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To Upsize or Downsize?
Local homeowners and home specialists weigh in on the
popular new-home construction debate.


August 2017

Turn on HGTV on any given night, and you’re likely to see someone either restoring a large house or building a tiny one. Upsizing or downsizing — isn’t anyone satisfied with the house they have? According to an online survey published earlier this year on behalf of real estate website Trulia by Harris Poll, the answer is: No, Americans are not happy with the size of their homes.

In 1978, the report says, the average home size in the U.S. was 1,750 square feet. By 2015, that number had risen to 2,745 square feet — an increase of 57 percent. Surprisingly, of the 2,000 people surveyed, less than one third said they would choose a home the same size as their current one if they were to move within a year.

The takeaway? There are many dissatisfied homeowners in the U.S. The problem, perhaps, is that we have too many options. So how do you decide what’s right for you? One estate agent told me that finding the right house is a little like buying a pair of shoes: Before you jump into a new-home build, you need to measure yourself first.

The best place to start is with your homebuilder. “When we have a new client, the first thing we do is have a long talk,” says Jeff Horwath of Jeff Horwath Family Builders in Hartland. “We find out exactly what they want in their house. From there, we sketch it out and get our answer. And if there’s a budget to watch, we work our way back from the budget into the size we need and draw it to fit.”

Jonathon Maasch, a new home specialist with Veridian Homes, agrees that the question is best answered during that initial conversation. “We ask each new customer how they feel about the place they live in now,” he explains. “If they indicate (that) they think it is cramped, or feels tight or dark, these answers suggest they need additional space — or, at the very least, increased lighting. It also helps to have them walk through one of our model homes. We go along with them and watch and listen as they go from room to room. It gives us — and them — a better understanding of what they like and dislike.” 

“When people say they want a larger home, it is not that they just want more space,” says Horwath. “Usually it means there are things they want in the home that forces it to be larger, like big kitchens, a great room, a hearth room, open dining areas, or three- and four-season rooms.”

Maasch says that when his customers say they want a larger home, he asks them to elaborate. He most often hears that they want the feeling the extra space provides, the ability to organize things better, or the opportunity to increase the size of ­— or start — a family.

Not everything today is about going bigger, though. According to the Trulia survey, more than 60 percent of those living in homes larger than 2,000 square feet said they would buy a smaller home if they moved within the next year. Even in the new-home market, many of today’s clients are looking to build smaller homes.

How much smaller depends on individual needs. On TV, it may seem like many people are building tiny homes, but Horwath says almost all of the downsizing they see comes from empty nesters. “Their goal is to simplify their lives and get something very cool in the meantime — but without giving up too much space,” he explains. “People downsize mainly to save money and to get a better long-term investment that makes sense to them. As they get older, a lot of them want a ranch-style home, so they get maximum space all on one main level.”

Maasch agrees that many people want to downsize — but more moderately. “You don’t necessarily have to build a tiny home to build an efficient home,” he says.  

Traditionally most empty nesters downsize to a condo or rental apartment, but today many are building new homes to fit their more compact lifestyle. “Last month we had four downsizing sales, all of which (were homeowners who) sold larger homes and built smaller ones,” says Maasch. “When you combine energy efficiency and low-maintenance finishes, those looking to downsize find construction of a new home a very positive option. Besides, since the home is smaller, they are able to splurge on nicer design finishes. Plus, the low-maintenance living provides them with more time to do things they enjoy. One of the cons most people mention is that their guests are not as comfortable when they stay. Some say they have a feeling of loss from where they were to where they are going, but most are happy with the decision to build a smaller home.”

Marcia* moved into her home just over a year ago. She left behind a 3,000-square-foot home for a newly built, Veridian Homes ranch-style house of just 1,800 square feet. With two grown children both out of the house, she didn’t feel she needed the additional space. “First of all, moving into a smaller home means you are forced to get rid of a lot of your stuff, which is a good thing. It is amazing how much you really don’t need. Most of it was just clutter,” she says. “Second, as you get older, it is nice to have everything together on one level. No more carrying a vacuum cleaner up and down the stairs. Also, the maintenance, heating and air conditioning costs are much lower. And there is a lot less to clean. Now I only have to worry about two bathrooms, which I love.”

Is there anything Marcia misses about living in a bigger house? “No, nothing at all,” she says. “I love the fact that because the house is smaller and has an open concept, I can see almost everything from any part of the house. After living here for over a year, my advice to anyone thinking about downsizing is: Do it, and don’t be afraid. The risks are completely outweighed by the rewards, and besides, life is too short to spend it cleaning the house.”

But not everyone goes small when the kids leave the nest. Some couples do just the opposite and upsize to a much larger house in anticipation of a growing family and the arrival of grandkids. Genie* and her husband moved from their 3,200-square-foot home to a larger, new build just two months after their youngest child left for college. “We always wanted a home on a lake,” she says, “and we wanted to build a house where the kids and their friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, and eventually spouses and children can all stay comfortably.”

The house is, she adds, embarrassingly large. “After we each got the rooms we wanted and the architect worked his magic, the house I hoped would be 5,000 square feet is now 7,500 square feet, with an additional 1,000 square feet of finished basement,” Genie explains.

After living in the home for a few years, upsizing has proved to have both pros and cons. “The cost of almost everything has doubled or tripled,” she says. “Then again, our house has almost tripled in size, and we went from living on an eighth of an acre to having to maintain 1.8 acres. But the pros clearly outweigh any con. First of all, the house is built to our exact specifications. Everything is new, and every door works. My mantra was ‘If you build it, they will come,’ and that is exactly what happened. We are constantly entertaining kids and friends and anyone else who wanders down the driveway. Last weekend we had six kids ranging in age from 19 to 25, plus three yellow Labs. It was great. We love it when the kids come, but we also love when they leave and it’s just the two of us — and the two dogs. We are blissfully happy, and I already know which bedroom will be the bunk room for grandkids.”

*Last name omitted for privacy.


This story ran in the August 2017 issue of: