House Sizes Shrink Along With Consumer Priorities

After years of conspicuous consumption when it came to our homes and what we put in them, Americans are rethinking their priorities in the recession-induced Age of Austerity and paring down their possessions and what they spend.

We won't be living in cold-water yurts, of course, but some recent numbers suggest that shifting consumer priorities will have a profound impact not only on the real estate market and homeownership but all the industries associated with housing.

Today we're buying less furniture and washing machines and other durable home items. We're living in smaller houses with less overall square footage. Our remodeling projects are smaller and we like energy-efficient and sustainable products more than, say, a new AC unit that comes in multiple colors.

Are we just being practical (and cheap) in a scary economy, or are Americans finally coming around to the small-is-beautiful mentality?
Some rightly argue that it has to do with a change in perception about real estate and the value of design in relation to real estate and the market. In the boom years, investing in design was aimed at a better return when you sold your home, rather than appreciating the beauty, practicality or function of what you bought.

The calculation was that the outdoor fire pit or gold-plated swan-shaped faucet might not have been to your taste, but could entice a buyer with its allure of luxury -- and add a few grand to the sales price.

But with the real estate market upended by the recession and with values in flux, we're all thinking that maybe there's no need for a Great Room anymore. That has to do with real estate as well as a new way of thinking about our houses and homes.

Some key numbers tell the story.

The National Association of Home Builders says that the average size of a single-family house dropped to a mere 2,438-square feet in 2009, or 100 square feet smaller than in 2007, the last year it increased after a spectacular 30 year run of increases. And more of these are likely to be one story than two, reversing another trend, and with not as many bedrooms or bathrooms.

Furniture sales dipped 11 percent in the first six months of 2010, compared to the first half of pre-recession 2007, according to the Commerce Department.

Even when we pull out of the downturn we're not likely to resume our spendthrift ways, many economists predict. So when we consider real estate in the future, we'll be thinking smaller, even if you're not a baby boomer or empty-nester. And when it's time to buy furniture and fixtures or remodel, well be thinking of making due with what we have, or going for the less costly but practical and environmentally-friendly solution.

It's not just about who will be buying our house when we sell. It's about how we live now.

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