The Case for Smaller Houses
We drove past a really big house the other day and my four year old exclaimed from the backseat "whoa, they have a BIG family!" I laughed at the assumption, that though completely logical, is not necessarily true in most cases. For a while, my husband and I got addicted to a bunch of those house shows-- House Hunters, Fixer Upper, Love It or List It. And against all reason, family size is rarely the most important factor in determining the square footage people are after. Almost always, the rule is "the bigger the better." Square footage is viewed as an outward demonstration of our level of success, and people want the most square footage they can possibly find within their max budget. More space is almost without exception considered a good thing. I was continually baffled at how many childless couples on these shows would be looking to move out of their three bedroom apartments into a five or six bedroom home because they are thinking about starting a family. What?? Babies are literally tiny. Even if you bring them home with every conceivable, rocker, bouncer, walker and swing on the market, each child does not need their own thousand square feet.
Recent data released from the Census Bureau says that for the year 2015, the median size of a new single-family home sold was 2,520 square feet. That's up 11% from a decade earlier (2,227 sq.ft. in 2005) and up 40% from 1975 when it was 1,525 sq. ft. This trend has held steady even in spite of a decrease in the number of people living in the average household. So, the bigger is better model isn't new and doesn't look like its going anywhere soon, but as a minimalist, my vision of the perfect home is a little different. I want to always live in a home that is as small as possible while still meeting all of my needs and wants. Here are a few of the reasons why:
This one is huge. Thirty year mortgages are now the norm when purchasing a home, but think about that. You are signing up to pay a sizable chunk of your income every single month, year after year for thirty years. That's longer than I've been alive. That is a huge obligation and burden! And as banks are known to approve housing loans way higher than is prudent, buying the most expensive house you can afford has lead to financial ruin for countless people. Even if it doesn't leave you bankrupt, it could very well leave you living paycheck to paycheck even with a good income, or in severe financial stress when things like job loss or unexpected expenses come up. I don't pretend to be a financial expert but people "taking out mortgages with dangerously high monthly payments relative to their incomes" seems like a bad idea. Americans spend on average, about 1/3 of their incomes on housing. This article was one of the first I read that made me realize that thirty year mortgages aren't our only option. It's about a couple who built a 704 sq. ft. home that they would pay off in full within 9 months. It's a beautiful home, plenty spacious for the two of them, and think about the financial freedom that they'll have when they don't have to pay a rent or mortgage every month! Not to mention that they'll save themselves from paying an insane amount of interest on a home loan. It can be easy to just focus on your monthly payment, but if you do the math and compare the cost of your home to how much you'll actually end up paying for it if you just pay the minimum mortgage payment every month, the difference is staggering.
Lower utility costs
Another thing to consider with vast high-ceilinged dining halls, and six bedroom second floors, is heating and cooling all of that space. Lower square footage can mean substantially smaller utility bills. Paying an extra $50, $100, or much more for electricity and gas can seem small, but do the math and month after month, year after year, that adds up to a lot of money. Are the extra rooms worth it?
Quality over quantity
Having a smaller home will allow you to afford a nicer home. Would you rather have big and cheap, scrimping on materials, siding, furnishings and fixtures, or would you rather be able to afford top of the line anything you want because you need less of everything? This is all relative of course and I'm not saying that all big homes are cheap and small homes are nice, but the idea is just that if you throw less of your money at quantity, you can have more quality.
Home ownership will always require some amount of time, energy, and money to be thrown at maintenance. Major appliances need replacing and repairing, roofs leak, decks need staining, yards need mowing, trimming and fertilizing, gutters need to be cleaned, drains get clogged, and sometimes things need fresh paint. The list is endless--go ask your dad! You can resign yourself to weekends filled with home project to-do's, or you can opt for a smaller space and yard that will drastically reduce the amount of energy and money you'll need to spend on home maintenance. Not having all those burdens frees up your time for other pursuits, be they recreational, intellectual, professional, family, or leisure. Consider spending your weekends in the mountains, or at the lake instead!
The more square feet you have, the more time it takes to clean it! Imagine the difference between cleaning a 500 sq. ft. home versus 5000. That might be an extreme difference, but every room you add, every 100 or 1,000 extra square feet will require regular cleaning. I'm not too fond of the idea of dragging a vacuum up and down flights of stairs, mop jobs that take over an hour, and having three or more toilets and tubs to scrub down. No thanks.
Spend more time outside your home
Part of this is referring to the fact that less maintenance and cleaning will give you more freedom to spend your nights and weekends actually out doing things--camping, traveling, whatever. But also, when I think about some of the fancy "extra" rooms some big houses have, I often think they make it so a person need never leave their house! It might sound awesome to have a home gym or theatre, but I'd rather go out to the movies, or workout outside or in classes at a gym or yoga studio where I can go with friends and have social interaction.
Less storage, less stuff
No matter how little or how much space we have, it seems to be human nature that we'll fill it. For the first five years of our marriage, we lived in apartments without ever having a garage, basement, or attic. Now we live in a small two-bedroom house and I don't know where we'd put everything without the garage! Storage cupboards, closets, spare rooms, garages, basements, and attics, all attract clutter. It's easy to stick a box or two (and then ten) in there where you can deal with it later, and eventually you'll fill your house up. In a smaller space, you are forced to keep your possessions more minimal. It forces you to give away, sell, or get rid of stuff you don't need anymore and think more carefully about what you bring in because you don't just have out-of-sight places to stash and forget about it.
Brings your family together
This one might be more a con than pro for some people, but having a huge space allows for each member of the family to escape to their own area of the house. While its nice to have privacy, it can also be isolating if your living quarters never require that anyone brush shoulders. I'm of the mind that it wont kill my children to share a bedroom (at least until they're older) and might very well be good for them.
On many of those house hunter shows I mentioned, I noticed people often running into the conflict of having to choose between more space and a better location. Whether it was close to the beach, a shorter commute to their job or access to downtown activities and shopping, location costs! If you are willing to live smaller, you can often afford to put yourself in highly sought after locations and be in a beautiful area that makes your life easier or improves your quality of life by putting you close to things you love.
It's better for the environment
Building bigger almost always means a larger environmental footprint. From the building materials and energy costs involved in building, repair and maintenance, to the energy costs of heating and cooling, smaller houses tread more lightly on our Mother Earth.
While the Tiny House movement has me captivated and inspired, I'm not aiming for tiny. I'd encourage you whether you are looking to rent your next apartment, or dreaming up your forever home, to erase all ideas about what size home you could have, should have, deserve to have, or what's normal. Really consider your family size, needs, and wants, and you may realize you could be happy with something much smaller than what you always thought!