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Is Your House Too Big For Your Family? – How to Pick the Right Size

Do you ever feel that your house is just too big?

Perhaps you’re an empty nester living in the same house where you raised your children, who are now grown and gone. Or maybe you bought a large house so everyone in your family would have enough space, only to realize that you miss seeing your kids when you’re all at home.

If this sounds like you, then it might be time to think about downsizing. But how do you know for sure if your home is too big, and what can you do about it? Let’s take a look.

Our Ballooning Homes

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average home was 1,525 square feet in 1973. In 1974, it was 1,560 square feet. In 1975, average home size decreased to 1,535, but in 1976, it jumped to 1,590 square feet. For the most part, the average home’s square footage has increased by 30 to 60 square feet every year. Today, the Census Bureau reports that the average size for a new home stands at 2,457 square feet.

While our homes continue to increase in size, the number of people living in these homes continues to get smaller. Statista reports that in 1960, the average U.S. household contained 3.33 people; by 2017, the average household contained only 2.54 people. American families are having fewer children for a variety of reasons, but they’re still building or purchasing large homes.

Yards are also getting smaller. The Atlantic reports that the average lawn is 13% smaller than in 1978. While 13% may not sound like much, when you account for the increased size of today’s homes, yards are proportionally 26% smaller than they were in 1978.

So, why do houses continue to balloon in size? In an NPR interview, New York architect Ann Surchin opined, “You know, we are very tenuous. No one knows when the next 9/11 will happen. And these houses represent safety – and the bigger the house, the bigger the fortress.”

Another factor is the snowball effect of home prices. When large homes are built, neighborhood house prices often go up. That results in higher property taxes, which benefit local schools. And when a school district improves, even more people want to live there. In response, builders buy lots in the neighborhood, subdivide them into smaller parcels, and build larger homes to make a better profit.

The Downsides of a Large Home

Large homes may look impressive, but there are a number of disadvantages to living in a home that’s too big for your family.

1. Higher Cost

The cost of a home is generally broken down by its square footage; the larger the home, the more you’ll pay up front. Your mortgage is higher (and you pay more in interest), your home insurance is higher, your property taxes are higher, and you generally spend more on upkeep and repairs.

It’s also more expensive to live in a larger home. You pay more in utilities to heat and cool those extra rooms, you spend more time cleaning them, and you spend more on furnishings to fill them up and make them look lived in.

These larger monthly mortgage payments and higher upkeep costs can limit how much money you have left over to save for important life events. You might have less to put into your emergency fund, save for retirement, or save for college for your kids. You might feel pressured to work longer hours to afford these expenses, which means less time you can spend with your family.

These costs can add up significantly over a 30-year mortgage. The Wall Street Journal looked at what you could do with the money you’d save by buying a smaller home. They profiled a fictional couple who saved $20,000 per year as a result of a smaller mortgage, lower property taxes, and lower home insurance. If the couple invested that money in a stock market portfolio earning 4%, they would have a nest egg of almost $1.2 million at the end of their 30-year mortgage.

2. Less Family Interaction

In many of today’s large homes, each child has their own palatial bedroom and maybe even their own bathroom. There might be other rooms that function as individual playrooms or dens, and parents often have a large master bedroom downstairs.

The larger the home, the harder it is for families to spend time together. Everyone can be in their own little world and not even realize that someone else is in the house. It’s also harder for parents to stay on top of what their kids are doing when everyone is so spread out.

3. Bigger Environmental Footprint

Larger homes require more building materials, such as wood, drywall, glass, and shingles. This increased use of resources puts a strain on the environment.

It helps that larger homes are typically more energy-efficient than older homes. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that energy use per square foot was 37% lower in 2009 than it was in 1980. However, the EIA also states that “the gains from energy intensity improvements would have been even larger if it were not for consumer preferences for larger homes and increased adoption of home appliances and electronics.”

Our homes are, on average, 20% larger than they were in 1980. And we have a lot more gadgets than we did in 1980 – think big-screen TVs, home computers, cell phones, tablets, and e-readers – all of which require electricity. So even though we’re using less energy per square foot, we’re still using more energy per household. In 2009, the U.S. used 10.2 quadrillion British thermal units, compared to 9.3 quadrillion British thermal units in 1980.

How To Tell If Your House Is Too Big

Are you wondering if your house is too big for your family? The following are good signs that it might be.

1. Some Rooms Are Unused

Do you have any unfurnished, empty rooms in your home? Do you have rooms you rarely, if ever, set foot in? If so, this could be a strong indication that your home is too big for your current needs.

Sure, it’s cool to have a media room, party room, and a game room, but if you hardly ever use those spaces, are they really worth a higher mortgage payment?

2. Some Rooms Are Only Used for Storage

Do you have a room or a basement that you only use to store things? If the answer is yes, it’s important to realize that you’re paying to store all this stuff, and the monthly cost might surprise you. For example, you might be paying more to store this stuff in your home than you would if you rented a monthly storage unit.

To figure out how much this extra space (and extra stuff) is costing you, you need to figure out the actual cost of your home’s square footage and how much of that square footage is taken up by storage. Here’s how:

  1. Write down the total square feet of your house.
  2. Write down how much you pay monthly for your house, including home insurance, property taxes, and utilities.
  3. Divide your total square feet by your monthly payment; this is how much you pay monthly per square foot.
  4. Now, estimate how many square feet you’re using to store stuff. Include your closets, basement, extra bedrooms, and garage.
  5. Multiply this number times your monthly cost per square foot. This is how much you’re paying each month to store your extra things.

For example, imagine that your monthly mortgage payment is $2,000, your homeowner’s insurance is $125 a month, and your property taxes are $150 a month. That brings your total cost per month to $2,275.

Let’s say your home is 3,000 square feet, but you’re using two bedrooms just for storage. If each bedroom is 12 x 9 feet (or 108 square feet each), your total storage space is 216 square feet. That means you’re paying 0.75 cents per square foot, or $162 per month, to store those items.

3. You’re Storing Stuff for Other People

Is your home full of stuff that belongs to other people, such as children or grandchildren? Many parents hold on to toys, artwork, and clothing their children or grandchildren cherished while they were growing up. While some parents don’t mind, others might feel slightly resentful that they’re paying for someone else to use their home as a storage unit.

If you have boxes or entire rooms filled with things that belong to someone else – and, most importantly, it makes you feel stressed or upset – it might be time to pass those things along and downsize.

4. You Feel Overwhelmed

Have you ever walked into a smaller home and felt instantly cozy, comfortable, and safe? How did you feel when you walked back into your own home? If you felt overwhelmed by the excess space or the excess stuff, you’re not alone; many families and couples are facing the same problem.

UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) conducted a lengthy study on the average American’s cluttered home, studying and profiling 32 dual-income families and publishing their findings in the book “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors.” Their insights into family life and consumerism shouldn’t be surprising, and yet they are. The CELF researchers found that:

  • Only 25% of garages could be used to store cars because they were so cluttered with other things.
  • Managing the sheer amount of items in the home increased stress hormones in mothers.
  • Even in the region studied (Los Angeles, which has pleasant weather year-round), families hardly used their yards, even when they’d invested in landscaping and other yard-enhancing improvements.
  • The most common home improvement done by the families studied was the addition of an expensive master suite for parents; however, these large suites went mostly unused.
  • The rise of bulk stores has helped fuel the rise in clutter as more families stockpile food. Close to half of the families studied had a second refrigerator to store extra food, and several families had three refrigerators.
  • Toys were a crushing problem for the families studied. CELF researchers found that several homes had at least 250 toys on display, and most had at least 100. And the researchers only counted the toys that were visible; they did not count toys in closets, under beds, or stored in other areas.

These findings might mirror your own home. If this is the case, and this realization makes you feel stressed or upset, it might be time to downsize.

5. More Signs Your Home Is Too Big

Other indications that your home is just too big for your family include:

  • You sometimes lose your children in the house.
  • You’re thinking about installing an intercom system so that you can talk to your spouse or partner without having to walk across the house.
  • You sometimes miss visitors because you can’t hear the doorbell.
  • You have cleaning supplies scattered all over the house because it’s too far to fetch everything back and forth.
  • Your dog has her own bedroom.

While some of these examples are tongue-in-cheek, if you find yourself smiling with recognition, it might be time for you to find a “right-sized” house for your family.

How to “Right-Size” Your Home

There is no perfectly sized home – unless you go by Southern Living, which claims that 1,500 square feet is the “perfect sized house.” However, by asking yourself a few questions and doing some soul-searching, you can figure out a size that might better meet your current and future needs.

1. Identify Which Spaces You Actually Use

Stop and think about how you and your family use your current home on a day-to-day basis. Chances are, you spend the majority of your time in just one or two rooms, most likely the kitchen and living room.

If you declutter and reorganize, how many rooms in your current home could you do without? Mentally subtract the square footage of these rooms from your home’s total square footage for an idea of what size home you might want to consider.

It’s also important to think about what you actually do in your home. For example, if you don’t like to cook and often go out to eat, it doesn’t make sense to have a large luxury kitchen. If you spend long hours at work and have no desire to start a business, it might not make sense to have a home office. If you and your family travel often or spend weekends camping or doing other activities away from home, you might be better off without a large yard to maintain.

2. Think About Your Future Plans

How will you and your family evolve in the coming years?

Do you have teenagers who will be leaving home soon? Are your children young enough that they’ll be living with you for quite a while? Do you have aging parents you might need to care for in the next decade? Will you need a home office because you want to start a new business once you retire? Can you afford to live in this large house when you retire?

Stop and think about what the future might hold for your family. While it’s impossible to predict everything, you can take an educated guess at how much space you might need based on obvious milestones, such as children moving out of the house or aging parents moving in.

3. Define Your Priorities

What really matters most to you when it comes to your home?

For example, do you care deeply that each of your kids has their own bedroom, or would you rather they share a bedroom? Do you enjoy the routine of cleaning, or would you rather have more time to spend with family or do hobbies? Would you like to have a smaller home where you can all pile into the living room and watch a movie, rather than being scattered about in individual rooms?

It’s important to think about how you want your family to live in a home. Often, smaller spaces encourage interaction and communication because there’s no choice; everyone is right there. However, close quarters might not be right for some families.

Another way to determine your priorities is to look at what you don’t like about your current large home. Do you hate that your kids are so spread out that you can’t keep track of what they’re doing? Do you wish your spouse spent less time doing yard work and more time with the kids? Do you hate your high utility bills and feel you’re living unsustainably?

Only you know what size will work best for your family’s personality, relationships, and routine. If you consider what you don’t like about living in a large house, it can help you identify the type of house that would work better for you.

Final Word

I’ve lived in impossibly small spaces – including traveling around the country in a 16 x 99-foot camper – and some fairly large ones (our current home is around 2,300 square feet). I realize now that my perfect home size, for a family of four, probably falls around 1,200 square feet.

Our current house was a good compromise for our needs; while neither my husband nor I wanted such a big house, we did want the seclusion and beauty of the land this house was on. Still, I really miss living in a small space, and I know that our next move will be into a smaller home.

You might be in a position to move and downsize your current home, or you might be stuck where you are for the foreseeable future. Whatever your situation, try to think about what you love about your current home. If the amount of stuff in your home causes stress or unhappiness, start decluttering.

Are you happy in the home you’re in, or do you wish it were smaller?

Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.