A Fresh Approach to Home Ownership

Step One: Recognize that Less is usually More

The goal of most Americans is to own a home. Once they do, the goal becomes a larger home, and ultimately, the “dream house.” For many families, however, a larger home will often do more harm than good.

Consider these two statistics: The number of people living in the average American home today is half what it was in 1940. The square footage in the average American home today is double what it was in 1940.

Your initial thought might be “That’s good; we’ve got more wealth.” Or perhaps, “Fewer mouths to feed combined with a higher standard of living is real progress.”

But is it really progress?

Consider a few more statistics…about 4% of all births in 1940 were to unmarried mothers; today it is 33%. The divorce rate is 500% higher today than in 1940. Drug use is up 2300%. The biggest problems in school in 1940 were chewing gum and talking in class; today it is weapons and sexual assault. America is now number one in teen pregnancy and violent crime; number one in illiteracy, drug use, lawsuits, domestic violence and divorce.

Obviously it is flawed logic to conclude that these are the result of massive houses and small families. But the connection between societal breakdown and the disintegration of the traditional American family is unquestionable. And the fact that today’s mini-mansion homes are designed to give each family member his or her own space — and actually discourage togetherness — is painfully apparent.

Prior to 1940 the young and aged spent most of their days at home. Today the old folks are shuttled off to nursing homes because, quite frankly, they’re in the way. The young are shuttled off to daycare because mom needs to make more money to pay for the lifestyle we want. It’s incredible, but it seems that many people believe that spending time at work so that we can own a big house is more important than spending time nurturing a child.

As a society, our priorities are upside down. Living in a modest house that you can afford without being mortgaged to the hilt creates an atmosphere with less stress and more time for attention to one another. Family members are more accessible in a smaller home. Indeed, privacy must be respected, but too many people take it too far…we avoid one another. A smaller home will produce a more closely-knit family. Chances are the split-level you own is an ideal size.

Step Two: You don’t need all that stuff.

A few weeks ago I stopped at a friend’s yard sale. He lives in a massive home on a three acre lot with his wife and daughter. He was selling his bicycles, canoe, minibikes, motorhome, snowmobiles, camping gear, and a treasure trove of golf gear, fishing equipment, and other sporting goods. All of it nice, lightly used, and only a few years old. I asked him why he was selling all his great toys, and he said “I don’t have enough room.” I gestured toward his mini-mansion, and he added, “Well, I was bored with them. I’ve got all new ones.” I looked in his garage, and sure enough, he had all newer, better versions of the same stuff. The only one he hadn’t upgraded was the motorhome, so I asked. “No, we really enjoy the motorhome, but it just doesn’t fit our budget.”

Like many of us, my friend has fallen into the trap of consumption. He buys more and more “stuff” in the pursuit of happiness. But he’s never satisfied, because, well, because real satisfaction doesn’t come from a bunch of stuff, no matter how nice it is. And the one thing he really wanted to keep has to be unloaded to pay the bills. Like him, many of us continue to spend, and stuff our houses with needless things that provide fleeting happiness. Our homes — and our lives — suffer.

Does the average family need to live in a house with twelve rooms? Positively not. The added space (and abundant walls) are necessary simply so that we have more room for more stuff. Consider your oldest stuff, the items you “had to have” ten or twenty years ago. Does it have any value to you now? How many years has it been since you used that item? Fact is, we’re better off without it. Consider this radical idea…

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

…Reactionary words in an age of consumption? Believe it or not, this was written almost 150 years ago by William Morris, British designer, dreamer, and founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. Just as we live in an age of materialism, Morris lived in an era of Victorian excesses. While the challenges Morris faced were tacky clutter and overdone design, the challenges we face result in tacky clutter, an overabundance of stuff, and insidious credit card debt. The medicine is the same today as it was then: Simplify, eliminate the unnecessary, clean out the old stuff, avoid needless new stuff.

Step Three: Ignore the trends.

In the 1970s the trend in new home design was wide-open floor plans. Houses became sterile, and family time suffered. Today, the biggest trend is exactly the opposite: partitioning. Building walls. More rooms, more separation. Everybody is in the house, but everybody has their own space. It plays perfectly to a selfish audience that wants more and more and more. While all of us need our own space at certain times, we tend to spend too much time there and not enough together.

Then, as now, the family suffers so that the house can look current and stylish. In both cases the emphasis is on appearances. Considering the 1975 look, we know that it is out of style. As for the 2005 trends, we know they will eventually be out of style as well.

The point is that the trends work well for designers and trendy people. Since close, loving traditional families are not trendy, well, we’re better off not following the trends. Yes, we want our homes to look their best. But what looks best today will not be the rage tomorrow. Instead, seek the timeless designs that bring people together…certain design elements work well and look good. Regardless of whether they are from 1925 or 2005, those are the ones to emulate. Most importantly, the floorplan of your humble split does in fact emulate the classic openness of the bungalow, Cape — even the shotgun shack — homes that promote a family-oriented lifestyle.

Tough Medicine

Consider what our society and the media suggests are the keys to happiness: A big house, with lots of stuff, in the latest styles. History and statistics, however, prove that this so-called happiness is temporary at best. An oversized house creates distant families, an overabundance of stuff creates clutter and waste. The latest styles simply create the need for re-styling in a few short years.

Add it all up, and when the subtracting is done, society’s plan for domestic “happiness” rings hollow. Take a fresh approach…a home instead of a giant house, less stuff so that your home and your debt load isn’t cluttered, and classic design instead of the latest trends.