In Defense of Large Homes: What I learned from moving from a small condo to a McMansion

One of my latest projects.

I like big homes. I do. I know this goes against the current trend of small homes, tiny homes, homes on wheels, etc. But my 3500 sq ft McMansion has been feeding my soul and I’m proud of it. This is all relatively recent though. Up until 2013, I lived in a teeny tiny 975 sq ft, 2 bedroom condo with my husband, 2 kids & a fat cat.

We chose the condo because we liked the location (walkability!) and the price was comfortably within our budget. We knew it was small but we prioritized saving money and the condo definitely helped with that. With a small mortgage, we payed less than what we would have paid in rent. And after 6 years, we were able to save up and move to a bigger home.

All in all, it worked well for us because we prioritized saving money above having fun. Travel meant camping and we did have some awesome trips to Big Sur, Crater Lake & the Oregon coast. During this time, we also had frequent “No Buy 5 Days” in which we did not spend any money at all for 5 days. If we knew one of us needed the car at Day 4, we’d avoid driving the car to save gas for that trip. We ate a lot of rice and beans.

I was also constantly trying to declutter. Every year, we’d donate boxes and boxes of stuff. You might say why not just not buy in the first place, but you’ll understand if you have children. They need clothes, shoes, books and toys they eventually outgrow. And then you need to buy that stuff all over again in bigger sizes. Even when you try to be a minimalist, there’s a minimum amount of stuff you need when you’re raising kids. We did raise our first child without a changing table but with the second one, we definitely needed a changing table. Our aging bodies just couldn’t handle that much crouching. I subscribed to Real Simple, and borrowed and read numerous books on decluttering and organizing. In essence, I was obsessed. And I still have a penchant for those books. That Japanese Art of Tidying book? I read it in Korean 2 years before it was published in English. And then I read it again in English. Boom. We have hired a few professional organizers over the years too (email me if you need a recommendation in the San Francisco Bay Area). I loved the Container Store and IKEA. I felt so hopeful in their giant stores of neatly organized bins. I donated so much stuff every year but I still felt suffocated. I thought it was me, that maybe I was a hoarder or it was all my mom’s fault. It’s always the mom’s fault.

All that madness stopped when we moved to our McMansion. It was purely an accident buying this huge house. Originally we planned on buying a sensible 1600 sq ft townhouse, but when I saw this house, I fell in love instantly. After seeing it, I rushed home all flustered and we wrote an offer on it that evening. My husband hadn’t even seen it yet but I told him not to worry, that he would love it. “Just sign! Trust me!” And he did, and he loves our home. What a sweet, trusting guy.

Once we moved in, the whole house looked so empty. We moved to a house 3.5 times bigger than our condo so naturally we didn’t have enough stuff to fill up the space. I marveled at all the empty space for days (Actually, I still marvel at the space from time to time). And then something interesting happened.

With an empty house, I was able to relax more. When I look back at the time in the small condo, I recognize I constantly felt the urge to get out of the cramped space. Despite our efforts to declutter, we always had stuff around the house. No matter how clever you try to be with IKEA & container store items, stuff has to be managed. In a larger home, I can just shove things in the cabinets. In a larger home, a basket holding some stuff takes up a small percentage of the entire room. In a larger home, our bookshelves lining one wall does not feel overwhelming. I could breathe again, and relax in the space.

That’s not the only thing. I noticed that we ended up staying home more. Hanging out in the kitchen and making food. Watching movies at home, with homemade popcorn and sparkly water made from a soda machine. If it isn’t duh obvious to you, it means we save money, especially since the soda machine was a gift (thanks Rob & Alex!). I thought I enjoyed the traveling and road trips but the more I reflect on it, the more I realized I was motivated to get out of the house because it felt so cramped. It was hard to relax and hard to be creative in that tight space. It was less about the destination but more about getting room to breathe. I’d sit on a beach and just breathe. All in all, it was not a bad thing as we had some great camping trips, but it’s good to be clear about our motives and intentions.

Instead of long trips, now we snuggle up by the fireplace and read books on the weekends. If you live in Alameda where it hardly every gets hot, you can turn on your fireplace pretty much year round. During Christmas we used to get a small tree but now I can tell my kids to go ahead and pick that big fat tree. We put it in the family room and decorate it with all the old family ornaments and the new ones kids make at school. There’s something magical about spending time together and being slow as a family instead of rushing out and about bumping into other people in large crowds. It’s a very analog experience in this digital world. It’s good for the soul.

The usual argument is that a bigger house equals bigger mortgage, which then equals more expenses. Quite true if everything else stays the same. But life rarely works that way. If one thing is lacking then we fill it with something else. For example, I no longer spend any money at the container store. I have not gone there once since I’ve moved to the bigger house. I simply don’t have the need. I am able to use the cabinet spaces I have. And it does not matter that it is not packed in the most efficient manner. Actually many of my cabinets are half empty. And that does wonders for me psychologically to open up a cabinet and see all that space. Because we’re home more, we end up saving money. Even when you travel on the cheap, you still need gas and some minimal provisions.

My children’s friends are able to come over in large crowds and hang out which is something we weren’t able to do at the small condo. I like having the friends come over to our house. I can see what they’re doing and what the kids interests are and how they’re growing and developing. That fascinates me.

We saved money living in a small condo because we made it a top priority, not because we lived in a small home. Without clear focus, self reflection & dedication, you can end up spending more on those coffees and dinners out with friends. They seem so minor, so much less than what you’d spend on a larger mortgage. But that’s how it’ll get you. While you’re justifying it, that money is running away from your wallet. A small home won’t save you money if you’re busy going out and spending it all. A large home won’t save you money either if you fill it to the top with stuff. Only commitment to saving will.

Of course you can find clutter in our house. As a working mother with two young children, clutter piles up in the house here and there. However with the larger home and more space, our clutter is very manageable. It does not overwhelm us. Instead, the ample space allows our minds to relax and focus on the important stuff. After all, we all have bigger fish to fry than organizing our sock drawers.

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