While some homeowners sacrifice — making do in a smaller home that is more convenient to work rather than moving to a larger house in a more distant suburb — others literally make do by adding space and value to a smaller home.
Steeper prices, traffic, friends and community involvement all factor into the decision when families consider trading up from a smaller starter home. The decision between making day-to-day life work in a given space or devising a plan to upgrade to a larger space can be a difficult one.
Some choose to stay in their small home and face the daily challenges it brings rather than move to the outer suburbs. Increased home values might make a move to a larger home possible, but the trade-off often is a much longer commute and less time to spend with the children.
Tom and Alina Copeland rented a one-bedroom apartment in Arlington after they got married. In December 1999, they bought a 1,985-square-foot end-unit town home in Annandale. Mrs. Copeland was pregnant with their first child when they moved.
“When we moved in, it was so much space. We had rooms we never went into,” Mr. Copeland says. “It was such a huge house after a one-bedroom apartment. Surely, we could never fill all this space. But lo and behold, we have.”
The Copelands now have five children. The oldest is 51/2. Two of the children sleep in one bedroom; three share another in the three-bedroom home.
They have had to be creative about space. Mr. Copeland uses the laundry room for his home office. He often works there in the morning before heading to work in Herndon.
Mrs. Copeland runs her daily laundry load after he leaves for his job.
The Copelands say they are not quite ready to move to the outer suburbs just yet, although they could likely sell their house for around $450,000 and make the move.
What keeps them in Annandale? They say it is their involvement in their Alexandria church and good friends who live less than 20 minutes away. It is convenient to major highways and shopping, too.
To complicate matters, Mrs. Copeland has begun home-schooling the older children, and her Romanian parents visit each summer for at least six weeks.
“One thing that we’ve found with home-schooling is that you use every square inch of your home because the children are home all day long,” Mrs. Copeland says. “We have to be a little bit creative with that. Our basement — which had been used as a family room and a guest bedroom — now it has also become a school room.”
“When we have visitors for longer than a week, then it becomes harder,” Mrs. Copeland says. “We’re waiting for a little bit of a push to think about something bigger. Probably if we found out we were expecting another baby, that would be the type of push we’d need.”
The Copelands say they are open to having more children.
Fortunately, Mr. Copeland has flexible work hours so his commute to Herndon isn’t so bad. The couple predicts that if they moved farther out, he would have to spend about 11/2 hours on the road for work.
Dolly Riegert Woodruff, a Realtor for Prudential Carruthers, says she encourages her clients to make do closer in rather than farther out — especially for families with children.
“Because the traffic is horrendous to get out, the person who’s working will often stay later at work,” she says. “And they will often go to a function by themselves. By the time they get home the children are in bed. Or they’ve missed any kind of family dinner. So they will often go in early and stay late.”
Besides the convenience factor, Mrs. Woodruff notes that houses that are closer in typically appreciate more quickly.
“Barring any terrorist situation, you will always do better financially closer in than you will farther out,” she says.
The rapid rise in home values over the past three years has provided the opportunity for some homeowners to trade up for more space. A well-maintained small home with some new custom features can often be just the ticket.
In 2005, John and Karen Hollinger were able to move from their 2,000-square-foot Cape Cod in Arlington to a home of more than 4,000 square feet in McLean. Their small home went up in value, and they did substantial remodeling to it.
They originally chose Arlington because they “always dreamed of somewhere where we could walk to restaurants, the Metro, and really get to know our neighbors,” Mrs. Hollinger says.
The Hollingers had moved to Arlington in November 1999. At that time, their house had 1,400 square feet, and Mrs. Hollinger was pregnant with their first child.
“It was just adorable. It was a small cottage in need of repair. It hadn’t been maintained in years. We bought it as a labor of love,” Mrs. Hollinger says.
For the Hollingers, the push to move to a larger home came after their second child.
“Initially we did not consider the house a small home. But as we had our second child, then we began to consider it too small,” Mr. Hollinger says.
“We ended up having two children and not a lot of space. It was pretty tight,” says Mrs. Hollinger. “And so we moved a year ago to McLean to a bigger house with a bigger yard. But, of course, we miss the restaurants and the neighbors and the warm feel Arlington.”
Mr. Hollinger, a stay-at-home father, completed many of the home improvements himself. He finished the basement, which added about 600 square feet to the home. He remodeled the kitchen with granite counters and stainless steel appliances. He divided one of the upstairs bedrooms into two, giving each of their sons his own bedroom. He also painted, put in flooring, replaced the roof and changed the landscaping.
“We renovated for our family but also for resale value,” Mrs. Hollinger says.
Mrs. Woodruff suggests a number of things homeowners can do to maximize space and increase the value of asmaller home.
“Bathrooms and kitchens are the main things that would help on the appreciation of a house,” Mrs. Woodruff says.
Finishing a basement is a great way to make the most of a small home. “You’re not expanding the footprint of your house, but it’s a less expensive way to expand space in your house,” she says.
Another trick is to hire a closet organizer to help with small closets.
“When people see you’ve expanded small closets and maximized their usability, it helps them imagine living in your house,” Mrs. Woodruff says.
Her other tips include:
Turn a screened-in porch into a sunroom or three-season room.
Add a bay window to a living or dining room.
Open up a first-floor bedroom to make it part of a larger kitchen or living room.
Add a deck or patio.
Replace the windows of an older home.
Create easy access to an attic because storage is in big demand.