Small Homes: Beautiful and Sustainable

Less is more with a little house

Though a majority of the homes on the market today seem to exhibit steroidal growth in size, many homeowners are moving in the opposite direction by purchasing smaller homes. Older, small homes are attractive for their character, but even new cottage-size homes of 1000 square feet are proving to be immensely popular. When you consider that more than 60% of American households comprise only one or two people, the movement to right-size housing is not surprising.

Small houses save energy.
Small houses save energy, time, and cash.

Reasons to buy small houses include lack of equity or real estate experience among first-time homeowners, folks downsizing once the kids are grown, and still others want to simplify their lifestyle. Many enjoy the on-going projects a little old house typically entails. Still others have found that by purchasing smaller homes, they are able to add upgrades that make their home a small jewel of energy efficiency and livability.

Since 1965, the size of the average U.S. home has increased by more than 35%. In 1965, the average home was about 1500 square feet. Today, it is more than 2200 square feet.

The average age of a U.S. home is now about 35 years with half of all housing stock built before 1970. That means many of us own historic homes from the 18th and 19th centuries, 20th century vintage bungalows, post-WWII minimal traditionals of the late 1940s and early 50s, or mid-century ranch styles from the 50s and 60s.

Unlike many newer buildings, older houses have character and charm imparted by both craftsmanship and materials. If they haven't been "improved" to death, you can find wide, detailed moldings, heavy doors with interesting brass hardware, solid wood cabinetry and floors, or vintage tile and plaster work. Of course, the downside is that they are not usually well insulated and windows typically need to be replaced because of the draftiness of single-panes. And all those cool architectural features may require restoration efforts to return them to their former glory, or replacement if they've gone missing.

Often smaller homes are more affordable than their newer counterparts. Given that the average median household income is less than $50K a year and the average household carries about $8000 in credit card debt, it appears that many among us are tempted to live a tad beyond our means. Small houses can offer an opportunity to add amenities without breaking the bank or taxing resources beyond what is practical or affordable.

Home maintenance can be substantially less expensive than a larger house. They require less energy to heat, fewer materials for repair, and improving an existing house creates a much smaller impact on the environment than building new.

There are exterior advantages, too. They may have more outdoor space because of the home's small footprint, mature plantings, and outbuildings such as detached garages or potting sheds that lend themselves to more than just storing a car or wheelbarrow.

Whether it's a little plain jane or an aging prom queen, small houses don't necessarily require more square footage to make them shine. Though current wisdom seems to demand adding extra room, unless it's broken down and plumb wore out, making a small house bigger is probably more 21st century marketing than actual need.

After all, how much space do you really need? Potential buyers are often more interested in thoughtfully designed kitchens and bathrooms than square footage.

Your home doesn't need to be big to be beautiful, functional, and comfortable. There's nothing like a well-cared for little house and a tidy yard to say "welcome home." Makes you feel kind of sorry for the folks in the McMansions, doesn't it?

Related Links

Inside Your Small House
Outside Your Small House


Ross Chapin Architects —Thoughtfully designed communities of small houses showcase elegant design and painstaking detail without compromising the community.

Tumbleweed Tiny Houses —Really little houses. So maybe they are REALLY small, but they are so cute. —Antique Home is posting catalogs and other resources for old homes. Many are really little houses but still functional. This is a brand new site, so expect to see more posted regularly as it grows.

Dwell magazine—Resources and ideas for living space design from around the world. Emphasis is on modern design style.

Natural Home & Garden magazine—Get ideas for how you can live a less encumbered life with a smaller ecological footprint.


Small is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered —Economics classic stresses the value of people in the economic equation. What a concept!

The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live by Sarah Susanka —Susanka has a series of three books, all beautiful, which emphasize homes that are human scale with lots of detail, texture, and style. Less is more.

Find a custom homebuilder at UpdateRenovate .

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