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Size Matters: The Curse of a Large Home

When we designed our first custom home in 2002, we didn’t pay much attention to size. Since we had five acres of land to play with, we had few constraints. The biggest problem we had was getting height approval by the city.

We focused, instead, on function. We made rooms for the all the people in our family and rooms for all the things we spent our time doing. And threw in a few more just for affect. And we ended up designing a very big house.

We had come from South Florida, where our first home was 1,500 square feet and had a zero lot line and our second was about 4,000 square feet on about a fifth acre. And no basements. With five kids (and counting), two companies, food storage, and homeschooling, we had lived like sardines for ten years. To us, it seemed, the bigger the house, the better the house.

When the excavators dug the new basement, Sam gasped. It was, he said, enormous. But to me it looked like a hole. A hole with plenty of land all around it.

It wasn’t until the second story of the house went up that my lack of visualization skills became apparent. But by then it was a little late to revise.

I told the general contractor that I didn’t want to know the home’s square footage. If I was left in the dark, I could at least honestly answer that I had no idea how big the house was when the inevitable question came. And it did. The whole time we lived there. Not only were we asked how big the house was, but the jokes were endless. Our house was the “overflow church,” the “haunted mansion,” the “city offices.” There were rumors that the “garage wing” was for the second wife and her children and that we had a swimming pool on the roof.

While we had moved there with a dream home in mind, living in the largest house in the entire city wasn’t exactly what we had signed up for. Growing up with the idea that frugality and simplicity were virtues, the house was hard to explain. And we did feel that we had to justify the indulgence of it all.

We moved in and landscaped a patch of ground around the house. Then we made plans for what in the world we would do with the rest of the wheat field surrounding the house.

It only took a few months after moving in before Sam really wanted to move on. But since we had long discussed the idea of settling our family there for good, I just couldn’t let go of the dream of never moving again. This was the house we were supposed to grow old in and bring our grandchildren to visit the Granpa & Grandma Ranch.

Each week, as we spent inordinate amounts of time on home maintenance, Sam would cajole me. “Wouldn’t you rather be boating?” And the truth is, I would. In hindsight it shouldn’t be surprising that more room just means the mess gets spread further. But I hadn’t realized that until we were living it. The benefits of downsizing were becoming obvious. Still, the idea of moving—and starting over—was overwhelming and upsetting.

One day we went to the political caucus in our neighborhood. The corruption in the small town government should have been enough to make me run in terror, but it was something else that actually triggered the decision to move. We got a political flier for a man running for office in our county. The front page featured a family photo, with everyone cozied up on the lawn in front of a flower bed with a clean white fence behind it.

“Oh, look Sam. A normal yard!” I beamed.

Silence.

I looked up.

“Well…we could have a normal yard. If you’d let us have a normal yard.”

Wow. Here I was coveting this tended, tidy yard while I owned a sprawling — mostly unused — plot of acreage…that I didn’t even want.

By the next week we had hired a realtor to sell our home.

It was only in the process of listing the property that we found out our home had nearly 12,000 square feet of floor space. We also learned that we used almost exactly a half acre of our five acres of land.

Within a few days we were looking for a new lot — of about a half acre. And Sam began designing a home that had what we needed in a size we could maintain without giving up all hope of occasional recreation.

Now — after a couple of years refining and revising with an eye toward an incredibly efficient layout — we look forward to moving into a home that our whole family can truly enjoy.

{ 11 comments… add one }

  • Perry May 27, 2009, 7:14 am

    Every year I go to the Home Show in our city and covet all the huge homes. But this makes me rethink some of that. Maybe trying to impress the neighbors isn’t that impressive after all.

    Is that picture really your house or just a photo you got?

  • sardon May 27, 2009, 10:40 am

    Our house is about 3,000 square feet. Instead of putting all the money into bigger we put it into better. The home is real quality and the furniture is very nice with custom draperies. I’d rather have a nice atmosphere than extra rooms I won’t use.

  • Shelly Greenhalgh-Davis May 27, 2009, 12:57 pm

    I have always felt that, instead of moving to bigger homes to accommodate all their stuff, people should just get rid of stuff.  We don’t usually use much of it anyway!  Thanks for a good article.

  • elbowGreaser May 27, 2009, 3:02 pm

    It’s hard to hear about the problem of a too big house when you live in one that is way too small. All five of us live in a three bedroom cottage. The kids are all together because we need one for the office and there is only one main room.

    Don’t be disappointed if I just gaze at that photo and dream of spending my weekends cleaning it!

  • Alison Moore Smith May 27, 2009, 3:58 pm

    Perry, I know what you mean. When I was a teenager I was looking longingly at a huge house with 11 fireplaces near ours (the entire “Parade of Homes” that year was in my neighborhood). My mom said, “I wouldn’t want to clean that much house.” I thought she was nuts. Now I get it!

    Yes, that was our home. We finished it in 2003 and lived there until last August when we moved to be closer to the build site.
    True Shelly. I hate “stuff” and am the extreme opposite of a pack rat. But I’ll tell you, that when you have a really big house, you still accumulate more than you need. There is so much excessive storage that there is no reason to throw everyone out.
    elbowGreaser, go ahead and dream. I know the too-small side of the equation, too. I just want people to consider the downside to huge when the design a custom home. Finding just right for your situation takes some thinking.
  • David C. Moore May 27, 2009, 8:22 pm

    When I look at the nearby community of Draper, and especially the neighborhood immediately around the recently dedicated LDS Temple there I must admit I cringe at the level of opulence and greed, and can’t help but think what a waste of resources both monetary and of land and material went into building such monuments of greed.  In my position with USDA I evaluate imagery from all over the U.S. and one thing stands out in the Wasatch Front when compared with other metro areas, and that is the size of the lots and the size of the structures in the newer neighborhoods.  In fact one real estate figure I came across not long ago indicates that Utah has the most square footage per house structure of any state.  Where will this end?  In my East Millcreek neighborhood right now there is a big fight over a redevelopment ordinance to stop people from demolishing 50-60 year old immediate post-WWII bungalows and ramblers and replacing them with monster homes.  With all of this, I certainly understand the desire of some to put limits on what people can do with respects to home sizes, and as for costs, I think there might need to be some future limits as to what people should be able to write-off on their U.S. federal income taxes for mortgage interest.

  • Alison Moore Smith May 27, 2009, 9:37 pm

    Who’s to say that a big home is equivalent to greed? Behavior is meaningful, but motives are really hard to ascertain. The Wasatch Front also has about a billion times more kids per family. It only stands to reason that the homes will be larger with more people living in each house.

    When we lived in Florida we really needed a bigger home to accommodate our family, but in Boca Raton “bigger house” just meant “richer house, fancier house, house with more rooms for entertaining.” Most of the largest homes still had only three bedrooms.

    Politically, I’m all about freedom. In fact, you could say I’m greedy about it. If someone wants to spend their weekends on home maintenance, more power to them. If they love nothing more than puttering around in a garden, I hope they can have an enormous one. If they want to hire someone to do the work, so be it. But if they are all about being self-reliant and spending the money, instead, on a boat (greedy though it might be!), then I give a big cheer for that, too.

    It’s all about choices and opportunity cost. We all have to find out what’s right for our family. And that may be a huge house, a moderate house, or a modest one.

    Having a huge house has some advantages as well. We often entertained and had over 70 people in our home at a time—and they fit comfortably. Once we held a rock concert for a huge bunch of teens in our family room! Storage was never a problem. The kids had a great big space to explore. We had animal rights and could have just about any domestic beast you could name—and we had tons of pets while we lived there. Everyone had plenty of space to move, work, study, dance, play, or find a place for solitude.

    The key was that we found that for us that particular house was too big. We had other priorities—like actually being able to find our toddlers! We like being in a real neighborhood, with friends that we see and talk to—instead of so far removed from other human life that you’d never know if your neighbors moved out. We wanted out kids to be able to play with some friends without driving there. And, yes, we’d rather go boating than take on gardner or handyman duties, because neither of us has much interest in those things.

    Truth is, we put our heart and soul into building that home. We sold it in January of 2007 and leased it back from the new owner until last August. It’s on the market now and we sincerely hope that someday soon someone who will love that house—and all the thought and planning and work that went into it—as much as we did. And we hope for them it’s the right move.

  • JP May 28, 2009, 8:07 pm

    Thanks for posting, I really enjoyed reading your newest post. I think you should post more often, you clearly have talent for blogging!

  • Patrick May 29, 2009, 7:14 am

    It’s a great house, but I can’t really argue with what you’re saying. We’re planning to build again next year and you’ve made me rethink the house plan. There will be just the two of us now, so maybe we don’t need or want so much room.

  • cco June 2, 2009, 12:33 am

    You have a lot of good points to think about in this post. We have wanted a bigger house for about three years, since our son was born. But before we jump into that, we’ll think about what we really want a little more.

    As for greed, when you see someone with a big house it’s easy to call them greedy, but how do you know someone is greedy?

    People who eat too much are “greedy” about food–and so they’re fat. People who drive a lot are “greedy” over gas. People who work for someone else are “greedy” about security. People who are single are “greedy” about independence.

    Usually people who call names of people who are thin are just fat. People who call names of people who are rich are poor. People who call names of people in big homes have small ones. It’s not really greed, it’s jealousy.

  • kc July 1, 2011, 10:38 pm

    I certainly understand the desire of some to put limits on what people can do with respects to home sizes, and as for costs, I think what people should be able to write-off on their U.S. federal income taxes for mortgage interest.Thanks for this very interesting article…
    kc recently posted…Formica CountertopsMy Profile

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