Monday, February 22, 2016

Small Living vs. the Benefits of Space: A Debate

Small Spaces, Living Room, Home Decor

One of my husband's favorite pastimes in looking up real estate listings, and I inevitably get sucked in to the day dreaming inherent in this activity. Maybe it makes for a pathetic date night, but we have lots of fun giving our various opinions on curb appeal features, design and layout, kitchen and bathroom upgrades, style and accent details. I'm a fan of tile floors, he favors wood. I like cottage stone, he loves red brick. I want large windows with lots of natural sunlight, he wants big shade trees. Right now, in our city apartment dwelling state, our little disagreements don't matter because they are purely hypothetical. We're not looking to buy (or heck, even rent) a house just yet.

But it's there, that grand American dream of owning a home. It's what normal people do. We're people, normal-ish, married, with kids, and in many ways it feels like we're behind on this game and doing things backwards by having the kids first and buying the house later (most people, I think, recommend a reverse course of action).

So yes, someday we plan to own a home, and some day my husband and I will have to actually sit down and iron out our preference differences, and maybe I'll give in on the wood floors if he gives in on the stone, or whatever. But the one area of conflict I'm already struggling with, already feeling anxiety about, and haven't even worked out in my own head what I prefer, is size.

What size home defines my "dream" home?

For my husband, and I think the average American, bigger is always the goal. The dream home is always a huge home. And growing up, I think that was my dream too. The little house I grew up in was what most people would refer to as a "starter" home. It was cramped for sure, and three teenage girls sharing one room, one closet, and one bathroom (with my younger brother) was not always a recipe for peace and harmony (especially for an introvert like me who just wanted some time and space to myself, thankyouverymuch!) My parents talked constantly about moving to that dream home someday, but career setbacks and a particularly vicious housing bubble in my hometown kept that dream just out of reach until one day, my parents found themselves empty-nesters with a paid-off mortgage and a house that was suddenly the absolute perfect size for their stage in life.

BUT there are still issues. They are physically incapable of hosting more than one family with grand-kids at a time, which means we have to rotate through who gets to go home for Christmas (I have not spent a Christmas with my older sister since we both got married over seven years ago). This drives my mother insane. How sad is it that they can never have all of their family home together?

My husband also grew up in a series of small and cramped "starter" homes, but by the time he reached high school his family had finally attained that beautiful dream home on a large piece of gorgeous land with a pond in front and barn out back and pasture land for the two horses they own. It's red brick (natch) and Christmas-card picture perfect. Right now, they are capable of hosting their entire family, 18 including in-laws and grandkids, plus some (they basically just roll out air mattresses across the floor of the basement, the more the merrier.) They had our wedding reception in their backyard, they throw parties all the time with dozens of guests, and it never feels too crowded. Basically, it's a magical place that my children LOVE to visit.

BUT there are still issues. It's an older home, and the top floor never heats or cools just right, and the basement has flooded a few times, and lots of areas could do with a good remodel. Taking care of all that land is pretty much a second full-time job for my father-in-law. The upkeep looks exhausting to me (I should note, my in-laws thoroughly love the work the property requires, they have farm blood in them and get a lot of satisfaction out of working the land). The vast majority of the time, that large home is empty. They still have one daughter in high school, but it's a big place for just three people.

As I look at these two situations, I can't help going back and forth about what I want, and which one is actually my "dream" home. Both have benefits, both have drawbacks.

On one hand, small living is a thing these days. It feels like everyone is going minimalist, downsizing, rejecting consumerism and living out of trailers. I'm not quite that extreme, but my years living in our 1,000 sq. ft. apartment with two children have taught me the pros of small living:
  • Less area to keep clean (HUGE)!
  • No unnecessary stuff (because we don't have room for it)
  • Less area to decorate (may be a draw back for some, but a serious plus for me)
  • Less money spent filling up extra space
  • Feels cozier and closer
  • Feels less stressful (less to maintain, less to worry about).
Most of the benefits are either mental or financial, but these are still strong benefits for me. I definitely feel the pull of simple living, small living, with carefully curated possessions in a smaller number.

BUT, there are pros to larger homes as well. And these are not shallow, over-consumption pros either. They are weighty and worth consideration:
  • Guest rooms! Host friends and family comfortably, so they don't have to sleep on the floor of your 4-year-old's room and kick his bath-toys out of the way when they shower in his bathroom (this was our guest situation last weekend).
  • Dinner parties! Game parties! Space for people in general. Relationships are important to us, and we want people to feel comfortable in our home (we hosted a game night for my husband's birthday last month, and invited four other couples over, and hemmed and hawed over whether our little space could handle ten adults in it).
  • Space for a piano (I'm no great pianist, but I absolutely need my home to have a piano).
  • Space for a library (this is a serious, serious pro).
  • Space for our kids to have friends over (I would much rather our kids bring their friends to our house to hang out than have them always over at other houses).
This is a hard question, one that I will probably go back and forth on for the rest of my life. At a future time, maybe I'll enjoy the benefits of more space. Perhaps there's some sort of magical happy medium that I'll discover in the future, some magic house size or design that allows for pros from both sides.

For now, I will savor the benefits of small living.

What size home is your Goldilocks size? What values are most important to you in house size? What pros or cons am I missing in this debate?


  1. So I did most of my growing up (kindergarten on) in that home with a spacious yard and pasture. One thing that I now value are the skills I learned as I helped with the upkeep. From bush-hogging pastures, to fixing fences, to the endless lawn mowing, I got to do it all. This has been critical for me to give meaningful service. Many times in my mission or at different projects here at college my ability to use a simple weed-eater has proved useful. And I'm sure my chainsaw experiences will be a boon to future projects. I know that it's possible to help children develop a work ethic in suburbia, but having so much to do every Saturday and throughout the summer made learning a thing or two about work a requirement for home life survival. (Although I'm not sure I got a very good grade in that regard. I would look for loopholes to avoid yard work as much as possible. But I still managed to do that better than clean my room...)

    1. Kyle, I'm sure your parents would be so happy to hear how much you now appreciate all that yard work when you were younger. And you're absolutely right that yard work and home upkeep are excellent devices for teaching skills and instilling work ethic in kids, although I maintain that a good work ethic can be taught in any size home. Also, I think house size and yard size are two different questions with different list of pros and cons in play (a post for another day, perhaps).

  2. I go back and forth on this subject. Growing up and until about last year, I always dreamed of a massive house (like, at least 8,000 square feet). I grew up in teeny tiny houses (1,800 square feet for a family of 7), and thought having a McMansion would be a sign that I "made it". I have since retreated from this goal for many reasons, including 1) I don't like the junk accumulation that inevitably comes with a lot of storage space, 2) I don't want to sacrifice my time to earn enough to afford said McMansion in the areas that we want to live, and 3) I just don't need it! And of course I had to revalue my priorities and be less materialistic. However, a part of me still wants and will always want a giant place for hosting. We love get togethers and with a medium to large family, 1,800 square feet doesn't cut it.

    Besides size alone, I think layout is also key to having a place that feels big and is amenable for hosting dinner parties/game nights/guests.

    1. I'm not exactly sure of the square footage on my home growing up, but sounds like we were in a similar situation (although we only had six in my family :). So yep, I always thought the "big home" was what normal people had, and therefore what I wanted. I love that you're going through the same reevaluation of that dream (there must be something in the water...). I'm totally with you that good design is more important than actual size. I'd much rather have a well designed home that makes good use of space (and that's well built with higher quality items), than a massive (but probably cheaply made) home. Hopefully we kind find something that is "big enough" that guests can feel comfortable, but not so big the space is empty and a drain the rest of the year. Easier said than done

  3. We are constantly trying to figure this out as well. We love our starter home, but the kitchen/dining area is quite small, and it's almost impossible to have anyone over (at least if we all want to eat together!). Also, I'm starting to realize that our four boys are going to turn into four TEENAGERS and chances are, they will not be small. However, at the same time, we love our neighborhood, but it might not be feasible to upgrade to something bigger/nicer and stay in this area because it's pretty expensive. Oh, the conundrum!!

    1. Yes, from the little I know, the housing market in Utah is crazy expensive, so good luck! Just wondering, have you thought about remodeling or adding on to your current house to get more space/better design? (The idea of house remodeling sounds terrible to me, I'd much rather move into a finished house that is already perfect, if only I knew what perfect was.)

  4. Yes! This is an issue. We have said for a long time that we would rather have a smaller house and bigger yard (assuming we can't afford both--which so far, we can't.) However, I am NOT a minimalist, and want us to have the space for building relationships with extended family and friends, as you said. We have also talked about doing foster care down the line, which we think will require a few extra bedrooms, for everyone's sanity.

    My parents currently live in a small home (1 bedroom upstairs, 2 down), and like yours, can only host generally 1 family at a time. At least I have a brother and several aunts/uncles who live close by, so sometimes we stay with other family.

    1. My husband and I keep going back and forth on the size yard we want. I'm such a novice in the world of gardening and yard work that it intimidates me, but I want to be surrounded by nature and have space for my kids to play and work outside, so yeah, that's definitely part of the debate (as is the cost of all this, like you said). That's really nice that you have family around to stay with at times, it makes everything easier. I guess one solution is to live near family who have large houses, so we can have the small one but still enjoy guests when they come to visit :)

  5. Suzanne
    I've had your post mulling for days in my mind. I have so much to say, I could write a post myself :-)
    We've lived in both situations, pros and cons to both. But at the end of the day the short answer is embracing the situation you are in, you can be happy in whichever situation you are.

    When we had only a small number of children with small bodies (the size of bodies has a major impact) we also lived in a small space, aka 2 children and our 'cabin' was three rooms. Fast forward to 5 children in a three bedroom tiny tiny house but a decent yard but bodies were getting bigger, and we spent the next few years extending, now a huge house with a tiny yard. We moved for the third time with 7 children, growing bodies to a huge property but a small, small house. We managed for 3 years with more babies coming until we began extending and building a huge house again. Now 10 children but..they are now leaving home! Well 2-3 of them have.

    You can make any situation work, living in a small home is easier for all the reasons you list when the children are little. A small home gets harder when their bodies get bigger but it's doable as I found for those three years, but admittedly harder.

    Now we've built this huge home and they are leaving! but as you say we can host when they come home. Though this last Christmas we went to our boys tiny house in the city and we slept on the floor all over the house, the next available space was under the kitchen table;-) another time when the house was full of boys we pitched a tent in their backyard, but I guess in the USA you can't pitch a tent in the backyard in winter;-)

    1. You are right that as the bodies get bigger they want/need more space (that was my #1 complaint growing up, I wanted my own personal space!). And the more kids you have, the more space you need (10 kids need more space than my little 2). I love your advice, though. What matters at the end of the day is being happy in whatever size situation you're in at the moment, because you can make them all work. And I am happy right now in our little space, so I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts.

    2. There was a quote from Mother Teresa that got me through the hard days, paraphrasing it here: "If you're home is in the slums you live the very best you can, if you are placed in a palace you live the best you can." There were days I struggled with lots of kids in a small place, and conversely there were days I struggled with guilt with how much we have compared to third world countries and would feel guilty for wanting more, more space. But Mother Teresa's comment helped me put it all in perspective and got me through many emotions.