, I’m not so diehard about small space living that I want to live in a 500-square-foot tiny house (generally seen as the maximum to qualify for that designation) with my husband, dog and any future children. However, I do generally find it strange to prioritize square footage for things like massive primary bedrooms, when you spend so little waking time there, instead of allocating square footage to common spaces and storage and being able to reduce the overall size of a home.

Even if potential homebuyers are wary of losing square footage and lot size, there are two major perks. Reducing the size of your home has significant financial benefits with lower utility bills, likely lower property taxes and the need to buy less stuff to furnish your space. Homebuyers can also feel good about reducing their overall environmental impact.

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