The Trade-Offs of Downsizing
My husband and I have been married for 33 years. Our first house in Seattle was 750 sq. ft., which was plenty of space for the two of us at that time. When our son was born, however, we began to realize how small 750 sq. ft. really was. Before our daughter was born, we moved into a 3000-sq.-ft. house, where we would live for the next 26 years.
The house felt like a castle. It had three floors and a large backyard with a deck. It was a comfortable place to raise our children. Not long after they moved out, though, we realized we were living on only the main floor of the house. We both wanted to retire early and travel while we were still young. The idea of moving into a small backyard cottage and using our existing house for a rental property was very appealing. Even with our children out of the house and our needs for space diminished, downsizing after 26 years wasn’t easy.
We hired architect Matt Hutchins to design our new home. Matt was able to fit two bedrooms, a full bath, a half-bath, and a functional kitchen into 800 sq. ft. split between two floors. There is no wasted space, but there have been some trade-offs to downsizing.
We enjoy cooking, so we needed a functional kitchen. What we have is small, but it works well thanks to some clever storage solutions. One of the best space savers is the rack that suspends all our pots and pans above the island. As in many of today’s homes, our kitchen is open to the dining and living area. In this small space, however, we can host a large party only when the weather is nice enough to open the French doors and extend the living area to the patio and garden.
Another great space saver is the entertainment center built into the stairs. It was a clever solution that fits our television, stereo, and record collection. I’m not sure what we would have done with a lot of our stuff if we didn’t have a storage room in the basement of our old house, where we still keep our china, suitcases, family pictures, children’s books, and other items we don’t want to part with. We also maintain a communal area with our tenants for storing tools, garden equipment, and bikes. Our kids took some of the furniture from the main house for their future homes.
This has been the hardest aspect of downsizing: getting rid of 26 years worth of stuff. It is difficult to sort through a lifetime of belongings. I have been at it for a year. You have to go through each room and each box and decide what you should keep, what can be used by others, or what should just be tossed out.
From the time that my children were babies, I kept many of their things, both sentimental and useful, and it has been difficult to let some of them go. Eventually, though, I realized that other children would now get to enjoy these books and toys. Some I held on to because they are still really important to the kids, but even here, I’ve found ways to downsize. For example, I now have only four of the seven scrapbooks I collected for the kids.
Some downsizing is a matter of realizing what you can actually even use. For example, you just don’t need as many holiday decorations or place settings when you have only 800 sq. ft.
We were able to bring some of the old house with us, a few comforting nods to the time we spent there. These include some transplants from the garden and a few of the 1926 doorknobs. It’s nice to connect the old and the new.
Downsizing is truly a process of tradeoffs, though they’re not all negative. Not having to clean 3000 sq. ft. is pretty nice. And being able to travel without worrying about a big empty house is a delight. In the end, there has been no significant downside to our decision; it feels like we are in a vacation home that allows us to take vacations. In this way, less stuff has led to more living.
from Fine Homebuilding #227, HOUSES 2012
by Marilyn Widner
Smaller house, bigger life. Giving up more than 2000 sq. ft. when they moved from a bungalow on the corner to a cottage in their backyard, the Widners had 26 years of stuff to consider. Some things they gave away, some they threw away, and some they had to keep. The year-long cleaning effort now allows them to travel the world in early retirement.