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How much house do you really need?

Builders say homes are likely to shrink. It's about time.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 11, 2012 11:53AM
Logo: Home under construction (Corbis)The average U.S. home is 2,438 square feet. But contractors surveyed by the National Association of Home Builders say that homeowners are increasingly interested in affordable mortgages and greener homes that are cheaper to heat and cool.

Kind of rules out a 4,000-square-foot, cathedral-ceilinged, giant-windowed McMansion, doesn't it? That's why nearly 75% of the builders predict that the average home will be 2,152 square feet by 2015.

That's not much smaller. But it's a start -- and it's about time.

Typically a large home has been seen as a sign of success. I'm waiting for the day when reasonably sized homes are seen as a sign of good sense.

Honestly, huge-house owners: How much of your total square footage actually gets used? By that I mean used regularly, not occasionally.

Those other square feet still have to be furnished, heated, cooled, cleaned, insured, maintained and taxed. How much is that costing you every year? And how much time do you want to spend vacuuming (let alone paying taxes on) mostly unused areas?

Consider 'rightsizing'
Last year, I read an article about a couple expecting their second child. Suddenly their three-bedroom home wasn't big enough.

Says who? When did this "each child must have his own room" dictum arise? In this case, the couple was using one bedroom as a home office. Why couldn't the two children share a room for a few years, or for good?
I grew up sharing a room with two sisters and a brother; when my brother was 6 or 7 years old, my dad finished off the attic to create a second sleeping area. My sisters and I survived the agony of the shared room quite well, even when we weren't always getting along. If you wanted space, you went downstairs (which wasn't very big, either) or you went outdoors (plenty of room out there).

A lot has been written about "tiny houses," domiciles measuring from 140 to 400 square feet. For some people, they're a great fit. For the rest of us, that's a little too cramped.

There must be a happy medium, somewhere between ultra-tight quarters and need-a-GPS-to-find-the-front-door behemoths. Here's hoping those builders walk their talk in 2015.

How big is your current place? Would you consider living in a smaller one?

More from MSN Money:

Oct 11, 2012 1:52PM
Our house is 1300 sf, big enough for our family of 5.  We have adjusted our lifestyle, don't have an extreme amount of "stuff" & pretty much keep it organized and tidy.  There are times when it feels a little cramped, like when we have company, but we simply take it outdoors.  I love our small, cozy home....wouldn't have it any other way.  Plus it's great to not have an outrageous mortgage hanging over our heads.
Oct 11, 2012 12:56PM
It's about time. I fell into the big house mindset. Big mistake. The house is slowly falling apart, I'm 100k in the hole and have no motivation to throw any money at it. Which really sucks the fun out of home ownership! 
Oct 11, 2012 2:07PM

I have a 750 s.f. 2 bedroom 1 1/2 bath home. There is plenty of space for me. Not a lot of need for stuff. Easy to heat and cool my bill averages $45 a month. I have a huge backyard to use when things seems cramped. Taxes are cheaper, Maintenance is low. I have extra money to save, invest and travel. My one luxury is with some of my extra money I hire a house cleaner to come in once a week to tidy the place up. We need to stop living like the Jones and see what is really important. Happiness, health and security.

Oct 11, 2012 12:53PM

"Only" about 2,600 SF but would love a much smaller place but with the same privacy. Tired of the cleaning and paying for unused rooms.  We bought it when we were planning on having kids and even then, fell so in love with the property abutting a nature preserve forgot it had a second floor (partial), what I like to call-the dust zone-2 b/r and an unused bah I get to dust and close off from the a/c and heat. When we leave here, we will NOT be even considereing a large house.

Oct 11, 2012 1:42PM
i kow a single couple living in a 7,500-sq.ft. house. what a waste of everything.
Oct 11, 2012 3:33PM

My house is about 2500 sq ft, just me and the cat.  Moved from a 950 sq ft house.  Heat is higher, a.c. is lower, otherwise utilities are the same, taxes are actually a bit less (same city, different neighborhood).  I would move back to my old house if I had to, but so far I don't want to, love being able to walk thru the house without bumping into the furniture, love hearing the cat dash back and forth and up and down the stairs at top speed, love having more than 6 people over without feeling crowded.

Part of the reason that I can now enjoy this house is because I was pretty frugal with the smaller house, paid it off in 9 years and now have supplemental rental income.  Also, I don't stress too much about the extra housecleaning because, well, I'm not a very good housecleaner :)

Oct 11, 2012 4:58PM
It's more important to have enough yard to push the neighbors away. Won't repeat my mistake and get another zero lot line.
Oct 12, 2012 12:16AM
I have 1250 sq ft, 3 bedroom 2 bath and 2 car garage. One roommate and me. The spare bedroom is guestroom and home office, all rooms get used regularly. I bought it as a fixer upper, that's still ongoing. Nice size back yard for the pets and a covered patio too. I have plenty of room to do what I need and not feel cramped, so I consider it "right-sized". The bills are much lower than my sister's twice as big house too. Plus, I could afford to get a 15yr mortgage and only have 5 yrs left until it gets paid off. I like the financial flexibility of not having a huge mortgage for the next 30 yrs.
Oct 15, 2012 4:04PM
Homebuilders, get rid of formal dining rooms...give us kitchens that are open to a large casual  living area. These two rooms are where the family is 95% of the time.
Live in a small house about 1100 sq ft. plus a front and back yard.  3 persons with 2 bedrooms and 1 bath.  Dining room has one corner for a small office and kitchen has one corner for the "laundry room" .  Prefer to have own room for small office and own laundry room and more closet space, but the rent is reasonable.  No garage so 2 storage sheds are used for storage.  You have to make do with what you have or don't have.
Oct 11, 2012 3:05PM
I live alone in a 1901square foot house.

For me this is perfect because I have 1 master, 1 room for an office, 1 guest room. All get used regularly.

common areas not too big. The only room I don't use much is the formal living room. The second bath is used by guests saying over and the downstairs 1/2 bath is used regularly.

Oct 11, 2012 7:22PM


Oct 15, 2012 1:26PM
My partner and I downsized from a 4 bedroom, 3 1/2 bathroom, library/loft, full basement, 3 story house to a 3 bedroom (one is very small and used as an office), 2 bath, open living/dining room and are much happier!!!  We have about the same outdoor space but now live in the country with nearest neighbors a 1/2 mile away!   I love it - it is cosy.  As one comment said - it does get a little too cosy with company, especially if they stay more than a couple of days.  It was a challenge to downsize furniture but we really pushed to keep only things we loved - and now use the "good stuff" regularly instead of "keeping it for good".   When you have to clean out parents/in-laws homes you realize that using what you enjoy and not keeping it back is important. It was sad to find so many things my grandmothers had been given that they still had wrapped in the tissue paper.  While I undertstand the Depression, along with living on farms, mentality I decided that if I liked something I would use it! 
Oct 19, 2012 10:46AM
I designed a 704 sq ft zero energy  home for myself, a single semi-retired male, no children.  I have everything without being "stacked or cramped."  I even have a generous home office/music-media creation studio with all professional equipment.  It just takes serious time in planning exactly what you have said, "How much space (and what space) do I really need and use."  The space is true "old-world" Arts and Craftsman with abundant LED lighting.  My out-of-pocket energy costs really are ZERO.  That's an extra $300.00 a month in my pocket - EVERY month!  Having downsized, the entire project with an acre of view land was paid for upon completion!  That means my semi-retirement is doing what I want to do, not what I have to do.  Hope you each and all find your right space.
Our house is 1050 square feet main floor, same size basement.  650 square feet of the basement is a one-bedroom suite currently rented to our second daughter (for fair market rent).  100 square feet is the laundry room, the rest is currently furnace/water heater/open storage.  Main floor is 1 bath, 2 bedrooms (ours and youngest daughter's), my office/workroom/sewing room, living room, kitchen.  We added a ladder/hatch, floorboards, and lighting to the attic space, but max headroom there prevents anyone over 3'6" from standing up  -  it's just for seasonal/seldom used storage.  Big Guy also has a 900 square foot garage/workshop with a small attached shed for lumber, lawnmower, wheelbarrow.
We have a manageable front yard, and a big enough back yard for several fruit trees, large planters and raised beds for berries and veggies, a big picnic table, lots of firewood storage, and next spring we will be putting in a patio.
My sister's house and yards are easily three times the size of ours, for three people.  I think she has way too much house; she thinks our place is way too small.

Oct 11, 2012 3:26PM
765square foot house - 2beds 1  bath for the 3 of us.  Going to finish off part of the basement for a 2nd bath and family room.  Plenty of space and I have a rather large yard.  This house is is almost 100 square feet larger than my house before it.  I have friends who have living rooms the size of my house and all I can think of how horrible it would be to clean a bigger house
Oct 21, 2012 11:31AM

Personally I love a big rambling house.  I'm single - no kids and I live in 3000, glorious square feet situated smack in the middle of 5 unkept naturally wild acreas.  I worked long and hard for my comforts and my home is paid for and I enjoy every square inch of it.  which includes cleaning, and decorating and fussing about with it.  I like to entertain, and frequently have house guests that make use of their own suite of rooms.  so I say tiny houses are for starting out and for living within your beginning means, but give me space! lots and lots of space!

Oct 14, 2012 6:29PM
700 sq ft condo. 105 sq ft of balcony.  A train stop away from Manhattan. 20 Min commute to work/home. My utility bills are enough to never move to a bigger home...LOL. I will though. I will definitely outgrow a studio apartment. I will keep it for my old age though. Hopefully pay it off fast.  I bought it for utility. It was close to work. Brand new and all mine. It is also a good investment should I need to rent it out. Its close to a big attraction here in NYC. Sometimes I want bigger, then I look at the heating and cooling bills of my family and think "hell no!" Im good right where I am for now.

I dont think size is the big issue for regular working joe's like me. Its cost. If I could afford to pay off my home tomorrow I would. I also know my home costs more than my mothers house (4 bdr/ 4bth) in the burbs by a landslide and I only have a studio. Her backyard is bigger than my apt. I dont think I ever want a house though. I will stick with condo's/townhouse style living.

Oct 11, 2012 3:15PM
If the size of houses are shrinking, does that mean that the hole you pour your money down into is also shrinking?
Nov 11, 2012 8:33AM

I live in a 800 ft, 3 bedrooms, 1 bath.  No bathroom or attic but I got a huge shed.  I like it.  It is just me and my granddaughter.  But I would have love a big old screened in porch to sit on.  Maybe in 4 years when the house is paid off.

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.