Ambivalence common on big vs. small home

SMART MOVES

November 08, 1992|By ELLEN JAMES MARTIN

The computer guru just can't decide.

He knows he wants to sell his Union Square rowhouse because && of neighborhood annoyances. But should his next property be a big, free-standing house in Catonsville that gives him plenty of elbow room? Or would he be better off with a cozy condo-apartment near downtown Baltimore?

With a 20-year collection of books and memorabilia, this widower favors a place where he could stash his belongings without having to go through the painful culling process. On the other hand, a low maintenance, economical condo life also draws him.

"I've never lived in an apartment. But I just hit the big 5-0 and I'm tired of the hassles of having a house," he says.

The computer guru is not the only American who is ambivalent on the small house-big house issue, according to those who study lifestyle trends. Americans may want bigger and bigger homes, but they're also coming to terms with limits on their ability to pay and care for such homes, the trend-watchers say.

Back when the first tract homes were built in America in the late 1940s, with the Long Island development known as Levittown, buyers' expectations for space were "a tribute to modesty," says James W. Hughes, a housing specialist at Rutgers University. At Levittown or similar subdivisions built at the same time elsewhere in the country, the buyer got a 900-square-foot house with two tiny bedrooms and a cramped living room-dining room-kitchen area.

By 1987, the median size of a new home reached 1,755 square feet, and by 1990 reached an all-time record of 1,905 square feet, Professor Hughes notes. But, interestingly, the median home size shrunk a little in 1991 to 1,890 feet, he adds.

Why the slight shrinkage? The cyclical downturn in the economy is probably part of the explanation, Mr. Hughes says. But he believes a larger influence is also at work. Increasingly, he thinks, Americans are dubious about the investment value of buying the biggest home they can afford.

"The house used to be the super piggy bank, the retirement nest egg. It was ultimately going to pay for the children's college education. But a very harsh reality struck in the 1980s -- especially in areas that experienced the housing price frenzy. The lesson people learned is that you can lose in housing," Mr. Hughes says.

Other factors may also be at work. After hitting 50, it's been traditional for people like the computer guru to think seriously about scaling back to a simpler, more carefree life. But these days, even younger people -- especially those involved in a two-career marriage with children -- are seeking housing simplicity.

"They don't want to take care of the bigger house," speculates Judith Waldrop, research editor of American Demographics magazine.

Still, Ms. Waldrop says research studies indicate that Americans' yearning for a larger, more prestigious home loaded with amenities is almost endless. Not only do they want the oversized kitchen with the gourmet appliances, but they also want extra bedrooms to be converted in home offices, computer rooms or exercise areas.

"Every year the American dream gets bigger and bigger. Young people are very money-oriented, very materialistic. But they're afraid they're not going to be able to afford the lifestyles of their parents," Ms. Waldrop says.

Are you one of the many Americans ambivalent about whether to buy a large home or a smaller one? Then you may find helpful these pointers from real estate specialists:

* Think through your motivations for wanting to change homes.

Do you look to the new home as a means to invest your money? Are you seeking to change your lifestyle? Are you trying to impress family and friends?

"Unless you know the reason why you're buying the house, you won't know what size you want," says Diana Campe, sales manager for the Columbia office of Century 21 H. T. Brown Real Estate.

There are no right answers to the question of how much house to buy, Ms. Campe observes. Some very well-to-do people like the simplicity of small homes, while less affluent individuals believe they must have a big, prestigious house to impress clients and build on their careers.

If you spend a while itemizing your motivations on paper and ranking them in order, you may be surprised at the outcome, Ms. Campe says.

"Sometimes it's a revelation for people. They may find out that the garage really isn't that important to them after all, or that they don't need as many bathrooms as they thought."

Don't let others inflict their housing stereotypes on you, Ms. Campe cautions. Just because you're a married man with three kids doesn't mean you need a lawn so large that it requires a riding mower. On the other hand, a single, childless woman shouldn't be steered away from the estate that requires the riding mower -- assuming she wants such a big place and can afford it.

* Consider a new home if your quest is for a big house requiring low maintenance.

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