The size of the average house in North America has nearly tripled in size from the 1950s to today, growing from 983 square feet to a spacious 2,349 square feet.
I am in my early twenties with no future family on the near horizon. I currently rent a 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment in Portland, Oregon with Mr. Mechanic. It is 1,000 square feet and dare I say it– it is too much space for two people.
When we moved in we had grand plans for each room in our apartment. We envisioned sitting outside on the patio with a huge breakfast before us, pensively watching kayakers paddle out on the water. We imagined the second-bedroom-turned-office as a productive space for studying, practicing the piano, and as a mini art studio.
As often happens with dreams, the reality looks a bit different. We don’t use the office much at all; I put a desk next to the window in the family room instead because it has better light. So I was fascinated when I saw this heat map from a study done in UCLA tracking 32 middle-class families and the actual usage of their space.
It struck me because their use of space was very similar to ours. The researchers of UCLA found that 68% of the family’s time was spent either in the kitchen or in the family room, near the TV and computer, lining up with our most-used spaces as well.
The dining room remained untouched (we don’t have a kitchen table but we tend to eat on our family room table or standing in the kitchen), the living room sometimes frequented (we just have a single family/living room), and nothing happened out on the porch (ours sees footsteps when we water our plants). If we don’t even use the space, why are we spending so much to have it?
Kids on the Horizon
One reason people buy bigger homes is to anticipate a growing family. The UCLA study estimated a 30% increase in a family’s number of possessions with each new child– and that’s just through the preschool years!
Since we don’t anticipate having kids in the near future, this one is a non-issue for us. If we were, we would still downsize in the short-term. While the forethought of family planning is great, I think there is a lot of time in the baby years when lots of space is not as important as in early childhood.
After a couple of years, we could move into a space similar to our current apartment. It might be a hassle to move later on, but it is better to move when we know what we want, compared to paying extra to secure space that might not be used for another few years. I think our office space would do just fine as a nursery and child’s bedroom for the first three to four years at least. We know that the people who lived here before us did exactly that!
“A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. … So now you got a houseful of stuff. And even though you might like your house, you gotta move. Gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff!” ~ George Carlin, 1981
The same UCLA study claimed that 75% of the families studied did not have room in their garages for a car: they were filled to the rafters with stuff.
We are attempting to combat the urge to hoard a bunch of stuff, which is made easier by traveling for long periods and moving frequently. We’ve each lived in three different apartments in the last three years, and each move is a chance to rid ourselves of extra clutter. I notice our downfall is in the “what if?” What if we need extra shirts for painting or for rags? What if something happens to our other 10 water bottles or we go hiking with 11 friends and they all need to borrow a water bottle?!
I think a lot of stuff is just like the rarely-used dining room in the space usage study: we feel like we need it for that once-a-year occasion, like hosting a big Thanksgiving dinner, but otherwise it serves no purpose.
Sure, when we have family over it can feel a bit cramped. The rarely-used office becomes a blessing of a second bedroom and the second bathroom finally sees some use.
We love having guests over and are happy to serve up some brews and hang out in the family room while the fire in our fireplace crackles in the background. However, we don’t do much entertaining and for the times that we do, it doesn’t seem worth it to pay for space that we only use a couple days a year. The cost difference to build a 1000 sq ft home versus a 700 sq ft home is approximately ~$41,400!
We are happy to provide a couch (or, as the case was for a group of 6 hikers coming from the Pacific Crest Trail, a portable blow-up bed, couch, and ample floor space!) for anyone who needs it. However, we want our space to optimize our day-to-day lives and not for the couple days a year when it would be a bit more convenient to host.
We would be perfectly happy in a 1 bedroom, 1 bath, or a studio if we got a little creative. In fact, I sometimes find myself envious of those living out of airstream campers or pursuing their passion while living out of a van.
While that might be something cool to do in the future, for the time being as we look to move in a year for Mr. Mechanic’s residency, we will be looking at something a little less than 1,000 square feet. Our goal would be to live in a space that is fully utilized every day. Based on our current usage and a look at the UCLA study, a future apartment could look something like this:
Our Future Ideal
“Things change,” you might say, “Just wait until you have kids.” I recognize that it may seem naive of me to carve out a plan for now and expect it not to change. I think the best thing we can do for ourselves is to try to live within our means and avoid expanding our living space for status, stuff, or an uncertain future.
It’s not just about the cost– environmentally and financially– it’s about optimization. There is no point in having a big house that is a big waste of space. With a bigger house comes more to worry about, more that can break and more that needs to be maintained. Ultimately we want a home that meets our needs, and we don’t need much. By focusing on what we currently use, we can design our lives for today and worry about tomorrow when those needs arise.
What about you?
Have you downsized or upsized? What was your experience? What rooms in your house get the most usage– and what spots don’t get used at all?
P.S. If you are interested, the book that details the home-usage study is called Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors (affiliate link)