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Bellevue, WA, 98007
United States

Our house is too big!

Going Small(er)

Our house is too big!

Marc Scattergood

OK, perhaps not a complaint you hear very often. Truth be told, it's not even really a complaint. More just a reality. 

We bought our house in 1999. Our timing couldn't have been better. The local market had just finished bottoming out, and we managed to buy a 2200 sq. ft (204sqm) split level colonial about a mile and half from Microsoft's main Redmond, WA campus. At the time, it was $264,500. Which was insane, given where I grew up (a small coastal town in Oregon), or even after moving to Portland, OR. It was hard to mentally readjust from my parents' house that cost about $9000 in 1974, or even the place they bought near Laurelhurst Park in Portland for just about $90k. Now, mind you, whether buying or not was really the best decision is another story.

But we were happy with our purchase. Less than two miles from work, and where Stacie would soon start her still burgeoning career. Three miles from downtown Bellevue, 11 miles from Seattle, and a walk score of 60, decent for the Eastside. At the time, only Crossroads Mall as a "destination" if you wanted to grab a bite. No real happy hours (until recently), unless you wanted to go to the Mustard Seed, Too, the only bar, dive or otherwise, close by. Not really our scene. But that's ok. It's really only in the last few years where we started learning the joys of a good happy hour anyway. Probably in preparation for a baby. Just a theory.

Anyway, back to the point. We like our house, we really do. Despite its shortcomings, it's been a fantastic home for us. It was built in 1962, and we're the third owners. We don't know anything about the first owner, but the second - the couple we bought from - was a very elderly British couple that had expatriated here from the UK in the late 60s to help Boeing build planes. When we moved in, the bonus / media room was the Queen's Hunting Lodge mother-in-law apartment (knotty pine paneling, horse brass, and a portrait of the Queen). No, I'm not joking.

We've spent a lot of time and money remodeling. It feels like we've repainted at least 30 rooms. Impressive for a 5 bedroom, 2.75 bath house. But over the 16 years we've lived here, we noticed a trend. We never really use the downstairs. We have a gorgeous spa bathroom that we did entirely ourselves. A guest bedroom that we've made a lot of effort to make very comfortable. A craft room that is probably the second most used room down there. A great little laundry area that sees the most use. A media room that, sadly, mostly sits empty.

Drywall. I hate doing drywall.

But the finished work looked pretty good.

There's a lot of reasons for the uneven usage distribution in our house. The kitchen, the main living room, the master bedroom, our office, and now our baby's room, are all upstairs. The downstairs has probably seen the most remodeling as well, though partially that was unintended. There was a flood. It was this whole thing. It's going to be a future topic, because it figures in heavily with our attempts to go smaller. Despite all the effort, and frequent attempts to find more ways to use the downstairs, we just don't.

What this means is, there is effectively 1100 sq. ft in our house that goes unused 80% of the time. We walk through it on our way upstairs when we get home - it's how the garage connects to the house. We go down there to do laundry. The giant cat litter box to accommodate three cats is the primary occupant of our sumptuous spa bath.

A lot of time and effort put into changes that were predicated on one flawed assumption: that under no circumstances would we be sharing this space. If we could do it all again, we'd probably have changed a lot of the remodels we did downstairs. Not because we don't love them, but we simply don't use them. 1100 sq. ft, or even if you remove the hallway and laundry area, let's say 900 sq. ft, would make for a large apartment for an individual. Possibly even a couple. Ultimately, it's just felt like a wasted opportunity. The income it could generate would of course be great. At current rental prices in Bellevue, even is we offered it at or a little below market, we could rent the downstairs out for almost as much as our mortgage. But more importantly, it wouldn't feel like we were wasting so much space.

To recover this space and make better use of it would require moving the plumbing from our original remodel, and a significant chunk of money and time. Now we're left with the quandary: do we leave the space underutilized for now, hoping maybe we'll use it more as The Boy gets older? Do we put a significant investment into turning it back into a rent-able space, knowing all the annoyances that can come with that? Do we move to an apartment or a rental house, and rent the house out to a family that could use it more fully, turning our house into a revenue source, even though being renters and landlords has its own challenges and irritations? Or do we sell it, invest the money for what will hopefully be an early retirement in ten years, and then just deal with being renters again?

Honestly, we don't know yet. We're still trying to figure that out.  Of course, we'll be sharing our decision here once we figure it out. There's a lot of turmoil in our life right now, and shockingly, only a tiny percentage of that is our joyous little insane bundle of baby. Once some of those other things settle, we'll probably be better able to answer that question. In the meantime, we'll continue to analyze which choice makes the most sense, both for our short term, and long term goals.

Some numbers for reference:

  • Amount of Underutilized Space: 900 sq. ft. (Approx 40% of our living space)
  • Cost per Sq. Ft in Bellevue, median: $339
  • Rough Market Value of Underutilized Space 2015 / 1999: $305,100 / $126,000
  • Estimated Monthly Rent on Space (Monthly and Annual): $1500 / $18,000
  • Current Positive Equity (Estimate): $241,000
  • Value of Equity Invested Over 10 Years (S&P500 Avg): $732,000 (Dividends reinvested, compounded quarterly, using historical returns 1940 - 2015)

What's your opinion? What do you think is the best way to handle so much underutilized space? Thanks for reading, and we'll be back soon. I think I mentioned something about a flood. Yah, that was neat. I think we'll probably talk about that.



  • 23 Things They Don't Tell you About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang ; It's proving to be a fairly deep read, though still quite accessible. Also haven't had as much time since I started up the blog. Gonna try and finish it this week. May do a book review as a post, as it's an interesting topic. Yes, I love discussing economics.