Staying put: Making too big or too small seem just right

Gale C. Steves, home industries consultant and former editor of Home Magazine, spent some time with us recently outlining ways to make the best of the home you have rather than downsizing or upsizing. Steves calls it "right-sizing," which is also the title of her new book, "Right-Sizing Your Home."

Q: Right now the temptation is to trade up or down, with real estate prices and interest rates low. Why is that a bad idea?

A: It's psychologically hard to leave a home you have created. It's your nest. Even people thinking of downsizing are staying where they are because it's going to cost them something to move. Instead of moving, why don't you improve? Clean out your house as if you were going to move and then you'll have a lot more room. Staying with your same footprint means you're not going to increase your taxes, either.

Q. Do people generally think they need more house than they actually do?

A: Yes. We've grown up in several decades of entitlement. Children now are entitled to have their own bathroom, even though it's a great way to learn to share, right from the beginning. The master bath has gotten huge. Everyone now needs a home office, you have his office and her office, not a his-and-her office. Kids have their own play spaces, where they used to play in the family room. I think we've gone into separate lives and we need to find ways to invite all the family members back.

Q: What about for empty-nesters? Why shouldn't they downsize?

A: Many of us are working from home, even if we hadn't planned to work from home. Elderly relatives may come stay with us for awhile. And don't count on the kids having really left. Many of them boomerang while they are figuring out what they are going to do next. Make changes in your house that make sense for you, don't just do it for retail. You may be living in that house longer than you think.

Q: Let's talk about tips for each group. What do you say to someone who says, "My house is too big"?

A: It may indeed be too big, but can you sell it? Maybe it would be better to hold onto it, make some improvements, and when the market gets better, make sure it is flexible enough it can suit a family or whatever. Take the bonus room and remodel it into a little suite and rent it. It puts people in the house, means the house gets used. Can you share this house? Communal living and shared spaces make some sense. I think we're going to see more of it. If you love your neighborhood, why should you move?

Q: And for those who say, "My house is too small"?

A: If you have a garage, you have square footage that you're not using for living. That's the least expensive way to add on. That does mean you'll have to clean out the garage and your car will need to sit outside, but you could add at least another master bedroom. People have sun rooms that they have converted. Basements become secondary suites or little apartments to take the pressure off the rooms upstairs.

I live in a tiny little apartment. I looked up one day and I said, I have a very tall ceiling. I have actually created a faux ceiling in my hallway where I can put things out of season, Christmas ornaments and so on. Even the tiniest house probably has space you are not using well.

Q: How do you help people cope with clutter?

A: I ask them to go into the most cluttered room in their house and take the things out and divide into three piles: "I use this all the time," "I use this occasionally" and the third pile is "hardly ever but I do need it." That last pile, in the kitchen it could be a fish poacher, put that somewhere else. That second pile, put that somewhere else as well. You end up with two shelves full.

Do you really need to store grandma's china in the kitchen if you only use it twice a year? It's very emotional, but do you really need grandma's china at all? Are you the caretaker for it? What I did was take a picture of my mother's china, I asked my brother if he wanted it, he said no. I had never used her Wedgwood. She never used her Wedgwood; she was waiting for the queen to visit. I drove it down to Replacements Ltd. The guy was blown away, he said, "I have never seen a service for 18 that has never been used." I put the money into a slush fund for me, including buying a better, more ergonomic refrigerator. Or give that china to someone who really needs it, a member of the family. That way, you can go visit it at any time. For me, I know that someone will be using that china. I felt liberated.

Q. What's the most basic advice you give people about making their existing homes more livable?

A. I ask people to look at the nooks and crannies that they have been ignoring. Under the staircase can be a little nook office, a storage space, a powder room. A pantry you are not using to its fullest could also take the pressure off the master bath, if you have plumbing available. That space between the garage and the entrance could even turn into a mud room. How about that unused living room at the front of the house, maybe that becomes grandma's room if she comes to visit.

You can really change the use of the house by just changing the names of the rooms sometimes. You take your own house for granted. If you can walk through and pretend you've never seen it before, you will see new things.
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