Thursday, February 4, 2010

Embracing our Tiny House

Ever since we found out baby R was a boy, we've been thinking about real estate.

We own a 650-ish square foot two-bedroom condo in North Cambridge (and about 40 of those sq ft are unheated enclosed porch). Our approximate plan when we bought the place two and a half years ago was that if our hoped-for second child was a girl, the kids would share a room indefinitely, and if that second kid was a boy, they could share a room for at least 8 years or so, at which point we'd likely be able to afford more space for separate bedrooms.

When we were shopping for our home, we made the conscious decision to give up space in order to live in close proximity to work, transit, and our religious community. While we certainly still stand by that choice, I'd be lying if I said that having two kids in this space doesn't make me fantasize about that affordable 3 or 4 bedroom place in the burbs sometimes.

After we found out R was a boy, we started to think through what it would really take for us to get more space, even if it was many years down the line. We'd love to share a two-family house with Angela's mom (who currently lives at 15 min walk away in Davis Square) and we started to think maybe we could get more space sooner if we pooled resources with her. Then we took a sobering tour of single and multi-family home prices in our neighborhood and realized that even 8 years hence, that's probably a pipe dream. More space would almost definitely mean a move out of our beloved little corner of Cambridge.

As we imagined years strapped to such an outsize mortgage, our tiny very affordable place started to look nicer and nicer. We crunched some numbers and realized we'd have some hope of paying this place off sooner than later, not as soon as 5 years, but well before the end of our 30 year mortgage. We're desperately in love with our neighborhood and shudder at the thought of living somewhere else. The financial freedom and community that we'd get from staying put started to seem like a nicer idea than more space.

We're beginning to believe that 650 square feet is actually enough (after all, 1200 square feet is enough for 12). If instead of saving money towards more space, we put some money into making this space really work for a family of four, perhaps making a more efficient and streamlined kitchen, opening up and insulating our porch to have more useable work area, and dividing the space that currently houses two bedrooms into three small ones (you don't actually need much space to sleep, after all), we really could stay here. It's not firm yet, but a plan is being hatched. Just like living without a car has made our lives richer in ways we didn't expect, continuing to live with less space, even as our kids grow, might open up new kinds of freedom. This feels like the kind of thing that is right up our alley.

(as part of our plan hatching we'll be attending a design workshop by Jay Shafer of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company in May. We can't wait.)


Lex said...

Fabulous! I love small houses, and I love how realizing that you can make do without a car then ties into realizing all of the other things that you can (happily) live without.

For me, I think the main thing I want/need in a house is OPEN space, not necessarily lots of space. So, I would probably try to take down as many walls as possible, leaving small bedrooms and a bathroom.

Our house is not nearly small compared to yours (it is 1200 sqf), but it is smaller than the houses of a lot of families where we live (some of our friends do definitely live in less space). We have four kids currently, with fairly solid, hopeful plans for a fifth. And our house is more than adequate for us. I do think we will probably bust out the ceiling upstairs eventually (there is an attic, but it's just full of blown-in insulation, not used for storage or anything) to create cathedral ceilings and then build a loft for more sleeping space (we believe in having all of our kids share a room). One thing that really transformed the kids' room is that we put the one twin-size bed (the other is a bunk-bed) up on stilts. So now there is actually space to play on the floor, under the bed. I would do the same thing to our bed (seriously!) if we had a frame (currently just mattresses on the floor). It would make our bedroom feel twice as big as it is (since our bed takes up our entire room).

In general, I try to use the walls for all that they're worth (i.e. hanging bookshelves instead of having them stand on the floor).

Anyway, I LOVE everything you've written here and I think you are absolutely making the right choice to stay in the fabulous community and enjoy living in your perfectly tiny home.

joshuadf said...

I'm glad you're making it work! Sounds like you're already clued into great resources like Tumbleweed, but you might also want to check out space saving designs from Europe and Asia too. For example, our bed is tatami (on some wood slats for air flow) which is also play space. Around the world millions of people with kids live in spaces that Americans consider small!

Anonymous said...

I accidentally came upon your blog looking for bicycle commuting information.
I'm no financial expert, but I really believe we are going into a depression. Things are going to be much worse in the next 2-3 years.
Definitely do not take on more debt at this time.
When I was in college at the U of Illinois, I met a girl whose parents had come from Poland just before she was born. I visited her home, a very small apartment in South Side Chicago. She and her sister shared a tiny bedroom, her parents had a tiny bedroom, and her 4 brothers slept in the living room on mattresses that were stacked in a pile against the wall during the day. The living room had a long folding table and metal folding chairs. They had no sofa, etc. There was a small TV in the corner.
At night the brothers would fold up the table and chairs to make room for their mattresses. The home had a small kitchen, one small bathroom, and no eating area other than the living room.
The family was happy, and all 6 kids graduated from college. My friend bought her parents a sofa when she got her first job out of college.
600 square feet is really small for 4 people, but you can do it. I really like your idea of changing your space to 3 bedroom and as others said elevating the beds. Is there any way to take the largest bedroom and put a dividing wall down the middle? There are even folding walls you can buy on the internet. As long as the two rooms are wide enough for a single mattress, your kids can walk under their beds if they are elevated to get to their dresser, etc.

Andy in Germany said...

We're living the same way and in an attic apartment in Germany. I have no idea what size it is in feet but most local people consider it too small for a family with three boys. Two boys sleep on a bunk, one under the angled roof in the 'master bedroom' and they're happy enough. We sleep in the 'Box room': we can just fit a small double bed in. We're very careful not to clutter the place up with 'stuff' and the funny thing is that everyone thinks our apartment is huge.

Lo said...

I hear you. We live in 650 square feet. We are currently in contract to buy a larger place, I admit, and if it works out we will upgrade to 960 square feet. And you know what? For our family of soon-to-be four (plus mini-dachshund), I think that is *plenty*. I really, really do. (I grew up in a four story brownstone and a Victorian house, and I still think 960 will do it.)

sara said...

Three kids. Two bedroon apartment in New Haven (the first floor of an old Victorian house). One car. This seems to fit us really well, for the most part.

The three boys happily share a room & that works. But the clutter is getting to us. We try to contain it and try to be conscientious consumers (except when it comes to books, we are sort of out-of-control with books). I've taken pride in the fact that we live in a small place & recognize that most of the world doesn't live in spread-out big houses. Of course, I recognize that if we get more space, we could well clutter that up too.
Right now, a big downside is that no one visits us because they don't want to put us out. I would happily sleep on a couch & give up our bedroom but family/friends won't accept that. The boys only living grandparents are moving from 1 1/2 hours away to MUCH further away this summer. I admit it-- I want a guest room.

Dorea said...

@sara Book clutter is one kind of clutter we have successfully kicked, at least for grown-ups. We're avid readers, but we are blessed with a library 3 blocks away. We think of it as our own convenient bookshelf, complete with kind librarians who know us and get whatever book we want. Books in our home (for grown-ups anyway) are strictly reference, and Angela's one copy of Lord of the Rings that she reads over and over.

I do hear you on the guest room though.

I have to say, as much as I'm thrilled to have a boy (really, it's a whole new adventure for us, we're loving it), I'm a little jealous of you families with all boys or all girls. It really does simplify some logistics.

karenlikescereal said...

My (rented) house is exactly the same size as your condo (I assume it's all the same floor), and I love the size! Of course, we only have 2 of us in here and the layout is not ideal. But it's so easy to clean, and it keeps you from accumulating clutter. There's only one true bedroom with a door. In order to create a second bedroom without losing use of it as a study, we have a twin mattress on the floor hidden behind a quality futon in couch style- gives us a constant second bedroom and could sleep three in a pinch as a guest room.

karenlikescereal said...

Also, the life in a shoe blog was so interesting... in some ways they're so like us with the frugality and tiny house living, in other ways so unlike us what with the bible-verse quoting.

MamaVee said...

while I do have a 3 bedroom in the burbs, our house is decidedly small compared to everyone we know. It can be a shock to go from visiting someone with a 7500 sq ft ( yeah you read that correctly) house back to our home and feel a bit cramped. I totally love our house and that we ae always a room away from each other. some times I fantasize about the children running off to the attic and not hearing them, but then I'd have to climb stairs or shout to find them. We do a bit of a shuffle for the guest room though as adult guests sleep in the no doored playroom. Babies and toddlers sleep in one of the kid's room and one of our kids sleep with us ( so far non related kid room sharing hasn't worked for us as the kids have not been same developemtal stages wrt sleep schedules, but I can't wait til they can sleep together. I want to buy a few *real* japanese futons to store in each kids closet for kid sleepovers.)

anyway- for me I'm always looking at my space and trying to find out how to make it more efficient and use it better. Small houses foster creativity and I want to check out that workshop!

rcp4 said...

I applaud your willingness to use what you have. There was an episode on Oprah last year that showed how the Danes live. Many live in small apartments with kids. The bedrooms are tiny but all space is used to the nth degree. The clutter is hidden and they seem happy because everyone lives that way.

RowdyKittens said...

Somehow I missed this post. :) As you know I'm obsessed with small homes. I'm happy that you're going to try and make the space work. It would be a shame to give up such an amazing community.

Pippi said...

So nice to hear about other people raising kids in small spaces! We live in a 2 bedroom, 800 sq foot co-op suite. We'd like to buy but property costs here are incredible (the recession didn't hit the Vancouver housing market at all, unfortunately for us and luckily for people who bought in the last couple of years) and we can only hope to afford a two bedroom condo in our beloved neighborhood. I'm pregnant with my second and I have to admit, I'm hoping it's another girl partly because it makes room sharing so much easier. I'd love a little boy, but logistics are a bit more difficult for small space living :)

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I read this! My fiance and I live in a 2-bedroom condo, which is almost paid off, and we also love our neighborhood! We plan on having two children and talked about buying a bigger house, but when we started seeing the prices of homes in our city, we chose to stay put and instead invest in renovations and also making 3 bedrooms out of two (like you said, how much room do you need for sleeping?).

It's exciting to read that we're not alone in our thinking! A larger house means having to buy more furniture, waste water on a lawn, spend more on maintenance, use up more electricity, spend more time cleaning, and spend less time together as a family (because everyone gets lost in their own part of the house). Thanks for sharing your story and helping me feel that we're not alone! :)

MommaBeast said...

I would LOVE to hear how the workshop went, and hear any ideas you have. We're eventually planning on moving towards a house that's around 700sq ft that will be for my husband and I, our (currently) 14-month-old son, our four small dogs, and eventually a couple more kids. I'm into being frugal and minimalist, but am a bit worried about a tiny house with a lot of living bodies.