Home Size: How Big is Too Big?

By Trish Holder

Mansion“We’re going to die,” I pronounced.

We were in the third hour of our drive to Folly Beach, SC for our family summer vacation and going through a brief but intense thunderstorm. The lightening strikes were so close I swear I could feel their heat.

Until that point it had been a perfectly lovely drive. I was delighting in the fact that I had my husband, son and daughter all within arms reach and everyone was making me laugh. Within the confines of our densely packed Honda Pilot, I felt about as happy as I had in months.

“Mom isn’t one to stay calm for the sake of the kids,” my twelve-year-old daughter quipped casually from the backseat. No one can deliver a perfectly timed one-liner like she can. And just like that, I was laughing again.

It is from this rainy, cramped perspective that I choose to talk about a very controversial topic in the home building industry: SIZE.

Few subjects elicit such emotional reaction from builders who are already sick-to-death of all this “green living” talk now that making a living as a builder is so difficult. The builders who either make (or once made) a lot of money building large homes (often referred to as “McMansions”) really get annoyed with the “less is more” crowd. After all, for a while they did quite well with a market that believed “more is more”.

Some of these builders are bitter; and it shows. Then again, I live in a 3200 sq. ft. home and some environmentalists would frown on that. Some of these folks are judgmental; and it shows.

I know that home size, like the measure of most anything else in the world, is relative. What is large to one person is small to another. But because I’m often caught in the crossfire of these conversations (or shall I say debates) I find myself reflecting on the size of my current home, as well as my past homes, the first of which was 1500 sq. ft. and the second 2700 sq. ft. In each of these homes I have been happy, miserable, or somewhere in between. That part has remained pretty consistent throughout my years of homeownership. In other words, it has never been the size of the home that made me feel the way I did.

Looking back, I really can’t see that the size of my home has had any impact on my happiness whatsoever. I can say that the stress I feel from home ownership has most definitely increased with the square footage. Large homes are more expensive and require more upkeep. Big surprise. (Aren’t you glad I don’t charge for these pearls?)

My ability to state the obvious notwithstanding, I have a point here and it is directed at both current and would-be homeowners. Admittedly, the market is lousy now and for many it’s not a question of how large a home to build or buy, but whether or not to own at all. But for others, homeownership is a part of your future and at one time or another you will weigh the pros and cons of “space” versus other things.

Here’s my advice: Before you pay for….space….take inventory of the things that you already have or do that make you happy. To the extent that you must forfeit any of these in order to have a larger home–that is the extent to which your home is too large. Because I promise you that square footage of a home does not spontaneously generate happiness. It does, however, spontaneously generate clutter and expense, as well as siphon away precious time that might otherwise be spent with friends or family or whatever else helps get you through the storm. I’m just sayin’.

Finally (and this bit of wisdom I really should charge for) remember this: No matter how large your home is, your laundry room can never ever be too big.

11 Responses »

  1. Trish,

    Does size matter? When it comes to happiness and square footage of a house there is something to be said for home is where the heart is–regardless of size. My wife and I downsized from 4500 ft2 to 2000 ft2. When we moved we were stunned how much junk we had to get rid of. I built the house thinking we needed space, space and more space. So when we moved to the new home we acquired more junk, junk and more junk. Truth be told it was the ego that needed the space and not my person or my family.

    • Thanks for your honest comment, Ben. You said what a lot of us wouldn’t say or admit. The ego is an unwieldy thing to handle for sure — not to mention EXPENSIVE to satisfy! I hope you and your wife are enjoying your cozier quarters!

  2. You know what really put this (and similar issues) into perspective for me? Friends who got divorced. He makes good money, and as a result, they were able to part ways with fewer complications than others who don’t. She bought a modest home with cash — no mortgage. He pays for their children’s private school and eventually college. He pays for her health insurance and willingly gives her ample child support for the children’s food and clothes. In addition, he willingly pays her spousal support for HER food and clothes. Her financial obligations are low. Yet she refuses to get a job, is fighting for lifetime spousal support, and complains constantly about the fact that her ex has a bigger, nicer house than she does. As you say, everything is relative. And therein lies the problem with more is more. What looks like a dream come true to me (well, not the divorce part but the financial stability part) is fodder for incessant complaining for her. All because she was used to having more and she’s envious that he has more. Financial security, a cheery home, friends, and loving family — that’s not enough to be happy when one looses the oceanfront house. Sad. Very, very sad.

    • That is sad. But I would bet that a larger home still would not solve the problem. Square footage does not “fix” things — except when there is a legitimate need for more space! Thank you for your comment!

  3. Hey Trish,

    Great article once again! One thought I had while reading, growing families require more space than empty nesters. We have about 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day, and in our market we are seeing a trend toward smaller, one level homes. They are ideal for those looking to age in place and in Oak Island NC most of the new construction that is selling is around 1300 square feet. We are a retirement community to be sure so it is easy to see why this is the case but we are also seeing smaller in family homes. Some of the things we are seeing from younger buyers is more emphasis on outdoor living spaces. Covered and screened porches are getting bigger and more elaborate as many take advantage of their exteriors. Also, smaller homes on subdivision lots leave more room for things like victory gardens, xeriscaping and permeable surface patios and driveways.

    • Hi Hailey!

      Glad you liked the blog. It has been causing quite a stir among a couple of builders on Linkedin (amazingly!) but other than that it has been very popular and well received.

      I think that is a really interesting trend you are seeing in Oak Island. But I guess it makes sense if you are committed to a fairly small footprint and your climate supports a lot of outdoor time. (Wonder if there is a similar growth trend in the area for bug spray!!)

      I’d love to post a good permeable surface patio story on Greenspiration. (Gee–I sound like such a nerd!) :o)


      • Hey Trish,

        I met with Jay Dechesere, a local Green architect, to tour his home he overhauled. It is a great project, (http://www.usgbc.org/ShowFile.aspx?DocumentID=8526) and he mentioned that if you replace a non-permeable surface with permeable, there are government rebates that make it more affordable. So if someone is looking to repair or replace, even a sections of their driveway, remember its always better to have a surface that slowly seeps rather than quickly creeks!

        Also, some pavers are cheap to buy and can make a beautiful parking pads, they can also be a DIY family project if you have the patience. Leveling is any parking pads best friend. There is no reason we cannot turn to our driveways for serious curb appeal and get funky with design and landscaping. Some mossy groundcovers are ideal for filling in between spaces and its so much easier to go to the car barefoot when its a soft luxurious texture on your toes.

        I say go on with your bad self and P-p-p-permiablitity away(who is more of a nerd now?)! Your readers await!

  4. Totally agree with you! I downsized from living alone in a 3000 sq ft home home to living with my son and hubby in a 1000 sq ft condo and have NO plans of upsizing very much bigger! Given how little time and energy we have in this busy, busy life, we’d much rather spend it doing FUN family things together rather than spending time doing mundane things like mowing the yard, fixing fixing fixing etc. Plus (in theory) all the money we save living smaller can go towards expanding our worldly horizons :)

  5. Nice article. My current project is a 40,000 square foot home…laundry room is 600 square feet. Amazing project, a little beyond the McMansions in the area. I do look forward to getting back to 2500 – 3000 square foot homes some day. I would like to incorporate some of the features I use in large homes as they become more affordable.


  6. As usual, another great article. When I first got married, I wanted a house to work on. We bought a run down 4700 SF house (1906) in the historic district. We got burned out on that one and I kept saying to my husband something like 2000 SF should work. At first, he thought I was crazy, but in the last few years we downsized to a BRICK (anyone who has a old wood-sided house knows why I am emphasizing that) 1939 house with Prairie Style inspiration about 2500 SF. It is still more than we need, but some of that is in a basement — rare in North Alabama. I threw out so much stuff when I moved, but it felt good. Now I am still getting rid of paper via a scanner. People do keep so much stuff! I am a big fan of Sarah Susanka — if she had been a professor or even someone on my radar when I graduated from architecture school, I might still be in the field…. Oh wait, I sort of am…as a designer for Habitat — small homes rule! :)

  7. To the guy who is building 40,000 ridiculas square foot home(s) Really? About four years ago they did a study on the top 10 largets companies in the US. They looked at the square footage of the CEO homes in comparison to how well the companies were doing.

    Guess what? Those with the largest, including at that time, home Depot’s CEO 40,000 Sq Ft home were doing the worst, and in Home Depots case, that CEO was being ousted by the stockholders!

    Maybe that owner of the 40,000 SQ Ft home may only be thinking about himself, and not his or his companies long term sustainablity issues!

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