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Stephen Mihm

Americans Are Living as Large as Ever

New homes are shrinking, but the average American has been stockpiling square footage for more than a century.
Domestic analysis.

Domestic analysis.

Photographer: Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Are Americans embracing smaller homes? The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that the average size of new-construction homes actually declined slightly, from an all-time high of 2,467 square feet in 2015 to 2,422. “New Houses Get Smaller," the Wall Street Journal declared, spotting a trend; “U.S. Homes Are Finally Shrinking,” another piece here at Bloomberg concluded. Many other commentators jumped on the news to argue that at last the U.S. was giving up its addiction to living large.

As exciting as it seemed, McMansions are not exactly being absorbed by the “tiny house movement.” The statistic that started the fervor is actually a rather poor proxy for grasping long-term trends in housing because it fails to capture changes in household size, among other shortcomings.  If the average home doubles in size, but the average number of inhabitants triples during that same period, then these “bigger” homes would actually feel smaller to the people living in them. Each person has less space to themselves.