Small is the new big

Americans have overhoused themselves
One of our readers commented recently “It’s sad that municipalities force people into huge homes, by refusing to let people build small homes. It’s all about the money (taxes) that they want to rake in.”
but now help is at hand, in the suprising shape of the National Association of Home Builders. The size of new homes shrank in 2009 for the first time in three decades, figures from the NAHB show.

The recession has driven the trend, but financial necessity isn’t the only reason behind the move to downsize.

Whether from economic realities or a desire to reduce one’s ecological footprint, more people are seeking to downsize their living spaces, according to architect Duo Dickinson.

“I have a client who’s going from a 5,000-square-foot home to a 2,000-square-foot condo,” he said. “They’re completely changing the way they live.”

Dickinson was ahead of the wave. Five years ago, at the peak of the McMansion era of relaxed borrowing and cheap energy, the architect advocated building smaller in his book, “The House You Build”
He sees several factors powering the movement. “I think it’s a triple threat. There is a downsizing because of the economy, but there’s also the right-sizing philosophy of the Green movement,” Dickinson said. “The third factor is what could be called ‘amenitizing,’ boomers who don’t want to worry about home maintenance anymore.”

The old forces that led people to downsize — finances and the graduation of children from the home — are still behind many decisions, people in the industry say.

Tom Abbate, with William Raveis Real Estate, said his clients are much more budget-conscious today, which often leads them to choose smaller homes.

“People are definitely more conservative today,” he said. “The nuts and bolts is that it’s all about what they can afford to spend.”

And, Abbate added, buyers seem satisfied with that new reality. Architect William Cowan believes in small houses. His mere 950-square-foot, post-and-beam retreat — which he built himself, largely with hand tools — perches on a rocky, wooded bluff at the edge of a state forest in upstate NY. Cowan completed the house in 2007, along with a 750-square-foot barn, which he says “is where we put all our stuff.”

In this forested setting Cowan, his wife, Lisa, and their huge, bouncy Newfoundland, Angus, have lived for the past three years off the grid, relying on solar power, immersed in nature.

“This year, we’re hearing lots of owls,” Cowan said. “It’s very dark. You can hear coyotes howling.”

Cowan says the choice to stay small was both economic and ecological. “Of course, it’s cheaper to build small,” he said. “The taxes are lower and so is maintenance. We also didn’t want to disturb the site too much. We built on piers and we don’t have a lawn. My yard is forest.”

On a tree-lined street in the village of Deep River, Woodside is snug as Winnie the Pooh in her charming, 1,200-square-foot, two-story Victorian. She moved there in 1992 with her husband, Nathaniel Eddy, a Westbrook schoolteacher, and two daughters, Elizabeth and Annie. Until they went off to college, the girls shared a bedroom; Woodside does her writing in a closet-sized space she calls “the garret.”

“My friends would come over and say, ‘This is a nice starter home,’ which is funny because we never thought of it that way,” she said. “We always seemed to have enough room. Really, how much space do you need?”

For Guilford gallery owner Kathryn Greene, her 1,350-square-foot apartment in a 100-year-old barn feels about right. “We had a global economic collapse,” Greene says. “That changed the way we see things. A house today is more about what it does for you than what it says about you. It’s the very opposite of the McMansion. We need places that embrace us, a refuge from the uncertainty we all feel.”

3 Responses

  1. I am a first time poster to this site but i wanted to say halleluja i found some like minded people ! I wanted to relate a story a friend went through with his place in Alabama. He owned the place for years and had bought it far enough out he thought the urban sprawl would not catch him right? Wrong. In the Birmingham area it has become sheek to have a home that is way too big on land that is way too much to manage. All the doctors and lawyers have bought arround him and while there is no sprawl there what there is is zoning commissions and law suits . His house cost him 35 thousand to build. not the ritz but still nice . He has now recieved a letter from the neighbors that he cant park his rig at home any more because it nolonger is the country it is a neighborhood. This didnt go over well,if you know any truckers then you understand. now the area is rezoned and he was told he had to improve his home to bring it up to standard so he wouldnt hurt his neighbors property value . all said to say be at all your area zoning meetings and be sure to keep an eye on the area you live or you could see your paradise go down the drain . good luck and if you are looking for an area with cheap land and flexable on what you build ,land in parts of north and central louisiana is going for about 5000 an acre 2500 in some places . mossy oak properties is a good place to look .thanks and keep up the good work on the sight. very informative

  2. I hope to wrestle my way through the ‘illegality’ of thriving in a small house, the impossibility to (not that I’d much want to -just an example of the wacky system we’ve got…) finance $12,000 for the home and even some for blessed remote land & solar bits + full off-grid home set up (compost toilet, water treatment system over time, acquired over time?) -pending legality of that house perched there. The absolute GALL that I could own my own chunk of LAND in America and be told ‘…oh, no, your home can’t be 250square feet: you are in trouble now.’ It absolutely guts me…

    Oh Dear – I do apologize that my first post here be fraught with so much angst and dismay: every time it seems I get a wee bit of a foot up, I get popped right in the gut… this time it’s my wonderful, steadfast brother and his developmentally challenged boy just finding out today that he’s near to lose their housing/and with my own chronically down-sliding ill health & handicap making it all a bit out of reach to hammer & nail a shelter ourselves, etc., for our own you know? – I am blowing off steam on your dime. At least the boy has shown me good taste and logic by telling me: if he had his way, we’d all be living in a cave- carved into the side of Southern Spain (He changes it up now and again, see?) away from these United States where it seems violent hatred has taken over …but no country shall take on a disabled boy, a disabled Aunty and the boy’s Dad whose no more than ever been a shopkeep manager (as have I, when I can)- and nearly penniless to boot.

    The picture up there, that’s Dee and she has the luck or grace to have a place to park her wee home behind a friend’s house- without neighbors getting out the pitch forks – so she has a place to bathe at the neighbor’s big house (though I’d choose a wet bath inside my own) and a strong truck to pull her home around with …seems like small items, or bits of good luck- but they do add up to “making it possible” versus fighting it all in an uphill battle.

    Well, shoddy introduction on a bad day indeed and sorry for this… I’ll try to get my head back on hopeful and productive as I go forth and glean as much – as MUCH as I will from your site, which I am so very grateful to have found.

    Thank much for hosting this wonder: OFF GRID, I can think of no better goal indeed! -many thanks, deeply felt.

  3. I want to reduce and save but what will happen to my house? Do I just sell it? Do I knock it down and rebuild? Has anyone done this? What was your experience?

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