America's homes, like its cars, are growing smaller

Just south of here, in Orlando, fireman Keith Lord is pleased with an 864 -square-foot home he purchased recently for himself, his wife, and their two young sons. It was built in a factory and sold for about $23,000 (plus the cost of the lot) - something he could afford until he can buy a bigger home.

Cardboard boxes stacked high along one wall give James David's apartment here a cramped appearance. But the retired Minnesota banker, who moved here recently with his wife, hopes to buy a home soon.

In Minnesota the Davids owned a 3,200-square-foot home. Now, with their three children no longer living with them, and with housing prices high, they are looking for one half that size.

''I don't like small homes,'' he says. ''We're used to being able to roam through the house.'' But, he adds, ''you can't buy what you like - you have to cut down.''

A few new homes selling in central Florida have less than 600 square feet.

Nationally, latest figures confirm a trend toward smaller homes. But economists, while disagreeing over how far the trend will go, say it is not entirely due to high housing costs.

Smaller families and changing life styles are also making smaller homes more appealing to many, these housing economists say.

The median size of homes dropped from its most recent peak of 1,655 square feet in 1978 to 1,550 last year, according to latest data from the Department of Commerce. (That means as many homes were built last year that were smaller than 1,550 square feet as were larger.)

The trend also means new homes are being built with fewer bedrooms, bathrooms , fireplaces, and garages. The only amenity on the rise, says Richard Peach, a research economist for the National Association of Realtors, is the number of new homes with central air conditioning - which may reflect more homes being built in the South and West, he says.

But while high housing costs are forcing prospective buyers to consider smaller homes, many two-income families may prefer to buy a smaller home and put the savings into more luxurious amenities, such as saunas, says Thomas Harter, chief economist of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America. And, he says, ''we think the size will be cut down because both people won't be there (much of the time) if they're working.''

Smaller homes can mean lower taxes and smaller utility bills, says Mr. Harter.

On the other hand, cable TV and other attractions at home may lead people to spend more time at home and want more space, says Bill Young, economist with the National Assocation of Home Builders. Until interest rates go down - ''if they go down again '' - it is too early to tell if the current trend toward smaller homes will continue through the '80s. First-time home buyers will try to buy bigger homes later, he says.

The trend toward smaller homes ''probably'' will continue for quite some time as family size decreases and because of high housing costs, says James Christian , chief economist of the US League of Savings Associations.

But builders may offer smaller homes with more luxurious appointments and styles and try to ''make the place feel bigger than it is,'' he says. And ''the time may really be right for manufactured (factory-built) housing,'' which are more affordable and smaller, he adds.

Austin Guirlinger, president of Cardinal Industries, here in Sanford, agrees with this later forecast. His firm factory-builds units assembled as apartments or homes, including the two-bedroom home Orlando fireman Keith Lord purchased earlier this year.

''We foresee the single family (factory-built homes) as a huge business, he said in an interview here.

The model Cardinal homes this correspondent viewed were attractive and did not look like boxes put together. Their layout and design varied with the size. Each was made of 12-by-24 foot units. The smallest home Cardinal Industries sells is one-bedroom, 576 square footer, made of two of the units. The more frequently sold size is the two-bedroom, one-bath - 864 square footer, made of three units.

The units are designed in such a way that additional units can be added on.

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