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Saturday, September 10, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Home sizes on the rise, while yards are shrinking

Special to The Seattle Times

During a leave from serving in Iraq, Army National Guardsman Chris Casper and his wife found their dream home.

At 2,900 square feet, the Craftsman-style home has four bedrooms and a bonus room used as a playroom for the couple's two children. The house, in the Stonefield development near Kentwood High School in Covington, is perfect for his family.

"You still feel like you're out in the country, but if you go to the left, you have downtown Covington," said Casper, who returned home from Iraq in March. "If you go to the right, you have the high school and farmland."

The fact that the house has a postage-stamp-size yard — the lot is 5,000 square feet — suits Casper just fine.

"That's actually attractive, because I'm gone a lot," Casper said. "Not having to take care of the yard is a plus."

In the past 25 years, the size of homes nationwide has been on the rise, while the size of lots has been shrinking. According to the U.S. Census, the median size of new single-family homes increased almost 29 percent from 1978 to 2003, but median lot size shrank 13 percent. The census does not track this information at the city or county level. Census statistics show that regionally, lots in the West have been the smallest in the country every year since 1992, the first year regional numbers were available.

Local builders and others in the residential-construction industry say declining lot size, in particular, is true for the Puget Sound region. Developers say they're building homes on 4,500- to 5,500-square-foot lots, but older figures were unavailable for comparison.

"The most significant change we've seen is that the lot size is shrinking over time," says Michael Feuerborn, owner and president of Auburn-based DreamCraft Homes. "They're getting pretty much the same house we built 10, 15 years ago, but it's on a smaller lot."

Dan French, general manager and co-owner of Kirkland-based Austin Royce Design/Build, agrees.

"In the last five years, I don't think there's been so much increase in size [of homes] as there has been shrinkage in land," French said.

DreamCraft builds about 200 homes a year, mostly in South King County. It is building an 80-home development in Renton where the houses range from 1,719 square feet to 2,480 square feet and the lot sizes range from about 3,000 to 5,000 square feet.

"They have a back yard," Feuerborn said. "They have a side yard, a front yard and a garage. It's still a very attractive piece of the American dream."

The shrinkage trend can be attributed to some reasons specific to Washington state and some that are prevalent throughout the country.

"We have some unique circumstances in Washington state," says Tim Attebery, a lobbyist for Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. "Land supply is constricted because we're squished between the water and the mountains."

Growth management

Attebery, along with many others involved in the homebuilding industry, point to the statewide Growth Management Act, enacted in 1990, as the impetus of the trend toward smaller lots.

The act required most counties to develop growth plans that identified specific areas for high growth and areas where growth would be restricted. With limited areas for development, builders started to decrease lot size. At the same time, land value increased.

Sean Johnsrud, sales and marketing manager for Stonefield developer Cambria Homes, says most of the lots in the development are 4,500 square feet, and most of the homes range from 2,112 to 3,512 square feet. About 10 feet separates most homes from those next door.

Johnsrud says lot size of the houses Cambria builds is based on zoning rules of a community, and those rules typically were based on the Growth Management Act. In the Puget Sound area, this often translates into densely populated neighborhoods and preserved open space.

Changes in the way people use technology and their free time also have shaped the size of homes and yards.

"Years ago, there was no such thing as a media room," said Paul Glosniak, president of Bellevue-based Bennett Homes, which builds about 300 homes a year. "Now we have relatively inexpensive large-screen TVs and surround-sound systems, and people want spaces to put those in."

With the influence of the Internet, e-mail, fax machines and high-speed Internet access, more people are telecommuting and want home offices. Glosniak sometimes builds his-and-her offices.

Lifestyle changes have made yard space less important than it once was.

"A smaller lot means ease of maintenance," Glosniak said. "With everyone being so busy and with two people in a household working in order to afford the home, people are not wanting to do a lot of yard work, so people are accepting smaller lots as a convenience."

Colleen Graham, who lives next to Chris Casper in the Stonefield development, says that when she was in the market to buy a home, the size of the living space topped the list of priorities.

Tight squeeze

Graham's family — five children and two adults — lives in a five-bedroom 3,400-square-foot home on a 5,000-square-foot lot. And what about her small yard?

"It's not that important," Graham says. "It means less maintenance."

Because of the Growth Management Act, many counties require large developments to include playgrounds. Stonefield has two areas with playsets and space to play ball.

Market factors, such as low interest rates and the seemingly endless rise in land and house prices are also important factors when it comes to home sizes.

"With land prices being what they are, in order to optimize the value of the property, you have to put as large as a house as possible on that property," says Pam Hughes, who owns Issaquah-based Hughes Building with her husband, Brian Hughes.

The company typically builds five to seven homes a year. It specializes in high-end homes as large as 10,000 square feet. Pam Hughes says many of the rooms in these large homes are dedicated to hobbies.

The construction of megahomes is linked to the ability to spend.

French, of Austin Royce Design/Build, says the economic boom of the late 1990s was the heyday for supersized homes.

"There are still exceptions," French said. "Once in a while, we'll build an 8,000- or 9,000-square-foot house, but not often anymore. Why? I think enough is enough."

Gopal Ahluwalia, staff vice president for research for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Home Builders, says larger homes have proved to be a good investment.

If the trend continues, people will keep demanding as much home on each lot as possible, Ahluwalia says.

Homes vs. lots
Median homes have grown nearly 29 percent in the U.S. since 1978, while lots have shrunk 13 percent.
Year Home sq. ft. Lot sq. ft.
1978 1,650 9,790
1983 1,580 8,375
1988 1,800 9,225
1993 1,900 9,680
1998 2,000 8,992
2003 2,125 8,666
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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