How much living space do you need?

After watching the YouTube video of Gary Chang’s 344-square-foot apartment, writing about Japan’s hotel “capsule” housing and reading WSJ.com’s blog post “The Optimal Amount of Living Space,” I’ve been wondering: “How much dwelling space do humans require to be happy and safe?”

Since safety and happiness are major concerns in U.S. prisons (“happiness” in the sense of keeping rioting, violence, and suicide rates at a minimum), I expected minimum square footage per inmate mandates to exist. Turns out, the federal government does not define how many square feet a prisoner is required to have for conditions to be considered something better than “cruel or unusual.” As a result, inmates are given anywhere between 35 square feet (common when two prisoners share a 70 square foot cell) to 100 square feet (quite uncommon, but more likely to be found in solitary-confinement situations where prisoners never leave their cells). And, research about the penal system shows that rates of riots, violence, and suicide don’t appear to be directly correlated to cell size (much like job satisfaction isn’t based on office size).

The amount of space humans need to be happy and safe, therefore, is quite minimal (based on how it’s configured, it could be difficult for most people to even lie down in 35 square feet). So the question isn’t really one of need, but one of want.

Many factors go into answering the question: “How much space do I want to be happy and safe?” Location of property, floor plan, cultural norms, rent/mortgage, amenities, storage, air quality, and aesthetics are all considerations that weigh into an individual’s want response.

Have you ever stopped to consider how much space you want? What factors are guiding your answer? Are you letting your stuff dictate your response? I’m eager to read your thoughts on this issue in the comments.

59 Comments for “How much living space do you need?”

  1. posted by Amanda on

    Interesting look at space necessary to feel happy and safe. While you mentioned penal system research did not directly correlate cell size to safety and happiness, I wonder if anything else could be correlated directly to these factors of safety and happiness. While riots are unlikely in one’s home, perhaps take aways from penal research could alleviate tension in one’s household.

  2. posted by Liza on

    Personally, I care less about the amount of space I have and more about how it looks. If I had something really small, but very well put together I would be just as happy as I would with something larger. Small is cozy to me!

  3. posted by Mike on

    My wife and I are purchasing a home right now and one of our desires was that it would be large enough for our family (4 and a small dog), but not too big. We settled on just over 1,400sf. Honestly, if I were building a new home, and could get the plan approved (both from my family and through building codes), I’d prefer a smaller dwelling properly configured. Weighing the availability of current homes (ours was built in 1915), the desire to live closer to a minimum, rather than a maximum lifestyle, and have a home that we could grow together in, this was the right choice for us. We are committing to reducing stuff to enjoy what we do have and be free to share our abundance with others.

  4. posted by Rosa on

    Inmates aren’t actually only using 35 square feet apiece, though; there are common rooms, kitchens, showers, etc.

    People I know who live in very small spaces actually spend most of their time elsewhere; at work, at restaurants, outdoors in rural areas, at parks. More and more I think that’s healthier – less private space and more shared space. But it depends on other people valuing the shared space as well, to keep it accessible and usable.

    My partner and I have what I consider a larger-than-optimal house (most of the houses in the neighborhood we like were built between 1880-1920, so they are fairly large but have little storage space.) But the office we share, which is 8×10, is actually smaller than the combination of cubes in our old away-from-home offices. So if we went to a smaller house and worked downtown again, we’d be using the same amount of space.

  5. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Amanda — Factors such as the administration philosophy, population size (27 inmates vs. 1,000 inmates), noise level (the quieter the prison, often the “happier” a prison), work opportunities, prisoner personalities, etc. all figured into rates of violence and suicide. Reading many of the studies, I felt like I was reading about corporate identity research (management philosophy, employee numbers, corporate culture, growth and creativity opportunities, etc.).

  6. posted by Maureen on

    I think I tend to feel claustrophobic in small spaces. If my living space were small I would need to make it appear larger using more compact furniture, large windows. I don’t think I could stay sane in a submarine!

    I link a lot depends on the population density. When it gets too crowded aggression increases.

  7. posted by Don on

    Erin,

    This is just a general response but I wanted to say thank you for this website and your thought provoking posts. I never really thought about all of the stuff that I gathered over the years except that it frustrates me about the amount I have. Reading over your posts has given me some clarity and made me dig down deep into what I need to be asking myself and then in turn, what I need to do with the answers. Most people may not actually think twice about clutter but as you have shown in your posts, it goes way deeper than most think.

    Thanks again Erin and I look forward to reading your posts in the future. Keep up the great work!!!

    Cheers

  8. posted by sg on

    I’m not clear how prison cell sizes inform us on the amount of space needed to feel happy and safe. It’s not like the prisoners have any say in the size of their cells; and I don’t think most prisoners feel happy or safe.

    It’s an interesting question, I just don’t see how this example gets us closer to an answer.

  9. posted by Julia on

    As a mental exercise years ago, I imagined that some kind of disaster had hit my city, that I had one of the few remaining houses standing, and that I needed to shelter as many people as I could – not comfortably, necessarily, but in pallets on the floor with enough room to roll over, walk through the rooms, and reach the kitchen and bathrooms.

    I was stunned to realize I could shelter something like 35 people in the house I lived in by myself.

    Something about that exercise profoundly changed the way I view “need” and “want.” My new apartment is still much larger than I need, and I would will eventually downsize further.

    For those of us in the developed world, even small is…not all that small. (I’ve been working towards downsizing ever since, slowly, not painfully.)

  10. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @sg — Back in the ’80s and ’90s, quality of living in prisons was under much debate as the prison overcrowding issue hit front-page news. (The 1981 Supreme Court decision Rhodes v. Chapman heralding and fueling much of the discussion.) These debates asked the fundamental question of how much space does a person need to live “humanely.” (At that time, more than 2/3 of the prison population had less than 60 sq ft of cell space.) Prisoners do not have much personal property (a book of faith, a few pictures), so storing stuff isn’t factored into the research data. In short, the conclusions were that people, unencumbered by possessions, don’t need a great deal of personal space to live under humane conditions.

    All other evaluations — including studies about homeless shelters — factor in personal possessions (many homeless people still have stuff that they bring with them into shelters). So, to determine how much space a person needs to live humanely (“happily” and safely), the prison research is the best place to go to find the answer.

  11. posted by ael on

    My husband and I are both introverts who work at least part of the week from home, and I expect that any child we have will also be an introvert. By looking at floorplans and seeing a lot of different sized spaces, I decided that we needed about 500 square feet per person to be truly happy. That gives enough room for everyone to be isolated from everyone else, while still having plenty of room for entertaining and gathering as a family. Spacious by historic standards, but slightly on the small side by modern American ones. We do also have a fairly large amount of stuff, mostly due to my crafts.

    We ended up buying an old Victorian duplex, and our unit, the top of the house, is about 1200 square feet. It’s a little bit smaller than the plan when there are three of us, but after we do some renovations to finish out the basement gym and create a craft room in the garage (both of which we’ll be sharing with my mom in the downstairs unit), and maybe even create a writer’s garret in the attic, it will probably be too much space until there’s a teenager underfoot.

    I’m not happy living the minimalist lifestyle, so this is the amount of room I need to be comfortable and not feel cramped or crowded.

  12. posted by SMK on

    It seems the more space I have to work with, the less pressure I feel to edit my belongings and de-clutter.

    I’ve long been fascinated to see how people live in small spaces. The thought of paring down for a more simplified and efficient life in order to live in such a space is very appealing to me. I can’t imagine my family living in 400 sq ft, but also can’t fathom us rolling around in 2500 Sq ft. I think a well-planned 1400-1600 sq ft space sounds just about perfect for a family of 3-4.

  13. posted by Anita on

    For now, I’m perfectly happy in my ~400 sq ft bachelor appartment. It’s a good balance between having enough space to feel comfortable, and being willing and able to keep it all clean.

  14. posted by Susan in FL on

    When we were a family of four, we lived in a 1600 square foot house (add 2 car garage space) on less than half an acre within city limits. Now that we are two retirees, we live in 1200 square feet (add a large outbuilding space) on about forty acres an hour away from town. We don’t need 1200 square feet except when the kids and grand kids come to visit and 1200 is tight then. We need the outbuilding for farm equipment, etc. We could get by with much less if we lived in town which we probably will as we further age and need help. The largest house we ever lived in was 2300 square feet (add garage space) which was too much.

  15. posted by Rue on

    I don’t know what the “optimum” space I would need is, but I know that for my husband and I it’s more than 396 square feet! We lived in an apartment that was that size for two months together and I HATED it. Never felt like I had enough space to stretch out and do anything, couldn’t be by myself unless I went to the tiny tiny bathroom or to the bedroom alone.

    We now have a house that is just under 1400 square feet (complete with two small dogs and two parakeets) and I feel like it’s a good size for us. Not so large that we’re getting lost in it, but not so small that we’re always up against each other. We could probably downsize a couple hundred square feet because we have an extra bedroom that we don’t use (with the exception of the closet) but I think this home will suit us just fine until we get up to two kids.

  16. posted by Rae on

    I live in a 31′ RV that gives me just under 135 square feet total of living space if I include the loft, cockpit, and exterior storage compartments. I know I could live in a 28′ or 26′ model with a similar layout (120 to 95 square feet) and do okay, but this size seems optimal to me. My home is bright, spacious, and reasonably uncluttered. I used to go bigger and bigger with my previous homes until I reached 1,000 square feet and realised that I needed to go smaller, way smaller. I love this home; it’s filled, not stuffed, with things I love and has room for everything that I need and want to be happy but there’s no room for excess baggage.

  17. posted by Dave on

    Try living on a boat, I have a 35′ sailboat I can live very comfortalby on, the whole boat is 35’X10′ in a boat shape so real space inside is 9’X18, and is designed for 5 people. This will be my retirement home.
    I have friends that live on a 25 footer 2 people and a dog.
    I also have a 950SF 3BR house, 2 guest rooms and more than enough room for 2, have had us 2, her older daughter and husband and their 3 kids, and her younger daughter living there, and 2 indoor cats

  18. posted by Louise on

    Our home is 300 square feet and after living in it for over 5 years, we feel it is really larger than we need. And no, since we are retired, we don’t spend most of our time someplace else.

    In order to move into this RV home, we got rid of a huge amount of stuff. Once it was gone, we both had such a sense of relief that we make a real effort to keep stuff from creeping back into our lives.

    We are safe and happy and free!

  19. posted by Kathryn Fenner on

    I really wanted the house we now live in to be as small as possible. Unfortunately, in my city, very small houses are in very noisy neighborhoods (mostly of renters, for one). Same with apartments that aren’t for seniors.Condos are just starting to be built in the central area, and they are usually very large, fancy and expensive. I need peace and quiet, but I wanted to live centrally. It is hard to find that here in Columbia, SC in less than about 2,000 square feet–which is about the size of our house. It has one bedroom, and two offices (formerly bedrooms), one for my professor husband, and one for work-at-home me. The first floor is a large kitchen/dining area and a large living area. We have two large dogs and are not small ourselves. It has lots of windows–we’ve even added some, and I furnish it fairly sparsely. We are on a very small lot. It all works well if I keep it uncluttered.

    When I go back to the house I grew up in, in a small town, at 1400 square feet, but on a half acre, for two adults and, at the time two kids, it feels okay, if over-furnished by my elderly parents. I could live there comfortably, too.

  20. posted by Glen on

    I recently designed and built a new home. My goal was “low maintenance” and “not bigger than I needed”. I was moving from a 2400sqft colonial. I spend a year on the design. I first designed a 1600sqft home. Then repeated the process for 1200 sqft. I finally did 1000 sqft. In the last design, I hit the limits of conventional bedroom furniture (aka a queen sized bed, side table, and a stack of dresser drawers for two people). I then upsized the design just enough to make everything fit and ended up at just under 1100 sqft. Another challenge was that one person works nearly 100% from a home office and that needed to be dedicated space. The thing that made it work was (1) to throw out all the conventional rules of space. For example, the dining space is tucketed up close to the kitchen but can “sprawl” into the living space if needed and the bathroom is built using European “wetroom” concepts. The (2) thing that makes this work is to forgo conventional furniture where possible and needed and go with custom built-ins. This maximized spaces in both the kitchen and the home office.

    It’s important to note that a smaller home does not necessarily mean a less expensive one. To get a fully functional kitchen that a “cook” loves, meant more custom cabinets to make use of every inch. The same goes for the home office which needs to look like an office 99% of the time and yet still accommodate guests for a weekend visit.

  21. posted by Jay on

    Floor space is not the only criteria.

    Some people would rather have a small single family home with a yard than a large condo or townhouse. They do not want to share walls, a floor, or a ceiling with a neighbor.

    Also, vertical space matters. 9-foot ceilings (instead of the typical 8 feet) make a house feel roomier.

  22. posted by chacha1 on

    DH and I presently have a midcentury apartment with nearly 1500 square feet, counting our private patio. It’s too much space; we don’t use the second bedroom for much besides storage, nominally as a home office, and very occasionally as a guest room.

    We *do* use our two bathrooms (hallelujah for those), our dining room, obviously our kitchen (which has tons of storage) and our “living room” – which in our case has bookcases but is otherwise empty because it’s our dance practice space! Mostly we live in our den. The den/LR/DR are all one open space arranged on a diagonal axis, which I like a lot.

    I’m hoping to find a “retirement” residence of around 1000 square feet. I really love having two bathrooms, and you don’t often find two in less square footage.
    :-) If it were me alone, about half the space would do fine.

  23. Profile photo of

    posted by Bobbi on

    How much space we need should take into consideration our life circumstances and vocations. An auto mechanic needs more space for work and tools than a computer programmer. A person who LOVES cooking needs more space for work and tools than those of us who cook more simply. A college student in a dorm room needs less space than a married couple with two children and pets. etc.

    We probably jump too quickly to thinking more is better. Then Murphy’s Law goes into effect – The amount of stuff we have increases to fill the amount of space we have (or more). I’m glad more people are mindfully deciding on how much they need. We all need to ask “How much is enough?” more often.

  24. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Jay — I agree with you about ceiling height. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any data about it in the research I reviewed. We need to find a criminal justice major out there who could research and write his/her thesis on the matter for us :)

  25. posted by Deb J on

    Right now my 82 year old mother and I live together in 1248 sq feet. I could do with less. She would like more. Grin. I need much less than she does in everything. I prefer bright, airy and small. I love the idea of everything built in. When you consider that she and Dad had 3600 sq feet when he died and she started living with me I guess I sould be happy we are down to 1248.

  26. posted by Shalin on

    Now that you mention it, I wonder about any correlation or causation between living space allotted to inmates and the arguments that the whole penal system is an outdated technology…

    In other news, I saw this story about a woman who converted a garage on a property to her house and was going to rent out the main house. It’s really got me thinkin’ about yet another project for my house… ;)
    http://toolmonger.com/2010/04/.....iny-house/

    –S

  27. posted by Angela on

    I think the point about ceiling height is a good one; number of windows and amount of light are also important. We moved from a 900 square foot apartment in New York to a 3500 square foot house in West Virginia on a half-acre wooded lot. We’re a LOT happier now. We don’t use all the space, but that’s okay. We have two young boys and I am sure at some point we will utilize all the space we have.

  28. posted by Lisa on

    I bought my 2000 sq ft as a (major) fixer upper 12 years ago, when I thought I was getting married and had plans for a family. Now 12 years later, still single, no kids and I own a 4BR, 2.5 bath. I am self-employed, so some of that extra space is dedicated work space. I also freely open my guest bedroom to anyone who needs to visit, take a vacation or separate from their spouse/SO for a while, so that makes me feel good.

    Still, I have 2 rooms that I seldom use and a basement that I am slowly purging of inherited crap. My remodeling has been methodical, practical and cost-effective with a couple splurges. This house is entirely mine and I love it. And I’m still showing a fair profit on the house, even with the current real estate market.

    I am the first to say that my house is too big for me, but I cannot say that it was the wrong decision. I bought it knowing that I could afford it 100% and by conservative earnings estimates, even without the disappearing fiancee. Me and my family are experienced DIYers to a scary degree, which I love. And most of all, I really love that my friend escaped an abusive husband and stayed with me for 6 months, and unemployed friends had a place to stay for free, and friends hit with sudden divorce papers, and a friend from overseas came here to stay with me and found a good job, etc.

    There’s a lot to be said for that kind of thing.

  29. posted by Susan in FL on

    @Chacha1 – Two retired adults NEED two bathrooms. We use both of ours as well, day and night. AND we need a king-size bed, so our bedrooms are large. The guest room has a king size bed also, just in case one of us gets sick and we need to sleep in separate bedrooms for a while. And we’ve got lots of windows – big windows.

  30. posted by ms. brooklyn on

    When I “moved up” from broke-@ss graduate student to gainfully employed professional, I saw upgrading from a studio to a one-bedroom apartment as a step into true adulthood.

    After spending two years cleaning that thing, though, I’m now looking at studios again. It feels like I spend half my life cleaning, which I know I didn’t do when I had one room.

  31. posted by Jess on

    I just moved into an 1100 sq. ft., 3 bedroom flat and it feels palatial– it’s the largest apartment I’ve lived in since going off to college 15 years ago. My husband works from home full time and I work from home some of the time (I have an office outside the home, too), so one room is a fully utilized home office. We have one son and are trying for another baby, who will share our son’s room. Living and dining area are a combined open space, kitchen is used a ton. Basically, every area of the house is used a lot, but nothing feels cramped so I am perfectly happy with this amount of space. In my “dream house” I would have a guest room, but it’s clearly not a must.

  32. posted by Sky on

    Thanks for the interesting post and follow up comments. For clues about optimal home size, look at a city like Buffalo, NY that thrived during the first half of the twentieth century, before the post-war era gave way to suburbs and big houses.

    In residential neighborhoods throughout the city, block after block of comfortable 1,350 – 1,400 square-foot, 3 and 4 bedroom homes were built to serve the needs of generations of families. For decades, 350 sqft per person for a family of four was an acceptable norm.

    One strategy is to avoid building for what-ifs? What if friends come to visit? Do I really need a guest room that sits idle 50 weeks of the year? Or should I live in a smaller dwelling, bank the money and put my friends up in a nice hotel for a fraction of the cost? This may not work for everyone, but like Mike said it’s one way to “live closer to a minimum, rather than a maximum lifestyle.”

  33. posted by Mara on

    My husband and I have lived in several places in the 700-900 sqft range. As most of the previous posters said, many other things besides square footage make a space liveable, or not. The things that matter most (to me, at least):

    Layout. The way a space is organized is everything. Our current home is larger than our last, but less liveable. It was built ~90 years ago but was added onto, then hacked into apartments. The layout is very poor, and a lot of the space is barely usable. Our last place was a newly built apartment, with a very compact, logical, and clever layout. Even though it was smaller, with no wasted space it seemed bigger.

    Lighting. Large, south-facing or east-facing windows; windows on more than one wall (i.e. bringing light in from two directions) make such a difference.

    Connection with outdoors. A good front door leading onto a covered porch or stoop, plus sliding or french doors (or at least a second, back- or kitchen- door) leading to the backyard, deck or balcony make a small place large, and without them, a large place just seems claustrophobic.

    Outdoor space. One previous commentor said that a lot of people would prefer a small place on a big lot, than a large apartment or condo. Rather cynically this was attributed to not wanting to share walls. Aside from wall-sharage, many people like to garden or even just hang out outside. I love having a big vegetable garden and keeping chickens, not something one can do in a condo regardless of size.

    Storage. Our home has crappy storage. We’ve no place for bulky stuff like camping equipment, no pantry for food storage, tiny bedroom closets, etc. Our smaller, previous apartment had big closets, a pantry, and a little storage alcove in the garage where we could keep the camping gear, my husband’s woodworking equipment, all that stuff.

  34. posted by Mara on

    Oy following up b/c I realized I never answered the question. I think we could be really happy in about 1000 square feet (maybe even 900) for the three of us IF all of those other criteria were met.

  35. posted by Toast on

    I’d like to revisit the boat example brought up by Dave. My family and I lived for nearly 4 yrs on a 38′ catamaran (2 adults, 3 children) in spacious luxury relative to our many cruising friends with considerably smaller monohulls. Liveaboards and cruisers by definition live in “homes” of less than 500sqft. Much of what it takes to live in these smaller spaces is to change expectations, particularly with respect to privacy and dedicated personal space. And while I can not imagine moving my walls around as displayed in the Hong Kong apartment, I think nothing of storing most of my personal gear underneath the ‘living room’ cushions. One advantage to living in such small spaces, however, is that you are forced to minimize and prioritize. You are also forced to look outside yourself, your home, and your family for a sense of openness. When you live on a boat, you have a very tiny home with the largest backyard in the world.

  36. posted by Awurrlu on

    What was supposed to be a six-month stint living in a space under 300 square feet turned into six years. After living in a place over twice the size (although of similar vintage and amenities) for four years, I’ve found that windows are absolutely key.

    The difference? In my old place, there was a great big window right over the space for the kitchen table. In my new place, there’s a huge wall between the windows, and moving the table isn’t an option due to the kitchen layout. I can’t enjoy my meals AND a view at the same time!

  37. posted by Annette on

    I need about 900 square feet if it is to be divided into rooms of any kind. We built a 24 X 24 foot cabin which was one large room and 576 square feet. Since we put the bed in one corner, the living room in another corner, the kitchen in another corner with the dining table in the center, it seemed as if we had a 24 by 24 foot bedroom, a 24 by 24 foot living room, a 24 by 24 foot kitchen, and a 24 by 24 foot dining room. We planned to add on a wing with two bedroom separated by a bath but never got to it before we sold the cabin. As we look for a home now, we are more and more convinced that our original plan was the best one for us.

  38. Profile photo of

    posted by Amy on

    All I need is 972 sq ft and .40 acres intown to be happy.

    My little house was built in 1945, and was average size for that decade. Since 1970, the average size for an American home has increased by 140%, while the average size family has decreased from 3 children to 2, or less.

    I used to think I needed a minumum of 2400 sq ft to be happy, and have enough room for the family.

    Children grow up and move into their own homes, spouses run away and join the circus, and then it’s time to downsize.

    I love living here. It’s easy to manage and inexpensive to heat and cool.

    I just have to keep respecting the amount of space and keep clutter at bay. Like anything else, it gets easier with practice.

  39. posted by Anca on

    Like Mara said, the usability of the space matters; instead of sq footage, we need a new term: effective sq footage. I’ve seen apartment layouts with long hallways or a large empty space right in front of the entrance; that’s space no one can use. My bf and I moved from a spacious (high ceilings too) 900+ sqft apt into a 800+ one. It’s still too big; we have a large den we don’t use (no windows – I don’t want to miss any of the rare Seattle sunshine).

  40. posted by Alex Fayle ¡ Someday Syndrome on

    My partner and I share 250sq ft and we’re very happy there. It’s a rental so some things aren’t as we like them (the kitchen space is less than ideal) but for pure space we’re doing fine.

  41. posted by Lisbeth on

    As others have commented size is not the only parameter but more importantly the layout of the available space. I dislike living in apartment/houses where I don’t use every room all the time (a big storage basement/garage would give me the chills) and where we currently live (around 650 sqft.) we hardly ever use the living room since we have a lovely kitchen. Therefore we could (and have been previously)go smaller. However, smaller apartments tend to have small kitchens (kitchenettes?) so it would require that kitchen space had been prioritised over seperating the remaining space into a living room and a bed room.
    Another issue is that balconies add an extra room in the summer time so this feature would also add to the spatial feel of a small apartment.

    Finally, one’s preferred style of furniture also plays a role. Big bulky couches and large TV etc. require bigger rooms than if you like the more simple, Nordic style.

  42. posted by Adventure-Some Matthew on

    My wife and I currently live in a 700 sq ft apartment. With the patio and storage room on the patio, it’s more than enough room for us. Sure, we’d like to have a second bathroom, and I would love to have a studio to work in, but we’ve been quite happy for a year now.

    Future plans: full-time RV living. Amount of space isn’t the issue, it’s how well it’s laid out.

  43. posted by Laurie on

    My husband and I have lived fairly happily in a Cape Cod of over a little over 1,000 sq. ft. for over ten years now. We would both love more space, mostly because we both have hobbies that require a lot of “stuff” – we are both musicians (each play and own several instruments), and I am an avid needlecrafter. Much of our living space is quite functional (our kitchen and bedroom are HUGE!), but we need just a bit more, such a a finished basement, to provide dedicated space to our hobbies (no more guitars lurking under the bed…). Thus, we are looking for another home, maybe 1,200 sq. ft. or with a finished basement. We know we don’t need a lot more…just a little…

  44. posted by Susan on

    My husband and I moved to a 1200 sq.ft. condo in San Francisco about 3 years ago. We had previously lived a classic suburban life gradually moving into larger and larger homes. Why did we move? We wanted to be closer to our son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. We thought we would be compromising and kept our home (rented) for almost two years anticipating we would ultimately give in and move back. Well that did not happen and we sold our suburban home last year.

    We had to downsize considerably, but that process while hidious to contemplate was, in actuality, exhilerating and liberating. We had to pare down our belongings to those we truly and sincerely loved/wanted/needed. It made us really think about what we keep and why.

    We also became quite a bit “greener” in the process. We realized the size of our eco footprint and the amount of “stuff” we consumed for no real good reason other than we had the space and could afford it (at the time). Now I take the bus, recycle and compost 90% of our waste. Plus I don’t have room for discretionary “stuff” so I don’t accumulate any longer.

    But the really and truly best outcome has been all the time we spend with our granddaughter now that we are a brief 20 minute walk away. We have discovered that the size of our living space is adequate for our day-to-day needs, but the upside of living closer to our granddaughter is priceless.

    So I guess the moral of our story is that we have finally discovered what is important. Our family first and foremost, but also the ease of living an urban life, and being closer to our friends, too (all live in SF or Marin County)! That trumps big rooms filled with “stuff” we don’t remember we have or that we rarely use. And, we are so much happier than we could have imagined.

  45. posted by J in the UK on

    We live in 800 sq ft house, a family of four. Seems pretty normal to me – I know plenty of ordinary families who live in a lot less. One bathroom between us.

    Frankly the idea that two adults NEED to bathrooms gives me the chills. Anyone who thinks this is a NEED, hasn’t looked at the world lately. Housing for small families measuring several 1000s of sq ft also give me the chills. Again, take a look at the world and the huge environmental and social costs of making these sorts of choices.

  46. posted by Susan in FL on

    @ J in the UK – Hubby and I could easily live in 800 sq ft rather than our current 1200, but we would still NEED the two bathrooms. Sometimes older folks just can’t wait. Granted hubby could just step outside and water the trees! LOL! And I’ve looked at the world for 67 years, hubby 71 years – lots of those years with much less than we currectly have. Our footprint will soon be smaller than yours for the rest of eternity so give me a break.

  47. posted by Beadgirl on

    “Housing for small families measuring several 1000s of sq ft also give me the chills. Again, take a look at the world and the huge environmental and social costs of making these sorts of choices.”

    I’m well aware that many people make do (by choice or not) with less living space than I do. How far do we go in putting the environmental and social costs over our own needs? I deliberately bought a big house because I wanted enough guest space for my mother and brother, who are on tiny fixed incomes and could not afford any of the hotels around here. If I had stayed in my old, small house, I would never see them — ever (traveling to them is not an option, for a number of years). It would make me miserable to go years without seeing my family.

    People need and want different amounts of space, and those reasons are not necessarily stupid or selfish, just different. I’d be leery of judging people over this sort of thing.

  48. posted by Erin on

    Interesting piece and responses, thanks for sharing!

    For us, we are in the process of simplifying and paring down. We currently live in a 4,000 square foot home I bought when I was very young, better off financially than I am now, and more than a tad naive. It’s been a great home to six people in the time I’ve owned it, but now it’s just the two of us, and it’s time to scale back. Significantly.

    I’d estimate our living needs to be 1,200-1,500 square feet, optimally. Yes we could live with less, but given our combined living and work spaces, it would be difficult to go much smaller without compromising either home/family life or work life.

  49. posted by Beverly D on

    My husband, grown daughter (disabled) and I live in a 2500 sq ft 3 BR 3 bath home, and it’s too small! I say this because: both my husband and I work from home. The extra bedroom was made into my office because it also doubles as my sewing and craft space, and I have LOTS of sewing and craft supplies. One BR is the daughter’s, the other BR is ours. One bath is the main one and the daughter uses it, the other is part of the master. The 3rd bath was turned rather ingeniously into my husband’s office. He took out the commode and sink and his desk fit the space perfectly. It snugs up to the wall where the shower is on the other side. He put a lateral file perpendicular to the desk, which closed off the shower area, but there is a door to the outside going to the pool, so he uses it for file storage. His “office” is 5.5×6 ft. For a guy 6’4″ and 250 lbs, it’s snug. The living room just does manage to fit our grand piano. Again, it’s tight, but we were able to get the piano in there, and this was non-negotiable, as well as a couch, love seat, and a chair. You have to sit somewhere. We don’t have a family room. What makes this house work is cathedral ceilings (it’s one level) and lots of windows. There is so much light and air that even though we wish for more space, at least we can breathe.

    Yes, there are a lot of “wants” in this. But this is what we worked so hard for the past 40 years. If that doesn’t add up to a little comfort then what was the point?

  50. posted by Frrrrriday Rrrrroundup! | communicatrix on

    […] Small can be beautiful. Dazzling, even. [Facebook-ed, via Unclutter] […]

  51. posted by J in the UK on

    Toddlers can’t wait either. Having a toddler in the family doesn’t mean that we NEED two bathrooms.

  52. posted by Mid America Mom on

    HI Erin. Sorry I did not catch this earlier but I wait until the weekends usually. This is a great question!

    Recently I have been thinking seriously about what size home we need. We have lived in 5 places in 5 years – first as a family of 3 in a 2900 sq ft. suburban single family home and now a family of 4 in a downtown 650 sq ft. 2 bedroom apartment with a cat (amazingly we make it work and not feeling on top of one another). And in a few months we will be moving once again probably to a another apartment with a limited budget. What concerns me is that this new place needs to be functional, efficient, and affordable. As I take my search online and look at floorplans that goal is hard to achieve. This site helps me understand clutter, ways to deal with it, real solutions, and I found that the slow home movement is doing that for home design and joined their site as well as an active supporter. Speaking of which I will be posting a question about ideal size of bedroom closets here in our forum…

    As for stuff. Pairing down furniture over the years did not bother me. What I found most difficult is learning to live with less storage space. With growing children we store hand-me-downs, purge all the time, but need a place for toys which I rotate – with those in storage! We do have an offsite storage space with personal memorabilia and other household items but that is just delaying the inevitable as I am determined to pair down and get rid of the space with the next move. I will probably be posting HELP! in the forum when that comes ;)

    Mid America Mom

  53. posted by MrsOI on

    I’ve enjoyed reading this post as well as all of the comments. I live in a 1200 sf house with 4 bedrooms. Keep in mind, though, that the 4th bedroom would be considered a walk-in closet in the USA — it’s only 7ft x 7ft. Our household is comprised of 5 adults plus one teenager who is here every other weekend. We have one bathroom, plus a toilet in a shed outside (quite common in the UK).

    The four bedrooms and the bathroom are upstairs. Downstairs we have a hallway, living room, and kitchen/dining room. The kitchen/dining room takes up more than half of the downstairs, but it’s a well used room with plenty of counter tops and in the dining side, a table for 6 (we’ve 10 squeezed around it before).

    Before I got married and moved to the UK from Texas, I lived in a 1200sf, 2 bedroom house (with large utility room) all alone. It was a lovely house, and I quite enjoyed it, but I realize now that I would have been just as happy in a much smaller house/apartment as long as it had lots of windows.

  54. posted by Mikhaela on

    My husband and I live in a 850-square-foot 2-bedroom apartment. It has always been plenty big enough for us, but we are about to have a baby and my mother will be living with us to take care of her (and my father will also be there much of the time). And we have two cats. We are both artists who do a lot of freelance work at home, so… I think our ideal space would be maybe 1,000-1,200 square feet.

  55. posted by jane on

    I have always been fascinated by small homes, but as a single entity. As a married woman with a handicapped adult child to take care of, I think it matters more who you are sharing the space with. I need time to myself, my husband needs quiet time and I like noise and we both need to get away from our daughter at times. So now we have a fairly large house and I cherish every inch. But I am a dreamer who likes every inch pretty, clean and organized, with various vistas to enjoy.

  56. posted by WilliamB on

    I would not be able to answer this question with a number. It depends more on layout and organization than one square footage.

    I lived, alone, in an 850 sqft 1 BR apt that seemed snug: it had two long hallways, huge LR, a DR that could not be converted to BR[1] and a small kitchen. The kitchen was pretty but ancient (I’d never seen a gas-powered fridge before) and the overall arrangement meant there was no wall space to hang gear on, making the space even smaller. The bathroom had a separate shower, wasting more space. Yet half the LR went unused because it was too big but too awkward to repurpose.

    OTOH I lived in a 550 sqft 2 BR that seemed spacious. I used the smaller BR, the larger for guest bed and desk. The kitchen was the same square footage as the one above but well laid out. Management did the closets to my spec: two clothing rods/shelves at suit lengths and two shelves above, yielding even more space.

    [1] I managed something by buying the world’s smallest sofabed and two screens to block the two open doorways. But it was a hack.

  57. posted by Lindsay on

    Well right now I live in a 700 sq foot home 2 bedroom, 1 bath on 1/2 an acre with my husband, 6 small dogs (total weight all together 120 pounds) and 2 cats. We almost bought a 3000 sq foot “dream home” 2 years ago. The house was perfect with 4 bedrooms, a den, formal dinning room, huge kitchen…but after thinking about the time to clean, extra money needed (mortgage/utilities/upkeep) we chose to stay in our cute little home. We are in the process of updating our home to make it what we want: new kitchen, add a back patio and fence the whole yard. We would like a 2nd bathroom but after being here 8 years we can do without, we may turn a front closet into a bathroom. Funny thing is we travel alot and our hotel rooms are frequently larger than our home.

  58. posted by STL Mom on

    I admire all the people living in small spaces. We looked at downsizing when we moved two years ago. Our previous house was over 4,000 square feet and way too big. I’m not sure of our current house’s square footage, but I’d guess around 3,000, for a family of four people and three pets.
    I looked at a lot of smaller homes, but the layout was always wrong for the way we live. This house has a great layout, and the only rooms that aren’t used almost daily are the finished attic and the guest room and bath. But because we frequently have relatives and friends visit from out of town, the guest room is used a lot. I had 7 adult houseguests for a week and I loved having enough room to keep everyone comfortable. My family is spread all over the place, and I’m in a central location and the only one with enough space for everyone to stay together.
    I don’t NEED a house this big, but it makes me happy, except for when I’m dusting and vacuuming.

  59. posted by Emma on

    I’m curious how much this varies from country to country. You know, how much space does an American feel happy in, compared to a German or Romanian or Columbian or Somalian or Chinese or… you get the point.

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