Is 2,328 square feet crazy for four relatively small people? 3,500 sf? Can a wannabe minimalist own a huge house? Are the two mutually exclusive?
Well, we did it. We traded in the tiny house and bought a McMansion. Well, actually, we didn’t. We haven’t actually moved. We haven’t listed our current home. And we haven’t found the mythical “forever house”. But, I’ve noticed that my mindset has already started to drift. Things I previously considered off limits are now “affordable” and “convenient”. An extra bedroom, sure. Houses for our cars, why not? Commuting to work with traffic- everyone else doesn’t seem to mind. I’m amazed at how far my mind has traveled in the last few months. Maybe it’s time for me to get out the catheter and bedpan.
In turns out, a lot of people think like us. Family friendly, in-town, walkable, Ivy-league preschool district, open floor plan, park-friendly, and affordable*. These are the buzzwords of many young professionals and young families are striving to achieve in housing. However, I’ve learned first hand that the combination (especially the affordable* part) seems to be a bit of a mythical proposition in many different areas of the country. Our town is relatively small and the limited number of homes that meet the previously mentioned qualifications are sadly few and far between. However, if you strike the whole in-town/walkable part, the outskirts and suburbs have a plethora of options to meet the needs of discerning parents. So, if somethings got to give- what will it be?
As stated before, it is an interesting question to ask: what type of house would you live in if cost was no option? That is a great place to start. It is an interesting theoretical discussion but reality suggests for most young families cost is a huge (if not the largest) part of the equation. We have an awesome setup now. A cute little paid for house within walking distance to great parks, my office, downtown and plenty of entertainment. We rarely need to travel more than three miles to find necessities, and taking the bike, scooter, shared car, or walking on foot is often more than enough. Now, with a couple of kids in tow (and maybe more down the road) life is changing a bit. It’s a great setup for us at the moment, but..
Getting Stuck on The Schools
Like many towns around the U.S. there is a strange polarization in the schools. It seems the days of ‘average’ schools are fading in many small towns and cities throughout the south (and really the entire country for that matter). There is a subtle competition to get your kids in the fanciest public (or private) preschools which self-reinforces the movement to fancier districts. This drives the price of limited available in-town options and makes the suburban areas appear more attractive than most people would expect freshly married out of college. For example, take a look at this house about 12 minutes (drive) from downtown.
This 4 Bed / 4 Bath 2,358 square foot swim/tennis house we looked at last week is priced at $177,000 and will probably sell around $170,000. For the renters out there, with a minimal down payment the mortgage would be around $750. If you move a mile down the road to a fancier school district you probably add about $40k; but, if you wanted the same exact house in town its probably going to be in the 400k range- if you can even find one. The larger brick house above is listed at $250k about eight miles from town. There are a few affordable options and small homes available in town, however, the land is becoming so valuable that all the tiny homes are being purchased and demolished/renovated to make room for much more expensive stock.
Aw, the space. Aw, the possibilities. Aw, the responsibilities?
The McMansion phenomenon follows. Building cost and suburban land prices in our area are still very inexpensive relative to upper middle class wages. It is pretty easy to get to the point where cost is not the biggest consideration when choosing a suburban home. However, moving to an area with few walkable or conveniently located entertainment spots encourages people to camp out at home. When we lived in a 50 story condo building in Manila, our 200 sf condo was not very practical for entertaining many guests. So, if we wanted to meet a lot of friends to go out we would just pick a restaurant and walk there. Similarly, we didn’t need a huge backyard because the park was across the street and the “gym and media room” were also unnecessary due to the fact that they were less than a block or two away or in the adjacent buildings. However, in super suburbia, getting out means hopping in a car, driving around, parking and spending time commuting when you want to do anything. And if you live twenty minutes from town, the fancy dinner downtown turns into a 40 minute commute. It actually becomes less convenient to meet a group out than to simply have them over. Hosting becomes a social norm and expectations to entertain grow right along with the size of dwellings. All the niceties of a cities get built into ever-growing houses. Although inefficient, the further out you live, the more convenient it is to have more at your home. Hence, the growing size and McMansion phenomenon.
Our current house is pretty easy to maintain. It takes two or three minutes to vacuum the entire house and a full scrub down can be done with relative ease. Our small yard takes less time to maintain than setting up an appointment with a landscaping company. Our taxes are negligible, payments non-existent and even things like getting the exterior of our house can be done for less than $300 professionally (We just had our house pained (mostly brick) last month). Despite all of this, we’ll most likely trade our in-town tiny house for a (comparatively) semi-suburban monster. I’ll move from a 8 minute bike ride to a 12 minute trip in a car. And I’m caught between excitement and guilt. The good feelings say we’ll have room for everyone. Guests, family, friends, parties, dinners. Come on over, there’s room. And if we are out this far we are going to make it nice. Oh, and fancy preschools. The guilt says: Is this really necessary? Are we ‘selling out’? Do we really need all this space? Extra cleaning and junk accumulation. Waste. Increased expectations. Spread out family. In-home loneliness. It is a strange combination of exciting and questioning. I suppose every house and location is filled with its own set of trade-offs and opportunity costs.
Is It Worth the Trade?
So, here’s to the next experiment. I’ll be curious to see what we end up liking/disliking when we move houses. The great news is we are financially well positioned enough that we can always change it up in a year or two if needed. If we decide to move, the big change will be becoming suburban landlocked. Every activity means jumping in the car and commuting away precious minutes. No walking to the park, strolling to the game, store, or local restaurant. Sidewalks? Few and far between. But in turn, we get low traffic streets, lots of people with young kids and “safe”, culturally homogeneous, well educated, wealthy neighbors. The big drawback to most suburban environments is still the commute and traffic. And until cars become fully automated, it will still be a conundrum. However, in tiny town suburbs the door to door commute is pretty small. Probably somewhere from 3-6 miles from home to campus/work. We have lots of good options.
It will be an exciting time. We’ll learn a lot about what is really important to us over the next few years. I’ll be interested to see what the transition is like from tiny house to McMansion. I’ll probably be writing an article next year about selling our McMansion and moving back to a tiny house. Who knows, our minds and priorities will probably change again before we take the next step. Maybe some wiser voices can shape our next move. Has anyone else made a similar transition (or the opposite)?