Our tiny houses

Our homes have, on average, just 94m2 of floor space. Prospective buyers of a new build property today will be offered an average of 76m2 (about one and a half double decker buses), making them officially the smallest in Europe. This is unlikely to be a surprise to those living in one because they are probably having to sit on each others knees to watch the telly right now. And not only are the houses small, they look like a botched builds from The Sims.

Over thirty percent of UK housing stock is terraced housing. We built tons of it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to attract migrant workers to industrial towns and cities. Despite many attempts to rid us of them, most vigorously between 1950 and 1970, they remain popular. They’re solidly built, lend themselves to conversion, and have proven to be a fairly solid financial investment for buyers. With decent maintenance there is no reason to think that they won’t be around in another hundred years (you can’t say that for today’s new builds) but they’re small and densely packed together because it was cheaper to build them that way.

I’ve heard it said that it’s not size that matters, it’s how you use it. Buyers now want ensuite bathrooms, studies, pantries and other modern luxuries in their homes but instead of building bigger houses to accommodate these new demands, house builders are reducing the size of the other rooms instead. Our living rooms are now nearly a third smaller than those built in the 1970s.

So why don’t we build bigger houses? The way that we sell houses in the UK is one factor. I’d bet that most people don’t know how much floorspace their property contains. It’s rarely mentioned in the marketing materials; we use the number of bedrooms as a size metric instead even though that bares very little relation to the size of the property. Land is insanely expensive in the UK so it makes sense for house-builders to cram as many houses on to a plot as possible and up until recently there was no guidance from the government on how big a home should be. That changed in 2015 but it’s down to local authorities to ensure that developers implement the new size guidance in their schemes. We also have one of the most restrictive planning systems in the world, making it extremely difficult get permission to build on greenbelt or unused agricultural land.

Very few people in the UK build their own homes, choosing instead to purchase from huge companies who build thousands of houses of a similar specification. This is why the majority of UK housing looks very similar. So why don’t we build our own homes to our own specification? The perceived difficulty is probably the biggest consideration, and to some extent that’s true; getting planning permission might be difficult, and you’ll need to deal with land purchase and finding a mortgage. But it’s not impossible and considerable savings can be made. HMRC even allows self-builders to reclaim VAT on building materials.

Are British houses small relative to other countries? Compared to the rest of Europe, not really. The average size across the EU 28 is 96m2, but that figure includes some big outliers at either extremity: Cyprus at 141m2 and Romania at just 45m2. For a laugh we could head out of Europe and over to North America where things are much different. The average Canadian home is 180m2. In America it’s 245m2, they have more floor space per person than we have in total.

The only thing we can do, as consumers, is demand bigger homes from developers. Pay attention to how much space you are getting for your money. Petition your MPs to vote for legislation to loosen planning restrictions and increase minimum sizes. Or throw caution to the wind and build the house of your dreams.