80 Years and Counting: More Storage, Please

Filed in Design, Housing Finance by on February 20, 2018 0 Comments

small LA houseDespite eight decades and a multi-generation divide, prospective home buyers in 1938 expressed preferences for many of the same features and amenities favored by today’s home buyers.

Published by Simon and Schuster, Inc., The 1938 Book of Small Houses includes the results of an extensive consumer poll distributed to 250,000 public utility customers in New York state.

With more than 11,000 responses, the survey provided a clear vision of local attitudes and expectations. The authors, the editorial staff of The Architectural Forum magazine, considered the findings of national significance.

At the time, the nation was emerging from the depths of the Great Depression and the Federal Housing Administration was a fledgling agency spurring rapid evolution in home financing, particularly long-term mortgages. The book was clearly intended to encourage demand for new homes as it also included more than 130 plans for moderately priced small houses built in a variety of markets throughout the nation.

Most of the homes appeared to be smaller than 1,000 square feet. In comparison, the average new home in 1973 (earliest data available from the Census Bureau) was almost 1,660 square feet;  by 2016, the Census Bureau reported that the average size of new single-family homes was 2,640 square feet.

The majority of the customers surveyed were renters (58%) and 67% of them said they would expect to pay between $5,000 and $10,000 if purchasing a home.

At a time when most mortgages had terms of five years or less, the people surveyed were already looking to new mortgage products to facilitate their purchase. Forty percent said they expected to pay for their new home over a period of 10 to 15 years. Another 32% were looking to finance their new home over 15 to 20 years.

And much like today’s home buyers, the majority — 61% — preferred a suburban location. Another 34% wanted to be further out, and only 4.5% wanted a close-in location.

Based on the survey results, the authors also defined a composite “Five Star House.” It included a full basement complete with a recreation room, laundry, fruit and vegetable storage (pantry) and an “automatic heating plant with provision for circulation of air” (aka, a furnace). A dumbwaiter was also high on the list.

Much like today, buyers said essential features on the main floor included plenty of electrical outlets, a separate dining room, a dining nook in the kitchen, a bedroom or den, a lavatory, kitchen cabinets, a kitchen ventilating fan and an entrance vestibule. Optional features included a laundry chute, a porch and an attached garage.

On the second floor, the respondents wanted three bedrooms, two bathrooms and plenty of closet space. Options included a sleeping porch and additional storage space.

Perhaps because of their New York location, the survey respondents showed a strong preference for colonial-style homes, particularly the so-called “Dutch colonial” with a gambrel roof. The survey respondents also strongly preferred brick exterior walls.

Amenities are always at the top of a prospective home buyer’s list, but the preferred conveniences listed in the survey results paint a picture of a very different standard of living 80 years ago.

dishwasher sinkIn order of preference, “conveniences” that prospective home buyers wanted in 1938 included an automatic water heater, a mechanical refrigerator, an oven heat controlled stove, a kitchen ventilating fan, a bathroom heater, a disposal, and a dishwasher sink, an early-1900s concept that has since been re-introduced to the market. Today, all of those items are likely to be standard in a new home and some are required by code.

If there was any doubt about shared values between today’s home buyers and buyers in the 1930s, the list of pet peeves makes it clear there are more similarities than differences. The number one complaint about homes in 1938 was “not enough closet space.”

It was closely followed by: “not enough electrical outlets,” “can’t heat the room evenly,” “poor kitchen arrangement,” and “draftiness.” The authors also found it noteworthy that much like today’s consumers, more than half (51%) said they must have wall and ceiling insulation and 48% indicated they would like to have it.


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