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Now might be the right time to downsize

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What is a “small house” in today’s homebuilding arena? How do you know whether small is right for you? How can clever design make a small house feel like a big house?

These questions were raised during a panel discussion called “Designing to Maximize Space in the Smaller House” at last week’s International Builders Show in Orlando, an annual event that showcases the latest and greatest in trends and new products.

After the excesses of the McMansion era, when houses ballooned out to 4,000 square feet and more and the average-sized one reached 2,500 square feet, homeowners today want smaller houses, said panelist Dan Gregory, an architectural historian and editor at HousePlans.com, a firm that sells home plans (www.houseplans.com). As evidence of this trend, Gregory cited his firm’s sales figures — for the past two years, its best-selling plan by far has been the one-floor, 2,091-square-foot “Storybook Craftsman” No. 120-162 (see accompanying graphic).

Still, Gregory also said buyers who want smaller, one-story houses are not going back to the modest “ranchers” of the 1950s and ’60s. The popularity of the No. 120-162 plan clearly indicates that the desire for the luxury and comfort of the McMansions continues unabated. The plan’s master suite has a big bathroom and two large walk-in closets, and the kitchen, breakfast nook and family room are generously sized.

What are buyers of the plan willing to give up to get a smaller house? The living room (whose demise has been predicted for 20 years) and a fourth bedroom. Buyers are also willing to accept smaller second and third bedrooms. A formal dining area was retained, but it is configured so that it could be enclosed and used for an additional bedroom or home office.

Does the popularity of No. 120-162 indicate a new look for suburbia? Gregory resisted giving a definitive answer but said that similar configurations have been bestsellers for other home plan services.

Seguing from home-buying trends to individual home owners, would similar smaller-house floor plans be right for you? While architects and home builders can easily visualize 2,091 square feet of living space, most people have no idea what this means or even the size of the place they live in now, said panelist Gale Steves, author and former editor-in-chief of Home Magazine. The best way for a family to know what will work for them is to assess their current house, a process Steves calls “right-sizing.”

Before you begin your own right-sizing analysis, toss out room names and focus on the household activities that occur in each space, Steves said. Be honest with your daily habits and see where they logically take you in planning a new house or a remodeling, she urged. Some rooms can be repurposed while others can shrink. For example, if you rarely cook and most dinners are “reheated carry-out or microwaved frozen entrees from Trader Joe’s,” you could be happy with a modest-sized kitchen that might have basic appliances incorporated into a single counter along one wall and a dining table (the classic country kitchen arrangement).

In Savannah, Ga., where Steves lives, many homeowners still use their formal dining room everyday. But in most places, she said, people are more casual, and their dining room should be called the “sometime” room. If this describes your household, could the dining room in a new house do double duty as both an everyday office and an occasional place for dinner parties, as Steves herself does in her own house? On most days, her dining table functions as a “giant-sized credenza” where she can spread out the drawings and photographs she uses for her writing. When she wants to use the space for dining, she pushes her desk (which moves easily because it’s on castors) against the wall and puts her work paraphernalia out of sight.

As you list the activities in each room, think about how you feel in it because this can also shed clues on right-sizing your space, Steves said. When her readers say a room lacks “coziness,” this usually means it isn’t conducive to conversation because it’s too big. To help homeowners connect a room size to how they feel in it, she urges them to measure the sizes of their rooms and make a rough sketch of their current floor plan.

If you conclude that the “right size” house for you is smaller than the one you have now, how do you decide which rooms and features to jettison and which ones to retain? Steves suggested couching the choices in terms of trade-offs — “if I do this, what are the consequences?” And she added, if you do this, your choices may surprise you. For example, you may find that the “must-have feature” in your master bathroom is not the second vanity sink; it’s the purely utilitarian linen closet where you keep bulk purchases of toilet paper, hair and body care products, towels and bed linens.

Once you’ve gone through the right-sizing analysis and determined that you want a smaller house, how can you make it feel comfortable? Panelist Pat Gaylor, a Little Falls, N. J.-based interior designer, said that when you can see from one room into another, the space will feel bigger and that well-proportioned rooms and large windows that bathe the spaces in natural light will enhance your enjoyment of it.

Gaylor also stressed that owners will have a much better idea of what they are getting now because computer-aided design (CAD) software can create realistic, 3-D images of a proposed design. In the past, her clients were “completely flummoxed” in trying to understand what was being proposed. They couldn’t read the architectural drawings and “had to take on faith” that her design would deliver what they wanted.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or would like to suggest topics for coverage, contact her by e-mail at salanthousewatch@gmail.com or www.katherinesalant.com.

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