Apr 072012

As you may well know from following this here blog I’m a big fan of the tiny house movement. I’ve posted more than a few stories on alternative housing, smaller spaces, micro campers, boat living, and container houses. It’s an exciting and growing movement happening across the country and around the world. There is a definite trend towards living in a smaller home that doesn’t eat up thousands of square feet. The need for McMansions that suck up all your money in energy costs, upkeep, and taxes is slowly giving way to smaller, more efficient, and in some cases, portable living spaces. You may well be among those who are thinking of downsizing your living space and if so then the question posted in the title needs to be asked…

How much living space do you actually need?

Let’s start with my favorite example…me. I currently live in an efficiency apartment. It measures 18′ x 12′. Less than 220 sg.ft. of living space. I share a bathroom with other tenants in the building, there is a single counter with a sink, some cabinets, and a small doorless closet. It came with a table, two chairs, a small corner desk, and I scrounged a used futon frame out of the dumpster, threw on a new very comfy mattress and that’s it. That’s pretty much all there is for me and the two cats. Plenty of room for everyone and my 75 or so possessions. In fact I could cut this place in half and still have sufficient room to live in. I have lived in smaller spaces. The sailboat I used to live on had a cabin area of less than 100 sq.ft. It was plenty roomy enough for what I needed. But on the other end of the scale was the house I used to own.

By most standards the house I owned for a decade and a half was small. Two bedrooms, single bath, attached garage on a 1/4 acre lot. A little less than 1000 sg.ft. under roof. For a single man you would think it was the perfect fit. In reality it was way more than I could ever need or want. For starters the spare bedroom got used maybe once a year. Most of the time it was used for storage. I kept the vents closed for the ac and the door shut nearly all the time. There was an attic where I wound up storing some stuff but it was pretty much a useless part of the house. The master bedroom was way bigger than I needed. The bathroom was probably the only room that was the correct size. The garage held everything except a car, a tradition in Florida. Fill up the garage with all your toys and keep the car outside. I had a motorcycle, kayak, washer and dryer, tool bench, tool chest, fishing stuff, cat litter box, and piles of more junk in there, but never room for a car. As for the yard, the only time I really ever set foot out there was to cut the grass, a chore I have vowed never to do again. As houses go, it was a nice place, but I had absolutely no use for all that space. I just tended to fill up the empty spots with more junk. Ever since I dumped that place it has been rv, boat, or small apartment living. The more efficient and smaller, the better.

Everyone has a dream house. Someplace special that has that certain something that makes it a home. The problem is that the dreams usually exceed the reality of what the place will actually be used for. The formal dining room to host all those special parties. The game room with the fancy pool table. The extra bedrooms for all the visitors you’ll be having. In reality, the formal dinners happen maybe once a year, the pool table is turned into a big green felt storage shelf, and the spare bedrooms seem to fill up with more junk. The big yard with all that grass, trees, and space is now a maintenance hog eating up every spare moment of your time. Many times the dream becomes a nightmare.

Don’t get me wrong here. For some, a big house is exactly what they want or need. You may have or be planning to have a big family. Perhaps you have no travel plans and simply want to settle down and make your house your main focus in life. No problem there. If that is what makes you happy, have at it. But if you are single or a couple, if you are a traveler, if you are downsizing, if you are reading these minimalistic blogs for inspiration and trying to find a new direction in life, then chances are a big house ain’t for you.

So, let’s say you are at that point where downsizing your living space is something you want to do. Where to begin? Well, for starters, if you are not single you’ll need to dump the significant other. Divorce, abandonment, a “special” accident, whatever suits you best, just get rid of their ass. I’m just kidding of course. Abandonment is cruel. But seriously, if you are a couple or even a small family you had better make sure everyone is on the same page with this downsizing thing. If not there could be problems later. Remember you’ll be living in a much smaller place which means you may be in the way and on those days where you just want to be left alone there may be no place to be alone at. So before you dump the 3 bedroom, 2 bath split level on the Cul-de-sac for that teardrop camper you had better make sure that living in a smaller space is something you and anyone else involved can handle. It can get real claustrophobic until you get used to the smaller surroundings.

For many people the idea of living in a smaller space sounds good in theory, but reality may be very different. So it pays to experiment a little and see how you like living in something smaller. You can try a simple experiment by shutting off the rest of your current house and just using a small area to see how it works out but there will always be the temptation to break the rules and use the other areas. Instead try some different tactics. If an rv is in your sights go find a rv rental and try one out for a week. Pick the size you think fits you best and give it a go. Try to imagine living in it full time. Is it comfortable? Do you feel closed in? Or do you find having everything right at your fingertips to be a real convenience? Looking at a small apartment? Try renting a motel room and staying for a few days. If possible find one of those that has a small kitchen built in. Just remember your real apartment won’t have maid service. Or maybe you really want to downsize and the idea of a tiny house intrigues you. If you want to get an idea of the amount of space go to someplace that sells sheds and take long look inside at the size of what you think you want. A 10′ x 10′ shed is 100 sq.ft. Not as much room as you thought? Or just the right size. It pays to do some research before you jump into anything.

All the while you are doing this start formulating a plan in the back of your mind as to what possessions you want to keep and what you want to get rid of. Will the smaller home that you’re thinking of fit all the stuff you intend to keep? Or better yet, start getting rid of stuff and see how many rooms you empty out. Then you’ll have a better idea of how much square footage will suit your needs. If you have a four bedroom house and three rooms are empty, guess what. It’s time to downsize.

If possible downsize things gradually over a time period to allow you to adjust to smaller and smaller digs. You’ll know better then how little space you need and can still be comfortable. It took me about 10 years to go from the house to 29 foot fifth wheel to 27 foot sailboat to my little castle in Key West. I have a pretty good idea of how little space I need to live in and it ain’t much. Which is why the tiny house movement has so much appeal to me. The smaller the better as far as I’m concerned. I love the innovation some designers are coming up with. The container homes for example, would be a perfect solution to affordable housing here in the Keys. Solid built, hurricane and rust proof, inexpensive, and portable. Another rv is a possibility and of course I’m always looking at boats. But for now my main focus is in not owning anything. Nothing to hold me down in terms of a structure or land. Eventually, after I’ve burned out the travel and adventure bug I might look to settle into something. But whatever I wind up with, it will be small and require a minimum of upkeep. You may be surprised that you can do with a lot less than you thought. Look at the advantages: less maintenance, lower taxes, lower energy costs, a more cozy feel, and if you are portable, easier to move.

So, I’ll ask again, “How much living space do you really need?” Now is a great time to doing the downsizing thing. Higher energy costs, more awareness of the environment, all that is contributing to the tiny house movement. People are starting to realize that there is more to life than owning a big house, or to put it another way, to be owned by a big house. Priorities are changing. Spending your spare time and money just to keep a price of property from losing value is something many are no longer interested in doing. They, as those who have taken up the minimalist lifestyle, are starting to realize that there is more to life than weekends at Home Depot. They prefer to have the freedom to go out and do things a bit more meaningful and a big house just gets in the way. Do your research. You can start here on the Fritter with some of the tiny house links on the links page. Check out the archives for posts on alternative living, boats, rv’s, and container homes. There are tons of choices and some real innovation going on out there. You can live in less space than you thought. All you need to do is figure out how much space that is.

Happy tiny house hunting!

Capt. Fritter

  3 Responses to “So how much living space do you actually need?…”

  1. Two of us lived for a year and a half in a 24′ motorhome with one slide and had everything we needed. Now my husband is done traveling and has rented a two-bedroom apartment. While I do live there with him, it is too big for me. I’m in the process of buying a Sprinter van with no slides to be converted into my winter snowbird home. It will be just right. 🙂

  2. My small 1B/1B condo was marketed as a starter home; my intent was to eventually move to a bigger house with a big yard. It took some time and a few epiphanies before I realized that I didn’t really want or need more space. However, by that time, I had gone into debt and overstuffed my home with things collected for my fantasy life in my ‘dream home’. After one big purge of stuff, I’m still whittling away at the excess stuff. My place is now bigger that I really need, & I will move on from it eventually, but for now I like the open, sunny space of it. Don’t know that I could live in 220 square feet, but I’ve looked at a lot of the tiny houses online – some of them are designed so efficiently & would be easy to live in without feeling cramped.

    Several people I know are looking to buy homes now – they need granite countertops in big kitchens, and en suite bathrooms. They need everything to be updated. I used to want these things so much; I’m glad that I’ve lost the desire for it, and can enjoy what I have.

  3. Right now, my 126 square feet is barely enough, but I’m getting there. My last place was kinda like your house, bout 1000 square feet of which I actually needed very little but somehow managed to keep full of stuff. Once in a while I’m tempted to trade up but I know I’d just accumulate more junk to fill the extra space. Time to do some more paring down.