Growin' Home: How Much House Do You Really Need?


Did you know that according to U.S. Census data, the size of the average home in this country has nearly doubled since the 1950s? What's more, according a report released in June, 2012 by the Census Bureau, the size of our homes has jumped 62.6% just since 1973 — topping out at 2,480 square feet in 2011. Evidently, of all the lessons the recent housing boom and bust taught us, restraint wasn't one of them.

And how are we using all that added square footage? The answer might surprise you. Even though the average family size is dwindling, we're designing and building our homes to include great rooms, four-car garages, man caves, walk-in closets, double master bedrooms, and guest suites. It seems the basic home of today would have been considered a mansion by the standards of any previous generation. (See also: Finding a Starter Home That's Also a Forever Home)

But, in spite of what the Joneses may be building, how much space do we really need? How can we build or buy with a sense of what's sufficient or even moderate in this new Gilded Age of home design? If you're in the market for a new home, here are a few considerations that might help you determine how much space you really need.

Review Your Lifestyle

Deciding how much space you really need begins with understanding your lifestyle. Are you active or a homebody? Do you entertain often and throw large holiday parties, or do you tend to go out? What about guests — do you have a large extended family that visits throughout the year, or do you do most of the traveling? Our spaces should be a reflection of who we are rather than what others expect us to be.

Understand Your Priorities

Large homes typically mean large maintenance commitments. Yard work, snow removal, window cleaning, painting, and housekeeping can all add up quickly.

If your time or your money is in short supply, consider how a large home might stress other areas of your life or tax your resources. Likewise, consider how much you enjoy maintenance tasks. Do you delight in all the responsibilities that come with owning a large home, or would you rather be free to pursue other activities?

Estimate Future Needs

Our lives are constantly evolving, and what works for us today may not work tomorrow. Do you plan on having a large family? Will you likely be responsible for the care of an aging parent or in-law at some point? Will your income in retirement be reduced to such a degree that the taxes and utilities on a large home might make it unaffordable? Understand how the changes in your life could affect your space needs down the road.

Benefits of Smaller Homes

Large homes can be dramatic and beautiful, but smaller homes aren't without their charms (and benefits). Whether you're building or buying small, here are some pluses to consider.

They're Clutter-Busters

It's tough to accumulate too much when space is at premium. Smaller spaces help control clutter by encouraging us to differentiate between wants and needs and filter the objects we surround ourselves with. If you have minimalist leanings, consider minimizing your square footage first — the rest will follow.

They Consume Less Energy

A smaller physical footprint usually equals a smaller utility bill. Smaller spaces with more modest room dimensions mean there's less to heat and cool.

They're Less Expensive to Build and Buy

The cost of building a new structure is usually driven by a combination of materials and labor. Smaller homes that are well-designed with an eye toward simplicity tend to be less expensive to build. Likewise, since the resale price of an existing home is dictated, at least in part, by square footage, smaller homes tend to be less expensive. Whether building or buying, reining in the square footage can help rein in your budget.

They Encourage Activity and Interaction

While it's less obvious than the other benefits we've covered, smaller homes can promote activity and interaction between family members. In large homes, it's easy to get lost in our own separate corners and, whether we intend to or not, become a bit isolated throughout the day. Smaller homes encourage socializing and communication through sheer proximity.

Of course, there's no one-size-fits-all approach to space needs. Each family is different, and everyone's priorities and lifestyles are unique. But as we build the next generation of houses and consider buying and remodeling older homes, maybe it's OK to err on the conservative side of size. Maybe "less is more" overstates the case, but less may truly be more rewarding.

How much house is the right amount of house for you?

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Guest's picture

I would strongly consider folks to err on the side of smaller. We got a house that was a little too big for us, and we're regretting it now with the higher utility bills, tax bills, mortgage bills, etc.

Guest's picture

There is a happy medium. We had a small house that had a really small kitchen. There wasn't much we could do to redesign the kitchen. We also had a big house and regretted it for the big payment and big bills as Derek said. The house that I am 100% content with is one that had a big enough kitchen and the rooms are as small as they can be while having an active family. Our house that we currently live in was built in the 50's. We do a lot of the upgrades ourselves. We hire some and finish some if we are not up to the task. We live on a frugal budget and love our house that fits our needs.

Guest's picture

I agree . . the utility bills; water, electricity bills, the tax bill, the mortgage bill, the cost to fix things up.

Also the cost for security does go up too based on windows and doors.

Guest's picture

I just purchased a piece of property and have the blueprints to build my "forever" home - single story, ranch style, 1,200 sq ft. for two people and four "four footed kids". I'm purposely building for ageing in place with a shower with no sill, a front entrance with no stairs, the bedroom nearest the entrance with double doors, etc. in case I have mobility issues in the future. People are looking at me at first like I'm crazy when I tell them that I'm taking these things into consideration, then think it over and concede it's good planning.

I love gardening and home maintenance, but dealing with a second story/vaulted ceilings is a waste of time and resources (what a waste to heat and cool all that airspace!), as well as exterior maintenance issues. There's room enough for small parties for entertaining, for family members from the Midwest to stay when the come to visit, but not so much floor space that I'll hate cleaning it. Lots of area for a vegetable garden and fruit trees, which will be laid out with reduced water usage in mind. There's really no reason for anything larger, I just don't understand the mentality that a home must be a palace.

Guest's picture

I think my house is actually pretty big. My master bedroom has a nook where we put a small TV with a single seat couch (it's part of a set; the rest of it is in the living room) that we don't even use. Next to our dining room is space to walk to the sliding door to get to the backyard.

It's nice to have space. The only time I dislike it is when I have to mop the floor! It's definitely true that a larger house means more expensive electric and gas bills.

But im generally fine with my house. Sometimes I wish for a house because the mortgage is so high.

Guest's picture

"Smaller spaces help to control clutter." YES! You will end up saving $ with a smaller house by purchasing less possessions. Also, lower utilities and taxes add up quickly (in a good way.) The key is the layout. A smaller house doesn't always mean less space if it's got good bones!

Guest's picture
Monica M.

My husband and I are in the process of buying a 1000 sq. ft. home and I couldn't be happier with limiting the size of our house! It took some convincing with my husband (who seems to need a man cave and a cavernous basement/garage), but I have always preferred to limit our square footage as much as possible for all the reasons listed here.

Guest's picture

I currently live in a 3000+ square foot home. My kids are almost out on their own. I have found with smaller homes, the room sizes shrink. I do not care to pay to design and have built the home of my dreams. I am happy having a larger home where my kids and their potential families can stay if need be. I like having a master down. Being 15 steps to our pool from our bedroom is fantastic. Taxes are low. Electricity is high, but we are conservative. In order to downsize I will have to pay a Realtor commission and then closing costs on a new home. Taxes may be 1K less a year at most. So I'm looking at Spending $30K to save about $1200 a year. The big picture is what counts.

Guest's picture

Usually downsizing means buying a house that is significantly less money than the one you are currently in. Realtor commission doesn't really factor in unless you are under water and have to come out of pocket. I found a smaller home with big rooms, sold my family home and netted 240k after paying a buyer agent commission, and have only a $700 house payment, plus 7k less a year than I was paying in taxes and utilities.

Guest's picture

I think the right amount of house is whatever you can afford while also contributing your target amount into retirement accounts. So if you seek to max 2 Roth IRA and 1 401k, your mortgage payment and cost of maintenance should allow you to contribute at least $2000 or so to these accounts. Just my 2 cents!

Guest's picture

It is not like trying to decide between an SUV or a compact. With cars, you always have options. With houses, your decision is going to depend on the market in your area.
One of the compromises I made was buying a home that was larger than I wanted. There were not too many nice smaller homes in my area, and any decent house, big or small, went into contract in a matter of days. I saw a deal, and I went for it. Nothing left to do now but try and make the best of it.

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