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Rightsizing: the latest homebuying trend

Shannon Lee | Improvement Center Columnist | October 2, 2012

By now we all know the fallout of the housing bubble bust: Homeowners with homes far too big to maintain, countless underwater mortgages and foreclosures by the millions. Today's homeowners no longer view a big house as a sign of success, and the shrinking size of new homes reflect that hard-won realization.

Smaller houses making a big splash

A March 2011 survey by the National Association of Home Builders asked contractors what the average home would look like in 2015. The consensus: Seventy-four percent believed the 2015 home would be smaller. Fifty-three percent believed that the living room would be merged with other spaces, such as the kitchen, to create a "great room." Thirty percent believed that the traditional living room would disappear altogether.

This "rightsizing," as proponents of the small house trend prefer to call it, is the result of hard lessons learned during the economic downturn. Today, the basics of location, ease of maintenance and resale value still apply. But homeowners are also looking for decent mortgages that don't break their savings, home improvements at a sane price and energy-efficient options that save on heating and cooling costs.

For instance, heating is the biggest annual cost for most homeowners in the state of Maine. Rather than spend the money on heating a 3,000 square foot house, many are opting for a house half that size and pouring the extra money into high-efficiency boilers, insulation and other perks that make a house more comfortable.

What about home improvements? Consider that replacing the roof of a 2,100-square-foot house can cost between $1,700 and $8,400 for asphalt shingle on a typical ranch-style home. A house half that size, at roughly 1,000 square feet, could result in a roof that costs half as much. On the other hand, since you have a smaller house, you have less to buy -- and that means you can splurge on higher-quality roofing materials.

How to make the most of your small house

Not sure you could "rightsize" that much? Writer Erin Boyle and biologist James Casey share a 240-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn Heights -- yes, that's about the size of a walk-in closet. But they make it work. Here are a few tips that can help you make it work, too.

  1. Make spaces do double-duty. Your kitchen table can double as a desk, and your fold-down couch can double as a bed. Don't just live in the space! Make it work for you.
  2. Choose furniture that works. If that round kitchen table sticks out too much, opt for a square or rectangular one. Got kids that need more space? Try bunk beds.
  3. Get creative with storage. Look for storage containers that fit under the beds, stock containers in the closet until they reach the ceiling, and install shelves over doorways to hold books.
  4. Keep only what you love. Speaking of what you love, paring down for a small house can really put your love of "stuff" to the test. Keep only the things you truly cannot live without.
  5. Keep things neat and clean. The neater your home is, the more room it appears to have. Keep magazines corralled in bins, keep the floors uncluttered and make sure everything has its place.

Finally, remember: location, location, location! If you have a tiny refrigerator, you need a grocery store nearby. If you have no room for a washer and dryer, you need a convenient laundromat. Keep these things in mind when choosing where you will live.

The big future for small houses

Just how much is the average home expected to shrink? Most contractors in the NAHB survey believed the 2015 home would average 2,152 feet, about ten percent smaller than homes in 2010. But even a home half that size is big from a historic point of view: the average 1950's home clocked in at 983 square feet.

For some, even smaller houses mean greater freedom from economic woes. Katrina Cottages, created by Marianne Cusato in 2005 to attend to the immediate need for housing in areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina, became so popular that the demand for them has lasted long after the flood waters receded. The tiniest starts at 308 square feet.

Want to push the limits of livable space? The Tumbleweed Tiny House Company offers homes as small as 65 square feet. Though most homeowners might not opt for something that small, there is no doubt that the days of overpriced McMansions are numbered.

About the Author

Shannon Lee has written professionally for two decades on a wide variety of topics, including medical and health issues, home repair, education and relationships.