Learning to love the not-so-big house

I had lunch with my friend Cameron a few weeks ago. Over plates of Kung Pao Chicken and Mongolian Beef, the conversation drifted toward personal finance. We began to talk about the repairs and upgrades we've been making to our homes.

Kris and I bought our current house three years ago; Cameron and his wife bought their home two years ago. Both were big upgrades from what we had previously owned. And though neither couple spent more than they could afford, we're now realizing that bigger isn't always better.

Our first house was a 1365 square foot ranch-style home on a 7500 square foot lot. It was an unremarkable house, except that it was located in my home town. We could walk to the grocery store, to the barber, to our favorite restaurants. I could bike to work. If we still lived there, we would be paying off the mortgage next spring.

But I had always dreamed of a bigger place. I wanted a home with acreage. When we found a hundred-year-old farmhouse nestled close into Portland, we bought it. Our new house has 1820 square feet on two-thirds of an acre (less land than I wanted, but enough). We love the place. After three years, though, it's clear that 1820 square feet is too much for the two of us. We have two rooms that remain essentially unused, but which we furnish, heat, and cool nonetheless.

Cameron also had a modest ranch house on an average lot. When his wife got a good job in a different part of the state, they bought a bigger place. It's a wonderful home: huge floorplan, five acres, an amazing view. But Cameron, too, is beginning to understand that upsizing has unexpected costs.

Don't misunderstand me: both of us love our houses, but we've come to realize there are trade-offs. Too much house is as much a problem as not enough. “I feel like I'm always cleaning,” Cameron told me. “I feel like I'm always doing yardwork,” I said. There are other considerations, too, some of which are obvious, others less so:

  • A larger house generally brings a larger mortgage.
  • A larger mortgage means more total interest paid over the life of the loan.
  • A larger home has higher utility bills.
  • It costs more to furnish.
  • And from our experience, larger homes have more things that can go wrong with them.

Cameron and I talked about remodeling projects, about long-term plans, and about what we've learned since moving. “We'll never use all the space we have,” he told me. “And with two young kids, it's all we can do to keep up with maintenance.”

“My values have changed,” I said. “I always thought I wanted a big house. I thought that was a sign of success. I don't believe that anymore.”

That's the crux of the problem: What was important to me three years ago is less important to me now. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert writes that it's difficult for the present You to predict what will make the future You happy. You do your best, but sometimes the future You looks back and scratches his head wondering what his younger self was thinking.

Neither Cameron nor I intend to move, but we now appreciate the advantages of a smaller home, advantages we didn't recognize when we had them!

Related Reading

Last year, NPR had a story on the ever-expanding American dream house, which looked at the pros and cons of large homes. Though this piece actually discusses very large homes, it still explores issues like the reasons large houses have become so prevalent.

Architect Sarah Susanka has a series of books (and a web site) that explore the concept of what she calls The Not So Big House. She writes:

The inspiration for The Not So Big House came from a growing awareness that new houses were getting bigger and bigger but with little redeeming design merit. The problem is that comfort has almost nothing to do with how big a space is. It is attained, rather, by tailoring our houses to fit the way we really live, and to the scale and proportions of our human form. Two must-read articles about this topic include Cultural Creatives: The Rise of Integral Culture, by Dr. Paul Ray and a recent interview with William McDonough in Newsweek magazine entitled Designing The Future.

Finally, for years I've been fascinated by people who choose to live in ultra-small houses. How small? The Tumbleweed Tiny House Company has plans for homes as small as 40 square feet! Really, though, I'm more interested in their 392 square foot glass house, or the 100 square foot EPU (which you can build for just $19,000 plus labor). You can find more homes like this at The Small House Society.

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Eric Monse
Eric Monse
12 years ago

Great article. We always seem to want to live beyond our means.

Pippin
Pippin
12 years ago

are you psychic, man? I just commented to the previous post, saying that I like your site for the personal aspect, and wondering if you’d have aspiration creep as you get more financially comfortable (I didn’t mention houses, but I was certainly thinking that your current place always sounds lovely), and boom, you post to that point! Top show!

Matthew
Matthew
12 years ago

As a single guy living in an 1,800 sq. ft house with two closed up rooms, I couldn’t agree more with this post. So much space, so little of me to occupy it. Of course, I didn’t buy the house expecting to occupy it alone, but now that there is a dearth of roommates, I’m starting to feel that it’s a waste… and the yard work! I definitely do not enjoy that aspect of home ownership. It’s odd that I wanted a big yard, but have hated yard work since I was a teenager. Can anyone say “keeping up with… Read more »

xysea
xysea
9 years ago
Reply to  Matthew

I come from the other end of the spectrum, because right now it’s my husband and I and my daughter. We have a two bedroom, two bath place that is about 800 sq ft. Sometimes that seems quite small – especially when I would like some private time to myself and I can’t find it! lol We have even co-opted the screened in porch for private space at times, when it isn’t too hot (I live in FL). We have discussed a slightly bigger house – I would like a guest room and my husband would like a study to… Read more »

JerichoHill
JerichoHill
12 years ago

One thing Julie mentions is that she thinks we’ll have to move in 10 years out of our house when we have had kids and theyre more grown. I dont think we will. The house is plenty big, even if its just a little bit bigger than the average size of a single family home in 1970.

Id think that having more space would lead me to have more clutter. In a smaller space, i want to clean it.

Nathan
Nathan
12 years ago

My wife and I live in a small house, less than 1000sqft, and it is great. It was cheap to buy, is cheap to heat, and cheap to maintain. Best of all, we can clean it top to bottom in 30 minutes!

Andrea >> Become a Consultant
Andrea >> Become a Consultant
12 years ago

My family of four lives fairly comfortably in just over 1000 square feet. We plan to move to a bigger house in a few years, but we’ll probably rent out the basement and subsequently have about as much space as we do now. However, we will have a yard, less worry about windows, and the ability to reclaim the basement. In fact, if we rent out the basement, we’ll probably be paying less than we are now, even though the mortgage will double.

MissPinkKate
MissPinkKate
12 years ago

Funny you mention this. I live in a typical NYC apartment- small, cramped, strangely laid out (part of the ceiling in the bathroom is under a heating duct, and it’s only 6 feet high, including in the shower- my head brushes the celing while I shower). And I often dream of a “real” house- something big with lots and lots of room. But then I visit big houses and think, gee, what would I do with all this space! I wouldn’t know what to do.

Luke
Luke
12 years ago

My parents built their own house back in the mid 80’s, I’m not sure of the square footage, but it isn’t gigantic. With 3 kids there were plenty of people around all the time and they designed it so that there was one large family room/dining room/combined space out front with bedrooms in the back. This meant that the back half of the house could be much cooler/warmer in the winter/summer as everyone was mostly in the big common area. Being an earth burmed/ passive solar house it was very energy efficient. So an added benefit of a smaller house… Read more »

Courtney
Courtney
12 years ago

I love The Not So Big House. I’ll never buy a place that is larger than 1800 square feet. Too much to clean, too much to heat, too much. I always say I’d rather own a second vacation home than a larger house. I also read somewhere (nyt) that most couples that sell their large homes to “downsize” actually end up buying more square footage, just configured differently … i.e. a media room instead of a third bedroom or no stairs.

Great post.

Moneymonk
Moneymonk
12 years ago

I have the same thoughts, then I realize the undercover expenses

higher property taxes
higher utilities
more to furnish
more maintenance

…as you said.

Sometimes it’s better to appreciate what you have.

Tim
Tim
12 years ago

I live in a 2000 square foot house I bought just out of college. Rented the front rooms to fraternity brothers until I got married and then kicked them out, but that paid the mortgage for several years. Today I use most of the house, especially now that I have a daughter and another on the way, but during the married kidless years I just closed up the vents and kept the door closed – it was my big storage locker and as such heating and cooling costs were kept to a minimum of whatever seeped under the door crack… Read more »

Anne
Anne
12 years ago

Earlier this year, I bought a 500-square-foot 1-bedroom condo. I LOVE it. It feels like the perfect size for one, and one of the best parts about it is how it really causes me to prioritize my purchases and even activities. I am constantly purgeing and streamlining the way I spend my time at home. And cleaning is a breeze. I’ve read some of Sarah Susanka’s books and totally agree with her premise. My condo may be small, but it’s really smartly laid-out so it never FEELS too small, and it has some great architectural details. I’ve been inside some… Read more »

brad
brad
12 years ago

I found the “Not So Big House” books a bit too high-end and designery for my tastes, but this book about Japanese houses is truly inspiring: Space: Japanese Design Solutions, by Michael Freeman. It shows how Japanese home and apartment dwellers have come up with ways to live comfortably in really small spaces. I especially like the staircase that has drawers in every riser — what a brilliant idea. I grew up in a huge house with a lot of land so never had any desire to live in a big house: I was the one stuck doing all the… Read more »

John
John
12 years ago

There is also the hidden cost to relationships in a large home. In a smaller house, togetherness is somewhat enforced and as a result bonding occurs. With large houses the ability for all to go to separate areas to do their own thing is increased. As a result there is an unintentional tendency towards separation. With a smaller house, those same activities may occur but the individuals are closer to each other and thus bonds form.

plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

I think my house is about 700 square feet (its a 2-bed terrace). Its interesting that American houses have increased in size as its generally perceived to be the case in the UK that new houses have got smaller over time.

jasonn
jasonn
12 years ago

I agree that bigger isn’t always better, but I would find it very hard to live in 40 square feet of space, although I suppose could learn to appreciate it with some adjustments.

GeckoGirl
GeckoGirl
12 years ago

I would love to custom-build a house on acreage. Our current home is much bigger than two people need but it was impossible to get all the features we wanted in a smaller house.

Gnashchick
Gnashchick
12 years ago

I have a 1200 sq foot house that was built in 1970. It’s in a nice working-class neighborhood that borders a lake-side community of much larger houses, and it’s appreciated at a reasonable rate. It didn’t “bubble” like so many other areas. I have three bedrooms, two tiny bathrooms, and a kitchen/living area. It is perfect for two people, and I could see a family easily raising two or three kids here too. My SO sometimes talks about getting a bigger place, so he can have a larger workshop, a place to restore cars & boats, etc., but he always… Read more »

honeybee
honeybee
12 years ago

I don’t know the square footage on our apartment, but we’re “at capacity” — the dining table we bought was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. It is now in our bedroom. But I guess that’s what happens in a 1-bedroom apartment — at least it’s not a studio. But, for two people, it’s a bit of a squeeze. It looks just a little bit ridiculous next to our bed. The upside: We cannot buy a single other thing. Not one more thing. NOTHING more can fit in our dwelling. Every time I think of buying something, I… Read more »

SeanGilles
SeanGilles
12 years ago

This is just weird.. I spent 2 hours last night looking at floor plans. We used to live in a 1500 sqft house, recently moved to a 2400 sqft house, and we are wanting to build. I kept seeing plans that were ~2000 sqft that looked perfect, but I (and my wife) were thinking, why would we even think of building our dream home smaller than our current house. This post and people’s comments has really opened my eyes. I use 4 rooms in my house (kitchen, family room, master bedroom and bath.) That leaves a breakfast nook, formal dining… Read more »

IdeaSenator
IdeaSenator
12 years ago

I live in a small house and the reason I chose to, apart from the obvious costs….I can see my children and they get to see me(now..i sometimes wonder!!). I believe that small space teaches everyone to be kind, sharing and keep us connected.

Wesley
Wesley
12 years ago

Minimalism is definitely an interest of mine. Thanks for sharing both the article and the links…very interesting stuff!

maxconfus
maxconfus
12 years ago

yes, small home is the best; efficient – not to mention easier to clean (calc your effective time and money spent on cleaning your house and start weeping). being a long-time aspiring engineer, even at a very young age, I was always on the efficiency/resources-are-limited clue-train like the info being spread by geologists hubert and such in the early ’80s, thanks to other teachers who were devout engineers (thanks a ton Patterson), so it was a natural choice to find a small house for us and the littles. My best advice for people looking for smaller homes is to find… Read more »

m
m
12 years ago

This is one of my biggest concerns in making major choices–what I want has changed a bit over the years and I fear when I make a big decision that I may change again and find that in just a few years the decision is not longer a good one for me. A risk we all must take I guess? Wish I had an answer for this one as we try to figure out where we want to live and hopefully settle down in for a long, long time.

April
April
12 years ago

“…it’s difficult for the present You to predict what will make the future You happy.” SO true, and I’m trying to predict what the future ME will want. My fiance and I bought 4 acres of unimproved land, on which we plan to build a very unique home, likely strawbale, that is extremely energy efficient. I don’t plan to move from this home once it is built, so designing it is a huge undertaking. I know I don’t want anything big, that’s a given, which means really maximizing our space. We plan to have kids, we plan to have family… Read more »

not apart but togetherment
not apart but togetherment
12 years ago

We (my wife and I) live in a 500 sq ft studio apartment that we LOVE. We have lived there for three years. It has every thing we need and nothing we do not. We are forced to NOT acquire useless stuff that just sits there wasting our money. We do not “store” anything (except papers in a little plastic hanging folder). If you haven’t used it in 6 months get RID of it. It is not doing anything for you. Because invariably studio apartments like ours are in large cities (we live in DC that’s in the District itself… Read more »

Peachy
Peachy
12 years ago

I bought a house built in the 1970s a few years ago (6) and it’s about the size you have in the picture. It’s a rancher with a finished basement with three bedrooms and 1 full and 2-1/2 baths. It’s way too much space for me. I don’t have a lot of junk, and people always think that I just moved in. I don’t know what I’d do with a bigger house, so until I have a family and dogs, I’m going to stay right where I am. I hate cleaning as it is!

Anne
Anne
12 years ago

I love that you bring this up because I haven’t bought my first house yet, and it’s somewhat of a relief to hear this perspective.

I currently live in a 800 square foot apartment that is very well-designed and wastes no space. It feels more spacious than many bigger homes I’ve been in.

(Aside to honeybee: I move to Cambridge in January… I’ll try keep your “upside” in mind!)

Darice
Darice
12 years ago

The graphic cracked me up, because our house was built in 1973 and is 1515 square feet. It’s 3 bedrooms and 2 baths. Up until this year, we’d used the extra bedroom as my office, a guest space, and storage — but now we’re expecting another child. The purging we’ve done since we found out #2 was on his way has been really freeing. We have re-evaluated all the stuff we had stuffed in that room (and it was a lot), as well as the stuff in other areas of the house. We donated a lot of things, including taking… Read more »

Swamproot
Swamproot
12 years ago

Finding a small house that my wife and I both loved was a great thing for us. It was about half of what we supposedly “could” afford if “could” means 200% of your income. I’ve got it on a 15 year note and the mortgage is less than 13% of our combined take home pay. I’m shooting to pay it off in ten, and still put plenty towards retirement. (lets not start the great “should I pay off the house early” debate. Unless you want to 🙂 ) As other posters have noted, it is a great check against getting… Read more »

Richard
Richard
12 years ago

Over the course of 4 years I spent at least a year or more in: 1) an average townhouse 2) a large 4 bedroom single family home 3) a 1 bedroom apartment. I now believe that the only way to practically maintain a large house is if you either have a bunch kids old enough to help maintain it or hired help. The benefits of the smaller places are the low yard maintenance and utility bills. The only benefit I truly enjoyed of having a larger place was hosting parties (there is ample parking and room for all). If hosting… Read more »

Justin
Justin
12 years ago

I’m looking at getting a new place for just me right now. I have to admit, while the big numbers do hold a certain allure, I can’t imagine keeping up anything more than 1200-ish. Part of that size is from my want for a spare bedroom for guests.

But, for me, when I’m visiting others homes, the ones that I like the best are always the ones that feel like a home, regardless of the size. That’s what my real goal is, and that’s why having a spare bedroom always available is so important for me.

Curtis
Curtis
12 years ago

So many comments from people who don’t like big houses, and I don’t fit that bill. We are a family of 3 (plus 2 dogs, a cat and a guinnea pig) with 2300 square feet of 4 bedroom 2 baths. Here’s the difference with us. 1. Our house is 85 years old in the city of St. Louis and is thus not contributing to the rise in the average home size. We are “recycling” by re-using perfectly good housing stock and maintaining it well. 2. Because it’s older, it was made to have public spaces. It’s not meant to have… Read more »

Chris
Chris
12 years ago

The NPR McMansion report is a little misleading by drawing the conclusion that we are building bigger houses because our sensibility has changed. There are some subtle supply/demand forces at work here too. We see a lot of people posting here that they are perfectly happy in a 900 – 1200 sqft house. The fact is that there are actually many houses that size available already and in the past there weren’t many larger houses to choose from. You either had a small family home or a mansion, no happy medium existed. But now we’re filling that gap. If a… Read more »

SoldierGrrrl
SoldierGrrrl
12 years ago

Where we have land, there’s a minimum sq. footage requirement of 2000 sq. ft. and we’ll be sticking around that.

I sew and my husband paints minis and we both game, so having rooms to do that stuff in is important to us. We live in about 1000 sq. ft. right now, and there’s not much extra room in here. I hate not having the room to spread out my sewing or him to paint.

For some folx, smaller works, for others, it doesn’t. It’s pretty relative.

The Tough Broad
The Tough Broad
12 years ago

I have a one bedroom apartment that’s tiny, tiny, tiny, but I love it. Three little rooms but three big closets! I have enough space to have everything I need, and just a little bit extra to make it charming. I’ve got crown molding, hardwood floors and great wall color, so I don’t need much decoration. A family friend in New York had a tiny apartment for decades, and it always seemed so organized. I asked him his secret and he said, “Trash can by the door. Throw it out before you even take your shoes off and you’ll be… Read more »

Donna
Donna
12 years ago

We moved from a drafty open ranch on 1/2 acre in rural Indiana to a condo near Chicago. We went from almost $200 heating bills to about $60 and cooling bills were also cut in half. I do miss having a yard and we would like to move up to a larger townhouse with a nice patio to compensate until we can afford a house again. I also am a sewer/crafter who would like to have my own business which means I really miss my extra studio room in my house. Right now it is in what is supposed to… Read more »

Cerise Ly
Cerise Ly
12 years ago

Seeing a McMansion “great room,” my first thought is always how are you going to clean the cobwebs in those ceiling corners.

Patrick
Patrick
12 years ago

My wife and I recently decided not to “upgrade” to a larger house for these exact reasons. We decided we would be fine where we are right now. It is just the two of us for the time being. Eventually we will have kids and reevaluate our situation. Nice post.

Julia
Julia
12 years ago

Yes, yes!! I wish I had been reading information about this and thinking this while I was in college, but it wouldn’t have changed where I am today. My dad was a realtor and said to buy the biggest house you can afford. I’m glad I didn’t follow his advice! I ended up buying a house mainly because a relative was selling it, and I’m so glad I did. Had I gone out to buy the biggest, nicest house I could “afford”, my mortgage would be atrocious. I didn’t love the house, but it was acceptable, close to work, and… Read more »

Joe
Joe
12 years ago

Exactly the info I was looking for in the regular forum. Maybe retiring into MUCH smaller is not such a bad idea after all
JD also

Rae
Rae
12 years ago

Really thought-provoking! My boyfriend and I are currently building our first house, and it’s about 1800 sq ft. We were strongly influenced by Sarah Susanka, and also by the Japanese design book that Brad mentioned (you can see a garden plan from that book that we implemented here: http://www.albo-rae.com/blogs/house/index.php?s=step+garden). My BF grew up in very small houses that his parents built or renovated, and they had a large common room, and small bedrooms, so everyone spent time together. I still see that family closeness reflected when I’m with them now. In contrast, my family had a large Victorian with lots… Read more »

Jordan
Jordan
12 years ago

I am on edge about what I want. Part of me loves living in the city and having a nice apartment in a nice high rise. the other part of me wants a cozy house (around 1300-1500 sf) on a chunk of land because I like dogs, big dogs. Im only 22 so I have a lot of time before i make my choices, and where I live (Hawaii) if I want that house on a chunk of land, it will probably cost me a million bucks (not exaggerating…land prices here are ridiculous). What will probably happen is I will… Read more »

Brooks Ballard
Brooks Ballard
12 years ago

I agree; we need to think smaller for many reasons. From macro to micro, you just get more when you think small. Ironic I know. More time (less cleaning), more places to visit (density encourages parks and retail), more money (to save or spend), etc. I am an architect and deal with this issue all of the time – it’s hard to convince builders to think this way when they haven’t experienced it themselves. Per square foot cost is definitely more important to them. More square footage means less cost per square foot. It’s tough to find new smaller homes.… Read more »

Tim
Tim
12 years ago

Ok, just because it’s been posted about how everybody hates to clean so much and because I am a big techno-geek. Check out the Roomba!

http://www.irobot.com/sp.cfm?pageid=122

I bought one of the early models and completely love these things. They vacuum “OK”, but it keeps the floors clean and I schedule it to run when I’m not home, so my house stays clean as if by “magic”.

There have been mixed reviews all over the place and it’s really not a replacement for a true vacuum cleaner, but it does cut down on the cleaning and leaves more time for leisure…

Aleks
Aleks
12 years ago

“There is also the hidden cost to relationships in a large home. In a smaller house, togetherness is somewhat enforced and as a result bonding occurs. With large houses the ability for all to go to separate areas to do their own thing is increased. As a result there is an unintentional tendency towards separation. With a smaller house, those same activities may occur but the individuals are closer to each other and thus bonds form.” I read an article recently about exactly that. There was a new home show where the reporter saw the “ultimate” family home, and it… Read more »

Andrea >> Become a Consultant
Andrea >> Become a Consultant
12 years ago

Uh, JD? Put only business stuff in those unused rooms. Presto magic tax write-off.

Impressed
Impressed
12 years ago

Good time to really think about these things.

Currently I live in a 1400sf condo, 2 bedroom + den, and its way to big.

Considering purchasing a house to rent out and build a second building on the property that would be a mini house of 600 ish sq

Do we really need all that space ? It just piles up with stuff.

chris
chris
12 years ago

I don’t own a house yet, but i’ve always dreamed of a two story house. as time has gone by and i’ve shopped for homes, (I live in california so despite being 4/5 of the way to 6 figures i can’t afford to buy) I’ve realized that if i do get a large place in my current situation (single no kids) All that room is an invitation to create clutter/ store stuff. I’m coming to embrace the necessity of buying a smaller place and making it work for me.

ClickerTrainer
ClickerTrainer
12 years ago

Did I miss something? None of the plans on that website (Tumbleweed Tiny House) had tubs or showers…they are really cabins.

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