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100 Years of Half-Million Dollar Homes

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A century ago, the idea of an upscale home, or of owning one’s own home at all was of concern to only the few. That has obviously changed. Important aspects of what you would be getting for your money have changed, too. So, how have things evolved in a century? And how does that evolution help us to predict what homeowning in the next century will look like?

Modern amenities not standard a century ago

The detached home that would have been the equivalent of a half-million dollar home today would have been in the province of the generationally wealthy. Even then, homes were large enough to house an extended family, and often had room for live-in employees as well. The idea of a single family living in a detached home was an exception to the rule.

Further still, and despite the wealth of the homeowners themselves, proportionately larger homes one hundred years ago may be seen by modern eyes as lacking in essential features of convenience and comfort. For instance, today one might refuse to live without  a garage for the equivalent of a half-million dollar home.  But, not many people had a car in 1911. The world was different one hundred years ago. And that affected people’s expectations of what they were getting for their money.

Modern indoor plumbing, or central heating, just to name a few, are all things we just assume now.  But, one hundred years ago, this wasn’t the case, even for the wealthy. So, the evolution of homeowning isn’t just about the money, then. A lot of it has to do with cultural expectations of what you get when you buy.

Post-war boom and the homeowner

From the end of the First World War, to the beginning of the Second, the standard amenities to be found in the modern home began to include many of these features. But, before this period, outhouses instead of bathrooms, and fireplaces instead of HVAC systems, were certainly more common even in the most upscale home of the time. Add to that the fact that the number of homeowners was relatively low in comparison to modern times.

But, by the end of the war, and with the G.I Bill enabling accessible lending plans to returning veterans for education, business loans, and for home buying, the sheer number of home buyers would increase along with a kickstarted post-war economy. And so would the standard features of an upscale home along with it.

Investment in infrastructure was another prime force in injecting new life into a robust economy. This  fueled industry, and fed the need for roads, bridges, sewers, power, and water into blossoming suburbs.

Still, even in this new era of economic prosperity, the economic equivalent of a half-million dollar home at the time was still very much a rich man’s game.

The expanding home buying market in the 1960s

Even by the 1960s, a high-end home even a fraction of the equivalent cost of what a half-million would  buy today was a sprawling mansion by comparison. But, the gap would begin to close during this era.

Homes in the 1960s were the product of a boom period, where houses were built quickly to support a booming population between the years following the war to the middle of that decade. As such, the number of buyers that were clamoring for properties was increasing, driving up the supply cost to build them.

Yet, a middle-class  family starting could still reasonably expect to own a home large enough to accommodate the culturally-expected nuclear family, a term coined after WWII, and depicted so heavily in the 1950s. The age of a multi-generations living together, and the features in the home to sustain that dynamic, were slowly fading away to make way for a new era yet again.

Late 20th century, early 21st home buying, home owning

Modern Condo

Photo: Sedona Hiker

As the 20th century progressed, the burden of home owning was becoming less and less accessible to the average middle-class family starting out, although in increments as years progressed. If the 1960s expanded the number of buyers in the market, inflating demand, and increasing the cost of supply, then the ’70s-to-’90s only built upon that trend.

Just as the ’60s saw the end of the home that housed multi-generations in North America, the late 20th Century saw the beginning of the end to the single-income household to support homeownership for the average family. The cost of homeowning placed more and more of a burden on those who had invested in a family home. And the requirements for dual incomes placed additional pressures on those who were considering starting a family.

For the average homeowner, the detached home slowly became less likely, and the condominium rose in strength. So did the awareness that keeping utility costs low in order to sustain a budget as the cost to heat home, keep its lights on, and keep the water flowing began to rise.

Homeowning of the future

Housing and home owning has been a chief engine in a developing economy. One hundred years in the future, the housing industry will still be as vital to the state of the economy. But, what will it look like?

Where investment in infrastructure after WWII was a key component in job creation and in enabling more people to buy their own homes, green building and energy efficiency may hold the same sway today. This trend will begin to map out what our expectations are as far as home features, urban planning, and lifestyles.

We might look at how few conveniences there were in the 1911 home, such as indoor plumbing, and central heating. But, perhaps in 2111, occupants will look back and marvel at the lack of solar power, geothermal heating, passive design standards, rain harvesting systems, and lack of connection with public transit systems in our suburbs.

Homes and homeowning is evolving, even now. And we’re building, and buying, according to our times, building on what has gone on before. Yet, even as expectations change, the value we place in our homes is basically the same: it is security, and safety. It is the future.






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Rob Jones

Rob served as Editor-In-Chief of BuildDirect Blog: Life At Home from 2007-2016. He is a writer, Dad, content strategist, and music fan.