What Is The Average Square Footage Of A House? A Guide To House Size
Victoria Araj5-minute read
April 29, 2021
Like most things in the U.S., American houses are big. Apparently, we also like our space way more than our parents did. Let’s walk through a brief history of house size:
In 1973, the earliest year for which U.S. Census data is currently available, the average square footage of a house in the U.S. was 1,660 square feet. By 2015, the average square footage of a home increased to a whopping 2,687 square feet, although since then, it’s begun to drop.
In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, the average square footage of a house dropped to 2,301 square feet. The 1,000+ increase in average square footage comes despite the fact that average household size has dropped from 3.5 to 2.53 people over the same period.
Why Are US Houses So Big?
There are several forces shaping the demand for larger homes. Let’s take a look at some.
Larger Houses Are Not That Much More Expensive To Build
From a builder’s point of view, the materials needed to create additional square footage is a small percentage of the overall costs of building a new house. Upping the square footage is an easy and relatively inexpensive way to increase the buyer’s perception of value.
Many communities have passed zoning laws specifying that new homes must have a minimum square footage or sit on a certain size of lot. These laws are aimed at preserving the character of a town or neighborhood and limiting the number of homes to be built, as well as who can afford to buy them.
We like our walk-in closets, laundry rooms, en suite bathrooms and all the other amenities, and as long as we do, larger homes will continue to be built. However, it appears that millennials and Gen Z’ers are less enamored of size for size’s sake and more concerned with affordability and sustainability, prompting the drop in average square footage from 2015’s high.
Somewhere along the line, Americans stopped thinking of houses as homes and started to think of them as investment opportunities. The thinking went that the larger the home, the greater its resale potential. This prompted a huge increase in the size of homes that we began to purchase.
How Much House Can I Afford?
That depends on your current life circumstances. But it’s easy to get caught up in thinking that the amount you’ve been preapproved for is an amount you can afford, without considering whether you want that much of your monthly income going toward the monthly mortgage payment.
To identify how much house you think you can comfortably afford, take into account whether you like to eat out, how often you like to travel and to where, and any other lifestyle choices that might impact your personal bottom line and your ability to pay for a home. If you’re not careful in this self-assessment, you could end up feeling house poor.
Bigger Houses Are More Expensive To Maintain
The bigger the house, the higher the cost to maintain it. According to HomeAdvisor, the average cost of home repairs can range from $3,944 – $19,984, depending on your location and other factors.
Of course, starter homes tend to be older and therefore can cost more to maintain, so you have to pay close attention to the home inspection report and ask the seller about their maintenance history. But if the home has been renovated and reasonably well-maintained, smaller houses should cost less in upkeep.
They Take More Time To Clean And Maintain
Aside from the cost, larger homes take more time for cleaning and upkeep. A 1973 homeowner only had 1,660 feet of floor to vacuum, but someone in 2019 spent 60% more time vacuuming their 60% larger home.
They Tend To Be Built Farther From Urban Centers
Bigger homes tend to be farther from urban centers, which can drive up transportation costs and commute times. During the pandemic, many people are working remotely, but it remains to be seen whether that trend continues indefinitely.
Some people don’t mind commuting and relish the time they can spend reading on a train or bus. Other people hate commuting and think of it as a huge inconvenience that detracts from the time they spend with loved ones. Ask yourself whether the extra square footage makes that time and expense worthwhile for you.
They Have A Bigger Impact On The Planet
When it comes to sustainability, more is almost always more. This is especially true for millennials, who bought 38% of all homes sold in 2020. This trend report shows that environmentally friendly features are very important to younger home buyers, as is affordability. Smaller, energy-efficient homes beat larger homes in the eyes of millennial buyers.
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Size Vs. Functionality
Many people confuse good design with size, figuring that larger houses will – by virtue of size alone – accommodate them more comfortably. This is a myth. A thoughtfully designed home can maximize its space while a large home can waste tons of space.
If you’ve just started looking for a home, pay attention to how rooms flow, whether there are storage built-ins and other space-saving features, and the dimensions of the room and the challenges they present. A wide room may be too narrow for a bed and dresser, or the only logical place to put the couch may cut off part of the room for any practical use. You may find that a smaller home’s dimensions are actually easier to furnish.
How Much House Should I Buy?
Google this question and you’ll find that the answers focus on how much house you can afford. But they aren’t necessarily the same question.
The best you’ll get in rule-of-thumb advice is to add space for two people in common areas for every bedroom in the house. In other words, if you have a four-bedroom house, you should make sure your dining room, living room and family rooms can comfortably seat eight people.
Ask yourself the following questions before deciding on how much and what type of house to buy:
How Long Do You Plan On Living In The Home?
If the answer is forever, you’re going to want to accommodate a wide variety of possibilities in choosing a home – and going bigger might be warranted. But if you’re really not sure you want or need a supersized home, consider buying a starter home vs. a forever home, particularly if children aren’t in your immediate plans.
Starter homes tend to be smaller (if it was built in 1973, it would likely be 1,660 square feet) and therefore cheaper to maintain. They also tend to be closer to the urban center, so transportation costs are lower and commute times shorter.
Do You Have Children Now Or Plan On Having Children In The Next 5 Years?
If you have children or plan on starting a family sooner rather than later, you’ll likely be hyperfocused on the quality of the schools and how family-friendly the area is. Those usually come with substantially higher property taxes. If you think children are further off in the future, you don’t need to buy enough space for them now.
Is There A Possibility That Elderly Parents Or Other Relatives Might Stay With You For Prolonged Visits, Or Move In With you?
If so, consider the layout of the home and how you might create a private space for your relatives away from your immediate family before assuming more space is the answer. Having bedrooms on different levels and a bathroom for each generation will go a long way toward keeping everyone comfortable and happy.
Are You And Your Spouse Getting Older?
If you and your spouse or partner are growing older together in your home, accessibility and layout are probably more important than square footage. Think about whether a ranch or bungalow style home, with the master bedroom and common areas on the same floor, might be right for you.
How Much Outdoor Space Will You Use, Realistically?
Bigger houses usually come with bigger yards, and thus, bigger costs in landscaping and maintenance. If you’re moving from an urban area to a suburban one, you may be dreaming of having a yard complete with a giant swing set and room for the dog to run.
The Bottom Line: Bigger Isn’t Always Better
There are many factors to consider when buying a home, and lots of pressure to make “the right choice,” as if there is a one-size-fits-all answer to the kind of home you should buy.
Before buying, it’s important to think deeply about what matters to you so you can plan your budget accordingly and then find the home that fits your life. If you’re gearing up for a house hunt, read our complete house hunting guide next.
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Starter Home Or Forever Home: Which Is Right For You?
Home Buying - 6-minute read
Miranda Crace - April 07, 2021
A starter home is a small, affordable home for first-time buyers. Find out if it makes sense to buy a starter home or if a forever home is right for you.