Living small

How downsizing our home helped our family grow

Tiny house, Downsize

We used to be “normal.” You know, living in a 1,200 square foot, 2-bedroom apartment, with rooms and closets and things sitting in them that we didn't use. For a family of three, this seemed just about right.

Then we started off on a wild adventure. The goal: to run a bed & breakfast with the option of a guided rock or ice climbing adventure.

My husband, master of many arts, went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales and is also a licensed climbing guide. For a long time, we’ve wanted to marry his two occupational loves by offering both services in one location.

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Big dreams, small house
In 2012, we found the perfect location nestled in the Adirondack mountains, but the small house that came with it isn’t what we had originally intentioned. With a 600-square-foot open floor plan, a 125-square-foot sleeping loft and a 125-square-foot basement, this was hardly the ideal lodging for a small family and their B&B patrons.

But the risk of getting into large amounts of debt for a larger house, trying to get a new business off the ground, and the commitment of time and effort establishing a new business while raising a family and working full-time to pay for renovations all made my head spin and my pulse race.

We needed to downsize our plan without giving up our dream.

We went ahead and bought this small house because of its warmth, charm and location, but we had no clear plan on how to make our ideas work. It had no closets and no guest space: certainly not the house for a bed & breakfast! And how in the world would we live here with a child? I simply could not see past all these obstacles.

Until I scrolled past a friend's post on Facebook: a tiny house that looked like it came right from Storytown — except someone actually lived in it! That mind-blowing post led me to a movement of brave souls downsizing their possessions to live in infinitesimally small spaces: the small house movement.

If they could do it, maybe we could, too.

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For better or worse
By 2013 we were selling and giving away more than half our possessions. Nothing was spared. In December 2014, we moved ourselves and the remainder of our belongings into our new small home.

We now have one blessed closet and a second child. The entire process has been enormous, emotional, and exhilarating.

There are definite joys: less to clean, less to buy, less to pay for, smaller mortgages and utility bills. But with a 2-year-old and a newborn, parenting in a small space comes with some challenges, too.

Just about everything gets shared, all the time. Living space? Shared. Play space? Shared. Sleeping space? Shared. Headaches? Sometimes, they’re shared, too!

Probably the hardest part of living in a small space is handling a 2-year-old’s temper tantrum. She needs a break, and I need a break, but we can’t get away from each other!

We now understand the power of going outside. The fresh air, the change of scenery, the temperature change, all provide a good opportunity to take a breath. During an outburst, it calms us down. But we live in the mountains, so this is not always a viable solution. When it’s 10 below or raining (both of which happen frequently!), we make a point to look out the window and find something outside to focus on: a bird, the weather, the wind, a leaf.

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Positive trade-offs
It turns out we’re not the only ones from the Hudson Valley jumping on the small house bandwagon.

Vanessa Grimsland and her husband Paul, now empty nesters after raising three children, traded their 4-bedroom house in Woodstock for a 2-bedroom house in Kingston. Regarding their choice to sell their newly remodeled home with custom kitchen and beautiful gardens, she says, “I grew up in a 2-bedroom house with 8 kids, so I knew that you don’t need space or a lot of stuff to be happy. We had talked about downsizing for almost 7 years, but it really started at the Woodstock swimming hole.”

There, they struck up a conversation with Artie the Hippy, who raised his kids in a tiny house. Because he never incurred any debt, he was able to take time for his kids.

“He was inspiring. We realized we were willing to give up space to have more money and more time with our kids.”

Kingston-based creative artist and web designer Emily Flynn and her family recently made the leap to a smaller home, too.

“We have a high value for recreational activities — hiking, biking, picnics, gym classes, and spending time with our extended family. To do more of these activities we would prefer to work less and live more affordably. We wanted to live in a place where we could walk and ride our bikes more instead of driving so much. So we chose a location that is convenient over square footage. It will force us to downsize.”

Flynn is moving from a 1,100-square-foot home with a full basement and 1.5 bathrooms on a full acre of land to an 816-square-foot house on a 50x100-foot city lot with no basement and one bathroom.

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Never alone
Like Emily, I’m going through this process with a young family. Although some might scoff at raising a family in a small house, I’ve found that what at first seemed like restrictions have become opportunities.

With an open floor plan, there’s really no place to be alone. On the other hand, we are always part of each other's lives.

When my daughter squeals over a re-discovered book she hasn't read in months, I'm right there to share in her joy. When I'm working on a project, she gets involved. When she's about to draw on the wall with a marker, I know. I'm not worried about her getting into trouble in another room, so she can explore with freedom.

Yes, we sleep in the same space: we have a sleeping loft, where one side is hers and the other is ours.

Until we bought this house, I never considered that there might be any way of living other than each kid having their own bedroom, with a door, and toys and books, and a closet full of clothes, and space. When my daughter was an infant, I remember feeling so very relieved when we finally moved her to her own bedroom in our last house. Freedom! And it was great, at the time.

Now, I treasure the fact that I can hear her breathing when I wake up in the night. In the morning, I see her sleepy eyes and her amazing little smile first thing. I’m literally right there if she needs anything.

Believe it or not, she still has enough space to practice her dance moves on the carpet before she hops into bed for the night.

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How do you find privacy?
The topic of privacy seems to keep coming up in my conversations with friends and family: Where do you go to be alone? The truth is, nowhere. I can try the bathroom, but any parent knows no toddler is going to let that happen!

I recently started reading Sarah Susanka’s book “The Not So Big Life.” One element of small house design Susanka emphasizes is that privacy does not always require a separate, physical space. I’m finding that to be far more true than I realized.

I get my privacy when I wake up first and enjoy the quiet sunshine streaming through the windows while I cook breakfast. My husband gets privacy when I yawn at 8 p.m. and choose an early bedtime.

Right now, our daughter has the only designated personal space: a reading nook with her books, a table and a rocking chair. When her baby brother starts sharing this space, she’ll also need her privacy. I remember as a child the joy of getting to read in bed before lights out. Maybe that will be her private “space,” too.

For Flynn, all the stuff that comes with having a 3-year-old has presented a challenge to their downsizing process.

“Our daughter brings a whole new element to a simple lifestyle,” she says. “I've heard it said, and I agree, that pre-schoolers are little hoarders. She will want to keep pieces of cut yarn, broken toys, a dead plant — all the stuff I'm trying to clear out! But part of the plan is that she can keep the things she wants; they just have to fit in her bedroom.”

Thanks to our small house, our dreams morphed into a size that genuinely fit our lives. My husband opened Tamarack Mountain Guiding, Inc. in January, and we have plans to renovate a 10’ x 11’ post and beam structure into an amazing tiny house to rent out to weekend guests. Same dream, different dimensions!

For now, my kids are young, so living in a small space works for us. We’re happy making our life fit inside these four walls. We know that, as our kids grow up and start playing in the school band, they'll probably need more space. And so will we!

We'll cross that bridge — and find that house — when we come to it.


Beth Mackey is a blogger who also works as a consultant in data management. Find her at