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Research Desk responds: How much bigger are U.S. homes?

By Dylan Matthews

bharshaw asks:


How about a comparison of nations by square foot of housing per person? Or, if not available, of US cities by the same?


The U.S. and the EU have different data on this. The Census Bureau keeps information (PDF) on the median square footage of new homes, which you can divide by average household size to get average space per person. The EU, by contrast, counts (PDF) "useful living space," of which there will presumably be lower than the total square footage figure. Keeping in mind that the U.S. figure is thus a bit inflated, here's how the U.S. stacks up with various other countries:

international_housing_graph.png

If anything, how little ahead the U.S. is from Denmark or Sweden surprised me. The McMansion stereotype of the U.S. holds up a bit, but the average American doesn't have that much more space than a Dane, especially if you consider the total space/useful living space distinction. The Census Bureau also keeps very good data on how regions of the U.S. compare, and how they compare over time. Here's how homes in different parts of the country have grown since 1973:

regional_housing_graph.png

Interestingly, the Northeast was out ahead for a long period, ahead of Midwestern states that one might expect to have more space for big homes. With the crash, though, things are evening out as all regions' square footage tumbles.

By Dylan Matthews  |  July 9, 2010; 12:25 PM ET
 
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Comments

Am I reading the first graph correctly? Over 800 sq. ft. per capita in the US? So a family of 4 would have a house on average of 3200 sq. ft? Sounds way too high to me.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | July 9, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

--"[T]he average American doesn't have that much more space than a Dane"--

Fifty percent more isn't "that much"?

What *do* they teach at Harvard? Besides worry about how people conduct their lives, and figuring and new ways and means to steal their productivity for your incompetent whims?

Posted by: msoja | July 9, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

The McMansions won't show up in the median, but in the average, which is of course what you should be using anyway. Note, though, that your US numbers are just for single family homes, which will substantially exceed the average for all US dwellings.

Posted by: keown3 | July 9, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

ps. Appendix I (see PDF link, above, page 122) indicates that the Denmark "living space" figure is the inflated one, contrary to what Harvard boy claims: "The space also includes portions of the access paths."

I wonder how much other ignorance is caught up in Harvard boy's "presumably"s, as he sets out to steal from and spend his fellow citizen's money for them, for the greater good.

Posted by: msoja | July 9, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

What about all the people with second homes?

How about a comparison of the square footage of empty homes?

Why have such big houses in areas which require heating and air conditioning? Northeast may have felt rich during the bubble, but those big homes are costly to maintain, more so as the weather gets more extreme with climate change. The Midwest seems more sensible, maybe it was just that they missed out on the bubble. In any event, I'm glad to note our fogures are going down all over. We need the open space more than the big houses. (For the record, we are a bit over the median, but upkeep is low because of the temperate climate--no AC and heat only 4 1/2 months of the year and never at night.)

Posted by: Mimikatz | July 9, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

--"For the record, we are a bit over the median, but upkeep is low because of the temperate climate--no AC and heat only 4 1/2 months of the year and never at night."--

No excuse! Report to your nearest detention center and submit to remedial re-education classes. Only Harvard boys and approved media elite are permitted structures over the median as their work is too important to the good of the nation.

Posted by: msoja | July 9, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

I'm a little disappointed there aren't numbers for Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong or Australia as it would be interesting to see what truly space constrained societies get in the case of the first four, and another country that has very little space constraints in Australia.

Posted by: tmorgan2 | July 9, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

I'm a bit surprised the Danes have notably more space than other euros.

I'm also skeptical you can make an effective apples-to-apples comparison (which useable space vs total square footage is not). Lastly, I wonder if the data collected by US census bureau is self-reported or what? Even real estate agents admit the square footage figures published in listings are, at best, loosely accurate. We recently finished our second floor, which included hours spent poring over plans by me & I couldn't tell you accurately what our final square footage is.

Its a great question, but I don't know how you can accurately answer it with reasonable confidence.

Posted by: bsimon1 | July 9, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

In 2009 Australian new homes overtook American ones in size (http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aYPwMBbY5InU). At 2310 sq. ft. and with an average household size of 2.6, that's 888.5 sq. ft. per capita in Australia.

Posted by: Galletto | July 9, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

BE CAREFUL AND CLEAR PLEASE.

The US Census data, as you point out initially, is NEW HOMES, not ALL homes. Is this the case for the European data; it is not clear.

Looking at new homes will not give a good picture of all homes, since some areas are much newer on average than others.

P.S. The American Housing Survey has data on house size that is not just new homes.

Posted by: idw3 | July 9, 2010 7:39 PM | Report abuse

First, it isn't appropriate to divide a median by an average (the average US house size is bigger than the median). Second, the US data are for newly completed single-family homes. That doesn't tell us how much living space Americans have on average.

Posted by: carbonneutral | July 9, 2010 7:51 PM | Report abuse

The EU data that I think Dylan Matthews used (p. 52 in the linked report) refer to the total dwelling stock, not newly constructed single-family homes. So the comparison offered here is completely worthless.

That said, it is probably true that US single-family homes are bigger on average than those in most European countries, and the proportion of the population living in single-family homes is probably bigger than in most EU countries. But there are also quite a few people living in trailers, not to mention the homeless and those in prison. A serious treatment of this question requires a bit more research than what has been offered here.

Posted by: carbonneutral | July 9, 2010 8:10 PM | Report abuse

Are you on drugs? Only someone who doesn't own a home would think that a 100% bigger house is not that big a deal. That's the difference between a 3 bedroom and a 6 bedroom (actually more like 7 or 8 bedroom if the size of the other rooms doesn't change much).

Posted by: tbloc | July 10, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

I don't think it's so surprising that the Northeast came out ahead for so long. As folks are pointing out, these are new homes, and if you can afford to build a new home in the Northeast, you can probably afford a pretty big one. I'm sure the picture would be different if the charts compared house size across the total housing stock, with all the older, smaller houses in the NE dragging down their average.

Posted by: scarpy | July 13, 2010 11:00 PM | Report abuse

In the US new homes typically have two (or more) car garages, and they are usually about 250 feet per parking spot. So that alone could account for the increased space per capita over the Danes, given that you note the EU stats don't include non-living space like garages. So the reality is our new homes are probably not that much bigger than Danish ones.

Posted by: tim_r | July 14, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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