We are having a debate. Or at least I am having a debate. I’m faced with internal dilemma of trying to figure out where I want to live in the coming months (and years). As a family, we are anticipating many different changes in the next few years, but most likely one will involve buying a new house in the town where we currently live. We really like the home we are in. In fact, we will probably keep it as a rental unit even after we buy a new one. Our house is modest in size for our area and the price per square foot of real estate is super inexpensive where we live. We can easily afford a lot of house, but what do we actually need? All the internal discussion boils down to the question: how many square feet do we need to be happy?
My History With Big Houses
In Georgia, where I’ve spent the vast majority of my life, houses are really big. We have lots of space, a major home building industry, plenty of forestry products and sprawling urban and suburban business centers. I grew up in a family of six and my parents turned our 3/2 into a space with bedrooms for all by the time I finished high school. For several years I had a massive basement to spend the majority of my time. In college, I shared a 185sf dorm with a roommate, followed by a fraternity house with 35 other guys and finally a room in a large house to myself. After college I moved to Manila and lived in a small 200sf studio. Upon getting married, we stayed in a 1,200sf condo before moving into our own 390sf studio for several years. Finally, we moved into our current 850sf home of efficiently laid out urban space with our family of four. (Picture is of a move in ready house that just sold in our town for about 190k, 3,600sf, $829 Monthly payment)
It has been a bit of a roller coaster of different types of living situations but I’ve found that I’m a very social person and I don’t really mind spending time with people. I tend to acclimate very quickly to my surroundings and will find joy in spaces small or large. The desirability of owning a large home seems to ebb and flow depending on the week, month, or most recent place I’ve visited. I still consider myself to be a bit of a minimalist, but some areas I still spend a little too much time with Justin Case.
More Money, More Problems?
Having money complicates the choice. That is the irony of the whole situation. We love earning money to have more options, but it also increases the mental pressure and the possibility of making the wrong choice. It’s all part of the paradox of choice. As we earn and save more of our incomes, we suddenly are no longer limited to the baseline choice predicated on how much the bank will loan us to purchase our home. We can buy a large home or a small home. An in-town home or a suburban palace? Sure, there will always be tradeoffs, but when cost is not the most important issue, how do we decide what to do?
I come from a comfortable background and I have primarily lived in places with excessively inexpensive housing vs upper middle class incomes. In fact, the average person in my family (and extended family) occupies about 1,100sf of space per person. Much of that has to do with the super low cost of housing and the low urban density of our state. Currently, we enjoy about 212 square feet each and I’m pretty sure the past year has been the happiest year of my life. The reason that I mention these figures is just to let you know the challenge that is faced when you live in a smaller space than your peers. Even if you don’t need space, you are expected to have room for hosting people and special events. A spare bedroom is normal and family get togethers happen at homes well equipped to host 30 to 40 people comfortably.
Expectation of Others
So why is this even important? Well, a lot has to do with expectations. Is it really odd when you don’t have extra space for an out-of-town guest? If your home can not fit everyone as easily as the rest of the group, you will not be chosen to host events even if you desire to. There are simply other spaces that are designed to host large groups. In addition, in my peer group, entertainment happens at the house. Not at the community center, or the public park, or any other large space. Entertainment is expected to be served up at home. With plenty of space and activities to keep the various children and adults occupied and happy for the entire event. None of this is bad, but it certainly adds to the equation for what is expected in a home.
I love living a lifestyle that includes spending less time at home and more time out and about. I like the idea of playing in the local park or community center better than playing alone at home. I like shared space that is fully utilized, and I wouldn’t be upset if we didn’t own a television. But most of my family is not like that. Entertainment happens at the house, and the game better be on TV or we won’t know what to do (I do enjoy sports, we can actually walk to the local 100k seat stadium from our house). I may live a unique lifestyle, but certainly understand the American Normal. Personally, I’m pretty sure I could live in an RV or spend some time in one of those tiny houses I’ve read about on the internet. However, I’m only 1/4 of my family and I need to include the entire group when making big decisions. So, who wins the debate? How many square feet does it take to satisfy the family? Who do I prioritize? Myself, My wife? My kids? My extended family? The friends that visit one weekend a year? I don’t know if there is a correct answer.
Raising expectations. I’m pretty aware of the concepts underlying The Joneses and the Hedonic Treadmill. I’m sure my readers are even aware the luxury is just another drug. So, does owning a large house mean I’m setting myself or my family up for failure in the future? Will we be disappointing when we stay in a small vacation rental? Or visit friends with small houses? Will it be impossible to enjoy visiting places like Tokyo, NYC, or San Fran and their cramped spaces with precious few SF? Will I change the baseline in what I expect from a home/closet/garage/entertainment space? And will I actually be any happier five years after I have all my “current dreams”? I know one issue that holds me back from even trying a large home is changing what my (and my family) perception of expected is for my future. I actually know plenty of people who would be appalled to move down into a 2,000sf “cramped” house. I want to maintain my mental and physical flexibility.
Room For Growth or Perfect For Now?
I suppose in the end I simply do not want to be wasteful. I’m not really excited about having spare rooms that never get used, a formal sitting room, or awkward layouts that render sections of the house useless. I’m looking for efficient use of whatever space we live in with as little waste as possible. So, a 2/1 or a 5/4? We can afford both, but which one will it be? I don’t want to be searching for contentment in something as fleeting as a comfortable home. If I would be just as content in 200sf, do I really need 1,000? I suppose the answer has not yet been determined for our family. But the process has started.
How did you make the decision to live where you do? Do you need more space? For yourself or your peer/family influences? How did you choose the size for your current home? So, how many square feet does it take for you to be happy?