The 1950s-era Cape Cod house we bought 16 years ago was always too small and outdated, by some standards, for a family of five.
There was no formal family room or dining room, no space for a separate home office or a mud room. There were no vaulted ceilings, no walk-in closets or Jacuzzis. The kitchen was small and didn’t have a dishwasher. There was only a one-car garage.
There were, of course, good reasons to buy this 1,200-square-foot (not including the semi-finished basement) house on the quiet, tree-lined, cul-de-sac in the middle of our little college town: The price was right, as was the school district. Small though the bedrooms were, there were enough for each child to have one. There was also something about the way the light came in through the kitchen window in the morning, and stayed. We liked the way the house made us feel.
Still, occasionally through the years, our cottage-style home loomed inadequate. This was usually in the context of entertaining – like when our kids had their friends over, and there was no McMansion family room in the basement for them to congregate. Or when it was my husband’s turn to host his office’s annual party and he and his professor colleagues had to stand elbow-to-elbow in the kitchen.
One year we became so convinced that everybody else’s house was bigger and better that we called in a contractor. What would it cost to finish the basement and expand the kitchen? When we realized the expense of remodeling would buy a new house with all the amenities, we contacted a real estate agent. We spent several Sundays reviewing specs and financing packages. We came close to making an offer. And then we stopped ourselves.
In some locations in the world, most notably China and Hong Kong, 3- and 4-member families live in apartments measuring 600 square feet and less. The average size of houses built since 2003 in the United States, meanwhile, has been 2,300 square feet, according to MSN Real Estate. That number has been coming down in recent years, however, as apparently more prospective homeowners ask themselves: Do we really need a formal living room and the house payment to match? Do we really want to upgrade, only to have to downgrade after the children leave? Do we really want more space to clean?
Today, 16 years later, my husband and I are almost done paying for the little house we bought when our children were 9, 5 and 4 months old. We never launched the extensive remodel we once considered, though we did replace the peeling mustard-colored linoleum floor and countertops in the kitchen. We bought a dishwasher and gutted the 1950s pink-and-black bathroom downstairs. We put carpet on the TV side of the basement.
And we went on to have Christmas trees in the living room and Easter egg hunts in the backyard. We had family dinners in the kitchen and movie nights in the half-finished basement. And we invited people in.
Indeed, over the years, despite the absence of a hot tub on the deck and a pool table in the basement, we wound up being the prime gathering spot for our children’s friends several nights a week for everything from small game nights at the kitchen table to large bonfires in the backyard.
My husband and I hosted our own gatherings – small dinner or wine parties mostly, though every now and then, we endeavored to throw a gargantuan celebration like the one we had this summer for our 25th wedding anniversary. Our children turned our tiny backyard into a fairyland of twinkle lights and paper lanterns as our friends and their friends made toasts.
“Thank you for making your house such a welcoming place all these years,” one of my daughter’s friends said.
A few weeks ago when our eldest son, who lives several hundred miles away, was home for his 25th birthday with his new girlfriend, we hosted another gathering.
Our whole family was present – a rarity these days – along with their friends again, and many of our friends and neighbors, some of whom remember meeting us the day we moved in. We had drinks on the little deck off the kitchen and cake on plates standing up, and at the end of the night, we defied the fire code and crammed 25 people into our living room.
People sat on chair ottomans and the piano bench, on wooden chairs from the basement, on the floor and the fireplace hearth.
It was satisfying to look around at all the faces gathered in the home where we’ve planted ourselves for the better part of our children’s lives. The room was small and cramped and very close, yes. But if the space had been bigger, I might not have been able to see the joy in all their eyes.