Census reports open a fascinating window into how the American population has changed. But they also speak volumes about how the population will change — and the opportunities and challenges likely to result. With a little reading between the lines, “America's Families and Living Arrangements: 2003” yields a wealth of useful information for forward-thinking remodelers.

Such as: A huge generational cohort of prospective homeowners is on the march, but high housing prices will force many to create alternative living arrangements. Shrinking families are tempering the demand for huge homes while spurring more subdividing of existing homes. And a major subset of the aging population is affluent empty-nesters with high-end expectations.

Released in November, “America's Families” analyzed shifts in U.S. household composition between 1970 and 2003. Among the major findings:

  • The average household today has 2.57 people, down from 3.14 people in 1970.
  • There are more one- or two-person households — 60% of the total, up from 46%. Just 10% of households have five or more people, down from 21%.
  • There are fewer “family” households —68% of the total, down from 81%. By definition, a family household has at least two members related by birth, marriage, or adoption, with one of them the owner or renter.
  • Married-couple households with their own children declined most dramatically, from 40% to 23%.
  • There are more “nonfamily” households —32% of the total, up from 18.8%. This group consists of women living alone, men living alone, and households shared by non-relatives.
  • The largest category of households (28.2%) now consists of married couples without children.
  • What does all this mean for remodelers? John McIlwain, a senior housing fellow with the Urban Land Institute, says there's likely to be “a certain amount of remodeling done to create apartments in houses.” These will serve as in-law suites, for example, as well as apartments for the older members of Generation Y, the 70-odd million people born roughly between 1977 and 1994. McIlwain anticipates a “real tension” between these young adults' housing needs and dramatically rising housing prices. Such adaptations have been under way for some time in cities, but even suburban areas are starting loosen zoning restrictions against them, he says.

    Another remodeling option involves creating second master suites in existing homes, usually those occupied by nonfamily groups such as adults who live with friends rather than spouses or partners.

    Urban development will continue to ratchet up, says McIlwain, characterized by upscale condo development and old-home teardowns and remodels. More people want to live closer to cities, he notes, but “no houses are big or new enough. The value of the location is so high” that they'll opt to either buy or add on, “warming a remodeler's heart.”

    And a surprising number of these homeowners are older, many of them affluent empty-nesters accustomed to open space, lots of closets, and upscale kitchens, among other amenities. “Details go a long way” with this group because they've owned and remodeled in the past, says McIlwain. So pay attention to opportunities to “punch it out right.” See the full Census report at www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/p20-553.pdf.