How big of a house do I need? Taking a look at the increase in average home sizes in the United States over the last 40 years should seriously test even the most intestinally-formidable person’s gag reflex. The average home is larger than ever – 2,687 square feet, and the living space per person has doubled in that time.
And then there is my wife and me who live in a 200 square foot Airstream and travel the country for a living.
The median size new home is now 2,687 square feet, an increase of nearly 1,000 square feet in the last four decades. Perhaps more interesting is the average household size – meaning, the number of people living in the home – has actually decreased from 3.01 persons per household 40 years ago to 2.54 today.
What this means: we are experiencing a phenomenon in this country where our homes are getting larger while households are getting smaller.
More space for fewer people.
But, what if I told you that we don’t actually use all this additional space that’s draining our pocketbooks every month, and there’s a study that backs that claim up?
You might ask, so how big of a house do I need? I cannot possibly answer that question for you, but taking a more realistic look at how your family truly operates might help shed some light on how big you need to go.
Where we spend the most time in our homes
With the average American home’s dramatic increase in space, one might assume that we Americans now have the luxury of putting more space to good use, allowing us to enjoy more of our home’s features and bask in the glory of large dining rooms, fancy living and “sitting areas”, separate studies (read: “libraries”) and yet another room for our televisions and time-grabbing entertainment devices – video game consoles, anyone?
But, according to a study published in the Wall Street Journal several years ago, that assumption would be flat wrong. We only tend to use a fraction of our living space.
The Center on Everyday Lives of Families at the University of California put together an amazing look at how we typically use all that space (and stuff) in our homes The study examined 32 middle-class families over the course of four years. A part of this study monitored and collected data on where in the home people spend the majority of their time.
The graphic above, published by the University, depicts one such family and where they spend time within their home. The house appears to be large and spaced out with a place for a separate living and formal dining room, as well as space for a piano, a laundry room, and a huge front porch.
While this represents only a single family, its findings probably represent the common pattern in many American households. Are your habits substantially different?
The study found that 68% of the family’s time was largely spent in the kitchen/nook as well as the family room, typically near the television. Clearly, the formal dining room got almost no use, and the living room saw very little activity, like the porch.
Like typical living and breathing human beings capable of emotion, we crave social interaction with other humans. The large majority of the time, this family spends their waking hours congregating around areas of food preparation and consumption. The rest, they are plopped down on the couch watching the boob tube or on the computer. We don’t need 2000 square foot homes for that.
And so in truth, this particular family is not all that spread out. While the house is quite large, they do not appear to be basking in the glory of space. Instead, they use the common areas the most, typical of most families around the world, and the extra space sits unused. It’s dead space.
What this means is this family uses very little of the space that they pay for through their mortgage every month, and they are definitely not alone.
Why we buy big houses we don’t need
Many of us buy homes that are way too big for our needs, my wife and I included. In fact, we have a 1600 square foot home with a huge backyard and pool – and we rarely use HALF of the space that we pay for. Instead, we close off a couple of extra rooms, tighten the ceiling vents as to not waste A/C and heat in those areas, and mainly spend time in the common areas – just like everybody else.
What is the draw to big houses we don’t need? Why do we make the choice to drop additional coinage for useless space? As far as I can tell, there are five main reasons why we buy homes so damn big.
First, we live in a MORE IS MORE society. We feel like a big house imparts upon us a status symbol of success. The bigger our home, the more successful we appear to our friends and family. As shallow as this sounds, it’s also pretty darn common. In fact have you heard people at work talking about how many square feet they have? It’s a brag item! We do not need all those square feet people!
Second, we convince ourselves that we “like to entertain”. Some of us may genuinely enjoy having people over to treat our homes like a hotel room, but are people flocking over to your casa for the SPACE that your home has, or for the people that they get to socialize with? Or the food and alcohol? Do you NEED space that will sit unused the large majority of the time for the sake of entertaining others?
Third, we want a dining room for Thanksgiving. There is something more official and “formal” with a separate dining room, and Thanksgiving is the perfect time of year to whip out the white table cloth and pretend to be fancy, isn’t it?
Fourth, we want a spare bedroom. After all, the three or four times that your in-laws come to visit demands additional sleeping quarters in a hardly-used room dedicated just for them.
Fifth, we want “room to grow”. This is especially true with soon-to-be parents. We assume that once we have a child, we immediately need a castle for that mini human to run around in.
There is a big problem with all of this: like the study found, we are buying additional space in our homes that we pay for 100% of the time, but we only use 5% of the time (5% is MY statistic, not the study’s).
Take those two extra rooms that we have in our 1600 square foot home. Sure, we close off the vents so we aren’t heating and cooling those rooms, but we are still paying for those rooms in our mortgage. Our huge backyard, our fire pit, our pool – it all needs to be paid for whether we use it or not. And cleaned, too. All that space demands maintenance.
The family in this study pays for a separate living and dining room that rarely gets used. Apparently, the porch NEVER gets any use. In that huge house, this family spends 2/3rds of their time in the same areas of the house while paying for the remainder of the dead space.
Take a moment and think about your home and where your family spends the majority of its time. Are there rooms that rarely get used? More importantly, could you do without those rooms and live in a much smaller, less expensive home?
We lived in a pretty large home when I was younger – three stories if you include the basement, along with a separate living and dining room. I was the youngest in a family of four. My brother and I had our own rooms in the upstairs, as did my parents, of course, in the master bedroom (also upstairs).
Even with a family of four, we had huge amounts of unused space. The guest room in the upstairs almost NEVER got used. The dining room only saw activity during Thanksgiving and maybe Christmas. The living room, again, almost NEVER got used.
The basement had our office and a huge open room, along with THREE other rooms that we used for a designated shop, storage and laundry room.
Truthfully, we only designated separate rooms for those things because we could. There was so much space that we literally didn’t know what to do with it all. Nevertheless, it all had to get paid for – every last square foot, used or unused. Money down the drain.
We needed a house maybe half of that size – perhaps only a quarter if we were feeling like a close-knit family. A kitchen / nook, a couple bedrooms and a family room would have provided more than enough space for us to live in perfect luxury.
Who truly NEEDS a 2000 square foot house? Probably not many.
How big is your home? Do you truly need all that space, or could you downsize to a home that was more typical of families back in the ’70s? Ask yourself, “really, how big of a house do I need?”
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Steve is a 37-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels with the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.