The Large House Dilemma

This is one article (3 of 3) on choosing the right type of house. Specifically, we are looking at the trade-offs between efficiency, sustainability, and practicality (excluding affordability) when choosing a home.

What size house do you buy when you can afford almost any size? That is the question we are all trying to address. When following the American Dream the answer is always: “Bigger is Better”. But is that really true? Do large homes come with their share of trade-offs? It’s established that most people work backwards when it comes to buying a house. We typically begin with a budget and see how nice/big/small/well-located of a house we can afford and choose the best option. The question then becomes, what do we do when we can afford almost any size house? Even really large houses. Are they still practical? We have already explored how many square feet it takes to be happy and tiny houses, but we’ll spend a little bit of time addressing the costs and benefits of large houses.

dave ramsey houseOur lives are in a constant state of evolution. Our wants, needs, goals and expectations continue to change and evolve as we age and enter different stages of life. We have lived in a large variety of different sized homes over the years and they all have their share of pluses and minuses. Tiny homes and large homes seem to polarize individuals about what is really needed to be happy. This post will examine the excitement and challenges that large homes offer. Will we end up in a large home? I’m not really sure at this point, but I’m certainly learning more about the benefits and troubles of huge home living.

The Enjoyment

Hosting – Having space for guests tends to be one of the driving reasons people choose to live in large homes (aside from possibly impressing others). If your lifestyle involves constantly having people over, hosting, and interacting with friends and family at home, excess space can be useful. A spare bedroom, playrooms, or large rooms for congregation can be attractive if you are constantly inviting individuals into your home. In wealthy suburban environments, social interactions are often designed with the expectation that individuals will have the space needed for hosting. In urban environments, hosting is typically done in shared spaces, open parks, or public facilities.

When we lived in Manila, gathering twenty people together for a meal was something done at a restaurant, park, school, or church. However, I know my parents host groups that size on weekly or monthly basis and utilize the excess home space they occupy frequently. Dave Ramsey (picture of house above) has been lauded and criticized for having an extremely large home. Whether or not you love/hate him, he had an interesting response. He mentioned that he often has large groups and classes (100+) over to his personal home for dinner. Hosting that type of group could be quite challenging if you lived in a 190sf condo like we did after or wedding. So, if you live in an environment where hosting is part of the socialization- and it is a priority to you, having a large home can be helpful.

Single-Tasking Rooms – Although not particularly efficient, single tasking rooms are marketed as luxuries in the large home arena. A separate laundry room, spare bathroom, office, exercise room (garage), or workshop may be a desirable luxury if you value a specific-needs space. Having additional rooms can segment the organizational aspects of a home and allow one to design an area that functions with a clear single purpose.

The Huge House Neighborhood – This seems to be a selling point of large homes. Large homes often come with neighborhoods of well educated individuals, perfectly manicured lawns, perceived safety, and cultural homogeneity. Typically large home neighborhoods distance themselves from poverty (or build walls/gates) and attract like-minded individuals. But fancy neighborhoods often come with an increased set of expectations as conceptualized in the classic book The Millionaire Next Door. We tend to compare ourselves to those around us, and neighborhoods are a huge part of that equation. Neighbors certainly influence what we (and our children) perceive is normal, adequate or enough.

The Challenges Faced

Mental Attention – Huge houses require a lot of attention. Cleaning, maintaining, organizing, repairing and renovating all share a positive relationship with the size of your home. Even if you are not the DIY type, managing the organizational army of service providers can be a mental headache. In addition, larger homes often increase the opportunity for issues and that inherently creates more mental attention. A 20,000sf roof has more potential for trouble than a similarly constructed 500sf one. Simple homes require far less mental energy and time commitment.

Waste – I’m not a big fan of waste. I prefer full utilization of almost anything. And I’m constantly trying to extract the most ‘happiness’ out of every situation, purchasing decision, or lifestyle change we make. I actually remember feeling a nagging sensation about having a spare unused bedroom in the large condo we lived in for a year. We had an overnight guest a grand total of six nights the year we lived there. That calculated out to about a 98.4% vacancy rate. It’s just like owning a truck, it certainly comes in handy 4 days a year, but is it needed if you only fully utilize it less than 1% of the time? I also do not like the idea of using energy to heat, cool, insure, and maintain an object that is not being fully utilized.

Junk – I’m pretty sure there is a Parkinson’s Law for huge homes. It would go something like this: “The amount of crap you own will grow based on the size and closet space you have to store junk in“. I don’t know the technical terminology but I enjoy the mental clarity of only owning what we truly utilize. It has been established that everything you own is a relationship you’re in.

minecraftIsolation – I’m not sure I want a house that discourages family interaction. Sure, it can be nice to get away occasionally, but I actually enjoy engaging with my children and wife. Large houses, especially those with basements, game rooms, multiple stories, or specific destination rooms can create an environment of isolation. I know families where spouses live in different parts of the house, or situations where children come home and go to the basement/second story/their room and rarely interact at all with the family. In C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce, he somewhat comically describes a version of hell where everyone owns a huge mansion that encourages this type of isolation. In fact, even the Billionaire creator of Minecraft “Notch”, recently espoused about the isolation of wealth (from his 23,000 square foot house, in picture). I want a home that encourages interaction and keeps my family in close proximity.

Increased Expectations
I do not want to dramatically increase my (and my families) expectations of what “normal is”. I know it is already screwed up by simply being born into an extremely wealthy country. But I’m not sure if it is healthy to think that 4000+ sf is average or expected. Only a few years ago we drove older cars. I remember every time we would rent a car, even if it smelled a little funny, it was often newish and filled with cool bells and whistles that my 15 year old vehicle didn’t have. I actually looked forward to the rental. However, now that we have a fancier new electric car I actually get a little saddened when we rent vehicles for work or travel. Although I didn’t plan on it, my expectations have changed.

The pleasure from large homes is surprisingly fleeting. Ask anyone who has lived in a huge house for a long time. Personally, I have already forgotten about what it was like to take our laundry to the laundry mat after our fancy new home came with a washer and dryer. Although more than doubling our square footage, the amount of spaciousness seems to have faded even though we have only lived in our house for a few years. Just like that shiny new car that you wash all the time, it too (and your excitement for it) fades over time. Owning bigger, more, and shinier does not provide lasting happiness- it only steps up the pace of expectations and our hedonic treadmills.

The Dilemma
Should we buy a huge house? We could certainly afford it. But I’m not sure I want to devote the mental attention it takes to fully enjoy it. I enjoy having a little space, but I really enjoy interacting with my family and a close group of friends. I think we are really just looking for an efficiently laid out home that fits our needs regardless of size. I think that is the true goal. I want something that is mentally relaxing but still has great space to enjoy a mid-sized group of people. It can be challenging when location is extremely important and you want to live in a very specific area. There may be fewer small house options if you desire to live in a suburban environment, next to your employment, family, or in an Ivy League Preschool district. Overall, I’ve learned that housing is a pretty personal decision. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to owning a large home. Personally, we’ll probably end up in something a little smaller than large.

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