The quest for the not-so-big house

The Not So Big House

Kim and I have spent the past couple of weeks hunting for a new house. While it's true that we love many things about our current place — great neighbors, great neighborhood, great views, great walkability — we've come to realize that it no longer fits our lifestyle and goals.

When I bought this condo in 2013, I was newly divorced and newly dating. It seemed like a sweet bachelor pad. When Kim moved in, things weren't perfect but we made do because the condo still mostly reflected our values. But something happened during our 15-month RV tour of the United States. When we arrived home, we realized that we had changed.

  • After living together so long in a tiny space, our condo seems ginormous.
  • City life, which had once seemed vibrant and exciting, now feels rushed and overwhelming.
  • We both crave the slower country lifestyle in which we were raised. We want space and time to do outdoorsy things.
  • Plus, now we have pets, animals that long to be outside instead of stuck in an apartment all day.

So, we've started shopping for a new place to live. Our ideal home is smaller (which, to us, means less than 1500 square feet) and on about an acre of land close to Portland. Finding a place with land isn't as difficult as we thought it might be, but finding a smaller home is tough.

There are roughly 30 small homes on more than an acre in the Portland area. Of these, 21 are within our budget. There are more than 300 houses over 1500 square feet on large lots. Thirty of these are within our budget. (Overall, there are 604 homes under 1500 square feet available in Portland; there are 2396 homes larger than that for sale.)

The bottom line: Houses are huge nowadays.

Bigger is NOT Always Better

How big have homes become?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median size for a new home built in 1973 was 1525 square feet. By 2015, that number had jumped to 2467 square feet. During those 44 years, kitchen sizes have doubled, ceilings have risen more than a foot, and bedrooms have grown by more than 50 square feet.

But home sizes are ballooning even as households are shrinking! The average household had 2.9 people in 1973. In 2015, the average household had 2.5 people. Forty years ago, we had 526 square feet of living space per person; today, we have 987 square feet of living space per person — and that's increasing every year.

This seems crazy. Why do we need such huge houses? What's the point? And do homeowners truly consider the costs when they choose to buy big? A larger home doesn't just carry a larger purchase price. It costs more to maintain. It costs more to light, to heat, and to furnish. For too many people, big homes are the destroyer of dreams. (I'm not joking. I truly believe this.)

This year, I've been running the numbers for my own life. It's been surprising to find how much it costs for me to live in what is ostensibly a paid-for condo. With a $570/month HOA payment and a $6282.71 property tax obligation, I'm on the hook for nearly $1100 per month! Before utilities! To live in a place I own outright!

That's too much.

So, Kim and I are searching for a not-so-big house.

The Not-So-Big House

In her 1998 book The Not-So-Big House, Sarah Susanka argues that modern homes are large and (worst of all) inefficient.

“It's time for a different kind of house,” Susanka wrote before the tiny house movement had become a movement. “A house that is more than square footage, a house that is Not So big, where each room is used every day.”

In Susanka's view, Not-So-Big is less about numbers and more about use. It's about homes that reflect how people actually live. She doesn't like living rooms and formal dining rooms, for instance. She prefers open floorplans that incorporate the kitchen, living, and dining areas all into one unified location. Quality of space is more important than quantity of space, she says.

“The Not So Big house features adaptable spaces open to one another, designed for everyday use,” she writes. Modern homes, by contrast, have a different room for each possible activity. This is wasteful and isolating, and it doesn't reflect how people actually want to live.

The Not-So-Big House is also comfortable. It's warm and inviting. Its features reflect the values of the owner. The hallmarks of a Not-So-Big house are efficiency, quality, and comfort.

Note: When it comes to size, what is Not-So-Big for me might be too much for you (or vice versa). Susanka, for instance, talks about homes of 3000 square feet — or more! — as if they were “not so big”. These seem huge to me under any circumstance. Ideally, I'd like a place between 1000 and 1200 square feet. But I had dinner with a friend last week who lives in 600 square feet and is looking to downsize. To her, my “not so big” is huge.

Some Not-So-Big Examples

Kim and I have been scouring real-estate listings since the end of March, searching for places that match our criteria. Over the past week, we've toured fifteen different homes and driven by many more. It's fun to see what's out there.

Although pickings are slim, we've found a few places that would meet our needs. The homes are small and the lots are large. One is even relatively close to Kim's current work. These are the top contenders, so far:

Country Cottage

  • The first home is a 1948 English cottage — or what would passes for an English cottage here in Portland. It's been remodeled in a piece-meal fashion over the years so that the home is “quirky”, as our real-estate agent puts it. But that's okay. Kim and I like this particular brand of quirky. The home is 1235 square feet on a 1.04-are lot. But the lot is a strange shape. It's not much wider than the home itself, but very very deep, running down the side of a hill. The back yard contains a deck, a landscaped garden, and plenty of mature trees. This $449,000 house is less than twenty minutes from our current location, but while there are plenty of places to walk for pleasure, it's not possible to walk for errands.
  • The second home is a 1977 ranch home that is unremarkable in almost every way — except that the kitchen is tiny and impractical. (It reminded me of our RV kitchen, and that's not a good thing.) Kim doesn't like how plain the house is, but I think that just means it's a blank canvas for us to create what we want. The home is 1512 square feet but the lot is 1.58 acres near Oregon's wine country, about 45 minutes from Portland. The property contains several fenced areas (for goats and chickens, etc.) and a huge shop with a separate office workspace. This spot is priced at $469,000. It's on a dead-end road with plenty of leisure walking, and maybe within walking distance of the nearest grocery store. (Certainly within biking distance.)
  • The third home is crazy unique. It's a two-story, 1230-square foot yurt on twenty acres of timbered hillside about half an hour from Salem (75 minutes from Portland). The views from this round house are stunning. The land is undeveloped, so we could do anything the law allows. The upstairs living area is completely open; the downstairs contains two bedrooms, a bathroom, and some storage. There's a shop outside, and a gazebo for entertaining. There's lots of land for walking (and for the dog to roam), but there's no way to walk for any sort of errands — except picking up wine. (There's a winery next door.) This place would cost $499,000 and require a total change to our lifestyles.

The 20-Acre View

Despite their differences, these properties share some similarities. They're not tiny houses, obviously, but they're roughly the size that we were raised to think of as normal. Plus, each of these properties offers a feeling of seclusion.

The first is close to a major Portland suburb, but feels like it's in a state park. (Although you can hear the freeway when you're outside.) The second is a standard country subdivision, like the ones I grew up around. And the final place is simply in a world of its own. The animals would love living at any of these places, and so would we.

Closing Thoughts

I'm pleased with how this process has forced us to become more introspective. We're asking ourselves what's important in a home, both as individuals and as a couple. We're looking at the cost for living in our neighborhood versus the cost of living elsewhere. (We're not only looking at obvious housing costs, but also secondary costs like our enormous food budget.)

“Sometimes it seems like you and Kim don't know what you want,” Kathleen (my office-mate) said the other day. “You're always looking for something new.” She's not wrong. It's not that Kim and I are necessarily unhappy with what we have — it's great! — but we both value growth and evolution. And our priorities have changed. We don't know what the future holds for us — and we're okay with that.

Basically, we're exploring possibilities. It could be we buy that yurt on twenty acres and adopt a country lifestyle. It could be that we decide to stay in this condo and make do. Or maybe — just maybe — we'll buy my grandparents' not-so-big house, which is currently owned by my mother. This 1166 square foot home sits on 2.32 acres just a quarter mile from where I grew up (the current site of the family box factory). Kim isn't keen on the place, but there are tons of advantages to considering it as an option.

My grandfather's house

Tonight we'll take a second tour through the country cottage I mentioned above. This time, we'll take photos. We'll ask ourselves, “Could we live here with our animal family for the next five or ten years? How does this property match our goals? Would it help us keep our costs down?” If we like the place well enough, we might make an offer.

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