We’re renovating/extending a house, but is it too big?

A McMansion: My house is nothing like this, but when you Google "McMansion" you get images like this. Houses that are way too big and would cost a fortune. You can kiss early retirement goodbye if you're building/buying one of these.

A McMansion: Our house is nowhere near this big, but when you Google “McMansion” you get images like this – houses that are way bigger than anyone would need and would cost a fortune. You can kiss early retirement goodbye if you’re building/buying one of these.

I wrote a post back in April on the benefits of designing energy-efficient houses, which is something that any aspiring blogger would presumably be interested in so that we can reduce annual expenditures. My wife and I are particularly interested in this issue because we will renovate/extend our investment property in the near future and turn it into our long-term home. It’s therefore in our interest to make the renovated house as energy-efficient as it can practically be, but we need to get a balance between lowering ongoing utility costs, and not spending a gazillion dollars to make it super-mega-hyper-energy-efficient.




This project is getting closer now, and as part of the planning process we are having plans drawn up to submit to the local council for approval. One thing that I have had to consider is the size that we want the house to be and why, and I have come to see that the size of a home can have a huge effect on one’s lifestyle, but not for the reasons that you might think.

The explosion in house sizes

Urban sprawl: Imagine living way out on the edge of a city like this. Even if it was in a McMansion, it would still suck.

Urban sprawl: Imagine living way out on the edge of a city like this. Even if it was in a McMansion, it would still suck.

I think that most people would have some notion that houses are much larger nowadays than they once were, but they might be shocked by just how much of an increase has occurred in our lifetime.

I did a bit of quick research into this issue in Australia, and was quite surprised to find the following facts:

  1. Australians choose to live in the world’s largest houses, with an average size of 243 square metres or 2614 square feet.
  2. The biggest average home size of any country in Europe in 2011 was Denmark at 137 square metres or 1474 square feet.
  3. The average size of an Australian house increased from 162.2 square metres (1745 square feet) in 1984 to 243 square metres (2,614 square feet) in 2011.
  4. Three in every four homes has a spare bedroom, and the average home had 3.11 bedrooms in 2012.
  5. The average size of a household decreased from 4.5 people in 1911 to 2.6 in 2011. That’s a decline of 42% over the century.

Now when you read all of these facts, you can only come to the conclusion that everyone is spending a whole lot more to buy bigger houses so that they can fit less people in them. This trend has coincided with the explosion in our mortgages since the early 1990s, and when you combine these two issues, the logical inference is that the whole large house idea is completely destroying our ability to achieve financial independence.

Rethinking our house

These realisations made me rethink the renovation/extension of our house and how big it really should be. Because it was built in 1953, it’s very small by today’s standards at only 116 square metres or 1247 square feet. The extension that we are adding on is a further 106 square metres or 1145 square feet, bringing the extended house to 222 square metres or 2392 square feet.

Now I know that this house is still quite a considerable size compared to what many in the FI/RE blogging community have, and people may well be ridiculing me for it, but it’s a lot smaller than it could have otherwise been. If this had been a typical renovation/extension then the house could have easily ended up at 280 square metres (approximately 3000 square feet) or more, at which point it would really be starting to waste serious cash.

While I could easily live in a house much smaller than 222 square metres (that’s what we do now after all), I feel like the size of this house is effectively showing some restraint compared to what it could have been. Another way of thinking about it is that we will have four people in 222 square metres, which is 55 square metres per person. This compares to the Australian average of 93 square metres per person.

So it’s a bit ridiculous by FI/RE standards, but a lot less ridiculous than the Joneses. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

Why bigger houses are bad

In Australia people seem to think that bigger houses are the way to go, with statements like “it’s the bigggest investment you’ll ever make” and “you can never have too much storage space” being common slogans that builders and real estate agents use to sell homes. And the Australian people buy into it.

But what a lot of people don’t actually realise about big houses is all of the negatives that come with them, including:

  1. You don’t actually need the space, so it’s a waste of money and years of your life spent paying for it;
  2. They encourage you to accumulate more crap, which costs you more money to buy and creates more rubbish going into landfill when you throw it out;
  3. There is a lot more space to heat and cool, so your utility bills will be much higher than they otherwise would have been. If you’re an environmental crusader then it’s even worse;
  4. There’s a lot more space to furnish, so you’ll need to buy more furniture to stop the rooms from looking empty;
  5. If you have the average number of people in your house, you will have one, perhaps two empty bedrooms which is of course a huge waste of space; and
  6. Bigger houses take up more land, and encourage more urban sprawl. Urban sprawl is bad for a whole stack of reasons, not least of which is that it encourages people to commute from way out on the city fringes into the centre of a city for work. And we all know that a long commute (and the transportation and time costs that it brings) is one of the biggest barriers to early retirement and a good lifestyle that you will need to overcome.

Despite all of these negatives, the 2000s and beyond have seen an explosion in the number of McMansions built on the fringes of Australia’s lagest cities, with many of these homes being quite poorly designed in terms of energy efficiency as well. I just hope that none of our FI/RE community owns a home in this category!

So what’s the verdict? Is the house too big?

When I started writing this article I found myself trying to rationalise our decision to build a house of this size, and in the end I found that it was quite difficult to do. I had originally thought that we had shown some restraint with the size of the house, and while it is indeed below the average size, it’s not that far below.

Even though the house is only just below average size, its relatively energy efficient features and close proximity to the important things in our lives (our jobs, the kids’ schools, supermarkets and family) must be redeeming features.

Maybe I’m being too hard on myself though? What do you think?

And how big is your house? Is the size of a house an important consideration for you?

IA

5 thoughts on “We’re renovating/extending a house, but is it too big?

  1. I think you’re being a little hard on yourself 🙂

    The fact that you’re even researching it means you care enough and are making a conscious decision. Sometimes I think that people on the FI/RE path are too hard on themselves and end up comparing themselves to others within the FI/RE community: who has the least amount of stuff, smallest house, etc. (sort of a reverse of keeping up with the Joneses if that makes any sense).

    While I’m personally content with living in a 600 sq ft studio apartment, I don’t have a family yet so I don’t need the space. But I certainly don’t look down on anyone for their housing choices. We all have different needs.

    It may be a waste of money in someone else’s eyes but doesn’t mean that it would be for you. Being close to the important things and keeping your family happy is what matters.

    • I hadn’t thought of the whole reverse keeping up with the Joneses thing but you’re probably right. It fails that test, but definitely isn’t keeping up with the real life Joneses so passes that test with flying colours!

      The proximity to the important things in life was a huge plus for us in choosing this house in the first place, so that’s something that gives it a big tick irrespective of size.

      If it was just my wife and I then we would be quite content with the house’s current size, but something about having kids makes you think that you need more space for them otherwise they are harassing you all day long! Perhaps that’s why most houses built after the 1970s (in Australia) started getting two living areas?

  2. 222 sq metres is huge! If it’s causing you to second guess, maybe it’s worth looking again at the floor plan. There could be a possibility to optimize the existing interior, so you won’t have to add on, or to add on a smaller space.

    I’ve lived in many places now, and prefer small spaces that are well-designed over bigger spaces that are big for big’s sake.

    The house I grew up in was 111 sq metres (I didn’t just halve your number to be contrarian – I ran 1200 sq ft through the converter and that’s what I got!), which isn’t considered too small for a family of 4 (plus a big dog) by Toronto standards. The rest of my extended family have huge houses in the suburbs, and always encouraged us to move out-there so we could have more space like them. While it was nice visiting my cousins and playing in their big yards, their endless amount of *stuff*, getting bikes in and out of the garages, etc… I’m glad may parents chose to stay in the city. In my experience, 111 sq metres for a family of 4 was perfect, even during that awkward time when we were 4 adults living under one roof. What makes a big difference is having the right layout and furniture that fits the space.

    Currently Martin and I live in 65 sq metres, and will soon move to 55 sq metres. We’ve lived together in 32 to 70 sq metres, and found that 70 was too much for just us, and that 55 was the ideal size for a flat (we hate cleaning). We could even go smaller as long as the space is well laid out with lots of natural light. But we are hippies and would live in a tiny house if it were legal. 🙂 Now that I’m living in Europe, I value having access to outdoor space over indoor space. That’s the only reason I’d want a house here – to be able to have a yard. Ideally I’d like a 65-70 sq metre house on a small plot of land, but they only seem to build houses that are at least 100 sq metres.

    • Yeah, it’s certainly made me think, but I seriously doubt I would get anywhere with my wife at this stage. She has her heart set on the size and floor plan now, and if I’m completely honest I do as well. We have budgeted this cost into the whole FI/RE plan, and it will bring the total spend for the property to somewhere around $500k as an outside number, which is still pretty good in the scheme of things, but it really is $200k that we didn’t need to spend (we could have just stayed in our current house and not hat to spend a cent).

      It’s interesting how different the sizes of houses are over the world and what is considered normal. I think people become accustomed to what they are used to, which is really the effect of lifestyle inflation I guess. Interestingly what you are wanting from house size and land is probably our next house BEFORE we renovate/extend. You would probably like it since the house is fairly small (by our standards) and the yard is quite large!

      • It does sound like my dream house pre-reno. But I’m sure post-reno will be amazing too. It’s all about choosing what’s best for you and your family. I tend to want to live as light as possible in Germany, because I don’t think it’s a place I want to stay for(ever). So it’s a push and pull between one of us (the German one!) wanting to settle, and me wanting to flee! Were we in my home town, I think we would probably go for a big suburban house too. Who knows! (in Germany, buying property is a much bigger commitment because the housing market isn’t so elastic, so just going for a big house would pretty much keep us here or lose us money if we sold).

        Keep us posted on your house plans! It’s exciting stuff. 🙂

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