ABILENE BUCKS THE TREND

by John Hill

An article in the Atlantic Monthly summarizes a national trend: lot sizes are getting smaller, nation-wide.  In 1978, the national average for lot size was .22 acres.  By 2015, the average lot size was 13% smaller or .19 acres.

To understand the downsize in lot size, the article's author posits several potential explanations for smaller lots.  These include:

  • regional trends, especially in the northeast where land is dear
  • a burgeoning preference for attached development in urban areas, e.g. duplexes and townhouses
  • drought-conscious environmentalism
  • economic compromise for more built square footage at the expense of lot size

The article concludes that the last reason is the motive: people want bigger homes at a reasonable price and developers meet their desired price point by cutting development costs with smaller lots.  

In Abilene, where land is relatively cheap and easy and sprawl is the just a twinkle in the eye of our MPO, we buck this trend.  Using data on 33,881 single-family residential properties in Abilene sorted by decade when built, we can make comparison to these national statistics.  A few observations: 

  • First, lets acknowledge that the reported lots size for homes built in the early part of the 20th century aren't representative of trends in that period.  Much of the average inventory from this era has been replaced and the survivors from this period are the more substantial, historic homes that were erected on large lots.  
  • We can see the growth of Abilene over the decades by looking at this data.  We see development in the 1920's, the Great Depression reflected in development in the 1930's, a rebound in the 1940's and Abilene's best decade of growth from 1950 to 1960. 
  • The Atlantic Monthly article begins their assessment of lot sizes in the 1970's.  During this period, our lot sizes were .33 acres, approached the national average with an average lot size of .23 acres in the 1980's, and then returned to 1/3-acre lots in the 1990's - a trend that has continued into 2016. 
  • Lot size in the 1980's seems like an outlier, but likely reiterates today's motive for smaller lots detailed in the Atlantic Monthly article.  During the first half of this decade, oil reached record prices and employment followed.  Developers responded by building homes for the boom and, to control cost, they likely trimmed development costs with smaller lots.
  • While the size of a newly-minted Abilene lot ignores national trends, homes have followed national trends and grown larger with each decade.  Abilene homes today are 17% larger than they were in the 1970's, but while larger at 2,328 square feet, they trail behind the typical US home which, according to the Atlantic Monthly, measures closer to 2500 square feet.

It will be interesting to see if the trend to smaller lots is mirrored in Abilene construction in the future.  In flat, expansive Taylor County, it's hard to imagine that land costs will provide a constraint that will dictate lot size.  While Abilene's historically low annual rainfall could make small, xeriscaped lawns more appealing, the Abilene home buyer's preference for suburban, detached development makes this hard to fathom.   Like the article suggests and 1980's Abilene housing stock demonstrated, market forces and development costs will drive smaller lots in the future.