How big of a house do I need? Taking a look at the increase in the average square footage of homes in the United States over the last 40 years should seriously test even the most intestinally-formidable person’s gag reflex. We now find that the average home is larger than ever – 2,687 square feet, and the estimated footage per person has doubled in that time.
And then there is my wife and me who have been living in a small, 200 square foot Airstream since 2016 and travel the country for a living.
The median footage of new homes is now 2,687 square feet, which is an increase of nearly 1,000 square feet in the last four decades. Perhaps more interesting is the average household size – meaning, the number of people living in the home – has actually decreased from 3.01 persons per household 40 years ago to 2.54 today.
What this means: we are experiencing a phenomenon as it relates to our country’s residential real estate where our homes are getting larger while our households are getting smaller.
More space for fewer people.
But, what if I told you that we don’t actually use all this additional space that happens to be draining a lot of your money every month, and there’s a study that backs that claim up?
You might ask, so how big of a building does my house need be? I cannot possibly answer that question for you, but taking a more realistic look at how your family truly operates might help you better determine the right size.
Where we spend the most time in our homes
With the average American home’s dramatic increase in space, one might assume that we Americans now have the luxury of putting more of our real estate to good use, allowing us to enjoy more of our home’s features and bask in the glory of large dining rooms, fancy living and “sitting areas,” separate studies (read: “libraries”) and yet another room for our televisions and time-grabbing entertainment devices – video game consoles, anyone?
But, according to a study published in the Wall Street Journal several years ago, that assumption would be flat wrong. We only tend to use a small amount of our living space.
The Center on Everyday Lives of Families at the University of California put together an amazing look at how we typically use all that space (and stuff) in our homes. The study examined 32 middle-class families over the course of four years — 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 respectively. A part of this study monitored and collected data on where in the home people spend the majority of their time.
The graphic of the floor plan above, published by the University, depicts one such family and where they spend time within their home. The house’s total square footage appears to be large and spaced out with a place for a separate living and formal dining room, as well as space for a piano, a laundry room, and a huge front porch.
While this represents only a single family, its findings probably represent the common pattern in many American households. Are your habits substantially different?
The study found that 68% of the family’s time was largely spent in the kitchen/nook as well as the family room, typically near the television. Clearly, the formal dining room got almost no use, and the living room saw very little activity, like the porch.
Like typical living and breathing human beings capable of emotion, we find that most people crave social interaction with other humans. The large majority of the time, this family spent their waking hours congregating around areas of food preparation and consumption. The rest, they were plopped down on the couch watching the boob tube or on the computer. We don’t need a 2000 square foot floor plan for that.
And so in truth, over the course of the years 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017, this particular family was not all that spread out. While the house was quite large, they did not appear to be basking in the glory of space. Instead, they used the common areas the most, typical of most families around the world, and the extra space remained unused. It was dead space.
What this means is this family used a very small amount of the space that they paid for through their mortgage or home equity line of credit every month, and they are definitely not alone.
How many square feet does a person need?
While I can’t completely answer this question without knowing a given person’s or family’s individual needs, nor can I give you an exact numeric value; what I would suggest is turning your attention more to the way the square footage is assembled within the home. According to the vice president of architecture at Ashton Woods, you should really be looking at the ratio between bedrooms and living spaces.
A good rule to follow for those pursuing a more traditional living set-up, as opposed to an Airstream, is that for every one-bedroom, you need to provide places for two people to sit in the dining area and living area. Further, each generation – parents, children, and grandparents, if they live with you – should have an “away space” that allows for privacy from other family members.
Why we buy big houses we don’t need
Many of us buy homes that are way too big for our needs, my wife and I included. In fact, we have a 1600 square foot home with a huge backyard and pool – and we rarely use HALF of the space that we pay for. Instead, we close off a couple of extra rooms, tighten the ceiling vents as to not waste A/C and heat in those areas, and mainly spend time in the common areas – just like everybody else.
What is the draw to big houses we don’t need? Why do we make the choice to drop additional coinage for useless space? As far as I can tell, there are five main reasons why we buy homes so damn big.
First, we live in a MORE IS MORE society. We feel like a big house imparts upon us a status symbol of success. The bigger the building, the more successful we appear to our friends and family. As shallow as this sounds, it’s also pretty darn common. In fact have you heard people at work talking about how much square footage they have? It’s a brag item! We do not need all those square feet people!
Second, we convince ourselves that we “like to entertain”. Some of us may genuinely enjoy having people over a lot and treat our homes like a hotel room, but are people flocking over to your casa for the SPACE that your home has, or for the people that they get to socialize with? Or food and alcohol? Do you NEED space that will sit unused the large majority of the time for the sake of entertaining others in the future?
Third, we want a dining room for Thanksgiving. There is something more official and “formal” with a separate dining room, and Thanksgiving is the perfect time of year to whip out the white table cloth and pretend to be fancy, isn’t it?
Fourth, we want a spare bedroom. After all, the three or four times that you plan to have your in-laws visit demand additional sleeping quarters in a hardly-used room dedicated just for them.
Fifth, we want “room to grow”. This is especially true for people who plan to be parents in the future. We assume that once we have a child, we immediately need a castle for that mini human to run around in.
There is a big problem with all of this: like the study found, we are buying additional space in our homes that we pay for 100% of the time, but we only use 5% of the time (5% is MY statistic, not the study’s).
Take those two extra rooms that we have in our 1600 square foot home. Sure, we close off the vents so we aren’t heating and cooling those rooms, but we are still paying off our extra line of credit for those rooms that we opened back in 2014. Our huge backyard, our fire pit, our pool – it all needs to be paid for whether we use it or not. And cleaned, too. All that space demands maintenance.
The family in this study pays for a separate living and dining room that rarely get used. Apparently, the porch NEVER gets any use. In that huge house, this family spends 2/3 of their time in the same areas of the house while paying for the remainder of the dead space.
Is 2000 square feet big?
For some families, like mine, the answer is “yes.” For other families, the answer is “no.” From what I’ve gathered based upon my own experience, coupled with extensive research, the level of comfort you can achieve in a home smaller than 2000 square feet is contingent upon three factors:
1. How many people you have living in your home spread across different generations?
2. How you and your family conduct day-to-day living activities within the home?
3. How intelligently the home’s floor plan is designed to best support those in-home activities?
Take a moment and think about your home and where your family spends the majority of its time. Are there rooms that rarely get used? More importantly, could you do without those rooms and extra footage and live in a much smaller, less expensive home?
What is the minimum square footage per person?
There are tons of people in the United States who currently live in small spaces. Just take a look at families in San Francisco and New York City, for example. According to an estimate provided by The Engineering ToolBox, the average person needs between 100-400 square feet within a home to feel comfortable.
Again, this number depends on the person. Some people need a huge amount of space to feel like they have room to breathe, while others require very little. Some people prefer to have more privacy while in their home and enjoy experiencing domestic life farther away from others, whereas some people crave a more social form of cohabitation and surround themselves with family members more often.
We lived in a pretty large home when I was younger – three stories if you include the basement, along with a separate living and dining room. I was the youngest in a family of four. My brother and I had our own rooms in the upstairs, as did my parents, of course, in the master bedroom (also upstairs).
In 2014, even with a family of four, we had huge amounts of unused space. The guest room in the upstairs almost NEVER got used. The dining room only saw activity during Thanksgiving and maybe Christmas. The living room, again, almost NEVER got used.
The basement had our office and a huge open room, along with THREE other rooms that we used for a designated shop, storage, and laundry room.
Truthfully, we only designated separate rooms for those things because we could. There was so much space that we literally didn’t know what to do with it all. Nevertheless, it all had to get paid for – every last square foot used or unused. Money down the drain.
Sometime around 2015 or 2016, we realized that we needed a house maybe half of that size – perhaps with only a quarter of the footage if we were feeling like a close-knit family. A kitchen/nook, a couple of bedrooms, and a family room would have provided more than enough space for us to live in perfect luxury.
Who truly NEEDS a 2000 square foot house? Probably not many.
How big is your home? Do you truly need all that space, or could you downsize to a home that was more typical of families back in the ’70s? Ask yourself, “really, how big of a house do I need?”