The Evolution of the Single Family Home

100 Years of Single Family Housing Design

Single-family housing has continuously evolved in the United States since the country's earliest days. Family size, social norms, the impact of modern technology and conveniences along with changing building materials have all had an influence on the type of houses available. While this is just a general overview, here is a look at how single-family housing has changed over the past 100 years.  

The Early Twentieth Century

By the beginning of the 20th Century, single-family homes in America had developed their own style. Houses in the 17th and early 18th century had tended to look a lot like European homes: one room of about 400-600 square feet.

But American had more land available and a wider range of building materials than the colonists had found in Europe. So those simple rooms were divided and expanded a bit over the years.  

The 1800s and the Victorian Era brought an explosion in the types of available single-family housing. Some larger homes of more than 2,500 square feet were being built, but the iconic urban home of that era is the narrow brownstone, with one room leading to another. Mostly constructed of more expensive materials such as brick, a large number of these homes are still being used today.  

The Early Twentieth Century

By the early 20th Century, the look of single-family housing was being impacted by technology transforming real estate. The growth of electricity meant refrigeration, central heating, and lights. All of those elements changed what a then-modern single-family home would look like.

Refrigeration meant families no longer needed large amounts of storage for preserved food and other items. Reliable heating and lighting meant less need for multiple fireplaces and that opened up the designs available to architects.  

But the biggest change was the result of the average family shifting from the role of creator to consumer. Families moved away from making their own clothes to buying them, which lessened the need for room for clothing materials and a sewing machine. All of this meant that homes could get smaller and still provide enough room for the family.  

These are the single family homes you'll find in the very inner early suburban rings around cities. Small houses of only 800 square feet or so. One bathroom, but a larger kitchen to accommodate the changes in meal preparation.  

The 1940s And The Rise Of Suburbia

A couple of factors in the post-World War II era that completely changed the look of single-family homes in the United States. Firstly, most larger cities had become crowded and less family-friendly. The rise of large suburban manufacturing plants meant that a large number of jobs were located outside of the city limits.  

But the biggest change was the return home of veterans home from World War II. The veterans were at their peak working age and were ready and eager to settle down and start a family. Even better, the Federal Government encouraged these veterans to buy a house through the new G.I. Bill. From Boston to Los Angeles, the result was an explosion of new suburban housing developments targeting these new potential homeowners.

The houses were still primarily 3 small bedrooms and a bath. But they were slightly bigger and by 1950 the average American starter family home came in at around 1,000 square feet. The average cost to buy a home was about $11,000.  

The Late Twentieth Century

A couple of demographic changes really had a strong impact on what the average single-family home looked like in the last part of the 20th Century. Home size continued to grow, from 1,200 square feet in 1960 to 1,500 in 1970 and more than 2,000 square feet in 2000.

This increase happened as the average size of a family decreased. The result was that each family member had more personal space and there was less interaction throughout the day.

Each child had their own bedroom and the parental master suite took on an almost studio apartment look with the regular addition of large closets, a full-size luxury en-suite bathroom and in many cases even a separate entrance to a private deck or the backyard.

And as the complexity of the homes increased, the role of the real estate agent increased as well as buyers and seller realized they needed help to navigate the many issues that come with a modern home.  

One trend that slowed down in the last decades of the 1900s was lot size. The average single-family home lot size peaked in 1990 at 14,680 square feet. But the lot size had shrunk by nearly 2,000 square feet by the end of the century.  

The New Century

The single-family home trends of the late 20th Century have only accelerated since the turn of the century. A study from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) shows that while home size continues to grow, lot size continues to shrink.

The average lot size for a single-family home at the turn of the century was nearly 13,000 square feet while the average home was around 2,000 square feet. By 2010, the average lot size had dropped more than 1,000 square feet while the average home increased in size to around 2,200 square feet.

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