Why New Homes Look so Ugly: Bad Design Choices, High Building Costs

Bailey McInnes first noticed the house during one of her lunch hours. She likes to walk on her midday breaks, admiring the charming, little craftsman homes that dot her Northern Virginia neighborhood. The homes she passes share a lot of similarities — brick and wood, a modest front porch, details that suggest someone put in a lot of time and care a century ago. On one of these walks last fall, she noticed something new: One of the homes was gone.

McInnes assumed the builder must have a captivating vision for the vacant plot. But the replacement, to her dismay, was a “monstrosity.” The facade was an awkward mess of windows and cheap-looking wood panels. The previous home’s gently sloping roof had been replaced with an imposing cliff. You can probably guess the color: blinding white with black trim, the signature look favored by investors and HGTV aficionados.

After the first home fell, this cycle of replacement kept happening again and again. McInnes, who is 25 years old and works in public health, is no architecture expert. But she often commiserates with others who share similar frustrations. “People who have little to no experience are able to look in their neighborhoods and be like, ‘What is happening here?'” McInnes told me. Recently she posted a video on her YouTube channel in which she phrased the question more bluntly: “Why are homes so ‘ugly’ now?”

These days it seems like every freshly built house comes with a standard feature: a whole bunch of haters. In Reddit forums and Facebook groups, many Americans grumble about the stifling blandness of the cookie-cutter home, the shameless excess of the suburban McMansion, the clunkiness of the modern box. And that’s just the view from the front lawn. Step inside, and you’ll likely encounter a mix of white walls, gray countertops, and faux-hardwood floors, copied and pasted from an episode of “Property Brothers.” Most people agree that America needs more houses, but nobody seems all that thrilled with the ones being built.

Some of the gripes with homebuilding can be chalked up to not-in-my-backyard sensibilities — construction is a nuisance, and it’s easier to nitpick design choices than accept change. Maybe some of it is just renters’ jealousy talking. In light of the nation’s housing shortage, hand-wringing over aesthetics might even seem beside the point. We need to pump out millions more homes to meet demand. If people are buying them, who really cares what they look like?

But there’s a reason for this nagging discontent with new homes. The distaste is, in part, an unconscious response to big problems with how these houses are built and even larger flaws in the American dream itself. The cute craftsman and midcentury homes on younger generations’ mood boards are relics of a time when land was cheap and local builders accounted for the lion’s share of new construction. Now development lots are almost prohibitively expensive, and the soaring cost of materials is forcing builders to cut back on bedrock design necessities and pleasing architectural flourishes. The new economics favor large-production builders focused on scale, while a mess of micromanage-y local rules is driving up costs and forcing homes into cookie-cutter territory.

The blame for America’s architectural nightmare, however, doesn’t stop at production builders, rising costs, or local codes. There’s something deeper going on here. Homes look this way because they’re not just places where we live — they’re also supposed to help us get rich. That requires playing it safe. We’re supposed to think of homeownership not as a means of putting a roof over our heads but as an investment that will one day provide a massive windfall. Homes are assets to be Airbnb’d, upgraded, flaunted on Zillow, and eventually sold for a huge profit. Everyone’s a home flipper now.

When every part of the homebuilding process is executed with an eye toward the bottom line, this is the result: a mix of trend-chasing eyesores and sterile subdivisions. For a generation of hopeful homeowners, neither option sounds all that appealing.

“There’s this trade-off that’s increasingly happening,” McInnes told me. “People are like, ‘I’ll just take whatever.'”


Stepping into a community of new homes can sometimes feel like an eerie nightmare. The streets are obscenely wide, the lawns mostly bare. The structures themselves are haphazard arrays of garage, door, windows, and driveway. They may have splashes of brick or stone, but only in small patches that echo a sturdier past. A few variations of floor plans add some texture to the neighborhood, but paint shades are the main differentiators. You may feel disenchanted or trapped. Taken to the extreme, the scenario makes for a decent horror movie. Sure, some builders are trying to break this mold. But for most developers, the forces conspiring to make homes expensive and aesthetically distasteful are too powerful to resist.

“Builders are struggling to produce something that reaches the moderate-income level, and that may be where you get some pushback as far as ugliness and scale-back,” James Wentling, an architect and the author of “Designing a Place Called Home,” a thick volume on the past, present, and future of homebuilding in America, told me. “That’s probably where you may be getting cookie cutter, all that kind of thing — which they have to do. They can’t add all the frills.”

The primary driver for the move toward mediocrity is cost — land, materials, and permitting are all huge money sucks. Prices for building materials are up a staggering 38% since early 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with a 10% rise from 2016 to 2020. New homes are roughly five times as expensive to build compared with 1980, according to price indexes from the Census Bureau. In 2022, construction costs for the typical new home came in at $392,241, while land added another $114,622, a survey by the National Association of Home Builders found. This all trickles down into the final sale price, which came in at an average of $644,750, enough for a 10% profit for the builders when you factor in marketing expenses, general overhead, and the sales commissions paid to real-estate brokers.

There’s this trade-off that’s increasingly happening. People are like, ‘I’ll just take whatever.’

As they stare down these rising costs, builders and architects have almost no choice but to streamline or opt for cheaper design elements. Homes built 50 or 100 years ago were primarily brick or wood — high-quality stuff that offers a comforting, timeless appeal. Those materials are used more sparingly nowadays. Just 25% of new-home exteriors last year were made of wood or brick, compared with 70% of homes in 1980. Builders have turned to vinyl siding or fiber cement, more affordable options that may last longer and are often easier to maintain but can contribute to a cheaper feel. Inside the home, nice touches like ceramic tile, built-in shelving, and other quality finishes have pretty much disappeared from modest homes and can be found only in “upscale” products. Those kinds of “charming details,” as Wentling calls them in his book, require craftsmanship-intensive labor that’s pretty much impossible to rationalize when speed and volume are the name of the game. To hit their bottom-line targets, developers are even cutting back on basics like the number and size of windows and “making homes boxier,” as noted in a 2024 trend report from the housing-research firm John Burns Research and Consulting.

“I think they are downscaling them a bit to keep the price down,” Peter Dennehy, the senior vice president of consulting at John Burns, told me. “But that’s against the backdrop of five buyers for every home.”

Builders aren’t just grappling with more costly materials, pricey land, and the headaches of finding enough workers. They’re also up against a complex web of local zoning, land-use rules, and building codes that drag down projects and force them to make trade-offs that leave new homes looking bland. Regulations account for one-quarter of the costs of building a new home, the NAHB estimates. Local governments can dictate everything from the size of lots to the materials used, and builders have no choice but to bend to their demands. And every locale is different, requiring builders to spend time parsing local rules instead of focusing on all the other stuff that goes into getting a home off the ground.


A newly built home with a gray and white exterior next to woods.

Local rules force developers to make trade-offs that leave new homes looking bland

Dan Reynolds Photography/Getty Images



Along the way, the homebuilding industry has shifted from a fragmented collection of local builders to one increasingly dominated by large “production builders.” The 100 largest home builders in the US sold roughly half of all new single-family homes in 2022, up from a little more than one-third two decades prior. Most of those gains came from the growth of just two companies, D.R. Horton and Lennar, a paper from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found. Those two giants were responsible for almost two-thirds of that increase in market share. Because of all the local red tape that slows down homebuilding, the industry probably won’t ever be as concentrated as, say, airlines, the authors of the Harvard paper wrote. But the growth of the big guys is yet another reason more homes are starting to look and feel the same.


OK, you might ask, but aren’t speed and volume both good things, given the country’s housing shortage? People are starting families and moving out of their parents’ houses way faster than builders are churning out even the most-stripped-down houses. Homebuilders would need to break ground at triple the current pace to keep up with demand and close the gap of 7.2 million houses in four to five years, according to one estimate from Realtor.com. But there’s something else holding us back. In a country obsessed with preserving property values, taste has taken a back seat.

We’re all kind of temporarily embarrassed real-estate investors, in a way.

Kate Wagner, an architecture critic at The Nation and creator of the blog McMansion Hell, remembers a time before the Great Recession when the owners of suburban behemoths were obsessed with stockpiling amenities — a jacuzzi tub, a man cave, an in-home theater. The homes might be wacky and chaotic and destined to fall out of vogue, but at least they reflected some customization. In the past decade, though, she’s noticed a shift toward another dispiriting trend. Homes now just feel “primed for resale” with their neutral tones, white kitchens, and the shiplap farmhouse look that everyone’s into right now. With the aid of Zillow, everyone is constantly peering into their neighbors’ homes. The house-flipper mentality — renovate cheaply and inoffensively — has gone mainstream.

“It’s not necessarily about creating a house that is for somebody’s particular taste but for it to be seamless as an asset,” Wagner told me. “People become more and more self-conscious about the way that their houses are viewed. We’re all kind of temporarily embarrassed real-estate investors, in a way.”


A row of modern townhouses on a sunny morning

Builders are cutting corners and using cheaper materials like vinyl siding to bring down costs.

Marcia Straub/Getty Images



This kind of thinking extends up and down the value chain. Builders need to finish homes quickly while targeting the broadest demographic possible. In an effort to keep up with demand, they’re increasingly building on spec, which means they’re pulling home plans off the shelf and constructing the final product without any input from the eventual buyer. Homeowners, meanwhile, want to emulate the looks they see on HGTV shows and inside the homes around their neighborhoods, which they can browse with ease online.

“The house is almost just like liquid capital,” Wagner told me. “It can’t be offensive; it can’t break the mold. It has to be sellable at all times.”

Taste is subjective, to be sure, and it can change with time. William Morgan, an architecture critic in Providence, Rhode Island, recalls an era when the word “Victorian” was enough to get a house torn down. “Now, of course, it’s been resurrected, and people are doing little Queen Anne houses and adding little shingles and turrets and stuff,” he told me. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are plenty of people who are happy with the cookie-cutter look as long as they can call it their own. And with so many would-be home sellers staying put with their 3% mortgage rates, the market for new homes may be the best option for some buyers right now.

The grumblings over the state of home design aren’t just coming from haters looking for something to hate, though. They reflect both the tough economics of the building business and a homeownership mindset that’s fixated on resale values. Like McInnes, the dismayed YouTuber in Northern Virginia, you may favor homes from a bygone era. But where you see boring and neutral, someone else sees dollar signs.


James Rodriguez is a senior reporter on Business Insider’s Discourse team.


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