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Natalie Gochnour: There are a lot of virtues to small-home living

Published: Friday, June 6 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, Aug. 8 2014 12:25 p.m. MDT

My request is that new homebuyers take a step back and consider the options. Square footage isn’t the best measure of life quality. Don’t overlook the benefits of living modestly. If you invest in a more expensive home make sure you have the means to do so.

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Winston Churchill understood the importance of the built environment. In a speech to the House of Commons, he said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards they shape us.” It’s a clever way of saying that our homes have a profound impact on our lives.

When I was first married, my husband and I moved into a lovely little wooden frame home with a small porch and shutters. If you live in Salt Lake City you’ve seen hundreds of homes just like it in the Rose Park and Sugar House neighborhoods. When we first purchased the home I remember a friend saying, “This is a great starter home.” My husband and I caught eyes and smiled at each other. We knew it was much more than that. Twenty-seven years later we still live in the same structure. We shaped it and now it shapes us.

Small homes have a lot going for them. They are easy to clean and inexpensive to heat and cool. They require less debt and the taxman takes less. Small homes create less impact on the environment and force you to “live light.” You can’t cart around a zillion possessions in a small living space. Best of all, you have lots of contact with those you love. There’s no place to hide in a home where you can vacuum the whole upstairs without changing the plug.

The post-World War II generation seemed to understand this. Take a drive around the neighborhoods developed in the 1950s and you will see well built homes that don’t take a lot of space. The homes typically have a one-car garage and a porch facing the street. The owners maintain a tidy yard and plant flower beds and flowering trees. They take a certain pride in their small kingdom. There is a distinct community feel.

Somewhere along the way preferences changed. Two- and three-car garages became all the rage and were featured front and center in housing design. Porches disappeared. Cars became more important than community. “McMansions” sprang up and gated communities became more common. Small and tidy was replaced by colossal. The large home became the new normal.

There’s an economic connection to all of this. The Great Recession, which ended five years ago this month, was caused, in part, by people buying more housing than they could afford. We overbuilt our housing market and paid a dear price. We didn’t have the income and the savings to justify our housing purchases. A bubble formed. Eventually it popped.

In Utah, foreclosure rates tripled and 40,000 construction workers lost their jobs. Households began to double up — grandparents, parents and grandchildren started living in the same dwelling. The economic costs of misguided credit and consumption overreach took its toll. Utah families suffered.

Home ownership is personal. I understand that. The size of the mortgage, choice of neighborhood, floor plan and amount of square feet must be individualized to a variety of needs, family sizes and preferences. My request is that new homebuyers take a step back and consider the options. Square footage isn’t the best measure of life quality. Don’t overlook the benefits of living modestly. If you invest in a more expensive home make sure you have the means to do so. Don’t borrow too much.

Socrates said the secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less. Small homes really are wonderful. They shape your perspective in life. They keep you grounded. They demand less of our beautiful planet. They force you to unwind and spread out in public parks and other sanctuaries where space is more abundant and where humanity unfolds. They make it easier for you to pay your bills on time and save for a rainy day. Most of all, they invite close interaction with those you love.

Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.

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