When I spoke with Lars Pettersson, a housing economist in Sweden (average house size: about 1,000 square feet), I asked him if he thought more Swedes would choose to have bigger homes if they had the option. “I think in general that people would like to have some more square meters,” he said. “I cannot see why it should not be like that.”
In the case of the U.S., more than national wealth is linked to size—there’s often a personal financial advantage to it as well. In the 1970s, Americans started to view their houses as assets that could appreciate, according to Louis Hyman, a historian at Cornell University and the author of Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink. “One of the reasons why I think there’s an explosion in bigger houses, more expensive houses, is the more money you can [get a bank to give you], the more money you can make as a homeowner,” Hyman told me. “You borrow as much as you possibly can, you buy the biggest possible house you can, and then you can make more money on the upside if you think house prices are going to go up.”
It’s unclear precisely what concoction of economics, culture, history, technology, and politics produces bigger houses. “I think all these variables, they mix in some mysterious way and at the end they produce this outcome,” Hirt said.
The results of this process determine what people consider normal. Often, this is driven by what people see their neighbors, friends, and co-workers doing. “If it’s the custom in your peer group to host dinner parties for a dozen people and your own dining room can accommodate only half that many, you’re likely to think your home is too small,” says Robert Frank, an economist at Cornell and the author of the forthcoming book Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work.
So much of what people think is adequate depends on their context. Frank told me about his time volunteering with the Peace Corps in Nepal, when he lived in a house with two rooms, no plumbing, and no electricity. “There was never a moment during those two years when it felt inadequate in any way,” he said. “It was a completely satisfactory house in that context, but it wouldn’t have felt that way to live in a house like that here” in the U.S.”
Norms, though, can shift, and signs indicate that some Americans’ taste in homes is trending smaller. From 2003 to 2018, the median square footage that home buyers said they wanted dropped from 2,260 to 2,066, according to the National Association of Home Builders, a trade group. And The Wall Street Journal published an article earlier this year remarking on all the “elaborate dream homes across the Sunbelt,” originally built by now-older owners, that are failing to find new buyers.
This might have something to do with the growing share of American households that include only one or two people. But it also might be a matter of lifestyle for some people. “It’s a really expensive way to live,” Wagner says, “not only in having to travel to the city, having to travel to work, [but] having to travel 15 minutes to get a gallon of milk—all so you can have a really big house.” Maybe more Americans will start thinking this way, in which case, over time, the gap between American houses and those in other parts of the world would start to narrow. In the meantime, as those other parts of the world continue to get richer, maybe they’ll do their part to narrow the gap themselves.
Morgan Ome contributed reporting to this article.