A recently published academic study sheds some light on the correlation with size of home and happiness or satisfaction. And the results might be a bit surprising to see the correlation and causation.
American suburbs have experienced an impressive upscaling in the size of new houses: since 1980, the median size of new-build single-family houses increased by nearly 800 square-feet, despite a decline in average household size. And the median new-build house is now twice as large as in 1945.
Over the same period, however, house size inequality has widened, driven by the construction of ever bigger houses at the top of the size distribution. In 1980, only 5% of new-build suburban houses were larger than 3,000 square feet. Thirty years later this jumped to 15% of new constructions.
Surprisingly, these major improvements in material comfort and larger homes did not lead to a rise in experienced satisfaction as suburban homeowners report similar levels of house satisfaction today as they did in the early 1980s.
While the absolute home sizes have grown without added satisfaction, it is interesting to note the relative home sizes – or the size of your home compared to your neighbors, has an effect on happiness levels. The data shows that ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is real. A study describes a situation where an individual has to choose between society A in which he will live in a 4,000 square-foot house and others will live in 6,000 square-foot houses; and society B in which he will live in a 3,000 square foot house, while others will live in 2,000 square-foot houses. Most people favor society B over society A, namely a situation in which their absolute house size is smaller but their relative house size is higher.
Housing ranks among the most visible signs of wealth and consumption and house size is arguably the most visible signal of material success in American suburbs. The construction of new houses at the top of the distribution lowers the satisfaction existing homeowners derive from their own house, and provide suggestive evidence that the ‘McMansions’ contributed to the size upscaling and increase in mortgage debt observed in the decades preceding the Great Recession.
It is also interesting to note that the vehicle market does not always correlate larger with better and might even suggest a smaller vehicle such as a sports car or something less practical than a sedan or truck or SUV. Similarly, today people are finding that happiness in their homes does not necessarily correlate to having more space. It may be the location, the community amenities, the quality of finishes, and the personification that one finds through their home.
It is also interesting to note that our zoning ordinances are primarily focused on the lower end of increasing the size of smaller homes while allowing larger homes to continue to grow larger and larger. In most cities, suburban communities tend to favor the extensive use of minimum lot size requirements, which may have amplified these behaviors and increased financial distress, with no long-term improvements in house satisfaction overall.
Fortunately, many cities and states are recognizing the need for increased density and more sustainable and affordable housing and are finding workarounds to existing building codes through accessory dwelling units and higher density permissions. This should be a welcomed benefit to existing neighbors.