Spatial considerations

The palatial estate at Surlywood, as I’ve been known to call it, is not so huge: 1060 square feet, plus attached garage, on a little over a quarter-acre. It’s enough for me. It may not be enough for you, not that there’s anything wrong with that:

Bigger houses have significantly more utility. They can accommodate more people. They can accommodate activities that people enjoy (or profit from — if you’ve got an extra room you can turn into a workshop, or an office, and work from home…) They have increased flexibility — if you’ve got an extra room, you can put up a buddy who’s down on their luck or rent it out or have another kid.

But bigger houses don’t cost proportionately more to construct. An extra room adds more value to the home than it costs to build into the home, assuming we’re talking during initial construction. There’s a point of diminishing returns, but it’s way, way above efficiency apartment level.

So of course people are purchasing larger homes and the average home size is increasing. This is a good thing, reflecting actual preferences of the people buying those homes; nobody’s going shopping for a five-bedroom McMansion when they’d actually be happier in a teeny shack.

In some parts of the country, apparently nobody’s going shopping, period. I’m pretty sure, though, hardly anybody is building anything in the 1000-square-foot range anymore except for condos. (Of the twelve units currently available at Block 42, for instance, the smallest runs 1302. Thirty units, some smaller than that, have already been sold.)

Still, my little house, since it takes up that entire lot, lacks sustainability, or some such bushwah:

But if you’re an “urban planner” with visions of super-high population density, then the availability of large homes is a direct threat to your plans — because given the choice, most people really do prefer the extra space.

And there’s a lot to be said for not having to share a common wall with, say, a stoner with a meth lab who likes to listen to death metal at 4am.


  1. fillyjonk »

    2 March 2009 · 1:51 pm

    Two other things in favor of a smaller house:

    I am never asked to “house” visiting students, etc. I have a “guest bedroom” but in name only (it would take me several hours to muck it out sufficiently for someone to sleep there, at least someone who didn’t love me very much and understand my untidiness). (And the thought of renting my “spare” room makes me come all out in psychic hives)

    I never have to host AAUW meetings (or any other sort of meeting), because I lack sufficient space to seat 15 people.

    I think my little place is about 1300 square feet, including hallway and bathroom.

    I’ve said before that unless I absolutely cannot afford otherwise, I will never again live in an apartment, in part because of the reason you listed.

  2. Andrea Harris »

    2 March 2009 · 4:39 pm

    I’ve actually been thinking about looking for a small house to rent, instead of an apartment. Of course, it all depends on what kind of job I can find (this being when I move up north after my lease is up). But I’ve been idly looking around and I have found some reasonably-priced homes to rent in the St. Louis area. I’m not fussy over neighborhoods either, as long as there aren’t too many crack dens nearby. (After growing up in Miami reports of crime statistics in other cities don’t really faze me.) A yard might be nice, though I’m not a big yard work person.

    That being said, the noisy neighbors have become somewhat less noisy. All that’s left is the neurotic dog in the apartment across from me, and I have to be careful not to use the shower at certain hours unless I want to be scalded when my supply of cold water dips as the person upstairs turns on his faucet. But I hope where I do move next is at least more interesting than the generic bland apartment.

  3. Jeff Shaw »

    2 March 2009 · 7:58 pm

    I realize now that I am not normal. I like our “small” home (condo). It’s more like a “medium” (1700sq) if you ask me. There are spaces for each of the 3 of us to hide. My son can go to his self dubbed “world headquarters” (bedroom) or the “situation room” (bathroom) both containing a copious supply reading materials. I can go upstairs and practice my violin or blog. My wife loves to be in the kitchen, or watching TV. We can clean it in a hurry, and the utilities are manageable. We have no noise, but if we did, I know how to take care of that. Why do people need so much crap? There’s a George Carlin monologue in there somewhere.

  4. Tom »

    2 March 2009 · 9:08 pm

    I’m looking for a second home in one of the (many) depressed housing markets, something that could generate some coin when I’m not in residence. Something condo-like, smallish and manageable, say 1,000 sf with newer construction. Problem: When they were building, they weren’t building anything under 2,000 sf. So I’m still looking.

  5. Tatyana »

    3 March 2009 · 7:49 am

    Small apartment in a fairly maintained Deco-era building is perfect for me. Small -by your criteria (625sf); it’s a NY 1-bdrm. A good balance: I can hear the tenant’s steps above me, sometimes – a small dog’s barking across the hall, occasionally there are loud parties at the kids’ next door – but in 3 years I saw them all maybe 5 times, and talked to once. I have excellent business relationship with my super, my bathtub drain gets cleaned when it needs to, the flower beds at the entrance are neat and cheerful without me straining my back.Apartment is well-proportioned and laid out, fixtures are old but working fine, closets are well-organized. There is no clatter.
    Most importantly – I don’t have that ever-present nagging feeling of a homeowner, that I used to; a feeling that “something’s have to be done”. Call a plumber, buy extra tiles, polish stairs’ balusters, get an estimate for skylight, tell the neighbor to keep their 12 cats out of my yard, clean the basement closets, plant tulips for next year…It is never finished! You end up planning a visit to a museum 4 weeks in advance. You don’t stroll the streets on a weekend aimlessly anymore – there is always some chore looming. And the bills! Taxes, insurance, mortgage (and/or second mortgage, or construction loan)!
    Not for one person.

  6. CGHill »

    3 March 2009 · 7:57 am

    The bills are indeed steep. Insurance on one’s domicile is very pricey in this state, owing to the most perverse weather this side of Baffin Bay; I pay a smidgen under $900 a year, which is about triple what I was paying for renter’s insurance back in the day.

    Still, I did all the math, ran all the cost-benefit analyses, and for me, anyway, this works. It helps that (1) the house is in really good shape for its age, unlike its owner, and (2) it’s not so huge as to make the chores look like the cleaning of the Augean stables.

  7. Tatyana »

    3 March 2009 · 10:16 am

    It all comes down to tolerance to human closeness, I think.
    If the idea of constant, if subtle, interaction bothers you more than necessity to pay close to a 1K a year for an insurance and other charges – having a house becomes a good bargain.
    (And god forbid you have to actually file a claim…I did, once. My common-wall neighbor was ripping off his basement’ plumbing system and cased a flood to my newly-installed kitchen. Insurance “investigated”, for 6 months, then paid me all of $350 and after the term ended, canceled contract. I couldn’t find another insurance Co unless I paid almost twice to previous).
    Oh, I keep saying :”may be I should write series of posts A classic row house/strike/ money pit“…

  8. Bill Quick »

    3 March 2009 · 11:05 am

    What you people need to do is learn to live like Europeans!

  9. CGHill »

    3 March 2009 · 11:19 am

    “What you people need to do is learn to live like Europeans Europeons!”

    Fixed that for you.

  10. Tatyana »

    3 March 2009 · 12:11 pm

    Uh, another half-truthful article. Brits can’t conceive of 3-car garage because a) their country is 100 times smaller than this one and b) they have extensive, double-and-triplicated public transportation system.
    They already pay up their noses in taxes for maintaining that system. They have no vast prairies to drive their cars across. Etc, etc.

  11. ms7168 »

    4 March 2009 · 10:20 am

    My neighborhood has a number of homes the size of yours. Mine at 1400 sq. ft. is one of the larger ones on this block. The largest has 1550 sq. ft.
    Most of the others are in the 1100 sq. ft. to 1200 sq. ft. range.

    To those of you considering renting vs. buying the fair rental value on my house is $1,100 per month. My house payment including escrow is $800.

  12. Tatyana »

    4 March 2009 · 10:29 am

    ms7168: and what is your home insurance payment? And your monthly heat bill? Water/sewer ? Property taxes, rendered per month? Monthly maintenance, on average?

    All of these are included in the rent. Homeowners pay it separately.

  13. CGHill »

    4 March 2009 · 11:13 am

    Since this is on the table:

    Homeowners’ insurance: $72.
    Property taxes: $77.
    Water/sewer/refuse: $42.
    Natural gas: $60.
    Electricity: $70.

    (Gas and electric fluctuate with the weather; when one is up, the other is down. This is the 12-month average.)

    Renters here generally pay for all the utilities.

    I wouldn’t know where to get average maintenance figures: I know what mine are, and I have reason to believe they are a tad below average, but I don’t have enough data to prove it.

  14. Tatyana »

    4 March 2009 · 11:17 pm

    Chaz, if renters pay for all the utilities, don’t include them into the rent.
    So, assuming your numbers are similar to *ms7168’s (since you have similar size houses),
    *ms7168 monthly expense is:
    -house payment including escrow [I assume he talks about mortgage-T] is $800
    -Homeowners’ insurance: $72.
    Property taxes: $77.
    Water/sewer/refuse: $42.

    It’s already $990.
    Now, if you add the maintenance (landscaping, plumbing/electrical repairs,extermination services,cleaning of common areas, etc) it’ll easily be over $1100 a month. Add the pro-rated cost of major capital improvements (roof, plaster work, kitchen.bath upgrade, etc) – it’ll be much, much more.
    And the most important thing: as a homeowner,you have invested money in your house: downpayment plus all the equity that you already accrued over the time you live in your home. You spent money on it. A lot. Whereas a renter didn’t. His deposit is only for security purposes; it’s going to be returned when the lease is up.

    So – yeah, “To those of you considering renting vs. buying” – use your calculators.

  15. CGHill »

    5 March 2009 · 5:31 am

    As a rule, the homeowners’ insurance and property taxes are paid from the escrow account when a property is bought on a mortgage, so you’d be adding them in twice for this example. (My own P&I payment is $463.)

    To me, rents seem high here: it might cost $800 a month to rent a house comparable to mine. But this is a characteristic of this particular market: it might cost $1600 elsewhere to rent such a house, but buying it could be three, four times more expensive. (Another reason to keep the calculator handy.)

  16. Tatyana »

    5 March 2009 · 6:55 am

    Really? It was optional with my mortgage Co, so I declined escrow services and paid my obligations myself, from my bank account (where it had a chance to bring me some interest).

    Still, as I said in my previous – homeowner invested in the house, which renter never did. It only makes sense as a long-term (and with low house prices and rents in your State – only marginally, at that) in a seller’s real estate market. And that bubble burst some time ago.

  17. ms7168 »

    5 March 2009 · 7:12 am

    Tatyana . . Charles’ figures are very close to mine so we could go with that.

    Another very important consideration. My house payment is going into equity. Your rent payment is going into the gutter. Granted you have no maintenance responsibilities when you rent but mine have not been that bad.

    And possibly the most important consideration . . I presently owe a skosh over $54k on my mortgage. Even with falling values (which haven’t hit here yet) I am still way ahead of my valuation. Zillow is showing it just a hair over $100k.

  18. ms7168 »

    5 March 2009 · 7:13 am

    Oh and the $800. includes taxes and insurance.

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