Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Housing Is Getting Less Affordable. Governments Are Making It Worse.

Posted by M. C. on October 21, 2022

As The Washington Post reported in 2019, various government regulations and fees, such as “impact fees,” which are the same regardless of the size of the unit, “incentivize developers to build big.” The Post continues, “if zoning allows no more than two units per acre, the incentive will be to build the biggest, most expensive units possible.”

The average square footage in new single-family houses has been declining since 2015. House sizes tend to fall just during recessionary periods. It happened from 2008 to 2009, from 2001 to 2002, and from 1990 to 1991.

But even with strong economic-growth numbers well into 2019, it looks like demand for houses of historically large size may have finally peaked even before the 2020 recession and our current economic malaise.  (Square footage in new multifamily construction has also increased.)

According to Census Bureau data, the average size of new houses in 2021 was 2,480 square feet. That’s down 7 percent from the 2015 peak of 2,687.

[Read More: “Americans Have Much More Living Space than Europeans” by Ryan McMaken]

2015’s average, by the way, was an all-time high and represented decades of near-relentless growth in house sizes in the United States since the Second World War. Indeed, in the 48 years from 1973 to 2015, the average size of new houses increased by 62 percent from 1,660 to 2,687 square feet. At the same time, the quality of housing also increased substantially in everything from insulation, to roofing materials, to windows, and to the size and availability of garages. 


Source: Department of Labor, US Census Bureau, HUD.1

Meanwhile, the size of American households during this period decreased 16 percent from 3.01 to 2.51 people.


Source: US Census Bureau

Yet, even with that 7 percent decline in house size since 2015, the average new home in America as of 2021 was still well over 50 percent larger than they were in the 1960s. Home size isn’t exactly falling off a cliff. US homes, on a square-foot-per-person basis, remain quite large by historical standards. Since 1973, square footage per person in new houses has nearly doubled, rising from 503 square feet per person in 1973 to 988 square feet person in 2021. By this measure, new house size actually increased from 2020 to 2021. 


Source: US Census Bureau

This continued drive upward in new home size can be attributed in part to the persistence of easy money over the past decade. Even as homes continued to stay big—and thus stay comparatively expensive—it was not difficult to find buyers for them. Continually falling mortgage rates to historical lows below even 3 percent in many cases meant buyers could simply borrow more money to buy big houses. 

But we may have finally hit the wall on home size. In recent months we’re finally starting to see evidence of falling home sales and falling home prices. It’s only now, with mortgage rates surging, inflation soaring, and real wages falling—and thus home price affordability falling—that there are now good reasons for builders to think “wow, maybe we need to build some smaller, less costly homes.”  There are many reasons to think that they won’t, and that for-purchase homes will simply become less affordable. But it’s not the fault of the builders.

This wouldn’t be a problem in a mostly-free market in which builders could easily adjust their products to meet the market where it’s at. In a flexible and generally free market, builders would flock to build homes at a price level at which a large segment of the population could afford to buy those houses.  But that’s not the sort of economy we live in. Rather, real estate and housing development are highly regulated industries at both the federal level and at the local level. Thanks to this, it is becoming more and more difficult for builders to build smaller houses at a time when millions of potential first-time home buyers would gladly snatch them up. 

How Government Policy Led to a Codification of Larger, More Expensive Houses

See the rest here

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