Why Small Houses Make Sense

by Ilyce Glink, Inman News
House in hands photoTen years ago, architect Sarah Susanka published a coffee-table book called “The Not So Big House.”The premise of the book was that we should build smaller, but nicer. It was a counterculture punch to the McMansions sprouting up in developments all over the country, with their double-height ceilings, vast basements and $100,000 kitchens.

Back in 1998, it seemed like a quaint idea to build smaller, but nicer. But Susanka clearly touched a nerve, as her “Not So Big” idea has grown into a multimillion-dollar franchise, with several books and a successful Web site. Just in time for the 10-year anniversary, “The Not So Big House” has been expanded and rereleased.

Today, as families are now struggling to pay the heating and cleaning bills for those double-height ceilings and as hundreds of thousands of McMansions are falling into foreclosure, building smaller and cheaper seems like a really smart idea. Too bad it’s so hard to sell your house these days, or you might just try it.

One of the problems with a big house is that so many other homeownership expenses rise along with the square footage. It’s very difficult to live cheaply in a huge house.

First, along with the bigger mortgage, you have higher real estate taxes and insurance premiums. If you live in a flood plain (and more people are classified as living in flood plains because maps are being revised in this era of global climate change), you also have to pay more for flood insurance (federal flood insurance is limited to $250,000; you have to buy private insurance to get more coverage than that).

Bigger square footage means bigger energy bills. Even if you turn the thermostat up a few degrees in summer and down a few degrees in winter, you have that much more space to heat and cool. And while some houses are built with energy-efficient windows and other eco-friendly amenities, it’s still a lot of space to heat and cool.

You also have to furnish the space and maintain it. So, there might be an extra 1,000 square feet to recarpet or polish the wood floors. You’ll have more walls to wallpaper or paint; more trim to touch up; more bathroom tile to grout; and more light bulbs to replace.

While some bigger houses are planted on tinier lots, if you have a large garden, you’ve got more yard work. If you hire a gardener, you might be charged $50 a week to cut the grass rather than $25 for a smaller yard.

And then there is the upcharge for people who live in expensive homes in truly swanky neighborhoods.

If you live in a top neighborhood, everyone charges you more to perform services. Your housekeeper might tack on an extra $10 per week, and a contractor might add another 10 percent to the price of building out your kitchen. If you have doormen, you’ll tip them more each year if you live in a fancy building than if you lived in a less expensive building. Stores in fancy neighborhoods often sell more expensive goods, and the restaurants are more expensive, and so on.

But in times of severe economic stress, the idea of building smaller, but nicer, doesn’t seem good enough. The financial crisis seems to require an even bigger idea. How about this: Build for cash. That’s right, do without a mortgage entirely.

There have been stories in the media over the past few weeks about people building extremely small homes, some just 65 to 100 square feet big. That’s right. An entire house that’s 6 feet wide by 10 feet long, or smaller than the average master bathroom. The good news is that these houses, which have toilets, showers and a kitchen, cost less than $15,000 to build. And, many are portable, so they can be hitched up to a truck and driven to the next destination. (So, you save on hotel costs as well.)

In a recent CNN story, one home builder built a 65-square-foot house for himself, but it wasn’t big enough for his wife. So, he’s building her a 250-square-foot house for herself. I suppose she needed more closet space.

In building a small house that costs less than $1,500 per year to live in, the owner said he had found a new business: Already he has built 11 tiny homes for other people who want to live cheap and mortgage-free.

To get even more valuable advice from Ilyce, visit her Personal Finance and Real Estate Center.What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.