My current home isn’t tiny, but it is the primary catalyst for my desire to downsize and simplify my life. It’s an 1,800 square foot Streng Brothers home built in the early 1970′s. We bought it because it was so different than the ubiquitous ranch style homes that surround it for miles and miles. It’s the largest home I’ve lived in since leaving my parents home as a kid and is the first home I’ve lived in that has had a lawn. It was also our first real home purchase, but it also came filled with lessons. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
- Energy Efficient: A house must be energy efficient, passive solar, and require little additional energy to be comfortable. Older homes in hot climates cost more to own because their air conditioners run all the time when it’s hot. When you buy an older home you are buying a big utility bill or an enormous upgrade cost.
- Temperate Location: Choose to live in a moderate climate. The additional cost of these high demand locations could easily pay you back in money and time spent outside. Avoid locations that require homes with air conditioners unless you build appropriately for the region, like adobe homes in the southwest.
- Garden: This house has some very nice bonsai Japanese Pine trees. Unfortunately to keep them looking nice, which I’m not very good at, requires regular pruning. If you choose to plant a garden or trees consider planting things that require less time and produce something you can use or eat.
- Elbow Room: Many suburban lots are small. Privacy is limited and if your neighbor decides to light up a cigarette in their backyard prepare to close your doors and windows. More space is also nice for more garden and places for kids to play. The downside is additional upfront cost and maintenance.
- Roof: This house has a flat roof and water tends to find it’s way inside. Leaks are inevitable with flat roofs. The smart choice it to avoid a roof that is prone to leak like complex designs or roofs with many openings like skylights.
- Less is Less: Every square foot you add to a house requires heating, cooling, organizing, and cleaning. This includes the space you don’t use. When you choose to have more you are also choosing to spend more of your time and money taking care of more.
- Real Value: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that the true value of a home should be measured by the happiness and security it brings instead of its size and cost. At the moment this house feels a bit like a debtor’s prison and we hope and pray regularly that the market will correct itself and free us. In the future we will avoid this trap buying more value for less money and doing everything possible to avoid a mortgage. Instead of asking ourselves how much we can afford, we’ll ask the question, how much can we get for the least amount of money.
Ironically I knew many of these lessons before buying this house but never really understood how much the size, design, location, and construction of a home really impacted the quality of life until I’d lived it. I guess sometimes we have to make mistakes ourselves and live the consequences to truly understand what the lesson has to teach.
I also try not to regret any past choices. Every choice we make, good and bad, has led us to where we are today. In fact I suspect that it’s our bad choices that make us wiser and better able to make better choices in the future. I also have to admit that if we had not bought this home and moved to Sacramento when we did we may have never been able to adopt our daughter Katie. That chain of events lead us to where we are today and I wouldn’t change any of it for any amount of money. That simple truth, and her presence in our lives, makes any cost seem microscopic.
My hope for the near future is that before Katie starts kindergarten we’ll be un-stuck from our current situation. I’m very hopeful that we’ll be able to weather this current economic storm and come out the other end smarter and positioned to built a simple place in a semi-rural area closer to the California coast.
But I’m also prepared to stick it out here if the housing market doesn’t play out in our favor. If this should happen I’ll feel more comfortable about putting more money and time into this house to make it more efficient and cost less to maintain. But for now I’m downsizing everything else that adds to my load like expenses, possessions, and obligations.
I suspect there are millions of people just like me who were temporarily taken in by a successful career and boom times and then suddenly woken up by the simple truth that a lifestyle built on the bubble is extremely fragile and completely unsustainable. My hope in sharing this with you is that maybe a few people will be able to avoid learning these lessons that hard way, or if you’re in my boat too, know that you’re not alone and there can be a light at the end of the tunnel if you choose to turn it on. You might also now have a better idea about why I’m building a tiny free house.