The average size of a new home in the U.S. hit a new record in 2013, at 241 square metres. The previous record was about 232 square metres in 2008, just before the housing market imploded.
That might sound like good news, but it actually indicates a weak housing market, according to economist Robert Dietz of the National Association of Homebuilders.
"Higher-end homebuyers, particularly older homebuyers with cash reserves necessary to meet today's down payment requirements, are in the new home market in greater proportions than first-time homebuyers who typically purchase smaller homes," Dietz wrote in an opinion piece for U.S. News & World Report. "The result of this change in market mix is, at least in the data, rising average new home size on an average basis."
Not coincidentally, in the decade from 2002 to 2012, home ownership fell most among people 35 and younger — 11 per cent, according to US Census data.
In Australia, the average home size has dipped from a high of 248 square metres in 2008 to 243.6 square metres, though it varies from state to state. New South Wales comes in atop the list at 266.2 square metres, followed by Victoria at 243 square metres, Queensland at 239.6 square metres, South Australia at 203.9 square metres, Western Australia at 234.5 square metres, and Tasmania at 200.3 square metres.
As both countries have seen home sizes and prices rising and affordability falling, much smaller homes have become surprisingly popular. Lloyd Kahn, author of Tiny Homes, Simple Shelter, set the upper limit for "tiny homes" at 500 square feet, or about 46.5 square metres.
With a price of just $20,000 to $50,000, tiny homes offer those without the money for a standard house the ability to own a home, however small. They can be built on a foundation and have all the amenities of a standard-sized house. They’re often used as accessory dwelling units, or granny flats, and are also useful for bed and breakfasts, rental units, and office space.
Possibly more popular are tiny homes built on trailers, as they let owners get around some of the building code challenges, such as minimum floor area, and the need for a building permit. Tiny homes on trailers, however, are generally not legal when parked on a residential lot, even if the homeowner also owns the lot.
Allan Cerf addressed the challenges, and outlines many of the challenges that face a tiny home on a trailer. After travelling to Portland, Oregon, which has a reputation as one of the friendlier spots for tiny homes, Cerf met with city officials and learned more about about their growing popularity.
“Portland, Oregon authorities are enthusiastic about tiny house fully plumbed, on the property of existing normal homes,” he said.
Codes specify a number of standard features that are hurdles for tiny homes on a trailer, such as minimum floor area, plumbing/water, and sanitation. If they’re viewed as a caravan or RV, those hurdles are minimized, but the unit is not allowed to park on a residential lot. That highlights what is possibly the biggest challenge for tiny home dwellers: where to put it. Without connecting to city services, tiny homes will not be welcome in many cities, especially dense, urban, and expensive cities where they might be most needed.
Some tiny homes have been welcome in RV parks and mobile home parks, but some parks prohibit home-built units. Others have found space in unincorporated and rural areas without building codes, or where enforcement is lax. A few tiny house communities in Madison, Wisconsin are now underway, and this could lead to their more general adoption and municipal acceptance.
The small town of Spur, Texas has recently adopted a city ordinance accepting tiny homes, and has declared itself “the nation’s first tiny house friendly town.” The city’s proclamation does not specify the details of the house design and construction, and the proclamation says, “Folks who want to live the 'Tiny' house life in Spur need only to build with quality, connect to city utilities and pay taxes like everybody else.”
Professional builders have raised the profile of tiny homes, and now media and social media coverage is abundant. The movement gained momentum when Jay Shafer started Tumbleweed Tiny House Company in 2000. The Northern California company designs and builds several models of tiny homes, and sells plans for people who want to build their own home. Today dozens, if not more, tiny home builders are selling their versions of a tiny dwelling all over the US. In Australia, the movement is smaller but growing.
Though details are hard to come by, the “tiny house movement” has sparked web sites, workshops, communities, professional builders, and Facebook groups. Darren Hughes founded a Tiny Houses Australia Facebook group, which now has more than 9,200 fans.
The Tiny House Blog, started by Kent Griswold in 2007, gives a clue to the popularity of the movement. His Facebook page has 148,000 fans. For many tiny home aficionados, their tiny home is not just about shelter. It's about a simpler life with fewer possessions, no mortgage, and less need for paid work.
Though the movement appears to be growing, it remains a tiny fraction of the overall housing market, and no official data tracks the niche. The Housing Industry Association (HIA) reported that 163,250 new homes were started in the 12 months to September 2013. In the US, the Census Bureau reported that 569,000 new homes were built in 2013.