All About McMansions!

The Worst of McMansions blog elicited post ideas from two Totebaggers.

Honolulu Mother has some thoughts on this:

We’ve talked before about what makes a McMansion a McMansion, versus a large house or an actual mansion. Now someone has helpfully done an entire blog series for us architectural n00bs, explaining the rules of graceful construction and how McMansions violate them:

McMansions 101: What Makes a McMansion Bad Architecture?

There are links to other posts in the series at the bottom.

Let’s talk about McMansions! Do you live in one? Do your neighbors? Do you have strong feelings on the subject?

Rocky Mountain Stepmom has similar questions:

Totebaggers, do you agree with the distinction between mansions and
McMansions? Do you live in one or the other?


193 thoughts on “All About McMansions!

  1. I do not live in a McMansion, nor do my neighbors. I live in a perfectly symmetrical non-mansion colonial. It’s front is actually quite boring. My neighborhood is post WWII expansion with no tear-downs. The properties just aren’t worth it. I can walk into any neighbor’s house and know exactly where the rooms will be located because the floor plans are ridiculously similar to exactly the same.

    Looking at new homes, I avoid McMansions. I can’t stand them. I hate that they are usually garage-dominated (even if the garage door is turned to the side of the house, we still know it’s a damn garage).

    I also avoid HOAs. I really don’t like a group of people telling me what I can and cannot do with my house/lawn. I know not all are unreasonable, but my second hand experience has been unreasonable.

  2. Oh, I lost a lot of time on that blog when it was posted originally.

    I certainly don’t have any moral high ground over McMansion owners as I live in a fairly generic, new-era condo building. It’s not great architecture or historic or anything like that. It’s a great location and a great view with usable space which is why we bought it.

    There are blocks like me that look like this:
    I would call this the urban version of a McMansion – cookie-cutter SFH’s going for $1-2MM (depending on location) with no yard crammed onto city lots. Construction quality is not always great.

  3. I love talking about houses. I call our house a McCraftsman. And I love it. Our old house is pretty and charming and has a lot of character. It was also old, and not energy efficient and we were constantly having to fix/upgrade things. I am so happy to live in my new house.

  4. I will say too – there are urban versions that are dominated by the garage too. Here, usually the garage is in back of the house and accessed via the alley, but you can’t fit a full 3-car garage on the width of a standard city lot, so developers get around this by having garage access from the front as well. That means the front door is up on the 2nd level and the sidewalk faces a giant garage door and a slim staircase. I was trying to find a photo, but I couldn’t really find one that illustrates this.

    True mansions get around this buy taking up 2+ city lots, but those are going to be in a much higher price range.

  5. I am not savvy at getting links in these posts. But, hopefully it comes through. The issue here the neighborhood will be small houses on small lots, but still have a yard. Then the McMansion (architectural style irrelevant really), which is twice the size and usually two stories on the same size lot. One in a neighborhood not too bad, but when it starts to look like the house it UP it is awful. It really changes the face of the neighborhood. It is not so bad if they buy two lots for the one house.,d.cWw&psig=AFQjCNHlv-MRTJXsNekfNWk_PfdJMOISXQ&ust=1473521447334701

  6. That article seems to be defining a “McMansion” as a large home built about 10-15 years ago.

    Quote from article:
    “”People 35 to 45 with two careers and 1.2 kids want bigger, bigger, bigger,” he said. “But they want dark floors, gray walls and white kitchen cabinets,” which are in contrast to the McMansion style. For clients trying to sell McMansions, he tries to persuade them first to redo the floors and cabinets as well as the paint. Then, he said, they sell at higher prices.”

    Well, yeah. No sh*t. Things look dated after 10-15 years, and buyers in the $1.0MM+ price range aren’t going to stand for that. But they will buy a new house that is still technically a McMansion, maybe a few exits further down the expressway or maybe a teardown on a tiny lot with the latest look. And then probably complain when it won’t sell in 2030 because it’s “so 2016” in style.

  7. Austinmom-

    We have a lot of that in the closer suburbs here too.

    Notice how this listing shows no rendering of the yard and is a very close-in view of the house being built to disguise how close it is to the neighbors. This was a suburb with a lot of ranch houses that are being torn down to build these giant new houses on small lots. It’s a very strange look when you drive down these blocks that are half-old, half-new.

  8. Our neighborhood is non-McMansionesque, though close. Generally just < 3000 sqft, and only 2-car garages so not really large enough to make the cut. I like this conversation.

  9. This is great. I am going to send the link to my architecture nut DS2. One thing the article does not mention, which is one of the things that makes McMansions look ugly to my eye, is the mixture of design elements that have nothing to do with each other. They may be from completely different styles, historical periods, or just give the general feeling of having been glommed on to add more “stuff”

  10. Rhett – maybe the more “things” a person can include the “richer” they feel. If your house looks expensive because it’s got all those porticos, turrets, bays, garages, etc, people perceive that you are rich.

    Most McMansions I’ve been in have tons of dead or wasted space on the interior. What’s with the 2 story foyers that are the size of a large living room? Or those two story family/great rooms?

  11. I have mentioned before that our house is a Sears catalog house. The catalog houses of the 10’s and 20’s were proof that you can mass produce good architecture for a good price. Even in their time, the catalog houses were considered to be “good architecture” and now they are revered

  12. AustinMom – my home town has turned into the McMansion hell you describe. Typical 5000 square foot building lots with 1000-1200 square foot cape cods were torn down with the 3000 sq ft McMansion replacing them. No backyard anymore, neighbors are literally next to each other and can pass sugar between kitchen windows. Every. Damn. House.

    A street near my mom’s old house is like this. Every single house for the entire stretch. The McMansions now look “normal” while the old cape hold outs look out of place. Ala Up.

  13. Meh, I’ve been outed as the unsophisticated architectural hayseed that I am. I just don’t get offended by any of those houses. I prefer a garage behind the home, but currently have one in front. Much tackier than my front garage, though, is the number of vehicles we have parked here. We have four drivers, and have not yet sold my husband’s truck because he’s aware it’s probably the last truck he’s going to own. When the kids have friends over, they all come individually so their cars are out there too. We have around 3200 ft.², but does not feel huge to me. My husband and I each work from home some, so we both need space for that. We have a pool table that we enjoy, and room for guests, which is nice since none of our relatives or old friends live in state. In a family full of introverts, we all appreciate that we have our own quiet space we can go to if we feel like being apart from people. My house is not an architectural wonder. I probably would not have chosen it if it were not on the lot that it is on, but I really love the lot. The people writing this article clearly have a lot more money than I do, because there’s no way I could afford a house that meets all the criteria. And I’m just fine with that.

    Saac, I don’t know who you are referring to or whether you mean me, but there will always be people who prefer space, just like there will always be people who prefer a smaller place, or are happy to trade off for a shorter commute. I don’t think we’ll see either of those groups go away.

  14. Saac,

    I don’t know if its the age so much as how and how cheaply they were built. The developers built them to sell in the moment (with the greatest profit margin) so they are far more “2005” than would be the case if someone had custom built a house at the same time. I also think, due to the poor quality, that they age and wear faster. As a result they look tired sooner than a higher quality home.

  15. Ivy, decor is a small part of it. The Chicago Trib article looks at Trulia data about older homes that are not McMansions and newer homes that are not so big, and finds McMansion’s sales recovering more slowly by comparison.

  16. This is sorta tangentially related to the topic, since it has to do with housing in a weird way. My DD was placed in a class with a teacher who I had never heard of, so I suspected he was new. When she came back from her first day, she was all excited to tell me that they don’t have a real classroom, that the class is in an office space, and they have no desks. I am not happy at all. Yes, yes, I know that this happens all over NYC and other cash strapped, chaotic school districts, but this kind of thing does not generally happen here. I am feeling bad because this is the first year I did not write my standard teacher request letter: “Please give DD a teacher who is strict and runs a structured classroom. DD has ADHD and reacts best with teachers who have clear, strict norms for classroom behavior.” . I figured that by this year, everyone at the school knows DD and that they would know where to place her. No, instead, she ends up in the “overflow” class, with a newbie teacher and no desks. Grrr.

    Why is this related to housing? I was talking to the bus stop moms (and dads) this morning, telling them about this. Everyone was upset. But one dad, who is a elementary school teacher up in the northern part of the county, said that he is now at 30 kids in a classroom. He said the reason is that a huge complex of 3 bedroom, expensive, McMansions went up in the town a couple of years ago, and now the school is bursting at the seams. That is not the case here, but we have a different, housing related reason for our school’s big enrollment surge: our town is filled with lovely, non-McMansion, 3 bedroom houses. They were all owned by elderly Italians, often being in the family since construction in the early 20’s. But now, the elderly people are all dying off, or hopefully moving to Florida. So over the last 20 years, more and more of the houses have been bought by young families. We are also the go-to town for Japanese expat families, with several companies that buy houses and then rent them to the Japanese families. We also seem to be a mini-Mormon mecca – they also rent the houses – and they have LOTS of kids. Thus, our school district is crammed full of bodies.

    Our town is now trying to lure young singles with luxury studio apartments by the train station. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are still plenty of these houses that will turn over to young families in the next decade. On our block alone, we still have several houses owned by Italians in their 80’s (and yes, we hear lots of Italian spoken on our block). I can’t imagine they will keep those houses much longer.

  17. MBT, I was thinking of the times Mili has insisted that wanting more space isn’t just his personal preference, but is a universal trait among humans. He never came out and said that I or anyone else saying that it was a personal preference was unnatural, but the inference that something is wrong with anyone who prefers shelter in smaller spaces and nooks was very clear.

  18. S&M, Milo has never asserted that every single one of the 300+ million people in the U.S. wants more space or that it is “wrong” not to want more space. He has observed demographic trends and noted that trends toward urban living in, say, NY Times articles don’t always correlate with growth statistics that are driven by the working/lower middle class majority.

  19. My neighborhood is a mish mash of expanded ranch houses that are large 3000 sq ft. due to ongoing expansions. Then we have a section of smaller McMansions but in brick and now tastefully hidden by foliage. There are two new houses that are not McMansions but just an oversized colonial and an oversized Cape.
    Trees and foliage hide both architectural gems and follies.

  20. This is similar to a friend’s house (like in the same subdivision). Built new, built cheap and with aspiration. Price didn’t even keep up with inflation (Also, most in the neighborhood are putting 20k of granite countertops and new carpet in to sell).

    That is the scourge of buying a McMansion. She recently sold after owning for 10 years – was happy she didn’t have to come to close with cash, but came away with none of their down payment.

  21. S&M, no, I doubt that has anything to do with it. They already allow a lot of movement in the classrooms, too much really – DD tends to get hyperballistic when she is allowed to move around. Unlike what that article says, she does not focus AT ALL, on anything. She needs to have “her place”, and rules and strategies for keeping it organized. She needs clear rules and guidelines to help her behave and focus. She had a great teacher last year – an older woman who started a signoff system to make sure her planner was getting filled out and that homework was getting done. I am going to go meet with this new teacher and ask for the same system

  22. MBT, I was thinking of the times Mili has insisted that wanting more space isn’t just his personal preference, but is a universal trait among humans. He never came out and said that I or anyone else saying that it was a personal preference was unnatural, but the inference that something is wrong with anyone who prefers shelter in smaller spaces and nooks was very clear.

    My goodness. It must take a lot of energy to keep up with all of the slights you feel from Milo over time. Bless your heart, I don’t know how you have the time for it.

    On topic: great article.

  23. WCE, maybe you weren’t around on the particular day when “nooks” came up, but Milo has made similar categorical comments in relation to mini-houses many times, insisting that people in general, not just himself; want more space.

  24. @MM-

    “One thing the article does not mention, which is one of the things that makes McMansions look ugly to my eye, is the mixture of design elements that have nothing to do with each other. They may be from completely different styles, historical periods, or just give the general feeling of having been glommed on to add more “stuff””

    He gets into that quite a bit in some of the McMansion 101 posts on the blog. Craftman details slapped onto a colonial and the like.


    “I’m not sure if that one makes the McMansion cut as the cost of construction seems like it would be too high. All that trim work and detail are too nice. Although, I assume that hideous facade results from a desperate attempt to shrink the apparent size of the house?”

    Probably not. It’s probably higher-quality construction. There are probably better examples nearby that are not as nice inside and closer to the $1.0MM price point. But it is definitely one of the giant house, tiny lot house examples. There are many in that particular suburb – it’s next to a tonier suburb, but lots are cheaper/smaller, decent schools, on a train line, taxes are low relative to the suburbs next door which are not in Cook County, etc. That is not the only suburb like that, but it’s one that sticks out to me because I’ve been there quite a few times & the blocks are striking with the transformation.

  25. Lark, after all these years; you still have that knack for imagining all sorts of emotion into my posts!!

  26. No McMansions where we are, but we are in an old neighborhood with lots of architectural variation. Some houses are gorgeous, others are old ranches that could be super charming if Chip and Joanna Gaines could get their hands on them (but are currently ugly as all get out).

  27. “Milo has never asserted that every single one of the 300+ million people in the U.S. wants more space or that it is “wrong” not to want more space. He has observed demographic trends and noted that trends toward urban living in, say, NY Times articles don’t always correlate with growth statistics that are driven by the working/lower middle class majority.”

    This is how I’ve read his comments too. That the tiny house/new urban movement is maybe not as much of a movement as some articles would like us to believe.

  28. I think some of the bigger house trend is because the builders can make a larger house for a little more money and sell for an increased multiple of that amount. Around me, almost every new house is bigger than 3500. It just doesn’t make sense for the builders to build them smaller. Of course, if people really demanded that, it would change what the builders build, but once critical mass has been reached, you don’t want to be the guy who buys a small expensive house that no one wants.

  29. LfB – you didn’t ruin your house, just added character to it. Here ranches have additions like porches and those little Windows added to additions in the back. The idea is to make the house sort of country looking and friendly.

  30. Hah! Ada…except for some spatial differences, that (your link at 1133) is my house! We’ve got different finishes.

  31. Ivy, the tiny house movement isn’t new at all. Throughout history, places have been built to various scales determined by their purposes. There is a human need for space as well as one for protection. The author of The Not So Big House describes this beautifully. A Pattern Language, which came out in the 1970s, is another book people may have heard of. The author conducted extensive research around the world and found a surprisingly large number of standard sizes and shapes of buildings in many cultures. Stair heights, porch sizes, etc were so similar as to suggest a desire to base them on the size of the human body. Homes based in the amount of space a person needs to comfortably accomplish what they’re doing in that space are as old as time. Public buildings like churches and seats of government are large to symbolize the might of the god or state seated there. None of that is anything of my invention. There is tons of social science research on it. I think the desire for bigness usually comes from a wish to state one’s own importance, not a universal appeal of more space for its own sake.

  32. As someone who grew up in a smallish house with a lot of people, my desire for a large house has nothing to do with stating my importance and everything to do with having a place to store stuff and not forcing my daughter to share a bathroom with her brothers.

  33. Ivy, Milo can speak for himself, but I think I recall what you may be talking about–for a while he seemed to think that it was news that bungalows were a historic style that came from a specific period that was related to certain stages in the growth of American cities. Based on that, he thought that wanting to live in one was somehow bogus. As someone who likes bungalows because of their utilization of interior space, the neighborhoods they were built in, and the location of the neighborhoods within cities, I never understood his excitement. Where I live now, there are houses built in the exterior style of bungalows that have very bland interiors. The neighborhood is an exurb, so is situated completely differently than the neighborhoods in the early-mid 20th century. I agree it was be foolish to fetishize those for the sake of the exterior decoration.

  34. As someone who grew up in a smallish house with a lot of people, my desire for a large house has nothing to do with stating my importance and everything to do with having a place to store stuff and not forcing my daughter to share a bathroom with her brothers.


  35. Kate, Ivy, and whoever else is so excised, y’all are taking a simple crack way too far. I’m done replying.

  36. We went to the Denver Modernism show last month. I kept saying, “hey, look, it’s my mom’s kitchen. Oh, hey, there’s my grandma’s kitchen.” They had a nice display of RVs and Airstream trailers (I love Airstream). Those were the tiny houses of the day.

    On HGTV buyers often claim they want “mid-Century modern”, but real mid-Century modern stuff came from Sears and is pretty banged up. The buyers are always horrified. Mom’s dinette set was mid-Century modern, but you wouldn’t pay much for it, trust me. The vinyl chairs had gotten sticky with age and the tabletop was scratched, and it was cheap to begin with.

  37. @Louise — you clearly need to read that blog more. She hates prairie windows if you’re not in a Wright-designed house on the actual prairie. And the dormer on our garage is larger than the dormer on the front of the house and of a slightly different syle. Oh the shame of it all. :-)

    Please let’s not have the New Urbanism fight all over again. The problem with character is that it costs money and time — hell, my @1885 relatively original place has vinyl siding and an asphalt roof because the prior owner couldn’t afford to replace the rotted shingles, and replacing everything with “authentic” versions would cost way more than I am willing to spend given how good my house looks, and would require a ton more ongoing maintenance that I am not interested in.

    We all choose our own balance between space and character and money and time. I bought a lot less house than I could have gotten in a new development; that decision was driven both by aesthetic concerns (I am very pro-character) and by the extra commute. But clearly, there are a lot of people who make the opposite choice. Here is a house in my neighborhood that is on the cutest little lot in the cutest little neighborhood, looks to be in decent shape and easy to freshen up fairly easily, and yet it has been sitting unsold for several months now — Whereas this development — — has sold like hotcakes and is basically down to one house now. (Obviously, different price points and other differences, this is just an illustration). Hell, even I was tempted by the sheer space in those new homes and the ease of not having to worry about repairs for the next @ 10 years.

  38. I also avoid HOAs. I really don’t like a group of people telling me what I can and cannot do with my house/lawn. I know not all are unreasonable, but my second hand experience has been unreasonable.


  39. I just don’t get offended by any of those houses.

    I’m another architectual heathen. People like big houses.

  40. “As someone who grew up in a smallish house with a lot of people, my desire for a large house has nothing to do with stating my importance and everything to do with having a place to store stuff and not forcing my daughter to share a bathroom with her brothers.”

    “We all choose our own balance between space and character and money and time.”

    Yes! I grew up in a 5-person house with 1 bathroom, and I said NEVER AGAIN. I also like closets, central air conditioning, and forced-air heat. Closets don’t have to be the giant, room-sized walk-in that all the women on House Hunters want ‘for their shoes’, but something decent-sized & functional. The closets of my youth and in the vintage buildings I rented in were about 4×4 at best. I could not even lie down in them. Storage space is nice. The exact details vary. I said above – our building is generic and so is our unit. I care more about location and function than character or size.

  41. I typically think of McMansions as enormous houses with multiple themes going on (brick, stone, columns, lots of roof lines, etc.), and the inside filled with lots of unusable space (two story foyers that flow into the two story great room, which flows into a family room that is the same sq as the great room, etc. My neighborhood is in the midst of teardowns and rebuilds. A lot of the homes do need to be demolished and it is nice to see 40+ year old overgrown landscaping gone, but I hate that all the trees in the lot are cleared for the rebuild. I have a love/hate relationship with the neighborhood changing. Some builders are better than others in terms of design and quality. The homes of the cheaper builders age a lot faster and all look generic.

  42. So, this is the second post that would make more sense with the first post.

    Compare and contrast with this house

    Slightly smaller, same school district. Has increased in value far more ($249 to $359 over 16 years, compared with $291 to $332 over 9 years – almost twice as much growth – 2.75% to 1.5%- though painfully slow on both accounts.) They are not totally equal comparisons – the more expensive one has clearly had some updates, has land and a barn.

    However, I think in retrospect, friend would have chosen Pennock Bridge over the McMansion. At the time, the McMansion was big, clean and beautiful. A decade out, it is dated and shabby.

  43. Is it a fair guess that you who avoid HOAs live in cities with zoning? Out here in the unincorporated part of the county with a lot of open space remaining, I like to know that the development within the closest few miles will be residential and restaurants, boutique type shops, etc, and not a noisy manufacturing plant or one that will accidentally release toxic gas on occasion. I think the HOA can be a little ridiculous, but not worth more than an eye roll. (Besides-what would the neighbors have to complain about on NextDoor?). Plus, since my small lot borders the green space and water, they do all the maintenance while I get the benefit of the view. It’s not like we wanted to put the car up on blocks in the front yard anyway.

    The original article also mocked Hardieplank. The guy clearly does not live in a hurricane or tornado prone area. I’m perfectly happy with the stuff on our house. I’m most delighted with the energy efficiency of my newer home. My electric bill was under $200 for the hottest month of the year, where in the prior house it could have been closer to $700. And that house wasn’t particularly old. I am sure an older home without double pane windows and all the attic coolant stuff would be outrageous.

  44. “Is it a fair guess that you who avoid HOAs live in cities with zoning?”


  45. I don’t think the author really hates Hardieplank —

    “McMansions on the other hand, tend to be clad in many different materials, often all at once, applied to the exterior as if they were wallpaper. Typical McMansion exterior claddings include manufactured stone veneers, stucco board (EIFS), vinyl siding, and later on imitation wood such as HardieBoard. (Note: the author would like to point out after many emails that I personally do not dislike HardiePlank. I think it is a much better system than vinyl siding and can be done very tastefully. However, I think the HardieShingles are worthy of scorn because they take away the depth and texture of real shingles and replace them with a 2D cartoonified version”

    We have Hardieplank on the outside of our house and think it is indistinguishable from real plank (except for the part where it can’t rot or catch on fire). Hardieshingles are rampant here and do look a bit silly.

  46. I would rather have the first house that Ada posted. Some better paint colors, new flooring and nicer furniture, and it could look very nice.

  47. I hate McMansions with a passion. Love the McMansions blog. Also I love actual mansions. I think that the house we are in now could qualify as a mansion, so I’m happy with it (leaving aside all the brass, the mice and now the BAT that my oldest found yesterday – needs some tightening up!). :)

  48. Also, we fully intend to take off the first 2 courses of the siding above the stone foundation and replace them with Azek or Hardieboard or something similar. :)

  49. I think McMansions are the equivalent of having a great big wedding for $10,000. You save money by having a cash bar and buffet that only has crackers, cheese and cold cuts, while splurging on other things. Alternatively, you can have a lovely wedding for the same price at a less trendy location, with a cheaper dress, no horse-drawn carriage, etc. There is nothing wrong with a 10k wedding – the problem is spending the money on silly things with little lasting value.

    I think at any price point, in any location, one can find a similar-sized home to a McMansion. What the older home lacks is finishes that feel so perfectly-right-this-minute, kitchen that matches the current trends of eating in/out/behind a wall, and other relatively fleeting conveniences (hard wired internet? integrated vacuum system?).

  50. though painfully slow on both accounts.

    That’s about the rate since the 19th century in the US – just a tiny bit above inflation. One of the reasons for the financial crisis was the inflation of the 70s and 80s had convinced people that real estate is a better investment than it actually is.

  51. In my area, the older homes lack windows. Homes built after 1985 or 1990 have vastly better windows than those built before ~1980. Given our rainy climate, large windows were very high on my wish list.

  52. LfB,

    90% of the problem with that house is the staging – it just screams little old lady died in it and the kids are trying to sell. Some new sheets, take that fucking doily off the mantle…

  53. @L: Yeah, I think ours qualifies, too, based on her criteria:

    “Mansion/McMansion territory starts at a house that has two or more of following characteristics:

    1.) 3000+ square feet
    2.) 5 or more bedrooms
    3.) 3 or more full bathrooms
    4.) a three car garage.

    [we have 3 of 4, if you count the 3rd floor Brs]

    The distinctions between a Mansion and a McMansion can be divided into three categories:

    1.) Age
    2.) Craftsmanship (e.g. being designed for the space of the lot, the quality of the building materials)
    3.) Architectural and Stylistic Integrity (how well historical design styles are integrated or reproduced, attention to detail and principles of design)”

    [We have 2.5, I think — lose points for the modern changes like the vinyl siding]

    But I just have trouble with her basic criteria I think there are a ton of houses that are 3,000′ and 5Br/3Ba. I mean, when you say “mansion,” I think this – (possibly my favorite all-time house based on exterior pic alone). Not this –

  54. @LfB – Winners Circle? Gag me with a spoon! I don’t have a McMansion just a house built in the late 70s. It is solid and quiet and quality whereas our old McMansion house was spacious but hollow, literally. All of the houses in our neighborhood are different which I really like.

  55. @Rhett — Oh, ITA. Spend $5K on a kitchen facelift (paint 1982 oak cabinets white, replace ’90s-era black appliance with low-end stainless, replace the 1988 backsplash with something from this century), and for the love of God take down the pink drapes and toss the teal area rugs. But it still floors me that people can’t see past that sort of thing — I mean, it’s not like it’s green sculpted shag wall-to-wall carpeting over the walls of a conversation pit with a stripper pole in the middle or something.

  56. @LfB – I am continually astounded at how much more people will pay for a failure of imagination!

  57. I agree with Rhett’s comment about horrible staging. I see this in homes around here all the time.

    I just read McMansions 101 and I learned so much. Then I evaluated my enlarged and remodeled 1925 colonial home against the parameters given, and for the most part it passed with flying colors. We had a good architect.

    After learning the basics, one of worst mcmansion features IMO — the two-story “marble” columns that grace the front door — makes more sense . I think they make the secondary mass appear overwhelming and destroy the overall proportions.

  58. But even if you can get over the decor limitations of the Newburg house, the rooms and windows are small, it looks dark, the ceilings look low and I bet the storage space is very limited. It is pretty cute on the outside. I am not going to be able to shove all of my stuff in that house. And I know the advice that Rhett will give is to get rid of the stuff, but I like my stuff and I don’t want to buy Christmas lights every year.

  59. But it still floors me that people can’t see past that sort of thing

    Keep in mind that the typical first time buyer of that house isn’t going to have any extra money to fix it up. They also aren’t going to be able to accurately estimate how much the changes are going to cost.

    Question: If I buy a $300k house and it will be worth $400k renovated can I buy it and then 6 months later take out a $100k loan to renovate?

  60. Here the height of style is red brick painted white or beige. One day my neighbor came over and told me delightedly that her red brick house would be panited beige. I told her to leave it alone but she did not.

  61. Rhode,

    I love their dining table and bed. It’s just that the house is so incongruous. The inside is so much nicer than the outside.

  62. “Here the height of style is red brick painted white or beige”

    I’ve seen that debated on TV house shows. Both sides have a point, imo. I have an original 1925 red brick fireplace that I would have painted white if I weren’t such a lazy procrastinator!

  63. @Kate: Exactly. I do think part of the problem is horrible photography exacerbating the lack of staging (if you actually look at the windows, they seem to be decently-sized, if not huge/modern). But I think people look at a place like that and think “Could be cute, but it’s going to be a lot of work, and where would my stuff go anyway?” And then they see someplace like this a few miles away – — and it’s just much easier and shiny and all your stuff fits and it’s a no-brainer.

  64. L – I think it does. I think the standard advice is get one if you wake up and the bat is there or if you have a young child who cannot communicate well and it was near them. They can bite and not cause much noticeable harm, but if you find it during the day and no one has touched it, you are probably ok.

  65. You need to have the bat tested (or rabies vaccines for the people affected) if you touched it without heavy gloves or if you were sleeping in a room with it. Waking up to a bat on the wall (happened three time in three weeks to me) counts as sleeping in a room with a bat. The thing is that most rabies in the US is bat rabies. Most people who get rabies deny any bat contact – probably happened while they were sleeping. You can take the bat, in tupperware, to your local health department, they can chop off the head and check for rabies (three times in three weeks!!).

    It’s pretty easy to look up the prevalence of rabies for your county. I think usually it is 1-2% of bats.

  66. @Rhode – the only thing about that place for my list (not knowing the location really) is the window unit A/C and only 1 full bath! Seems like they should put a 2nd full bath in that basement somewhere maybe. But…functional kitchen, functional closets, functional outdoor space. The basement reminds me of every basement I hung out in when I was in HS. It looks bigger than 1200 sq ft – wonder if that doesn’t count the basement.

    This seems on topic.

    “Question: If I buy a $300k house and it will be worth $400k renovated can I buy it and then 6 months later take out a $100k loan to renovate?”

    Did you put anything down for it/do you have any equity?

  67. Rhett – that’s actually happening a lot around here. The outside look that 1980s/90s style and then the interior is completely modern. It’s like watching Love it or List it and realizing that the outside and inside no longer match because Hilary turned everything ultra modern.

    I just felt it very appropriate to the conversation. I don’t know what they could do to modernize the front though. It’s a bungalow no matter how you look at it. And the only grass on the entire property is between the street and the front door.

  68. Did you put anything down for it/do you have any equity?

    20% to avoid PMI. Although, I bet the typical buyer of that house is doing 3.75% FHA. But, let’s say 20%.

  69. Ivy, that house is really something. The giant portholes! We actually have that flagstone-looking tile from the entry and what must be an adjoining room in our downstairs, but our house does not otherwise resemble that one.

    this tile:

  70. Rhode,

    Are there changes that could move it in this direction:

    Putting some money into it of course with some new windows and siding, landscaping etc.

  71. Ivy – the basement – if it’s legally finished (and it probably is) – counts towards the livable square footage. So, a 1200 sq ft bungalow with a 500 square foot basement would have 700 square feet of livable space above ground (though I’m sure it’s not divided like that, just throwing out numbers).

    In RI window units are popular because central air or those wall units (like Carrier) are “new” to the region. It honestly has only gotten hot enough to need AC in the last 15-20 years (or RIers have decided they like AC). My house has window units, but we put them on side and back windows to hide them from the street.

    I wondered the same thing about the bathrooms – why not have a full (or a least a 3/4 bath) in the basement. And the half bath is in a weird spot – upstairs bedroom…

    The area is hit or miss – part of that city is not pleasant and the other part is the high rent district. I know people in both places and the difference is astounding – true urban to tree-lined mansion-filled streets.

  72. Rhett,

    I’m with ya until I see the garage in back… What the heck?? the lighting just throws me.

    I’m not sure the neighborhood could support a large renovation to the front. It may be over-renovating. But better landscaping and maybe some better siding. Or a dynamic driveway, like the one HM showed.

  73. Ivy,

    I kind of respect that house in a way. The man built it exactly the way he wanted it and spent the rest of his life there.

  74. Ivy that house is insane! I can’t find anything positive to say about it. And is it for some Duggar-type clan? Why so many beds in one room?

  75. Grr. No one touched it I *think*, but of course the CDC says “Bites by some animals, such as bats, can inflict minor injury and thus be difficult to detect.” :-P

  76. Kate – that article you linked to is kind of unclear on the topic, but 203k loans are for any buyer, as long as it is intended to be a primary residence.

    We did that with our recent renovation, and I don’t recommend it for anyone who has a different way to finance improvements. We were renovating while we were living elsewhere, so we were cash poor. There are a number of inspections/appraisals unique to a 203k loan that are paid for by the homeowner – you have to have an appraisal with the improvements figured in, there is an inspection each time money is paid out. Also, you must have a general contractor, who cannot be the homeowner.

    The contractor must front all of the money for supplies – so many smaller contractors won’t go through the loan program. There are also penalties if the contractor doesn’t finish in 90 or 120 days (which I would expect any contractor to find a way to pass on to the homeowner). Also, it requires a fixed-price bid, with a very limited ability to go above – most contractors will build in a generous safety margin – and you won’t receive a refund on the difference.

  77. Ada, we didn’t know about the testing rec. It was not in a bedroom that we know of – #1 saw it in the hallway and then it was sleeping in a shower.

  78. And for the love of all that’s holy, look at picture #23. !!!! The gilt lion emerging from the curtain! And what on earth is in that curtain-fringed octagon, a bed? A hot tub?

  79. HM,

    That house is all wrong. If it were me, I’d hire an artist to paint a giant picture of me on a house styled like this:

    To hang over the mantle.

  80. Not having $$ to redecorate is a problem for homebuyers if they don’t intend to stay, which I think is much more common these days. When did the idea of a “start home” come into usage?
    Paint is not expensive, when you consider the impact that a couple gallons can make. Continue your saving for another month and you can get area rugs. In the worst case, you can put them on the floorboards if you have a “green sculpted shag wall-to-wall carpeting over the walls of a conversation pit with a stripper pole in the middle”. Continue saving for another year and do more remodeling as you can afford it.
    What I really don’t understand is spending money on decorating in order to get a place ready to sell. I am aware that some redecorating/remodeling is usually recommended, but don’t understand how people don’t prefer to decide about their new surroundings themselves.

  81. What I really don’t understand is spending money on decorating in order to get a place ready to sell.

    Most people have a really hard time looking past the green shag. I’m certainly not good at it.

  82. “What I really don’t understand is spending money on decorating in order to get a place ready to sell. I am aware that some redecorating/remodeling is usually recommended, but don’t understand how people don’t prefer to decide about their new surroundings themselves.”

    People are lazy. They want 100% turn-key with nothing needing to be done. They can’t see beyond a paint color, let alone a couch that won’t be there when they move in. Therefore, all paint must be neutral and all furniture must be removed and/or tasteful. No lazy boy recliners. I learned that from hours of HGTV viewing.

    I’m not afraid of color – I like bright colors for living areas, soft colors for bedrooms and hallways, and bathrooms fall in between (one is a neutral gray the other is bright Caribbean blue). When/if we go to sell, I will have to repaint my living and dining room for sure. That’s 3/4 of my main level. All because my dining room is a bright green (it’s called garden spot, so not lime bright green, that matches the upholstery on my 75 year old mahogany dining set) and my living room is a fun, bright sea blue. My furniture is beige so we needed some color.

  83. That house is amazing…

    The copper bathroom has got to be my favorite. I haven’t seen that many tin-style squares ever.

    4 bedrooms? Each bedroom must be close to 500 sq ft. I could live in one bedroom… I love the one with at least 4 double beds. Really? Who’s sleeping there?

    The main kitchen is very gaudy. But then I saw the whole thing with the dining table… it all fits in an odd way…

    And the front of the house is almost balanced and symmetrical. Almost.

  84. Rhode, yes, I know those are the “rules”. I just don’t understand them, particularly if prospective buyers have lived in rental beige units for any length of time.

  85. In my example, making it look nicer and doing a better kitchen = $350k price increase in ~9 months in an otherwise stable real estate market. Most people have no ability to make the house look like the after. And most of the stuff will be going with the seller.

  86. Ivy,

    You saw this one, right?

    The exterior is interesting as well.

    I’m trying to think of what the back story is. That interior was expensively done and the height of fashion when it was created c. 1978? My guess is the couple made some money and in their late 40s decided to spend it on their dream interior. They loved it and never saw a reason to change and almost 40 years later the wife finally died and they kids are selling it.

  87. @Rhett – oh WOW!! The thing that really gets me about these examples is that everything looks so pristine and new. No nicks in the formica, the puffy vinyl chairs have no worn parts, the colors are still vibrant & not faded. Meanwhile in that 10 year old house Ada posted, the furniture, walls, cabinets & stuff show wear.

    I like the backstory. Must be right?? Mom refused to change it because she liked it the way it was. AND kept it in tip-top shape.

  88. When we bought our house 8 years ago, I looked past a lot of “rules”. Our house had the perfect layout, yard, and neighborhood. But the colors were HORRENDOUS. I’m pretty confident they couldn’t sell the house for the price they wanted because the colors and the big furniture they had totally masked the space. Even their bedroom furniture masked how large the master is (11×20). The only room that showed off the space was a sparsely furnished guest room with hideous pepto pink wall color.

  89. @Rhode – The place my IL’s bought recently (downsizing) was painted all pink. ALL pink. Pepto pink, hot pink, and pale pink. It was hideous. I’m convinced they saved $50K+ because of the ugly paint. They didn’t even change that much except for the paint on the walls & kitchen cabinets, and it looks like a new house. Professional painting was less than $10K for the size, including the cabinets.

  90. My hairdresser just got married and she and hubby (two little kids from previous relationships will live with them) are negotiating with a 50 something daughter who is willing to sell the home of Mom who is in dementia care “as is” for very cheap – not even cleaned out. Apparently there is a 60ish wastrel brother who has been camping out there, he left, and since she has the power of attorney and all the other sibs are on board they are just going to sell it to get rid of it and keep him far away. The proceeds after Mom’s death would all go to the Commonwealth in repayment for years of medicaid custodial care, so nobody cares what the price is. It will definitely take a lot of work.

  91. I’m convinced they saved $50K+ because of the ugly paint.

    The wall of gold veined mirror tiles probably had a similar effect when we bought our house.

  92. Part of the reason we got our beach place at such a good price was because it was being sold as-is, with everything – EVERYTHING – in it. The couple selling were 2 states away, and just did not want to deal with coming down to clean it out. We spent our first week there throwing away sheets, toothbrushes, slivers of soap from the shower…it was like the last time they were there, it didn’t even occur to them they wouldn’t come back. Or, they knew and just couldn’t be bothered.

  93. The thing that really gets me about these examples is that everything looks so pristine and new.

    I assume they had it redone after the kids were out of the house. To continue my imaginary tale, they did it when they were 58 about the same time they bought the place in Florida. Mom just died down in Boca in her mid 90s and as a result you have a pristine time machine.

  94. Gold-veined glass tiles, oversize furniture that dwarfs the size of the room, too much peptobismal (though really, is there any amount that isn’t too much?) I’m detecting a theme. Who else here bought a home that was underpriced due to one hideous but changeable factor?

  95. In my first house, we overlooked the carpet, wallpaper. Kitchen and bathrooms needed updating. I was very enthusiastic at first and we did wall paper removal and painting ourselves. We got new flooring, new kitchen but hadn’t finished with the bathrooms. Honestly, I was so tired with it all, that I just wanted an updated house the second time around. There are very few time capsules in this area. What you get here is house flippers who will totally redo the interior of a hideous house, spruce up the exterior and sell it. We had several homes in our neighborhood that sold only after a redo. Otherwise, if the home is a wreck, it is just torn down.

  96. We do not live in a McMansion. They didn’t exist in my town unless you bought an old home on a larger lot and tore it down to rebuild. Since the time that we purchased our first (and only) home, a couple of larger undeveloped areas were destroyed for Toll Brothers to build homes. It took 13 years for Toll Brother sot finally build on one of the parcels, and even that was reduced to 24 homes from an original plan of 70. There are very few places left in lower Westchester where this can be done because it is already so dense in the county. Both of these developments were built next to major highways and under power lines, but they sold out because it is so unusual to be able to get one of these types of houses this close to the city.

    I’ve started to meet some of the families from the first development that opened last year, and the buyers are almost all from NYC or other countries. They just wanted a good school district, easy commute and new construction. The typical property tax bill for this new construction is approx $50 – 60K per year in property taxes, and this is for a 3500-4500 home next to a highway and under power lines. I know that most of you think these taxes are nuts, but many of these families have 2-3 kids. It would cost almost as much as one year of property taxes just to educate one kid in a some private schools in NYC. Our school district already knows from a survey that the Toll Brothers home with 24 homes has 60+ kids aged 0 – 10.

  97. Painting red bricks white is considered a sin in my area. In my town, there was a popular restaurant that had a very cozy dining room with old red brick walls. The owners sold the business, and the new owners decided to paint the bricks white to try to “modernize” the decor. There was a HUGE uproar among the regular patrons. The restaurant’s new management only lasted a few months before they bailed and sold. The first thing the new owners did was make a public announcement that they were going to remove the white paint, and restore the old red bricks.

  98. Canadian reader, we have a similar phenomenon in my neighborhood, since older houses have to be pretty fixed-up or charming to *not* end up as a tear-down or at least a bare-bones renovation.

  99. And I know I’m in the small minority here, but I hate staged houses. I sometimes go to open houses in my neighborhood, and the staged houses just seem so cold and lifeless to me. Nothing but greige walls and greige furniture — it feels so depressing. I am much more drawn to the houses that are fully furnished and decorated, so you know that real people actually live there.

  100. I love that blog! I love homes that are “of their place” e.g. A classic Brooklyn brownstone or a Manhattan prewar apartment or a center hall colonial in New England or a wrap around porch victorian with a turret in any old town with giant trees, a Spanish colonial in California or a Miami modern waterfront home. I’ve had the good fortune to live in a number of places like these (fully renovated/restored of course.) They were so special and beautiful…. what I don’t like is houses that look like they don’t belong to that town or street…

  101. Just an FYI, BBC America is currently
    showing a marathon of the entire original Star Trek series digitally remastered and in HD.

  102. Is it a fair guess that you who avoid HOAs live in cities with zoning? Out here in the unincorporated part of the county with a lot of open space remaining, I like to know that the development within the closest few miles will be residential and restaurants, boutique type shops, etc, and not a noisy manufacturing plant or one that will accidentally release toxic gas on occasion.

    What difference does an HOA make? It doesn’t cover the undeveloped land down the road.

  103. The typical property tax bill for this new construction is approx $50 – 60K per year in property taxes, and this is for a 3500-4500 home next to a highway and under power lines. I know that most of you think these taxes are nuts, but many of these families have 2-3 kids. It would cost almost as much as one year of property taxes just to educate one kid in a some private schools in NYC. Our school district already knows from a survey that the Toll Brothers home with 24 homes has 60+ kids aged 0 – 10.

    I guess it’s like the old saying, if you have to ask how much the property taxes are, you can’t afford them.

  104. no, much lower prices because the location is really the pits. The lots are small for a house of that size. They sold for an average of $1.4 – $1.5, plus any upgrades. Also, these houses are not “in town”. They are just part of a good school district, but you can’t walk any where because it really was just some undeveloped land off a main road, and overlooks a highway.

  105. Venmo is an app that you can use to easily send money to people. It’s great when you want to get money to someone that’s not close by, or if you want to split a gift etc. you just download the app, and you have to link at least one of your bank accounts or debit cards to be able to send/receive money.

    One example, a camp mom buys ten shirts for bunk and pays for purchase. We each send her money through Venmo by searching for her name. Saves a mailed check or waiting to give cash when you see someone.

    Lots of college kids use Venmo to split rent payments and other expenses in shared apartments etc.

  106. At least where I am, the developer bought up a pretty significant area (over 11K acres). So for miles, I know where the fire station is going, the lots set aside for churches and schools, the sections where they will be putting in retail, apartments, faux lakes, and what is being kept natural. So in the case of my neighborhood, the HOA is going to control a pretty significant area, and I’m okay with that. The neighborhood has a fair amount of theft of things left in unlocked cars, but zero violent crime. My kids both like to go for a run on the trails later at night when it has started to cool down (11pm-ish), and I don’t worry about them. (Although my son has been stopped by the police, checking him out to see if he is stealing from cars)

  107. I use the Ca$h app for the same purpose. Signed up for it when kiddo got his hair cut at a place that didn’t take checks or credit card and had an ATM that was down, and I had hurt myself so didn’t want to hobble down the steps, next door to the gas station, and back. I’ve used it several times since then for the kind of convenience Lauren describes.

  108. “What difference does an HOA make? It doesn’t cover the undeveloped land down the road.”

    @DD – not sure you get the magnitude of some of the planned developments in some parts of the country, like TX and (I think) AZ. It would be like, say, an HOA for Aurora – it basically substitutes for the local government in some larger areas.

  109. One of the things I love about this blog is learning how norms are different across the country. I never envisioned an 11k acre HOA. I actually suspected a typo.

  110. “Even in their time, the [Sears] catalog houses were considered to be good architecture”

    By whom?

    Although most designs were conservative, there were some large and elegant surprises. One of the most elaborate (described in the 1918 and 1921 catalogs as bearing “a close resemblance” to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, residence) is the three-storey, eight-room neo-Georgian “Magnolia,” with its two-storey columned portico, porte-cochere, and sleeping porches. The “Aurora” and the “Carlton,” both of which appear in 1918, are sophisticated Prairie School designs, and the flat-roofed “Bryant” is in the International style. The 1933 to 1939 catalogs feature several early split-levels, including the “Concord.”

    I highly doubt that the architects and architecture professors of he 1920s (the ones not employed by Sears) had anything good to say about the newfangled houses in a box that all these working class people and immigrants were buying up. That description, including the naming, is a carbon copy of the Toll Brothers sales book.

    Sears houses were often built in multiples, creating entire homogeneous neighborhoods. A number of these still exist, many in industrial towns. One of the best known Sears house locations is in Carlinville, Illinois, where Standard Oil of Indiana built a million-dollar development of 192 Honor Bilt houses for employees of Schoper coal mine (156 intended for miners and other workers, an additional 28 nearby and somewhat more deluxe meant for supervisors).

    If what you’re saying is true, it would be the lone exception in history when something became newly affordable to the middle classes through industrial and logistical innovations, and the elites said “Oh yeah, that’s just as good as what we have. Bravo!”

  111. This is pretty close to my parents’ house, what I grew up in:

    (Except we had the more standard five Windows across the top, and four on the bottom)

    We bought the land in a new subdivision of custom homes, where buyers brought their own plans and their own builder.

    At four years old, I was learning all about historical character, and why aluminum or vinyl siding was the eight deadly sin (joking–mostly). It was my parents’ hobby. My Mom grew up working middle class in a small, standard post-WWII Cape, but in their affluent New England town, this particular Colonial style was fairly common among the affluent, and reproductions of them had enjoyed a small resurgence in the 1970s.

  112. If they had bought something of the exact same size, in a different neighborhood where builders were offering the more standard 1980s suburban colonials, then for the same money we easily could have had a finished basement with a ping pong table, pool table, a swimming pool in the backyard, we probably could have taken more and fancier vacations…

    So while part of me gets the appeal of whatever passes for some ephemeral sense of architectural authenticity, I don’t understand why many are so keen to frame the trade-offs on moral grounds. I’ve known many, many people over the years who own and reside in McMansions, and I have never come across any who, based on their house selection, exhibited this so-called self-importance. And if you contrast that with their counterparts (like some of the bloggers’ followers) who make snarky comments and insist that they can only live in X style, that it must have their version of good taste, etc., you’d realize that the “self-important” label is misplaced.

    Getting back to the house I grew up in…the center hall is small and dark, and that means he upstairs center hall is dark. Everyone snickers at two-story foyers and out-of-place transom windows around the front door, but their purpose is to open up the central passageways of the house and fill them with natural light.

    And for Christ’s sake, if Reverend and Goody Puritan in 1680 could have afforded to add those features on their version of the house I grew up in, they would have done the exact same God damned thing. Just because glass was a lot more expensive back then doesn’t mean that we should pretend it makes us better people to not use it now. Blend the damn mish mash architectural styles. It’s OK.

    The ultimate irony is that this particular style was the McMansion of its day. Its most prominent architectural feature is the drastically sloping roofline to the rear. A very authentic version means that the second story only exists on the front half of the house. (Most today have a shed dormer roofline inside the original to give you a nearly full upstairs.) But the purpose of that roofline was purely financial, as property taxes in its era were assesses based on the number of stories, and this was a loophole that it could be recorded as only one story while still maintaining a grand, two-story facade in the front. Now what does that sound like to you?

  113. As for other designs, take a look at this classic English Tudor:

    Note the mish mash of facade materials. This historic McMansion was designed when brick was extremely expensive, and stone difficult to transport, so they cheaped out and only used it on the lower half of the house. This type of Tudor is mainly defined by its half-timber framing (the builder can’t even be bothered to frame it properly–it will probably crumble in 20 years) with a very cheap plaster infill, at one time mixing it with horsehair. And they don’t even bother to COVER the framing–the exterior beams are half-exposed.

    Also note the relatively small and widely spaced windows–glass was expensive in this era, and again, these self-important home buyers would rather show off how big of a house they can have rather than build a quality product to the old standards. What’s sad is that they just don’t even know better.

    If only they’d had a copy of The Not So Big House, the Tudor-era newly affluent could have learned exactly what amount of space humans needed to occupy, and they never would have introduced this monstrosity to the world, one which absolutely nobody will want in 20 years.

    There’s nothing new under the sun, folks.

  114. Milo – I think you are reacting to the “holier than thou” attitude of the purists. But there are people who can appreciate aspects of architecture that perhaps you are not seeing. (I know there are “finer” things that people are passionate about that I just don’t get and I don’t think it’s all BS.) also, you are making a false trade off between comfort and authenticity. Maybe because we have the means to do it- but we have opened up beautifully crafted homes, installed central air and restored it to its original look. We’ve had huge, light filled and well insulated homes that are authentically restored or newly renovated with “real materials.” It can be done, it’s just incredibly expensive nowadays to get master carpenters, plasterers and stoneworkers…

  115. My kids live on a cul de sac. They have a homeowner’s assoc only because the 10 homes own 6 plus acres in common – an island in the middle of the turn around circle and some woods and a large leaching field behind the woods at the end of the cul de sac where all of the septic tanks are located. Each home is unique, but most are large tasteful proportioned. There is one of of those 1990 oversize tudors (i have a soft spot for normal sized Tudors) – definitely entering McMansion territory in aesthetics – but well built. Currently for rent because it was bought for cash by Chinese buyers with an 8 year old and they are having visa or business issues in occupying it.

    My son’s house is a late mid century Deck House. The family that built it had trouble letting go until they got a glimpse of the couple with youngest baby coming to look at it. I attach a couple of photos. It is definitely not like any of the others on the cul de sac, and would not be to most people’s taste, but it only takes one buyer and one seller to agree.

  116. I don’t understand why many are so keen to frame the trade-offs on moral grounds.

    There is an odd overlap between the aesthetic and the moral in many areas. It usually has to do with class distinctions that the higher-up class doesn’t want to confess to. They don’t want to be seen as snobbish white Victorians so they frame the choice in moral terms instead of aesthetic terms. Thus the “morality” of the choice changes over time. When having a lot of stuff was something only rich people could afford, then it was morally fine. When tons of stuff from Walmart became available to the proletariat, then suddenly “clutter” became morally wrong and we need Marie Kondo, and we have to free up our lives. “Experiences instead of things” became the morally best choice, because travel is still largely unavailable to the proles.

  117. Louise, ha ha, a few years ago we got a Christmas letter that noted their son had bought a house in the Dillworth neighborhood. Now I know I was supposed to be more impressed than I was.

  118. HFN – IIRC Milo’s friend also bought there and those people were trying to impress as well ;-).
    We considered buying there, but the amount of house we would have gotten didn’t match what we wanted to pay. There are a ton of decent housing choices here to match each budget.

  119. Mafalda – I get what you are saying, but most people don’t have the money or time (or skill) to manage a huge project like that. We renovated our old house and, oh my god, what a pain! And we had to deal with things like lead and asbestos and all kinds of other terrible things that kids should be protected from during a reno. Never again!

  120. In the Tudor era, most people did not live in houses that size, but the majority of houses have either been destroyed or had upper stories added onto them. The style, like all traditional styles, was built from local materials to fit local tradition.

  121. The ability to fetishize certain forms over function and over local materials is realistically new. Just one century ago, the ability to import something like the marble that is a popular countertop material was a sign of serious wealth. Of course, there have long been people who don’t think about the source of features and will pay a premium for a saltbox house or a bungalow that is built far from the neighborhoods close to downtown where they were developed, in large part by Sears, which was early in mass-producing identical houses to be shipped everywhere.

  122. Chapter 2 here, on Cultural landscapes, gives more information on regional architectural styles.

    Globalization is real; the question of housing style has not been one of stylistic preference until relatively recently, maybe not within our lifetimes, but probably in the last century.

  123. WCE, if you’re on, can you tell me, how hard would you freak if someone hypothetically got shaved bismuth all over your food preparation and consumption areas?

    Imagine that this hypothetical person got a large chemistry set for his birthday, and someone else got him that bismuth off his wishlist, and he’s been watching a lot of YouTube videos about melting bismuth, and he melted it in his new flask where it stuck. Imagine also that he put some water in with the molten bismuth so if molten bismuth reacts with water, possibly it’s some sort of oxide instead that he was trying to scrape out of the flask.

    I would appreciate your insight on this.

  124. In the early 19th century, the Arts and Crafts movement was a strong reaction against the large, ornate Victorian mansions that were considered the height of good taste for so long. In terms of architecture, this led to two important styles: Craftsman and Prairie. Both movements were really about downsizing – smaller, less ornate, solid, good materials. Frank Lloyd Wright is of course the big name but there were many others. Obviously, having a custom house designed by one of the big architects was something only for the wealthy. But the push to small houses and less detail presented an opportunity – that, combined with modern manufacturing methods, was what made kit houses possible. And kit houses were the conduit by which Craftsman and Prairie style houses came to dominate the American landscape. The two dominating companies, Sears and Aladdin, recognized that they could take these very progressive houses, and sell them to the masses.

  125. @HM: DH says that much to his surprise, the metal form of bismuth is completely nontoxic. Per his elements app, less toxic than other heavy metals and does not bioaccumulate. So he would not freak much.

  126. @Mooshi, the Gamble house in that link is one of my all-time favorites.

    SM, you seem to be missing Milo’s point. When you say that people choose big houses because they want to show off, you are making a moral judgment that house size and shape is all about ego, and that therefore anyone who chooses a big house is wrong/morally inferior. And that is offensive to many of us who chose larger houses than we “need” for what we think are personally reasonable and valid reasons (and who get annoyed by the concept that someone else knows what I “need” better than I do). That judgmental tone is what Milo is responding to — the idea that [insert theory du jour] is the Only Right Way and other choices are therefore wrong.

    But I would also say that there is an inherent moral issue in housing that is hard to avoid — it just looks different depending on which issues you are focusing on. Modern suburbia adds to sprawl, traffic, overcrowded schools, tax burdens, environmental impacts, etc., because we as a society haven’t figured out a good way to address those issues and make sure new developments “pay their own way.” But it also allows families to have more space and fresh air and yards to play in and good schools and lead-free housing etc. — and attempts to limit sprawl tend to have the unintended consequence of raising housing prices to the point where the poor and MC are priced out. Or how about vinyl siding? It’s architecturally impure and made from petrochemicals. But it also lasts basically forever, doesn’t require cutting down trees, doesn’t require ongoing painting with VOC-containing paints, and frees up many man-hours of maintenance (not to mention cash) for other things.

    So what is the “right” answer? It depends on which of those specific issues resonate the most with your own moral code.

  127. Milo, YMMV but a lot of the McMansions make my head hurt just because they are SO UGLY. Just call my sense of architectural aesthetics too sensitive or picky, maybe? I don’t have the same reaction to the historical styles. (Note to Rhett: I also find a lot of the mid-century Palm Springs houses terribly ugly.)

  128. WCE, I agree with you on the learning here. I am to Bismuth as you are (were) to 1.1k acre HOAs, and I like to learn from people who know things I don’t. The discussions about emotions are also helpful, becaus I’m not good at figuring out other people’s feelings unless they talk about them. A couple days after the post on teasing, it occurred to me that my mother probably just doesn’t like teasing. I’m now rethinking lot of moments between us, from her completely flat response to any kind of joke I write, to her similarly lifeless reply when I asked if she agreed that my relationship with Mr X was good in part because we had so much fun together “I see you tease each other”. That sucked the joy out of that conversation and mystified me for a long time. It recently resurfaced in an “aha” moment that perhaps the teasing simply didn’t appear positive to her because of her own tastes. Comments about things like how teasing works to bring people closer through trust are also helpful to me.

  129. LfB, I have never said that there is only one right kind of housing. That’s why I mentioned yesterday that Milo’s “discovery” that bungalows, which are apparently popular among people he knows, were simply the style of their day. Isn’t that obvious, looking at urban morphology? But saying that all styles have always been possible in all places and it is simply a matter of taste is also foolish. Think of a really small house in Appalacia, the kind some people might call a shack. It has a front porch, with a sloped roof. Now think of a Swiss chalet in the Alps. Its porch roof has the same pitch. Is that because the same style makers are influential in both? Of course not. It’s because of the angle of the sun and when it is and isn’t desirable. Place matters. Other important limiting factors, historically, have been materials that are locally available. The era of suburbanization has mostly been an era of entire areas being planned out before occupation, usually in the same style. That is historically unique. For most of history, in most of the world, that kind of choice has not been available. Milo can sneer at the entire fields of architecture, cultural geography, cultural anthropology and the idea of place-specific material culture all he wants, I’m still going to believe they know a bit more than he’s been able to obseve, on his own, in his decades on this earth. Yes, I do have criticisms of Carl Sauer, but I would not slap down a figure as huge as he is so carelessly, and I read Rich Schein and Don Mitchell and Kent Matthewson and others to see what they take from Sauer and how they have critiqued him, because I know they know more than I do, have have soaked up much more scholarship on this than I care to, because it really doesn’t interest me that much.
    Strange that you say you think that besides totally misunderstanding what I’m saying, you think he finds me to be somehow offended at what he is saying. I’m not; because him vs social sciences is not something for me to take seriously. I do, however, hear massive self-righteousness and sarcasm in his comments today and in the past, insisting that his observations are the only that could be true, and that no be else realizes that there have been changes in US cities.

    Typing on the phone here, so can’t look back at what I just wrote and will post I order to see it all.

  130. Kate – you are right- thanks for helping me clarify what I’m trying to say. we did have an architect, a high end GC, interior designer, etc, and a very generous budget, plus staff to clean and maintain it when we move in – I know that’s rare, But it proves the point that the trade offs don’t always have to be made. I think LFB’s explanation nails it. People shouldn’t get on their judgey high horses about everyone’s housing choices. I know most people in McMansions are making a choice for space, function and budget and that’s great.

  131. LfB, yeah, I thought we were clear that the “big” houses being talked about were the McMansions, which I do think are a different thing than houses that need to be big because of the number of people living in them. Then it became apparent that not everyone was thinking of McMansions, and took great offense. At that point though, I just felt like anything I said further would upset the people who had already been upset at the simple comment I made about past conversations. It was going in a direction that would have involved much more careful thinking about other people’s feeling and careful writing than I wanted to take time for. So I dropped it. Having grown up in a house where all three kids had our bedrooms and the kids had a separate full bath from the parents (even though our weak well pump meant only one shower could actually run at once, and not while dishes or clothes could be washed), I realize that not every family is as small as mine, with one parent and one kid. Later in the day, other people made comments about overly-large rooms that seemed to go down better.
    MBT made a great argument for McMansions a few years ago, when she said that lived in one in a planned neighborhood that had good recreational facilities close to her home, teams her kids could play on, and other things she would otherwise have had to patch together. The McMansion neighborhood was much more convenient and gave her peace of mind. I still don’t like them, because of the wastefulness, and the feeling of coercion I get from the neighborhoods. My sister lives in a big pre-planned neighborhood that has a Giant Eagle as its only grocery store. I jokingly call it the commissary, because everyone gets everything from it, and what it doesn’t have in stock is unlikely to appear on anyone’s table. I don’t like it personally, and as you point out, other people choosing it affects the rest of us.
    As far as the exterior decoration and form of these houses, I really don’t care. The form of the neighborhood as it connects to its function and the life of the city is the form-related issue that concerns me. Many HOAs in Florida insist on a fairly uniform “Italianate” style that I think is totally surface and ignores both the site and situation where that style came into being, but that’s pretty much what post-modernism is. Ed Soja’s book on LA does a great job talking about the “all surface” city, and I think it is very applicable here.

  132. May I ask a completely unrelated question? I am starting to look at flights for the trip I want to take with my family next summer (London and Paris, to celebrate my 50th birthday). It looks like Icelandair has the best rates. For any particular round-trip Icelandair flight, the rate I’m seeing on the Icelandair website is about $50-80 more than the rate on sites like Justfly or Expedia. Is there a good reason to book directly with the airline (and pay the extra money) rather than book on one of the discount sites?

  133. NoB, I’ve heard stories from people who booked through the third party sites, then had issues with their flights for various reasons, and the airlines wouldn’t help them. They had to go through the other sites to try to get things resolved and they said it was a huge hassle. I always book directly through the airlines so I’ve never experienced this first hand.

  134. @SM: my point was more that you seem to want to have an objective, sociological/anthropological discussion on the development of housing styles, which (personally) I think is awesome and fun. But when you lead that off throwing a bomb about people choosing big houses to show off, it gets in the way of that objective discussion.

    Go read your 12:26 post again: you lay out the arguments in favor of small houses being the “natural” way, and then basically opine that anyone on the other side of the issue — those that want big houses – are egotists who want to show off. That very much comes across as saying there is only one right choice (a smaller home that is appropriate for your family size and location), and that if you want more/different, that’s a character flaw. But probably half the people here are on the other side of that issue – and some (many?) of them even live (happily) in McMansions. So if your goal really is to have that objective, interesting discussion, you might not want to start off by insulting the folks you are trying to engage. Otherwise, it’s just a lecture.

    I have to say, this has been hard for me to figure out. My mom is WAY into the “modern suburbia is killing society” mold, so I grew up with some pretty fixed beliefs about what style of house and neighborhood was “right.” But when we have had these open discussions (especially when we can manage them without insults and snark), it has helped me learn that that is more than just one worldview, and that other reasonable people can make other choices that are perfectly rational under their own circumstances.

  135. Correction/clarification: mansplaining my discipline, even a part I don’t specialize in, pisses me off. The specific ideas invented to do so do t bother me.

  136. it has helped me learn that that is more than just one worldview, and that other reasonable people can make other choices that are perfectly rational under their own circumstances.

    Come on LfB, you know very well that my opinion is the only correct one and everyone else is completely wrong :)

  137. WCE – no typo. The development will eventually be 11,000 acres with 21,000 homes, and all the things that go along with that. That is a 20+ year plan, and who knows if we will still live here then. They are building a 55+ section with amenities geared toward that set, so maybe we’ll just move over there when we need a one story.

  138. Laura, I assume you are referring to the last sentence as bothering people. But look at the entire post in context. It was written in response to someone claiming that I had said that the impulse for small houses is a brand new thing. Ignoring the fact that I’m not that stupid, I pointed out that there are two ahistorical impulses that compete in each person, a need for room and a need for protection. We have talked about that on here before, so I didn’t use that exact wording, but I did reference a book that many people on here have read and like, and nudged recollection of those pages. Because the accusation of thinking small was new was what I was addressing, I wrote about small houses in history. Then, using the same historical lens, I quickly wrapped up the other half of the pair that I had introduced, mentioning big churches and royal residences, just so I wouldn’t leave that half hanging. Had I felt like going into detail (which I’m doing just for you because I like you, which does not mean that I dislike anyone else here), I would have pointed out that in Western culture the first big residences after royal residences, intended to show the wealth and might of the state (ie dukedom or earldom or whatever -dom) and therefore of the people who led it, were built by merchants who were wealthy enough built big houses that you bet your sweet bippy were intended to show that they were powerful enough to challenge the monarchy. The entire post was written in terms of historical developments over the past millennium in Western Europe. I wasn’t talking about Aztec temples or Polynesian halls or anywhere else, and I wasn’t talking about now or any era as brief as our individual lifespans Read in context, I think that’s pretty obvious. But as you point out, people assumed that it was about the US, now, and about them personally. I appreciate you explaining to me that they could have gotten that by just looking at the tail end on its own. And as I said above, isn’t the whole post about the difference between “big” for pragmatic purposes and McMansion big?

  139. IOW, the shorter version would’ve been “no, dude, I don’t think small is new. People have always liked it, just like they’ve always liked big. The stage-y big that people object to in McMansions is related, imo, to the ways churches and merchants built big to show their might”

  140. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that my immigrant relatives and friends prefer to buy new houses. So, if you show them an older home, it would have to be completely redone for them to be interested. Any shag carpets, 70s decor, small dark rooms will be rejected in favor of a new house in a cookie cutter new development. Also space becomes important as over the years, it may become a multi generational household or have to offer a temporary home to visiting relatives who tend to stay for weeks or till they get on their feet. We housed my BIL for six months till he found a job, his own place and moved out.
    This was perhaps a demographic trend that was common till World War II in the U.S. took a back seat in the post war years but is now silently going on.

  141. NOB – I have used what I consider relatively less known 3rd party sites for airfare (vayama, onetravel)…never a problem. But one thing I have learned over time and definitely more recently is that booking directly with hotels on their sites, especially in Europe has worked better than going thru e.g. orbitz, expedia, etc. They save the commission and typically have thrown in some amenities upon arrival (fruit plate, bottle of wine, drinks at the bar).

  142. NoB, don’t know if this appeals to you, but for years Iceland Air let people stop in for a visit in Iceland for free on their way across the Atlantic.

  143. SM, the other way to look at that is they are just buying land. That there are existing houses on the land is irrelevant to them.

  144. DD, that’s how they’re thinking of it, I suppose, but some of those “plots” are mighty expensive!

  145. “they are just buying land. That there are existing houses on the land is irrelevant to them.”

    The existing house reduces the value of the land, because it means the additional expense of demolition and the associated permits.

  146. Thanks for the tips, Denver and Fred.

    S&M — Icelandair still has the free-stopover option. I can’t take more than two weeks away from my practice, but DH will probably stay over in Iceland with the kids for a few days.

  147. It takes such a long time in certain communities to tear down and rebuild. I can’t believe it, but one of our neighbors bought a tear down in Sept 2015. It is still there because the town board meets once a month. They made comments to her architect’s plans, and then they had to wait a month to get a new approval chance and more questions. When the town finally signed off, she needed ConEd and water to shut utilities. Then, she needs permission and inspections to demolish in case of asbestos.

  148. @Louise. That’s an interesting point. I wonder if the desire for in-law apartments and multi-generational living is really going up overall. I know in my neighborhood there are quite a few older homes that were designed to house multi-generational families. While they used to house European immigrant families, there are some that are used as main house and then garden rental, but quite a few are South Asian families with grandparents living in the in-law space.

  149. Like most homes in the past 25 years, my home’s architectural style is low material/labor cost and energy efficient. I have minimal knowledge of or interest in architecture but the development of modern building materials (Tyvek, plywood, pressed wood products, vinyl or cement siding, insulation that allows ceilings to be vaulted, in contrast to the attic space full of blown-in insulation in my parents’ 1978 home, Trex, asphalt shingles instead of cedar, double or triple pane windows with inert gas inserts, low emissivity glass) has dramatically reduced building costs, by reducing material, maintenance, utility and labor costs.

    I live near homes built in the 1880’s. They have beautiful old growth (local, natural) timber, but for good reason, old growth timber isn’t available anymore. In my climate, you also have to paint frequently, because the constant rain is hard on painted wood. Hardiplank and asphalt shingles are functional, and since I *am* the staff, I dare the architecture bloggers to pry them out of my middle class hands.

    Can anyone tell I finished staining the deck railings this weekend? HM, sorry for the lack of bismuth response. The most interesting literary chemistry book (IMHO) is Uncle Tungsten, an autobiography/memoir by Oliver Sacks. My theory of chemicals (excluding hormones) is that you can’t buy most of the stuff that’s bad for people without a special permit.

  150. in a different neighborhood where builders were offering the more standard 1980s suburban colonials, then for the same money we easily could have had a finished basement with a ping pong table, pool table, a swimming pool in the backyard, we probably could have taken more and fancier vacations…

    You really made your point with the pool. The house you describe is sort of the totebag half-cookie of homes. It’s a nice home with all the fun sucked out. You could have had Disney World, a Jet-Ski and a pool but instead you got wide plank flooring and custom cabinets and mill-work.

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