It is common in our culture to see real estate as an investment. Most homes are a very high ticket item that commonly take half a lifetime to pay for. When that much time and money is “invested” in a house it’s understandable that such homeowners would want to protect it, at least keeping the value steady with inflation or improving the value with remodeling projects.
One factor that homeowners see as out of their control (which may be actual or perceived) is what happens to the properties surrounding their home, which can have a profound impact– if not sheer saleability– on real estate values. This fear of sliding property values is a motivating force for homeowners to attempt to control zoning laws in their neighborhood and community. And one common perception of a factor that causes property values to deteriorate is square footage of neighboring houses, ie. smaller homes are worth less and will cause larger homes they are next to be worth less also. Or, rather, that is the common perception.
But, witness those homes designed by visionary architects like Sarah Susanka and Ross Chapin. And, since meeting her at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair, I have since found out about Sonya Newenhouse and her Casa Kit Homes. Their philosophy is to build small, but rich with detail. I would hardly consider these homes to be cheap and cheesy. Their beauty and quality of construction enhance, not denigrate, the value of the neighborhood.
Those people in control of zoning laws probably feel there’s no way to control the value of a property/neighborhood , and future house that’s built on it, than by controlling its size. They supposedly have no control over the quality of craftsmanship, so the only fall-back is to lock in minimum square footage. I’m sure another motivating factor in keeping house sizes larger is to make sure the tax base is kept high. They can charge more in property tax for a 3000 s.f. house than a 1000 s.f. one. More property taxes coming in help to “grease the wheels” of running a city or municipality.
In new developments the primary motivation is the bottom line of the developer and builder(s). If they can sell a 2500 s.f. house for 20% more than an 1800 s.f., yet it costs them only 10% more to add on those 700 more square feet, it becomes a no-brainer to push the sale of a larger home. I’m sure very little mention is made during the sales process of future property taxes, heating and cooling bills, and cost of upkeep. The benefits of having those extra square feet is emphasized over the long-term costs. Multiply that extra profit margin by the 30-80 homes that are in a typical new development and you end up with a very hefty profit. Business as usual, right?
Thankfully, there is an emerging paradigm shift in how to do business: the triple bottom line… looking out for people, planet, then profits. And how to run local governments: The Natural Step. I am far from being an expert in either one of these emerging philosophies, but have recently become aware of this growing trend. It’s encouraging to see there are those among the human race that still weigh their heart and soul over their pocketbook.
For the individual seeking to build a smaller house it can be an impossible battle going against the common perceptions that small equals cheap. That’s why so many in this movement to live small and light choose to live away from encumbering zoning laws and prying neighbors. Sometimes the good fight is too much. I applaud those individuals and families who are courageous to stick to their ideals in seeking simpler living both in urban and rural areas. If you’re among those who seek this path there are many others like you out there. The Internet has become a tremendous tool for connecting those people of similar philosophies. If you want to continue the conversation on the challenges of living small and light there are many groups you can join:
The Small House Society
Simple Life Connections
Shipping Container Homes
Frugal Rural Living
Seattle Small Homes
Fiddle Sticks Small Spaces
Low Cost Community Housing
Tiny Home Collective
The Small Home Design-Build Forum
And of course all the websites and blogs by the contributors here… can’t forget that one.
There is always the option of filing for a variance permit when you’re seeking to build a home of a smaller square footage than your neighborhood allows. Be prepared with extensives plans, pictures, and testimonials from other people who have built small, but high-quality, homes. You will sit before the county and city government officials in charge of hearing your case. You will feel very much like you’re on trial for thinking outside the box. Bringing all your materials together and doing a dry-run presentation before your friends and family might not be a bad idea, either. The more prepared you are the better your chances will be of having the board approve your variance. It’s definitely worth asking. And when you win make sure to tell us all about it to inspire others to do the same… well, even if you don’t win it can be a great learning experience for yourself and others.