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It's a common dream: finding and affording a home where you can truly spread out. The mind reels with the possibilities: an enormous master bedroom, walk-in closets, a master bathroom that two people can use without bumping elbows, guest rooms and home offices, and reading rooms, oh my! But plenty of other people prefer a cozy and affordable (and, sure, probably more eco-friendly) small home in a great location—within walking distance from shops and restaurants, with good transportation links to work and cultural amenities.
We wanted to know where in the U.S. people live small and where they live big. So our data team analyzed our 1.8 million listings of single-family homes and condos for sale in major metropolitan markets. The result was two top 10 lists on either end of the scale, based on median square footage.
You'll see that the nation's smallest homes tend to be located in the Northeast, which is more densely populated and also has more homes from a time when people just built smaller.
Just across the river from Manhattan, a brief train ride away, Jersey City is an inexpensive alternative to the Big Apple. But Jersey City is also one of the most densely populated cities in the country. Our data suggest that its residents are even more cramped than New Yorkers, with a median square footage of 1,019.
"Areas with the most population density have the least amount of developable land, and what you get for your money is usually least where land is most valued," says our chief economist, Jonathan Smoke.
For those of you who are wondering why New York City didn't make the cut, it's because when you look across all five of the city's boroughs—including relatively spread-out Staten Island and Queens—the median is 1,302 square feet.
On a far-flung Pacific island where real estate is precious, what's the solution to a big housing problem? Thinking small! Despite those luxury homes with gorgeous ocean views shown in movies and travel magazines, the average home in Honolulu is quite small—the median takes up only 1,024 square feet. Even so, housing prices in Honolulu are still among the highest in the country, with a median of almost $600,000. Paradise doesn't come cheap.
A surprising entry on the list, the Motor City features home sizes of around 1,026 square feet, even though the Midwest has land aplenty. That's because the region, together with the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, has some of the oldest housing stock in the country.
"The size of newly built homes has grown over time. It's not surprising to see markets with old housing stock ranking highly for small homes," Smoke says. The median year built for Detroit's housing stock: 1941.
When it comes to making the best use of limited living space, residents in Iowa's capital city have to be creative when faced with a median square footage of 1,096. Like Detroit, it has a lot to do with early development of the city.
"The city of Des Moines is the oldest part of the metro. Later in the 1960s the suburbs started to take off, and we saw constructions of larger homes," says Les Sulgrove, a local broker associate.
With its close proximity to New York, Yonkers is often referred to as the sixth borough of New York. However, that also means downsized living space. A typical home in Yonkers is around 1,100 square feet.
One of the oldest urban centers in the United States, Boston has no shortage of strange accents, historical landmarks, and buildings dating back centuries. Proof of that last point: This classic New England city features a housing market with a median age of more than 100 years. The median size of Boston residential homes is 1,233 square feet.
Take a stroll through most Philly neighborhoods, and you'll ultimately come across the signature row houses lining the city's straight, gridiron streets. Easy to build on narrow lots and affordable to buy, row houses mark the city's ingenuity in offering homeownership to its residents starting centuries ago. Nowadays, 70% of all housing units in Philly are row houses. And the median square footage is 1,240.
Like Jersey City and New York, Oakland was developed as a cheap alternative to San Francisco—which explains the emphasis on smaller, cheaper homes. Houses here are a median 1,275 square feet. However, with San Francisco making its name as the country's most expensive city, the affordable choices in Oakland are no longer quite so “affordable.” Its median price has also skyrocketed to $469,000.
With hundreds of identified districts and each one with its own history, culture, and personality, Baltimore has been dubbed "a city of neighborhoods." A huge chunk of the city's housing inventory was built before World War II. A median square footage of 1,280 puts Baltimore at the 10th on our list.
Enough coziness, let's shift our focus to the other end of the spectrum!
When it comes to sprawl, for the most part, the Southwest is where it's at.
A median livable area of nearly 2,900 square feet makes Aurora homes the nation's largest. It's a suburb of Denver, and the combined metro area is also one of the most affluent in the country. Its median household income of $62,760 means there are plenty of buyers willing to spend more to ensure the ultimate living experience. Currently, the median price in the city of Aurora is $351,950.
The second-largest state in the country, Texas has plenty of land to build some grand homes, so it's not surprising that three of its cities made this list. A suburb of Dallas, Plano has the country's second-largest homes with a median of 2,817 square feet.
Arizona also gets a three-fer on this list, all clustered around Phoenix—residents of suburban Phoenix sure know how to make themselves comfortable at home. With a hefty median square feet of 2,584, the housing stock is some of the most spacious in the U.S. Even in the urban city of Phoenix, the median home size reaches nearly 2,000 square feet.
That's mostly due to the trend of larger home construction in recent decades. A relatively young market, Phoenix has seen almost two-thirds of its housing stock built after 1990—the year when new homes have been progressively larger, according to Smoke.
Like Denver, Colorado Springs sits a mile above sea level, at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. It's also one of the U.S. markets where homes are selling fastest. With sunny, dry weather and gorgeous surroundings, it's a great place to enjoy the great outdoors—it topped Outside magazine's list of the Best American Cities in 2009. When at home, Colorado Springs residents don't like to feel hemmed in, either. The median home size is 2,555 square feet.
Just southwest of Gilbert, Chandler is home to satellite offices of major tech companies such as Intel and PayPal. With such good jobs, residents can do well for themselves, considering that the median home size is 2,289 square feet.
San Antonio was the fastest-growing of the top 10 largest cities in the U.S. from 2000 to 2010, but it still isn't all that dense. Home buyers who are looking to get the best bang for their buck should look here—the median home price is only $218,900. For a little money, you’ll be getting a lot: median square footage of 2,236.
The largest city in the South, Houston has a diversified economy; only New York City has more Fortune 500 headquarters. It's called the Space City because it is home to NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, but its living space is worth boasting about, too, with a median square footage of 2,208.
The famed rainfall doesn’t stop the booming housing market in Portland. With a median price of $420,000, Portland is not an easily affordable place. But on the flip side, a median square footage of 2,186—plenty of room for a spacious foyer and an extra bedroom—ensures your money is well spent.