MINE'S BIGGER THAN YOURS:
How Square Footage Became the New Scorecard
As you walk in the front door of Steven and Tammy Goldberg’s house, you can’t help but stop and gasp at the foyer, with its 22–foot ceiling and dual staircases—one curving up the right side of the room, the other up the left. A massive chandelier hangs overhead. Polished tile–work sits underfoot. Peer between the stairs from the front doorway and you’ll catch a glimpse of the family room, another two–story space with a fireplace that climbs to the ceiling. The first time people walk in the Goldbergs’ doorway, they utter a near–universal reaction: “Wow.”
That single syllable, above all else, is what sells homes in the Goldbergs’ neighborhood in Potomac, Maryland. “As soon as you open that door, you do the ‘Wow’ thing,” says Rouhi Forghani, the sales manager at this development, called Potomac View. “In this community, needs are secondary. The first priority is to have a home where everybody opens the door and says, ‘Wow,’ so you can brag to your coworkers and friends, and you can throw a party and impress people.”
And if the staircases don’t impress them, the size sure will. The Goldbergs’ newly built house, one of forty–six that will someday fill this neighborhood, started out at 6,000 square feet. But then they finished the basement, bringing the total to around 9,000 square feet. Beyond the dual–staircase foyer, this home has a back stairway, four bedrooms, and…let's see…how many bathrooms?
“Four upstairs, one on the first floor—that’s five—one in the basement—no, two in the basement. So, seven. Right?” Tammy Goldberg says. We’re sitting in Potomac View’s model home with Pat Kirby, project manager for Toll Brothers, the company building this subdivision.
“Six and a half baths,” Kirby says, correcting her. “The first floor is a half bath.”
“Oh, wait, I have two half baths,” says Goldberg, who’s lived in the house just a couple of months.
“Two half baths, right,” the project manager says.
“So I have four full—five full—and two halves,” Goldberg says, still sounding a little unsure. “One in the basement, and four upstairs. Five full.”
“Six full and two halves,” the project manager says, suddenly sounding a little confused himself. “You have two in the basement.”
"No," Goldberg corrects him. “I only have one full bath in the basement. It’s a half and a full in the basement. So five full and two halves.” It's taken nearly twenty seconds to reconcile how many bathrooms there are in the house, and Goldberg chuckles at the ridiculousness of it. “We don’t use all our bathrooms, that’s for sure.”
As recently as 1950, one–third of American homes lacked complete indoor plumbing. Today in places like Potomac, asking a homeowner how many bathrooms are in her house can provoke something reminiscent of a vintage Abbott and Costello routine. If a house hunter checked the Potomac listings for the summer of 2006, he’d find that among the 259 single–family homes on the market, more than half—160—had five or more bedrooms, and 148 had four or more bathrooms.
The bathrooms aren’t the only things that have multiplied—all around the house the space is getting bigger. And not just at the Goldbergs’. In 1950 the average American home measured just 983 square feet—meaning you could fit nine of them inside the Goldberg home. But over time the average has crept steadily upward—and by 2005, according to census data, the average newly built U.S. home measured 2,434 square feet. One in five new homes now has a three–car garage, double the percentage of fifteen years ago. One in four has three or more bathrooms. Nearly 40 percent have four or more bedrooms. When it comes to American homes, the only thing that’s decreased in recent years is the size of the plots of land on which they’re built and the size of the families who live inside.
Finger–wagging moralists decry these “trophy homes” as studies in excess, and critics say our fondness for them is nothing short of demented. You’re probably familiar with this line of criticism: In the last fifteen years, our cars have morphed into gas–guzzling SUVs, our bodies have Big Gulped their way to epidemic obesity, and our homes have puffed up into flabby, aesthetically lacking edifices, structures that are far too oversize to be classified as “shelter”—and too often financed with jumbo mortgages that threaten to crush us. Heating and cooling these megahomes contributes to global warming—and so does cutting down trees to build them. Surely there must be a better way to live.
As someone who’s afflicted with House Lust—and someone who’s increased the size of my home by 25 percent since I bought it—I have a slightly more forgiving view. It’s true that oversize homes are partly about showing off. Homes have always been a status symbol, and the ways we denote status are constantly shifting. Once upon a time the richest man in the village was the one with the chubby wife, whose ample posterior was a sign that he was wealthy enough to feed his family well. Today the richest man on the block (who, in these egalitarian times, may be earning less than his wife) probably has a thin wife and a gargantuan house. As the times change, so do the markers of achievement.
But beyond the quest for status, there is a complicated mix of factors driving us to live large, all of which I’ll be exploring in the pages ahead.
Some of them are economic. Young couples have always been told to “buy the most house you can afford.” But we’ve been living in an era of extremely low interest rates: The average thirty–year mortgage stayed below 7 percent between 2002 and 2007, and it hadn’t hit double digits in seventeen years. Along with those low rates, underwriting standards grew remarkably lax during the good times, with lenders offering to lend more than 100 percent of a home’s value and not even requiring income verfication. Together those factors meant that “the most home you can afford” might be absurdly large. Mortgage interest remains one of the last great tax deductions, so one can argue that the U.S. government wants us to borrow big to supersize our houses, and so borrow we do. And in the early 2000s, a time when the stock market seemed to move mostly sideways, people felt even more justified in investing as much money as possible in a house, since home values seemed to go nowhere but up. If you know Google stock is poised to rise, are you going to buy 100 shares or 1,000 shares? Likewise, in the hot housing market of the early twenty–first century, many buyers felt the smart strategy was to buy as many shares of housing as they could, which left a lot of people living in really big homes.
Another set of forces driving our embrace of bigger homes stems from the supply side: They’re what builders want to sell us. As land prices have escalated, builders say it’s become all but impossible to put small homes on expensive lots, and, generally speaking, bigger homes deliver bigger profits. New kinds of building products (like “laminated veneer lumber” and wooden I–beams) have made it easy for carpenters to build houses with palatial interior spaces. We used to admire the soaring ceilings of European cathedrals; now we can enjoy the same neck–cramping view looking up in our family rooms.
The final factor that’s driven our quest for larger homes is a newfound fascination with measuring our spaces. Builders have always thought of homes in terms of square footage, but the metric didn’t have quite the hold on the public consciousness in years past as it does now. Today, in some neighborhoods, finding someone who doesn't know the square footage of her house can be as hard as finding a Playboy centerfold who doesn’t know her bust size. It’s a cliché that when it comes to real estate, the three things that matter are location, location, location. But beyond being trite, that line is also becoming a fallacy. These days many people are willing to move far from the city, compromising their location to get more space. In the twenty–first–century location still matters. But for many buyers square footage matters more.
In a sense our changing notions of what constitutes a really big home aren't that different from the way other everyday objects have been upsized, downsized, and resized in recent years. Before Starbucks hit the scene, if you’d ordered a small coffee you probably walked out of the diner with an eight–ounce beverage. By 2002 the industry–wide measure of a “small” beverage had increased to twelve ounces—and instead of complaining about that inflation, more buyers complained that the twenty–ounce large wasn’t big enough. In the fashion industry, “vanity sizing” has led to a similar inflation in clothing sizes. Today the average 155-pound American female wears a size twelve, even though a few years ago the same–size woman would have worn a sixteen-and to accommodate ever-thinner supermodel types, high–fashion brands now sell “subzero” clothing sizes that use negative numbers. In salaries, the New York Times has reported, $200,000 is the new $100,000—a threshold that signifies entry into an upper–class club. What’s happened to homes isn’t much different from these other resizings. Nowadays 3,200 square feet is the new 2,000.
At the top of the market, the results of this surge of space are residences in which visitors might require Map Quest to navigate their way from room to room. Some of these houses are so spread out that if you shout “Dinner” from the kitchen, you face long odds of actually luring anyone to the meal—which, if they do come, can be eaten in the dining room, the eat–in kitchen, at the breakfast bar, or in the outdoor dining area.
Even those of us who don’t aspire to live in these sorts of houses are being affected by them, like it or not. Amenities that were once found only in rich people’s homes have a way of trickling down to the masses, so a glimpse inside these tricked–out spaces can illustrate the kinds of features we'll simply have to have in our homes someday soon, regardless of size.
One manifestation of an obsession is when somebody wants more and more of something, whether it's Beanie Babies, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, or plastic surgery. And in real estate, what many of us want more of is space. How did it become perfectly normal for affluent Americans to live in 5,000–square–foot homes? How, exactly, do we use all this square footage? And despite all the criticism heaped on these homes and their owners, is there anything really wrong with this lifestyle—or are the complaints mostly just sour–grapes commentary from people who can't afford an oversize home? To answer these questions, I spent time in Potomac, a Washington suburb known for having some of the largest homes on the East Coast, and I also visited extremely large (and extremely small) homes elsewhere in the nation.
To get a better sense of why America’s houses have been growing even faster than its waistlines, it makes sense to start by exploring the platonic ideal of a really nice home. To do so, I visited the New American Home, which the country’s homebuilders construct at a site near their annual convention each year.
The project’s origins are humble. The first New American Home, built outside Houston and opened to the public on January 21, 1984, contained just three bedrooms and two and a half baths in 1,500 square feet. The exterior featured lavish landscaping and a private patio, but the interior design was modest. Aside from a tiny powder room and laundry, the first floor was one open room featuring a kitchen, living area, and dining space. Upstairs the focal point was the master suite, featuring a large, windowed bathroom with a raised whirlpool tub in the center. It was, according to the promotional material, “the kind of place a young couple could dream about coming home to.”
But dreams change. By 1988 the show house was 2,400 square feet. Only one year later it had jumped to 5,400 square feet. By 1996 it swelled to 7,385 square feet. The size doesn’t increase every year, but from 1995 to 2006 the builders didn’t construct any New American Home smaller than 3,100 square feet. And the 2006 version, surrounded by spotlights in a field twelve miles from the Orlando convention center, turned out to be its biggest ever.
Behind the stucco facade, visitors encounter a home measuring 10,023 square feet. There are three staircases (plus an elevator), six baths, five fireplaces, and nine flat–screen TVs. Over–the–top features abound. Off the garage lies a small bathroom with no toilet, just a urinal. Upstairs is the requisite home theater, a billiards parlor, and a spa with a built–in massage table. Outside are upstairs and downstairs covered patios, each with built–in grills and bars, overlooking an infinity edge pool containing four little islands of palm trees. The home’s upstairs laundry is the size of a 1970s kitchen, but with so much cabinetry and granite counters you know you’re not in the Carter era. On the floor plan there are no hallways. In a house this big they’re called galleries, and they’re not intended just for passing between rooms. Instead, galleries are meant to be minimuseums where the owner can hang his art collection.
The overall aesthetic reminds me of the large, open homes used on reality TV shows. As I wander around, I keep waiting for the Bachelor to emerge to hand me a rose.
This is my first time in a New American Home. But I’m surrounded by real estate writers and builders who’ve been visiting these show homes for years. “At least it doesn’t look like it was decorated for a South American drug kingpin, like last year,” says one woman, exploring the master suite. Asked what he thinks, one gentleman pauses. “Ornate?” he says, trying to find a polite way to say, “Not for me.” One builder, who lives in a home nearly this large himself, points out that despite all the space, the family room isn’t very big. So much of the home’s entertainment spaces are on outdoor patios, he says, it’d be hard to throw a party on a rainy or chilly day.
But we put aside this nitpicking to ogle the remaining features. The kitchen features twin Sub–Zero refrigerators and five different faucets—two on normal sinks, one pot filler over the stove, one for the built–in pasta cooker, and one set over a small trough sink that’s in the middle of the massive kitchen island, so far from the edge that a six–foot man has to stretch to reach it. Other guests and I ponder, What could anyone do with this all–but–unreachable sink? Finally we ask an assistant to the architect. She shrugs, then suggests it’d be a great spot to keep wine bottles on ice (presumably when both Sub–Zeros are full). She offers to get the architect to show me around further, but she doesn’t know where he is right now. She apologizes. “It can be really hard to find somebody in a 10,000–square–foot house.”