Some like it cozy

The trend in houses is to build them bigger, often with cathedral ceilings, but there are homebuyers out there looking for less

November 20, 2005|By CAROL POLSKY | CAROL POLSKY,NEWSDAY

Like the beds and chairs in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a house may be too big or too small - or just right. It's all a matter of opinion.

When Alyce Meehan and Mary Sawyer first saw their petite house in 2001, they were delighted and made an offer the same day. Meehan recalls being "quite insulted" when the couple who had rented it said of the owners, "Can you imagine that they raised three children in this house?"

"Yes, I can imagine it," replied Meehan, who grew up sharing a bedroom with three sisters.

"I didn't find the house claustrophobic," she said of the approximately 1,400-square- foot Colonial with three tiny bedrooms. "I thought it was quaint. I thought it was charming and exactly where we wanted to live."

In recent years, the trend certainly has been toward larger, aggressively un-claustrophobic houses. In the Northeast, the median size of a new house in 1973 was 1,450 square feet, according to annual U.S. Census housing surveys. Last year, that figure was 2,361 square feet. Luxury homes of 4,000 or more square feet have become increasingly more common.

But some observers suggest that the big-house trend might be slowing. Recent surveys by the National Association of Home Builders and other organizations indicate a smaller gap between what people have and what they say they want. Just maybe, enough is becoming enough.

A leading spokeswoman for this movement is North Carolina architect and author Sarah Susanka, whose Not So Big House series of books showcases smaller homes that incorporate fine materials and thoughtful design.

"I can certainly tell you, in the last couple of weeks, there's been a dramatic increase in interest. I think it's precipitated by hurricanes and the damage that was done and the increase in fuel costs," said Susanka, whose latest book, Inside the Not So Big House (Taunton Press), focuses on design details.

"There is something changing," she said, "and I think we're going to see more of it over the next months and years, largely driven by energy costs."

Empty-nesters Joel and Susan Mair might not have been spurred by hurricanes when they gave up a five-bedroom split level on Long Island two years ago for a one-bedroom, three-bath bungalow with sweeping views of Long Island Sound. But they couldn't be happier. Double-height windows offer natural light and a sense of spaciousness, from the downstairs living area to the loft-like office-bedroom upstairs.

"Our kids, everyone, thought we were out of our minds," said Susan Mair, who fell in love with the house immediately. "They thought it couldn't last. How could we be on top of each other like this? We're going to be married 42 years, and I guess we're best friends, because we get along fine."

By moving in to a smaller house and moving on to a new chapter in their lives, Joel Mair said, "we got rid of all the debris in our lives, physical and personal."

His wife added, "I don't miss anything we got rid of. We have all the conveniences we could want."

The semiretired businessman works at his desk upstairs, cocooned amid shelves and a television in an alcove at one end of the couple's bedroom. His wife, a retired special education teacher, works on crossword puzzles while sitting on one of the brown leather sofas by the fireplace downstairs or watches television in bed.

A dining table for eight is near the galley kitchen, and a treadmill and a crib for visiting grandchildren are squeezed into the bedroom. Space is plentiful for family photos on the walls and for their three grown children's families to camp out on visits.

"We're never in each other's way, I'll tell you that," he said. "It's never claustrophobic."

Maybe there's something about the coziness of a small house that evokes such reactions. It was also love at first sight for Gail Zwang when she saw her tiny yellow, gable-roofed house almost 20 years ago. "As we turned the corner, there it was. I turned to my mother and said, `I'm taking this house.' It was adorable, I loved it, that was it."

Built on Long Island's North Shore in 1888 as a rental property for working people and tradesmen, Zwang's house, on the Village of Roslyn's Historic District roster of homes, sits on the corner of a dead-end street paved in restored Belgian block. It consists of a downstairs room measuring about 15 by 23 feet (including a staircase), plus a little kitchen addition in the rear and two small bedrooms upstairs. One of the rooms serves as her office and a refuge for an elderly cat.

"I've always wanted a little old house," said Zwang, 57, who runs her publications marketing company out of her home. "When you think of house - a Monopoly-game kind of house - this is it, a little house with a little porch."

Her lawyer, her friends and her mother tried to talk her out of buying it, but she has never been sorry she did. "It's homey, it's cozy," said Zwang, whose furnishings include an antique mantel but no fireplace and an antique library case, dropleaf table and chairs lent by the Roslyn Landmark Society.

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