Shrinking House Dreams

It says it on the For Sale flyer, so it must be true. My home has 868 square feet. Imagine 868 square legs to go with them. The shoe budget would be immense. It would definitely be a mobile home though. It isn’t. My home is a traditionally built wood frame house that just happens to take up less than 1,000 square feet of land. Give me the chance and I’d take a smaller house and more land; but, of course I’d like to keep the view or improve it. Maybe my financial situation has re-tuned my ears to hear more about small houses, but it is more than that. The trend is real. A new American Dream is returning to an old fashioned idea, cottages, bungalows, cabins – with some new twists included.

Been there. Done that. I bought my first house at 28 because I should. A friend, their realtor, and a local banker agreed that I had enough for a down payment and my salary could handle the monthly bills. Buying the house was a mark of adulthood and an expectation of acceptance. I expected that my family would approve. I’d fit in because I was living responsibly, not like those frivolous renters who had no commitment to community. Within months I realized that by following everyone’s advice I’d managed to commit all of my discretionary spending to utility, interest, and insurance payments. Moving from a 600 square foot apartment to a 2,200 two-story house left about 1,600 square feet empty. At least the empty living room made a great dojo. I closed off the second floor and wondered why I didn’t feel the joy of home ownership. Well, the value went up $30,000 in the first three months, so that helped.

I bought because I should. The next house was because I got married and we moved. The next was because we wanted to try a different neighborhood and commute. All of those houses were between 2,200 square feet and 2,600 square feet. All of them were too big. None of them felt like home. I felt like they owned me instead of me owning them.

I now live in my home. Two bedrooms, one bath, living room, kitchen and closets take up less space than some McMansion master suites. I use it all and I could use less. I know others that already do.

The American Dream included buying as much house as possible, partly as a status symbol, but partly as an investment. The New American Dream I am hearing from friends is the dream of being debt-free and self-reliant. Shrink the house to fit the needs. Find enough land, not too much nor too little, for privacy, productivity (gardening), and play. I only know of one person shopping for 3,000 square feet of house on a half-acre of land. Several are looking for 400 square feet of house on acreage. The acreage varies with the climate because the size is determined by the productivity of the garden. Instead of a maxed-out mortgage they want a greatly increased sense of financial security.

One of my favorite bloggers lives in a house that’s smaller than mine and sounds just as comfortable. I can’t find the exact numbers but I think Jeanne told me it is about half the size of my home. This is not an experimental existence. It isn’t something she’s trying on a whim. She’s lived there for years. One handy thing: when she remodels anything it changes everything. Complete renovations take far less money and time and yet have far greater consequences because it is like moving into a new home.

A couple of my friends independently took it one step further. They both built cabins (~ 140 square feet) on trailers. Brian built his with a shed roof and his renowned innovations. (Go check out his video tour.) It sits on a small plot he bought over on the dry side of the mountains. When the city gets to be too much he heads over there and recovers. He also plans to someday find acreage instead of a small town lot and settle where he can grow – whatever. Angela built a cabin, included some excellent craftsmanship and artistry, and tested it out by living in it for six months. Now it’s up for sale (asking $40,000 according to the sign in the window.) Brian would probably take half that because of some other motivations. (He’s busy running another business.) Both of them would also probably build another with the money from the first. Both of them produced livable accommodations for less than the price of a new car. It is easy imaging finding the right acreage for an extra $50,000. Prep the site. Build a storage building and a shop shed. Live debt free for less than half my remaining mortgage.

But that’s not small enough for some. Another friend, Jennifer, has been traveling around the county for months living out of a tear-drop trailer. Check out her travel log. She has to make adjustments, but every living situation does. She has to spend time carefully packing. I have to spend time maintaining a yard and a house. I can appreciate her situation. My bicycle ride across America (Just Keep Pedaling) and my walk across Scotland (soon to be a book) proved to me that I can survive for weeks with only the things that fit in panniers or a pack.

As the economy recovers many people will return to habits. I am encouraged by those that witnessed something else within that turmoil and are turning to other solutions. Debt-free is more appealing than a bonus room. A few chickens and acres of veggies that produce healthy and economical food are more appealing than meticulously maintaining lawns and flower beds that may only serve as visual reminders of chores. Simple living is appealing again. (Go check out the Simple Living forums for real-world examples and an opportunity for community.)

Trends can appear extreme and exclusive. Downsizing housing is a continuum. Many articles proclaim downsizing to include 1,500 square foot houses. Maybe that works best for some. A lot of the small house videos on YouTube are do-it-yourself projects, but there are plenty of builders working to small homes. Two local builders (that are too small to buy stock in) are Smart House and Green Pod, both out of Port Townsend. I get the impression Angela might became the Whidbey equivalent if she could get the funding. (Hey, anyone got some funding?)

As for me, well, these posts describe my financial history. Even back when I had over a million what I wanted was a small house on a big lot with nice views and a few outbuildings. Unfortunately, even if I sell my home for the asking price I won’t have enough to buy a cabin and the land. (Otherwise I might make Brian an offer on his cabin and property.) This could be taken one step further though. I know of two households that just moved onto the water. Living aboard a boat can happen, and if you think the price of houses dropped a lot you should see what happened to the price of boats. That would be a mobile house with real mobility. Of course, if I win the lottery I could do both. Hey, a guy can dream.

About Tom Trimbath

real estate broker / consultant / entrepreneur / writer / photographer / speaker / aerospace engineer / semi-semi-retired More info at: and at my amazon author page:
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5 Responses to Shrinking House Dreams

  1. Dianne Juhl says:


    I so appreciate your sharing this aspect of your money story. It’s reflective and soulful.

    The wisdom of your direct experience embodied in this piece is on the money and priceless, together at the same time.

    I bet many will find a shared commonality in your story or will pause to check their own assumptions about the American Dream of land and home ownership — and I include myself in the many.

    Abundant regards,

    ~ Dianne Juhl & The Feminine Face of Money

  2. One of the more pragmatic, and fun, reasons I like a small house is something I blogged about years ago in my first blog: Living Small (
    Small house + hardwood floors = easy to clean and prep for a dance party
    (It is also a view back to when my optimism was rising. Ah, those were the days.)

  3. Jenn says:

    Hi Tom! Im going to explore some of the links you list more thoroughly and might have more to say later, but first thought out of the box is YEP, I would like to see everyone downsize. As I drive along and look at the BIG boxes that folks live in I wish desperately that they could understand that smaller is better. In my teardrop I basically live outside with my bed (queen size) inside and a very spacious galley in the back (with electric fridge). I have AC and electric which are great comforts for this living style. There are moments when I yearn for a piece of property where I could park and have a garden to grown the foods I would like to eat. And I would like to do that on Whidbey Island. Keep me posted if you know of anything! Water views are lovely but Im not fussy!!!

    Story: Yesterday at a Chicago IKEA (there’s a nod for the spiders) , it was beastly hot, I was loading boxes in the Teardrop that I was taking to a friend for some remodeling, a boy, 10ish, came up…glasses sliding down his sweaty nose, pizza visible in mouth (yum), and asked about the teardrop: “That’s for dogs, right?” I was having a hot moment and said “No, its for people.” He: “Your kidding right?” Me: “No, I’m not kidding. Its my home.” He: Long look at me. Then leaves, shoving the rest of the pizza in his mouth. Teardropping is a very foreign concept. BUT I love my little homelet and its flexible options. There are a lot of homes I love, but this is my favorite right now.

    Thanks for your post!

  4. Thanks for sharing such a great post.
    This really strikes a chord with me as we have downsized to a small house with a big garden much to the horror of our friends and family! Despite a lot of people here in the UK having financial difficulties most people still have the bigger is better mindset.
    Looking forward to checking out the links and finding out more.

  5. Another great example from Whidbey. I’d seen it but didn’t know it had a web site. Very cool.

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