Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Contract and Expand

You know, we have probably the biggest house on the street--there's a couple of big renos going on that are increasing the average square footage behind the 1917 facades in the 'hood, but we've got easily the biggest property ... and the smallest family on the block.

When we were so desperately hunting for a new house I was focused on the kitchen: my first house had a big, square, open kitchen with a pass-through and a breakfast bar. This kind of feature is very rare in these old places around here, and it was one of the things I liked best in the house that I never wanted to sell. So I searched and searched, panicked, and I got my big square kitchen. It wasn't until we moved in that I noticed just how much bigger this house is, overall, than the last one. Than a lot of other ones of this vintage, in this area. I will admit that I have tended to crow about it: 1800 square feet of living space, not counting the full attic or basement! Backyard 55 feet wide! Attached garage and full-height basement! Try to get that in the suburbs, bitches! But I looked at the bedrooms with a critical eye: this seems small, for a master, right? Munchkin's room has a small closet, doesn't it? Shouldn't the guest room fit a queen-sized bed? Wouldn't it be better if the main bathroom had a tub and a free-standing shower?

Honestly, I have no idea where I got these ideas. I grew up in a four-person family family in probably a 1200 foot house, with no attic and a basement with a six-foot clearance. Of the three bedrooms, only one could hold anything larger than a twin bed.

I started to question my own expectations for a couple of reasons. First, like a lot of you, probably, I have been sucked into the HGTV aspirational quicksand. The renovation shows devised a new normal, and every time I clicked the TV off, my house looked a little dingier, a little less attractive--less adequate--to me. But then, the real estate shows, with single secretaries sniffing at anything less than detached, three bedroom, steel appliances, granite countertop, dual vanities, three car garage, crown moldings! It started to seem out of control and hubristic. And then of course, the United States real estate financing market completely imploded. Goodbye credit-funded granite, hello second job linoleum. That was sobering.

Second, though, more personally, I learned a little more about this house's history. I may have mentioned that the house has had two owners: the family we bought from had been here since the 1950s. There were six kids, and a widowed mom. Where on earth did they put all those kids? Well, some of them obviously went up in the (uninsulated, unheated, barely electrified) attic. What about their stuff? Every available surface is covered in nails and racks and shelves and hooks, all built by hand, much from scrap. Closets are carved out of overhead spaces, accessed by--I kid you not--a drawbridge over the stairwell. Six kids in this house? Yeah, you'd need to maximise your storage.

We are only three (and a cat). The comparison is sobering.

More sobering? It turns out (two old ladies pointing at my house and laughing about the olden days tell me) that the first owners had--wait for it--ELEVEN children. Yes, they were Catholic. Yes, actually, five of them went into the church. Thirteen people in this house.

Thirteen people in this house.

Where in God's name do I get off turning up my nose at the bedroom dimensions? The guest room is bigger than my Mom's master when we were growing up; Munchkin's room is much larger, actually, than my own bedroom growing up. Why do I suddenly feel like I need so so much more than I ever knew growing up? Maybe it's the TV, maybe it's the decorating and lifestyle magazines. Maybe it's because all of our stuff needs so much more closeting than was ever required before in history. Maybe it's bigger and more fridges, bigger and more TVs, bigger stereos, bigger and more things that make noise / take up space.

Families are getting smaller. Our houses are getting bigger. Where does it stop?

I'm grateful for what I have. I don't need anymore. Really I don't. And in any case, in our family, more often than not, we all seem to find ourselves hanging out together, within arm's reach--or as Pynchon expresses it, "All the family, on one piece of furniture." I should be glad there's not thirteen of us on this couch right now.


Omaha Mama said...

My mom was one of seven and no one had their own bed. The glasses of water were frozen when they'd wake up, they slept in an unheated upstairs too. Brrrrr.

I laugh at House Hunters, at the kind of people that I like to dislike. Married or not, no kids, walking around the million dollar home saying "This is kind of small" at EVERYTHING. And then you watch House Hunters International and the people pretty much just don't want to have to stand over the toilet to shower. Hilarious.
We are spoiled, spoiled people.

J and I are in a very small house compared to most peers. We've ONLY got 1500 sq. ft. And are currently finishing a room in the basement. For what? More space!

Mimi said...

OM! I've been struck at the difference between House Hunters and House Hunters International, too. Buying a million euro 2 bdr apt in Madrid? And the microwave is in the bathroom! Then what a spacious bathroom! Where do I sign!

And what a story about your mom! My mom and her sibs slept in a tent for four months while their dad built the cottage...

Kyla said...

Very, very true!

We have a perfectly adequate house, but it seems quite small when compared to the houses of many of our acquaintances. We don't NEED anymore space...but it kind of seems like we should. LOL.

Cloud said...

Ah, HGTV. I only watch when I have an infant to nurse, it seems. It is just engaging enough to ease the boredom of the nurse-a-thons without having a pesky story line that my sleep deprived brain will fail to follow. When Pumpkin was tiny, there were a lot of shows about redecorating a room in your house on a very tight budget and things like that. I actually picked up some useful tips. Now, all the shows are about people buying or selling houses. I'm getting bored of them- I'll have to find something else to get me through future growth spurts!

We have a house from the 50s. It is small by modern standards- especially the closets. I see some of the closets on HGTV and they are bigger than the second bedroom in our old apartment.

It seems that we (in the US, at least) have supersized everything- big cars to carry all of our stuff around, big houses to store our stuff, big furniture to fill those houses. We struggled to find living room furniture that would be the right size for our space. We're so wasteful. All that extra square footage has to be heated and cooled in most places, after all.

Of course, Hubby and I *are* planning to add on some day. Because Petunia's current room doesn't have a closet. In fact, it may be the size of a closet in a new house.

So even though I moan about our American addiction to stuff and space- I can't completely break it myself. Sigh.

Lisa D. said...

I've been reading your blog for quite some time now. I've enjoyed reading things from a sometimes very different perspective and a sometimes very similar perspective. So, thank you.
I have to say this post is something I've been thinking about a lot lately. We have a very tiny house and 4 children, and yet we have so much more than we need in many ways.
My two oldest children are in school and talking about environmental issues, etc. I'm trying to teach them that maybe it should be less about using a different light bulb and more about just being less wasteful and "greedy" overall. Do we really NEED a bigger house? Not really. Do we really NEED more stuff/toys/processed foods/the latest cool thing? Or can we learn to be happy with what we have, using things until they really wear out, not just until we are tired of them. Can we learn to compare ourselves with families across the world, who would be overwhelmed with our riches, instead of families on T.V. who are never satisfied?
Not that I don't ever take my children to McDonald's, while I read the kitchen and bath magazines, dreaming about a pantry the size of my bedroom!

Debbie said...

This is something we often talk about, as we're soon going to be in the market for a new home.

I've stopped watching HGTV since it became mostly about buying and selling, so I can't comment, but even a lot of the reno shows were frustrating, because the homes/rooms have to be a certain size to get the crew inside.

It's the same reason I've stopped buying the home decor magazines. I believe I stopped when a "Small Spaces" issue of Style at Home came out and the smallest space was over 1500 square feet. Really?

I think a lot North Americans are a little out of touch with reality because we have so much space here. Especially out west. We forget that most of the world's children grow up in neighborhood parks, not backyards, because all they have is a balcony.

Bea said...

Last night's House Hunters was a good case in point - the childless couple touring all these gigantic homes with their weird obsession with "deep water." And the other night on My Big Amazing Renovation there was a couple who wanted to add onto their 1400 sq. ft. home - so they added an additional 2300 square feet! Their rationale was that they need more space because their kids are in their teens now - which means that they'll enjoy the extra space for about five years, and then they'll be empty-nesters in a 3700 sq. ft. home.

My house is about half the size of the house I grew up in, but I am finding it so far to be exactly the right size. Occasionally I wish I had just one more room on the main floor - a place besides the kitchen I could go and read/work if hubby is blowing up zombies in the living room. But we deliberately chose a plan with only one living space because I didn't want any unused rooms. We use every room every day, and I really enjoy that about my house.

Bea said...

Also, I like the buying and selling shows for the same reason I like Survivor - I enjoy the challenge of predicting which house the buyer will choose. House Hunters is my favourite, though, because it's the only one where you get to see what the new owners have done to the house a few months later.

A friend of mine commented awhile back that she grew tired of the Trading Spaces genre because it seemed so contrived: if you're really planning to redo a whole room in your house, you're going to have more than one weekend to do it in and more than $1000 to spend. But I did enjoy the resourcefulness of those shows, the way the tight budget forced more creativity instead of mere expensiveness. I find Canadian House and Home magazine to be all about expensiveness, which I find gets kind of boring after awhile.

I confess: I really, really love my laminate countertops. There! I said it! I'm so behind the times!

Mimi said...

Bea: here's my confession -- I liked the laminate 'wood' flooring at my old house better than the hardwood at my new house. It was just so much hardier and easier to clean and it didn't squeak ...

Patti said...

Personally, I don't like granite countertops. They're noisy to set dishes on.

We have just us two, and I couldn't agree with you more. We used to own a 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom house. We sold it, and bought a one-bedroom, one-bathroom house with a big lot. More gardening, less housework. And a very manageable mortgage, thankfully.

You know what really impacted me? A couple of trips to Ukrainian orphanages. I stayed with families who lived in dingy (by our standards) apartments, and had no concept of owning an entire house. And they were happy. We have no idea what "need" is.

I really liked this post. :)

the b in subtle said...

Hi Mimi - I loved this post. My parents came from families of 9 and 10 children. The boys had one bedroom, the girls the other bedroom. They had to share beds with their siblings never mind bedrooms. This post has me thinking a lot about where I am and what I will be leaving behind when I plan to move next Spring. I'm a single secretary (well, administrative assistant) - but I know I want something old, with history. And, even if it's small, there is only myself and my son and a cat, sometimes a dog, too. I can always renovate. I feel like the farmhouse I'm currently in is so big for just the two of us - 3-bedroom, 1.3 acres. I am looking forward to downsizing and this house is only around 1200 sq. ft. (Course that's a miracle cuz it was built in 1848). I really enjoyed reading this post. It's nice to be reminded how very lucky we are to live in this country and have what we have over our heads when, even in this country, so many are homeless. And the snow is flying. Feel so blessed right now for a lot of reasons. Happy holly days!

Marie said...

I grew up sharing a single bed in an 8x8 room. I can't even imagine forcing my kids to share a room now. But there were eight of us in a roomy four-bedroom house. Luxury! My place now is a bit less than 1000 square feet, but we added a one-room addition over the mudroom when the third kid arrived. And you know what? We regret it. We totally could have managed without.

It's all status anxiety that keeps us on the consumerist treadmill. Keep reminding yourself about those 13 kids, and you'll save a lot of money and hassles. It's that - look to those worse off - thing that helps keep me from the madness.

kittenpie said...

I think we all have so much more now, too. More toys, more clothes and shoes (guilty!), more computers, more specialized ktichen gadgets and tools of every sort, more sports "equipment," more more more. Our stuff is our biggest issue in our house. Our house is totally adequate in size, but the old closets to hold a few dresses don't cut it, so we just built in a bigger closet, stealing a little space fromt eh Bun's room, and will some day build a bigger bathroom, but everything else should pretty much stay as is, I think. It's nearly the same as the house I grew up in, with a family the same size, and while we were never cramped, we were often all crowded into one small space, prompting my dad to joke about renting out the rest of the house.