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Living in a Small House – Benefits & Challenges

Drive 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 Home Living BenefitsReal 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.

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.

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.

Small Living ParadiseStrategies 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 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.