By contributor

Explainer: Housing changes in the last decade

  • Image: New home for sale
    Scott Olson  /  Getty Images

    You look back 10 years, what did you get? A little bit cleaner and deeper in debt.

    With apologies to Tennessee Ernie Ford, that’s a brief synopsis of how U.S. home life has changed during the past decade, according to the latest “American Housing Survey,” released last week.

    Published every two years by the Census Bureau and Department of Housing and Urban Development, the exhaustive analysis pokes into everything from what you owe on your abode to whether you’ve seen a mouse in your house. Owners and renters are equally dissected. compared key elements in the latest survey, covering 2009, against the same variables in the 1999 edition and discovered that we’re living larger and, as a nation, collectively way cooler. But when it comes to home style, most of us remain stuck in Mike Brady’s vision of architectural beauty — the 1970s.

    A data-dredging journey through the past 10 years also finds that we’re spending extra domestic time outside and that we’re a tad more careful about protecting what’s ours. Of course, the recent mortgage crisis colors some of the numbers in bright red. Below are nine ways in which America’s housing has grown — and groaned — since 1999.

  • Amenities

    Image: Fireplace

    Which household pleasantries must we have? Toasty ambience and dry rides. Simply put, we prefer fireplaces and garages. Both are more apt to be found in or at current U.S. homes than they were a decade ago.

    As of last year garages were available for 66 percent of owners and renters, up from 59 percent a decade earlier. The survey also found an increase of three percentage points in the number of homes with fireplaces.

    “We love our fireplace,” said Danny Kofke, a homeowner in Hoschton, Ga., about an hour from Atlanta. “On fall and winter Sundays, we usually have family over ... and we have a fire while watching football.”

    Kofke, his wife, Tracy, and their two daughters also prefer to “eat on the porch as much as possible when the weather is nice.”

    That makes the Kofkes typical Americans. In 2009, 85 percent of U.S. homes boasted decks, patios, balconies or porches – up from 81 percent in 1999.

  • Danger

    Image: Tap water
    Getty Images/Onoky

    Questions about safety equipment have only been added to the survey recently, but just since the last report two years ago more of us are stocking our places with equipment to protect us from silent perils.

    In just the past two years more residents have added smoke detectors to their homes (up 1 percentage point from 2007), replaced the batteries in those detectors within the past six months (up 2 points), live with sprinkler systems (up 1) and have their interior air constantly checked by carbon monoxide detectors (up 3).

    In addition, more Americans get clean drinking water when they turn on the faucet, the survey found. In 1999, 88 percent of U.S. residents said their tap water was safe to slurp while 9 percent deemed theirs unhealthy. In 2009, 91 percent said their water supply was in good condition while 7 percent believed theirs to be hazardous.

  • Size

    Image: Upscale home
    Jeff Elson  /  AP

    My, how you’ve grown.

    In 2009, 21 percent of residences boasted four or more bedrooms, up from 17 percent of houses and apartments in 1999. Over that span, the median size for all homes climbed to 1,800 square feet from 1,730, according to the survey.

    In 2009, 51 percent of homes had two or more bathrooms versus just 42 percent a decade earlier. Does that mean we’re a tidier populace?

    Of course, the recession has caused thousands of homeowners to downsize. Consequently, our living-space growth spurt has slowed, said Stan Humphries, chief economist for the online real estate database

    He pointed to a new study by the National Association of Home Builders that showed a decline in the size of single-family homes built in 2009 – and that fewer bathrooms occupied those new homes as compared to recent years.

    “There is some evidence that people are starting to prefer smaller homes in ‘walkable’ environments,” Humphries said. “This is New Urbanism meets green consciousness.”

  • Costs

    Image: Homes in Venice, California
    David McNew  /  Getty Images

    American homeowners paid a median of $1,000 a month for their mortgage, real estate taxes, property insurance and utilities – up $419 from a decade earlier. Renters, meanwhile, paid a median of $808 for similar housing expenses in 2009 – $228 more than they shelled out in 1999.

    “House-related costs have undoubtedly risen over the past 10 years because of the increasing size of the typical American home,” Humphries said. “This trend will likely flatten or even reverse in the coming decade as the era of the ‘McMansion’ is largely over.”

  • Hot & cold

    Image: Solar panel installation
    AP file

    A majority of Americans (51 percent) stay warm with natural gas that’s piped into their homes – and that hasn’t changed in 10 years, according to the latest data. What has shifted is that fewer U.S. residents depend on fuel oil as their dominant heating source (down 3 percentage points in the past decade) while more people simply tap electricity to raise the temperature in their dwellings as compared to a decade earlier (up 3 points).

    And despite the push to go green, solar energy – the main heating source for 19,000 Americans in 1999 – was the primary way to warm the inside air for just 11,000 U.S. residents in 2009, according to the federal survey. 

    Meanwhile, when the mercury soars outside, far more Americans rely on air conditioning. In 2009, 88 percent of U.S. residences enjoyed either central air or window AC units compared to 80 percent a decade ago.

    “Yeah,” said Kofke, the Georgia homeowner, “AC is definitely a must.”

  • Aesthetics

    Image: A foreclosed home in Las Vegas
    AFP - Getty Images

    A look through the home window will show our immediate landscapes looking better. Between 1999 and 2009, there were reductions in visible vandalism near our homes (down 1 percentage point), visible bars on neighbors’ windows (down 3 points), and the accumulation of “major” amounts of street litter (down less than a point).

    “Things have indeed gotten a little prettier in the neighborhoods,” said Herman Chan, a Prudential associate broker and Realtor who works in San Francisco and Los Angeles. “Since the proliferation of real estate TV shows, terms like ‘staging’ ... and ‘curb appeal’ have infiltrated the national lexicon.”

    Inside the home, meanwhile, the sightings or tangible signs of mice and rats also declined among owners and renters – 6 percent reported the presence of pests in 2009 versus 8 percent in 1999.

  • Debt

    Image: Wells Fargo Bank
    Paul Sakuma  /  AP

    While our houses have leaped in value in the past 10 years, our debt has deepened, according to the survey.

    The median purchase price for a U.S. home in 1999 was $62,823. In 2009, it was $107,500.

    However look at our current collective mortgage load. In 1999, the median outstanding principal owed by home borrowers was $64,762 and just 0.9 percent of those owners were carrying a mortgage debt of $300,000 or higher. In 2009, the median outstanding principal was $106,909, with 6 percent of owners owing $300,000 or more on their homes.

    “It can appear rather pessimistic for anyone who wants to own a piece of the American Dream,” Chan said. “The numbers are gloomy when you consider wages, and inflation didn’t exactly follow in the steps of the median purchase price.

    “(But) now that ... the standards to lend money are higher, the market is trying to correct itself. It’s finding its way,” Chan said.

  • Age

    Image: Potential buyers for home
    Spencer Platt  /  Getty Images

    Our residences are getting older — yet we’re losing many of our classic houses. In 1999, the median year for a U.S. home’s construction was 1969 — meaning the typical residence was 30 years old. For owner-occupied houses, the median age was 29 years old. In 2009, the median year for a U.S. home’s construction was 1974 (meaning the median age was 35 years old); for owner-occupied houses, the median age was 34 years old.

    Architecturally, we seem to be generally locked into a Brady Bunch-esque style: In both 1999 and 2009, the most common decade for most U.S. homes to be built was the 1970s — when Formica kitchens and shag carpets were king. 

    Meanwhile, our most vintage homes are slowly vanishing. In 1999, 7.6 percent of all owner-occupied homes were built in 1919 or earlier. In 2009, just 6.2 percent of owner-occupied homes were constructed in that era.

  • Empty space

    Image: Home for sale, price reduced
    Paul Sakuma  /  AP

    It’s getting lonelier in the neighborhood.

    In 1999, 254,000 for-sale homes sat vacant for two to six months. In 2009: 418,000 for-sale homes remained vacant for that span. In 1999, 61,000 for-sale homes had been vacant for between one and two years. In 2009, the figure was 328,000 homes. In 1999, 113,000 for-sale homes had remained vacant for two years or more. Nearly three times as many homes (302,000) fit that category in 2009.

    “I am pleasantly surprised by those numbers,” said Chan, the California Realtor. “Considering that 1999 was the peak of dot-com fever and 2009 was the worst recession since the Great Depression, I would have thought the contrast would have been more.

    “If the government had not bailed out the banks, the vacancy rates would be lower because the banks, in that case, would have been forced to sell more (foreclosed properties), which in turn would be occupied quickly by happy new owners,” he said.


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