I was fortunate to grow up in a household with a lot of space. My parents were known for buying a true fixer-upper, remodeling the home with their own sweat equity to increase the value. While we did not move around a lot, they did this several times during the course of their ~25-year marriage.
It was pretty smart of them. They built a lot of wealth by buying a home, upgrading it, selling it with a lot of equity, and then applying the equity of the previous house to the next home. They did this three times while I was growing up.
My childhood home (where I spent ~14 years growing up) was a two-floor, 3,000 square foot home about 10 minutes from the downtown area of our hometown in southwest Washington. It was more in the country than in the suburbs, but not rural either. It’s more than appropriate to say that we had plenty of space inside and out.
My memories growing up are filled with activities that required a lot of space. There were plenty of nerf gun fights, building forts in the basement with our sectional sofa and a seemingly endless supply of blankets, and even racing around the neighborhood on four wheelers.
Through my childhood experiences, I formed a perspective that values a large home.
When Jess and I bought our first home at the age of 27, I began to uncover these subconscious beliefs that I had held since childhood. I had assumed that this would be our “starter home.” We’d live here a few years while advancing in our careers until we bought a larger, single family home.
Or so I thought.
Since discovering financial independence, I have begun to redefine my life’s priorities, including expectations around the size of our home. Adjusting your perspective is never easy, and my expectation around our home size is no exception.
A big part of this transformation has been applying the financial independence concept of “enough” to these deep-rooted expectations around our home. As part of this change, I have gone from always wanting more to now understanding our home as a mansion. We have more than enough.
Better yet, our home is filled with some of the finest luxuries that the world has to offer.
- Filtered water that is safe to drink
- Indoor plumbing with essentially unlimited access to hot and cold water
- Central heating and air conditioning (that can be controlled from my phone)
- Hardwood floors
- Stainless steel appliances
- Marble countertops
- Insulated windows
- Access to public transportation
- A driveway with two parking spots per unit
I could go on and on. And we’ve been able to accomplish all of this with a “measly” footprint of 1,000 square feet. While it may not seem like a lot when you compare it to the average US single family home, we no longer have any plans to upgrade our primary residence.
My Struggle with Wanting a Larger House
As I mentioned above, I have not always been such a huge advocate of smaller homes.
For the longest time, there was a little voice in my head that would tell me that we could afford to have a bigger home, with more of life’s luxuries. Reversing this script in my head started with understanding how my own personality and experiences shaped my perspective.
Learning to Stop Planning for Future Upgrades
Those who know me well know that I’m an avid planner. While I’m getting better at going with the flow, I like to plan things out well in advance.
It’s both a benefit and a curse. I’m great at analyzing competing options, but it’s also a challenge to know when to stop.
To give you a sense of how much of a planner I am, I started researching the best replacement car 3-4 years before we were ready to upgrade. We were very happy with our 2004 VW Passat Wagon, and I knew that VW stopped making the same model, so I needed to figure out the make and model of our next car.
I started to dig into online reviews, compare specs on similar models from other manufacturers, and so much more. I narrowed it down to either the Honda CRV or the Subaru Outback, and we decided to go with the latter.
I ended up deciding what car we would buy well before we actually needed to upgrade.
I never want to be forced to make a decision that could be sub-par because I didn’t have enough time to analyze it.
As someone who plans well in advance, I also pay close attention to details that other people would just accept. I
overanalyze every little detail about our home in order to make our lives better, more efficient, etc.
Here’s a perfect example:
A few years ago we built a patio, converting our backyard from this:
This was a huge accomplishment. We built the patio by hand over the course of 4-5 full weekends a few years back. Side note: If you are interested in how we built the patio, I’ll likely dive into this in greater detail in a future post.
We now enjoy grilling and/or eating on our back patio 2-3x per week during the months when the weather is nice.
Here’s the key part of this example: As we would walk down the steps from our second-floor condo, out the side door, and around the side of the house to get to the patio, there would be a small voice in my head that can’t help but wish for a more optimal setup. That voice would say something like:
“If only we could walk out of our kitchen through a slider door directly onto the back patio, it would make it so much easier to enjoy these experiences.”
I would then add this wish-list feature to a mental list of additional features that I would like in my next home.
And just like that, the planner in me would take an otherwise nice feature of our current luxurious home and start thinking about a bigger and better house.
Always wanting a bigger, better house is an easy trap to fall into for me.
Challenges with Owning a Condo Push Me toward a Single Family Home
Another common narrative that has pushed me to want a larger home is that I would prefer to own a single family home. Right now we own a condo. Our unit is one of two units in our building, with one other family owning the downstairs unit.
While owning a condo is very common in Boston, it comes with several annoying requirements, all centered around getting along with another family and their sometimes competing interests.
Our house is a self-managed HOA (Home Owners Association). This gives us greater flexibility on how we maintain the common space (e.g. the yard, back patio, driveway and exterior of the house, etc.).
We have condo documents and regulations like any HOA to help manage this, but they don’t mean much since we make decisions together all the time without adhering or even referencing the HOA documents.
While very much a positive, given that costs to common spaces are cut in half, it also means that we are forced to come to consensus on every little change.
Every. little. change.
Whether it’s the large decisions on which contractor to use to build a new front porch, or small things like what type of stones we want to use to create a barrier between the mulch and grass. If you haven’t picked out stones for a landscaping project, trust me, there are
too many a lot of options.
Before we do anything, we have to get the approval of the other condo owners.
Life would be much less complicated if we did not have to make decisions about our home WITH another family.
Being able to make decisions about our home without this hassle would mean buying a single family home (SFH). By its very nature, a single-family home is going to be larger and more expensive. As you might imagine, SFHs also come at a premium in an urban setting.
Fortunately, we’ve been able to manage this through improving communication. We now talk about things well in advance and try to limit the impromptu improvements that any proud homeowner might do.
Historical View on Average US Home Sizes
In an effort to find a healthy balance for this struggle of wanting a larger house, I did some research into the average home size for the United States. The information that I discovered has proven to be very helpful to combat the popular narrative of always wanting a larger home.
My first large discovery was that the average home size is a lot larger than it used to be.
In fact, the square feet for the average US single family home has grown significantly over the past 40 years. According to the US Census Bureau (including an older historical chart and a more recent report showing 2015 numbers), from 1975-2015 the average home size increased 63% and over 1,000 square feet, increasing from 1645 SF to 2687 SF.From 1975-2015 the average home size increased 63% and over 1,000 square feet, increasing from 1645 SF to 2687 SF.
What’s also remarkable, is that during this same period, according to Statistica the average household size (i.e. number of individuals) has decreased 14% from 2.94 to 2.54.
With the increase in square feet and a decrease in the household size, this means that the average square feet per person have almost doubled (560 to 1068 SF/person) from 1975 to 2015.The average square feet per person have almost doubled (560 to 1068 SF/person) from 1975 to 2015.
Here’s an overview of the data pulled from those two sources, summarized by showing data in 5-year increments.
|Year||Median Sq Ft||Ave Sq Ft||Ave Household Size||Ave Sq Ft / Person|
Here’s also look at a visual representation of the data:
When you look at the trends, there are a couple of other observations or notes to be made about this data:
- The largest increase within a 5 year period was 19%, happening from 1985 to 1990. This was an increase of almost 300 square feet.
- The 5 year period from 2005 – 2010 was the only half decade with a decrease in median/average house size (using round 5 year increments, that is). If you think that Americans have finally come to their senses, you’d be wrong. The subsequent 5 year period had a significant 13% increase.
- This information only represents single family homes. I suspect that SFH data is more readily accessible, especially as I could not find other data on other types of properties.
Personal Takeaway from Average Home Size Data
Everyone will have their own personal takeaways after seeing the historical trends on the average size of single-family homes. I found it extremely helpful to provide some context and a new framework to combat the constant desire for more.
In thinking of our family as part of the larger trend, it gave me a new perspective on how we should approach our housing situation.
Most importantly, instead of asking what else I would like in a future home, I am now asking how much is enough?
Strategies to Combat the Pressure for a Larger Home
While I used to dream of a larger home for a long time, I have since de-prioritized it. Instead, I would much rather keep our current home and have a lot more freedom, reach financial independence sooner, and so much more.
In order to fully convince myself, I have identified a number of techniques that help combat the pressure to buy a larger home.
1. Calculate the savings by not upsizing your house, both in terms of annual savings and the time impact on achieving financial independence. This can be a great motivation for keeping your expenses to a minimum.
For example, if we were to upgrade to a single-family home in the same neighborhood, our mortgage payment would increase approximately $1,200 per month. This is $14,400 in additional expenses each year. Based on our current savings rate, it would also postpone our FI date approximately 3 years and 5 months.
Whenever I’m feeling the itch to buy a larger home, I can then ask myself: Would I rather have an extra 42 months of financial freedom, or would I rather have a larger home? I find this to be a really effective strategy.
2. Focus on what you do have. It can be easy to get caught up in thinking about additional things you would like in your home. Instead, think about all of the luxuries you do have and reflect on how grateful you are to have your current home.
For example, after traveling to parts of the world (including our recent trip to Panama) that do not have clean water, I’m always grateful to have clean water. There’s something about being able to open your mouth in the shower.
3. Think about the most commonly used places in your home. If I had to guess, the most 3-4 most frequently used rooms in your home are:
- Living room
For me personally, I spend a lot of time in bed and sitting on the couch (whether I’m reading, playing games on my phone, watching TV, or even hosting friends). I only spend time in the kitchen when preparing food. I spend very little time in the spare bedroom or dining room. This helps reinforce how little space you actually need.
4. Visualize all of the unused space in your current home. Similar to the third technique, also remind yourself of the unused space whenever you are thinking about how you could use more space. If you have a spare bedroom that is only used for guests, consider how infrequently it is used. You are less likely to buy a home with another bedroom (i.e. going from 2 bedrooms to 3 bedrooms) if you are aware that you already have a bedroom that is only used 10-20 days per year.
5. Calculate and compare your square feet per person to the average from 40 years ago (560 SF/Person). There’s no requirement to compare yourself to current day averages. People were surviving just fine 40 years ago, so push yourself and see how you compare to the average space per person without 40 years of space inflation.
6. Test Your Lower Limits. While I’m not advocating for living in a tiny home, think about how small of a space you could live in comfortably. I’ve found gamification to be an effective tool to combat unhealthy social norms. Similar to how we calculated our cost per meal per person when we made big cuts to our food spending, find ways to push yourself when it comes to your living arrangement.
You don’t have to move to test your theory. You could try it out by renting a small local Airbnb apartment for a few days and go about your normal routine, house sitting for friends, or a number of other hacks.
7. List out Reasons Why You Want a Bigger House. If you find yourself wanting a larger home, write out the reasons that are driving this thought. Evaluate if any of the reasons you have listed are similar to the following poor excuses for buying a larger home:
- To grow into it
- To encourage out-of-town friends/family to visit more often
- To entertain friends more frequently
- To build more equity
- I deserve it because I work hard
- I can afford it, so why shouldn’t I have nice things?
- It will be our forever home
8. Think about what you value most. All things in life come with an opportunity cost. Since we do not want to relocate, buying a larger home for us would lower our savings rate and effectively push back the date that we would reach financial independence. Instead of focusing solely on your home, figure out what you would have to give up to buy a larger home. Then ask yourself if it is worth it to you. For us, we’d prefer to keep our freedom and our 1,000 square feet mansion.
When you apply all of these techniques, I believe that you will begin to see the world of home ownership through a new lens. For example, instead of seeing a 1,000 SF as a starter home, you may just see it as a luxurious mansion or even your forever home, with plenty of space to live comfortably.