In the U.S., the average single family home built in 1949 was less than 1,000 square feet. These days, it’s about 2,500 square feet. But not everyone prioritizes more space. We spoke to five downsizers about the good, the bad, and the importance of noise-canceling headphones…
1. Trading city living for an oceanfront location
Residents: Mindy, 32, her husband, 38, and their “exquisite rescue cat Marmalade”
Current home: 634 sq. ft. home built in 1915
Former home: 1,264 sq. ft. three-bedroom with a large garden and garage
Location: Pacific Grove, California
One challenge: “The size of our mortgage puts more pressure on us to perform well in our jobs”
One essential: Being able to take walks and “breathe the fresh sea air” when feeling “cooped up”
Living in the Bay Area, my husband and I called Pacific Grove our ‘happy place’ and would come stay in the cheapest possible motel, Borg’s, where you can watch otters from bed! But we weren’t planning to move there, given how expensive properties are in this region.
Our jobs became fully remote during the pandemic, and we serendipitously were visiting Pacific Grove on the first day this house was for sale. We literally walked right by the open house. We realized we might be able to afford to live here in something quirky and small, so we made the decision to downsize for the proximity to the ocean and a simpler life.
Looking for shells
On reflection, it was mostly the sheer volume of stuff to go through that felt overwhelming. Clothes, shoes, and bags were the hardest to give away — mostly because I could remember how much I spent on them. That sucked! But I tried to learn a lesson from that pain and say goodbye to that chapter of my life where I collected jackets and needed different outfits for the office. The positive side of paring down is that we’re now surrounded by our most treasured items and wear only our favorite things.
Our neighborhood is on the older side, and a lot of folks are retired. It’s a slower life that not everyone wants at our age, but it’s given us a lot of peace. We go for morning coffee walks before work, collect shells, and see otters, seals, pelicans, dolphins, and whales.
Empty visual space at home is calming to me, so I’ve learned not to cram things in every possible area. We tidy up more often than we used to — since there’s no spare room to dump stuff in — but it takes much less time. Funnily enough, we used to never use our best plates. They’re from a ceramist in Berkeley that I love, but her plates are hand wash only. Now we don’t have a dishwasher, so we use them all the time.
2. Unintentionally downsizing during a tough rental market
Residents: Lizzie, 29, and Ella, 33
Current home: 485 sq. ft. studio with a balcony “just big enough for two chairs”
Former home: Each came from a larger home
Location: Perth, Australia
One challenge: “Not being able to host”
One essential: Great light: “We have floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto trees”
We didn’t mean to downsize, but the rental market was so tight and there wasn’t a lot available. When we saw this place — and it had beautiful light and a good feel — we took the leap. As part of downsizing, we made bundles of our hand-me-down clothes for friends. It’s been so nice to see our old pieces on our favorite people.
My girlfriend, Ella, says there’s nothing she misses, and when she thinks about her pre-downsizing possessions she feels overwhelmed, since ‘it was a constant game of Tetris to find places for things.’ Because it’s not an option to add things to our home, when I see a cool rug, artwork, or homeware on Instagram, I’m less moved by it.
When we work from home, it’s hard to create a division between work and life since there’s no different room to walk into to signify the end of the work day. But I’ve also noticed that we’re far more inclined to go out. A walk to the coffee shop has become a daily ritual.
Three things that really help: noise-canceling headphones, under-bed storage, and simple cooking with minimal dishes. We’ve both been surprised by how livable a small space is.
3. Selling a house twice the size for financial freedom
Residents: Jen, 42, and her husband, daughter and dog
Current home: 1,144 sq. ft. with three bedrooms
Former home: Twice as large, with a bigger backyard, finished basement and attic, garage, woodshop, and a 500 sq. ft. above-garage apartment
Location: Asheville, North Carolina
One challenge: Giving up a beloved dining room table that just wouldn’t fit
One essential: “Loop ear plugs, since my daughter and her friends no longer have a closed-door attic to play in”
Our old house felt too big, but we didn’t get serious about downsizing until last winter when we realized we would be able to set aside more for our daughter’s college fund.
While moving, I found it eye-opening to see how much stuff we had, like 48 mason jars from the one time I made apple sauce a decade ago. But I was really sad we couldn’t move with was our big dining room table. The dining room was the center of our old home. That table hosted holidays, art projects, and countless game nights. But it didn’t fit into the new space.
Another thing that didn’t fit was the giant Barbie city that my daughter and I built during lockdown. It took up a good chunk of our old attic, and we spent countless hours building/designing/decorating it. Dismantling it felt a little like ending a phase of her childhood.
But the financial freedom we achieved makes any hassles worth it. And our daughter loves that we are always on the same level, so when she goes to bed at night, we’re not going up to the attic to watch TV; and when she’s playing in her room, we’re not downstairs in the basement office. After our daughter goes to college, we see ourselves downsizing again to something half the size we have now.
4. Leaving the suburbs for fun city living with two teens
Residents: Teree, 48, and her husband, two teenage sons, and dog
Current home: A 1,600 sq. ft. rental apartment in “an artsy neighborhood along the Mississippi River”
Former home: A 4,600 sq. ft. five-bedroom house
One challenge: “Our old house was surrounded by various wildlife, like deer, turkeys, two resident bald eagles, and once, a tiny black bear. I miss that little zoo”
One essential: Finding a building with great amenities — “ours has a gym, spa, and outside pool”
We bought our suburban house after my mom passed away, since my dad wanted to live with us for a while. But after he moved out, we were kind of rattling around. Because my teens basically had their own floor, I missed seeing them outside of dinner time. Absurdly, we used an Alexa to call them for dinner, like some sort of technology-driven Downton Abbey. We missed out on some of that getting-in-each-other’s-way stuff that families should do. And with the maintenance of the house, huge yard, and pond, we felt like we were spending way too much time adulting and not enough time having fun.
On a whim, we contracted a realtor. We ended up finding this rental apartment in the city. The process of downsizing took a month. We didn’t bring much, other than our beds and bikes, so there was a lot of selling, recycling and donating. (The people at Goodwill started recognizing me!) We also kept family photographs, some of the kids’ artwork and my mom’s pottery collection.
My kids seem more engaged with our new life — maybe that’s by choice or by the fact that they can’t hide! We love taking the dog on the Stone Arch Bridge or walking to a cool restaurant for dinner. It feels like a family vacation.
Since the classic American Dream includes homeownership, I wasn’t too surprised that some people didn’t understand our decision, acting like renting was some sort of failure, whereas we see it as freedom from maintenance. It feels good.
5. Returning to the converted garage they shared with their newborn 40+ years ago
Residents: Jean, 66, and her husband, Pete, 66
Current home: 400 sq. ft. converted backyard garage
Former home: 2,400 sq. ft. house
Location: Seal Beach, California
One challenge: “We have to make sure we’re not smothering each other”
One essential: Walkability. “The beach is at the end of our street. I can walk to the post office in two minutes and grab a fresh baguette on foot”
Growing up, my single mom proudly named her garage ‘The East Wing.’ She offered my husband, our newborn son, and me the space to live in, in 1979, to help us get on our feet. I was 23; Pete was 22. During that time, Pete practiced every construction skill imaginable to make it into a cozy home. We lived there until 1986, while saving up for a down payment on our first house.
Over the decades, we had more kids and worked up to a home with 3,000 square feet. Most recently, we lived in a fixer-upper on a golf course. But after 12 years there, our first grandchild was born, and we wanted to live close to him. We held the world’s most ruthless downsizing garage sale. Pete kept 10% of his tools and a pocket poetry book that’s traveled with him since high school. I wanted the photo albums, my small collection of dolls and antique bears, and family Christmas ornaments.
Since my mother’s death, my brother and I have shared ownership of her property, so Pete and I agreed to use ‘The East Wing’ as our bolthole, while my brother and his wife have the run of the main house when they’re in town. Pete and I come from humble roots, so small spaces have never felt challenging to us. Our only hurdle with small living comes on holidays, when everyone wants to visit simultaneously!
Our grandson, Little Peter, comes through the gate every morning at 8 a.m. from four blocks away, and we watch him while our daughter Hali is working. Every inch is valuable in a place this size. A broom is a large item to deal with, and for someone who finds joy in linens, where do the tablecloths live? But the rewards of downsizing are immense. I love Pete’s take on it: ‘The less stuff you have, the lesser the obligation towards it.’ Less stuff gives you more time.
Our next tiny space production has begun: Pete’s drawing the plans for a 68′ live-aboard narrowboat. At 6′ wide inside (not counting the well deck and stern), we calculate the living space to be 338 square feet. This canal boat is what we’ll call home when we’re in England, and this time our backyard will be the landscape along 2,600 miles of inland waterways. We’re moving into our new home with a backpack, since a suitcase wouldn’t fit! With a skylight and portholes overlooking the swans, we’ll be cheek to jowl with nature.
Thoughts? Would you ever downsize your home? If you have, what surprised you, and what advice do you have?
P.S. More house tours, including small homes like Stella’s 175-square-foot studio, a couple in 240 square feet, a law student’s studio apartment, a book-filled Manhattan apartment, and a maximalist family home in San Francisco.
(Photos provided by downsizers, except for the photos of Jean’s home, including the opener image, which were shot by Tasman Thorsness.)