Not So Big Houses - Smaller and Better Ways to Live

Real Estate Agent with RE/MAX Destiny Real Estate Cambridge, MA

The Today Show had an intriguing segment this week about people opting for smaller houses.

After decades of the average American house growing ever larger, this year the size of the average American house shrunk by almost 300 square feet.

Not So Big House bookMatt Lauer's segment showed two families who chose smaller houses -  one family moved from a larger home to a significantly smaller house and another couple who designed their own modestly sized  house. They talked about the benefits of greater family togetherness, saving money on utilities and other housing costs, and more time to pursue things other than home upkeep.

The couple who designed their own small house stressed the emphasis on quality over size. The husband referred to their house as a "jewel box" - my favorite term for really wonderful small houses. 

Their comments led to a brief interview with architect Sarah Susanka, author of the Not So Big House books.  Susanka's books, which argue for smaller, well designed and beautifully crafted houses as an alternative to McMansions, have developed a large following. 

Susanka's got a franchise going - her books include:

  • The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live (1998)
  • Creating the Not So Big House: Insights and Ideas for the New American Home (2002)
  • Not So Big Solutions for Your Home (2002)
  • Inside the Not So Big House: Discovering the Details that Bring a Home to Life (2005)
  • Outside the Not So Big House: Creating the Landscape of Home (2006)
  • Not So Big Remodeling: Tailoring Your Home for the Way You Really Live (2009)

The segment ends with a short interview with Barbara Corcoran who, truth be told, just doesn't get it.  Corcoran's emphasis on open floor plans, great rooms, and 9' ceilings flies in the face of what Susanka's Not So Big House Movement is all about.  From The Not So Big House:

"More rooms, bigger spaces and vaulted ceilings do not necessarily give us what we need in a home..."

Corcoran needs to read the book.   



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  1. Judy Chapman 05/15/2009 10:52 AM
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Virginia Hepp - Mesquite NV REALTOR
ERA - Mesquite NV Homes For Sale - Mesquite, NV
Mesquite NV Homes and Neighborhoods - Search MLS

Great post, thanks.  I specialize in 55 plus and second homers.  It is fun to help them downsize, no more formal dining sets with hutches, get a small vacuum, etc.  So many are moving here from cold climates and laugh when I tell them you don't need a coat closet here, just a hoodie shelf.

May 15, 2009 06:47 PM #22
Ed Vogt
Midwest Properties of Michigan - Grandville, MI
Grandville, MI Midwest Properties

I've read a couple of her books before and find them very interesting.  She has a lot of good ideas.

May 16, 2009 01:46 AM #23
Elizabeth Bolton
RE/MAX Destiny Real Estate Cambridge, MA - Cambridge, MA
Cambridge MA Realtor

Hi Connie ~ That's really great to hear.  Funny - one of the places I was quite happy in was a bedroom in a shared house I lived in for a few years during graduate school. I had it filled with everything I needed - books, desk, stereo, etc.  Loved it! I'm a collector though and am not at the point where I would give up my stuff for a smaller house - now that I finally have all my stuff in one place. But I know aside from that I would be very happy in a snug little house.

Hi Virginia ~ I think you get to a point where it feels really good to shed a lot of the stuff - my parents are in that mode.  And to not have to stow all that bulky winter wear - sweet!

Hi Lola & Ed  ~ She's really onto something. I'm looking forward to picking up her newest book since it will be great to get some ideas for transforming existing houses.


May 16, 2009 03:21 AM #24
Tim Bradley
Contour Investment Properties - Jackson Hole, WY
Commercial Real Estate Expert in Jackson Hole, WY

I'm a big fan of the not-so-big house. So many of us overspend, overaccumulate, and fail to save. It's about more than the house - its a lifestyle choice, and a much more sustainable one for us and individuals and for the planet.

May 16, 2009 03:31 AM #25
Lyn Sims
RE/MAX Suburban - Schaumburg, IL
Schaumburg IL Area Real Estate

I think throw out 1/2 of what you have is probably a good idea. Ordinarily I think Barbara Corcoran is a realtor that's been abducted by aliens - she's just not with the average Realtor or buyer.  Actually she said pretty much what the trend is, even if Sarah Susanka doesn't believe it.  I am really thinking that I spend too much time cleaning and maintaining a home that I don't spend enough time in.  How much space does a kid really need?  In the 50-60's you and your sister were in a 10x10 BR and we are all here (survived?) to talk about it.  Do you need a luxury BA 20x16 feet with a diving board?  But if you need that bathroom to get away from your husband and kids - that's really nothing to do with the house is it?

May 16, 2009 05:18 AM #26
Margaret Mitchell
Coldwell Banker Yorke Realty - York, ME
Seacoast Maine & NH Real Estate

I have read a couple of Susanka's books and I am a big fan.  I think this is the wave of the future.

May 16, 2009 06:01 AM #27
Elizabeth Bolton
RE/MAX Destiny Real Estate Cambridge, MA - Cambridge, MA
Cambridge MA Realtor

Hi Tim ~ So true. Our appetites have grown so large - I hope there is really a return to a saner, simpler, smarter lifestyle.

Hi Lyn ~ Oh I imagine you're right - but "throwaway" is like waving a red flag to a collector.  And I agree - Corcoran was talking about things that still are on many buyers' lists - but maybe that will change. Hope so!  I usually find myself wishing the Today show would get a new real estate expert every time I see Corcoran.

Hi Margaret - I'm thinking that perhaps one side effect of the economic retrenchment will be a turning towards smaller houses since, as others have pointed out, not only might the house be less expensive to begin with it is also less expensive to maintain.


May 16, 2009 06:35 AM #28
Carrie Sampron
Home Smart Realty Group - Highlands Ranch, CO
ABR SFR & Kathy Sampron (303) 931-3629 Highlands R

Elizabeth:  I wish the home builders in our area would read these books.  We would love to have a community with smaller more affordable homes to take our buyers to.  Instead, one builder in particular, has several communities with homes ranging from 3000 to 4000 square feet.  Who needs that much space!

May 16, 2009 08:34 AM #29
Holly Weatherwax
Associate Broker, Momentum Realty - Reston, VA
A Great Real Estate Experience

I love her books. I will be the first to admit that I don't live in a small home, but her ideas are universal--and kind of make you long for a small cottage!

May 16, 2009 10:05 AM #30
Dana Wilkinson
Connect Realty, The Woodlands, TX - The Woodlands, TX
Broker-Your TX agent for The Woodlands-Spring-Conr

I love small homes, and the cottage look.  In my market, there are some huge properties and only two people are living in them...a mystery to me.  I will check out the books, as there is always more to learn and to get ideas to maximize the space.

May 16, 2009 11:17 AM #31
Karen Ingersoll
Advantage Realty Professionals - Phoenix, AZ

Hi Elizabeth:  Loved this post!  I'm going to have to check out some of these books.  We purged what felt like an entire houseful of "stuff" when we made the move from Phx to Northern Ariz.. and yet, we still find things to get rid of.  In fact, if we had it to do all over again, we would have built much smaller.  But still, no mtg, and no utility bills... can't complain about that!

May 16, 2009 11:25 AM #32
Elizabeth Bolton
RE/MAX Destiny Real Estate Cambridge, MA - Cambridge, MA
Cambridge MA Realtor

Hi Carrie & Kathy - It does come down to the cost of land and zoning - at least around here where land costs an arm and a leg since there isn't much of it.  Hopefully municipalities will catch the small house bug.

Hi Holly ~ Charm is my number one criteria for a house - and that usually - not always - means a smaller house.

Hi Dana - You're in for a treat - enjoy the books.

Hi Karen ~ No mortgage is my dream. Years and years ago people would put an ivory button in their newel post to signify that the house loan was paid off - I can't wait to get my button.


May 16, 2009 03:26 PM #33
Mike McCann - Nebraska Farm Land Broker
Mike McCann - Broker, Farmland Broker-Auctioneer Serving Rural Nebraska - Kearney, NE
Farm Land For Sale 308-627-3700 or 800-241-3940


I do agree with a lot of what you say...however, curently there are 5-14 year old girls sleeping in our family room downstairs that were up very late.  At least today, I am thankful we had the big 'ol family room where my wife and I did not have to hear them after we went to bed.  Most of the time it has one person in it and is a waste.

Although I am not a Corcoran fan at all as I think she says what the media wants to hear and forgets to mention that all real estate is localized and it is hard to generalize her area to your area to my area, etc.; I do agree that in my area the great room is very popular. We have had the great room in our last 2 houses we built and have always received favorable comments and it is where we spend the vast amount of time...thus the reason for a lack of use of the lower level (read...basement) family room.



May 17, 2009 02:06 AM #34
Katharine Carey
eXp Realty - Bellingham, WA


Thank you for sharing, it is always nice to see and hear other perspectives. Educating yourself in different trends is fantastic and I look forward to checking out this information.


May 17, 2009 03:47 AM #35
Gene Riemenschneider
Home Point Real Estate - Brentwood, CA
Turning Houses into Homes

I will buck the trend and say that long run houses will get bigger.  Families will grow and more people will opt for extended family living.  Telecommuting will call for bigger homes, so people can have a separate place to work.  Currently we are in "Green Trend" which I think will come to a crashing end in 10-15 years.  Nothing wrong with environmentalism and living within our means, but some people have gone over board. 

May 17, 2009 01:55 PM #36
Karen Crowson
Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage - Rancho Bernardo, CA
Your Agent for Change

It is certainly a trend that's on the rise, which is perhaps why the larger, more expensive homes in our market have an abundant inventory.  I hear more and more people say that they want to downsize, and a few who are in larger homes, who say they wish they'd never bought the overly large home. 

I'd never heard that about the ivory button.  I want one too!

May 18, 2009 07:57 AM #37
Mike Henderson
Your complete source for buying HUD homes - Littleton, CO
HUD Home Hub - 303-949-5848

Interesting comments.  I've looked at that book before I even became an agent.  Very interesting.  I'll take a contrary stance.  I hope to make a ton of money in this industry and have a big house.

May 19, 2009 06:16 PM #38
Elizabeth Bolton
RE/MAX Destiny Real Estate Cambridge, MA - Cambridge, MA
Cambridge MA Realtor

Hi Mike ~ You mean that mildewy pine paneled play room in the basement won't pass muster? I have hilarious photos from parties my parents attended in the late 1960s in those playrooms - beehive hairdos and all.

Hi Katherine - there are so many great books out there that do really enlarge our perspective about housing options, architecture, trends, etc. 

Hi Gene - You have to wonder.  I'm still betting on smaller since I think energy costs will be of more and more concern.  It will be interesting to see how things change - or don't. 

Hi Karen - Don't you love the idea of the ivory button?  Another really neat thing I saw was a leaded glass insert in a house's front door.  The house had only two owners in 80 years or so.  Originally the first owners had two leaded glass inserts with their initials on the front doors.  In the 1970s when the second owners paid off their mortgage the kids had new inserts created with their family's initial.  Those were installed in the doors and the earlier ones were framed and hung in the vestibule.  It was a really nice idea I thought.

Hi Mike - Ha!  Go for it!!



May 20, 2009 04:56 AM #39
Kelsey Barklow
Evans & Evans Real Estate - Johnson City, TN
423/948-9154, Marne Drinnon 423/202-2277

I have been noticing this trend over the past few years. It makes a lot of sense for a lot of people for a variety of reasons. I have downsized recently but my family and I find ourselves almost on top of one another so it's not a good thing for us right now. But I do see the benefits. Thanks for this post.

May 25, 2009 08:18 AM #40
Elizabeth Bolton
RE/MAX Destiny Real Estate Cambridge, MA - Cambridge, MA
Cambridge MA Realtor

Hi Kelsey ~ My parents decided to move from their first house, a Cape, when my mother could hear my brother crayoning in his room upstairs - talk about cozy!


May 25, 2009 02:24 PM #41
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