New homes get smaller as homeowners shift priorities

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USA TODAY
By: Cindy Perman
November 15, 2010

Small-town feel makes comeback

Homeownership has long been a symbol of the American dream, and for a while, we supersized it. But since the recession, we've been downsizing.

The median home size in America was near 2,300 square feet at the peak of the market in 2007, with many McMansions topping 10,000.

Today, the median home size has dropped to about 2,100 square feet, and more than one-third of Americans say their ideal home size is actually less than 2,000 square feet, according to a survey by real estate site Trulia.

"The whole glow of bigness kind of wore off all of a sudden," said Sarah Susanka, an architect and the author of The Not So Big House book series.

Builders are responding by chopping out rooms that people just don't use anymore, particularly formal living rooms and sitting rooms. "You're not having the king and queen of England to dinner but Joe and Kathy from next door -- and they'd prefer to be in your informal space," Susanka said.

Even media rooms, game rooms and libraries are on the way out, added Boyce Thompson, the editorial director for Builder magazine. Every year, Builder features the design of a concept home that represents where the market's at. This year, it was called "A Home for the New Economy," which weighed in at around 1,700 square feet.

Instead of a formal living room and a family room, the Home for the New Economy has one big "great room." Instead of a home office, an extra bedroom on the main floor doubles as a guest room/home office -- or even an in-law suite.

"The key today is to provide flexible space," Thompson said.

The "proliferation of bathrooms" is also on the way out, Susanka adds.

But just because a house is small, that doesn't mean it has to feel small. Architects are finding all kinds of design tricks to make a home feel bigger, by varying the ceiling height or providing a direct line of sight to an outdoor space. And, the front porch is back. Builders are increasingly moving the garage to the back of the house and adding a big porch on the front. Seeing a big porch through the dining room and a shared green space beyond that adds to the illusion that you are getting more -- and it makes you want to get out there and reconnect with your neighbors.

At the height of the market it was all about "suburban sprawl," with everyone in their backyards, with their own deck, their own swing set, their own pool -- and barely knowing their neighbors. Today, the buzz word is "smart growth" -- smaller, more sustainable communities that really have a sense of community.

That's partly because it's better for the environment and community building, but there's a more practical reason.

"Most households now have two people working," said John McIlwain, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. "Who wants to spend their time cleaning their house ... or taking care of big yards ... when they have kids to take care of?"

This return to small-town life feels a lot like Back to the Future. But there's one major difference: energy efficiency.

Energy consumption has moved from an option when building a home to the standard when it comes to appliances, windows, furnaces and climate control.

"People are really concerned after the energy scare of 2008. They're worried about what it's going to cost to run their house," Thompson said. "No one wants a gas guzzler, especially because it impairs resale down the road."

Among the energy-smart options you may see down the road: master controls for a home's energy efficiency (much like the master control for the lights, heat and stereo), as well as private wind turbines in the backyard that may be connected to the grid -- or make the home completely energy independent.

See more about smaller homes at cnbc.com or money.usatoday.com

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