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Living in a Small House – Benefits & Challenges

By Heather Levin

small house snowDrive around many new neighborhoods, and you often see the same thing: street after street of behemoth homes, most that look like they came off an assembly line. Oddly, these homes are often occupied by small families, spreading everyone out into different rooms, limiting interaction. Even in older neighborhoods, especially in larger cities such as Austin and Atlanta, smaller homes have been torn down, wanted only for the lot they sit on. In their place, gigantic structures are erected.

While the McMansion boom of the last decade appears, for the most part, to be waning, the result is that there are now millions of families living in these large, palatial homes, which often come with enormous mortgages to match.

However, since the recession hit, more people are realizing that small is beautiful. With energy bills and living costs constantly rising, living small also means living affordably. And for many, this is the most appealing aspect of living in a smaller home.

Benefits of Small Home Living

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. But in spite of the dominance of large homes, more homeowners are remembering the many advantages to living in a small one.

  1. More Energy Efficient. Smaller homes are often more energy efficient because they have less space to heat and cool, which means they have a lower ecological footprint.
  2. Less Cleaning and Maintenance Required. Fewer rooms means less time spent on cleaning and home maintenance. This has been a huge perk for my family, since it means we spend more time outdoors, doing things we love.
  3. Cozy and Intimate. Unlike the often gigantic rooms of a McMansion, small homes have small rooms. This gives each room, as well as the entire house, a feeling of coziness and intimacy that larger homes lack.
  4. Less Expensive. Smaller homes are less expensive to live in. For instance, my 1920 home doesn’t have air conditioning, and I wouldn’t use it even if it did. Most small homes built before the 1940s were designed to stay cool using shade and cross-ventilation. During the summer months we live on the front porch, keep the windows open day and night, and use fans. During the summer, I spend less than $15 per month on electricity.
  5. More Unique. We also chose a smaller home because we didn’t like the feel of the neighborhoods containing bigger homes. There are few trees, and the homes have a “cookie-cutter” appearance. Furthermore, the houses are set far back from the street, which means it would be harder to get to know the neighbors. Few, if any, have front porches big enough to sit and visit on. And none of them are within walking distance to town; we would have had to drive everywhere we wanted to go. Big and grand just isn’t our style.
small house fall

Real Stories

My own home is half the current U.S. average; I live in a modest, 1,200 square-foot home two blocks from a smart little downtown. My neighborhood is a pleasant one that makes you feel as if you’re going back in time when you walk down the street. The homes are compact and well-built, they’re situated close to the sidewalk, and almost all of them have deep front porches.

This is why I love small-home living. But I’m certainly not the only one who feels this way.

Living Small in Downtown

Sandra Stayer and her fiancé moved from a comfortable two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo to a tiny, 900-square-foot condo right in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. They purposely sought out a smaller home so they could enjoy the benefits of being in town, even though it meant they would get less house for their money.

“We really like city and city-like living where the things you spend time doing are often outside of the home,” Sandra Stayer says. “We also wanted to be in the city or in a walkable town, and that often comes with a higher price tag and less space. Being able to enjoy what’s outside our home was just as important to us as enjoying what’s in it.”

Of course, living in a smaller space does have its challenges. As you can see in the pictures below, Stayer’s kitchen and living room are positively tiny compared to most homes.

small house living room kitchen
Ask Strayer what she loves about living in a small home, though, and she runs through the gamut of benefits.

“It’s not too large to maintain or clean,” she says. “We don’t spend all of our time on house projects or weekends on maintenance. We also don’t accumulate stuff. We’re not out on the weekends shopping for more furniture or constantly buying things for the house. We just got engaged and realized we don’t even need to register for that much stuff. I love that we can save money and live more effectively.”

Living Small in Paradise

Daniel Weaver, an architect with 360 One in San Francisco, lives in a 900 square-foot home with his wife in Marin County, California. Their income was a factor in choosing a smaller home, especially since they wanted to live in such an expensive area. But both wanted to be in Marin’s Mediterranean climate, and they figured that a smaller home with a nice yard and patio wouldn’t feel that small at all, especially when they could spend so much time outdoors.

Weaver has done a lot to the home to open up the space and brighten it up to make it look bigger. For instance, the living room was incredibly dark when they moved in, and the space was dominated by a black cast-iron wood stove. Weaver transformed the space by removing the stove and adding light wood paneling. He also created a built-in end table to save some space.

small house changes

Although Weaver doesn’t ever want to go back to living in a large home, living in a small home does have its challenges, especially since the birth of their daughter two years ago. The lack of privacy and the lack of space are two issues he and his wife grapple with daily.

“Sometimes you want to be able to just slink off to a ‘man cave’ and relax,” Weaver says. “And space is another issue. I know it sounds odd having sung the praises of smaller homes, but a wee bit more space would be nice. If we had one more room, that would allow for someone to escape to it and that would be beneficial for all.”

One of the biggest challenges – as well as one of the greatest benefits – to living in a small home is that you constantly assess what you own and what you’re bringing into your space.

Strategies for Small Home Living

In my own home, the rule is that whenever we bring something new in, something of equal size must be donated. And over the past five years, we’ve slowly reduced our consumerism as a natural reaction to living in a smaller home. As a result, our home feels open and uncluttered, which is key to living comfortably.

But this mindset definitely is helped by planning and good habits:

  1. Watch Less Television. To curb the impulse to buy, cut down on watching TV. We don’t have cable, and when we do watch TV, we tune in to public television, or watch a movie. The less TV you watch, the less ads you see, which means the less pressure you feel to go out and buy new things all the time.
  2. Adopt a Strategy. If you bring something new into the house, something of equal size should go. I keep a bin in the downstairs closet to make adding to the donation pile quick and easy. Figure out what works best for your lifestyle and space, and set it up.
  3. 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 house will look and feel a lot bigger.
  4. Work With Color. People differ on whether bright paint colors make a room look bigger, or whether darker colors actually make a room look large. I’ve erred on the side of bright and cheerful. My own home is full of color: turquoise, orange, red, off-white, green, and yellow. The result of this bright color palette is that, at least in my opinion, each room feels open and full of energy and possibility. 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!

All in all, living small successfully means staying mindful of the physical objects you choose to live with. This mindfulness is, I believe, sorely lacking in today’s society. And many small home owners would say the same, including Weaver.

“I think it does make you think about what you can get by on,” Weaver says. “That you don’t need a bunch of stuff to be happy. There’s something of value in knowing that you can get by on living with less.”

Final Word

Living small takes creativity, flexibility, and ingenuity. But overall, I believe it’s worth the effort. I can’t imagine living in a larger home; my husband and I actually have more space than we need as it is, and we feel that 800 square feet or less would be ideal. Living small really forces us to carefully consider the things we own, and make choices about what we really need, as well as what we don’t need. Although this might sound limiting, it’s actually quite liberating.

Do you live in a small home? What has your experience been?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a freelance writer based in Detroit, MI. She's passionately committed to living green, saving money, and helping others do the same in their life.

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  • http://www.moneylifeandmore.com/ Lance@MoneyLife&More

    I live in a 1200 square foot townhouse. The hardest thing for us is it is two stories so we’re downstairs all day and don’t take advantage of the upstairs. We wish the kitchen was a little bigger but other than that it works fine for me and my girlfriend. If we have multiple kids down the road 2 bedrooms and 1.5 baths may be a bit small but that is many years down the road.

  • Adam

    Great Article! I live in a tiny nyc apartment and the maintenance couldn’t be easier. I also agree with what was said about cutting down on tv. Cutting cable forces you to be more social and spend less money so the pay off outweighs the downside. Also, I hear they are making new affordable micro-studios in manhattan. I’m looking forward to checking them out.

  • http://twitter.com/kjw3llc Kevin Jones

    My wife and I have experienced both sides of this coin. Currently we’re in the middle in an 1800 square foot rancher (love the single level). We own a rental house which was our first home. It is 1400 square feet. One night while living there, the wife and I went to clean the entire house. We met back in the living room in 1 hour and looked at each other astonished at how easy it was. On the opposite end, we had a 2400 square foot 3 level house which was a nightmare to clean with 3 bathrooms and 7 other rooms.

    Either way (even with the larger house), we have always stuck with older homes at a price of about half of what the bank was telling us we could afford.

  • http://insurancesalesleads.com/ James Keller

    I live in a small home with my wife and 2 small kids. It’s really small that we don’t have enough space for most of our stuff. But I agree with most of the pros you mentioned in your article.

    • Heatherllevin

      James, I’ve heard the same from other people living in small homes with kids; the toys can overtake everything, and with their energy it can make a small home even smaller! But a big advantage is that you’re living up close and personal with your kids, instead of being spread out through a large home. They’ll remember that when they’re older, and it’s priceless!

  • Belwinmills

    I love our condo it is 1200 square feet it is 2 bedrooms and 2 1/2 bathrooms. We have 2 kids and it is affordable. We don’t spend much time it during the summer with all the outside activites and a bonus we are so close to our neighbors that we know everyone on the block.

  • http://www.ourhometools.com/ Sandy

    Excellent article. With the cost of utilities on the rise the cost of heating and lighting must be taken into account when deciding on a property.

    • Heatherllevin

      Sandy,

      You’re right. I think those costs are often not taken into account, especially by first-time home buyers. I know I really wasn’t thinking about utilities when I was house shopping! It just wasn’t on my radar, though. Now, however, I’d never buy a home that I felt would be costly to heat or cool.

  • Hotmamasar

    We (in the last year) downsized from a 2400 sq. ft rental property, with garage, to a 1400 sq.ft. condo WITHOUT garage that we own. Although the initial move was difficult, trying to squeeze all of our JUNK into a smaller space with less storage, we are so glad we did it.
    As you said, we have learned to evaluate based on our needs. We have given away, thrown away or sold so much stuff that we really did not use. Our kids have learned to live with less because of it.
    IKEA is our friend. ;-) We love going and getting ideas for our place….they use spaces in such a unique and helpful way. We are learning to think “up” and use our wall space more efficiently.

    We have 3 kids, 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms and we never feel cramped or in need of a bigger house. We purposely chose a condo that has 2 pools and is located next to a huge open space with walking trails….that way, our kids are still getting exercise and fresh air, even though we do not have the traditional back yard and street.

    Because of our positive experience in a smaller place, we are hoping to buy a 1-bedroom flat when the kids move out, preferably located in an urban area where we can walk to everything. :-)

    Great article–thanks for highlighting the positives of “living small”!

    • Heatherllevin

      Hotmamasar,

      Yay for you! I love hearing stories like this. :) Thanks so much for writing in; I think personal stories like this help inspire other people to live small!

  • Co bada

    After growing up during the height of 1990′s capitalism and materialism in America, I had the invaluable experience of living in Germany for the entire duration of my 20′s. I don’t think we realize the extent to which “our” desires are influenced by our peers and the societies we live in until we are taken out completely. During my time in Germany, I was intrigued by the more compact way of living there. Homes, lots, cars and even household gadgets and appliances are smaller and more efficient. People tend to be more interested in quality and versus quantity and size, and they treasure being able to walk to a local grocer, bakery, or post office far more than being able to afford a new SUV. Certainly, life has its problems everywhere, but these are a couple of viewpoints I have held onto.

  • Dave

    Love and appreciate your post! My ex-wife and I both got caught up in the belief that bigger would be better when looking for our dream home. We moved from my one bedroom, 850 square foot condo to a three bedroom, 1,800 square foot townhouse to a 3,900 square foot, 5 bedroom “McMansion.” When we decided to go our separate ways, I realized how much financial, physical, and emotional stress an oversized home placed on us, and I decided to downsize to a 900 square foot, 2 bedroom ranch with an extra 600 square feet of finished space in the basement. I’ve been here for about a year and a half and, while I admit it was a big adjustment, I would not trade the warmth, ease of maintenance, and financial freedom downsizing my living space has provided me. I actually had physical symptoms from the stress (stomach aches, headaches, sleeplessness) which are nearly gone, and I have been able to enjoy more of life and take more risks, like starting my own business, all because I don’t have 5 hungry bedrooms to feed.

  • Bernae

    My wife and I are now in our 60s. Last week we moved from our 4,000 s.f. family home (where we raised our 6 children) to our small “country cabin” that sits in the back yard. Our son and his wife, now with 6 children of their own, are buying our home. Our country cabin has about 800 s.f. of living space. It has the world’s smallest laundry room, a tiny bathroom (where I can shave in the mirror while standing in the shower), a living room/kitchen, and a loft bedroom with a massive picture window. Already we are amazed at how simple life has gotten. When we go into a grocery store, we scrutinize every item, realizing that even a gallon jug of something will have to fit somewhere. But we love this new life. We realize we still have the rare benefit of living in the country and enjoying a large finished yard (of our adjacent home), but playing house in our country cabin is truly a delight. We recommend it to any empty nesters.

  • Bernae

    P.S. This living small concept reaches every part of our life. We try to eat simply, be outdoors often, avoid motorized play toys, and breathe deep. We try to eat things with no label (made from scratch) rather than packaged foods. So living small means living simply as well.

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