Finding the “Right” Size for Your House

Bigger is not always better. New research shows that people are happier in houses that suit their needs most.

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During a recent home renovation, my family and I had to make a key decision: retain our main-floor laundry room/bathroom, transform it into a smaller powder room or ditch it entirely. The less bathroom, the more kitchen we’d get. These amenities could go into the basement we were finishing.

Although main-floor bathrooms are much coveted, when you live downtown there can be little space and almost zero storage. We cut out the bathroom in favour of counter space and cupboards. We have two bathrooms in the house in total and a small nook for our laundry in the basement, and that’s just fine.

We didn’t know it then, but our renovation places us right in the middle of a new trend: Bigger is not better. “It’s about using the space in a better fashion,” says Kim Watt-Senner, president of Everything Organized, a professional organizing company based in Kamloops, British Columbia.

In a pricier real estate market, more people are rethinking house space and right-sizing their homes, she says. It’s no longer about having it all. People are now moving past square footage and instead looking at how space facilitates the lifestyles they want.

It’s no longer about having it all. People are now moving past square footage and instead looking at how space facilitates the lifestyles we want.

Happiness at home

Average home sizes peaked in the mid-2000s at around 2,300 square feet in Canada, and they’ve been dropping ever since. Real estate prices are driving the push for smaller homes and micro-condos, but research has also revealed that big houses don’t make us happier.

“People want to live a better life with less,” says Watt-Senner. Large homes are pricey to heat and maintain, and big backyards and attached garages keep us from knowing our neighbours. When we have space, we fill it with stuff.

A 2011 study from the University of British Columbia shows possessions don’t bring us happiness like experiences and giving to others do. Bigger homes are often far from work, too. One U.K. study shows every additional minute you spend commuting makes you less satisfied and more anxious.

Whether you’re fixing up or moving, you can build positive, happiness-promoting experiences into your home. Making sure you have a nice nook to sort your laundry or an outdoor space to play and get some fresh air could have more impact on your day-to-day life than high-end finishes.

Making usable space

One study from the University of California at Los Angeles tracked 32 families’ use of their homes – in one case, just 400 square feet of 1,000 got used regularly. Before you renovate or move, you might want to take notes on which spaces you and your family use over a two-week period. Are some spaces ignored while others get heavy use for three or four purposes?

Toronto-based architectural designer Lara MacInnis says formal living rooms and dining rooms, and extra-large master bedrooms, tend to gather dust in today’s family homes. Basements are important when there are kids and teenagers in the house, but Watt-Senner says empty-nesters often ignore below-ground space.

You can use this information to inform a redecoration, renovation or the purchase of a new home. If you stay where you are, you can turn the underused corner of a master bedroom into an office or a storage space. Enlarge the kitchen (MacInnis says this is one area that can never be too big) to cut into a dining room you never use.

MacInnis does additions for clients, but finds lately that they’re only adding on a little to get a much-needed bedroom or home office. Murphy beds, extendable dining tables and folding chairs let you adapt spaces for occasional use. Investing in the right furniture is cheaper than moving or renovating, she says.

Creating space for you

Watt-Senner says you can get the most from your home by combining your assessment of physical space with your values. “Decisions should be based on what you need to be happy and successful both as individuals and as a family,” she says.

Maybe a smaller home in an urban area lets you take in more culture, and your grown-up kids will just have to sleep on air mattresses when they visit. Perhaps a condo is big enough because you want to travel. A larger home might be worth the investment if you can create a basement suite for an aging parent or a university student.

A values assessment has inspired Watt-Senner to upsize to a waterfront property in the B.C. interior, where property values are more affordable. When her husband retires, she’s going to run her business as a franchise, and they’ll all focus on caring for their seven horses on a larger property. “We love ranch life,” she says.

Ultimately, right-sizing sometimes means letting go of old ideas. “Some people are aware that they don’t use their space, but it’s all tied up with status,” says MacInnis.

In short, you have to give to get. In our case, it was a main-floor powder room – and that Ping-Pong table for the basement never happened either. However, there is joy in not having everything, but having just enough.

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