Sunday, January 27, 2013

Owning to Rent

My great-grandfather's house in Ireland • 8 kids • 2 rooms
My mother never wanted to own a house. She felt it tied you down.

But the rest of her generation, children of immigrants reared in the Great Depression, saw home ownership as a sign that you had made it. They told their kids, “Don’t pay rent; pay a mortgage.” And it made sense. Every dollar paid was a dollar back in your own pocket, a far cry from my coal-miner grandpa, who owned his “soul to the company store.”

My husband and I followed their advice, and proudly bought our first house in our mid-twenties. We pulled it off by joining forces with another couple to buy a fixer-upper duplex. We sold it five years later at a small profit that let us buy our own house. Since then, we’ve owned a series of comfortable houses, each under 2,000 sq ft. As we look to retirement, we assumed we’d sell our house and buy smaller.

But our dreams of retirement are tinged with wanderlust and, more practically, a need to fund our wanderings. At the same time, we like the idea of a base. And we love St. Augustine, where we have lived for over 20 years. So our latest idea is to rent here. It frees up money and gives us flexibility.

And there is more good news. It seems easier to find a small place for rent than for sale, at least in our town. Part of this is because it is common in the historic downtown to find a small house in the backyard of a larger home. Another is the large number of older homes that have been carved into multi-family dwellings. And while we prefer old houses to condos, we’d consider trying one out. St. Augustine is teeming with them, and even has some in historic buildings.

Real estate companies sometimes have rentals, and a search for property management brings up several companies. Small houses are limited, but here is a cute one at just over 1,000 sq ft.
St. Augustine, FL • 1,016 sq ft • $750/mo •
On Craigslist, a quick scan of the last few days plus a search for cottages turned up a few promising rentals, including the one below. If you want to search several cities at once, get the free Craigslist app. And if your town has a grapevine like mine, put out the word to all your friends that you want to rent small. And tell ’em you don’t want to be tied down.
St. Augustine, FL • 500 sq ft • $600/mo • craigslist

If wanderlust strikes, 
theres always Alaska...
Fairbanks, AK • 480 sq ft

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Searching for Small

Hobbits aren’t the only ones living in tiny houses these days.

But how tiny is tiny? It’s a relative term. My husband and I live in a smallish house. At 1,800 sq ft, it’s well below the national average (2,480 sq ft for new homes if you go by the census). But it’s ten times the size of fully functional houses emerging from the “tiny house movement.” 25 million google hits can’t be wrong. Tiny houses are trending.

What does this mean for us? Like many people planning for retirement, we talk a lot about what our home will look like in the years to come. Our current house will be bigger than we need, but how tiny will we go? And what will we find under 1,000 sq ft? 

Small homes are out there, but it takes creativity and patience to find them. I limited my first explorations to single family houses for sale. Let’s look at St. Johns County, FL, where I live. As I type, there are 2,000 “residential houses” for sale on Just under 1% are under 1,000 sq ft. Here is my favorite, based on potential. Its zoned commercial and has a large lot:
St. Augustine, FL • 576 sq ft • $72,500 •
Next I tried within 15 miles of my house: nothing under 1,000 sq ft, or under $150,000. On to my local Craigslist. First, all real estate for sale posted today: again, nothing under 1,000 sq ft. What about past listings? A search for “small house” in “title” turned up nothing. But in “entire post” up came “2br - 1000ft² - FSBO” — very intriguing. Another effective search term is “cottage” under “entire post.” You can use an email alert system to tell you when keywords appear. Try See for how to do it.

Pomona Park, FL • 1,000 sq ft • Best Offer • craigslist
One tiny house in St. Augustine is not for sale. The 180 sq ft Log House at our Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum was built in 1930, one of four made from a single huge log. It was not a great use of resources. The trunk section for this one tiny house had enough lumber to build a five-bedroom house. But it sure is cozy. 

St. Augustine Ripley's Log House • 180 sq ft • NFS

Up next: More paths to small homes. In the meantime, enjoy browsing at

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Getting Simple Now

View from my backyard
A few years ago, I realized I was always busy doing something.

Inside my family’s bungalow, which is also our office, the phone was always ringing and my computer was always beeping. Outside, I was always doing yard work or repairing something. I never seemed to just sit and take it all in. And if I tried, someone would ask me for directions to the wax museum, one of the downsides to in-town living in a tourist town. 

I wanted my life to be less complicated, not an easy proposition with full-time work, old house repairs, a teenager commuting to an art high school an hour away and an aging parent. 

My husband and I took stock and weighed our options. What if we got small? Our house is not huge, but at 1,800 square feet, it’s not tiny either. But it holds two full-time businesses, including warehouse and shipping for our publishing company, two adults, our daughter and two pets. We use every square inch of it. If we downsized now, we'd have to rent office and warehouse space - more complications. 

We love living downtown and walking and biking everywhere, but in the 20 years we’ve been here, the town has gotten more and more congested with traffic and tourists. But, again, selling and moving is not in the cards right now. Our family isn’t ready to leave our community and friends. When our daughter leaves for college that might change, but we’re here for a while. 

Despite all this, I realized that one can plan ahead for a full life after full-time work. And a full life can mean living small, in a good way. Because living tiny in some aspects of our lives lets us live large in those that really matter.

At the same time that I started to look to the future with anticipation instead of trepidation, I decided I didn’t want to wait to live smaller or quieter, at least in part of my life. I made a decision to get into the woods more and reduce the noise of life whenever I could. 

So, a better life now, and a better life later. Let’s see where this takes us…