A few weeks ago, I wrote about how my husband and I are moving to be closer to his new job. Well, it's been a whirlwind of chaos and uncertainty ever since. Since I wrote that post, we put our house on the market and began the search for a new home. And despite the fact that we're excited for the opportunity to move on with our lives, it hasn't been pleasant.
First of all, something happened that we never expected. Our house sold for almost full asking price in 13 days. Yes, you read that right. Thirteen days. This was great, of course, because we were able to put that part of the move behind us. And anyone who has sold their home knows how big of a pain it is to keep their house in prime condition, especially with small kids. Regardless, the fact that our home sold so quickly meant that we needed to find a new home….and fast. Plus, the fact that the buyers of our home wanted possession in 45 days meant that we had 45 days to make an offer on a home, negotiate a price, and close the deal. Gulp.
Searching for our dream home
So we started our home search by making a list of the features we wanted in our new house. Fortunately, we were mostly on the same page. My main concern for our new home was price. Since selling our current home meant that we would have almost 100K for a down payment, I wanted to find a home that was as inexpensive as possible. One of our dreams is to be debt free (including our mortgage) as soon as humanly possible; so the more we burden ourselves with debt, the further we'll be from reaching that goal.
Greg's wish list included features that we have in our current home — a home office, a play room for the kids, and a guest bedroom — and I agreed, adding that I've always wanted a Jacuzzi tub in the master bathroom. We also agreed that we wanted a nice back yard and a two-car garage with some added space for storage. We thought it would be nice to have an open kitchen, plenty of storage, and a fireplace, preferably wood-burning. So, with our list in hand, we started browsing real estate listings in the new area where we are moving. And, thankfully, we found a huge selection of homes that fit our criteria.
Champagne taste, beer budget
Since the house we're selling sold for $160,000, we were hoping to keep our budget somewhere near that amount, (hopefully) not to exceed 200K. But, we also started looking in the low 200s and were even willing to go as high as 230K or 240K to get exactly what we wanted. So with our budget in mind, we started looking for a home that would work.
Over the next few weeks, we looked at least 40 homes. I fell in love at least 10 times. I saw beautiful stone-stacked fireplaces, granite counter tops, and great rooms with vaulted ceilings and custom-built bookcases to boot. I saw Jacuzzi tubs where my problems would surely melt into oblivion as well as back yards that were beautiful, peaceful, and tranquil, like I've always dreamed of.
As I crunched the numbers, I also saw that I would be paying on these homes for way longer than I wanted. And, even though we had found what we were looking for, we were extremely hesitant to pull the trigger. Something was holding us back. Something was telling us to stop and really think about what we were doing. And one thing I've learned is that when that voice talks, I need to listen. What we wanted and what we needed were, as always, two entirely different things. So we started the entire process over. Except this time, we focused on what we need, not what we want.
What did we really need?
The house we're selling is 2,370 square feet, with nearly half of that unused most of the time. Our guest room is only used twice a year, when Greg's parents come from out of state to visit. Our home office houses a beautiful desk set that I purchased off of Craigslist, but I rarely use it and prefer to work in the living room. And the kids' play room? Sure, they love it, but most people I know don't have a room in their home dedicated only to toys. I didn't have a play room growing up, after all — nor did my husband, my best friend, or either of my parents. We all survived.
And, since most of the homes we were looking at were the size of our old home, or bigger, we began to wonder if we were even looking in the right place. We started asking ourselves what we really needed. Did we really need a home office or would a small desk in our bedroom work? When Greg's parents visited from out of state, could they stay in one of our girls' rooms for the weekend? My 4-year-old does have a queen-sized bed. And was a playroom really necessary or could the girls each keep part of their toys in their rooms?
The more we talked, the more we discovered that we could likely live without much of the space that we enjoyed in our old house. And, in a weird twist of fate, we would soon find out whether we liked it or not.
The benefits of a small home
We wasted so much time looking at larger homes that we completely ran of time to find a home altogether. And as an experiment, as well as out of necessity, we've decided to rent a small home temporarily to see if we can make it work. Starting November 1, we'll be living in a three-bedroom home with less than 1,200 square feet. Since we're renting the home from a friend, we're able to rent month to month without a long-term commitment. Not signing a lease will allow us to continue our search for a permanent place of our own. And, although we're slightly nervous about the transition, we're excited to see how it pans out.
It seems like most people who live in a small space become avid small-house enthusiasts, mainly due to the many benefits a small house can offer. First of all, many small homes are less expensive which can free up cash each month for other savings goals. Since small homes usually cost less, property taxes tend to be lower as well, which can add up to even greater savings over the months and years. And, as if that wasn't enough, smaller homes generally have lower utility bills since they often require less energy to heat and cool. Maintenance and upkeep can also cost less as well. Think about it. The smaller the home, the fewer windows to replace. Less carpet. Less to paint. Almost any big-scale home improvement project will cost less in a smaller home, simply because there's less space, less to tear down, and less to replace. Small homes are also easier to clean and keep organized, which can make them especially attractive to those who don't have the time, or patience, to do much housework.
Could we make a small home work?
Of course, I had all this in mind as we moved into our temporary, smaller home. And, as we unpacked boxes and configured all of our stuff, I was surprised to find that it…ummm…works. For the most part, at least. The majority of our furniture does fit in the house, after all, and there's still plenty of room for the kids to run around. And, even though my kids lost their play room when we moved, they haven't seemed to notice or care.
One of my biggest worries was that we would feel cramped with only one main living area, and I was surprised to find out that wasn't the case. I'm growing to like it, actually. And more than that, I love having all of the bedrooms on one floor.
Our old office is now in the corner of our bedroom, which has been quite a change, yet doable. Our kitchen table fits snug as a bug in the eat-in kitchen as well. And if we angle the table just right, the four of us can manage to eat a meal at the same time.
But, is it too small?
Even though our stuff technically fits, something still doesn't feel quite right. There's no pantry in the kitchen, for instance, which means that all of our food is stuffed in the few kitchen cabinets that we have. There's also nowhere to keep the vacuum, broom, or dust pan. The house does have a small linen closet but it only holds a handful of towels and supplies, nothing more. Since we're pretty organized folks, we're struggling with our inability to do what comes natural to us. Shoving things wherever they fit is against our nature and I'm longing for a few more closets, or perhaps some additional cabinets or drawers.
So, after thinking long and hard about why I'm not enjoying this space as much as I could be, I've come to realize that the size of the house itself isn't the problem. What this house lacks is general storage space. Not places for loads of junk that I don't need…space for necessities. Like pots and pans, for instance, and my extra sheet sets, toiletries, and beach towels. Storage space is something that I took for granted in our old house, and it's apparently not something that I'm willing to give up.
What we've learned so far
I've got to be honest. We don't have much of a future in a 1,200-square-foot home. It's a little small when you've got two hyper little ones who whip through the house daily leaving total chaos in their wake. And it's never quiet enough for anyone either, especially after the kids go to bed, mostly because you can hear everything that's going on, even with all of the doors shut.
And, even though I thought I could live without an office, I'm finding it rather uncomfortable working in the corner of my tiny bedroom. And, I miss having plenty of cabinets, closets, and drawers in the house. Not so that I can fill them with Stuff, but so that I can organize the things we do use on a daily basis.
Finding our own normal
Fortunately, we don't have to choose between two extremes. And, as we continue to search for a permanent home, we've decided to look for a medium-sized home somewhere in the range of 1,500 to 2,000 square feet. We're opting for something big enough to accommodate our growing family, yet small enough to make prudent financial sense. And while we can't fully commit to the small-house craze, we're staying far away from many monstrosities and starter castles that come off and on the market on a daily basis.
According to the National Association of Home Builders, most buyers are looking for a home with a median size of 2,266 square feet. Nearly half of buyers want three bedrooms, and another 32 percent want at least four. Sixty-six percent of buyers also want a full or partial basement. And more than half (53 percent) want at least a two-car garage.
Know what I want? A home that can be paid off quickly and easily. Low utility bills. To sleep at night. Peace. Security.
Although I'm annoyed that we'll now have to move again once we buy, I'm glad that we got to experiment with smaller living, mostly because it's something I wouldn't have been able to do any other way. This opportunity gave us a chance to try something new without making a huge commitment or buying a smaller home without knowing, definitively, that we could make it work. In my opinion, the small house experiment was a success. Within a short amount of time, we proved that we can live comfortably, and be happy, with less. And now that we know that for a fact, that's exactly what we're planning to do.
Do you prefer a small house or a big house? What do you think are the benefits of each? And, do you have any small house living tips for me?
Author: Holly Johnson
Holly Johnson is a credit card expert, award-winning writer, and mother of two who is obsessed with frugality, budgeting, and travel. In addition to serving as contributing editor for The Simple Dollar and writing for publications such as Bankrate, U.S. News and World Report Travel, and Travel Pulse, Johnson owns Club Thrifty and is the co-author of Zero Down Your Debt: Reclaim Your Income and Build a Life You’ll Love.