March 2015

Less is More: The Fastincation with Tiny Homes

Author: Kent Thune

Dream big. That’s what we are taught since infancy. Be a big boy or be a big girl; be a big success, buy a big house, and then buy a bigger house later. The American dream is a big one, and downsizing is an idea that is not generally received as a positive one. It’s just not normal in our culture to say that smaller is better.

But there is a new wave of abnormal people that appear to be awakening from the big American dream and stepping into a smaller reality where they believe big things come in small packages. If you pay much attention to trends, you may have noticed stories of people happily giving up bigger homes for smaller ones—much, much smaller to be more accurate. Images of tiny homes, measuring 250 square feet or so, are going viral on the Internet with millions of people sharing their big fascination with small homes on social media sites, such as Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram.

So who are the abnormal people who are buying tiny houses lately? How will they entertain guests? Why would they knowingly decrease resale value and ignore the two-and a-half-bath rule? Where will they put the 52-inch flat screen TV? How can the ladies live without extra closet space for their clothes and shoes? How can the guys give up their man caves? They might reply to those questions with these three words: Less is more.

The idea of having smaller homes and less stuff is captured in the modern minimalist lifestyle movement. Minimalists believe that reducing one’s material possessions to the bare minimum translates into more freedom—freedom from more maintenance and cleaning, freedom from worry, freedom from being overwhelmed, freedom from guilt and freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around.

That doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with owning material possessions or living in a large home. Big houses are sexy. But little houses are romantic. A song performed by the 1990s country music artist, Doug Stone, captures this romance: “Love grows best in little houses, with fewer walls to separate, where you eat and sleep so close together, you can’t help but communicate. Oh, and if we had more walls between us, think of all we’d miss. Love grows best in little houses just like this.”

If you’re not a little-house person, just join in the fascination for a moment: You could wake up in the morning and be in the kitchen after taking just a few steps; with less space, there’s less money spent filling it with things that you’ll just sell at a yard sale five years later; with your extra financial savings, you can spend more on other priorities; there’s more reason to step out of the house and enjoy the fresh air and the expansive universe of nature outside of your home; time spent cleaning the house will be measured in minutes, not hours; and if you ever move, you won’t spend weeks packing, while cursing the stuff you used one time and forgot about in the cabinet space you didn’t need. Sounds liberating, doesn’t it?

If your fascination with little houses is growing, you’re not alone. The stories of people making the jump from big to small are spreading like wildfire for a reason. We see the little houses and fantasize about shedding the weight of the big furniture and the big utility bills. We dream about the simplicity and practicality of the homes we grew up in and the ones our parents or grandparents owned 50 or 60 years ago.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average size of a new single-family American residence in 1950 was 983 square feet. By the 2010s, home sizes grew to nearly 2500 square feet. Ironically, as home sizes ballooned over that time, the average family size shrank. And to make the bigger houses more affordable, we built them on smaller lots. So what’s the reason for more house space? Oh yeah, it’s to accommodate our big dreams!

But now we need more rooms to hold all the stuff we’ve accumulated. However, having more than two times the square footage of the typical home in the 1950s has not translated into double the happiness since then. Key findings of happiness studies reveal that the percentage of Americans describing themselves as either “very happy” or “pretty happy” has remained virtually constant, having peaked in the 1950s.

How many kids today can build a tree house or play kick the can in the backyard? And how can more rooms equate to anything but more separation? If the progression (or perhaps digression may be a more fitting word) continues, the entire world that we know will be made of painted drywall, fabricated wood, and granite counter tops. It will be a rare exception, rather than the rule, to at least have a window with a view of something outside other than the neighbor’s big house on a small lot.
Perhaps the moral to the story here is that it is an illusion that bigger is better and that more things bring more happiness. Yes, two sinks can make for a happier marriage and people need their own space to a certain degree. But how much space is too much? At what point does more turn into less? Or the better question is this: How much is enough?

Humans are not “bad” or “wrong” for wanting bigger things. It is natural for happiness to stretch into something more tomorrow than it was yesterday. But the more happiness stretches, the more difficult the larger spaces of happiness are to acquire and fill.

This brings to mind a quote from the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus: “If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.” Epicurus lived 2500 years ago, if that tells you anything about what we’ve learned as humans since then.

But all hope is not lost, dear reader. Human nature is such that we often need to experience things for ourselves before we learn if they are good for us or not. Perhaps that explains our growing fascination with shrinking home sizes, and maybe we have begun to bring back the virtue and values of simplicity, contentment and practicality to our lives.

We are at least seeing more and more that big dreams can be accomplished with little homes. Here’s to having more with less…

Kent Thune lives on Hilton Head Island with his wife and two young boys and he shares his philosophies of simplicity and contentment with his investment advisory clients at his firm, Atlantic Capital Investments.

Let Us Know what You Think ...

commenting closed for this article