CLEARWATER — When looking for a new home, Jolyn and Mike Schweitzer were open to townhouses or condos of any size.
Instead, they upgraded, buying a 3,500-square-foot home off Clearwater's Lake Chautauqua, with lofty ceilings, an office and an exercise room.
"We felt this was a good investment, so we went to the top of our budget," said Jolyn Schweitzer, 58. Except for when their four adult children stay over, "I will never have to go upstairs."
Buyers like the Schweitzers were supposed to be a post-recession rarity. The housing crisis, many predicted, would squeeze subdivision developers and suburbanites to downsize into smaller, more affordable space.
Yet as recession slides into recovery, the end of the Big American Home has proved greatly overblown. The typical new home is growing bigger, not smaller, and has swelled to record size.
After shrinking 10 percent during the bust, the typical new American home built last year grew to an unprecedented 2,300 square feet, U.S. census data show. Homes in the South ballooned even bigger, to nearly 2,400 square feet.
"We all thought the McMansions were going to go away, but that's not what we're seeing," said Sally McFolling, the director of sales for Tampa homebuilder Homes by WestBay. "It's like that commercial that's out right now: Would you rather have more or less?"
The trend is evident across Tampa Bay's building hot spots, according to construction research firm Metrostudy. For 40- to 70-foot-wide lots in Hillsborough County, where two-thirds of new local houses begin, the typical home has grown every quarter for the last two years. The average of 2,200 square feet in 2011 is now nearly 2,600 square feet.
So why are home sizes growing again? Many buyers likely to seek smaller homes are being bounced out of the market by tight loan standards.
Instead, the new-home market caters to buyers with money, solid credit and the option to build big. They are eagerly taking advantage of shrunken prices and historically low interest rates. New-home sales nationwide last month jumped 18 percent over March 2012 to the second-highest pace in three years, Commerce Department data show.
Buyers are "able to purchase a little more home for their dollar," Tampa Bay Builders Association executive vice president Jennifer Doerfel said, "and they're trying to get into those homes quickly before the prices increase."
As home values rise, local builders said, more homeowners will sell their homes and buy ones newly built. Builders are getting ready for the surge: Last month, they filed 733 permits to build new Tampa Bay homes, up from 492 in March 2012. The average value climbed from $285,000 to $400,000, a likely sign the big-home trend will continue.
But developers face a dilemma: How can they market bigger homes when family size has barely changed? For that, many have turned to marketing spare bedrooms as bonus or "reward" rooms: media centers, hobby space, study dens and "man caves" that are flexible, extensible and play to the imagination.
"People are realizing they don't need all that space, but they feel like they deserve that space," said John Rymer, a Tampa-based adviser to builders who leads homebuyer focus groups. "So why not take advantage of it?"
The Schweitzers, who spent most of their lives in a one-story Montana ranch home, felt the same way. Empty nesters, they nevertheless chose a five-bedroom home, converting upstairs rooms to a home office for Mark Schweitzer, a health care administrator, and a small gym with a TV and exercise equipment.
"Since we're now so far away from our children, we decided to go larger than we thought we would," Jolyn Schweitzer said. "We wanted a little more open feeling once you were inside."
Like many new-home buyers, the Schweitzers cared little for a formal living room, instead opting for a great room where guests could gather. Builders said even in larger homes, formal space is being replaced by larger family rooms and open kitchens that offer everyday functionality and serve as a household center.
But the Schweitzers are in some ways an exception, builders said, because older buyers generally limit their homes to the size they've lived with for years. It's the younger "aspirational" buyers who tend to buy bigger, spreading out for future growth.
In a National Association of Home Builders survey released last month, buyers younger than 35 typically sought homes more than 400 square feet bigger than the dream homes of buyers 65 and older.
Regardless of age, square footage remains a key selling point buyers aren't often willing to compromise. In a survey by realty site Trulia released this month, homeowners said their biggest regret was they hadn't bought a bigger home.
During the housing bust, developers turned to breaking ground on smaller model homes. The resurgence of vaulted ceilings and spacious footprints caught many by surprise: A 2011 National Association of Home Builders survey predicted the home of 2015 would only be about 2,100 square feet.
But the expansion appears only a return to form for the nation's decades-old trend of bigger homes, stalled for a few years by the housing bust but not permanently reversed. Postwar prosperity, the baby boom and the sprawl of the suburbs made Americans richer and big homes more affordable, available and accustomed to the middle class.
The typical new Southern home has grown more than 50 percent since 1973, when it filled 1,500 square feet, Census data show. And the timeworn cliche of the American mega-home nevertheless remains spot on: The average home in the United Kingdom, by comparison, is about 900 square feet. Homes here haven't been that size since the 1950s.
Builders predict ever-larger homes will lose their shine when growing interest rates slow lending and the prices for big homes climb.
But the normality of the Big American Home, many said, is a movement that's here to stay, an extension of a neighborly arms race for the biggest and best on the block.
"It's human nature," said Marvin Rose, president of construction research firm Rose Residential Reports. "You buy the largest thing you're comfortable with."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or [email protected]