Back in 2003, I married my wife- Mandy, and within the year, our daughter Abigail was born. We lived at that time in the upper apartment of a duplex in a fairly decent neighborhood in St. Louis. Altogether we had about 700 square feet of living space that seemed to work perfectly for our small family. Fast forward three years, and we were expecting our second daughter- Gabrielle.
Got to say this was a magical time for us...our small family was growing. Besides our daughters, we had a couple of cats and had just gotten a puppy (a giant Alaskan Malamute). The last thing on our minds was the advantages of downsizing. We were taking the McDonalds approach in that we wanted a number three, and yes, let’s upsize that for just a dollar more.
We began by looking for a home in our current neighborhood and soon realized that we couldn’t afford a mortgage for anything that wouldn’t involve A LOT of work. With a pregnant wife and my just having gone through a career change, I couldn’t gut a home and rebuild it. So we started looking out of state, which is what brought us to Iowa. My wife was from Clarinda, Iowa, and I enjoyed visiting the area. The homes were reasonably priced, and we could live in the country. Which I very much appreciated.
We decided to relocate our family from St. Louis, Missouri, to Clarinda Iowa, our conversations changed from where are we going to live to what do we “need” in a house.
“Well, we need at least three bedrooms,” offered Mandy.
“Well, what if we have parents staying with us? Shouldn’t we have four bedrooms?” I offered back.
“In that case, it has to have an en suite bathroom for the master bedroom,” she replied.
“Agree. So that way, the kids can have their very own dedicated bathroom,” I said, imagining a world of convenience.
“You’re so smart, Honey,” I thought I heard her respond, but she often reminds me of my selective hearing…
And that is how we formed our wish list, and it effectively amounted to a McMansion with two stories and a finished basement, four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a big kitchen.
As far as square footage, well it’d have to be at least three times what we currently had. After all, you’ve gotta have space to hide all the new baby stuff, and then the kid’s stuff and our stuff. I mean, this had become the American dream, right?
According to the U.S. Census, the average size of an American home was 983 square feet in 1950, and 1,660 square feet in 1973. In 2010, the average had climbed to almost 2,400 and jumped to 2,700 in 2019.
We settled for a little bit of a fixer-upper around 2900 square feet with three bedrooms, a half basement, one bathroom, and a smallish kitchen. But it was ten minutes to town and came with 5 acres of country living and some outbuildings. Most importantly, it was within our budget.
In spite of the dominance of large homes, in 2012, something began to change in homeowners’ minds. We started to think about downsizing and the advantages of living in a smaller home.
Less expensive. Smaller homes are less costly to live in, including a lower upfront cost. The money you’re not putting into a down payment and mortgage payments can instead go towards paying off student loans, new car payments, or long term investments (like stocks or real estate)
Lower taxes and insurance. First-time home buyers tend to focus on the home list price, but fail to account for the sorta-hidden costs, such as higher property taxes, higher hazard insurance costs, and higher mortgage insurance.
Lower maintenance and repair costs. Things break, and things wear-out. On bigger houses, you can easily double your repair and up-keep budget. Replacing the roof on a 4,000 square foot home can be double or triple the cost for a 1,500 square foot home.
Less pressure to keep up with the Joneses. More a psychological aspect, but if McMansions surround you, you might feel obligated to keep a shiny Lexus parked in the garage, or put a fancy pool in the backyard. If you don’t believe in this phenomenon, consider how marketing relies heavily on coveting thy neighbor’s stuff.
Lower cost to furnish. Fewer rooms mean fewer trips to Ikea (and fewer calories from Swedish Meatballs.) Unlike the often large rooms of a McMansion, small homes have small rooms (Duh!) and give each room and the entire house a feeling of coziness and intimacy that larger homes lack.
More Energy Efficient. Which means lower cost to heat, cool, and power. Smaller homes are more energy efficient because they have less space to heat and cool, and have a lower ecological footprint. Especially when you compare single-story homes with two stories and up, you can easily double the monthly utility bills when jumping from 1,500 to 4,000 square feet.
Disposable income is nice. You can free up a few bucks to enjoy travel or other meaningful experiences. You can donate a little more to a favorite charity.
Smaller house to clean and maintain means more time to do what you want, like spending more time outdoors, doing things you love.
Smaller house to pay for equals less pressure to work crazy hours to get that next promotion to afford your mortgage.
And last but certainly not least- They are more unique. The neighborhoods containing bigger homes have this “cookie-cutter” appearance and feel. There are a few trees, and the houses are set further back from the street, making it harder to get to know the neighbors. Few, if any, have front porches big enough to sit and visit on.
Living small successfully means staying mindful of the physical objects you choose to live with. This mindfulness is, I believe, is sorely lacking in today’s society. Living smaller makes you think about what you need to get by on. You don’t need a bunch of stuff to be happy.
But this mindset requires a little planning and good habits:
Watch Less Television. To curb the impulse to buy, cut down on watching TV. We don’t have cable, and when we watch TV, we are watching movies or something on our Roku player. The less TV you view, the fewer ads you see, which means the less pressure you feel about going out and buying new things.
Adopt a Strategy. If you bring something new into the house, something of equal size should go. We keep a box downstairs to make adding to the donation pile quick and easy. Figure out what works best for your lifestyle and space, and set it up.
Make Use of All Free Space. Use furniture that has closed storage built-in. Nothing makes a small house look smaller than clutter. If you can keep it organized, your home will look and feel a lot bigger.
Work With Color. People differ on whether bright paint colors make a room look bigger, or whether darker colors make a room look large. I’ve erred on the side of bright and cheerful. When my wife can get me to paint, I prefer bright, cheery colors. This bright color palette, in my opinion, makes each room feels open and full of energy. If you live in a small home, don’t be afraid to experiment with color to find a blend that makes it feel open and inviting. At least if you don’t like the color, the room is small enough so that repainting won’t take that long!
Small House: The Family Factor
Because there’s no place to escape to, a smaller house helps strengthen family bonds. Seriously, families are under enough duress with all the activities and technology clamoring for our attention. Shouldn’t we at least all text, browse, and play solitaire in the same living room, right?
A smaller house means less space to fill with crap. The less we focus on things, the more we are free to focus on relationships and experiences.
Better parties! It’s fun to cram all your friends into a small space and let the evening unfold. Less real estate to damage as well.
Living small takes creativity, flexibility, and ingenuity. But overall, I believe it’s worth the effort. Living small really forces you to carefully consider the things we own and make good choices about what we need and don’t need. Although this might sound limiting, it’s actually quite liberating. I believe living smaller isn’t just a fad and think in time you are going to see more and more homes shrink to fit the current needs of the families living in them.