In a reversal of a decades-long trend, the median size of new houses in the U.S. shrank last year, and the downsizing continues in 2009. New houses under construction through June were nearly 200 square feet smaller than two years ago. Has the McMansion era come to an end?

Jeffrey Mezger, CEO of residential construction giant KB Home, thinks so. “We were in the most overheated housing market the country has ever seen, and I don’t think it will revert back to that any time soon,” he says.

Eric Belsky, executive director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, says that’s a good thing: Smaller houses suited to first-time buyers could help the struggling construction sector rebound faster. “Demand has shifted from people looking to trade up to larger homes to first-time buyers who are typically younger, with less income, looking for a place that is more modest,” he says.

Smaller houses are also attractive to empty-nesters looking for places that are more energy efficient and less expensive to maintain, according to Stephen Melman, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders. “People want to buy only the home they need right now,” Melman says. “They’re not going for an extra 1000 square feet anymore.”

Yet, by any international measure, American homes are still extra-large: Average new-home size peaked here in 2007 at 2521 square feet. At that time, the average house in Germany and France was about 1200 square feet; in England it was 900 square feet.

Source: Parade Magazine, October 11, 2009 issue