There’s a substantial chunk of America that loves to hate on McMansions. Like the word “hipster,” "McMansion" is a label no one would ever choose to apply to their own life, even if their home fit the bill to a tee.
I think McMansions draw ire, not just because they are ostentatious and, by many peoples’ standards, ugly, but also because they represent new money. It’s one thing to own a tasteful historic house on a lake, but it’s quite another to spend your wealth on a brand new, blinged out, six-bedroom, four-bath with a three-car garage in the suburbs. Or at least, that's how many people seem to see it. The new money purchase encourages disdain while the old money purchase invites jealousy, if not begrudging admiration. And of course, from an environmental perspective and from a municipal finance perspective, the McMansion represents waste on a whole new scale. But in spite of their haters (see the comments when we posted a McMansion-related article on our Facebook page), I don’t think we’ll be seeing the end of the McMansion any time soon.
Business Insider recently ran an article with the misleading headline, “Americans could be killing the McMansion for good.” A more accurate header would have read, “McMansions may eventually be left for dead (but probably not for a while).” The article makes a solid point that many McMansions built during the early 2000s are now reaching the end of their lifespan and require complex, expensive repairs for which homeowners are unwilling to pay. The article quotes the creator of the popular snarky website, McMansion Hell (which critiques the ostentatious homes for their architectural failings in detailed illustrations):
"These roofs are nearing their time of needing to be redone and maintained at extraordinary cost due to their complexity," she said. "As the era of repair draws near, I suspect many homeowners are quietly trying to walk away from their bad decision. […] The McMansion was never designed to last forever.”
The Bluth model home in the popular TV show, Arrested Development, is the perfect example of a McMansion and a good illustration of its demise too, as, over the course of a couple seasons, it gradually falls apart and is abandoned (though not before the Bluths discover an exact copy of the home in Iraq).
But, while their short lifespan is clear, whether McMansion owners will be able to resell their homes adequately remains to be seen (the owners may be stuck with them), and they certainly have not stopped being built. So, for Business Insider to predict the death of the McMansion is a bit premature.
Indeed, later in the article, the author goes on to quote census data showing that big homes are still in vogue:
According to the US Census' most recent study of new housing, which concluded with the year 2015, homes on average continue to grow in square footage, though families simultaneously continue to get smaller. Nationally, the average square footage for a single-family home was 2,467 in 2015, compared with 1,595 in 1980.
Business Insider also interviews the large luxury homebuilding company, Toll Brothers, who reassure them that the size and amount of home they're building has not gone down. The demand persists. Furthermore, the article adds:
And according to a February 2015 survey by Trulia, 43% of American adults would like to live in a home that's bigger than where they currently live. That trend was especially evident with millennials ages 18 to 34.
That last bit smashes a couple misperceptions (i.e. that young people love living in minimalist homes and modest apartments), too.
Since the election, we at Strong Towns have been talking a lot about tribes and the way that Americans divide themselves into distinct social groups (whether they realize it or not) based on values and preferences. So, while the McMansion may be a status symbol for one tribe, it’s clear that for many Americans, the mockery of McMansions is a way we signal to one another that we have good architectural taste, a healthy awareness of our budgets, a concern for the environment and so on… We turn up our noses at those people who would decide to invest and live in such a house. (And yes, I’m saying “we” because I fully acknowledge that I’ve been in this camp before.)
But I think the McMansion, like the eight-lane highway, is mostly an example of people responding to incentives and current economic conditions. The price looks right and the opportunity to have a nice bedroom for every kid, a fancy kitchen, a big yard with a pool…who wouldn’t want that?
We only sneer at them today because we think we know better. In hindsight, we see how impossible it is to sustain that sort of lifestyle and that sort of development. On the short-term though, it’s profitable for big developers to build them, the utilities and roads will be built out to them and families will continue to buy them. It’s only when the maintenance costs of the homes and their supporting public infrastructure begin to pile up and when the government decides to stop subsidizing them that we’ll truly see the death of the McMansion.