During the housing boom, many Americans became enamored with the idea of “trading up” in the housing market – bigger homes, massive square footage, plenty of extra storage space, multiple guest bedrooms and bathrooms, vaulted ceilings, huge kitchens and master bedroom suites. Between 1950 and 2006, the average size of a U.S. house doubled to 2,349 square feet.
“Bigger was better” until the housing boom turned to bust. Now the trend is for Americans to buy smaller houses that are closer to their workplaces. According to a survey from Coldwell Banker, 75 percent of new home buyers say that higher gas prices are motivating them to choose a home that is closer to where they work. And according to U.S. Census data, the average size of a new home in the United States actually declined in 2009 (by approximately 100 square feet) for the first time in almost 30 years.
Although some experts claim the recent downsizing of the American home is simply a result of demographics (most new home buyers these days are first-time home buyers, who tend to need less space), I think it’s clear that America is undergoing a bit of a cultural shift in our perceptions of what we want from our homes. People are looking for a greater degree of simplicity, affordability and efficiency, and smaller houses support all of those needs.
The smaller house trend is also showing up among a unique subculture of people who are taking “living simply” to extremes: witness the rise of the “tiny house.” Tiny houses are so small that most banks won’t write mortgages for them. They’re so small that most cities won’t allow people to live in them due to zoning laws. In fact, many tiny house owners put their house on a trailer hitch, so they can pull it around to other locations.
A recent article in the New Yorker profiled homebuilder Jay Shafer, who designs, builds and sells tiny houses through his Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. The smallest design for one of Shafer’s tiny houses is only 65 square feet and sleeps one to two people. Prices of a tiny house start at less than $40,000 (or even as low as $16,000 if you choose to build the house yourself, using one of the company’s plans and do-it-yourself building kits). Tiny houses are fully equipped with electricity and plumbing, and can be connected to public sewer systems (or use portable RV-style sewer tanks).
Fans of tiny houses say that this unique lifestyle offers many benefits:
- Simplicity: With only 65 square feet to live in, you have to make some choices about how many physical belongings you want to have in your life. No more closets full of clothes that you never wear, no more clutter, no more “stuff.” Life gets stripped down to the essentials.
- Freedom: With no mortgage to pay, tiny house owners have more free time and disposable income to devote to other pursuits, rather than merely paying the bills.
- Energy efficiency: Tiny houses are environmentally friendly, in that they cut down on the amount of energy being used to heat and cool the home. Shafer says that when he lived in a tiny house in Iowa, he used to spend only $170 per winter to heat his home.
Tiny houses aren’t for everyone. Most people would struggle to give up so many of the comforts of a larger home – many of us like to have a certain amount of “stuff” in our lives. But even if you don’t want a truly “tiny” house, there are some lessons to be learned from tiny houses: smaller houses cost less, require less maintenance, lower heating bills and less time to clean. Now more than ever, more Americans seem ready to explore new ways of “living large” in a smaller house.
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Pictures courtesy of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.