April 15, 2008
How big a house do you need?

The beginning of this article about the state of the seven-figures housing market in Houston fascinated me.

When Ronald and Paige Wardell began shopping for a house inside the Loop, they figured they could find everything they wanted for $750,000 -- tops.

Their requirements: at least 4,000 square feet, a yard for their two young children, and that it be close to Ronald Wardell's Galleria-area law office.

"We quickly learned that for the type of house we wanted and the size of house we wanted, that simply wasn't going to be found," he said.

So they upped their budget and expanded their search.

Last spring, the Wardells moved into a 5-year-old, 5,370-square-foot house, sitting on just under an acre, north of Interstate 10 in the Spring Branch area. The price: $1.25 million.

I'm trying to wrap my mind around a 5000+ square-foot house. That's a heck of a lot of house, especially for four people. It's more than twice the size of my house, and my house isn't small. I'm wondering how you keep such a large house clean - it must be a full-time job. I'm also wondering what the utility bills must be like. I don't begrudge anyone who has the means the privilege of buying such a house. If you want it and you can pay for it, be my guest. Just don't moan about the property taxes, especially if you went more than 50% over your initial budget to buy it - I've got no sympathy for you there. I just don't quite get the allure of a house that big. Am I weird for thinking that way? Let me know.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 15, 2008 to Society and cultcha

Space is nice, of course; but I wonder if people buying these oversized houses are actually doing a cost/benefit comparison: is the price of having more than 2,500 square feet (which is PLENTY for a family of four) better than the other things that could be done with that money: taking the whole family on great vacations, putting money away to pay for private schools and college so the kids can graduate debt free, other educational opportunities like music lessons, tutors, special classes, other family recreation, a nest egg to help the kids buy their first homes (especially if they wind up living somehow overpriced like New York or LA), and so on. And I wonder if the unpredictable factors figure it - hey, what if energy costs double?

I don't think those calculations are made much, and if they were, we'd probably see smaller (but generous) houses.

Of course, I lived in a 670 square foot house in DC. Yes, cramped, but it was DC, who can afford lots of square footage? This is all very location dependent; the same family would be happily plunking that money down for a 1950s ranch in Palo Alto or an LA suburb.

I get the feeling that today's families spend more time in the house - maybe I'm wrong, maybe someone will correct me. But when I was a kid, our house (1500 square feet for 4 of us, and bigger that what many friends had) was basically home base, and most days my sister and I would come home after school, hop on our bikes, and head back out the door. I doubt we'd have been happier in the newly-built part of town, with lovely big houses, but where you couldn't ride your bike to the park or the town center easily.

Posted by: John on April 15, 2008 6:37 AM

John, I absolutely agree with you. My family has a small, one-room beachhouse on Bolivar peninsula, and when anybody points out how small it is (or how it's weird to have everyone sleeping in the same room), I fire back: "come on, it's the beach! You're supposed to go outside!"

Houses are overrated. My thoughts might change once I have kids, but right now my 1400 square foot bungalow feels just about right. And when the kids come, I figure I'll just stick them in a bunk bed. My brothers and I never had our own rooms when we were younger, and 1)we're all fairly well adjusted people and 2)we're all best friends now.

Posted by: Ian on April 15, 2008 9:00 AM

In Los Angeles a 5,000 square foot house is small and most houses in what is known as the Platinum Triangle of Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills and Bel-Air range between 10,000 and 15,000 square feet but there are quite a few 25,000 square foot houses, original houses built in the 1930s through the 1950s, and some of the newer homes built in the 1990s will range between 25,000 and 50,000 square feet. Of course property taxes are a little lower but utility bills are not. And it's not just the light and gas bill but the water bill. All of these larger homes sit on 3, 6, and in some cases 9 and 12 acre lots that are kept pristine and well-watered.

It is part of the "I have, therefore I am" belief that the more you have, and the more you can show you have, the more important you are.

Eventually we will see these really "mega" mansions in Houston. I think there are a couple in River Oaks and Memorial in the 25,000 square foot range. "Yeeeee-haw look at me! Ain't I important?"

I always laugh at the ones that are promoted as "energy efficient" because how energy efficient can a 5,000 plus square foot home be?

It reminds me of Betsy Bloomingdale's "contribution to conservation" during the energy crisis of the 1970s which consisted of having instructed the staff to only turn on the self-cleaning ovens at night so as to not cause a drain on electricty in Holmby Hills. When everyone thought about it, they realized they turned on the self-cleaning ovens every night. So much for conservation in Holmby Hills.

Reality is the American dream is to have it all. And to make sure everyone knows you do.

But some obtain the American dream through what for many becomes unmanageable debt and that of course is something that is not a good thing for them or for the rest of us.

There are a growing number of foreclosures in the upper income housing market and that affects us all just as much as the foreclosures in the lower income housing market.

Personally I would feel a little guilty living so extravagantly given the growing number of homeless in our country.

But then part of the American dream is to convince yourself that everyone can be so lucky if they just work hard.

Posted by: Baby Snooks on April 15, 2008 11:31 AM

Charles, what we've noticed out here in the Town and Country area is that about 75% of the houses that have been purchased in our neighborhood are bought by developers who tear down the existing homes in the 1900-2400 SF range and build 4500-5000 SF McMansions on the same lot for $1M+.

Of course they all have at least 4 bedrooms, 3.5 bathrooms and have all the newest amenities that just eat space - media rooms, computer nooks, wine rooms, palatial master suites, and huge Iron Chef kitchen stadia....all with latest fixtures and countertops.

And here's the kicker, a while back we looked at building a modest little place only slightly bigger than our current 2150 SF, but builders wanted no part of something that small.

I'd like to say that the housing market is slowing a little and that builders would consider something smaller, but in the past 18 months we've had 5 McMansion's built - all sold or pending with 5 more under construction. It's crazy.

Posted by: Patrick on April 15, 2008 12:08 PM

I hear you, Patrick. In my area of the Heights (across from Charles') we're seeing tear down / McMansion mentality running rampant. The action is positively killing the Heights "look and feel", but also sending our property taxes sky high. Ah, progress...

Posted by: becky on April 15, 2008 5:50 PM