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Die, die, monster home! Die!
Homes are bigger than ever. Now there's a backlash against the 'mansionization' of America.
August 18, 2005: 4:08 PM EDT
By Les Christie, CNN/Money staff writer
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The American home is getting bigger. And fatter. And, to some, uglier. Now, towns are fighting back.

Chevy Chase, Md., an upscale suburb of Washington, recently announced a six-month moratorium on home construction to make time to examine how to deal with the proliferation of oversized single-family houses.

Call them what you will -- starter castles, McMansions, monster homes -- these houses have become increasingly visible in metropolitan landscapes. Many residents hate them.

Todd Hoffman, town manager, said that more than 500 Chevy Chasers, a significant number in a community of just over 1,000 homes, signed a petition expressing their "concern about the effects of 'mansionization.'"

Folks in Chevy Chase aren't alone.

New York city councilman Tony Avella from Bayside in Queens, led a rezoning effort last April that combats the trend. He said, "Overdevelopment is the No. 1 issue in my district. It comes up more than education or police protection."

The Los Angeles city council recently passed an ordinance that limits home size in the Sunlund-Tujunga area.

New Canaan, Conn., enacted regulations this year that limit the height of new houses. Nearby Greenwich and Westport have similar rules under consideration.

Other opposition has surfaced in Boston, the Chicago suburbs and the Bay Area in California.

What's the big deal?

Are these new homes really so gargantuan that they should attract such fear and loathing?

Back in 1950, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), the average new house clocked in at 963 square feet. By 1970, that figure had swollen to 1,500 square feet.

Today's average: 2,400 square feet. One in five are more than 3,000 square feet.

Oddly, as houses expanded, the number of household members shrank, from 3.1 people in 1971 to 2.6 people today. The average building-lot size contracted also, to about 8,000 square feet from 9,000 in the 1980s.

So you're getting bigger houses on smaller lots with fewer people living in them.

Fueling the size craze is a long wish list of home features Americans desire. Some 87 percent prefer three or more bedrooms with 44 percent wanting at least four, according to the NAHB.

About 85 percent of Americans want walk-in pantries. Seventy-seven percent desire separate shower stalls, 95 percent want laundry rooms and 64 percent home offices. More than a third crave media rooms. Then there are exercise rooms, sun rooms, and dens.

No wonder new homes have grown.

Where are they a problem?

It's not necessarily the size that matters -- location is a big part of it. Few people oppose McMansions in new suburbs with uniformly large homes, or to single monsters set apart on ample acreage. What raises hackles is Gulliver-sized homes on lilliputian lots.

Many older, closed-in suburbs that are in demand for their easy commutes are already built out. Builders put in large homes on whatever shoebox-sized lots remain or knock down smaller houses and replace them with palaces. They fill in nearly to the lot line and build as high as regulations allow, dwarfing neighboring homes.

Many of Avella's constituents tell him if the issue is not addressed, they'll move. It's not just the traffic and overcrowding that bother them, it's the inappropriate and out-of-character nature of the monster homes as well.

In at least one case, according to Avella, someone supersized half of a semi-attached house, changing the once mirror-image building to an asymmetrical nightmare.

Is it always inappropriate?

According to Wendy Gruel, the L.A. City Councilwoman who introduced the ordinance in Sunland-Tujunga, most of the time the issue is not about aesthetics. "People feel they impact on the quality of life. They change the character of the town."

People don't like neighbors peering directly into their backyard and even their bedroom. They hate losing light. All of a sudden you have this huge shadow on your house and yard.

In many older communities, such as Chevy Chase, residents want to "maintain the look and feel of the town," said Hoffman.

There are also practical considerations. Chevy Chase has mature trees and lots of greenery. "Some of that is lost as a result of very large homes being built," said Hoffman. "With the tree loss and with more impermeable surfaces, there's greater storm runoff," which can contribute to flooding. Tree loss also makes streetscapes hotter in the summer.

Few think monster home bans should apply everywhere.

Gruel said a Council colleague told her that every community in her district wants an ordinance to combat mansionization, but in some cases, it's just not right. Most lots in Gruel's district are under 8,000 square feet. Neighborhoods with bigger lots don't need to regulate the home size as much because the monster homes have less effect on neighbors.

Michael Davidson of the American Planning Association said, "Every community is different. Higher density can sometimes serve a neighborhood." Packing more homes on smaller amounts of land can free other acreage for recreation. And mass transit, a darling of urbanists, works most efficiently when there's a large population living along its corridor.

Communities have to address the issue case by case.

"Nobody is against development," said Avella, "but let it be appropriate, let it fit in with the character of the area, and let it be an asset, not a detriment."

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Have rising gas prices forced you to take steps to save on gas or to cut back elsewhere in your budget? Have they taken a toll in other ways say, long lines when filling up? We'd like to hear your story for an upcoming feature. E-mail us at gasprices@cnn.com.

For young parents, bigger can be better. For that story, click here.

Some Americans live, quite literally, in castles. Click here for more.  Top of page

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