Friday, January 04, 2008

A McMansion In My Back Yard?

Robert Samuelson, apparently inspired by the construction of a huge house in his neighborhood, takes on the McMansion:
Down the block from my home, workmen are finishing a new house. It replaces a bungalow that had measured about 1,500 square feet. The new home has a covered front porch, two fireplaces and a finished basement. It comes in at just under 5,700 square feet. What is it with Americans and their homes?
Eugene Robinson has a passing comment in today's column, Outside the Echo Chamber, which seems germane:
We in Washington are increasingly isolated from the people in whose interest we claim to labor. The economic gap between us and most of the country is widening to a chasm. In most American cities, a $600,000 house in a leafy neighborhood would be considered an extravagance reserved for the wealthy. Here, we'd call it a bargain.
Assuming a $600,000 purchase price, the person who replaced the old bungalow with the modern "McMansion" paid probably $400,000 - $450,000 for the land under the bungalow. Samuelson, sitting in what is no doubt a very large house for the era in which it was built, should consider the economics of the redevelopment of that lot - the value of the huge house that is being built is likely commensurate with the value of the lot.

It is interesting to me that "housing lust" is only a problem if it reaches "the masses" - the "huge" house Samuelson describes is small compared to many mansions (and let's not forget castles) of the past - the difference appears to be one of prevalence and availability. If you're going to focus on our planet's limited resources, and whether this form of housing is wasteful, that's one thing. But if you're going to get moralistic and speak of "house lust", I think you should explain why it is suddenly wrong for the average (or, really, the average upper middle class) American to want the same type of self-indulgent, showy, overpriced housing that the rich have always enjoyed (even if on a smaller lot).
Worse, government subsidizes these supersize homes along with suburban sprawl and, just incidentally, global warming. In 2008, the tax deduction for mortgage interest payments will cost the federal government $89 billion. The savings go heavily to the upper-middle class and the wealthy -- the least needy people -- and encourage ever-larger homes. Even with energy-saving appliances, those homes are likely to generate more greenhouse gases than their smaller predecessors. As individuals and a society, we've overinvested in housing; we'd be better off if more of our savings went into productive investments elsewhere.
In the case of the house in Samuelson's neighborhood, the issue of "subsidy" was resolved decades ago (probably 80 or so years ago) when it went up as an upper middle class (or wealthy) suburb of Bethesda. If the home is well constructed, its heating and cooling bills may not be much different from that of neighboring houses (including Samuelson's). If it uses geothermal heating and cooling - something that I think the government should be actively encouraging and subsidizing - the cost will be substantially less - perhaps $150 per month to heat and cool an enormous house. And yes, I think it is better for a lot in an existing neighborhood to be redeveloped, than for a similar home to be built in a new subdivision. (No houses like that will be going up in my neighborhood - the lots aren't big enough, and the land's not worth enough.)

I do agree with Samuelson that indulging in an oversized house is an extravagence, and that we should be concerned about the environmental impact of new developments, as well as the cost of bringing municipal services to those developments. But those concerns are neither new nor limited to Toll Brothers-type neighborhoods. I am also of the opinion that we are not likely to suddenly put the brakes on American consumerism or a mentality of "keeping up with the Joneses", so our energies are probably better spent focusing on how to minimize the environmental footprint of our present levels of consumerism while taking a more gradual approach to the reinvention of society.

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