CBS's Safer's Supersized Bias Against McMansions

Canadian-born Morley Safer worries that American "McMansions" are an "alien weed" choking suburban America.

But the liberal "60 Minutes" veteran should have talked to an expert or two. The National Association of Realtors says the market for so-called McMansions is tiny, and that the more significant market is for starter-houses which enable homeowners to build equity and trade up after a few years.

Here's an excerpt from my article available at the MRC's BusinessandMedia.org Web page:

No, this is not the aftermath of Katrina, it is the prelude to a monster,” griped Safer. “Across the country, perfectly sound and cozy houses are being torn down. The empty lots then get filled up” with larger houses.

“I just don’t know why people need that much space,” complained Chevy Chase, Md., resident Pat Rich.

Safer went further in his attack on “McMansions,” quoting Virginia Tech architecture dean Paul Knox, who ripped large middle-class houses as “a new national suburb he calls ‘Vulgaria.’”

Yet for all the media hype, an official with the National Association of Realtors (NAR) told the Business & Media Institute the “McMansion” market is small and irrelevant.

In a telephone interview with BMI, Walter Molony, who studies industry trends for NAR, said the so-called McMansion market is “too small to be statistically measured” and is “the least important part of the market.”

“The more relevant end of the market is entry-levels,” argued Molony, adding that “McMansions” owners don’t just appear out of the blue. They start out earlier in life owning small houses, later selling them and trading up for more expensive digs.

Molony also noted that precisely because “the median household’s size is shrinking” while the cost of housing is unlikely to decline, “you have to wonder what kind of a real market there is for homes that are just of excessive size.”

In other words, the cost of owning a large house is providing a check against Safer’s fear that large houses are “changing the face of America.”

But another issue Safer glosses over: how personal property rights can get trampled when disapproving neighbors toss up legal hurdles towards home renovation.

Although Safer included in his story two residents of Chevy Chase who deplored larger houses replacing older ones, he curiously left out the story of two other Chevy Chase homeowners – who were facing a loss of hundreds of thousands due to complaints about a home renovation that is less than two feet closer to the street than permitted by county code.

As reported in the June 8 Washington Post, Marc and Marianne Duffy were told in June to halt house-expanding renovations after complaints from neighbors and career journalists Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Jackie Judd of ABC News, and William Hamilton of The Washington Post.

Faced with months of uncertainty over the legality of renovations, Marianne Duffy complained to the Post that the heavy costs of fighting for their right to renovate has threatened their financial livelihood. “We are literally being made homeless,” she complained.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters