The Simple Life

There is an oft-quoted statistic, usually drawn from the National Association of Home Builders* that makes the argument for the current price of homes — double what they once were — being a function of the current size of homes:

> The average American home grew from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,349 square feet in 2004. That’s almost a 2.5 fold increase. That’s a lot of space, and space filled with less people, it turns out:

> Yet the American household shrank by 18% between 1970 and 2003, from 3.14 people to 2.57, on average.

The latter statistic is more interesting to me. Even if family sizes have not shrunk, it’s clear that a good percentage of us are, quite literally, further apart. I don’t think either one of these statistics would have meant that much to me, except in my work as a folklorist I interview a lot of older people. And I tend to interview them in their homes. Most of them live in the same house in which they raised families, and I would be that on average those houses are no more than 1200 square feet and the smallest family I have ever come across is four. Now, sure, memory tends to leave out the unpleasant and focus on the pleasant, so the closeness of families that folks tend to recall is probably a function of the winnowing of time.

Still, I bring those stories and the sense of the spaces in which they took place back with me, to my own home. (And this is why I am glad to be blogging, because I don’t otherwise get a chance to write about these things, but here it is, something which is both personal and intellectual.) We bought our house in 2001, and at 1600 square feet, it was perfect for two professionals. There was room for each of us to have a study and for one of those studies to serve also as a guest bedroom. All the room in the world, and no need for too much of a yard, since both of us are indifferent gardeners, at best.

And then Lily came in 2004, and we began to talk about buying a bigger house, especially one with a bigger yard. And then came first Katrina and then Rita, the 2005 hurricanes. The price of houses in Lafayette immediately jumped 25% and in some cases, I would argue, they have leveled out at about 40% above what they were before the storms — which are not yet three years ago at the time of this writing. That’s great! Someone is saying. Think of the money you could make.

Alas, the money only applies if we are leaving this market, and we are not in a position to do so. So, there’s no real gain. We are “stuck” in a current house, it looks like, for the time being. But we’re beginning to realize that that is not such a bad thing. Yes, we are all tumbled together all the time. Lily’s toys constantly spill out of her bedroom and into the living room. I would call it the common room, but the study and kitchen are also common rooms — all three of us have desks in the study and there are only two tables, apart from those desks, at which people can work. One is in the living room and the other is in the kitchen.

Such a small house means we only have two trash cans to empty: one in the kitchen and one in our bathroom. If you’re anywhere else in the house and need to throw something away, you aren’t that far from one of those two.

Such a small house also means that someone else is always just a shout away. If you’re like me and forget to grab a washcloth before stepping into the shower, then all you have to do is shout for someone to bring you one. If you’re bored in your bedroom, as Lily sometimes is, all you have to do is call out: “Mom-may / Dad – day! Come play with me!” and you can at least depend upon the fact that your parents have to have heard you. (Whether they come or not depends on how many times you shout it out and they give up shouting back at you.)

Such a small house means that cleaning it is neither a chore nor something you hire someone else to do — though, at this moment, I must confess that we do not clean as often as we should and we in no way clean on a daily basis as many of the women I have interviewed insisted they did or do. Sure, we’d like a bigger yard still. It would be nice to have not only the shaded yard and house we have but also some sunny spots of lawn where Lily could really run and stretch her legs, I could plant vegtables, and Yung could plant flowers. It would also be nice, especially for Yung, if we had a bit more space in which to work. We both enjoy working at home, and I know that Yung prizes her own space. She is not as prone to spread as I am, and I know I crowd her. Perhaps all these things will come in time.

For now, I write in praise of being cramped, crowded. At some point, Lily is going to want more privacy than she gets now, but I hope that isn’t for a long time yet to come. For now, I think she likes the short dash mommy or daddy make to come to her when she has a bad dream. Her room is only ten feet from ours, her bed probably only something like twenty-five feet from ours. It’s not crowding; it’s always being hugged.

— \* There is [reason to suspect][rs] that the NABH statistics don’t include a lot of important data: apartments and the rise in manufactured-housing stocks being two things in particular.

[rs]: http://crookedtimber.org/2008/05/14/house-size-doubles/