Watch CBSN Live

Living Large

This story originally aired on Nov. 27, 2005.

The Joneses, that mythic family America vainly tries to keep up with, are setting an impossible standard. It's not just their fancy vacations and designer clothes, their swimming pools and their growling SUV's. It's the house.

The size of the average new house in this country has grown almost 50 percent in the last 30 years, while the average family has shrunk.

As correspondent Morley Safer reported last fall, houses are growing from sea to shining sea, like some alien weed.

Across the country, thousands of perfectly sound and cozy houses are being torn down. The empty lots then get filled up with huge houses.

The Maryland town of Chevy Chase has become divided over size.

Pat Rich has seen eight teardowns on her street, including the house next door. She has a nickname for one the homes in her neighborhood: Wal-Mart.

"I just don't know why people need that much space because it's not as though everybody has a lot of children. Coming in here are two people," says Rich.

The Riches have been offered $1 million for the house they paid $19,500 for in 1960.

One builder, Rich remembers, offered a sob story about wanting to buy a nice little house for his ailing mother "so he could be close to her. I think she'd last about a month and the house would come down."

Chevy Chase finally decided to put a temporary moratorium on all teardowns.

Greg Bitz is not happy about the moratorium. "I bought a house in a country, in a county and in a town that believed in freedom, not in a town that wants to legislate taste, to rule what, where, when and how people can do things to their homes that they have invested, in some cases their life savings," says Bitz.

He paid $726,000 for a house he wanted to tear down, but Mr. Bitz has been blitzed.

The house he bought was about 1,100 square feet. The house he planned to put in its place would be a bit more than 3,000 square feet.

What does Bitz think causes this resistance to larger houses? "I think one of the factors is jealousy, or the haves and have-nots. You have, you know, people that already live in homes that they're comfortable in. Perhaps they can't afford to remodel."

What about the notion that people can do with their land what they want? Pat Rich somewhat agrees. She says, "to a point, except, you're really changing the whole atmosphere of the town."

A few blocks away, Keith Blizzard has seen seven of 11 houses on his block succumb to the wrecking ball. One was replaced by a home he calls the "Battleship Galactica."

"It goes back twice as far as the newer house on the right," says Blizzard, "completed less than a year ago. So, they just get bigger and bigger every year."

Those Joneses are everywhere, in old communities and new developments, building Galacticas or McMansions or starter castles.

Whatever you want to call them, Bob Toll, whose company builds more than 8,000 houses a year, calls them money in the bank.

The "Hampton" is Toll's best selling model. How does it compare in square footage with his best selling model of five or six years ago? "Well, five or six years ago the best selling model had about 3,200 feet in it," Toll says. "And the standard model of this has, I believe, about 4,600 feet."

Fueling this market for larger homes, Toll says, is the fact that the number of families with an income above $100,000 a year has grown six times faster than the overall U.S. population.

A family of 3.6 people is a typical customer for the Hampton model, which has five bedrooms, five bathrooms, kitchen, a dining room, living room, family room, study, conservatory and a nameless room, simply called a bonus.

Paul Knox, the dean of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech, sums up the endless tracts of overweight houses as a new national suburb he calls "Vulgaria."

Of course, vulgar is in the eye of the beholder.

"Exactly," says Knox. "My use of the term has to do with the ensemble. I dare say that this is a landscape not of homes but of funeral homes. They're on that scale."

Of course, vast ornate houses are nothing new in America, or anywhere else. Rich families like the Vanderbilts brought ostentation to a new level, and the Hearst Castle, San Simeon, left little doubt about who was in charge.

But it's the sheer magnitude of the demand for ever-larger living space that is changing the face of America. In Texas, big has always been beautiful. But just outside Houston, Robin Beisswanger finds her new, rather "modest" 6,800 square footer just about right for her, her husband and son, the ever-present dog Coco, and her cat.

Beisswanger says the theme for the house is eclectic, drawing on Asian, Italian and Mediterranean designs.

The home has six television sets, though Robin says she and her family are not huge TV fans. And it features seven bathrooms, including a pool bath and a powder room.

Robin's house seems downright puny compared to the one built in Florida by Scott Sullivan of WorldCom fame and infamy. The house is 30,000 square feet. But Sullivan has moved. His new address is a really big "big house" – federal prison.

And there are others with mega-mansions. Cell phone entrepreneur Allan Goldfield's pad outside Dallas is 48,000 square feet.

What's going on?

"Over the last 30 years, almost all of the income gains have gone to people at the very top of the income distribution," says Cornell economics professor Robert Frank. "People at the top have been building much bigger houses. People who are just below the super rich, well, maybe they wanted to build bigger but were afraid it would be unseemly to do so. Now there's this 70,000 foot monster above them. That clears the way for them to build 60,000 square feet. And so it trickles on down, one step at a time."

It trickles down to your neighbor, who doubles the size of his house. Now your house is suddenly small and you build a bigger one.

"It's exactly like a military arms race. One side buys bombs, so does the other. And then they're back where they started. The norm for what constitutes an acceptable house just changes," says Frank.

Billy and Tammy Brown built their 11,000-square-foot house outside of Houston with an entranceway somewhere between the U.S. Capitol and a good-sized mosque.

What do people say when they first come into the Brown's home?

"They're pretty amazed by the dome more than anything else," says Mr. Brown. "You know, they walk in, and you can't see it right away. And then they see the dome. And they go, 'Wow, I've never seen anything like this.' So that was kind of the "wow" factor, you know, that we wanted."

And that is just the opening wow. The house features a billiard room, TV room, pool and other amenities. The bedroom of the couple's six-year-old daughter, including bathroom and closet, is twice the size of a New York City studio apartment.

Asked whether the house felt big or just right, Brown says it's starting to feel just right. "When we first moved in, it felt really big, because we came from a 4,000 square foot house and this is close to 11. But it's something we've always dreamed about," says Brown.

Just about everybody who has ever built a house eventually says "If I'd only thought of that." What does Tammy Brown wish had done differently?

"A little bit bigger eating area in the kitchen," says Brown. Her husband adds he would like to have a bigger "gathering room" for parties.

Chris Sims, who built the Browns' house, is building an even bigger one around the corner, a whopping 15,000 square feet.

Sims says the average house size has expanded significantly since he started building homes about 15 years ago. "It used to be a 5,000 square foot house was a large house. These days that 5,000 square foot structure is morphed into an 8,000 square foot house. The 8,000 square foot house, which used to be the extraordinarily large house, is now a 12- or 13,000 square foot house," says Sims. "So, I've seen the size of homes in this market grow by about 50 percent over the last 15 years."

And Sims has built some unusual rooms for his customers: "We've done beauty salons. We've done gift wrapping rooms."

At another house down the street, the owner demanded a volleyball court – indoors, of course. "He likes to have all his buddies over. And they get a good game going," explains Sims. The room has a 26-foot high ceiling.

For the Browns, the floors were the thing.

"The floors were a custom design that we had and we copied from a house, the house in Paris, the Versailles house," says Billy Brown, referring to Louis XIV's palace near Paris.

Meanwhile, Robin Beisswanger gave 60 Minutes a tour of her two-story master bathroom.

"I started out by saying that I wanted a little bit of a high ceiling. And so this was actually my architect's idea. And I thought it was fitting, because the house is a French chateau style. And it kind of reminded me of a tower," Beisswanger says. "This kind of makes me feel as if I'm in an enchanted forest or something."

As for the disenchanted Mr. Bitz in Chevy Chase, the blitz is over. The moratorium has ended and he'll be tearing down his little house and building one triple the size.
By Alden Bourne
View CBS News In