How big of a house do we need for a young family of six?
May 11, 2014 2:23 PM   Subscribe

We have a 6 year old, a 3 year old, and found out a little bit ago that we're expecting twins. We're househunting and had been looking mainly at smaller houses -- 1200ish sf ranches. (We live in Wisconsin, so they do all have giant ugly basements that can be used for playrooms as well.) We're having a hard time deciding if we should still consider houses that size, or if we should move farther out for a larger house. (This would mean a somewhat worse school district, less fun community stuff in the neighborhood, and a longer bike commute for my husband.) Anybody have relevant experience? (I guess I should add for background info that we're living right now in a 1000 sf rental with both kids and haven't found it cramped. But four kids seems like such a shockingly large number I'm having a hard time figuring out how much room I would need.)
posted by gerstle to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Your kids will benefit much more from the good school district and the neighborhood events (plus Dad having a less stressful commute!) than they will from having a large house. It sounds like you really like this neighborhood. If you find a house you like, you will make it work.

My friend grew up in a home a one of five children. The five kids split two bedrooms. It worked.
posted by kellygrape at 2:37 PM on May 11, 2014 [31 favorites]

How many bedrooms are there in these 1200sqf houses? What are the genders of the children (do you know yet about the twins?)

I would think that if you are looking at homes with at least three bedrooms, you'll be grand. I also imagine that with a giant ugly basement, a teenager will eventually lay claim to some part of it, and you will have the flexibility to accommodate that in the next five to six years.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:44 PM on May 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Location, location, location - I can't stress that enough. Try to find a property in your preferred area that has yard enough that you could put an addition on if you want later on - it's good to have options. That basement playroom sounds like a must if the kiddies will be stuck inside a lot in the winter.

Really, though, bathrooms should be a bigger concern. With four kids, you and your spouse, I'm thinking a house with 3 full baths - or at the very least 2.5.
posted by NoraCharles at 2:45 PM on May 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, sorry, that is important information. The older two are both boys and currently sharing. The twins we don't know yet but they're identical, so they'll be able to share for a long time as well. We're looking at minimum 3 bedrooms.
posted by gerstle at 2:46 PM on May 11, 2014

Will this be a somewhat temporary home (for the next 2-5 years), or more of a "forever" home? I think that will color the answers you get somewhat.

I agree with the above that school choice and neighborhood are far more important than house size, but I'll also say that four teenagers in a 1200sf house sounds pretty challenging.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 2:46 PM on May 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think that if you have that playroom fitted out to be the place they (and maybe you) play and hang out, you'll be fine. Put the TV down there, the comfy couch, the games and books, the stuff you use when you relax. Put a video monitor down there while they are small. You can do bunk beds in their bedrooms.

The neighborhood you have sounds like a gem. Don't leave that if you don't absolutely have to.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:55 PM on May 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a family of 6 (4 kids close in ages not unlike your own family, two parents) and also in a smallish house.

Our house was a vaguely ranch-esque* single story home with 4 bedrooms and three baths. I don't know the square footage but I'd say probably under 2000, but not like teeny tiny or anything. The house was built in the mid 70s.

The bedroom breakdown was like so:

- master bedroom with ensuite bathroom, held by my parents.

- two kids sharing the next largest bedroom. For most of my upbringing this was the older two of my three brothers.

- my baby brother in a third bedroom (I seem to recall there being some bedroom switching when he got older, and my oldest brother got My Very Own Room privileges).

- I got my own room because I was the oldest and the only girl. Said room was built as kind of an oddly arranged office/guest-room space with an ensuite bathroom that only had a shower stall. It was nice to have a separate bathroom from my brothers, but I think if my parents had the choice, they'd have preferred to have that third bathroom in a common area of the house so that guests didn't have to use the Kids Bathroom. Especially since the kids' bathroom was ultimately the Gross Preteen Boys' Bathroom.

We did not have any kind of basement or any kind of common play area, which I think wore on my mom (constant legos underfoot) but really didn't matter to me as a kid. We just played in the bedrooms or the living room.

We also did not have the Formal Living Room and Casual Den setup that a lot of homes have, just the main living area which had a fairly open plan. I really liked growing up in a house where the nerve center was for everyone and actually meant to be used. I definitely grew up to be an "eat off the nice china" type of person for this reason, and I hate waste and having things that are Just For Show.

We definitely had a smaller house than most people in our cohort in terms of family size and socio-economic status (my dad is a doctor). Sometimes I envied people who had houses double the size of ours, with a bedroom and full bath for every kid as well as a playroom, and where the upstairs was Kid Zone separate from the master suite, but as I got older I really came to love the house I grew up in and what it meant both as a signifier to the outside world and in the way it shaped my own ideas about space and usefulness.

One thing to consider, which seems like a long way off but if this is a house you'll live in for many years it might be worth contemplating: parking space. By the time I was college age we were a four car family, and yet our smallish house only came with three parking spots. I think a small house can be fine, but if it only has room to park one car (especially if the small square footage means you'll be using the garage as functional space), that might be a problem eventually unless your area has great public transit or you plan to sell in a few years.

*Actually a modernized Louisiana Acadian style house, but nobody knows what they are and they are pretty interchangeable with ranch style.
posted by Sara C. at 3:05 PM on May 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

You'll be fine. I'm one of five, and our house was about that size. We eventually converted a study into a bedroom, and the two youngest slept in the same room until the oldest went to college, but I never even realized that our house was small for the number of kids. We were comfortable.

It did help that we had a big backyard. During summer, my mother sent us all to neighborhood camps and swimming teams and things, so she might have been feeling the crush a little. (We were rambunctious children, though.)

Considering your tradeoffs, go for the smaller house in the better community. That will make far more of a difference than a few more rooms will. Having a short commute is a huge boon; it would take a lot for me to give that up. Additionally, as time goes on, you may be able to find a larger house and stay in the same community - you never know what will happen.

Also, anecdotal, but all us kids got along great when we were in that house, and still do now. I'm not sure if the smallness of our house helped with that, but I love the memories I have of sharing rooms with my brothers.
posted by punchtothehead at 3:11 PM on May 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

As long as you have a big enough play space that you can contain all their toys in, you'll be ok looking at smaller places. Their bedrooms can be just for sleeping and not huge. One thing, I would absolutely make sure to have a master bath for yourself, a bath with a tub for the kids, and a half bath for guests/extra. Bathrooms are more important than space!
posted by katypickle at 3:14 PM on May 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Three bedrooms is just fine. Definitely look for at least two full bathrooms, I grew up in a family of five with 1.5 bathrooms, and having only one shower became a Real Problem, especially as with teenagers.
posted by ambrosia at 3:19 PM on May 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

One of five kids here; we usually had three bedrooms/two baths.

Your boys can keep sharing, and so can the twins. One bath for the parents, one for the kids. And like you say, that basement will make a great playroom & laundry space & workspace/tool room.

And if you want more anecdotes to say you kids won't "suffer" by sharing: my father was one of three boys raised in a two bedroom rowhouse: he even shared the same bed with both his brothers until he was 17 and left home for the Navy. My mother was one of TEN kids raised in a three bedroom rowhouse (with one bathroom!): one room for their parents, the second for the sons, and the third for the girls..... everybody survived, everybody learned to share and get along.
posted by easily confused at 4:38 PM on May 11, 2014

Here is a sample basement conversion, complete with costs: Before | After. Don't discount that space, even if you only have 100sqf of usable basement!
posted by DarlingBri at 5:05 PM on May 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Currently four teenagers and a toddler and two adults in three bedrooms, two bathrooms. We moved from a flat with one bathroom (that was a pain, and two bathrooms is great). The biggest difference is to have built-in storage and not a lot of clutter.

Space really only becomes an issue when they're teenagers. As kids, they will be fine. Sharing with siblings is normal and often more fun. Make sure they have their own cupboard, desk/table, shelf, and the factor that helped us the most - bed lights or separate lighting, so they can turn on their own lights at night to read without disturbing the other.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:22 PM on May 11, 2014

I think location is the number one factor. Layout is number two. Then size.

We were in a 1000 square foot rental that had such a great layout it never felt cramped. Although the bedrooms were really really small. Now we are in almost 3000 square feet, but use only half of it, and I'd trade half the master suite for a fourth bedroom.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:05 PM on May 11, 2014

Heating costs.

Speaking as someone living in a big, historic home, my current "places where there is winter" homebuying advice is simple: buy the place that is cheapest to heat (which will probably be the smaller house). Home heating costs are going to continue to chug ever upward. Ask very specific questions about how the home is heated (oil, gas, electric) and what their actual, total heating costs were over the past 12 (arctic) months.

Again, this is probably going to be the smaller house, but all other things being equal if I had to choose between a smaller house in a good neighborhood that was drafty and used oil vs. a bigger but well-sealed house that used, say natural gas, but was a little further out, I would choose the bigger one every time -- not because it was bigger, but because the costs to convert an oil furnace are awful and the $1K or more difference in home heating costs over the course of a year can make a big difference in your family life.
posted by anastasiav at 6:56 PM on May 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

The smaller house will also be easier/faster to clean and tidy up! (For adults and kids alike.)
posted by jrobin276 at 7:20 PM on May 11, 2014

My uncle and aunt had 16 kids in a four bedroom house with two bathrooms! The kids in that family grew up to be closer than any other siblings I know and I bet some of it was due to the enforced proximity.
posted by lollusc at 10:56 PM on May 11, 2014

I live in an 1100 sq foot house. I think you'll be fine as long as you can get the 3 - 4 bedrooms, 2 FULL baths, and a space that can accomodate a table big enough to have dinner togehther at. I would also look for something that has a garage or shed or place to put one to store kid activity crap in the future (sporting equipment, bikes, beach toys, etc).
posted by WeekendJen at 7:12 AM on May 12, 2014

I think you'll do just fine in a 3/2, although if you can get a 3/3 or a 3/2.5 that might even be better.

Now the bathrooms don't matter all that much. You can throw all the kids in the tub at the same time. As they get older, they'll want more bathroom privacy. The good news is, those basements are usually plumbed for another bathroom (or search for those that are.) If you can do another bath in the basement, you can add a couple more rooms if need be, and it's far enough down the road that it'll be financially feasible to do so!

Mazel-tov. A house built with love has elastic walls!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:29 AM on May 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

We had a family of 5 in an 1150 sq foot 2 bedroom 2 story bungalow. The oldest got the small bedroom, the younger two shared the larger bedroom and my wife and I created a new bedroom in the finished half of the basement. We installed a wireless doorbell in the hallway between the bedrooms on the 2nd floor which would ring in our room in the basement. This was great if anyone was sick, or scared - they didn't need to make their way down to the basement - just ring the bell, and I'd come up stairs.

As the kids got older (youngest was 8) it was ... annoying for the whole family for the younger two to share a room and we ended up moving to a new place for more room and took the basement route again. The kids have three bedrooms and my wife and I take up the basement (and get a huge amount of room for our bedroom and office area).

In our current house, there's one half bathroom in the basement (all ours) and the full bathroom is on the top floor. We get by with this, however our mornings are fairly structured as to who gets time in the bathroom when. All kids' showers/baths occur in the night rather than the morning. An extra half bath would be nice, but definitely not needed.

We passed over a few places which had 4 smallish bedrooms and were in a reasonable price range. If you're willing to try basement dwelling, that might be ideal long term for you. Five bedrooms isn't nearly as common. That said, I know a number of families growing up where 2-3 kids shared a room until they moved out, so 2-3 bedrooms for the kids could work out totally fine.
posted by nobeagle at 7:58 AM on May 12, 2014

My mom grew up in a 3 bdrm/1 bath 1000 sqft. house with 10 people (8 children). Eventually older ones left and the basement was converted into "boy bedroom space" but still. It can totally be done.
posted by rawralphadawg at 8:32 AM on May 12, 2014

This is all very helpful, you guys, thank you. We still haven't decided where we're going to buy but I've been looking around at my friends' house sizes and feeling like we might be insane to even consider the smaller houses, and I appreciate hearing that it seems reasonable to so many of you. I'm somewhat leaning in that direction, with the plan to either buy a larger house or dig out an egress window and put a bedroom in the basement when my oldest is a tween.

Thanks for the input!
posted by gerstle at 3:45 PM on May 12, 2014

We put an offer in this morning on a 1400 sq ft ranch with a giant basement for throwing raucous children into. Fingers crossed! Marking this resolved.
posted by gerstle at 10:42 AM on May 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

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