Why trading my big house for a tiny condo was the smartest decision I’ve ever made

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Ma & Pa America

When Andreas and I got married in 2004, each of our fathers gifted us with a generous bit of cash towards a down payment on our first home. It was the height of the real estate frenzy, and OF COURSE now that we were married we would be buying a home.

We were renting a one bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill, Seattle’s gayborhood where we’ve lived off ‘n’ on since 1997. We considered looking at condos, but everyone told us that we simply HAD to buy a house because they appreciate better. And so in 2005, we bought our first home: a modest but sizable three-bedroom house in Seattle’s southend.

This little piggie went to market…

…And it was a good house. The three bedrooms meant Dre and I could each have our own offices — plus we had an enormous finished basement that we used as a guestroom/tv zone. We had a big backyard, and did a major home improvement project to add french doors to the bedroom that opened out onto it.

Hi, buy my house

We had a garden, a garage for the camping equipment, lots of storage, nice wood floors, a pond in the backyard, and a sweet hammock between two asian pear trees.

So, why was I so unhappy?

I grew up in a pretty rural environment, tucked away in the woods on 10 acres of land at the end of a long dirt driveway. Then I’d moved into the city, and gotten used to being surrounded by people, stacked up in apartments in high density neighborhoods. I thought that an in-city home would be a great place for me to live — more breathing room than I’d had in an apartment, but not as isolated as my rural upbringing.

Instead, I found it the worst of both worlds: I wasn’t in the neighborhood I loved, but I still had people everywhere. Granted, our neighbors were on the other sides of yards and fences, but they were still wthin eye shot.

And the fucking maintenance. All of a sudden I had this yard I was supposed to care for. Remember, I grew up in the woods, with ferns and forest duff as the only landscaping. When the in-laws were in town once, they asked me if we owned a lawn mower. I answered that yes, we did … and realized they were asking because they thought our lawn looked like shit and assumed that the only way it could possibly look that bad was if we didn’t have a mower.

Computer Corner

I also felt terribly isolated, both from my life in the city and even from Andreas. We’d each go into our offices to dink around on our computers, and not see each other for hours. Our house was only a 20 minute drive from our old neighborhood (or a 45 minute bus ride from my job downtown), but I was used to being able to walk everywhere. I hated driving.

As Andreas and I started thinking seriously about starting a family, I looked around at this supposedly perfect family house with its nursery-ready bedrooms and kid-friendly fenced backyard and realized it was a prison. If I felt isolated in this home already, having a baby was only going to make it ten times worse. If I hated driving, it was only going to get harder with loading a baby in and out of a car-seat every time we wanted to go anywhere.

Then our house got broken into. Despite my laptop sitting out on the bed, the thief only took some jewelry, weed, and a bottle of wine. He left some used q-tips on the table. This is all to say, not an especially bad break-in, but it added to my feelings that it was TIME TO GO.

And so in 2007, we sold our house and moved into an amazing one-bedroom condo back on Capitol Hill. I felt an immediate sense of relief — I could walk to six grocery stores, four parks, five museums, and hundreds of restaurants and bars and boutiques. The car got parked for weeks at a time. Life was good.

In 2009, when I got pregnant, the questions began: “Do you regret leaving the house? Where will the baby sleep? How long can you stay in that little condo?”

I’m happy to report that having a baby in this neighborhood has been SMART. Smarter than smart. The first year, which can be so isolating, was liberating — getting out was as easy as strapping the baby in a sling and walking out the door. Within a block or two I’d run into neighborhood friends, or my favorite baristas, or the sweet owner of the local tea shop that acted as my second livingroom.

Yes, my son has a nursery in a walk-in closet. Yes, we have to keep our possessions streamlined. Yes, my husband and I trip around each other in the hallway sometimes. But all these challenges are nothing compared to the isolation and frustration I felt living in a single-family house.

It comes down to priorities. For me, being in a neighborhood with a high walk score and lots of friends and easy access to parks and museums is important. More important than a yard and a garden and extra space for more stuff.

What are YOUR priorities? How do they shape your housing choices?

Comments on Why trading my big house for a tiny condo was the smartest decision I’ve ever made

  1. We happily live in a smaller home than most of our friends – 1000 sq ft in a rural area where 1300-2000 sq ft homes are the norm. We wanted a lower monthly mortgage so we wouldn’t be stretched so tight financially that we couldn’t afford to travel / go on big vacations. I’m glad I realized early on that owning a home is only a blessing, not a burden, when it supports the rest of your life’s priorities. My priorities definitely include regular international travel!

  2. We are looking for a single family home. But you are right, it is all in what you are used to. I grew up in an old 2 story farmhouse that got enveloped by the town around it. My Fiance grew up in a 70’s ranch in a subdivision outside a major city. (Well a Major city for Iowa, which is a tiny city for the rest of the world) So when we go to open houses, he perks at every ranch, and I perk at every old 1800’s 2 story with gorgeous woodworking.

    It all depends on what you get used to living in. We both have only ever lived in our family homes or crappy college living spaces. So I think for us a home is defined by what we grew up in.

    • Yeah, it’s weird: for me it’s less about the kind of home I grew up in (which was a log cabin my parents built in the woods) and more about the kind of lifestyle I’ve grown to prioritize as an adult (walkability, access to culture, etc). Then again, my adult lifestyle may be a reaction against my semi-rural upbringing — who knows!

  3. My priorities are the same in terms of walkability/access to culture/etc. I grew up in the suburbs but moved to San Francisco to go to college and LOVED IT. I never needed a car, the public transit was awesome (and ran 24 hours!) and I could walk almost anywhere. There was a grocery store two blocks away! Heaven! Then I moved to Boston for grad school and I currently live in Brighton-which is city-ish and I don’t need a car, but it’s definitely not the same. My fiance moved to Baltimore for work and it is even worse there. Baltimore City can be kind of dangerous so he really wants to move to the suburbs when I join him in June. I am terrified that we might have more space but I’m going to be miserable.

  4. My husband and I live in a 1700 sq. ft. house in a town outside of Austin. When we were looking for homes, we knew we wanted something that wasn’t in a “Master Planned Community” where all the houses look the same and they cut down all the trees. There are 4 parks, a hike and bike trail, the neighborhood community center/pool, a grocery store and schools from K-12 all in walking distance from our house. If we want to go into the city, nothing is more than a 20 minute drive away. Our house is also big enough for our current family’s needs, with an office, guest bedroom and craft room, but any of those rooms can easily be changed to a nursery/kid’s room when the time comes.

  5. Struggling with this question is something the man and I have been debating for what feels like forever. I hate my car too, but I really want to live among green things that is *close* to a city/town… goodness….

    That walk in closet nursery is great.

  6. My dude and I have prioritized the neighbourhood as important:
    My house is in the artsy neighbourhood, within walking distance of a grocery store and neat shops, it’s safe, and pretty while his is in an improving neighbourhood with a view of train tracks and irritating neighbours. We also decided owning wasn’t for us as we don’t have the cash for repairs, so we’re happy to rent from my mom and sell his house. Space is also an issue. I craft and have an entire room full of supplies, he is an artist and musician and requires space for that, and together we could start a library. That doesn’t count our 3 cats and two ferrets. An apartment would be doable, but we like not having to deal with neighbours and noise on the other side of the wall. Plus the price here is crazy whereas we can rent from my mom for cheaper and could negotiate buying if that worked. His house is just too small to fit into because while we can streamline, I still need somewhere to do some crafts and he needs space for his drafting table, supplies, guitars, amps, etc. My yard is minimal work, his is gorgeous, but we’re rarely outside. We may put in paving stones in the backyard next summer to have a fire but we don’t garden.

  7. Walkability and community are definitely our top priorities. Our San Diego neighborhood, and the neighborhoods around it, are a great balance of both worlds. Lots of 2-4 bedroom homes within walking distance of good food, bars, small galleries, parks, etc. If only we could afford a house here!

  8. my s.o. and i own a home that’s about 800 sq ft, on .05 acres of land. Just about the tiniest yard possible. It would cost more in gas to start the lawn mower than to mow our postage stamp of a yard, so we grow food and flowers on it. It’s our little goth garden with haphazardly planted midnight tulips and pompom aliums, with a whole row of red quinoa on the side. And 5 trees. We actually cultivate dandelions in half of the front yard, and instead of asking if we have a lawn mower, people always want to know about the waist-high yellow flowers. Newsflash: Ifyou don’t mow them down, the dandies are tall, bright, and surprisingly delish.

    Our priorities really dictated that we had to have walkability, as neither of us have owned a car for over 6 years, but still affordability, we live one block away from a neighborhood with 3 TIMES the property taxes. And we have separate bedrooms. We both have back problems and need a place to sleep alone.

    I think it boils down to the same thing as picking a wedding dress… We had to choose something that fits who we are today, not the dream house of the 10-year old girl in the fantasies I’ve been reliving for my whole life, before I ever knew I would be a lush, tattooed walkaholic who reads every label in the grocery store. That 10-yr-old drove a mazda miata, too.

  9. Space for all my art stuff is huge. I’m an artsy neatfreak, so I’m always stressed about tripping on stuff in my 1bedroom apartment.(my organizational skills are rather subpar) I want a house that is the opposite of open concept— so I can shut unavoidable messes I make away!
    I do really want a backyard with a porch and a veggie garden and some tulips that come up every spring. I moved around a lot as a kid and never had a big yard, so I always envied my friends who had lots of running around space and memories in their house.

    My bf was one of those kids– his parent’s yard is huge! So I definitely think we’re going for a bungalow. I love living close to the ocean and I love being close to both our families (mine were always far away), but the house prices are ridiculous. In the end, as long as the house isn’t falling down and we have a bit of green space to love in this city, I think we’ll be pretty happy 🙂

  10. You know, I always though I wanted to buy a big house with enough room for us, an eventual kid, an office, and so on. I was in love with this big old house I’d pass on my walk from college to the train home. I felt this way for many years, but now…married and living at home with my mom and brothers making minimum wage, we make due with sharing our space and I think we could be just fine in a small apartment or small house. I know when I started changing my mind before I got married though. My dad’s mom passed away and his father has moved to a little community home. My dad just had so much stuff that he and his wife had accumulated. He was frustrated. He told me that it doesn’t matter how much you have: own little, but do more.

    I would love now to cut down on what we own, buy less and just spend more time out in the woods, with just a small place to live as our base. Things have really changed.

  11. Ohmygoodness. As if house hunting hasn’t been strange enough you had to put all my suppressed concerns into words??!!
    We keep going back and forth from should we buy land and build a steel cabin and have horses or buy in a established neighboor hood and be in “regular debt? To wtf are we thinking?? We don’t have to settle down and buy a house! So as of yesterday we are opening our minds to every rental possibility. Do we want safe quiet neighborhood living or a rockin duplex downtown? I think safety is our biggest concern about living in downtown houston. I’m going to show my man this post and see what it makes him think. Thanks Ariel!

  12. oh ps. The point I was making that I forgot to make was for the last year we have been crammed into one bedroom, we are in my gramas old house waitng for it to sell and are literally using 80% of the house for storage. The weird part is this post made me realize how much I kind of like being right on top of each other. The past year has been stressful but living together like this really hasn’t been, for me anyways he might disagree lol.anyways my point is It kind of makes me consider we might not need a giant 3 bedroom house for just the 2 of us and our 7 pound dog… besides if I haven’t even thought of the stuff I hve in boxes in the last 1-2 years do I really need to haul it along with me??

  13. I lived my entire life until 17 in a 2-story house, in a you-can-go-for-a-walk-at-4-AM-and-not-be-scared suburb. When I turned 18, I moved into my now-fiance’s parent’s house in Miami. It was scary. Yes, everything was in walking distance, but I was warned NOT to walk anywhere. I saw a scary, homeless person for the first time (the homeless people in my hometown were cleaned up in shelters). Then we moved out on our own into an apartment in what seemed like a nice enough neighborhood. I was so very wrong. If you step out the door and walk to the left, you are faced with some scary shit. Walk to the right, and there are posh restaurants and hipster bars. Not exaggerating. At all.

    We’re hoping to move ASAP to my hometown and rent a nice townhouse. When we start a family, we plan to move to Virginia’s coast, to a home that can accomodate us, guests, and 4 children (with individual rooms for when they’re older)

  14. I grew up on a farm in rural Iowa,and I miss having sky without light pollution. While Derrik grew up in the Des Moines with street lights and neighbors. I’m ‘stuck’ in an apartment in one of Iowa’s bedroom communities. I can’t wait until we can move away from light pollution and *people*! We are compromising on our ‘final’ house and plan on finding a home in the outskirts. Which should be a good mix of fewer neighbors and quick trips for food.

  15. We are looking for a single family home in an urban area (Portland, OR). Our priorities are:

    – Neighborhood. We want to be in a neighborhood that’s in close proximity to the city’s center but has a more traditional neighborhood feel (single family homes, yards, etc.) We’ve been really fortunate to live in neighborhoods so far that have engaged, aware neighbors who hang out on their porch and offer you a beer and not the kind that drive into their garage and enter their house through a door inside the garage and never say hi.

    – Walkable. We don’t need to be within walking distance of everything we need but a grocery store and parks are a must.

    – Backyard for urban gardening/chickens. We want to be able to grow a lot of vegetables and provide for ourselves on some level.

    That’s really about it. The rest of our list is mostly wants and not needs.

  16. I grew up in a suburban subdivision, huge house by necessity because I have four sisters and a brother. I always thought I’d want the same for myself as a parent– a backyard for my kids to run around in, and cul-de-sac to ride bikes in with the neighborhood kids, etc. Then, I moved to NYC and I really appreciated being able to be self-sufficient. We spent the last year living in a small city in the mountains, in an apartment but even though we were living in a city, I still was very car-dependent and I hated it. Now, we are back in our 700 square foot 1 bedroom in a quiet Bronx neighborhood with two kids. I’ve realized that I don’t want the maintenance of a big house, and that I don’t want to be car-dependent but we definitely need more space, so we will find a bigger apartment in a dense neighborhood that is kid-friendly (Hello, Williamsburg!).

  17. Thanks for posting this. My husband and I are currently wrestling with this very same issue. We kind of caved to the pressure of buying a house (instead of staying in the townhouse we owned) because everyone told us it was the better investment. Now, we have twice the upkeep in an area that’s not very walkable or close to our favorite places. The things I like about having a bigger house and yard definitely don’t outweigh the things I don’t like about it.

  18. My partner and I own a just-shy-of-900 sq ft condo in an amazing neighbourhood. We used to live in an apartment in a very bar-heavy neighbourhood, and while it was great to be within stumbling-home distance, it wasn’t so great to hear all the other people stumbling home, especially on weeknights.

    Before we even started thinking about buying a place, we came to the neighbourhood we’re in now to hang out one Sunday afternoon and I fell in love. 10 minutes by bus from the downtown core, it’s a very mixed-use area, with cafés, galleries, amazing shopping, tons of yoga studios and gyms, a theatre… but also has a ton of beautiful homes and low-rise condos.

    When we found our place, I would have bought it if it were nothing but a cardboard box, I love this neighbourhood so much. But we lucked out – it’s a really funky, loft-style building with a lot of thought put into small architectural details that made it stand way out from everything else we saw.

    Sure, we could have bought a 4 bedroom house for less in the burbs, but why? I grew up in the suburbs and have had enough to last me the rest of my life. We don’t need that much space for 2 adults and a great dane, and we even have a big enough walk-in closet to copy Ariel’s nursery when the time comes! We save money because we don’t need to buy a car, we don’t have to worry about house maintenance, and when we go overseas, it’ll be a heck of a lot easier to rent this place out than trying to rent a big house in the burbs!

    I’ve always maintained that I’d rent forever rather than move to a neighbourhood I didn’t like, but I feel so lucky that we were able to buy a home in an amazing part of town.

  19. Love it! My fiance and I bought our first home just under a year ago. It’s a single family with a decent-sized yard, but only 696 square-feet of house. We definitely have our moments of wishing for closet space, but overall it’s great. We definitely traded space for location – we could have bought a really nice new home on the edge of town with over twice the square-footage for what we paid for our tiny box (which is, incidentally, a perfect square), but we wanted to be able to walk to our favorite coffee shops. I am all about my tiny house!

  20. We just bought & moved into our first (and hopefully only) house in January.

    Sadly, we had unpleasant pressure from both side of the tale… “you have to buy a home, you are married & thinking of children & both in good stable jobs & you’ll miss out if you don’t get in soon”, AND “oh no, buying a home is a total sell-out, you are just falling into permanent debt to ‘the man'”.

    Couldn’t anyone just say “ooh how exciting, I hope you find just what you want/need”?

    Anyhoo, as it turns out our thoughts & arguments & searching & planning all paid off.
    We found a little brick veneer 3 bedroom house that fit all of our “must haves”, and plenty of our “would really really likes:”
    – in the forested hills we each had wanted to be since we were kids;
    – enough room (just!) for our many books, computers, sewing supplies, guest bed, my reading nook and the two cats;
    – a lovely open kitchen with gas cooking;
    – a wood heater and central heating (for those lazy/wee hour of the morning times);
    – half an acre of lush green gardens and trees, with very little lawn;
    – easy walk to bakery with coffee, grocery stores, pharmacy, school, hardware store & bus stops;
    – not-so-easy but still doable walk to the “main township” with little cinema, restaurants, bars, lots of cafes & funky little stores; and
    – a creek!

    We didn’t buy a house that is going to accumulate wealth, and we haven’t ended up to our neck in debt either. We love our little house in the woods.

  21. What an insightful post! Actually, me and my significant other are struggling with the exact opposite problem. Well, not exact, but close. Right now we are renting a two bedroom townhome, but the owners want to sell. So we’ve looked at other places to rent, but most would be smaller and closer to town, and we view that as a downgrade. Now we are thinking about buying. The best part is, our budget is exactly the price of this town home, plus the owners said they’d give us a great deal since we’ve been such good renters, however… We just don’t want to raise a family here. We’d love to live here for 2 or 3 more years, but we don’t want to be stuck here. And we are starting to feel claustrophobic. And we’d really love to have a dog! We are looking at houses much like the one you left.

    Thought that it was interesting to read an opinion from the other side of things. Thanks!

  22. I too learned this lesson the hard way! I was in grad school in Austin, TX. I had been living just a few blocks from campus in West Campus, but rent was expensive and I wanted a bit bigger apartment. So I moved further out of town where I couldn’t walk to anything without crossing a major Texas freeway. I learned then and there how much more important location location location was over size.

    My husband and I just bought a 768 sq ft house near where I grew up in KC that we think is just HUGE after living in our 560 sq ft condo in Sydney that fit us perfectly (with a tiny little space for a baby or two in the future). But our families can’t understand why we bought such a small house.

    It is great to have so much more room (and a garage to stick junk and our bicycles in) and be able to be as loud as we want without having to worry about the neighbours on the other side of the wall, but I think I am much more a low maintenance apartment-dweller in the long term!

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