A lot of us would welcome a little more space at home, all else being equal. That’s partly why Americans spent $30 billion on room additions and exterior add-ons like decks, porches, and garages in 2017, according to the Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. But when does a big home become too big — and risk overwhelming buyers?
We know what’s not too big to sell: Nationally, 91 percent of new homes built in 2018 were less than 4,000 square feet, with a median size of 2,386 square feet according to the Census Bureau’s Survey of Construction. That’s about 50 percent larger than the typical 1,595-square-foot house built back in 1980, but new homes have been trending slightly smaller since hitting a peak of 2,467 in 2015.
And according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data — which includes all occupied homes, not just newly built ones — only 4.3 percent of Massachusetts properties have five or more bedrooms. So it’s fair to say that a five-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot house could be considered very, very big by most standards. “Generally speaking, there is a movement toward smaller, more efficient, comfortable, and intimate spaces,” said Peace Nguyen, an agent with Engels & Völkers in Wellesley. But while most people don’t want — or, perhaps just as likely, can’t afford — a home that size or larger, there’s still plenty of appetite for big homes, she added, especially among the well-heeled.
Doug McNeilly, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Wayland, said the tipping point in his area is about 4,500 square feet. His buyers like big homes with four or five bedrooms, an open-concept kitchen and family room, and a three-car garage, he said — but once those boxes are ticked, most start to think about trading any excess space for better proximity to work and shopping. “Many buyers want a master with a large walk-in and decent size master bath,” McNeilly added. “[But] they don’t need a 1,000-square-foot master suite.”
“What we’re finding is a lot of people are looking for amenities, but not so much the square footage,” said Karen Landry, a luxury broker at RE/Max Destiny in Cambridge. “Because they’re not just buying one home anymore, they’re buying that second vacation home.” Millennial millionaires — 5 percent of whom live in Massachusetts — own an average of three properties, according to a recent Coldwell Banker report, and Landry said they want homes that are easy to maintain and manage.
Matt Dolan, a broker with Sagan Harborside Sotheby’s International Realty in Marblehead, has seen a similar trend, with high-end second-home buyers topping out around 5,000 or 6,000 square feet. “A lot of times people are saying, you know what, any more than that, I’m not going to be there enough to really do anything with it,” he said. “And one thing we are seeing as we get younger buyers more in the millennial bracket, they tend to want to do less and less work.”
It can be tough to find the right buyer and balance for a large home, Landry said. Some buyers want to entertain and enjoy a sophisticated lifestyle, she said, but don’t want to be burdened by a lot of upkeep or landscaping. “And then you have the others who say, "If I have a house this big, I want everything else that comes with it: I want the yard, the pool, the tennis court.' ”
Far more important than sheer size, Dolan said, is whether the space complements the intended lifestyle of the home. “It really matters how that space is used. That’s the key,” he said. In Salem, for example, there are beautiful old mansions with grand parlors on the first floor and bedrooms on the second floor. But on the third floor, Dolan said: “You’ve just got more rooms and rooms and rooms. And that originally would have been where the staff would stay, but now people don’t have staff like that — they have apps and dishwashers.” It can be a challenge for modern homeowners to utilize that space in a useful way.
Likewise, Dolan recalled an expansive $6 million-plus home with three bedrooms on the first floor and two more in the basement. “What do you do if you’re a family of four? This amazing giant home isn’t going to work that well,” he said. “You have 6,000 square feet, but it’s in the wrong spots.”
Dolan’s also seen car collectors who would trade interior square footage for a bigger garage. “Sometimes you have 6,000 square feet but a two-car garage. Well, they’d give up 1,000 square feet if they could for a six-car garage, because otherwise they don’t have a place for their collection,” he said. “So it’s all about does that space match the lifestyle.”
After all, isn’t that the point of a huge home: a more comfortable setting for a happier life? Maybe not entirely. A 2019 research paper explains that even as the average American house has grown larger, we’re collectively no happier with our properties than we were 40 years ago — and it’s largely due to envy.
“At any point in time, households living in bigger houses tend to be more satisfied with their home,” wrote the study’s author, Clément Bellet, an assistant professor at Erasmus University in the Netherlands. However, they start to feel worse about their own house if nearby homes get bigger. The effect is so pronounced among those whose homes are in the second-largest tier, Bellet estimated, that it can trigger something of a suburban arms race, spurring homeowners to build additions and take on debt to reclaim their status.
Size is just one way buyers might quantify a home’s value, however. For many wealthy buyers, Dolan said, it’s more about making sure a home speaks to their success. “Their real estate is part of how they describe themselves to the world. so when they step up, they want to be able to make sure that people recognize the step up,” he said. “So it has to have certain features, like a grand entryway or a view — it has to have that ‘wow’ factor.”
And just as a picture says a thousand words, a spectacular view is sometimes the best way to communicate grandeur. “You can have a fabulous master bath, but it’s going to be out of style in 10 years," he said. "A view is timeless, and when people come up to a truly breathtaking view, they won’t even notice your kitchen cabinets. They’re entranced.”
Another reason some wealthy buyers are cautious with oversized homes is financial prudence, Dolan said. The top end of the real estate market naturally has a smaller buyer pool, and Boston-area luxury properties took an extra 41 days to sell, on average, according to fourth-quarter 2019 data from national brokerage Redfin. “There’s not a lot of liquidity in that market,” he said, so some homeowners with huge homes consider cashing out into something smaller.
If a homeowner is selling a Colonial in a good neighborhood, and they’ve made smart choices with their renovations over the years and stage it to have that Pottery Barn antique look, Dolan said, the home will probably sell very quickly. But once you get north of $2 million, he said, the market is less predictable, and the perfect house is in the eye of the beholder. “One person may value something, and the next person may not like it at all,” Dolan said. “So what that leads to at the high end is sometimes homes sell immediately, or they take forever.”
David Brookes, principal at Brookes + Hill Custom Builders in Waltham, notes that his wealthy clients know exactly what they want. He’s built homes up to 20,000 square feet with high-end craftsmanship — and sometimes lavish touches, like real gold-leaf molding. But as a custom builder, Brookes has to please only one client and doesn’t have to worry about marketing the home to a broader market. “I would be really nervous if I was doing that,” he said.
Size can become a liability, too, when a home is starting to feel outdated — because there’s just so much more that needs updating. McNeilly said there was such a glut of large 1990s houses on the market in Sudbury in the middle of last year that, at one point, there was 72 months of inventory in the $1.25 million to $1.49 million range. “Anything over six months is generally considered a buyer’s market,” he noted.
The seasonal winter slowdown brought those inventory levels back down to normal, McNeilly said. But the same thing could happen again this summer, he added, because a lot of those houses are starting to show their age — and the prospect of updating something that size can overwhelm buyers. “A 6,000-plus-square-foot house built in the late 1990s with minimal or older updates might need a new kitchen, updates to all four and a half baths, new flooring, and interior paint,” he said. “That can easily top $250,000.”
The fact is, the bigger and more expensive a house is, the farther it is from the norm. That might make it more enjoyable to own — but as an outlier, it can also be inherently more difficult to sell. “Higher-end, older, dated, and more unique homes take longer to sell, in general,” Nguyen said. “It is possible to find that one buyer who falls in love, but there are fewer of them.”