Thou shalt not covet: Comparing your home to neighbors’ never a good idea, study finds

AMES, Iowa — Your satisfaction with your home may depend a whole lot more on your neighbor’s house than you realize. The size of a home in relation to other nearby houses plays a role in homeowner satisfaction, especially among the smaller homes in a neighborhood, a new study conducted at Iowa State University finds.

According to the study’s findings, homeowners are more likely to be dissatisfied with their house if it is smaller than their neighbors’ homes. Researchers say it is clear that people aren’t just concerned with what is inside their homes, but also how their homes compare to their neighbors’ on the outside and in terms of overall size.

“Although we may not realize it, our housing decisions may affect our neighbors’ actions,” explains lead author Daniel Kuhlmann, a professor at Iowa State, in a press release. “Because housing consumption produces these types of externalities, by building a large house we could unwittingly push our neighbors to spend more money to buy larger homes to catch up.”

The average size of a single family home in the United States has steadily grown over the past 50 years, and researchers say their findings may provide a partial explanation as to why; Americans all over the country have been trying to “keep up with the Joneses,” causing home sizes to steadily increase.

“As suburbs become more developed and go through new homebuilding, that can waterfall,” Kuhlmann continues. “The next person who builds a house would have been totally fine with a 10-bedroom house – but now they think they need a 12-bedroom house to be considered in good standing.”

Researchers used data collected during the 1993 National American Housing Survey. While that dataset is a bit outdated, it included a special neighborhood sample of over 1,000 homes and their 10 nearest neighbors, which really helped the research team assess levels of satisfaction across specific neighborhoods. Most housing data collected since then usually doesn’t include such specifics, mostly due to more recent efforts to keep housing survey respondents anonymous.

After analyzing the data, researchers found that, on average, people living in the smallest house in a neighborhood were 5% more likely to report being unhappy with their home compared to other homeowners in the area.

The authors say they chose to focus on overall home size because it is relatively easy to measure and compare, and is likely an accurate indicator of other home characteristics that may affect how homeowners perceive their living space.

“If size matters, there are probably a lot of other housing characteristics that matter, too, such as the age of housing stock or an architecturally outdated home – but it’s harder to quantify those differences,” says Kuhlmann.

As far as future research, Kuhlmann and his team say they would like to determine how often size related home concerns cause people to move.

The study is published in the scientific journal Housing Studies.