Sunday, July 30, 2006

This house-buying thing has gotten complicated.

First, a caveat. I know there are bigger problems in the world. This town is an expensive place to live, and we've gone from contemplating a major kitchen remodel, which we can afford, to moving to a new house, which we can also afford, while many people around us aren't able to make a move or buy a house in the first place. We live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood and none of us would suffer if we had to stay here for a good long while, even if we didn't remodel the kitchen. In other words, I know this doesn't exactly rank in the top 947 great tragedies of the 21st century. Nonetheless, it is currently a dilemma for us, so please bear with me.

From day one of our decision to start looking for a new house, I have maintained that size is not the issue. Our house is small by the standards of some people, but I've always felt like we had more than enough living space here, and one of my biggest beefs with this house is that a lot of the living space we have -- our living room to be specific -- doesn't get used (we don't really need a second sitting room most of the time) or is unusable (the western exposure of our house makes that room too hot to sit in after 1 pm during the summer). The fourth bedroom we added a few years ago suffers from similar problems. And so we spend a great deal of our time in the family room, which is somewhat cramped. In addition, the upstairs of the house is difficult to heat in the winter and even more difficult to keep cool in the summer. Add the fact that the kitchen needs a major overhaul and we don't have nearly enough outside/garage space for bikes and such, and you have more than enough reasons for us to be shopping for another house.

Yesterday I saw a house that I really liked. I sent Reasonable Man over to look at it and he liked it too. The price is right. It has one story and four bedrooms, one of which is at the front of the house and could function as exactly what we would need it for: a place to put the computer, a place where the kids could keep their school stuff and do their homework, and where we could put the futon and have guests stay. It would be an extension of our living space when we didn't have guests and a guest room when we did. The layout of the house is big and open, there is a ton of built-in storage, and the backyard is big enough for us to put in a pool and still have plenty of room for patio furniture and our trampoline. The kitchen would need some work, but it's attractive and it has a pantry. And on the "location, location, location" front, it's basically in the same neighborhood where we live now, where we are very comfortable and where many of our friends live.

So what's the problem? It's smaller than the house we have now, by about 200 square feet. The space it has is everything I think we need when I envision the most efficient house possible for us, but probably not one inch more than that. The family room is not smaller than what we have now, but it's certainly not much bigger. There's no place to put anything bigger than a small dining table, so hosting things like Christmas dinner would be a problem. The family room furniture we have now would fit just fine, but there would never really be any options for moving things around too much.

I've looked at a number of houses since we decided to move, many out of our price range, and although I maintain that size is not that big an issue, the times I've walked into houses with a big, wide-open living space, I've swooned just a bit. The idea of having a family room where you could have one of those great big ginormous sectionals and not have it completely fill the room is awfully appealing. One house in particular stands out in my mind. It's on a busy street, and the backyard is pretty tiny, but when you walk in -- well, the word "cavernous" comes to mind. There is a huge living room, a huge kitchen/family room, and then there's also a huge loft. After Reasonable Man saw it and thought it was pretty cool, I said to him, "but don't you think that's way more space than we need?" He didn't, but I did.

I still think so, but I've definitely come around to the idea that I would like that much space. And therein lies the dilemma, because I can still walk into a house like the one we found yesterday and just feel so sure it could work for us. But five years from now, after doing the work on the kitchen and putting in a pool, will our family of two adults and two teenagers feel crowded, and will we wonder why we bought this house when we could have gone bigger?

This is similar to the the questions I have about my car. I drive a minivan, but I chose the smallest one available, with the best possible gas mileage. Even so, I often wonder: do I really need to drive a minivan? I only have two kids, and we only drive extra people around every once in a while. I could drive a sedan that gets much better gas mileage -- a hybrid even. Then again, it's nice to be able to haul extra kids around when we need to, or drive another family on outings. We have friends who have traded cars with us for an evening or overnight so they could transport more people all in one car than their sedan can hold. Long car trips are more comfortable in our minivan than they used to be in our old Toyota Camry, and storage is never a problem. We can even haul the occasional piece of furniture without any trouble.

In other words, we don't need the extra space every day -- but sometimes we really do need it. Does that occasional need justify the fuel we consume by driving it every day? Similarly -- do the occasional times we feel crowded or want to host a big holiday dinner justify buying a house that's bigger than we need, with the added costs of heating and cooling, not to mention furnishing it? A small house, one that has only the space we need to live on a day-to-day basis and no more, equals smaller energy bills and no reason buy new furniture. That means a smaller ecological footprint we're leaving, and I really do like that idea. It's very Davis. And it's not like we'd be depriving ourselves of nice things, like a pool and a new kitchen. In the end our quality of life still goes up.

Just as long as life with teenagers doesn't feel more crowded than life two grade-school-age kids does, I guess.

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