How Big a House Do You Really Need?

Real Estate Trends

The number of residents per household had been on a fifty-year decline as our wealth grew but has suddenly reversed, thanks in large part to the downturn in economics.

The trends in home size have been a fascinating spectacle to watch, especially here in Florida. St. Petersburg, for one, experienced a boom in the 1950’s that is still evidenced today by the prolific number of two-bedroom, one bath, one-car garage or carport homes. They were designed for the flood of retirees who immigrated back then.

This fact is akin to real estate archeology, but instead of counting the rings in a tree or marking the levels of excavation, we look at home design and tax rolls. It reveals a lot about local history.

Prior to the snow bird filling of retirement homes in the mid 20th-century, the homes from the 1920’s in St. Petersburg reveal the opulence and craftsmanship of the time, albeit in smaller homes, and a clustering in areas more chosen for interest than utility. They seem to scream second-home for northerners with means, and to tell a tale of a much different culture than we find today.

Fast-forward to the early 2000’s. While home construction has continued uninterrupted ever since our craftsman two-story homes of the 1920’s, through the bungalows of the 1950’s, through an epidemic of ranch architecture ever since with an occasional Spanish mission or Victorian, the start of the 21st century saw an explosion of luxury living.


Much of it was on the coattails of conspicuous consumption, and much of it justified by the evolution of lifestyles with more entertainment coming to the home. All of it was fueled by an explosion of home sales thanks to low interest rates and easy financing – too easy in fact.

Homes were being built with larger rooms, higher ceilings, and more amenities. Luxury rooms featured things like islands in your swimming pools and a theater room, complete with big-screens, theater seating, and even rope-lit aisle-ways. Bring your own popcorn.

The conventional wisdom was a move of family time and entertainment to the home economically justifying larger, gourmet kitchens and abundant amenities, but the suspicion was of plain exorbitance, and lavishness beyond what was rational. It was a party.


And today, in the aftermath of the burst – interestingly analogous to that moment of bubble gum all over your face from blowing too big – our need for shelter is being shared more and more in a new trend of multi-generational housing.

Is this a national economic embarrassment or a new wisdom and wholesomeness?

“Boomerang kids” are those aged between nineteen and twenty-nine who return to live at home after college and in the last twenty years their number has grown from a quarter of them to a third. Most homes include an extra bedroom or even a garage to accommodate them.

“Multigenerational households” which include family members from three generations are also on the rise according the U.S. Census Bureau.

Generation X had already begun the departure from their parents’ overt spending and disregard for debt for a more value-oriented approach to life as they spent their Saturdays hiking or volunteering rather than burning $400 in gas in a few hours on a go-fast boat with drinks.

Has housing evolved now in a like manner, but instead of building new, smaller, more austere and practical homes we’re sharing the big ones we just built or remodeled?

How much home does a family need, anyway?

Bunk Beds

When I was a child, my brother and I shared a bedroom and bunk beds, and always felt we had it pretty good, being raised by our single mother who worked two jobs to have us in private school. We had an appreciation of all things and the new prevalence of entitlement in the U.S. is horrifying to us, as it starts early (as it always has) but ends later in life if at all, it seems.

Even that wasn’t too little space, but it might have been smooth by the warmth that filled the house.

A childhood friend of mine came from a wealthy family down in Dania, in a mansion out in the middle of nowhere. His room was on one wing of the house, his mother’s on the other. He said he used to wake up terrified as a little kid by the isolation and some nightmare, and literally have to run across the estate to reach mom. Too much space?

On the other hand, when we moved recently and my daughter’s room was not yet ready, there the three of us were, squeezed into the master bedroom. But we really weren’t squeezed – in fact it wasn’t that bad. Long term I don’t think it would work, though, due to privacy and other issues of comfort.

A close family can be pretty close.

But even the best, most cherished houseguest can become a thorn in your side, given enough time to go from excitement to encroachment, transform from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde!


For the average, middle class western family, though, how much do we really need?

That’s actually a question getting posed and resolved every day in this new economy. In the United States we are holding hands with high unemployment across the boards, from college grads to downsized professionals and manufacturing personnel put out to pasture. So we are literally coming together for economics.

How much is too little?

My goddaughter may move in with us to defray over $6,000 a year in college housing, so I will have to write these articles from another space, but that’s no problem at all. There are people starving in Ethiopia, after all, as my mother used to put it.

“The man with no shoes complained until he met the man with no feet.”

The space we need is addressed every day on home and garden television house-hunting shows if you’re not now currently involved yourself.


The really neat thing is we have generally become more intelligent on quality-of-life alternatives, realizing with the moolah squeeze that a smaller house means smaller electric bills, which means more savings or another night out each month or some other quality-of-life enhancement, all worth more than the extra house space feeding our delusions of self-importance.

Or maybe it’s less time needed at work to support our former and addictive housing habit, so we can spend more time with the kids. We seem to have luckily realized, as the late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist so eloquently stated (paraphrased):

“If you want to spend time with your young children, you’ve got to do it while they’re young.”

So the calculus on actual home size will include the factors of

  • Your finances
  • Privacy
  • Functionality
  • Location and market
  • Amenities worth as much or more than the resultant lost economic opportunities


Having a swimming pool costs real cash each month in chlorine, electric pump use, and more. This is either taken by willing sacrifice of a night out each month or a sacrifice of the money saved, or it is mitigated by choosing a smaller house with smaller bills and less prestige.

That factor of prestige seems to be what a lot of us are now willing to shed. In fact, very often nowadays looking more conscientious is cool – just look at trends in smaller and hybrid cars.

Perhaps this is a correction downward as we have grown to understand our choices better, which happens real fast when your choices become more limited!

But it’s a growth that we are fortunate to be taking.



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