Defying the popular notion that the American home is shrinking, houses are continuing to grow larger, not smaller. According to preliminary data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the average size of new single-family houses started in the first half of 2012 was 2,524 square feet (234.5 sq m).

The Most Wanted List

(Features of Respondents Rating
“Must Have” or “Desirable”)

1. Energy-Star rated appliances: 94%
2. Laundry room: 93%
3. Energy-Star rating for whole home: 91%
4. (tie) Exhaust fan in bathroom: 90%
4. (tie) Exterior lighting: 90%
4. (tie) Bathroom linen closet: 90%
Source: NAHB Home Trends & Buyer Preferences

If the trend holds for the entire year, it would be the third consecutive annual increase in size, according to Rose Quint, a research economist at the National Association of Home Builders, putting the average at 25 square feet (2.3 sq m) more than the previous record.

Quint said houses are getting larger mainly because the people buying them are wealthier and have higher credit scores, more cash for a downpayment, and verifiable sources of employment and income.

“Financing is a big barrier,” the economist said at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) annual convention in Las Vegas on January 23. “Less financially solid buyers remain shut out of the new-home market. So, the characteristics of homes started in 2012 reflect the preferences of higher-income people.”

What purchasers “really want,” Quint said, are houses that are larger than they have now, but not as large as the current statistics indicate.

According to a new NAHB survey of 3,682 would-be buyers, the median size of respondents’ current dwellings is 1,906 square feet (177 sq m). They aspire to a place with a median of 2,226 feet (207 m). That is 17 percent more than what they have now, but it is 13 percent less than what “builders put into the ground” during the first six months of last year, Quint said.

In that smaller footprint, the economist told reporters, buyers overwhelmingly favor three or four bedrooms and open kitchens. But the NAHB preference survey found that 2.5 bathrooms “are enough” for most buyers. At the same time, four out of ten are not yet willing to part with their living rooms.

Most?Unwanted List

(Percent of Respondents Rating “Do Not Want”)

1. Elevator: 70%
2. Golf course community: 66%
3. High density community: 56%
4. Only a shower stall in master bath: 51%
5. Gated community: 48%
Source: NAHB Home Trends & Buyer Preferences

What they do not want is an elevator, a master bathroom with just a shower but no bathtub, a two-story family room, or an outdoor kitchen. Also high on the “most unwanted list” are golf courses, which 66 percent of the respondents said they “do not want,” and gated communities, which 48 percent declared undesirable.

More than half (56 percent) also said they did not want to live in a high-density community, and almost that many (44 percent) nixed the idea of living in a mixed-use property.

As for the must-haves, energy efficiency was top of mind. Nearly all (94 percent) buyers wanted Energy Star–rated appliances and windows, for example, and 91 percent said they were looking for a complete Energy Star home.

Storage-related items came in a strong second, Quint said. At least nine out of ten buyers indicated that they wanted a laundry room and a bathroom linen closet, while almost that many sought garage storage and a walk-in kitchen pantry.

The NAHB preference survey results were mostly in line with survey results released by Better Homes & Gardens (BH&G) at the same event. For example, some three out of four respondents who identified themselves as prospective buyers told the magazine that energy-efficient HVAC systems and appliances would be priority items in their next homes.

And while significantly fewer BH&G readers think it is a bad time to try to sell their current homes, a larger share said coming up with a downpayment is a lingering obstacle. Moreover, 18 percent said they cannot afford what they like, and the same percentage said they are being blocked by tight lending standards.

For more information on this report, visit NAHB.org.

Hear more about trends in housing at the ULI Terwilliger Center’s Housing Opportunity 2013 conference in Seattle, WA March 20-22. To learn more about the event and to register click here.