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 CornerI 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. I think one of the hard things is when you have the internal conflict about you want. My FH and I have a lot of the same views on what we want but these views conflict with each other. We both grew up in a rural area so we want a yard where we can have a veggie garden. We want space, not a lot of space but somewhere separate to go every once in awhile, we like stars. But we love the city. We like walking everywhere. We like the farmers market and the shops and the bars. We like seeing random people. The place we just moved into has been our best compromise yet. Three bedroom 1 bath row house in the city with a tiny fenced yard but enough space for a small garden. But as we get used to this I am sure we will start longing for wide open spaces or less space or something. And that is why I totally agree with Sara’s post “Renting is MY American Dream” on 2/14. I can give into my “dream” house of the moment after each lease term.

  2. My husband and I rented a tiny, crappy little house in a tiny town in Nebraska a month before we got married, almost 2 years ago. We had 2 cats then, and now have a white german shepherd as well (he was a wedding present, oddly enough). We’ve been looking since we got married, because the female half of the landlords is a drunk and a total nut job, my commute is 45 minutes one way, and the grocery store closes at 6 pm (major annoyance for me, because I love to cook, and they’re always closed when I decide to make something and realize I’m out of one key ingredient). In those almost 2 years, I have not found one rental listing that will take pets. Not one. So, we’re working our butts of to get our finances back in shape, and then work towards buying our own home, removing pets as a factor. Then we’ll get to hash out if we live in the country (we’re in Nebraska), a city, or a small town, because each of us has different opinions on different days of what we want.

  3. My future husband and I live in Memphis, TN, so our number one priority is safety. There are some super sketchy parts of town, and if you want to live in the inner-city (which we do) you’re going to pay dearly to live in the not-ghetto. This has been the hardest part of our home search. We love the part of Memphis we currently live in (East Memphis) but it’s just north of one of the cities largest (thought, most mild-mannered) ghettos. We pay over $700 a month for our 580sq ft apartment–which is expensive for the city, especially considering that just down the road there is a complex on the out skirts of the aforementioned ghetto where a three bedroom apartment is a mere $540. So, we have had to compromise and are buying our first home in an annexed suburb called Cordova. For a suburb, it has the same fantastic urban feel that I came to love in East Memphis. The place we’re putting an offer on tomorrow (wish us luck) is an adorable brick townhouse within walking distance of a grocery store, a book store, and over a dozen restaurants. I, like Ariel and many of you guys, HATE driving, so this is a plus for me. Overall, I’m really excited that we have been lucky enough to find a house that meets our needs so well.

  4. Its strange how much we just kind of fell into our house. When we were first looking, I wasn’t too particular about the neighborhood. My husband and then boyfriend only had one stipulation: within the city limits–after living in the city for two years, there was no way he was going back to the burbs. My first priority was finding a house with charm and character and most importantly–had a good layout for parties. If you would have told me at the start that I’d find everything I wanted in a 1 bedroom shotgun single, I’d have laughed in your face–but as soon as I walked in the house, I knew it was what we were looking for. I’m a mile away from work, groceries, bars, farmers markets, coffee shops all within walking distance. After commuting all my life and seeing nothing wrong with it, I LOATHE getting in my car now. And when I don’t want to even go out, I’m uber comfy on my brick patio watching my grape vines take over the yard day dreaming about all the fond memories we’ve already created in our humble abode…and planning all the great parties yet to come!

    Our friends all have 3+ bedroom houses and I just can’t understand why they need all that space. Or why they’d want to live so far away! Now if we ever for some reason needed to move and find a new place I’d be sure to know exactly what I’m looking for. Sure, when you have no pantry, no linen closet, and one shared bedroom closet, sometimes it takes getting creative to store things (or realize when its just time to get rid of it) but for us, the benefits far out weigh the problems. And that’s the key–finding out what you can live without and what you can’t.

  5. I know you wrote this awhile ago, so this comment is probably coming to your in-box sort of out-of-the-blue (but hey, what can you expect when you have that nifty featured posts banner thingy?), but I wanted to thank you for sharing this perspective. I grew up in an “ideal family house” (out in the suburbs, with a gorgeous wooded back yard – we even had a stream running through it!), and don’t get me wrong, I loved it — until, that is, I went off to university. The first summer, I was home for two months, and suddenly I couldn’t stand living there. The isolation, the driving — no, thanks! I’d gotten used to walking, biking, or bussing everywhere, and being back in the ‘burbs was nearly unbearable. Now, my husband and I are living in a small two-bedroom apartment in the middle of a small city, within walking distance of a farmers’ market, our favourite bakery, a number of good thrift shops, one of the best concert halls in the country, the children’s museum, a living history museum, the train station, the bus terminal…. The list goes on. Oh, and our best friends live in the apartment right below us. I can barely stand the thought of someday living somewhere other than here, but I’ve always assumed that we’ll need more space before we have kids. But maybe not… (I’ll admit, my ideal would be a duplex somewhere close to here, with the aforementioned friends in the other half of it… and if that’s not possible, two houses close together, and close to here — hey, I can dream…). Thanks for reminding me, though, that “The American Dream” doesn’t have to be my dream, and giving me ammunition against those who think it does. 😀

  6. I like my condo fine and being close to everything requiring a short walk works for me. My place is quiet , no neighbors from hell thank god.

  7. It’s interesting how so many people want walkability and how high it ranks. For a short time I lived in a small town (in a tiny apartment ) where I could walk to everything excepthat a decent grocery store
    And I loved the ease if that. It was the first time I’d lived some place truly walkable.

    But the downsiddownside to that was a lack of privacy. Even of I had my own home all the yards are small and close together. Unless it’s a hugreat old house I could never afford.

    I live in a mobile home community now and actually have a bit of privacy but I hate having neighbors so close. I hate hearing their music or the one person’s motorcycle or the pers I need who mows the lawn at 8 am.

    I want privacy. I don’t want to hear my neighbors and I want to see them as little as possible. Luckily my current s.o. feels that same way so when we move in together finding an affordable place with acreage is important. And if the house isn’t set far back enough from the road I want a very high privacy fence. He likes to mow so that isn’t the issue.

    When I was growing up I lived both far out and in town but no walkability in either place due for various reasons. And in both places were the early morning weekend mowers. I wish I could have 5 or 10 acres down a side road with few people around. I’ll deal with driving I just want a refuge.

  8. I’m thinking about buying a condo in an urban area rather than a house, but I’m also thinking of trying to have a baby soon. My worry is more so in that when the baby cries like at night or something would that cause problems with the neighbors, if it’s an apartment like building, which is what most condos are like here. Thanks for any thoughts?

  9. Home is where the Heart is!
    Great viewpoint. While I am approaching my late forties with our children leaving for and in college, I totally relate if even from a different perspective.
    Regardless of what type of living situation we humans decide is best for us, I think a few items of importance are universal: connection to one’s space, ability to adjust and trade the plus and minus’s(sq. footage, storage) Privacy, yet community etc.
    But mostly, I think if more home seekers would look(and many are, for sure) beyond what was done prior or what others have done successfully-the blueprint can be vastly different but very achievable with honest expectations and some work to find your perfect nest.
    DS
    Minneapolis, MN

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