Less may not be more in houses but it makes homeowning easier

August 15, 1993|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Contributing Writer

A recent survey, commissioned by Black & Decker, maker of the "Dustbuster," produced a finding that will come as a surprise to absolutely no one: More and more of us are doing less and less housekeeping. In fact, 43 percent of women and 21 percent of men are doing less housecleaning now than five years ago.

The survey cites a new tolerance for dust bunnies. Because more women are working full time outside the home, and both women and men are just too busy doing other things, the white-glove test has been forsaken. These days, "presentable" is good enough.

Black & Decker doesn't mention it, but there is another reason: Many American homes are just too big to keep clean. Typical suburban houses these days run to 3,000 to 4,000 square feet. In addition to three or four bedrooms, two or three baths, a generous kitchen, dining room and living room, most have sizable family rooms.

Granted, a house of that scale seems to be the national ideal. It's what typical American families have aspired to since the 1950s. But today only one in 10 families fits the Ozzie, Harriet, David and Ricky definition.

According to the census bureau, the average American family size in 1991 was 2.6 members; less than half of American families had members under 18 years of age at home; married couples accounted for only 55 percent of family households; single-parent families account for 12 percent; and single-person households accounted for 25 percent. So why is the 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot suburban home still typical?

Habit, mostly. We have this annoying tendency to equate bigger with better in just about everything. A big house is a better house, a symbol of status, success and affluence, a reward to which we feel entitled. And if you can afford it, why not?

But can you afford it? And if you can afford it, why would you want to? Yes, interest rates are low, and that means many of us can get more home for the money these days. But the price of a big house is also higher heating and cooling bills, higher electric bills, higher insurance bills and, inevitably, higher property taxes. Not to mention more housecleaning and more homeowner headaches.

It sounds obvious, but it costs a great deal more to furnish a big house than a modest house -- more for carpeting, paint, wallpaper and the abundance of other things that go into making a house a home. Three thousand square feet of carpeting, wood flooring or ceramic tile does not come cheap.

And it's not just that big houses are too big or too costly, either. The problem is also that they don't meet our needs. Who really needs a formal dining room and a formal living room these days? Aren't most of us living in the kitchen or the family room anyway?

Big houses aren't doing much to facilitate togetherness, to foster intimacy and interaction among family members, to provide for a sense of coziness and security. An abundance of space only allows for avoidance and isolation. Now squabbling siblings can go to bed mad because they each have their own bedrooms and, often, their own baths. How are they going to learn about making up, about sharing, compromising, getting along, making the best of it? The big house has been the ideal since the '50s, but if memory serves, Wally and the Beaver shared a room. So did kids on "The Brady Bunch," "Eight Is Enough," "My Three Sons" and even "Ozzie & Harriet."

The truth is, the time has come to reconsider the big house ideal. The issue is one of quality, not quantity. A big house does not automatically equate with the good life. It's time we asked ourselves if we may not have better things to do with our time and money than pour the bulk of it into a labor-intensive, financially ravenous big house.

We have to get over the notion that a modest-sized home is a sacrifice. It's not. It's reasonable and realistic. It can be *~ attractive, comfortable, sensible, efficient, economic, affordable and convenient. Given a choice, a modest house with all the trimmings and frills makes more sense than a big house that offers mostly space. If we spent less on space, we might have more to spend on the laborsaving appliances and luxury items we want. We could afford to spend more on furniture because we'd have to buy less of it.

If you want an atmosphere of amplitude and the look of spacious abundance, it makes more sense to invest in skylights, pitched ceilings, open floor plans, French doors, plentiful windows, substantial architectural details, a big fireplace and decks, patios and porches that extend your living space beyond your home's own four walls than to splurge on space alone.

Whether you're buying, building, or renovating, don't allow yourself to be dazzled by the prospect of a voluminous interior. Let go of those old notions about what's right and proper. Instead, ask yourself what it is that makes you happy at home, what is it about a house that makes you comfortable, that adds to your quality of life, that makes life easier, more pleasant and pleasing.

Ask what more space will cost you, not just in terms of mortgage money, but in terms of upkeep, insurance and taxes. What are your real priorities? What will you sacrifice for abundant space? Great vacations? A hot tub? A new car every few years? Paid-up life insurance, a college education for the kids, a country home, money in the bank?

A house, for all its importance, isn't everything. It's only a part of our lives, and it needs to be put into perspective, a new perspective that reflects the way we live now, the values we have now, the priorities we have now and the time, energy and resources we have now. To be a real home, a house has to treat us gently, kindly and considerately. It shouldn't be allowed to demand more than its fair share of our income, our precious time, our labor or our concern.

) Universal Press Syndicate

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