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In Praise of Small Space Living

by Chris Poindexter

In the years prior to the housing crash, builders were getting silly with the size of houses. Even in relatively modest neighborhoods, it was not unusual to find homes that were 4,000 to 5,000 square feet. In one rural Tennessee neighborhood, in a relatively poor area of the state, there was a 5,700 square foot home that included a private chapel. In the days before the crash, nothing succeeded quite like excess.

All through that time, there was another segment of the housing market that started growing quietly, and has continued to expand even today, and that’s the trend toward small space living — homes and apartments that are 500 square feet or less. For some that may seem like an impossibly small amount of space; a few of you are doing the math and discovering that’s about twice the size of your master bedroom. A few of the hardest-core devotees of small space living are taking their home sizes down to 50–60 square feet, which really is just a closet.

A few of the hardest-core devotees are taking their home sizes down to 50–60 square feet, which really is just a closet.

Many people, particularly those with kids, would see living that way as somewhat impractical —  and it’s true that small space living won’t work for everyone. All the same, the small space people are onto something, and it’s worthwhile thinking it through if you’re considering buying or building a home. Most people buy way more house than they really need — and it ends up costing them in many ways over the long run. Usually their real estate agent knows what they qualify for, and is trying to get them to spend as much money as possible, even when it may not be in the client’s best interests. Here are some points from the small space camp to consider when shopping for a home.

Add Up the Space You Use Now

One interesting exercise is to add up the amount of space where you spend the bulk of your time. I tried this when my wife and I lived in a 1,700 square foot, four bedroom home — and discovered that we spent the bulk of our time in roughly 500 square feet. We had so much room in that old place, we turned part of the house into a gym.  We came to the conclusion that a smaller home would fit us better.

You’re Paying Taxes on All That Space

The bigger your home, the higher your taxes. In some parts of the country that can add up to a significant expense. An option to consider is buying a smaller home, and adding on a barn or separate garage that can function as a hobby shop, a play area for the kids, or storage space. Why pay taxes on living space that you’re using for nothing but storing junk?

You’re Paying to Heat and Cool All That Extra Volume

Another factor many people vastly underestimate is the cost to heat and cool all that extra space, in the form of utility bills. When you look at the cost of energy inflation over the years, you’ll notice that it runs considerably higher than wage increases. That means, over 10 years, utility bills will become a bigger bite on your budget. A smaller living space costs considerably less to heat and cool than volume that is simply wasted space.

No Mortgage

One of the biggest advantages frequently cited by those living in small homes are that many can be built or bought with no mortgage. Many of the designs are such that one can start small, and add on as time and finances allow. This is not possible in all neighborhoods, as some have deed restrictions and building codes that specify minimum square footage, and homeowners associations that limit the design, size, and exterior appearance. So you have to shop carefully for the property if you want to go really small.

Easier To Maintain

Living in 500 square feet may seem cramped, but you won’t mind when it comes time to clean house. Less space means less to clean and less maintenance. Appliances like heating and A/C units don’t have to work as hard and last longer. Big repair bills are a thing of the past, as small homes have a roof that can be replaced for a fraction of the cost of a larger home, and many small space homes are on wheels for easy transport.

IMG_7238Brian Grande and Debbie Hustin live along the Florida coast in a custom 5th wheel RV that tops out at 475 square feet. Since they’re both in IT, they turned the back of their RV into a high tech work area. When they’re done with work, they can rearrange the space for leisure time or entertaining company, and have a separate storage shed for their kayaks and surfboards. “We spend most of our free time outdoors,” explains Brian. “So the size of house doesn’t really matter to us; it’s just a place to work and sleep.” If hurricanes threaten, they can hook up their home to their Ford F-450 and haul it to a place of safety and ride out the storm, never missing a beat at the office because they’re living in it. If they can get WiFi service, they’re in business.  “With the savings over a traditional home,” said Grande, “I was able to consider retirement at age 55 living in a tropical resort.”

To be sure there are trade-offs living in smaller spaces but, overall, the small space people do have some sound arguments in their favor. Most of them are spending their money on having fun outside the home and it’s hard to be too critical.

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