Sunday, January 3, 2010

When Everyone You Know Lives in a Bigger House

Last week when Amber and I asked for future blog topics, one in particular stood out - how to deal with the fact that everyone you know lives in a bigger house.

I personally have struggled with this since ever since I became a homeowner. It wasn't a problem at first, because all my friends also had 'starter' homes. But then everyone - it seemed - started buying a bigger house or building an enormous addition. So why did I care? Because people who live in larger homes are happier, right? Don't be so sure.

When it comes to housing, Americans fall into three categories: those who live in big houses and are happy they do, those who don't live in big house but believe they'd be happier if they did, and those who don't care about the size of their house. This third category is by far the smallest. Why? Because Americans are raised to believe that bigger is better.

But research shows (Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert) people living in big houses are actually no happier than anyone else. So why does everyone seem to believe they are?

Because living in a big house can look pretty fabulous! My fantasy big house is the one from the movie Something's Gotta Give. Take a peak.

Photo Hooked on Houses

Photo Hooked on Houses

Photo Hooked on Houses

Photo Hooked on Houses

Photo Hooked on Houses

Photo Hooked on Houses

The key word here is fantasy. The Something's Gotta Give house is a set built for the movie. Take a look.

Just like the gorgeous set created for the movie Something's Gotta Give, when people hear those magic words 'big house', 'mansion' or even 'summer home' their imaginations instantly produce mental images of amazing interior rooms, stunning bathroom suites, lovely kitchens filled with the latest appliances and outdoor rooms with brick fireplaces and flowered pergolas. And while all this may exist in a larger home, these are not the only things that determine a person's happiness. If we add some of the missing details to our mental picture - the large heating bills, enormous mortgage, security systems needed to keep the property safe, and cleaning and maintenance required - we can recognize that big houses beat out small houses in some ways, but not in others. We need to make allowance for the fact that details we fail to imagine can drastically alter the conclusions we draw about big houses.

And now for an update from Charlie about real life in a big house!

Hi, I’m Charlie and I’m a big house addict....

Addicts of all stripes really love cheap dope.The current dope of choice for large home addicts is inexpensive construction labor and materials during this horrible recession.

  • Great dope + inexpensive source = big binge.

Here’s the story of my binge. Our home had a plumbing leak, and it damaged a bathroom and the area below it. It was enough to report it to the insurance company. An adjuster was dispatched and a check was cut.

  • In the language of addiction, insurance adjusters who cut checks are enablers.

The next call was to a trusted custom home builder for a bit of labor, paint and trim. The proposed work was less than the check, so the builder offered suggestions to maintain our home and enhance its value.

  • To a large home addict, a builder with helpful suggestions is a dealer.

The heartless, cunning dealer promptly drew up plans for a snazzy 1st floor bathroom and we ached to sign the contract and start the work as quickly as possible.

  • Addicts call this aching sensation “having the Jones.” Ask anyone who’s tried to quit smoking or heroin – it’s what makes quitting so hard.

In two weeks, the fixtures were in (including a stunning sink fixture from Italy with pewter inlays and claw feet). Work started. We got our fix (aaaahhhh) and our binge began.

Binge: We added a distinctive new front door, pediments over doorways and decorative millwork and lots of paint. There are fantastic deals everywhere because of the recession. Addicts love cheap dope – so why quit? And my charming wife was on board - so it must be OK.

  • Loved ones who tolerate the swirl of addiction are known as co-dependents.

We were delighted with the work, so the heartless, cunning dealer suggested we consider additional improvements. This was a no brainer. Besides, the stock market had recovered (somewhat), we had become more liquid (sort of) and it’s a good investment, right?

  • Active addicts wrongly call this thinking pattern “wise.”
  • Addict in recovery call this thinking pattern “stinking thinking.”
The heartless, cunning dealer (who is also quite talented) knew exactly what to do. One day, detailed blueprints for a new kitchen arrived. The design was amazing and the professional grade appliances were already on hold – so how could we refuse. Currently we’re dickering over some details. We’ll do it - what the heck.

As usual, I’ve accentuated saucy details to make the story more interesting, but it’s all true – right down to the Italian bathroom fixture with pewter inlays and claw feet.

But I don’t view this as a binge as equivalent to booze or dope. We’re really moving money from one investment class (stocks) to another investment class (real estate).

As I write this update in the den, the rest of the family is in our bedroom upstairs watching TV. The rest of the place – another 9 rooms – plus 1200 square feet of plush, freshly painted basement are dark and quiet. A little excessive, yes? It’s quiet and lonely. Things don’t make you happy, people do. Like most addicts I feel shame.

But here is a method to my madness: These improvements make the house more valuable and liquid. When the time comes to make a change, it can be done quickly and at a higher value because of these investments.

  • MBAs call this return on investment.
  • Addiction specialists call this rationalization.

Sober reality: The fact is that there are an unlimited supply of prosperous, pretentious, ego driven large home addicts who would love the instant gratification of owning a place like this. Like other addicts, they’ll make sacrifices elsewhere to get their fix – time with their families, retirement savings, college funds, vacations, tutoring for struggling children, etc. Addiction is all about finding a way to feed your habit. Low interest rates on 30 year jumbos make it all the better.

So for now, we’ll do the work, enjoy the place and wait for the market to recover. But the pieces of the recovery plan are coming together nicely.

For addicts, the first binge in their life is always the best. The second best is the one right before you’re ready to check into detox – a last hurrah. Everything in between never quite captures the high that was so fun the first time. It also leaves you miserable, lonely and ashamed when the dope is gone.- Charlie

And thanks so much for topic suggestions! Amber and I will be covering those in the next few months.




  1. Oh, I know what you mean. :-) I love my little place but then I see that wondrous place you posted and have to sigh a bit. :-) But then I remember how little space means less stuff and the freeing feeling that gives, and I am happy again. :-)

  2. Dear Rambling Tart - Thanks so much for your words of wisdom!

    And I forgot to mention in the blog a special and unusual favor I'd like to ask. If you are so inclined, I'd love your prayers and good wishes for my husband to find work in the next six months, or sooner. He was laid off in August of 2008. Please excuse this crazy request, but I am so impressed with all the wisdom, strength and kindness I see in you all!


  3. I love this post! It's so true. I had a friend who came into some money and built a big new McMansion. A month after they moved in, I visited her and she wasn't happy at all. She told me she missed her old, smaller house. "This doesn't feel like home." It was impressive to look at, but not comfortable to live in.

    P.S. Wishing your husband all the best in his job search!!

  4. I only feel sorry for those that live in big houses, because most of them have no idea what they're missing. It seems like Charlie does, but yet there he sits.

    I will definitely pray for your husband to find work Genevieve!


  5. Two thoughts. Firstly, if you were ever able to have a sleepover in a huge house as a kid, you may know the downsides. Firstly, it's scary to have such big, expansive, dark homes at night, with all those windows (rarely completely covered up at night) making you feel like you are in Burglar Paradise. Secondly, spend a full day and night in a big house and it all the sudden feels like your own smaller house. Afterall, you sleep in a bedroom, eat in a kitchen, and spend time in another room. Adding 2,000 more square feet doesn't really change the lifestyle of most people who really only use a few rooms.

    Thirdly, I do enjoy the sound issues in my house over my friends McMansion. In her house you can hear noise in 90% of the living area due to the high ceilings and foyer with balconey so all the rooms upstairs echo in her living area. My 8 foot ceilings and long/narrow house somehow make noise travel a lot less.

  6. Oh my goodness! I just have to let everyone know that we have two 'rock star' bloggers in the house. Julia at Hooked on Houses and Rue from Rue's Peanut Butter and Jelly Life. You absolutely must visit their blogs. It will be the best part of your day!

  7. ...while i am not addicted to "big"...the little english house in the movie "the holiday" is my dream house...i am addcited to the interiors...besides i do believe "a small house holds just as much love as a big one"...

  8. for prayer is never crazy...and far far more important than any house...big or small...the sky is filled for you...

  9. Ahhh, house envy! How we have come to know thee. I've wrestled with this issue ever since my husband and I bought our little condo nine years ago. It seems like EVERYONE we know is "privliaged" enough to own a "real" house, which is what we wanted but could not afford. Through the years (and a lot of reading about the advantages of living in a smaller space) I've made peace with the fact that I'm stuck with less than 1,000 square feet. However, if I ever get the chance to move to a bigger place, you can bet I'm going to jump at it. But instead of setting my sights on a huge, sprawling space, I think I would be quite pleased to find a charming abode that's just a little bigger than what I have now; maybe with one extra room so the husband can have his "man cave" in which to write and play away from the kid and the cat and a little nook for me to permanently set up some of my craft stuff.