New Homes: Comeback for McMansions?

Just when you thought you'd never see an ugly McMansion again -- thanks to the recession and subsequent downsizing by frugal new-home buyers -- some brave souls are predicting that these oversize homes might soon make a comeback.

A recent story in the Orlando Sentinel suggests that McMansions are reappearing in parts of Florida after almost becoming an extinct species. Consider an "affordable" 5,100-square-footer with eight bedrooms or a 3,000-square-foot new home with four bedrooms and a three-car garage, all for around $300,000.

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One Florida builder, Meritage Homes, has turned such a model into a recent bestseller. The difference between its new homes and the McMansions of the early 2000s is a simplified architectual style, more energy-efficient features and a more reasonable price.

And luxury homebuilder Toll Brothers is beginning construction in Florida on Fontana Estates, where new homes of 3,000 to 4,000 square feet will cost $300,000 or more. Again, the plans and price are stripped-down, though these homes still contain four bedrooms, family great rooms and three-car garages.

The definition of a McMansion varies, but it's a derogatory term usually applied to a mass-produced home larger than 3,000 square feet, which also has the attributes of poor or mismatched design and undifferentiated architecture out of sync with the local neighboorhood. We're talking great rooms and excessive use of gabled roofs.

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McMansions boomed in the 1980s and 1990s but took a shellacking once the recession hit and buyers became more frugal and energy conscious, not to mention averse to conspicuous consumption. Some observers say a new surge in McMansion construction is unlikely.

"The idea of a McMansion boom -- I don't see that happening at all right now," says Stephen Melman, director of economic services at the National Associaton of Home Builders.

Even if some new houses are bucking the small-is-better trend, they represent only a tiny niche of the huge home-buying universe. What's more, Melman says, "you wouldn't call these homes McMansions," as they lack garishness, opulence and size beyond need -- the McMansion characteristics.

A survey in August noted that only 9 percent of Americans say that their ideal home size is more than 3,200-square feet, while 55 percent prefer a home between 1,400 and 2,600-square feet.

Builders and architects have been obliging with smaller lots and footprints and more considered interior designs which reflect a pared down lifestyle -- by American standards, that is.

Not surprisingly, the median size of the American home has been shrinking -- to about 2,100-square feet in 2009 from 2,268-square feet in 2006 -- after years of bloating.

Demographics are at work here as well as the down economy. Baby boomers want to downsize once the kids are gone, while first-time buyers usually think small and cheap, and these groups together comprise some 140 million people.

Still, some buyers will always want big. In the future, the McMansion -- or a new version thereof, with energy-efficient appliances and perhaps minus the turrets -- might make a post-recession comeback of sorts, once buyers (especially first-timers ready to move up) feel more confident.

In other words, noted June Fletcher in the Wall Street Journal, they will want a McMansion -- "a home just like the one they grew up in."

Certainly that will have to wait for better times.

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