Monster Homes

Florida houses are getting bigger and bigger - and it's not just the owners who are paying for them

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In South Tampa, new $600,000-plus homes dwarf older ones by a magnitude of three or four times. In suburban Hillsborough, Pasco, Manatee and Sarasota counties, 5,000-square-foot homes in new subdivisions are fast becoming the norm and not just luxury models tucked away in expensive enclaves. Along our beaches, newer homes - with foundations a dozen feet or so higher than the houses they replaced because of federal flood zone rules - tower over simpler beach homes built in the 1950s and 1960s.

Welcome to the age of the monster home.

Whether you call them by the pejorative moniker McMansions or more whimsical names such as Faux Chateaux or Starter Castles, super-sized houses are here - soon to be followed by negative impacts, according to conservationists.

In its March/April issue, Mother Jones magazine culled various sources including census data and industry reports to catalogue the effects of American homes' increasing size. The resulting illustration, featured below with the magazine's permission, seriously suggests that bigger isn't always better.

To some observers, the expanding size of U.S. homes is a sign that more people are living the good life - or at least are hocking themselves up to their eyeballs trying. Who's to say these homes aren't the American Dream made manifest? More people want larger homes, according to real estate surveys.

But environmentalists and smart-growth proponents say McMansions lead to dire implications. The natural resources needed to maintain larger houses and the traffic created by McMansion sprawl should have everyone concerned, from millionaires to paupers, they say.

"We Americans tend to be very wasteful in terms of our space," said Lynn McGarvey, a conservationist with the Tampa Bay chapter of the Sierra Club. "Unfortunately, that's really at odds with the all-of-a-sudden lack of land to develop and any sense of sustainability. That's one of the big problems, using up land that we could use for affordable housing that we really need."

In Hillsborough County alone in 2004, more than 2,300 homes were built that featured more than 5,000 square feet of living space. The largest was a 28,295-square-foot home in Avila built for a gold bullion and coin dealer.

And it's not just those giant luxury homes that are getting bigger.

Throughout West Central Florida, there has been a steady inflation in the size of new homes. In Hillsborough, the average size of a new single-family house has grown 79 percent since 1960, to 2,331 square feet. In Pinellas, the average new home is 2,490 square feet, almost double what it was four decades ago. Pasco County's average new homes are 73 percent bigger over that same period. And in Manatee County, homes have bulked up by 21 percent in the past 10 years alone.

The bottom line: Just as we're using up available properties in our coastal counties, we're making houses bigger and bigger so that fewer fit into those remaining lands.

It is a national problem, not just Florida's, experts say.

"It's a real burden to the community," says Tim Frank, a San Francisco Bay-based senior adviser to the Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl Campaign.

Unfortunately in Florida, conservationists say there's not much research that has been done to track the growth of monster houses and their ramifications.

"I don't know if there is anybody who is watching that," said Charles Pattison, executive director of the 1000 Friends of Florida conservation group. "Clearly it has an impact on the urban form, and it tends to displace more reasonably priced housing.

"McMansion" is a loosely defined term that entered the lexicon only in the last decade or so. According to Word Spy, a website devoted to sleuthing new words and phrases, the word has evolved from meaning "a large cookie-cutter house" to "a large opulent house, especially a new house that has a size and style that doesn't fit in with the surrounding houses." To some, it's simply a huge house, usually of at least 5,000 square feet, while to others it implies a certain low construction standard. To those who bristle at the word's connotations, McMansion brings to mind an anti-suburban elitist who is possibly some sort of socialist at heart.

"The term McMansion is nothing more than a spite name, or a sour grapes name, for people who don't like to see homes bigger than theirs or are jealous or don't want to see the neighborhood change at all," said Joseph Narkiewicz, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association.

Narkiewicz confirmed that the market has been pushing builders toward larger houses. "The larger homes in our area range from 4,000 to 6,000 square feet as a standard larger home," he said. It is consumer preference: "They're given the choice of a larger lot or a larger home, and they almost invariably choose the larger home."

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