Detached Houses Preferred by New Households

Published December 5, 2011

Americans continue to prefer and move into single-family detached houses. Data from the 2010 American Community Survey indicates such housing attracted 79.2 percent of the new households in the 51 major metropolitan areas (more than 1 million population) over the past decade.

Households in multi-unit buildings (apartments and condominiums) represented 11.8 percent of the new housing, while two-unit attached housing provided 11.3 percent of the increase.

There was a 2.3 percent decline in the “other” category of new housing, which includes mobile homes and boats. A total of 4 million net new occupied detached houses were added in the largest metropolitan areas, while there were 590,000 additional apartments and condominiums and 570,000 attached houses.

Biggest Vacancy Rise in Multi-Housing

A conventional assumption is that single-family homes have been disproportionately abandoned by their occupants, particularly since the collapse of the housing bubble. This is not true. Detached housing enjoyed a 92.4 percent occupancy rate in 2010, whereas there was an 89.4 percent occupancy rate in attached housing and an 84.2 percent occupancy rate in multi-unit buildings.

Because more of the multi-unit housing is rental, it is to be expected that vacancies would be highest in this category. However, at the national level, overall vacancy rates rose the most in multi-unit housing, with an increase of 61 percent, from 10.7 percent in 2000 to 17.1 percent in 2010. The vacancy rate in detached housing rose from 7.3 percent in 2000 to 10.7 percent in 2010, an increase of 48 percent.

Attached housing—such as townhouses—had the slowest rise in vacancy rate, from 8.4 percent in 2000 to 11.0 percent in 2010, an increase of 32 percent.

Among the 51 largest metropolitan areas, the share of detached housing rose in 44 and declined in seven. The share of attached housing rose in 32 of the metropolitan areas, while declining in 19. Multi-unit housing experienced an increase in market share in only three markets, while declining in 48.

NYC’s Significant Changes

Detached housing increased more than attached housing and multi-unit housing in each of the nation’s five largest metropolitan areas.

In the largest metropolitan area, New York, 51.9 percent of the new housing was detached, up substantially from the 36.9 percent detached market share in New York in 2000. Multi-unit housing accounted for 24.1 percent of the increase in the market. This is a far smaller share than the 55.7 percent that multi-unit housing represented in 2000. Attached housing was 19.9 percent of the increase, nearly three times its 2000 share of 6.7 percent.

This movement of New Yorkers to less dense housing forms is particularly significant, in that New York historically has had the lowest share of lower-density housing (detached and attached) and the highest share of multi-unit houses among the nation’s major metro areas.

96 Percent Detached in LA

In the nation’s second-largest metropolitan area, Los Angeles, 96.0 percent of the new housing was detached. This is nearly double the 49.7 percent that detached housing represented of the Los Angeles market in 2000. The share of new units represented by multi-unit houses was less than one-half its percentage of the market in 2000 (39.0 percent).

In the third-largest metropolitan area, Chicago, 95.9 percent of the new housing was detached, well above the 52.5 percent share there in 2000. There was a huge loss in apartment and condominium share, at 31 percent of the market, while attached housing captured 40.4 percent of the market.

In the fourth-largest metropolitan area, Dallas-Fort Worth, 84.3 percent of the new housing was detached, well above the 62.0 percent share in 2000. Multi-unit housing accounted for 13.5 percent of the increase, approximately one-half the 2000 market share. Attached housing represented 3.2 percent of the increase.

In the fifth-largest metropolitan area, Philadelphia, 77.6 percent of new housing was detached, well above the 45.3 percent market share for detached housing in 2000. Apartments and condominiums accounted for 27.7 percent of the increase between 2000 and 2010, slightly more than the 2000 market share 23.7 percent. Attached housing represented -4.3 percent of the new housing.

Surge in Dallas Area

Despite being only the fourth largest metropolitan area, Dallas-Fort Worth accounted for 46 percent of the new housing in the five largest metropolitan areas.

The three largest metropolitan markets with an increase in multi-unit housing share were San Jose, New Orleans, and Denver.

In San Jose, 55.5 percent of new housing was multi-unit, while only 10.3 percent was detached. New Orleans had a similar 10.5 percent detached new housing share, while 65.8 percent of the new housing was multi-unit. In Denver, 31.3 percent of the new housing was multi-unit, while 60.2 percent was detached.

Preference Trumps Policy

The trend of the last decade is evidence of a continued preference of American households for detached housing. The results are remarkable for at least two reasons.

The first is that there have been unprecedented policy initiatives to discourage, if not to prohibit, the building of new detached houses.

Second, the media and wishful advocates of denser settlement patterns have continuously referred to detached housing as having been severely overbuilt during the housing bubble, while suggesting an imperative for households to move into multi-unit, often rented housing. The new data, with the larger increase in multi-unit vacancy rates, indicates there was at least as much overbuilding in denser housing types.

Despite the expressed preferences of planners, academics, and even many builders, American households continue to make their own decisions about housing.

Wendell Cox is a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life”. Used with permission of