A new research study from NAHB Economics finds there is considerably more to the story of the stereotypical large home in the suburbs than what appears in the misleading and misguided criticism often leveled against it.

The authors of the study, “The Geography of Home Size and Occupancy,” concede that there is an element of truth in the observation that owner-occupied homes are smaller in downtown areas and inner suburbs and larger in the outer suburbs.

But this characterization “overlooks how many people actually reside in these homes,” write NAHB economists Robert Dietz and Natalia Siniavskaia.

“That is, it is incorrect to claim that those larger homes mean more ‘housing space’ for people who live outside central cities,” they say, because those homes in outlying areas tend to be occupied by larger households.

Data from the biennial American Housing Survey for 2009 show that roughly three-fourths of the nation’s 76 million owner-occupied homes are located inside metropolitan areas.

Of the homes in metro areas, those in central cities account for a 22% share of the nation’s owned homes, or 17.2 million; those in urban or “inner” suburbs have a 36% share, or 27 mllion; and the homes in further out, less dense suburbs are 17% of the owned housing stock, or 13 million.

The remaining one-quarter of owner-occupied homes — or 18.9 million — are located outside metro areas.

Survey results also confirm, in part, the stereotype that owner-occupied homes grow in size as they push out from the central city to the suburbs and rural parts of metro areas.

Nationwide, the median square footage of an owner-occupied home is 1,800 square feet.

Homes in the central city are about 7% smaller on average, at 1,678 square feet.

The median size climbs to 1,800 square feet in urban suburbs and 1,900 square feet in the rural reaches of metro areas.

However, not only do homes grow in size when one moves away from the central city to suburbs, the NAHB economists say, “but households grow in size as well.”

The average number of people per home increases from 2.6 in central cities to 2.7 in urban and rural metro areas, the report finds.

“Furthermore, metropolitan families choosing larger houses outside of central cities are more likely to have school-age children,” the study says.

Families in the urban or rural suburbs of metro areas are likely to have more children than households in other areas.

Of the 26 million households nationwide with children under the age of 18, more than half reside in metropolitan suburbs — 39% in inner suburbs and 18% in rural suburbs. Only 22% of home owners with children live in the central cities.

Looking at the locations of homes as they are related to household size “challenges the stereotyped view of large homes in the suburbs,” the study concludes.

Nationally, the median square footage per person in owner-occupied homes is 800 square feet, which is exactly the same size as for the urban and rural suburbs in metropolitan areas and areas outside metro areas.

Median square footage per person is somewhat smaller for central cities, but only by 4%.

Among other findings presented in the study:

  • A household with two persons is the most common household, accounting for 36%, or 27.6 million, of home owners. But its share of home owners is only 34% in central cities and urban suburbs. 
  • The combination of larger household types — of three, four or more persons — adds up to a 42% share of home owners, or 32 million. 
  • In metro areas, these larger households are much more commonly found outside of central cities. 
  • For example, four-person households account for almost 18% and 17% of home owners in urban and rural suburbs of metro areas, respectively, while their share in central cities is only 14%. 
  • Single-person households are more densely concentrated in central cities. They account for 22% of all home owners in the U.S., but their share in central city locations is close to 26%. 
  • In rural parts of metro areas, single-persons are less than 18% of home owners. 
  • In the Northeast, homes tend to be smaller and homes in the South tend to be larger than the national median. 

In the Northeast, homes in central city areas have a median of 667 square feet per person, 15% below the national median of 767 square feet. Central city homes in the South have a median of 850 square feet per person, which is 27% higher than the national median.

These regional differences are partly explained by the age of the housing stock. The median age of an owner-occupied home in the Northeast is 51 years, compared to 31 years in the South. Newer homes are larger on average.