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.