Mar 072012

Lately, my husband and I have been revisiting what seems to be our quarterly debate about whether or not we should buy a bigger house.

I’ve mentioned before that we live in a small house. Of course, in 1971 when it was built, it was considered a big house, but by today’s standards, it’s quite tiny. Only 1392 square feet on the ground floor, with a minimally finished basement, 3 bedrooms, and 3 bathrooms. It’s a well-built, quality home, and most importantly, it’s paid for. Believe me, the extent of our good fortune isn’t lost on me. God most certainly helped us time the eradication of our debt just perfectly – right before the economy went in the toilet – and for that I’m extremely grateful.

Grateful…and yet, I yearn.

When we bought our house in 2004, we had only one child, and more than enough space. 8 years later, we have 3 children, and space is at a premium. There is simply nowhere I can go to be alone, and while I adore my family, I need to be alone. I’m a writer, and an introvert, and most writers are generally pretty solitary people. We need peace and quiet to recharge our creative batteries, but I don’t have the luxury of a room where I can close the door and not hear children squawking and bickering. Not to mention that I sometimes feel like I spend my whole life decluttering and purging, so that I can carve out enough room for the 5 of us, and all of our assorted belongings. I’ve come to dread any holiday that involves the exchange of gifts, because while my children are gleefully flinging wrapping paper, and expressing delight over the latest must-have toy, all I can think is, “But where am I going to put it?,” while I distractedly take a mental inventory of every available storage space in the house.

And you see, this is where the yearning comes in.

So, what keeps us from actually moving, instead of just talking about moving? Well, lots of things, not the least being that it’s simply cheaper to live here. Small houses cost less, not only in utility costs and property taxes, but also in maintenance, upkeep, and the sheer amount of stuff you must purchase to outfit them.

My husband is an appraiser, and he appraises homes of all types and sizes, from small, 50’s tract homes to multi-million-dollar mansions. You might be surprised to know just how many people live in enormous houses that they can’t really afford.  As soon as they build up a little bit of equity they refinance, often just to keep their heads above water. They have little hope of ever actually owning their homes, but debt has become so common, and so widely accepted, that most people think nothing of this. But, we do. After we paid off the last of our debt in 2007, my husband and I decided that we would never again borrow money. Of course, we realize that things can happen that are out of our control – illnesses, accidents, etc. – but we budget for health and life insurance, and do our best to minimize those risks.  And while we would like (love) to have more space, we would hate the debt that would most likely come with it.

So, we stay put. For now, anyway.

Bee was once asked to describe her house, and she wrote, “It’s clean, colorful, comfortable, and cozy.” I was delighted with this response, because I’ve worked hard to make our home a warm, inviting place for my family to be. I try to keep it clean and organized, and I’ve lovingly painted and decorated every room (except the dang bathroom! But we’re working on that). I have family pictures and children’s artwork everywhere, and I always hope that the way I manage our home lets my family know that they are my #1 priority. There is nothing I care about more.

I hope to teach my children that “living large,” doesn’t necessarily mean “living better,” and the best way I can do that is by setting an example of contentment….of wanting what I have. It’s not always easy for me to do, but I work really, really hard at it.

The truth is, small houses have some big benefits, and we (I) would do well to remember them:

1. Lower utility costs. While large, spacious rooms and cathedral ceilings are the stuff of my fantasies, the ginormous heating and cooling bills are not. Small, well-insulated homes are far more energy-efficient, and much easier on the pocketbook.

2. Lower property taxes. My husband was just telling me this morning about a “McMansion” which has been on the market for a long time, with numerous price reductions, and the asking price is currently low enough that we could probably afford it. But you know what we couldn’t afford? The taxes of nearly $11,000 per year. Too often, people fail to consider property taxes when they build these micro-estates, but they’re forced to consider them when they realize that they can no longer afford to live in their houses…and neither can anyone else.

3. Family togetherness. My girls share a small room, and I think their very close relationship is a result of it. Sure, they argue and bicker – as do all siblings – but in spite of their 4-year age difference,  they always choose to play together, and every night, after I tuck them in, I like to stand outside their door and listen to them whisper and giggle. It’s quite easy for family members to scatter, and isolate themselves in a large house, but I think small house living encourages togetherness, and creates strong family bonds, and a lot of special memories.

4. Less expensive maintenance and upkeep. My parents want to have their house re-sided. Their house is very tall, and my stepmom was just telling me that they’re having trouble finding someone who is willing to take on this project, and she expects that when they do find someone, they’ll charge an arm and a leg. Necessary general maintenance costs, such as roofing, siding, and windows, are generally much higher for large homes.

5. Deliberate living. I realize that I was just whining about all the purging I have to do, but the fact of the matter is…this is a good thing. Living in a small home forces us to make deliberate choices about what we buy, and what we keep. The more space we have, the more stuff we buy to fill it, but in a small home, it’s easier to limit our possessions to those items that we know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful (to paraphrase William Morris). To that end…

6. Less consumerism. We are a nation of consumers. We consume and consume and consume, because we need to fill the giant spaces we choose to live in (or the giant emptiness we feel because we’re wasting our precious time pursuing all the wrong things). But we rarely stop to consider the effect our consumption has on the environment. Giant houses consume giant amounts of precious natural resources….as well as our time, which is the most precious of all. Which brings me to..

7. Less time spent cleaning. I know I need not elaborate on this, so I’ll just say that I can thoroughly clean the ground floor of my house in about an hour, and to be honest, I wish it didn’t even take that long. I can think of so many ways I would rather spend that time.

8.  Creativity. Small homes promote it. My husband and I have come up with some pretty creative ways to make use of every single square inch of our space, and the knowledge gained from these efforts carries over into other areas of our life in a very positive way (this blog, for example). I think greater ingenuity and creativity is one of the best (and most fun) benefits of the frugal life, and it carries a real sense of pride and accomplishment along with it.

9. Expanded horizons. I recently read an article about how “media rooms” are becoming a standard feature in new homes, but is this really a good thing? Do we really need to spend more time sitting on our butts in front of a giant screen, living vicariously through the events that play out before us? I believe that if we aspire to live in a “compound,” with every amenity known to man, it will become very easy for us to forget that there’s a big world out there. Feeling like you need to “get out of the house” is actually a positive thing. It’s what pushes you to get fresh air, to exercise, to seek out new places and people and experiences. Most of us grew up in modest homes, (without media rooms), and we didn’t spend all day sitting in the house, staring at the same four walls. We ran, and explored, and played with the neighbor kids, and that’s the childhood I want for my own children. Think about it…if your house meets all of your needs, what reason do you ever have to leave?

10. Coziness. Small homes have it, and we all want it (remember, Bee mentioned it in her description of our house). Our desire for it is human nature – it’s why babies like to be wrapped up tightly, and why Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series of books is so popular. We all love that sense of being warm and snug and protected in our little nests, but in huge rooms, that feeling can be harder to achieve.

It’s important to remember that we’re not defined by what we own, or by where we live. The next time you feel home envy creeping in, remember that living small is living smart, and also the media room your neighbors just built probably added $15,000 to their debt.

You’re better off without it, anyway.


  25 Responses to “The Advantages of Living Small”

  1. It seems sometimes that the desire for more, bigger and “better” is simply a mistaken desire for contentment. If we could learn the art of contentment, the endless accumulation wouldn’t be necessary.
    That being said, I LOVE my new house and the challenge of decorating frugally!

  2. you’ve brought up a lot of good points.  We are desperate to move for several reasons, we are in a terrible school district, our yard is on top of a cliff and there is really no way to fence the yard in (with 2 small kids, i hate this!), among other less important reasons.   The house is a little over 1700 sq ft, so its not tiny but not huge.  its a good size but i hate cleaning it, lol.  I really wish i could be content but i dont think i ever will be.  My husband bought this house before we met so ive really never felt like this is my “home” and it makes me sad that i cant even fake it.  I would never consider buying a house without a single closet on the main floor but apparently boys dont find them necessary, lol. 

  3. Heather,
    Thank you for the reminder. My husband, little girl & I are in a small two-bedroom apt., and I often worry that we’ll be here forever. But you’re right to look at the positives and practice contentment. Thank you!

  4. I love your blog and your caring advice.

  5. I love reading your blog, it reminds me to be grateful for the small things. I am SO Grateful to not have a tv room, that way my kids aren’t forced to grow up too quickly but instead have plenty of time to get dirty and pick flowers and ride bikes. I often feel alone in this manner as many of my friends are in the process of building new homes….and I’d be lying if sometimes I didn’t feel a bit jealous…but then again I remind myself I want to live simply, I want to live small, I want to live more frugally,and I want to live so that I might give to others. I love your blog! I appreciate you taking the time to write it. You are inspiring! Also, please know my thoughts and prayers continue to be with your family as you are still in the grieving process.

  6. Yes! I live in an affluent area outside of Chicago, however, we are not affluent. Our house is a split level home and not even close to being my dream home. My dreams of marrying a wonderful man and having happy, healthy children did come true. This is what matters. Do I always manage to appreciate my house in all it’s split level glory, NO! I do appreciate teaching my kids to realize what truly matters in life.

    When someone can afford it a big home it is a blessing for them, but when someone stretches their budget too tightly to just have more it then becomes a stress point.

    Bless you for recognizing what works for you!

  7. Thank you for this post, it is a great reminder to me. We are a family of 6 who bought a small, slightly updated starter home when we had only 2 children. When I say small, I mean 3 bedrooms, 1 bath, a total of 900 sq ft on the main floor, and an unfinished basement. We painted the basement walls and put down area rugs to create a functioning homeschool area. I have really been struggling with the desire to move, but we are still fighting debt. We finally paid off all cars and credit cards this year, but we still have student loans and our current mortgage that we need to work on. Moving just isn’t an option, nor is more debt. It really helps to keep in mind the benefits of living smaller, and I really do love that the girls share a small room with bunk beds, and so do the boys. Thanks for the encouragement!

  8. We lived for 13 years with a family of four then 5 in our first home of 1260 square feet. It was only 3 bedrooms and 1 bath, I loved my little house. We paid it off in 10 years. Then we moved to our current 2507 square foot house. I know what you mean about purging. We lived just fine in our little house but within a few years of being in this house we were busting at the seems with stuff and still are. I don’t know how we ever fit in the little house but we did. We have since decided to stay put to but have been remodeling this house for us. We intend to stay for guide awhile. We had thought about moving too. My husband would really love to live on a lake like his brother but like you said the property taxes would kill us. However as my kids became teenagers it was nice to have the bigger house. 

  9. Your post made me think of the song, “Love grows best in little houses”  It was a country song in the mid 90’s and I think it is so true.  You are so right that a smaller house is better in so many ways.  I think the most important is the fact that you don’t have debt.  It reduces so much stress.  We are trying to get to the debt free life as fast as we can…….

  10. Heather what you are going through sounds frustrating. Sometimes its good to express your feelings when you are feeling at odds with life. Take care you are in my thoughts. Also I had suggestion for a post I would greatly enjoy hearing your thoughts on. I am in the midst of making our home a safer place by adding must needed smoke alarms and co2 detectors. I would love to know how many you have currently and where to place them. Also any safety tips you have on fire escape plans fire extinguishers or Anything else. I just installed a couple of smoke alarms and I am worried about there placement from the ceiling. Any ideas you have would be greatly appreciated.

  11. Your post is spot on and well written……  but it made me cry…… I wish I could have read this 8 years ago when we tired to keep up with everyone….. but were miserable.   We are trying to get OUT of our 2400 square foot home to something smaller.  I am young (32 so I know there is time – but since we have children we have totally changed out lifestyle.  I kicked the “Jones'” out the door!) We live VERY deliberately, frugally, lovingly, and simply.  We are stuck in this house due to the real estate market tanking.  I regret buying this house so much.  Anyway, with that said… you must be comfortable.  Maybe a 5-7 year loan that you could knock off quickly on a home that isn’t necessarily larger…. just laid out better so you can have your peaceful area.  Find a good balance and have peace with whatever decision is made.  

  12. These are things I keep reminding myself when the “gimmies” get away from me.  We live in a 750sqft apartment with a toddler.  And sometimes I just have to get out…but that’s a good thing.  And the Lord has really been working in my husband and I in the last six months: this is enough.  Even when we get past the living-on-a-grad-school-stipend days, we need to remember that this is enough.  Sure, we want a farm someday, we want land to care for and space to roam…but it doesn’t have to be as big as we might have originally wanted.  And that’s okay.

    Oh, and for the whole “no room to myself” thing, I can really relate.  I don’t know if it’d work with your kids, but I started putting my little one in her room with a baby gate in front of the door for half an hour every afternoon.  And then I have room time, too: I read, knit, or just lay down.  No little hands, no little intruders.  It’s made the world of difference for me!

  13. Great insight.  One of the things I love best about your blog/you is that you make real life beautiful.  I certainly enjoy my share of those shiny, pretty blogs that have magazine appeal.  But when I want attainable inspiration I take a look at yours because you make it seem possible to create beauty and order without the hefty price tags or constant DIY stress.  I hope it comes across like the compliment I intend. 🙂  Seriously, sometimes when I need motivation to get going on housekeeping I look at your day in the life posts.  You are a gift to the blogging community.  Thanks for always keeping it real.

    •  Michelle, I know exactly what you mean. I too have some shiny, magazine-like blogs that I like to read as a form of escapism, but I also know that most of what they do isn’t possible for me at this stage in my life (3 little kids, more to do than time to do it in). So, I have to focus on what I CAN achieve, and find contentment right where I am.

  14. I love this post and agree with all of it! I am also an introvert, that’s why I love reading this blog we have so much in common. Oh and I tried your granola thins recipe today and it was a hit!

  15. Our home is small and I love it.  I love the fact that I can clean it in just a couple of hours.  That we have it paid for is just the BEST.  Sometimes I worry that the neighborhood we live in has gone ‘down hill’ as more and more people move out and the homes are being rented.  We have no neighborhood association to force people to keep up the homes etc.
    To make a bit of extra room in our home is something that people can do…we built a nice large workshop/garage in our back yard. We took the 2 car garage that is attached to our home and made a big family room out of it.  This is where we have our laundry room too. It is perfect for us.  A nice 24X24 foot room makes lots of room for all of our family.  I have desk/computer area.  There is a TV area. A large closet holds all the kids toys. 

  16. My family of 8 lives in a 3 bedroom house and we survive!! My 13 yo and 4 yo share a room for now, the twins have their room, we have ours, and our other boys, 6, and 10, share a room (a one car garage converted to a room). We all have space, and yes its tight, but I love it. Now, yes we are still paying for it, and yes, we kinda “need” a bigger house so that the girls won’t have to share due to the big age difference soon, but we still won’t get anything that we can’t afford.

  17. Hang in there.  We just downsized because we had too much house.  It was overwhelming in so many ways.  I couldn’t keep it clean.  I would clean one space only to find out the kids had wrecked another.  It turned into a financial and emotional drain…so much upkeep.  Even when you don’t “use” the space you still have to “care” for it with heating/cooling, cleaning at least occasionally, upkeep and maintenance.  We wanted to sell for several years, but  the market required that we update.  We did the updating ourselves…it took years of hard work and lots of money.

    But God is so good.  It all turned out perfectly and I love, love, love my smaller house.  I am also the type that needs quiet to recharge my batteries.  That part gets easier as the children grow older. 

    Remember, too, that your children will be in your home such a short time.  I can’t believe that my oldest is already 14.  They grow up and move on.  At that point your “cozy” house may feel a little too big with just 2 of you in it.

    Many blessings.  May God give you peace, joy, and contentment.

  18. Speaking as someone who moved from house to house, having parents with the “grass is greener” syndrome, I would stay put. I always swore my children would get to stay in the same school with the same friends to grow up with in a childhood home. Apparently, this is important to them as well. My husband and I were looking at renting a house for a weekend getaway and when the kids saw us looking at houses, they thought we were thinking about moving and went crazy!
    Maybe considering a small addition to accommodate an extra bedroom in the future is an option as the girls grow.
    To me, our house is like a member of the family. All of our memories are here. While the idea of bigger and newer is nice, I would miss it too much. No other place could ever be my home.

  19. Heather,
    I completely understand where you are coming from wanting a place of your own to unwind and get away to have your “Heather-time”…I have 4 girls and I have found…it does not exist!  We have a almost 2k square foot home.  3 bedrooms 2 bathrooms and 2 living rooms seperated by the dining room.  One of the living rooms has been designated the childrens living room equipped with their toys tv dvd player and cable.  They also have tvs with cable and dvd players in their rooms in case of the argument over what they want to watch.  They each have ipods and nintendo ds with games…but this does not keep all 4 from being in my personal space all day long during summer break and spring break and weekends. You would think they would want their own space but nope.  At first it was frustration central and occasionally it still is but I just remember that one day they will be gone and on their own so I try to enjoy every hug kiss and tantrum (o.k. not so much enjoyment on the last but I try).  Mix that with the price and taxes on the bigger homes…yup I will pass.  My parents purchased a huge 3500sq ft home in 2006.  The taxes on it were $10k a year which she faught and got reduced to $5k.  After a few years they got rid of the “mcmansion” and downsized to a dblwide on an acre of land and that is where they have been happiest.  🙂

  20. Sounds like you’re doing fine except for your need for a place to write.  How about this? I haven’t been following your blog very long, but I truly do appreciate your encouragement to be content & clutter-free.  Thanks!  Keep up the good work!

  21. Thank you for stating all that runs through my mind when people ask, “How do you fit? When are you moving to something larger?”  My home is 1400 sq ft and my husband and I share it with our 5 children–ages 12ys- 18mos.  (yes I said 5)!  We are on top of each other all the time and everyone shares rooms, but nothing beats a cozy Sunday afternoon as we play laugh and share together b/c “Together” is the only way to do things when 7 people live so closely.  Even when we go to Grandmas and the kids could each sleep in their own rooms they always choose to “sleepover” in one room.  I love that my kids enjoy being together.  My time with them will never be long enough, so I want to be as close as we can!

  22. We have a big house, 3900 sq feet, and I hate it. It has been on the market for three years. We are blessed that it is paid for, but I want something much smaller! Everything you said is true!

  23. An excellent, thought provoking article! As a mom of six kids, and living in a 1900 s.f. home, I can certainly relate to the ‘home envy’. The problem gets bigger, as the kids get bigger. Then there is really no room to roam!However, it inspires us all to pursue other interests out of the home, and we look forward to returning to our cozy nest. The other thought i had, was that so many people who have huge McMansions rarely use most of the extra space. They seem to congregate in only a select few areas. My sons girlfriend lives in a home that big..and says they never use any of the space. The parents added a large dug in pool 2 summers ago..and no one uses it! What a travesty to have so much ‘house’, and not use it, not to mention the cost!

  24. i really feel like its not the size that matters it is the layout. We have 7 children in a one story ranch. It is about 1100 square feet, no basement. Yes it is 4 bedrooms, but there is literally no where for the kids to go, i dream of having a seperate family room or playroom, ive seen bungalows that with the same 1100 sq feet, have an upstairs and a basement, but right now we can’t afford any of it, not to mention 1 bathroom isn’t practical. Me and hubby go back and forth, I want to move, he wants to stay, our kids school isn’t the issue, i will keep them in their current school regardless.

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