In praise of small houses


Over the past 30 years, the average size of a house in the developed world has climbed from 100m2 (1100 sq ft) to 250m2 (2700 sq ft). There are good reasons, if you care about your home, to resist this trend.

When I lived in Papua New Guinea, in the Sepik, I lived for four years in very small houses. The first was 40m2, a government L40 built out of fibre-cement and and corrugated iron. Then I moved into a 54m2 house which I’d designed and built myself using local timbers. It has always struck me that I had as many (if not more) good memories from those very small houses, as I did at any other times in my life. Small houses are good at making good memories.

But here are more tangible reasons for not buying big.

1       The impact of spending
First, if you love your family and love your home, then you want to spend as much time there as possible. The alternative is spending more time at work. And as one wag put it: no-one, on their deathbed, ever regretted not having spent more time at the office.

The more money you spend, the more you have to work, and the more time you have to spend at the office, or other workplace of your choice. Obviously, when you buy a large house you pay for more direct construction costs. So automatically having a bigger house means you spend less time there.

Ironic, isn’t it?

2       Multipliers
But wait. There’s more! Because in addition to the direct costs of a bigger house, there are many indirect costs. A bigger house means a bigger mortgage means yet more time at the office. Typically, for every $1000 of house you buy, you’ll pay $1500 in interests costs over the life of your mortgage. That’s quite a multiplier.

But there’s even more. A bigger house needs:

  • more electricity
  • more heating and cooling
  • more furniture
  • more cleaning products

All of these have to be paid for with money which has to be earned away from home.

3       Hidden time costs
So far, we’ve just talked about the financial costs, though we have thought of them in terms of “time of the office”. There are also direct time costs. For instance:

  • A larger house is usually farther in the suburbs than the smaller houses, which means re commute time, more “chauffeuring” time trying to get your kids or yourself to places.
  •  More time spent tidying and cleaning and re-arranging.
  • More time wandering from room to room trying to figure out where the other members of your family are. (Joke.) (Kind of.)

4       Stress is deadly
Finally, all we know that financial stress and time poverty are as much “lifestyle diseases” as are obesity and diabetes. But whereas those diseases will simply kill you, financial stress and time poverty will kill your quality of life, and the quality of the your relationships with the significant people in your life. More on these in a later post.

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