Bigger Dreams, Smaller Houses

A few years ago, there was a very widely circulated statistic from the National Association of Home Builders about the increase in home sizes over the last sixty years. According to their numbers, the average American home grew from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,434 square feet in 2005.

I grew up in a home that measured about 850 feet of floor space. It was a three bedroom house, though one of the bedrooms was extremely small. Growing up, I shared a bedroom with both of my older brothers for several years, then eventually inherited that room as my own as the older ones moved out.

We currently live in a home that’s very close to 2,000 square feet. It’s far larger than the home I grew up in – it has four bedrooms, for one. Our two children share a bedroom together – there’s also the master bedroom, an office, and a guest room.

Both houses have a kitchen, a living area, a dining area. Both houses have plenty of room for two adults and two kids to live.

What’s really the difference between the two situations? What makes up the added value in that extra 1,200 square feet?

In the end, it’s mostly used for storage.

I think I realized this most clearly over the past weekend, when it seemed that time and time again, all four of us wound up congregated in the same room. We spent a lot of the day in our living room, playing with toys, reading books, and enjoying the relative freedom that a family weekend brings.

On an average day together, we spend most of our time congregated in either the family room or the living room (which could easily be one room). At nap time, both kids fall asleep in a single bedroom, and we sleep in a second bedroom. We use the kitchen and the dining room for meals. As for the rest? The guest bedroom is often unoccupied. I could do most of my writing at a small corner desk in the family room instead of using an office. The laundry room could basically just take part of the space used for the entryway. We could eliminate all but one of the bathrooms without a real crisis.

And suddenly we’re living in a 1,000 square foot home.

Does this mean I regret this house purchase, and that I’m now looking to downgrade to a smaller place? Not at all. I like the area in which we live, where there are children the same age as my son (or within a year or two) in virtually every direction. Last summer, my kids spent almost every evening and good chunks of every day running around in the yard with other children their age – well-mannered children who are also being raised to be intellectually curious. We have a nice big yard that borders on a field and also on other yards, creating a huge green space for our children (and other children) to play together on.

What I did learn is quite simple, though: the square footage shouldn’t be the primary factor when choosing a house. Although there are times when it feels good to have room to spread out, most of the space is completely unused most of the time (except for storage of things we probably don’t really need to keep). Even more important, choosing a lower square footage usually means much less expense over the long haul – you don’t really lose living space, but you do lose storage space, which means that you can’t accumulate as much stuff, which thus means you’ve got less money invested in material items that are just tossed into storage.

One thing’s for sure – as my wife and I consider these factors and re-work the plans for our retirement home, the plans are slowly growing smaller and smaller.

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