Photographer: CGIBackgrounds.com/Getty Images/CGIBackgrounds

America Is Building More Three-Car Garages Than One-Bedroom Apartments

You’ll never be homeless in America if you’re a car.

Inventory has been a major theme of U.S. housing markets in recent years, as a shortage of homes for sale has pushed prices higher and low vacancy rates have increased rents. So it might be surprising to hear that Americans are building plenty of housing—for their cars.

Twenty-four percent of new homes completed in 2015 included a garage with room for three or more cars, according to census data highlighted in a blog post last week by Robert Dietz, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders. That’s the highest share since the Census Bureau started keeping track of large garages in 1992. In every year since the Census has kept track, U.S. homebuilders have built more three-car garages than one-bedroom apartments. 1 The census doesn't measure the size of garages. Building plans for three-car garages published online tend to come in around 1,000 square feet, plenty of room for a one-bedroom apartment. Of course, building an inhabitable unit costs more in time and money than it does to put up a structure to keep your car out of the weather. 

Even at that rate, builders may be undershooting demand. One of three house hunters said they preferred a three-car garage, according to a recent survey conducted by John Burns Real Estate Consulting. That compares to 51 percent, who wanted a two-car garage, and 10 percent of respondents, who said room for one vehicle was enough.

"One of the interesting things we're finding is that between Uber and public transport, a lot of millennials are deciding they don't need a car, so parking becomes a less-important issue," said Pete Reeb, a principal at the consultancy. "But we're also seeing more multi-generational housing, where the kids are taking care of elderly parents or you have the new grad moving home after college, and now you have four cars where it might have been two before."

In other words, the trend is mixed. 

Even when buyers do prefer bigger garages, it's not clear that they're any likelier to own three cars. The share of households that own three or more cars has remained comparatively flat, ticking up from 17.3 percent in 1990 to 19.7 percent in 2013, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. 

An additional factor is driving the rising share of homes with garage space for three or more cars, captured in the chart above. In the years since the financial crisis, builders have focused most of their attention at the high end of the market, erecting larger, pricier homes. That's led to bigger market share for larger garages, even as the annual construction of homes with three-car garages decreased from a peak of 331,000 in 2005, to 154,000 last year. As the market for smaller, cheaper new homes reemerges, fewer homes will feature garage mahals

It’s hard to escape the irony that the U.S., which will need something like 43 million new housing units to keep up with population growth in the next 35 years, is using space to build apartment-size garages, even as trends in ride-sharing and self-driving cars cast a measure of uncertainty on American car culture. 

There are, of course, many ways to fill excess space. Today’s oversize garages are tomorrow’s home offices and in-law apartments. The garage sale, meanwhile, is so called because it’s a method of emptying the junk out of a cluttered garage. In our current ashes-to-ashes, warehouse-to-warehouse culture, consumer goods enter the world from an Amazon fulfillment center and exit through the self-storage center in the industrial building next door.

A giant suburban garage makes for a convenient way station. 

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