The Challenge of Moving to a Smaller Home
The house I grew up in had a pretty limited square footage, something I notice every time I visit my parents. It’s essentially a two bedroom house with what amounts to a storage closet converted into a third bedroom when absolutely needed. The living room is very small and the kitchen is pretty tiny as well.
I grew up there with my parents and two older brothers. There were also periods where my mother’s younger brothers lived with us, too. It was cozy at times, to say the least.
Yet, when I look back on it, I don’t have any bad memories of living there. I don’t recall any situation where things were made uncomfortable due to the smallness of the house. There was always somewhere I could go for privacy. There was always enough room to do things together as a family and to get involved in any projects that I was interested in.
The house I live in today is much larger, but the story is much the same. I live here with my wife and we have three children. I don’t have any bad memories of living here, nor is there any situation where things are really uncomfortable. There is always room for privacy and there is always room for projects.
So, why the bigger house? What does this bigger house provide me that the smaller house that I grew up in doesn’t provide for me?
Honestly, the biggest benefit of a larger house is that it provides a lot of room for more stuff. This house offers storage galore – almost a dozen closets, a garage with a huge amount of loft storage, and big rooms with plenty of room for storage-oriented furniture (like bookshelves).
Naturally, when you have storage space, you tend to fill it. We’ve lived in this house since 2007 and, in drips and drabs, we’ve slowly filled up that storage space. We have boxes of old children’s clothes and toys. Many of our personal collections have grown, such as our board game collection. Our children have accumulated a number of possessions themselves, since when we moved in we had only one child who was a toddler and he’s now approaching his teen years.
Recently, however, I’ve been thinking more and more about the house I grew up in. In some ways, it’s actually not all that different than the house I’d like to retire in, except with perhaps one more nice room to entertain guests in and a slightly larger kitchen. I would even consider moving into the perfect smaller house right now, even with growing children, if I found the right one.
Why Live in a Smaller House?
So, why would I even consider downsizing? For me, it really comes back to three key things.
First of all, we really don’t need this much space. I could easily remove 30% of the square footage of this house and still be perfectly happy. With the right layout, I’d eliminate 50% of the square footage of this house without skipping a beat.
That connects to the second reason, which is that maintaining a larger house takes more time. It takes more time to clean. There are more things that can break and need to be fixed. There are more things that simply need attention.
Another reason: A big house is simply more expensive than a small one, even when it’s paid off. The property taxes are higher. The insurance is higher. The maintenance costs are higher. Sure, it’s theoretically growing equity at a faster rate, but that doesn’t help with out-of-pocket costs, and I’m not convinced at all that the growth in the value of the house makes up for the much higher insurance costs and maintenance costs and property taxes.
In other words, living in a smaller home means lower housing bills and more free time, both of which sound appealing to me.
Smaller Houses and Social Status
Some people view their homes as a status symbol. To them, it’s an indication of the success they’ve found in life, one that they can proudly display not only to all of their friends and family, but to the people who walk and drive by their house. Often, part of that sense of status comes from the size of the house.
The bigger it is, the more expensive it must be, and thus the greater the personal success of the people who life there, or so goes the logic.
That was a logic that used to make a great deal of sense to me, but the more I look at my life and really consider what I value and care about, the less sense that it makes.
First of all, I don’t really care about impressing the people passing by. Those people are not a part of my life. I really don’t care what they think of me. It just doesn’t have an impact in any real way.
Second, my friends are my friends, not my house’s friends. My friends don’t come to visit because of the size of my home or the “quality” of my furnishings. They come to visit because they like my company. Many of the same friends and family who visit us now were the same people who came to visit us back in the day.
Third, having a big house is not the sign I look for to indicate to myself that I’m successful. I look at other things. Am I engaged in work that I enjoy? Do I have time for leisure and relaxation? Do I have a good relationship with the people closest to me? That, to me, is success.
Because of that, I don’t feel an external need to own a large house. Several years ago, I did, hence the purchase of our current relatively large house. That sense of a house providing an internal or external sense of status has faded greatly in my mind and, with it, the driving desire to own a large home has faded as well.
Finding the Right Balance
So let’s say I was actually in the market to buy a smaller house. My intent would be to buy this new house, sell our current house, and pocket the difference in value, then enjoy the lower bills and lower time investment. Makes sense, right?
The first problem that pops up is finding the right size. I’m obviously open to a smaller house, but how small?
Let’s get the “small house” thing out of the way right now. I’m fully aware of the “small house movement,” but I find that many of the “small houses” that I see take it to extremes.
Many tiny houses that I see do not have enough room for basic things like clothes laundering, washing dishes, or other things that a person might do at home, which leads me to conclude that they must do many of those things outside of the home — where it is inherently more expensive, which kind of defeats the purpose for me. I want to be able to do those kinds of basic life tasks efficiently at home with minimal time and cost. They’re also rarely equipped with a basement or a proper foundation, which is an important thing to have when you live anywhere where severe storms occur regularly.
I want something a little larger than a “small house,” then. I want one with a functional basement on a proper foundation with tiling. I also want enough room for me to take care of basic life management functions at home – doing dishes, preparing meals, washing clothes, storing a small number of things, entertaining the occasional handful of guests without ridiculously cramped conditions, and so on.
Yet, on the other hand, our current home is honestly a bit too big. There’s a lot of unused space, space that’s basically only utilized for storage of stuff that we don’t use and rarely look at. I have a ton of boxes out in the garage that are essentially marked for a yard sale… but that box pile has done nothing but grow over the past few years. And that’s just scratching the surface of what should really be purged from our storage space.
In other words, I want to retain the space that we actually use in our home along with a small fraction of the storage space and essentially purge the rest.
So, what do we actually use? We use three bedrooms out of the four in our home, though we may end up using the fourth for a while when our kids get older. It’s not necessary, though, as I shared a bedroom with my brothers for many, many years growing up. We really only use one of our two family rooms and only two of our four bathrooms. We have a lot of closet space, but we really need perhaps 30% to 40% of it if we were wise about purging our unused stuff.
That leaves us with a three bedroom house with two bathrooms, only one family room, and a lot less closet space, which adds up to a reduction of about 40% of our square footage.
The key here is to think about the space you’ll actually use instead of the space that you might use every once in a while. The trick is learning how to separate space that you’ll use quite often from space that you’ll rarely use, even when you might envision occasional uses for that space.
For example, I can envision having a room devoted to tabletop gaming, with a table perfectly constructed for such games. While I would probably spend some time in there, the honest truth is that it doesn’t really do anything that our dining room table doesn’t already do aside from rare situations where I can leave a very, very long game set up over the course of a full day or multiple days.
When I’m honest with myself like that, the idea of paying the costs of having an entire extra room for this, even if it seems like a cool use for me, is rather silly. It’s a rare use, even for me, so it’s silly to pay the cost of building/owning that room, the additional insurance, the additional property taxes, and so on just to maintain that space.
Focus on the space you actually need for the things you actually do every day – eat, prepare food, relax, sleep, maintain yourself, maintain your key possessions, and so on. Don’t worry about space necessary for the rarer things. If you find you need those spaces, you can usually find ways to essentially borrow them for free outside of your home.
Downsizing Your Stuff
The challenge that’s left, then, is to deal with the stuff we’ve accumulated over the years in our current home. The boxes in our closets. The furniture in rarely-used rooms. The loft and the shelves in the garage full of all kinds of items.
What do we do with all of that stuff?
Some of it is obvious fodder for yard sales and Craigslist. It’s pretty clear that there are many items that we bought for our children when they were babies or toddlers that can be moved to new families pretty easy, and there are some scarcely used gifts just sitting on shelves in the garage or in the back of the pantry that can be sold to clear out space.
Closets need to be emptied out and organized. This actually includes a lot of different categories of things, so let’s look at each of those categories.
We need to shred old papers. We have several boxes of old papers that simply need to be shredded. At this point, electric bills from 2009 serve no real purpose, especially since we have digital copies of those things. They simply need to be shredded and properly disposed of, which is itself a sizable task.
We need to honestly evaluate our lesser-used items. Almost every closet in our home is full of items that we rarely use. This is a tricky problem because it’s so easy to envision uses for those items, but the honest reality is that we rarely – if ever – use those things.
The challenge, then, is to break through the visions of using the items to the reality that we don’t actually use those items, and that can be trickier than it sounds.
My solution for this problem is to use a simple evaluation system for everything in the closets. Just go through each item and ask yourself a simple question: has this item been used in the last year? If the answer is yes, then keep it. If the answer is no, then get rid of it. If the answer is… not sure, then take a piece of masking tape and write today’s date on it and then keep the item for now. Then, if you use an item with masking tape on it, remove the tape. Then, revisit the closet in a year and remove all items with tape still on them.
We need to smartly organize the stuff we’re keeping. An unorganized space means that stuff takes up more space than it otherwise would and/or some things are not easily accessible. A well-organized space means everything takes up minimal space while still being easily accessible. Our closets and other storage spaces tend toward the former, unfortunately.
Once we figure out what items we’re actually holding onto, some serious reorganization of our closets and storage spaces need to occur. Things like temporary shelves, wire racks, clearly-labeled boxes, and so on are definitely in order.
Why do all of this? The goal is to reduce the amount of space we’re using in our current home so that it becomes easy to transplant to a smaller home. Think of it as a proving ground of sorts for the concept of having a smaller home.
Pulling the Trigger
With such a clear game plan, why aren’t we downsizing, then? Personally, I’d be happy to downsize at this point, but there are a few factors that are providing pushback against doing so.
First and foremost, the rest of my family really likes our current home. The biggest reason for that, I think, is location.
My children have several close friends within walking distance of our house – in fact, of the three children my daughter identifies as her closest friends, two of them live literally within a stone’s throw of our home. There’s a park directly across the street with a playground and a giant open field and a perfect quarter-mile running loop, meaning that there’s something there for each of them to enjoy. On top of that, one of my wife’s closest friends is also within a stone’s throw of our home, and she has other close friends within a mile or so.
The idea of moving – and losing such close access to those things – is something that none of them enjoy. I personally don’t have anything that ties me to this location nearly as much, but my family’s needs are pretty important to me.
Second, there is no additional reason to move beyond the time and money savings from a reduced house footprint. We have no reason to move for work. We have no reason to move for school. We have no reason to move for social reason. We have no real reason to move for improved access to cultural things. Our current location is pretty good in all of those regards.
Third, our current home is actually a pretty good “bang for the buck” for the area. While I think a smaller home would definitely hit a somewhat sweeter spot, when I compare our home to some of the much larger ones that are in some of the newer housing developments nearby, our home seems pretty modest by comparison. Our energy bills are what I would consider quite reasonable (especially compared to what we paid when we first moved in) and our property taxes and insurance rates aren’t going to improve drastically unless we move much further away from nearby cities.
Finally, it’s honestly going to be a lot of work and we’re already pretty time-strapped. This is more of a “resistance” thing than a real reason for not moving, but without a compelling reason to move forward on it, this kind of “resistance” is powerful at holding a person back from making a move.
So Why Consider It?
So, if the decision is essentially made for us not to downsize, what’s the benefit of even thinking about it like this?
Well, first of all, no one’s life is guaranteed to ever be the same forever. Over time, many of those factors that work against moving into a smaller home are going to shift and move us toward a smaller home. When our children grow older and leave the nest, many of the factors that encourage us to stay in this house are going to shift and encourage us to downsize. It’s also good to have a smart plan in place if we ever need to downsize for financial reasons or for other personal reasons.
For another, the outcomes of preparing for downsizing are beneficial even if we never move. Having a yard sale/Craigslist sale of our unused stuff cleans out our storage spaces and earns us some extra money. Reorganizing our storage spaces makes our stuff that we choose to keep more accessible, too.
For yet another, thinking about what would make for a “better” house lets me see ways to make our current home “better.” Thinking about a smaller house encourages me to find ways to incorporate “smaller house” traits into our current house.
If I were to go back to my younger self, prior to buying a house, I’d sit down and encourage that younger self to buy something just a bit smaller with a different layout.
That house would cost less. It would have lower property taxes and lower insurance. It would also require less time and effort for maintenance. And I wouldn’t actually lose any genuinely useful living space.
Would I listen? Probably not. What I would hope for instead is that I would give more careful thought about my home purchase and what we really needed, which in the end is the purpose of this post.
If you’re considering a home purchase, give some thought to a home on the smaller end of the spectrum. A smaller home will save you money and save you time and it’ll likely not reduce the living space you use every day.