Is ‘trading up’ your space worth it?

Are you in constant pursuit of a bigger, better home? Do you think that more space will solve your problems or alleviate the stress of storing all your stuff? Are your eyes set on the biggest house you can afford?

If you answered affirmatively to any of the above questions, you may want to take a few minutes to read Daniel McGinn’s article originally published in Newsweek in 2008, “Extreme Downsizing: How moving from a 6,000-square-foot custom home to a 370-square-foot recreational vehicle helped quell one family’s ‘House Lust.’

The family featured in the article was getting ready to buy a home on land and give up their RV after two years on the road. They learned a number of valuable lessons over the two years, but this one stuck out to me:

“Debbie makes it clear that their next home, while smaller, will still be nicely appointed. It’s not as if she’s forsaken the American dream altogether; she has just realized that the endless cycle of ‘trading up’ to nicer homes isn’t very fulfilling. ‘It was this constant “This will be the answer.” Then you’d come up empty at the end,’ she says. ‘It was this searching thing, and I think I’m done with the search.'”

This article has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

14 Comments for “Is ‘trading up’ your space worth it?”

  1. posted by Michele on

    Great article – thanks for posting. I traveled with a friend across the US for 8 months with only what we could pack in a car. It changed the way I view owning things in a huge way that still influences me today.

  2. posted by Aaron Hayward on

    Living in a small apartment in Los Angeles, after living in a big home in the midwest for years, will certainly force you to think about what you really need and get rid of clutter, especially accumulated useless papers from over the years.

    I spent parts of weekends here and there over the last year downsizing, and it makes the apartment a much nicer environment to live in!

  3. posted by Karen on

    I lived in an apartment for nine years, that was about the size of that RV. It definitely makes you get rid of clutter. On the other hand, I never stopped wishing for more space, especially in the kitchen. No matter how uncluttered you are, it’s still hard to cook if you’re struggling with 12 inches of counter space (especially if you love to cook like I do). When I moved into an apartment with a big kitchen, I was in heaven (too bad I got laid off and had to go back to the tiny one).

    I can’t imagine living in a 6000 square foot house, but I still dream of a kitchen where I can set down two plates at the same time. There’s no substitute for that!

  4. posted by Anna N. on

    I don’t necessarily want a significantly bigger place – square-footage-wise, my apartment is about big enough for one person (and one cat) – but “trading up” for me would mean an apartment with more storage, a nicer kitchen, and a better layout. And maybe a bigger bathroom. But definitely more storage.

    I agree with Karen about the kitchen in particular (thought it also goes for, say, my bedroom closet, and my bathroom) – it doesn’t matter how uncluttered you are if there’s simply no space to work with.

  5. posted by Julie on

    I especially liked the part at the end where they’re dreading opening up all the crates. If I were them (and feeling particularly brave), I’d give the keys to the storage locker to someone else, tell them to open all the crates, sell what was sellable, take a commission (10-15%?), and use the proceeds to buy only what was necessary for the new home. That way, they don’t need to deal with the angst of going through all that old “stuff,” a friend makes some nice cash, some poorer people get some probably-very-nice goods at a discount, and there’s money to pay for furnishing the new home.

  6. posted by N. & J. on

    My fiance and I currently having the discussion about what type and size of house we want to move into once we leave our one bedroom apartment. While living here was a big change for both us (we both always had two bedroom apartments and no roommates) it has helped us take an objective look at what we really need and what makes us happy (we both want a bigger kitchen). It has helped us realize that alot of our “house lust” was brought on by society and that we really don’t need something so large and in fact would be happier somewhere smaller with a big yard for a garden. In the meantime you can check out how we are trying to live a more sustainable life in our apartment at

  7. posted by Cynthia Friedlob, The Thoughtful Consumer on

    You don’t have to put wheels on it to have a very liveable, very small home. Check out the Small House Society at for some interesting information and creative solutions for living in extremely small spaces.

    I also have a post on my blog, The Thoughtful Consumer, that includes several other links about living small:


    Even if you’re not interested in downsizing to something truly miniscule, these radical options are quite thought-provoking.

  8. posted by molly on

    I don’t necessarily want more space but I do want a better designed space. Currently, we are renting until the housing prices return to “normal” in our bubblicious city. The size is good at 1100 sq. ft. for three people (2 adults, 1 child). Our main gripe isn’t the size but the layout of the space and the horribly thought-out storage. I think some of our cabinets would even stump professional organizers.

  9. posted by STL Mom on

    I’ve been house-hunting recently, and I’m with Molly – I could live in a small space if it was well laid-out with the spaces that my family needs, and appropriate storage. Unfortunately most houses seem to have the wrong layout or the rooms are the wrong sizes. For example, the newer homes often have a master bedroom twice the size of the other bedrooms. This doesn’t make sense to me since my kids keep much more stuff in their rooms than I do. The older homes have more reasonably-sized bedrooms, but often have tiny closets, no room in the basement for our exercise equipment, and small kitchens cut off from all other rooms. Houses with all the spaces we want also tend to have spaces we don’t need (4 and 1/2 baths!?) and a high price tag.
    I’d love to build a “Not-so-big” house with a personalized layout, but we can’t afford a tear-down in the neighborhood we want to live in.
    Okay, enough venting – I’ll go do some uncluttering so we can have some hope of fitting ourselves into a smaller space!

  10. posted by Marielr on

    I’ve just moved countries and we are in a 1 bed apartment (we used to have a 3 bed house) and haven’t yet received our things we had shipped over. Apart from my clothes and my kitchen appliances I’m not too sure what we actually packed (we didn’t pack any furniture) or why it was quite so important to have it move countries with us. One thing I will say about the article was that even in that RV there are at least three TV’s! I’ve been living with out a tv since July 07. Haven’t missed it a bit – it’s amazing how what I get done now that I’m not so “busy” with tv!

  11. posted by Jul on

    My parents are about to undertake a similar downsize – I can’t wait to see how they handle it.

  12. posted by Beverly on

    I think we have a love/hate relationship with this size thing. It’s good to live in a not so big house, as I do now that I’ve cut my square footage in half, but I miss it when I want to spread out a project. I can’t just leave it at the end of the day, it has to be put away in case I can’t get back to it tomorrow, because if anything it’s all over the dining room table which we now need to eat on. And to be honest, I would have bought a bigger space if I could have afforded it; this was not about doing more with less.

  13. posted by Meg from The Bargain Queens & All About Appearances on

    My husband and I our now in our 3rd home together but our 1st house. Each time we got more space. It’s amazing how quickly you fill up free space, though.

    Right now, three of our rooms are taken up — the largest room (our den which will be the new kitchen) by a rennovation, a small bedroom by a supposedly temporary roommate, and our rather large foyer by her stuff.

    Despite that, we’re more organized than ever in the rest of the house.

    We still want to get a bigger place when we can afford it since we want larger bedrooms and bathrooms, but I’m no longer in love with huge farmhouses like I grew up in. Both my mom and mother-in-law have them and I’ve seen how much trouble they are.

  14. posted by jennifer gear on

    Great article! I think about this exact subject all the time, thoroughly enjoyed reading this!

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