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Housing Trends 1950-2000

A builder once told me that the size of the average home has been increasing over the years because the size of the average family has been increasing. Rather than argue with him, I just mentioned that I doubted that that was the case, and I’d get back with him on that after doing a little research.

Going to the census records from 1950-2000, I found out that the size of the average single family house in 1950 was 983 square feet. By 2000, the average house size shot up to 2,272 square feet, a 231 percent increase! Maybe, the builder I was talking with might assume, that was to accommodate a similar increase in average household population. Let’s see. In 1950, the census determined the size of the average household was 3.0 people. Due to various social changes and predominately the divorce rate increase in the last half of the 20th Century resulting in two households per family for much of the population, the size of the average household in 2000 shrank to 2.5 inhabitants per house. That’s a decrease of almost 17 percent of house inhabitants during the same period the house size more than doubled. Or in other words, the average space utilized by a person in 1950 was 328 square feet. That includes that person’s share of all rooms, kitchen, hallways, and everything except for the garage. By 2000, the size allocation shot up to 909 square feet (a 277% increase).

Being able to settle the question of house size responding to family size, I went just one step further by determining the cost of construction per square foot. In 1950, the average house cost $11,000. That’s the equivalent of $60,700 in year 2000 currency adjusted for inflation. The average new house in 2000 cost $195,000. If you want to understand the most persuasive reason for designing an efficient house, using the figures I just outlined, the house built in 1950 cost the equivalent (accounting for inflation) of $20,200 per inhabitant. By 2000, the cost of a new house per inhabitant skyrocketed to $78,000 per inhabitant, almost a four-fold increase. It would be difficult to find anything else that increased at that rate in the span of fifty years.

This is not necessarily an argument for us all to live like families did 60 years ago, but honestly, was it really all that bad? Of course not. Sure families have more appliances and stuff today. And maybe there’s just no way you think you could live in a house 1/3 the size of the average house built today, but considering the cost of construction, if you could build a new house 2/3 or 1/2 the size of the average newly built house, think of all the money you could save. Possibly enough money saved to build a net-zero energy, high-performance house, I would imagine. ┬áIt’s worth a thought.

4 comments to Housing Trends 1950-2000

  • Thanks for doing this research! It’s helpful to have facts to back up what we think . . . I’m developing a business to help people clean our their stuff and live more simply, addressing both the physical and emotional/spiritual aspects of the work (and doing in a way that reduces environmental impact). I’d love to quote your research in my presentations and website. Would that be OK (with attribution, of course)?

    Lise

  • Good summary & I was happy when house sized declined during the housing slump, but worried again as sizes start to grow again.

  • Ray Grooms

    Sorry to revive an old post, but I must point out some things you did not factor into the cost of a home. As you pointed out, 60 years ago people had fewer appliances. Accordingly, most kitchens only had one electrical outlet. Even if you were to build a smaller home today, surely you would want several outlets to plug in appliances. Each of those outlets has a cost, as does the wire to run it, and the labor to install it all. The drywall installer has to cut around each of those increasing his cost. Additionally, most homes did not come with air conditioning which adds to the total cost. I grew up in an old home, in Atlanta, without A/C and it was brutal in the summer. I do not look back with nostalgia at that and would not want to subject my children to it.

    I would be interested to know what the cost of a home, built to 1950’s specs, would cost today. I think it would be much less than we think, but we would have to forgo a lot of conveniences such as telephone jacks in every bedroom and no outlets to plug in things in a bedroom (just a single overhead light like the one I lived in). It could be done, but it would not be enjoyable.

    Auto manufacturers are an example of this. Recently, I was waiting on my car to be serviced and wondered around a dealer. Did you know it is possible to buy a brand new car for less than $9,000 today? I was shocked to see it for myself. But said car had only one mirror (on the driver’s side), no A/C, no power steering, no radio, manual door locks, manual window cranks, manual seat adjustments, no rear window defroster, no tilt steering, and a manual transmission. So long as you are willing to forgo some comfort, you can have a very inexpensive new car. But I suspect not a lot of these are sold. We have become accustomed to luxury, and that is not a bad thing.

  • Stephen Colley

    Yes, a noticeable change to the cost of construction is due to some of the modern conveniences many enjoy. And some of the changes to the cost of construction is due to the efforts made to make homes more energy efficient (especially in jurisdictions that require the 2015 International Residential Code). As far as the number of appliances, it’s up to the people who are buying the home. This always comes up in my practice when the number of appliances and outlets can be customized. People who buy speculative homes from builders (the majority of new homes are sold this way). And actually, even if the number of outlets in a kitchen were doubled or tripled, it doesn’t really affect the cost of a home very much. Certainly nowhere near as much as the size of the home or even whether the major axis of the home is oriented east-west or north-south. Air conditioning is becoming more efficient too. Especially if choosing a mini-split, ductless system. But choosing whether or not to install air conditioning again, is up to the client and how far someone is willing to stretch their budget to make adjustments in the home’s design so that an air conditioner free home is possible. And yes, I practice in Central Texas where we can often be exposed to 30 days or more of 100+ degree weather. I’m not going to lie, these clients also realize that they may need to also make adjustments to their comfort zone. I still allow for the option to add an air conditioner for the few clients who want to give it a try to go A/C-free. One client is living in a house built in 2004. The only air conditioned room is the master bedroom with a half-ton unit. The rest of the house is not air conditioned and designed with passive cooling strategies and the use of ceiling fans. He has yet to complain about the heat. Another house about to go in construction will also be A/C-free. The walls of this house will be compressed earth block and roof insulation of cork. They will also have the option to add an A/C if desired, but I expect the only mechanical unit that may be needed is a dehumidifier. There are people who want to be comfortable, but they also want to minimize their carbon impact. Most people still do not care about that or just do not know of workable options to the conventional home. I just finished a home for a large family who did not want to scrimp on being able to live at temperatures where most people consider comfortable. In this case 75 degrees in the summer and 62 degrees in the summer. They have an extremely efficient home where even the A/C dedicated to the wine storage room has captured waste heat directed to the heat pump water heater to help heat the water. The home was tested with a HERS result of 10. This means the house is 90% more efficient than required by code. They have plans to add enough solar panels this year to have the home considered as a Net-Zero-Energy home, generating as much energy as the house requires.

    It is all a matter of choices of goals, desires, and budget… and what level of comfort one is satisfied with. The last new car I bought cost $12,000 in 2007, but it does have a good A/C and radio. And yes, I do have to manually roll down the windows, manually lock and unlock the doors, manually adjust the seat, and manually shift the gears. But I also get 38-40 miles per gallon and wouldn’t want the extra weight and expense to maintain an automatic transmission. I do not envy those who have automatic controls in their cars, and mine is extremely comfortable on cross-country trips as well.

    I’m no Luddite, and I would not want to take away anyone’s modern conveniences. All I’m saying is that there is something wrong if the cost of homes per person quadruples in fifty years. With careful planning and design, it doesn’t have to be that way.

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