When the coronavirus pandemic reached the U.S. in early March, no one knew what lay ahead: Weeks — or, in some cities and states, months — of lockdown, requiring most Americans to stay home save for essential trips. Consumers had to reluctantly accept their new normal: Working from home, learning from home — staying home almost all the time.
Now, as the economy is grinding back into gear and people are beginning to venture back out into the world, we wondered: How did those weeks of quarantine make Americans feel about their belongings and their homes?
Key findings from the study:
- 67 percent of people say they don’t plan to purchase new things after quarantine
- 78 percent of Americans say quarantine made them realize they own too many things
- 70 percent of Americans say they got rid of things during quarantine. The majority donated unneeded and unwanted items, but a lot of people threw things away.
And when it comes to their homes:
- 40 percent of Americans said quarantine made them realize they have just enough space for their needs
- 32 percent said quarantine made them wish they had more space
- 45 percent said they want their next home to be bigger
- Only 14 percent plan to downsize with their next home
Historical trends in consumerism and home sizes support our findings. Studies show that Americans spend trillions of dollars annually on nonessential items, and home sizes have been steadily growing since the 1970’s. But more on that below.
Trapped At Home with All Their Things: How Americans Feel About their Belongings Post-Quarantine
An unexpected result of the quarantine periods and stay-at-home order that came with the coronavirus pandemic is the fact that, when stuck at home with all the things they own, Americans overwhelmingly realized they have much more than they need.
Take Annie Jacobson for example. Jacobson lives with her family in a 3,000-square-foot suburban home in Barrington, Illinois. She said that during quarantine, she and her family found that their home was just packed with belongings they didn’t need.
Jacobson said she wasn’t exactly surprised to find that there was so much in the house that needed to be purged, but that being in quarantine just gave her and her family time to finally do something about it.
“Having this extra time has allowed us to tackle the big projects they’ve been putting off — think cleaning out the garage,” she said.
According to Jacobson, she and her family have gotten rid of all kinds of things — unwanted clothes, old parts to items they no longer have, a couch that had been sitting in the basement forever — ”Mostly odds and ends that don’t have a purpose anymore,” she explained.
They’ve been selling some items, donating others, and throwing quite a bit away. And after getting out of quarantine, Jacobson explained how the experience has changed the way she looks at buying more things.
“It’s about quality over quantity,” she said. “I have a new appreciation for investing in your home and your space to make it a sanctuary, especially now that we spend so much time at home.”
Jacobson and her family aren’t alone in feeling that way.
In our survey of American consumers post-quarantine, a staggering 78 percent of survey respondents said spending quarantine at home, with all their belongings, helped them realize they had possessions they don’t need. That includes the 43 percent of respondents who answered that they have “slightly” more than they need, and 35 percent who said they have “many” more possessions than they need.
On the other hand, only 9 percent of respondents said, after quarantine, they’d like to have more possessions.
How many Americans, like Jacobson and her family, have decided because of quarantine to get rid of some of their things? 70 percent, according to our survey.
36 percent answered that they’ve thrown things away during quarantine, and 52 percent said they’ve donated unwanted or unneeded items from their homes.
And in our survey, 67 percent of respondents said they don’t plan on buying any new things after quarantine. 23 percent said they do plan to buy new belongings, and the other 10 percent didn’t know.
When you look at trends in consumerism and belongings, none of these findings are as surprising as they seem. According to the LA Times, the average American home contains 300,000 items, from pens and paper clips all the way up to workout equipment, large electronics, and vehicles.
A U.S. Department of Energy market study found that 32 percent of Americans who have a two-car garage can only fit one car inside, and 25 percent can’t fit any cars because of all the things they have stored in that space.
And the Wall Street Journal’s “Number of the Week” column studied Commerce Department data that suggested Americans spend $1.2 trillion on nonessential items every year. That’s right — things they don’t need.
Spending weeks or months locked in with all those things? It’s no wonder so many Americans say they’re getting rid of some and not planning to buy any more.
What Came First — The Stuff, Or the Space?
In order to have a lot of possessions, people need the space to put them in. But even though the majority of people wanted fewer belongings, how did quarantine make them feel about the amount of living space they have?
Take Kathleen Marinan, for example. Just a few days before lockdowns began, she moved from a spacious, suburban home in Colorado to a small city apartment in Chicago.
“I don’t have nearly the same amount of space I once had,” Marinan said. “My home office went from being a full separate room to the corner by my bedroom closet. Guests who visited the house in Colorado would have a queen-sized air mattress in a room to themselves. Now, I don’t think we have the space to store a queen-sized air mattress, let alone set one up for guests to use.”
Cooped up in her suddenly much smaller living space during quarantine, Marinan realized one of the things she missed most about her larger home in Colorado: Private outdoor space.
“The house had a beautiful patio and a small fenced-in lawn,” she explained. “I regret not spending more time outside there. Here the only ‘outside’ I have ready access to is about four square feet of single-person balcony, and the only grass in sight is at a park four blocks away. There’s no escaping to the backyard anymore; all I can do is escape to a different side of the couch.”
Are other Americans feeling the same way?
According to our survey, about a third of respondents said quarantine made them wish they had more living space.
The majority of respondents, 40 percent, said quarantine made them realize they have just enough space. And just over a quarter of people — 28 percent — said they realized they have more living space than they actually need.
Despite those answers, though, nearly half of our survey respondents said that the next time they move to a new home, they plan to look for somewhere that has more living space.
Nearly the same amount of people — 41 percent of survey respondents — said they’d like their next home to be about the same size as their current one. And only 14 percent of respondents said they’d want to downsize to a home with less living space.
Those answers actually fit with trends in home sizes in the last few decades.
According to Census Bureau data, the average size of new houses built in the U.S. hit an all-time high in 2015: 2,687 square feet. The median house size that year also set a record at 2,467 square feet.
Let’s compare that to 1973, the first year this kind of data was available from the Census Bureau. That year, 42 years ago, the average home size was just 1,660 square feet, and the median home size was 1,525 square feet. That means that both metrics have increased by nearly 1,000 square feet since 1973 — both the average and median size for new homes in the U.S. have increased 62 percent in that time.
And while houses have gotten bigger, households have actually been shrinking. The average family today is smaller than the average family in 1973, which means that today’s Americans have an average of 971 square feet of living space each, compared to 507 square feet per person in 1973. That’s a 92 percent increase — Americans now have nearly twice as much living space each as they did just 40 years ago.
Considering the way houses have grown in just a generation, it’s no wonder so few people said they want to downsize their homes.
The Next Trend: Bigger Homes, but Fewer Possessions?
The data from this survey, combined with the trends we see happening in home growth and consumerism, would indicate that people will stay in large homes — or even move into larger ones, but that they’d like to own fewer things.
Could it be the next trend? Only time will tell.
To learn more, we used Pollfish.com to survey American consumers about how they feel about their belongings and their living space post-quarantine.
We surveyed 800 people in total, and their ages ranged from 18 to 54 and older, with a fairly even distribution across age groups — 13 percent were ages 18 to 24, 22.5 percent were ages 25 to 34, 22 percent were ages 35 to 44, 17.5 percent were ages 45 to 54, and 25 percent were older than 54. All survey respondents were from the U.S. They were 59 percent female, and 41 percent male. Before being able to continue with the survey, respondents had to answer “yes” to a qualifying question asking if they had been in quarantine or lockdown for a period of 14 days or more due to the coronavirus.
In the survey, we asked questions about how spending so much time at home made people feel about their belongings and their living space — and how that might change the way they look at their belongings, their homes, buying new things, and having extra living space.
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