Is the McMansion Dead?

It’s the scapegoat of the housing bust, and that’s not all. From accusations of ostentatious overconsumption to environmental indifference, the McMansion has taken some brutal hits in the recession economy. Are those blows lethal enough to send starter castles to their grave? Or will they live to see another boom?
By:
Jenny Sullivan

Credit: Courtesy NTHP/Adrian Scott Fine

There’s no shortage of McMansion haters out there. Some are vociferous, but others are stealthy—such as the Florida couple who recently purchased three-quarters of an acre in a neighborhood many consider to be prime teardown territory.
Fellow home buyers in this posh, lakefront part of Orlando, Fla., didn’t think twice about razing and replacing existing homes with new ones more than double in size. But these passive resisters have something more modest in mind for their family of five.

In lieu of a 7,000-square-foot palace that antes up to the neighbors, they’re planning a house less than half that size with energy-efficient features, panelized construction to reduce waste, and a variety of flexible, multipurpose spaces. One of its four bedrooms will double as a guest room.
In some ways, it’s atonement for an oversized spec home they owned previously, which they describe as a “cavernous” place with rooms that were seldom used.
“Environmental concerns are one reason for downsizing, but we also want to know what’s going on with our kids,” the husband says. “A smaller house helps facilitate that. When they share space, they are forced to resolve their differences. We have the financial ability to have a larger home, but it doesn’t make sense.”
Chalk it up as another point for the opposition in the McMansion wars.

Efforts to stem the proliferation of monster homes have no doubt reached epic proportions in recent years. But the battle lines are sometimes fuzzy because the enemy isn’t always clear.
What exactly is a McMansion?
By some accounts, it’s the gargantuan greenfield tract home with a Hummer parked out front that perpetuates sprawl and makes gas guzzling a way of life. Others use the derisive term to describe ostentatious infill homes that—while walkable to schools, shops, and transit—tower over beloved bungalows in established neighborhoods in a way that is less than neighborly.
But different people live by different standards of propriety, and that’s where codifying the offenders becomes difficult.

Can the vilified McMansion, in its various forms and habitats, survive a post-recession economy? Many signs suggest the odds are stacked against it. Lending standards have tightened, and many buyers no longer have the cash on hand for down payments on fancy homes. Add to that a U.S. unemployment rate that continues to hover around 9.5 percent and resale competition from foreclosures (many of which are McMansions themselves), and the outlook seems bleak for showy homes that many consider emblems of decadence and greed.
Even for those who can afford them, trophy homes constitute an image problem at a time when modesty has become fashionable. One recent CNNMoney.com poll asked more than 33,000 online readers if they thought American homes had gotten too big; 69 percent said yes.
Demand for big houses could also fizzle as population shifts place families with kids in the home buying minority. Some demographers estimate that up to 80 percent of new households formed over the next 15 years will be child-free as Baby Boomers empty their nests and career-driven Millennials postpone marriage and kids.

Sensitive infill homes respect the scale and character of the neighborhood.
Credit: Courtesy NTHP/Adrian Scott Fine

McMansions also continue to draw fire from neighborhood groups rallying to protect their streetscapes. The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) estimates that as many as 500 communities in 40 states have launched anti-teardown campaigns in an attempt to curb the proliferation of super-sized homes. Some groups have ignited city-issued moratoria on new residential construction, while others have helped handcraft ordinances that regulate building height, setbacks, and floor-area ratios.

Among the most infamous is the “McMansion Ordinance” enacted in Austin, Texas, in 2006, which limits most new or remodeled infill single-family homes to 2,300 square feet with a height limit of 32 feet. A similar measure passed last year by the Los Angeles Sunland–Tujunga Neighborhood Council dictates that any floor with ceiling heights greater than 14 feet counts as twice the square footage of that area. Bye-bye, vaulted foyers.

“Teardowns may not always be stellar landmarks on their own, but the issue comes down to streetscape character,” says Adrian Fine, director of the Center for State and Local Policy at the NTHP. “It only takes one McMansion to disrupt that character and cause a domino effect.”
But builders aren’t entirely to blame for this scenario. Antiquated zoning laws (and the planning boards that uphold them) also play a part. When builders find themselves handcuffed to standard lot sizes, minimum square footage requirements, and high land costs, the tradeoff is often building to a lower specification to arrive at a pro forma that pencils. The solution ends up being a lumbering stock plan with a brick front, vinyl siding, and little to no side yard.
How does one stop that cycle? “What needs to happen is buy-in from local municipalities with respect to [alternative] zoning,” says Bill McGuinness, president of Sun Homes in Pawling, N.Y. “Rather than large, planned new towns in the middle of nowhere, the existing towns in our market need to be reclaimed through things like creative density swaps and aggressive planning. Towns hopefully will figure out that the net drain of sprawled out subdivisions on municipal resources is unsustainable, and that well-planned densification of existing core areas can be a net fiscal benefit. This is difficult because so few towns have the knowledge, budget, and understanding of the issues to pull it off.”

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