Opinion: Size Matters – Why Don’t They Build Small Houses Anymore?

Opinion: Size Matters – Why Don’t They Build Small Houses Anymore? hero image
In the first of his columns for REW.ca, Vancouver housing commentator Michael Geller examines how increasing home sizes are damaging affordability

I grew up in a small house in North Toronto with an eating area in the kitchen, a combined living/dining room, three bedrooms and bathroom, all in 864 square feet.

This house was not unique. Rather, it was typical of most post-war bungalows built across Canada under the federal government’s National Housing Act programs.

Compare this with today’s “starter home.” It is expected to have a double-volume entry, two and a half bathrooms, a family room off the kitchen, and a two-car garage. Oh yes, and granite countertops.

According to CMHC, the average size of a Canadian house in 1945 was just over 800 square feet; in 1975 it was 1,075 square feet; and by 2000 it was 2,266 square feet. During the same period, the average household size decreased.

Whenever I am asked why developers do not build smaller houses today, I think about my first trip to Mexico. It has nothing to do with the accommodation, but rather the price of tequila in the liquor store.

On the first shelf were 250ml bottles selling for $3. The next shelf had 500ml bottles that sold for $5. On the next shelf were litre bottles priced at $8 and on the top shelf were 1.5-litre bottles selling for $10. While I did not need a 1.5-litre bottle, I could not resist such a great deal.

When developers and house builders buy land, the zoning generally sets out the maximum size of house that can be built upon it. While there is no obligation to build to the maximum permitted, builders usually do for a number of reasons.

Firstly, many of the municipal charges for things such as sewer and water connections are fixed, regardless of the size of the house. Development Cost Levies charged by the municipality for services and community amenities are also generally established on a per lot basis, regardless of house size. Therefore, the larger the house, the lower the costs on a square-foot basis.

The same holds true for construction costs. The most expensive components of a house are the kitchen, plumbing and electrical services, bathrooms, foundation, roof, and windows. Floors, interior walls and ceilings are relatively inexpensive. As a result larger houses generally cost less per square foot than smaller houses; not unlike the bottles of tequila.

The sad irony is that many homebuyers cannot afford, nor do they need, these larger homes.

Fortunately, the trend for larger homes is changing. According to CMHC, house sizes are now shrinking with the average new Canadian home just under 2,000 square feet. However, this is still more than twice the size of the house I grew up in and more than many can afford or need.

There is one exception. The laneway houses popping up around Vancouver and other municipalities are sometimes half the size of our family house. However, this is another story for another day.

There is no doubt there is pent-up demand for smaller detached houses to improve affordability, conserve resources, and allow many homebuyers to live a simpler life.

However, to increase the supply of smaller homes it will be necessary for municipalities to change many of their long established regulations. New subdivisions should be permitted to have lots as small as 30 feet by 80 feet, similar to those found in Toronto and California. Many existing lots should be allowed to be subdivided in half or permitted to have a second house.

Municipal fee schedules should be revised so that charges are calculated on the size of the house rather than per lot basis. This way, builders will not feel penalized for building smaller houses.

House designers also need to learn how to make better use of space. They could take lessons from the interior layouts of boats, recreation vehicles and mobile homes which rarely waste space.

Finally, consumers need to change their expectations. A starter home need not have a two-car garage – there’s nothing wrong with a gravel driveway. Similarly, it is possible to enjoy a comfortable existence without frameless glass showers and granite countertops. Just ask anyone who grew up in those small post-war bungalows.


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