The Geography of Home Size and Occupancy

A new research paper from NAHB Economics examines the geography of the relationship between home size and the number of people residing in a given home. 

It is well-known that home sizes, on average, increase as one moves from the central city to the suburbs. As a result, a stereotype exists of that people living in larger homes in the suburbs are consuming more housing space than their central city peers. However, as a matter of fairness this argument overlooks the number of people who actually reside in these homes.

Using data from the Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey, Natalia Siniavskaia and I estimated median home sizes, as well as per person home size, for a number of location types. These results are reported below in Chart 3 from the paper.

The locations types we use are: central cities of a metropolitan statistical area (MSA), urban areas inside the MSA but not in the central city, rural areas in the MSA, and areas outside of MSAs. While not precise, in general, urban non-central city areas of MSAs line up with “inner suburbs” and rural areas within MSAs coincide with “exurbs,” with areas outside of MSAs representing small towns and rural areas.

We find that the average sizes of owner-occupied homes for our locations match conventional wisdom: homes are smallest in central cities (1,678 square feet as a median) and largest in exurban areas (1,900 square feet).

However, when accounting for the number of people who reside in these homes, the median sizes of homes on a per person basis are remarkably similar. The median square footage per person for central cities is 767 square feet, which is only slightly smaller for the median per person home size (800 square feet) we estimate for all other locations.

In other words, suburban homes are larger because they contain more people. And the primary reason these households are larger is the presence of children, as seen in Table 1. The share of households with children is highest (at 37%) for inner suburbs and similarly elevated for exurban locations (at 36%). This results in the average number of people per housing unit being somewhat higher in these locations, offsetting the difference in the size of the homes.

In the paper, we also examine regional differences in home size and occupancy. As the following map illustrates, homes sizes (on a total and per capita basis) are somewhat smaller in the Northeast and larger in the South, which in part corresponds with the age of the housing stock, with older homes in the Northeast, particularly in large metropolitan areas, being smaller.



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