The neologism "McMansion" seems to have been coined sometime in the early 1980s. It appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1990 and the New York Times in 1998. Related terms include "Persian palace", "garage Mahal", "starter castle", and "Hummer house". Marketing parlance often uses the term tract "mansions" or executive homes.
The term "McMansion" is generally used to denote a new, or recent, multi-story house of no clear architectural style, which prizes superficial appearance, and sheer size, over quality.
Such very large, indeed expensive, but "mass produced" homes may sit on large lots: that is to say, an entire division of McMansions may be created (perhaps dozens or more at once), each on a large lot. However, in another usage "McMansion" is used pejoratively to refer to a house which replaced a smaller house, in a neighborhood of smaller houses, which seems far too large for its lot and thus crowds adjacent homes. (Indeed, such a McMansion may lack side windows due to the proximity to the boundaries - another McMansion-related cliché.)
- One real-estate writer explains the successful formula for McMansions: symmetrical structures on clear-cut lots with Palladian windows centered over the main entry and brick or stone enhancing the driveway entrance, plus multiple chimneys, dormers, pilasters, and columns—and inside, the master suite with dressing rooms and bath-spa, great rooms, breakfast and dining rooms, showplace kitchen, and extra high and wide garages for multiple cars and SUVs.
Typical attributes also include a floor area of over 3,000 square feet (280 m2), ceilings 9 to 10 feet (3 m) high, a two-story portico, a two-story front door hall usually with a large chandelier, a three or more car garage, usually five or more bedrooms and many bathrooms, extensive crown-moulding style features, and lavish - if superficial - interior features.
As noted above, a McMansion replacing a house in a community of smaller-sized houses, will cover a much larger portion of the lot than the construction it replaces; in the other usage McMansions are built en masse in homogeneous communities by a single developer.
Beginning in California in the 1980s, the larger home concept was intended to fill a gap between the more modest suburban tract home and the upscale custom homes found in gated, waterfront, or golf course communities. Subdivisions were developed around such communities, as well as in pre-existing neighborhoods, either in empty lots or as replacements for torn-down structures. The larger homes proved popular and demand increased dramatically, particularly in light of new land-management laws that were enacted in the 1980s and '90s.
Efforts to economize may have led to a decline in quality for many of these new homes, prompting the coinage of the disparaging term. Because these homes emphasize instant gratification, they are rarely designed with energy efficiency, environmental sustainability, maintainability, and longevity in mind.
In a development that runs counter to the previous boom in construction of McMansions, recent reports suggest that the Great Recession (2008–2012) has caused new house sizes in the United States to stabilize.
A traditional upscale custom home is found in one of the city's most affluent residential neighbourhoods (commonly regarded as "Millionaires' Mile"), which are typically gated, waterfront or ravine, or golf course communities, all of which have some of the highest residential property taxes in the city. Most of these communities are usually well-established, being inhabited by traditional blue-blood families, and the real estate prices tend to be high but stable. The houses themselves feature architectural preferences in general accordance with the neighborhood.
By contrast, the McMansion larger home is typically constructed on the outskirts of the city, often further out from the city center than suburban tract homes. McMansions are often found on land that is zoned as (or recently re-zoned from) agricultural instead of residential, and often outside of the city proper limits, as both of these result in lower property taxes. These areas may be in demand by buyers who desire a bigger house than the tract home but do not have the means to afford homes in the city's traditional upscale neighborhoods. Due to this demographic which is more susceptible to boom and bust economic cycles, prices are volatile and often fueled by speculation.
Another reason why McMansions are generally found in outlying suburban areas is that lot sizes in older neighborhoods usually are not conducive to residences of this large scale. McMansions usually are constructed among other large homes by a subdivider on speculation; they generally are built en-masse by a development company to be marketed as premium real estate, but do not offer custom features. The construction of what seems to be too large a house on an existing lot will often draw the ire of neighbors and other local residents. In 2006, for example, a recently built house in Kirkland, Washington—an affluent suburb on Seattle's Eastside—stood so close to an adjoining property that, in the words of the chair of the city's Neighborhood Association, "you can read the lettering on the canned vegetables in the house next door."
McMansions often mix a bewildering variety of architectural styles and elements, combining quoins, steeply sloped roofs, multiple roof lines, complicated massing and pronounced dormers, all producing what some consider an unpleasant jumbled appearance.
The builder may have attempted to achieve expensive effects with cheap materials, skimped on details, or hidden defects with cladding:
- Though construction quality may be subpar and materials shoddy (from faux stucco to styrofoam crown molding and travertine compounded from epoxied marble dust), McMansion buyers are eager; the real-estate writer locates them in the generation of my angst-ridden Boston University students: "mostly young, mobile, career-oriented, high-salaried 30- and 40-something individuals" who are too time-squeezed to hire an architect but seek "a luxury home" that they might soon (and easily) sell whenever "it's time to move on."
Another unflattering observation is that some McMansions have been designed from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. Because priority has been given to the interior, a house's exterior appearance suffers, with oddly placed windows and an amorphous or bloated quality.
Some neighborhoods may also be referred to as "Cookie Cutter" neighborhoods—in some developments all the houses have the same layout and design with minor differences, such as siding color or shutter color. 
From the perspective of a homebuilder who owns a lot, luxury homes of 3,000 square feet (280 m2) or more are more profitable than smaller homes. Many communities have few residential lots available; thus, those builders who acquire them are likely to build a luxury home. As of 2014 32% of the new homes being built were 3,000 square feet (280 m2) or more, and the average size of new construction had increased to over 2,600 square feet (240 m2).
The widespread disdain for the McMansion stems from perceptions that these houses look and feel inappropriate for a given neighborhood, are wasteful in terms of space (too much room for too few people) and resources (building materials, electricity, gas), project the pretentiousness (or lack of taste or refinement) of their owners, and a general discordance in architectural preferences.
McMansions have received extensive criticism in Australia because they do not blend in with the archetypal Australian home (generally single story red brick or bungalow homes) and because they use render materials that give an ugly, over the top and exaggerated appearance. Australians often buy older, modest houses as tear downs and build McMansions on the vacant land, leading to one observer noting that in the country "a poor house stands side by side with a good house."
- McFedries, Paul (2008). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Weird Word Origins. Alpha Books. p. 99. ISBN 978-1-59257-781-1.
- An example from Braces, gym suits, and early-morning seminary: a youthquake survival manual (1985) by Joni Winn [Hilton]: "The McMansion, by the way, is really just the largest house in the neighborhood"
- Book Review: Search for Environmental View of Design, Review of 'Out of Place: Restoring Identity to the Regional Landscape', by Michael Hough Yale University Press. Los Angeles Times, July 17, 1990. "What character their history and ecology might offer is being strip-mined to make way for anonymous residential projects, monolithic office towers, climate-controlled retail complexes of questionable design and awkward transportation systems—all in the abused name of progress. We are talking here of the march of mini-malls and 'McMansions.'"
- Interiors; Getting Smart About Art of Living Small. Los Angeles Times, September 19, 1998. "The size of the average new single-family home has gone from 1,520 square feet (141 m2) in 1971 to 2,120 square feet (197 m2) in 1996, according to '1998 Housing Facts, Figures and Trends,' published by the National Assn. of Home Builders. 'But not everyone is living in a McMansion or aspires to it," said Gale Steves, editor of Home Magazine". "Every time we do a small house in the magazine, there is lots of mail."
- Cheever, Benjamin - Close to home; Life in a Crater Will Do, For Now. New York Times, August 27, 1998. "Twenty mansions were planned for the development, each designed to look like the biggest house in town. The McMansion we thought of as ours had an enormous kitchen, more than two stories high."
- The term Persian palace is specific to Los Angeles and West Hollywood and refers to houses built by Iranian immigrants, not to Iranian architecture. Goldin, Greg (2006-06-17). "In Defense of the Persian Palace". LA Times. Retrieved 2010-05-26.
- Filter, Alicia (2006-04-20). "McMansions: Super-sized homes cause a super-sized backlash". Illinois Business Law Journal. Retrieved 2009-05-28.
- Stephen A. Mouzon, Susan M. Henderson. Traditional Construction Patterns. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2004. "(1) Victorian door and side lights on vaguely classical McMansion, (2) Victorian door and side lights on vaguely Georgian McMansion, (3) possibly an Oriental moon gate door on a vaguely classical house..." Pages 144 and 190.
- Cecelia Techi. Exposés and excess: muckraking in America, 1900-2000. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pages 33–34.
- Not including the basement. Used as a working definition by the Environmental Design Research Association in a 2006 report. This represents a floorspace "30 percent larger than the average new house and larger than 80 percent of houses" according to the 2000 Census. EDRA37: beyond conflict : proceedings of the 37th Annual Conference of the Environmental Design Research Association, May 3–7, 2006, Atlanta, Georgia. Page 254.
- Zelinsky, Wilbur (2011). Not Yet a Placeless Land: Tracking an Evolving American Geography. Univ of Massachusetts Press. p. 96. ISBN 1-55849-871-0.
- Fletcher, June (2009-06-29). "McMansions Out of Favor, for Now". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2010-05-25.
- Miles Jaffe. The Hamptons Dictionary: The Essential Guide to Class Warfare. Constellation, 2008. Page 82.
- Fiona Allon. Renovation nation: our obsession with home. UNSW Press, 2008. Page 151.
- Chiu, Lisa (2006-06-08). "Big homes on small lots crowd Kirkland neighbors". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 2008-02-11.
- From Metropolitan Home, Volume 24 (1992): "This is no McMansion. Every door is perfectly placed, every proportion is exactly right."
- "Why do cookie-cutter neighborhoods exist?". HowStuffWorks. Retrieved 2015-11-05.
- Kriston Capps (August 3, 2015). "The Recovery Is Super-Sizing Houses". CityLab (The Atlantic). Retrieved August 4, 2015.
- Davison, Graeme. "The Past & Future of the Australian Suburb." Australian Planner (Dec. 1994): 63–69.
- Bernstein, Fred A. "Are McMansions Going out of Style?" The New York Times, October 2, 2005.
- Fletcher, June. "The McMansion Glut". The Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2006.
- Leinberger, Christopher B. "The Next Slum?" The Atlantic Monthly, March 2008.
- Rybczynski, Witold. "How McMansions Go Wrong" Slate.com, January 4, 2006
- Long, Joshua. 2010. Weird City: Sense of Place and Creative Resistance in Austin, Texas. University of Texas Press.
- On architecture: collected reflections on a century of change, By Ada Louise Huxtable, Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2008
- Photographs of a McMansion's interior, including the tall hallway with chandelier, Boston.com.