Does the American dream require a big American home?

Does the American dream require a big American home?

This is a guest post from Steve Adcock, who writes at Think Save Retire, a blog about early retirement and Financial Independence. Steve and his wife retired in their mid-thirties to travel full time in an Airstream trailer. For more info, check out their YouTube channel.

One of the most deeply-embedded pieces of the “American Dream” is the desire for a large, spacious home with lots of sitting rooms, corners, nooks, and crannies. Large dining rooms and other entertainment spaces! Wrap-around porches! Two- or three-stall garages and one heck of a master suite!

To many of us, a large home is a mark of success. A big house indicate status, and the more space we’re able to call our own, the more successful we look and feel.

But, what if I told you that most of us don’t use even a fraction of that space? That’s not just me talking. A research team affiliated with the University of California studied American families and where they hung out the most inside their homes, how (and where) clutter builds, and the general stress level associated with living big.

The findings were overwhelming: The majority of the space in our homes is wasted.

How We Use Our Homes

As J.D. shared on Saturday, researchers at UCLA conducted a detailed study of 32 dual-income families living in the Los Angeles area, one of the first studies to document so vividly how we interact with the things for which we’ve paid good money. The findings were not pretty. In fact, they helped prove how little we use our big homes for things other than clutter or objects that hold little intrinsic value.

From the press release:

The researchers doggedly videotaped the activities of family members, tracked their every move with position-locating devices and documented their homes, yards and activities with reams and reams of photographs. They asked family members to narrate videotaped tours of their homes and took measurements at regular intervals of stress hormones via saliva samples.

When I originally wrote about the study, I took special note of where families spent the large majority of their time. In the following UCLA-published diagram of one family that was studied, we can easily observe a truth that’s probably common among so many of us: We tend to congregate around two primary areas of the home: food preparation/eating and television.

Time spent in the home

While this diagram only represents a single family, the results of the study suggest that this family is very typical of most of those studied, and the majority of traditional homes.

Take note of the different areas of this home, especially the dining room. The dining room saw extremely little activity from this family. The porch was almost never used. The study found that 68% of the family’s time was largely spent in the kitchen/nook as well as the family room, typically near the television.

The large majority of the time, this family spends their waking hours congregating around areas of food preparation and consumption. The rest, they're plopped down on the couch watching the boob tube or on the computer.

As J.D. mentioned on Saturday, the study also found that clutter, enabled by such huge homes, fueled stressful emotions for many of the family members — especially mothers. And amazingly, only 25% of garages could be used to store cars. The remaining 75% were jam packed with so much stuff that cars simply couldn’t fit. Cars were relegated to the driveway or street.

Furthermore, families hardly used their yards, devoted money to renovating little-used areas of the home (like master suites) instead of fixing obvious problems, and relied on heating up frozen meals instead of using large and luxurious kitchens to cook.

Of course, not every family will exhibit these behaviors in their homes. Some will use their yards or porches, or dining rooms. However, most families don't use large areas of their homes — which means they've essentially wasted money on space they do not need.

The results of this study reflect my experience perfectly. Years ago, I lived in a 1600-square-foot home and spent 99% of my waking hours in the kitchen and family room. The remaining rooms — like my small office/den and two extra bedrooms — were closed off. One bedroom turned into my hidden cavern for the accumulation of boxes and plastic shopping bags. The other held a spare bed that almost never got used.

Why People Want Big Homes

Why do we want huge homes instead of living smaller? Why do we make the choice to drop additional coinage for space that most of us don’t use?

I believe there are two primary reasons:

  • We link “bigger” with “success”. It's all too common to feel like our big homes represent our success or status in life. The bigger our home, the more successful we appear to our friends and family. How many times have you heard people at work talking about how many square feet they have? It’s a brag item! New homes today are 1000 square feet larger than they were in the 1970s. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median single-family home built in 2016 was over 2400 square feet.
  • We want room to grow — temporarily.Many of us enjoy entertaining groups of people at our homes. Others want a dining room for big family dinners. But wait, how about that spare bedroom? After all, the three or four times that your in-laws come to visit demands additional sleeping quarters in a dedicated room that probably isn’t used for much the rest of the year.

Let's talk a little about that last point, since there's a sort of logic to it. I get why you might sometimes want extra space in your home. But here's the problem with buying extra space for need temporarily: That additional space is always there. We're buying additional space in our homes that we pay for 100% of the time but seldom actually use. We like having the space, but what is that space doing to us? Is it worth the cost?

In the video below, two of J.D.'s friends give him a tour of their tiny house. As you can see, it's perfectly possible to be fulfilled and content — to live the American Dream — in a very small space.

Big Home, Big Headaches

Larger homes and yards not only require large mortgages and tax payments, but also more maintenance. If you aren’t spending your own precious time mowing the lawn or fixing your roof shingles, you’re paying someone else good money to do so. These costs can become cripplingly expensive, especially with super large houses (McMansions).

Larger homes require more security, too. The more space we have, the greater the need to protect it with fencing, cameras and Internet-connected security systems.

Big homes also need to be filled with furniture. Beds, couches, loveseats. Pianos. Pool tables. Most of us don’t let unused rooms sit idly by without anything in them. They need something, so we buy additional stuff to put in there.

Larger homes are also becoming tougher to sell as younger generations look for homes in more unique neighborhoods and, increasingly, in city centers where homes tend to be smaller. And, smaller homes tend to appreciate in value faster and more consistently than larger homes.

In general, the larger the home the bigger the risk. If owners of big homes lose their jobs, their homes don’t suddenly get cheaper. Mortgages are as relentless as they are monotonous, easily wiping away a large majority of our take-home pay.

Here’s the truth: The American Dream shouldn't compel you to buy a home that you cannot afford or maintain. (Or to drive a car you cannot handle or to watch televisions that are just too big for our walls and pocketbooks.)

More does not automatically equal better. More simply means more.

Downsizing to 200 Square Feet

Naturally, larger families require larger homes. We all have different needs, comfort levels, and desires. The point of this article isn't to prove that larger spaces are always bad. Such a conclusion is much too simplistic and entirely inaccurate.

Instead, this article is designed to spur thought and self-reflection. Regardless of the space that you call home, are you fully utilizing that space or is it overcome with clutter? Do you feel stressed when cleaning or maintaining your home? Do you use the large majority each and every week?

As the UCLA study found, we tend to overbuy, believing the misguided wisdom of buying “as big of a house as you can afford”. Forget that advice. Instead, buy as much house as you need. Then, feel confident that you aren’t overextending yourself or weakening your financial position through your rent or mortgage.

To conclude, I want to share how I've moved past the idea that I need a large home.

For those unfamiliar with my story, I’m a 36-year old early retiree who travels the country in a 200-square-foot Airstream with my wife and two rescued dogs. Both my wife and I sold our homes (each around 1,600 square feet), along with the majority of our possessions, and bought an Airstream that we use to travel the country full-time.

Downsizing has been amazing for several reasons:

  • Life is much simpler with fewer possessions.
  • It takes about 10 minutes to vacuum the entire house (well!).
  • We can clean the whole outside of our home in about 30 minutes.
  • We can park this thing virtually anywhere (legally permitted, of course!) and change our scenery at a moment’s notice.
  • Even in a small space, we still have a separate bedroom, bathroom, shower, two sinks, a desk, couch and kitchen with stove, oven and microwave; we also have a refrigerator and freezer, an air conditioner and solar power

The full-time RV life isn't for everyone, and it's not my intent to convince you otherwise. Instead, use my story as a testament to the fact that large homes are very much a choice. Few of us need the space we buy. I certainly didn’t need a 1600-square-foot home before I sold it to move into the Airstream. There are many different ways to live.

Don’t let the American Dream take over your life…or your wallet.

J.D.'s footnote: By now, regular readers know how much I agree with Steve's perspective. My girlfriend and I recently lived in an RV for fifteen months ourselves. The experience taught us that we do not need a large space to live. We believe somewhere around 1000 square feet is perfect for us and our zoo. Last summer, we downsized to 1235 square feet, and even this place has space that goes unused.

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