How Big a Home Do You Truly Need? 5 Questions to Ask to Figure That Out
When it comes to homes, the popular credo is that bigger is better. More square feet = a larger slice of the American dream, right?
Not necessarily. For one, bigger homes obviously cost more, and oversized McMansions can be harder to sell. As such, you'll want a home that's neither too big nor too small. But how do you strike that balance? Here are five questions to ask yourself that will help you determine how much space you really need.
1. Is this my ‘forever’ home, or is ‘right now’ good enough?
While you can’t predict the future (darn those unreliable crystal balls), it is possible to evaluate the likelihood you might be moving in coming years. If so, then maybe you don't need to buy that perfect "forever home" where you'll grow old; maybe a "right now" home is good enough.
“There's a common perception that you should be searching for your ‘forever home,’ and that pressure to find a place that has all the space you might ever need often leads buyers to purchase a home that might be too big,” warns Jackie Hinton, a real estate agent with Center Coast Realty in Chicago. "It's OK to know that you'll only live in a home for the next five or six years, and to buy a home that will serve your needs during that period. You can always re-evaluate and upgrade to a bigger space later.”
2. What will my income look like later?
If you’re early in your career, odds are decent that your income will increase over the years. Or, if you’re reaching the end of your career, you may be looking at flattened or declining income. In either case, it's never a good idea to get a mortgage at the max of what you can afford; it's better to go small and have some wiggle room.
“Nothing causes more stress than financial strain,” says Bill Rice, president of MyPerfect Mortgage.com. “A mortgage on a home that is a size too large is most likely to be your biggest burden, and a hard one to overcome. Happiness is often one size smaller than your dream home. That way, you can enjoy your home without dreading your monthly mortgage payment.”
Also, remember more space means more time and money spent on upkeep and maintenance, more rooms to fill with furniture, and higher utility bills to heat and cool the home.
"Any future improvement projects, like installing new floors or replacing windows, will cost more when the space is bigger," says Hinton.
3. What are my priorities?
Another question to consider is what you'll use all that space for—and be honest: While you might dream of hosting epic dinner parties in that big formal dining room, will you really? Can you say with certainty that your in-laws will descend on you during the holidays and need a guest bedroom to crash in, or might they be just as comfortable in a nearby Airbnb?
Aside from justifying what you'll use each space for, ask yourself what you're giving up. If you dream of having a secret "travel fund" so you can see the world, that may be possible only with a smaller mortgage (and house). Or, perhaps you value things other than space, like school district or a walkable location. So make sure to factor in those variables, too—and make sure you aren't sacrificing them for space you don't need.
This is why real estate investor Kathy Fettke decided to buy a smaller home so she could live in her "dream location" near the beach. "Being open to a smaller home allowed us to be in a higher-priced market we wouldn't have been easily able to afford otherwise," she says. And best of all, her home doesn't feel cramped—particularly since she can pop out and stroll along the ocean anytime.
4. How much space do I want from my own family members?
If you absolutely must have privacy—to, say, get work done in a home office or chill out in your man cave—then that extra square footage may be well worth the money. But if you're more the type who loves having their family members nearby, a large home gives people plenty of alone time ... sometimes too much.
Fettke, for one, is glad her home is small because it keeps her in close contact with her kids. "I've found that my daughter’s friends who live in large homes rarely even run into their parents," she says. But since her own home is smaller, her kids are constantly underfoot—just the way she likes it.
"Plus it seems that most of our daughter's friends hang out at our place, even though it's tiny," she says. Sure, the beach nearby may be one draw, but so may be the cozy, close-knit family environment a smaller home forces you to have. "Maybe they like the homey environment and being able to smell the cookies being baked around the corner," she says.
5. Does this home feel spacious even if it doesn't have much space?
Keep in mind that even small homes can feel spacious purely based on an open floor planand lots of light. Meanwhile, large homes can still feel cramped if they're dark or poorly laid out. So, when shopping real estate listings, know that the little number next to square footage may not tell the whole story.
"The total square footage of a house can be deceiving," says Patrick Ryan, senior vice president and managing broker of Chicago-based Related Realty. "Features like a long hallway may increase the total, but they are spaces you pass through, not a true destination within the home.”
So instead of homing in on total square footage, “buyers should focus on the size of individual rooms where they see themselves spending the majority of their time," says Ryan. In other words: Who cares if your bedroom isn't massive, since all you plan to do there is sleep?