According to industry experts, the formal living room is becoming a thing of the past as new-home buyers, always seeking more living space, are sacrificing it for additional square footage in the kitchen and family room.
Gopal Ahluwalia, who is in charge of research for the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, said that more than one-third of 1,300 recent buyers responding to an NAHB survey in late 2001 reported that they were willing to buy a house without a living room.
That is not the case in all markets, especially in older areas of the country where buyers are concerned about the effects on resale. In these areas, most new-home buyers prefer a living room and a family room of equal size.
The size of a typical new house continues to increase even though other surveys and anecdotal evidence indicate that many Americans are looking for smaller, more manageable houses to accommodate more-active lifestyles, and that they want quality over quantity.
"No one wants a smaller home," Ahluwalia insisted, pointing to his survey data. People under 25 want houses 35 percent larger than the houses they live in now. That demand for more space continues through age 65."
The desire for bigger is also reflected among renters, said Ahluwalia.
About 34 percent of renters surveyed said they would prefer at least 1,400 square feet, he said. Apartment size has increased to 1,200 square feet from 900 in 1980.
Kitchen design and the number of bathrooms are other critical features that attract apartment residents, Ahluwalia said. In addition, apartment amenities were important, with 65 percent of renters citing parking as vital. Garages and storage space were tied for second at 38 percent, while 20 percent cited 24-hour security as a key factor.
The demographics of new-home buyers have changed substantially over three decades. In 1970, for example, 40 percent of U.S. households consisted of couples with children. By 2000, that had fallen to 24 percent. In those 30 years, however, the share of single-person households rose to 26 percent from 17 percent. Single-parent households rose to 16 percent from 5 percent.
People are postponing marriage. In 1980, 21 percent of men in the 25-29 age group were unmarried, compared with 39 percent today. The number of unmarried women in that age group rose to 52 percent from 33 percent. Yet, as in the case of the nation's 22 million renters, buyers want more room. In 1970, a typical house was 1,500 square feet. In 2001, it was 2,330 square feet, or an increase of 55 percent from 30 years ago.
House size is reaching a saturation point, Ahluwalia said.
Although land nearer urban areas is getting scarcer and more costly, and there are major political efforts to limit sprawl, most buyers appear to have little interest in moving into city areas, with only 15 percent of last year's six million buyers of both new and older houses moved to cities." But housing is more than statistics. And builders may need to focus on feelings as well as the numbers.
Since Sept. 11, Americans are expecting more of their houses, said Joan McCloskey, editorial marketing director of Better Homes and Gardens. "We regard our home as a shelter to keep our spouse and children safe," she said. "So there is a layer of emotion that has been added to the houses being built this year. "We want a home that makes it easy to cherish our families," she said. "We work at home, shop at home, bank at home. We even dine out at home. More of life's functions center in the home because this is where we enjoy self-expression."
McCloskey said the trauma of last autumn's events had "caused us to burrow into our homes. But that doesn't mean that we want to spend time in a basement recreation room."
“I'll bet the two favorite rooms in those houses are the kitchen and the den because they are the only intimate rooms in the house," she said. "Who can have an intimate conversation in a 20-by-20-foot foyer?"
McCloskey said there was a move toward simplicity and quality, but the lack of excess does not mean a shift to blandness. Some of the best examples of this are urban in-fill houses that take their cues from their older neighbors. Technology had not exploded in the home as expected, although Ahluwalia predicted that this would happen in the next three to five years.