A "Small Home" Primer
By Thomas Hewitt
Smaller houses are very popular and there are many reasons that people are looking for the “right-sized” home. Empty nesters, those people whose children have now moved out on their own, have too much house to take care of and may want to use their equity for more enjoyable purposes. Small houses are popular for first-time buyers as well because it is easier to qualify for a loan (and make the payments!) when affordability is an issue. Whatever your reason to choose a smaller house, there are things to look for that will allow you to live much more comfortably in your home and bring the resale value to a premium. In this article, we will touch on the design, usability, and resale of your home.
Although your thoughts are focused on the purchase or construction of your new home, it is necessary to look at the full picture of the ownership lifecycle. With this perspective in mind, you have several questions to ask, including: What are my current needs? What are the likely changes that will occur during the time I plan to live in this house? How should my house be designed to accommodate my changing needs? How do I retain the value and maximize my ability to sell the house in the future? Asking these questions will lead to many other questions that will help you to pinpoint and address the specific requirements of your new home and heavily influence your choice in design.
Assessing your current needs and wants is a fun process. Deciding on how you are going to use your home and anticipating the style and features you want takes a lot of thought and personal exploration. Don’t stop at determining the “must haves”. Continue your list with the “it-would-be-nice-to-haves”. Your nice-to-haves may not make it to the final design, but maybe some will. Get it all out onto the table.
Let’s take an example. We have a couple who is retiring and wanting to move to a smaller home that is easier to maintain and has lower operating costs. They have equity in their current home and will live comfortably off their retirement savings. Mom wants to continue working part-time from a home office and Dad always has some project he’s working on.
What might their current needs look like? To start, since they want to lower utility and operating costs, some thought may go into solar applications and good insulating materials; maybe alternative building materials, like straw bale. (Straw bale has great insulating qualities!) Proper orientation of the home on the lot and providing efficient exposure and shading to solar radiation will help cut heating and cooling costs tremendously. Since they have equity to roll over into their new home, they might consider installing photovoltaic cells tied to the community grid system and virtually eliminate their electric bill. There are many other energy saving items that they might consider in the design of their new home.
Their space requirements are fairly straight forward. They need an area for the home office and they prefer an open floor plan that doesn’t require formal dining and living rooms. The office area should be located so that the occasional client doesn’t have to walk through the whole house to get to the office. Also, a secondary bathroom should be located near the office. This bathroom could also serve a guest bedroom. Dad is considering a little extra room in the garage for tools and storage.
This home is beginning to take form! This is also the point where many people will make their biggest mistake and stop the thought process. It’s easy to take this info and begin laying out rooms, but there are some very important questions that are left unanswered. Consideration has yet to be given to the future needs of this couple.
Every bit as important as your current requirements is assessing your future needs. Are we a family starting out and planning to have a child or are we retiring and want to maintain our independence and stay in our home as long as possible? Regardless of the current scenario, it’s important to understand that your needs will change and that finding solutions up-front to accommodate those needs will benefit you greatly in the future.
Let’s get back to our previous example. Mom and Dad have retired and they intend to live out their lives in their new home. As we age, our functional abilities decline and our homes must be designed in such a way to accommodate those changing needs. This is where the application of “universal” and “adaptable” design criteria becomes very important. For this home to adequately serve Mom and Dad’s future needs, a professional designer that is trained in comprehensive client assessment and the application of universal and adaptable design solutions is required. Seek this person out!
One more note on future needs. Anytime we have areas dedicated to specialized activities, it’s important that these rooms are easily converted to serve other purposes. For instance, Mom will, at some point, discontinue her work and wish to give up her home office. If designed properly, this area could be easily converted to a study, library, sitting room or even a secondary bedroom and blend seamlessly with the rest of the house.
Resale of Your Home
Eventually you will want to sell your home, give it to your children, or maybe even use it as an investment property and rent it out. Whatever the case, your home must have the features that other people will want. Again, a good design will sell. A person walking into a universal designed home will not see anything “different” about the home. Universal features will typically go unnoticed until it’s pointed out. But it can be used as a strong selling tool. Because of the nature of universal design, the home will simplify life for everyone and benefit people regardless of age or ability. This really serves a win-win situation!
Even though you are designing the smaller home, you want to keep in mind what the market will accept! In general, a home with a single car garage loses market appeal, although it may work in certain areas. Also, a home that has a bedroom or bathroom door directly off the main living area is very undesirable. You want your home to complement your neighborhood, so be careful not to under-build (or over-build for that matter). Typically, three bedrooms and two baths is about as small as you should go, but the third bedroom may actually be a multipurpose room, like the home office in our example.
Designing a large, fancy custom home is not nearly as challenging as designing a small home that lives great and has broad appeal. The important thing to keep in mind when designing your home is the ownership lifecycle. If you carefully assess your future needs, as well as your current needs, and you apply the design criteria necessary to meet those needs, you will live much more comfortably and independently in your new home. Find out about universal design and how it will greatly benefit your family’s lifestyle. It will change the way you look at home design forever!
Thomas Hewitt is the President of Falcon Homes, Inc., a home design company located in Albuquerque, NM. Thomas is an aging-in-place specialist certified by the National Association of Home Builders and specializes in universal and adaptable design. The company’s website can be found at http://www.FalconHomesInc.com
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