Is the joy of less stuff spreading?
New York Times essay about downsizing from a 3,600-square-foot house to a 420-square-foot studio is being widely emailed. But are people really living smaller?
The most emailed story from The New York Times recently was not about world affairs or the latest pop-culture darling. It’s an essay titled "Living With Less. Much Less," in which TreeHugger and LifeEdited founder Graham Hill talks about his journey from a "giant house crammed with stuff" to a 420-square-foot studio apartment.
The essay struck a chord with many, ranging from downsizing empty-nesters to young people who are willing to live in smaller spaces if it means being in a desirable urban location. The recession has also brought involuntary downsizing for some.
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For Hill, who detailed his journey from a 3,600-square-foot home in Seattle to a 1,900-square-foot-loft in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood to his current cutting-edge tiny NYC studio, living with less was a choice, and one that he celebrates.
"Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me," Hill wrote.
He acknowledges that his story is not typical. Most of us don’t get a windfall from an Internet company, hire a personal shopper to furnish our homes or head off for months bopping around the world following true love and running companies out of a solar backpack.
But Hill is not alone in embracing smaller spaces and fewer things. The latest issue of Harvard Magazine profiles two couples who downsized and decluttered and are happier for it.
"It feels liberating to let go of all the material things that surrounded me," says Ronnie Mae Weiss, a Harvard administrator who moved with husband, Richard Sobol, into a townhouse half the size of their previous home. "I have more time and I feel freer to really focus on the more emotionally and spiritually satisfying parts of life."
Whether living in smaller spaces is really a significant trend is still to be determined. For every story of joy in smaller spaces, there is a contrasting story about families who want to build bigger.
The median size of a new single-family house built in the United States rose from 1,525 square feet in 1973 to 2,277 in 2007. It fell for a few years, to 2,135 in 2009, before rising to 2,169 in 2010, the last year for which figures are available. But those data don't take into account people who moved from a large existing home to a smaller one or from a house to a condo.
Some argue that it’s easier for a rich man to live with less stuff, because if he needs something he previously discarded, he can just go out and buy another one. A poorer person is less likely to get rid of things for fear he might need them again and not be able to afford them.
Most people also can’t afford the $365,000 it cost Hill to renovate his studio and build the multiuse furniture.
As Bob from Teaneck, N.J., who downsized after making a career change, commented at The Times:
.. I sometimes chafe at the premise of articles like this one. For the 99%, "living small" is not so much a virtuous low-carbon lifestyle, as it a necessary survival skill. I cannot afford a customized SoHo apartment with a fold-down bed, not even at 400 square feet. My furniture comes from Ikea, and my basement regularly floods. …
What do you think? Are more Americans embracing minimalism, or are we just hearing more about the small number who do?
My wife and I share a 400 sq ft cabin with our three cats. Not much room for more than essentials, but we like it that way. We have more time to be with each other. don't spend our free time dusting!
I downsized recently from 1700 SF to a 1000 SF house that was built in 1952. I got rid of a ton of stuff before I moved, and just today packed up 2 boxes of books to take to goodwill. I don't have a TV anymore, watching what little I'm interested in watching on the Internet or Netflix DVDs. The house I bought was a foreclosure, purchased for just 38K, and I put another 13K into it with a light bathroom remodel, refinishiing wood floors, etc. The kitchen is tiny but I still manage to cook pretty good meals in there.
I'm 48 and so I have a long time until I retire,but my downsizing is part of my retirement plan. I picture myself gradually continuing to get rid of stuff. I think that once you've had it, and moved it and messed with it, and packed it, and dusted it and gave it away after paying a fortune for it, you just kind of figure out you really didn't need it or want it that badly. I'm not rich, but if there's something I really want, I'll get it. I just find myself not wanting much anymore.
Trying to impress others with a lot of stuff shows low self esteem. Others think about you much, much less time than than you think you do, and very, very few care what you think about them.
It's a screwed up country where it's OK to build an ugly McMansion and drive a depreciating snobmobile, but it's considered impolite to mention your net worth during conversation at a family gathering, party, etc.
I'll take my little condo <1000 sq. ft, modest 6 y.o. car and LARGE asset account statements any day.
Maybe it's just me, but I find paring down and cleaning out cathartic. It seems that possessions are like water in that they take the shape of the vessel - our young family moved from a jam-packed 1,000 sqft townhome to a 2,000 sqft home 15 years ago; we rattled around in all the extra space for a few years, but the house seems to have filled up while we weren't looking. We're fortunate to have so much, but I do find that sometimes I long for those empty spaces.
Out of the nine rooms in the house we bought 6 years ago, we use three on a daily basis. There's no time or need to use the others. It's quite a waste of space and money...
Houses are getting to be like cars: a huge expense for something you'll get a third of the use out of.
About Teresa Mears
Teresa Mears is a veteran journalist who has been interested in houses since her father took her to tax auctions to carry the cash at age 10. A former editor of The Miami Herald's Home & Design section, she lives in South Florida where, in addition to writing about real estate, she publishes Miami on the Cheap to help her neighbors adjust to the loss of 60% of their property value.