Baltimore-area family the Smiths followed the trajectory of countless homeowners before them. They bought a “starter house”—a reasonably sized duplex—where they lived when their two children were young, before “buying up”. Their second home was a big old house dating to the late 1800s with a large wrap-around porch, lots of charm and plenty of square footage—4,200 in all. From the outside looking in, it seemed like the Smiths had it made. They, however, grew to feel like what they had was, as Jane Smith put it, “a money pit.”
“There was always something wrong with it,” she says. Every summer, her husband was re-painting the porch, which took him away from fun things he could be doing with their two young sons. Plus, Smith admits, they didn’t really need all the space. They rarely even went on the third floor. After living in the house for seven years, the Smiths packed up and moved to a home half the size: 2,100 square feet. “Now, we live in a little cottage,” Smith says. “But it has everything we need.”
Though downsizing while raising children may seem counter to the “American dream,” the Smiths are not alone in finding that the move is a great way to reduce expenses and simplify life, especially insofar as household tasks are concerned. And in spite of the ever-growing size of the average single-family home in the U.S.—2,598 square feet in 2013 compared to 1,500 in the 1960s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—a small but increasing number of families with children at home are choosing to downsize.
These days, when the term downsizing is mentioned, the “tiny house movement” often comes to mind. This extreme form of downsizing refers to houses generally 400 square feet or less. While popular in parts of the country (there’s even an American Tiny House Association), it’s not gaining traction here in Baltimore—in part because of zoning restrictions related to building. Nonetheless, some local families are seeing the benefits of scaling back.
Mary Pat Fitzgerald, a realtor with Cummings & Co., has been helping clients buy the homes of their dreams for almost two decades. Lately, some of them—and not just empty nesters—have chosen to go smaller.
One family for whom Fitzgerald helped buy a smaller house acknowledged that downsizing from their four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bathroom colonial to a two-bedroom rancher with two teenagers in the house might make things cramped for a while. But they also knew it would only be temporary.
“The wife had really good vision,” Fitzgerald says.
After all, the couple considered not only the expenses they would face in the near future—like college tuition and the cost of an additional car for their soon-to-be-driving teenagers—but also those further down the road, like their own retirement and what type of house would make sense for that time in their lives.
Like the client that Fitzgerald mentions, the Smiths also moved when their sons were teenagers. Perhaps it was easier to imagine downsizing when they were past the stage where the house was cluttered with the accoutrements of infancy and toddler-hood (think strollers, high chairs, and full-to-the-brim toy boxes).
“My husband and I started asking each other: ‘What are we going to do with this house when the kids move out?’” Smith says.
Peering into the distant as well as the more immediate future can make it easier for families to decide to downsize. “All of my clients [who downsized] were planning ahead. All were methodical about it,” Fitzgerald says. Although they may have lost some square footage, they gained some financial leverage.
While even some of the most financially savvy families with kids at home might consider downsizing a move far too extreme, Fitzgerald says that homeowners in general are being cautious about their next moves.
“A lot of people are staying put because they’re just not sure,” she says. “There’s a little bit of uncertainty about the economy. We’re not seeing as much ‘move up’ activity.” BC