Why Are UK Homes Smaller Than the Rest of Europe?

Why Are UK Homes Smaller Than the Rest of Europe?

Several historical factors have shrunk the size of English residences over the past 100 years. That may not be a good thing, and homebuyers clearly want more.

With a growing population, the UK is squeezed for housing space. But a research report for the Royal Institute of British Architects helps us understand how much that truly is the case, given the relatively small size of homes being built in the 21st century.

The report, “The Way We Live Now: What People Need and Expect from Their Homes” (2012; Ipsos MORI) describes a common yearning for space in one’s living quarters. Large main living areas for socialising, large windows for natural light, and more space dedicated to storage and to accommodate commonplace technologies are what people want.

But in reality, those are just the things Britons don’t have. Our homes, particularly those built after the War, are noticeably smaller than those that were built 100 years ago. And our average size homes, at 76 square metres, are smaller than in Ireland (87.7 square metres), Netherlands (115.5 square metres) and Denmark (137 square metres). Of note, the Netherlands is twice as densely populated as is England.

It would be easy to castigate developers for seeking a higher return on investment when building smaller homes – after all, constructing 40 flats on a hectare pales to being able to sell 50 residences on the same amount of land. Who drive many developments, one needs to take a step back toward understanding the problem, its causes and its implications. To wit:

How small are the homes in Britain? – A survey in 2009 conducted on behalf of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) found that more than half (58 per cent) of occupants of new homes said there is not enough space to accommodate their furniture. Even more (69 per cent) said they do not have enough room for all their possessions. Supporting that point, there are more than 800 self-storage facilities in Britain serving 250,000 customers who rent 20- to 50-square-foot lock-up storage spaces that can cost as much as £100 per month in London; bigger closets and rooms would be more convenient and cut out that expense altogether.

Why are English homes shrinking? – According to a 2012 article in The Guardian, it may be due to a 1961 Government committee that developed what is called the Parker Morris standards for council housing. This took into account furniture of the day, as well as common household activities, to establish the minimum standards for floor space of homes (accounting for households of various sizes). The odd thing is that private and social home builders took these minimums and treated them almost as a standard; in the 54 years since, appliances have grown and multiplied, while the need to store more has risen as well.

What are the implications of tiny homes? – An American academic, the director of design of human health at Boston Architectural College, cautions that small spaces can become the source of stress that can lead to domestic violence and substance abuse. Another professor in New York, whose specialty is environmental psychology, claims that in her research children in crowded apartments, which tend to be in low-income circumstances, have a tendency to be withdrawn and to have trouble studying.

Of course in house-poor England and Wales, overcrowding is the norm as adult children continue to live with their parents. Developers and homebuilders are increasing the number of residences being built, and government schemes such as Help to Buy are enabling more people to get on the property ladder. The RIBA survey found that many will buy a smaller home because it is all that is affordable, but they hope to move up as soon as their economic circumstances allow.

These are the key reasons investors are drawn to the housing sector, where they might work with strategic land companies, homebuilders or real estate investment trusts (REITs). But every investor should speak with an independent financial advisor to discuss all options.