How Many Square Feet Do We Need to Be Happy?

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
houseIn 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.

tiny houseI 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?

10 thoughts on “How Many Square Feet Do We Need to Be Happy?

  1. Wow… 190k for 3600 sq/ft is incomprehensible to a European!

    We paid £250k for ~1000 sq/ft I think.

    Setting that, it seems more than enough and we are very happy with it. I’ve been to friends houses with bigger spaces and it just seems a bit pointless knocking about with all that extra room. Just more places to put your old junk in! Very inefficient as you say.

    I’m sure you can come to some middle ground where the kids have their own rooms and the family is happy. I certainly wouldn’t take into consideration hosting for friends/parties once in a blue moon though.

    Cheers!

    • That is what we are debating too. If we were in Europe we would certainly be constrained by the price (400k for 1000sf is pretty incomprehensible here). We are torn between having too much and the rare conveniences (and inconveniences) of having a large home.

  2. My wife and I are considering a tiny home in the future – we’ve come to the realization that we just don’t need a lot of space to live. The lesser square footage that you live in, the cheaper it is to maintain. Less cleaning. Less that can go wrong. Less room to…just do something with.

    We are looking at around 1,000 sqft, MAX, for our next house a couple years down the line. I’d say around 700 would be even more appropriate for our needs.

    • I’m with you on that. I’m pretty sure if it was just my wife and I we could live in almost anything. In fact, we really enjoyed our 390sf studio. Our lives have changed a little bit with the kiddos but we are still working through all the different options. Maybe someday we’ll rent an RV and pack the whole fam into 300sf for a trip across the US.

      • My parents lived in an RV for 12 years and traveled the country for a living. It was definitely a unique lifestyle, but nothing that can’t be handled with simple changes to your lifestyle. It’s fun, but you really gotta get along with the person (people) that you are living with! 🙂

  3. Since our move almost a year ago into a smaller place than our last, Erin and I have been actively minimizing our personal possessions. We even plan to do so further to fit our little family into an apartment on a square in the heart of the historic district. A bigger house always equates to more stuff, and I’ve been enjoying my life more than ever without so much stuff. On a related note: we’re still selling the last house…

  4. Personally, I’ve always favored a compromise in housing. My house is reasonably large (2,200 sq. ft.), but at the same time, I don’t consider it wasteful. Everyone has their own bedroom, and we do have a guest bedroom, but the bedrooms are all small and “to the point”, as opposed to the spacious bedrooms/sitting rooms/walk in closet monstrosities so many McMansions have. As such, our guest bedroom is hardly wasted space, since we use the closet, dresser, and space under the bed for our own storage needs. Similarly, there are only two bathrooms, and both are fairly compact. Based on personal preference, we do have a formal dining room, but it’s sized for our six person table and little else.

    The way things are designed, we can very comfortably host ten or fifteen people for a sit-down dinner, twenty or thirty for a cocktail event, and a couple of overnight guests. At the same time, no rooms go unused, and the relatively sparse bedrooms encourage people to spend their waking hours in the shared areas of the house. Because of the somewhat limited size (by upper middle class southern standards), we generally aren’t the ones chosen to host the very largest gatherings, but for most casual entertaining, we have plenty of space. My goal when I designed the house was to have enough space 99% of the time (as opposed to 100%, as many of my friends and family members aimed for), and I’ve found that approach to work out very nicely.

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