Power & Market

Americans Have Much More Living Space than Europeans

In the United States, local governments continue to play a sizable role in constraining the amount of develop-able land, and in adding costs to housing development in the form of development fees, zoning, building-materials mandates, and minimum-size mandates.

Yet, housing continues to cheaper in the US when compared to much of the world.

According to the OECD, for example, housing expenditure in the United States is 18 percent of gross adjusted disposable income. That’s the third-lowest in the OECD. Moreover, housing costs in the US by this metric are only 75 percent the size of what they are in Denmark and the United Kingdom. US costs are 78 percent the size of housing costs in Italy.1



Similarly, the OECD notes that in the United States, there are on average 2.4 rooms per person. Only Canadians have more rooms per person. In Switzerland, Spain, Denmark, and Japan, however, there are only 1.9 rooms per person. That’s one-fifth less than the average in the US.2



And the number of rooms aren’t the only metric by which US homes are bigger. According to the BBC, floor space in newly built homes in the United Kingdom is less than half of what it is in the United States:


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Scholars have also noted these differences for years. In their book Living Wages Around the World: Manual for Measurement by Richard Anker and Martha Anker note:

Floor space is higher still in the United States where households at the 20th percentile ofthe houshold income distribution had 28.8 square meters per person in 1985 and 33.5 square meters per person in 2005, implying around 115 and 134 square meters respectively for a lower income household of 4 persons.

In other words, as the BBC chart shows, the square footage for a lower-income household in the US is similar to the overall average for living space in France.

Growth in home size is larger in the US as well. According to State of the World 2004, authors Brian Halweil and Lisa Mastny write:

The United States represents the extreme case, where average new homes grew nearly 38 percent between 1975 and 2000, to 210 square meters (2,265 square feet) twice the size of typical homes in Europe or Japan and 26 times the living space of the average person in Africa.

And certain amenities are bigger in the US:

The average size of refrigerators in US households, for example, increased by 10 percent between 1972 and 2001, and the number per home rose as well. Air conditioning has taken a similar path: in 1978, 56 percent of American homes had cooling systems, most of which were small window units; 20 years later, three quarters of US homes had air conditioners and nearly half were large central systems.

Square footage isn’t the only measure of living space either, As noted in Perspectives on the Performance of the Continental Economies edited by Edmund S. Phelps, Hans-Werner Sinn

A considerable part of the US advantage in cross-country comparisons of living standards must stem from the much larger size of average American swelling units, both their internal dimensions and the amount of surrounding land. Fully three-quarters of the American housing stock consists of single-family detached and attached units. The median licing area in the deteched units is 1,720 square feet, with an average acreage for all single-family units of 0.35 (equivalent to a lot size of 100 by 150 feet or 1,394 square meters). Another figure that must seem unvelievable to Europeans is that fully 25 percent of American single-family units rest on lots of one acre or more, equivalent to 4,052 square meters. Available data, though spotty for Europe, suggest that the average American dwelling unit is at least 50 to 75 percent larger than the average European unit.

These factors ought to be considered when we look at disposable income comparisons between countries. “Disposable income” tells us about the cash income that people receive, but these measures tell us little about some of the differences in the standard of living and cost of living as they vary form place to place. For whatever reasons, Americans have for decades preferred to exchange a higher cost of living in many cases for a larger amount of living space. It doesn’t have to be this way. Americans could have preferred to economize on housing in order to spend more on other living expenses. But they have not. Instead, a great many Americans have chosen to reinforce both private sector and public sector policies that produce larger housing units.

  • 1This data point includes rental housing. See: “Better Life Index, Edition 2017” https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=IDD
  • 2Rate = number of rooms divided by the number of people living in the dwelling. OECD states: “This indicator refers to the number of rooms (excluding kitchenette, scullery/utility room, bathroom, toilet, garage, consulting rooms, office, shop) in a dwelling divided by the number of persons living in the dwelling.”
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