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Feast on a Cheap McMansion While You Can

They go by such names as garage mahals, hummer houses and starter castles and soon you may add another -- dinosaur mausoleums. And while they've been widely disparaged, McMansions are among the best bargains in many housing markets now.

These big, boxy homes often slapped up on treeless farmland came to epitomize the worst of the housing boom. Whether built in Florida, Minnesota or California's Central Valley, they were largely all slight variations on the same theme -- 3,000+ square feet and multiple garages that consumed much of their lot and left only a small yard.

These testaments to market excess now look like they'll be a casualty of the bust. As a story in the Wall Street Journal today points out, home builders are sharply cutting back the square footage of new single-family houses now being built. They're also scaling back on luxury features like multiple master suites and walk-in closets with cherry cabinets that had made their way down into McMansion offerings.

If you'd like to buy a lot of house for the money, a McMansion can be a great deal right now. They account for a growing number of foreclosed homes, due to job losses and resetting mortgages among middle-class buyers who overreached in purchasing them. There's a glut in both the used and the new-home market, where extensive inventory built before and as the bubble burst has yet to be sold off.

If you're house-shopping and might consider a McMansion:

  • Look at the price-per-square-foot of each listing -- the asking price divided by the home's total square footage -- and use that dollar figure to find the best deals if roominess is a key desire. That number isn't as valuable a tool when shopping for older homes, since they may need extensive repair and remodeling.
  • Look for homes with the largest lots in your price range. There's only so much you can do to improve the look of these cookie-cutter houses on steroids and distinguish one from another. But the bigger the parcel, the more opportunity to do extensive landscaping that gives the property its own character once all those immature trees grow in.
Shop in subdivisions where foreclosures and short sales represent less than 20 percent of the homes on the market. Otherwise, many distressed properties could land with investors who fail to pay for the extensive maintenance needed on a 3,500-square-foot house.