We've moved!

Social Icons

twitterfacebooklinkedinrss feed

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Smaller Houses: Perfectly Sensible, Yet Neighbors and Cities Oppose

When money's tight, you downsize. Companies trim their staff and hours. Starbuckophiles buy fewer latt├ęs. Drivers buy fewer and smaller cars (quit dreaming, SUV dealers: $2/gallon gas won't last).

So wouldn't building smaller houses be perfectly logical? Homebuilders think so. If folks can't qualify for as big of a loan as they could have four years ago, you start taking nooks and sunrooms and third garage stalls off the blueprints. You start thinking that maybe 2000 or 1500 or even less square feet and a nice open basement is really all the space you need. You realize that a smaller house will take less time to clean, less energy to heat and cool, fewer light bulbs, less paint or wallpaper for renovations... holy cow! Why aren't we all buying small?

Because, your "neighbors" and your local government will tell you, we all want higher property values. We don't want your dinky little house dragging down the neighborhood or the property tax assessments. That's the "wrath" referred to in this Reuters report about the opposition some developers face as they scale back the size of houses they want to build to keep costs down and attract sensible buyers in a tough market:

Jackie Lopez, 37 and a mother of four, is angry. She and her neighbors are fighting a move by the largest U.S. builder, D.R. Horton Inc, to build smaller homes in their neighborhood in Vacaville, California, north of San Francisco.

"I've lived here in Vacaville since 1976 and we moved from a neighborhood that was a cookie-cutter neighborhood," Lopez said. "It wasn't a bad neighborhood. But you kind of move up that ladder" [Helen Chernikoff, "Homebuilders Shirnk American Dream, Spark Wrath," Reuters via Yahoo News, 2008.12.03].

Oh, the selfishness. "Move up that ladder," then yank it up so no one else can climb.

Perhaps some of my lake neighbors looked with disdain on the 1232-square-foot Madville Times World Headquarters that we built three years ago, even before the housing bubble burst. A bank, a builder, even my folks seemed to think we needed to build more house (or at least garage) than that. Our house is smaller than the average American home in the 1970s, not to mention this indulgent decade (average house size in 2004: 2,330 square feet).

We remind ourselves that our house is also double the worldwide median house size (657 square feet) and even beats by half the median house size for all industrialized countries (807 square feet—more stats in Shlomo Angel, Housing Policy Matters: A Global Analysis, Oxford Press, 2001, p. 261). We also remind ourselves that we don't need any more house than this!

Perhaps the push for bigger houses explains some of the "wrath" Randy Schaefer has experienced over his tax increment-financed residential development. The original figures he floated for the affordable working-class housing he envisions were $110K to $150K. To me, that still seems high (our affordable working class house cost $100K to build). But to the banks, neighbors, and City of Madison, that may still seem low. As one real estate consultant told Reuters, local governments "favor the bigger homes and fancier facades that attract upscale buyers and their tax revenue."

We are in the current recession because our entire economy is built on driving people to make irrational decisions and buy more than they need. People bought houses as commodities to resell, not as permanent, meaningful places to spend their lives. Banks looked at mortgages as saleable assets, not investments in neighbors and community. Local governments look at houses as tax generators, not safe, warm places for their citizens. From that perspective, small is bad, bigger is better, and foolish extravagance is your civic duty.

Neighbors, banks, governments, it's time to get real. Mortgages went toxic because people bought too much house. One of the most patriotic things homebuyers and homebuilders can do right now is build smaller houses. Cities should remove minimum sizes from their building codes. Banks should float those small loans. And good neighbors should bring a casserole to their new downsizing neighbors and say, "We love this cute little house! Small is beautiful!"


  1. Small homes can be stylish. No reason for them to be tract homes although many of the simple homes built in Madison after WWII have been updated and are quite livable by today's standards. Some of the big monsters will be dinosaurs unless a more efficient heating/cooling source like geothermal becomes cost effective. jh

  2. I too live in a small house, 3 bedrooms (now two and an office), one bath. Worked perfectly fine to raise kids in, still perfectly fine. Added a garage a few years ago when we could afford it.

    The trouble is that people feel the need to keep up with the Jones whether or not they can afford it, or feel that they deserve to start out on top intead of working their way up. They buy huge houses, have to fill them with lots more furniture and gadgets, pay higher utility costs, etc etc and then complain when they can't make the payments. It's time to grow up folks. Bigger isn't necessarily better. That concept is what got our nations, states, and individuals in financial troubles.

  3. Here's a little tidbit for you. I'm not sure if Madison's regulations have changed, but for quite some time, Madison had a minimum of 1000 square feet for new construction, which precluded anyone purchasing a 960 sf Governor's Home and moving it on to a new foundation within Madison's City Limits.

    Folks had to go through Planning Commission and a zoning variance to build a Governor's House in Madison. That may have changed, but your thoughts of, "Cities should remove minimum sizes from their building codes" should probably be modified to have minimum sizes reduced, but not removed. Neighborhoods need some continuity to protect property values. Don't need a 10 by 10-foot box built next to a 3-bedroom home.

  4. A 1000 square foot minimum would have precluded my little 940 sf gem in Vermillion. Fireplace, hardwood floors, knotty pine paneling and all. It's a heck of a lot faster and easier to keep clean, and repairs are cheaper, too. It's a perfect house for a small family, a couple, a single person (or mom, or dad) or retired folks who want to live close to in-town amenities.

    With a smaller house, I can afford to use really good materials when I make repairs, so long as I can get the area suppliers to understand that just because it's small, doesn't mean it should be shoddy. I always recommend Sarah Susanka's The Not So Big House to those who look at my house and disdainfully sniff "rental."

    Great post, Cory!

  5. I've seen Madison's 1000-foot minimum. Guess I'll never get to move my glorious 480-sq.ft. cabin to town. :-(

    Actually, Anon, I have no problem with seeing a 10x10 shack move into the neighborhood. If it meets all the other code requirements (plumbing, electrical, etc.), then it meets the basic needs of its owners and public safety. I still resist the notion that I have an obligation to build a bigger house than I want just because my neighbor (or the county commission) wants higher property values. Suggesting we need a minimum size for that reason hinders creativity and frugality and fuels the unhealthy "bigger is better" economy.

    Just where do we get this notion that the value of my house depends on the value of the house next door, or a half mile down the road?

  6. I wasn't aware of the 1000+ square foot requirement. That is a shame.

    I have no problem with HOAs requiring stuff like that because it's development by development, but I certainly don't like the city blocking all smaller developments. I don't really understand their reasoning either. I would expect most new construction to be in new developments and accordingly would not decrease the value of preexisting houses.


Comments are closed, as this portion of the Madville Times is in archive mode. You can join the discussion of current issues at MadvilleTimes.com.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.