One way to get a read on where the housing market is going is to look at what kinds of houses are being built.
Not so much what builders are putting up – those tend to be driven by what's efficient and what's profitable. But if the homeowner is the one choosing the design, what are they choosing?
Houseplans.com gets about 8 million visitors a year who browse among the home designs and, if something strikes their fancy, they can purchase the plans. CEO Jamie Roche says these days, it's both Baby Boomers and Millennials who are buying most of the plans and building homes.
Both generations are interested in energy efficiency but, for the most part, the similarity in tastes ends there. Boomers, who fueled the McMansion trend of the 1980s, still like a lot of space. Millennials tend to get by with less space.
“The Millennials are less nostaligic about the form of the house, they're looking at designs that are more loft-like and designs built around energy efficiency,” Roche told ConsumerAffairs. “There is a much more modern edge to it.”
While Boomers' version of modern tends to be cold the Millennials' version is much warmer – more wood, and instead of smooth surfaces you get more texture.
The layout of a Millennial-designed home tends to be different from the homes they grew up in.
Dump the dining room?
“We're running a poll on our site right now, asking if dining rooms are still necessary in a home design,” Roche said. “For the first time since we've been doing it, it's now running about 50-50. I think people are thinking about rooms that have to be paid for and heated but never used, and asking 'why do we need that?'”
Kitchens and family rooms in Millennial houses have gotten bigger because that's where people tend to spend their time. While these homes may be smaller, they may also incorporate features of the outdoor space, with screened or glassed-in porches and open patios.
“We've also seen a big uptick in outdoor kitchens because people seem to want to move more of their life outdoors, when they can,” Roche said.
An outdoor kitchen is usually not too far from the actual kitchen. It includes a stone or concrete countertop and wood-fired oven.
For consumers who don't want a lot of square footage that must be heated and cooled, Houseplans.com has produced designs for very small houses, in the 500 to 900 square foot range. The company even has a 160 square foot plan, putting it squarely in the realm of the “tiny house.”
When we reported on the Tiny House Movement last month, the story triggered a lot of positive comments.
“I think this is the answer for older singles and couples who want to spend their money on travel etc., instead of the huge bills larger homes incur,” a reader named Barb wrote.
Here to stay
Is the Tiny House a part of the future or a passing fad?
“I think it's going to be part of the future,” Roche said. “But I think it's always going to be a small percentage of the houses sold because it really does take a special person with a special approach to living to be able to pull it off.”
Over the last 4 decades homes in the U.S. has steadily gotten bigger. According to the Census Bureau, the average square footage rose from 1,525 in 1973 to a peak of 2,277 in 2007. Since then, it's begun to slowly fall, to 2169 in 2010.
As Millennials become a larger portion of the home market, the American home could well continue to shrink.