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The Extra Bedroom Problem

by Nic Darling on November 16, 2009 · 23 comments

in Philosophy

We tend toward large homes in the US and this tendency has become more and more pronounced despite the shrinking of our average family size. Much of this growth is probably a result of cheap space and cheap energy. There is simply a lack of significant economic incentive toward modesty. Land is relatively abundant and affordable, providing ample space for our swelling dwellings (ridiculous phrase but I couldn’t resist). The energy to condition and power the extra space is some of the least expensive in the world. We are almost encouraged to tack on extra rooms even to the point at which we run out of names for them. Only in the US would you actually have a space called a “bonus room”.

There is, however, a limit to this excess. Energy costs are rising and will likely continue to do so. Our ideas regarding space are likely to change as we need more land for food and denser communities to reduce the impact of travel. Eventually, it is likely that economic forces will encourage more modest homes for the majority of us. We already see a little of this effect in some portion of the empty-nester community (couples who’s kids have left home) as they leave their large suburban homes for smaller, more urban living. Though, even in that community, the majority seem to want to hang onto their larger home regardless of the number of rooms sitting unused.

There are a wide variety of factors that contribute to a reluctance to live in less space but one I have noticed in particular is the extra bedroom problem. This refers to the phenomenon where a bi-annual visit from a friend or relative is used to justify the need for an entire extra room (and often a bathroom to go with it). It is an argument we encounter constantly in our effort to build more modest, affordable homes. Young couples, years from having kids, are looking for three bedroom homes because their parents come down a few times a year to visit. Parents whose kids have their own homes and families are looking for houses with a couple extra rooms for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

This is not to say that having that extra room isn’t useful. It is nice to have someplace comfortable for guests to stay in your house. It feels good to be hospitable. But, isn’t it somewhat wasteful to build, furnish and condition a room that goes relatively unused for 350 or more days out of the year. It seems similar to the person that buys a huge pickup truck and justifies it by the two times a year they move something bigger than a couple bags of groceries. Isn’t it more responsible and efficient to use some sort of shared resources for those days when your needs are increased? Rent a truck to move something heavy? Rent a room to accommodate your relatives?

I know that the inability to offer a place to crash other than the living room floor or couch goes against many peoples idea of hospitality (mine included), but in the end the extra room seems an impractical extravagance. If our goal is lower impact, more responsible housing, then we need to address inefficient use of space. The shared amenities of a community also need to include shared space for hospitality.

How do you feel about the extra room requirements of many home buyers? What are some other solutions to the hospitality problem? What other extras do we justify by very occasional use? Is there a good defense for the guest room?

Let me hear it in the comments.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael McTigue November 16, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Agreed, Nic. I think we expand to fit the space we have. If there is an extra room, it will be filled. My house in Northern Liberties, which is small, is still a ridiculous amount of space for a single person. Yet at times I think I need more. That’s when I try to remember that this is a house that was designed for a brewery worker and family, back in the day.

Instead, I try to follow Dieter Rams’ advice: Less, but better. Smaller, better-designed space (thanks, with materials and objects that will last.

2 Joel Tanner November 16, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Nic, Awesome write-up! My spouse and I just purchased a 2500 sq.ft. 5 bedroom, 2 bath home. We are currently finishing a renovation to the main floor to have rental income. This leaves us with a 1300 sq.ft. 3 bedroom home above, and a 2 bedroom 1200 sq.ft. rental below. How else are you supposed to afford a 350,000$ mortgage? This was the only way for us!

3 Brandon November 16, 2009 at 4:21 pm

I think the key is to have the extra room do double-duty. Depending on the 360-day use of the room, it might need to be slightly larger than a standard guest bedroom, but it would be used.

For example, in our 860 sq. ft. 2-1 home, we have a “bonus” room on the garage level that is used as our guest bedroom. We have a Murphy bed in the room (that I made myself!), but as soon as it’s folded down, there’s barely room to walk around. I’d like a larger room so that my music studio could be on one side of the room with the drums set up in the footprint of the bed. It would be completely reasonable to pack up the drums 3-4 times a year and have a functional studio the rest of the year.

A second bathroom is marriage insurance for families with two working parents and children who all need to be out of the house at the same time. Putting the second bathroom next to the guest bedroom/studio makes it usable for the family on the 360 days and very hospitable during the visits.

4 Tim Walker November 16, 2009 at 5:00 pm

In the process of designing a new house for my family we spent quite a bit of time on this issue. We ended up with a solution similar to what Brandon mentions — a room that’s my office year-round but includes a sleeping solution when needed.

I’m glad you’re bringing up this issue because it’s something I think we all need to think about for the future. We’ve all grown so spoiled (myself included) to having abundant spaces because, as you’ve said, energy was cheap. The world’s going to be different now and we’ll each have to decide how to adjust. Either we’ll be paying more and more for the extra space or scaling back and rethinking how we live. Rethinking how to live is what interests me the most. As a designer, I think design is a partial solution to the problem, finding ways to maximize smaller spaces.

It’s actually an interesting problem and one I look forward to seeing people out there apply their creativity to solving.

5 Dan November 16, 2009 at 6:08 pm

I live in an urban suburb in a tiny (7-800 square feet) 2 bedroom bungalow with my wife. More important to us than an extra “formal” bedroom would be a large garage, basement, attic or studio-type space that can be used for storage or use for activities……this is exactly what a bonus room excels in……If we had an extra bedroom, it would be used as closet space and an art studio….

6 David Brown November 16, 2009 at 6:31 pm

This is a great issue to be discussing. THanks for the post. The Japanese use the tatami as their solution. As one of the most densely packed and developed islands in the world, they have a pretty good handle on how to use space. The tatami room is usually furnished minimally and used as living space or play space most of the time, but utilizes rice paper walls or some sort of partition to become a quest room. I love the idea of having a section of the living space capable of being partitioned for the times when guests need accommodations. The space may not be completely private, but in most cases that privacy is not necessary or expected by temporary guests.
Both hospitality and sustainability are very important to me and I hope gaining importance in our culture, so thanks for hosting this conversation.

7 Joshua Daniel Franklin November 16, 2009 at 7:10 pm

You may some good points, but I actually think there has been a big decline in hospitality because of despite large houses distances between friends and family members has grown. My wife’s family, for example, mostly lives in the same metro area but over an hour drive from each other, making major holidays the only time it makes sense to get together.

I also like the idea of featuring one room as “multi-use,” with a small or folding bed for guests, enough floor space for exercise or meditation, area for art or crafts or writing , etc.

8 eagleapex November 16, 2009 at 10:23 pm

I can see an extra room being a wasted space if it is unused, but what if a bonus room is used as a large art studio? Or how about a guest room always filled with guests? I guess the point is to leave no space fallow. Would you consider a 3 floor passive house with more dynamic work space?

9 Dan November 17, 2009 at 10:23 am

I agree with the argument that houses waste space, but if you want to get traction with home buyers there have to be rooms which would be easier to target for elimination than the extra bedroom. Ours is in use 300 days a year as an office, guest bedroom, and extra bed when my partner or I are restless. Why not take out those extra living rooms, playrooms, etc.? Combine the living/dining rooms into one room? Maybe downsize each room a little bit, and reduce volume without sacrificing functionality.

10 Pink Robe November 17, 2009 at 4:05 pm

We’re struggling with this a bit in our home. We’re two in a 1050 sqft ’50s bungalow with full basement, 2 bed, 1 bath up. We find ourselves gazing wistfully at the new infill across the street, with 1900 sqft in two storeys plus 900 sqft of basement. “It sure would be nice to have that extra room”, we say. But why? We cook in the kitchen, eat in the adjacent dining area or in the living room, watch TV or use the computer in the living room or office [second bedroom], do bathroom things in the bathroom and do uh, bedroom things in the bedroom. The basement has the mechanical/laundry room, a spare bedroom used 7 days/year, a bathroom and about 500 sq ft for bicycles and their related issues. Did I mention the 450 sqft detached garage?

With all this room to move, why do we feel the need for more space? I think it’s to create a little privacy or isolation for ourselves. We’re constantly interacting with people, and a little respite is nice from time to time. Our home is big enough, but the spaces within are not laid out very well. A properly-designed home should be able to provide us with opportunities to interact – or not.

11 moderns-r-us November 18, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Great article Nic. I agree completely with you!

The one issue that has not been addressed in the article or the comments is how the building, appraisal and banking industry uses the number of bedrooms as the primary factor to determine home values. The second most important factor is overall house size. All other issues are secondary to these two things. Quality of construction and a layout that works are way down the list. Energy use and Green features are barely on the radar at this point. Until we address the “size matters” issue we are going to continue to have inflated house sizes.

12 Tim Walker November 18, 2009 at 12:49 pm

The previous commenter is spot on. I’m having this same struggle in appraising and financing the construction of my new house. The whole system is geared in the opposite direction of spatial efficiency and other quality issues.

13 Nic Darling November 18, 2009 at 1:06 pm

The appraisal issue is definitely a serious concern. It is something we have already had to navigate with our “two-bedroom”, door-less, loft style homes. Fortunately, we are lucky to have an excellent real estate agent who was able to talk the appraiser through the less immediately obvious qualities of the homes (and convince them to consider it a two bedroom). We also may have been lucky in drawing a progressive appraiser who did take the energy efficiency into account.

This problem, according to appraisers I have spoken with, is more an issue of a lack of comparable existing homes than anything else. Appraisals are almost entirely based on market comps and there simply isn’t much out there that compares to the types of homes we are building. Right now, we (and by “we” I mean all of us in the industry) are in the position of having to build a new understanding of the housing market by actually building houses. This means taking some appraisal risk, but hopefully, in the long run, we will provide plenty of comps for future appraisers.

14 lavardera November 18, 2009 at 1:11 pm

I’ve gone through this quandary with clients before. We found we could raise their appraisal by adding useless space, and manage to keep the budget the same by eliminating valuable assets like windows without decreasing the valuation. Abso-f__king-lutely crazy.

Appraisals as a measure of value are broken at a fundamental level and will continue to be an obstacle to building better housing until reformed. Its been a notably absent factor in the discussion of why our economy blew up. I think appraisals deserve a heap of blame, and certainly enough blame to not simply return to the status quo.

15 Claire McEachern November 18, 2009 at 4:06 pm

Like a previous poster I instantly thought of partitions. It would seem that multi-use partitions, hung on a flexible ceiling tracking system, and made of some newfangled awesome (relatively sound proof?) material would do the trick. Full time occupants could enjoy the benefits of the “great-room” and loft style living AND have the option for making occasional pod space for guests, privacy, or some other defined use…This way space in terms of square footage becomes less of an issue and the illusion of space takes center stage.

16 Curtis Olson November 20, 2009 at 10:53 am

We did a project in Saskatoon that converted a 1911 4 story brick warehouse into 12 loft condo’s, 9 of which were 1 bedroom & bachelor style lofts. We recognized this issue and ended up designing a “guest suite” in the lower level (bedroom and bathroom only) that all the condo owners had access to. We used this feature to sell people 1 bedroom units that were seeking 2 bedrooms because of the guest suite.

Now try get an appraiser to value that feature….

17 chad November 26, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Good points on appraisals. A couple more details that have helped us to date.

One, provide actual data on the calculated energy costs of the home via a HERS report or similar analysis by a local energy consulting firm. Mention that energy prices are slated to double or triple within the next 2 years and that by adding a reasonable sized solar or wind system onsite in the future, your bills would almost cease to exist.

Secondly, use a good architect that may have actually won some design awards and/or critical praise for their work. Give them a pamphlet or bio on the architect and tell them how your residence is different than the majority of surrounding houses because of it’s progressive design. Appraisers are actually taught different methods of valuing uniquely designed homes. For instance, a Frank Loyd Wright home would certainly not be valued on the traditional size and bedroom approach. This is an extreme example, but still applicable to homes designed by quality AIA architects.

I believe strongly that the 100K project received a 20% – 30% higher appraisal due to these two factors above that we sold very strongly to the appraisers. The 120K House actually appraised for $30K more than the buyers paid for the house. While this may showcase our ignorance in pricing our homes too low, I like to think it is a better indicator of the effect of good design and energy-efficiency on value, even in a down market.

Good luck out there and keep shaping those banks’ feeble minds as we all try to progress forward together.

18 tom toolbag December 3, 2009 at 5:58 am

Do the math, do the math, do the math! Let’s say for example purposes that an extra bedroom has a size of 150 sq/ft. With a closet(24 sq/ft), and possibly even a full bathroom (50 sq/ft). Now figure a conservative price of $100.00 per sq/ft price; 150+24+50=224*$100=$22,400.00. Now include finance charges for this amount @ roughly 3-5%(let’s say 4%), energy costs, taxes, repair and renovation costs somewhere in the future, all of which have a trend-line that slopes upward(except interest costs unless you tap the home equity to finance upgrades or for other things)! Oh wait, this is done in today’s dollar, with the weakness of the dollar right now and gov’t debt, what are the odds all the costs are going to go up along with taxes? Now factor in retirement, with a fixed income that is probably lower than current or working income, it looks a little bleak to come up with 5-10-$15,000.00 to repair/renovate that space.
Guess what? I like being just as hospitable as the next person but…..your butt is staying in a hotel!! It is far cheaper for me to pay for your hotel room than to have extra, useless space. If it is a spur-of-the-moment thing, you either get the couch or an inflatable mattress. Have a few too many beers, those are your options(or a cab). My house isn’t a free vacation place so you can blow $200.00 a day @Six Flags or the water parks. It’s not kid-proof either. Likewise for mooching relatives. I don’t live beyond my means, and just because my incomes increases does not mean that I need a bigger bathroom or 1-3 extra rooms with tv’s to make my life better.
I swear, most people can’t see the forest because of the tree in front of their face!

P.S. I like my money, and I find ways to keep it not give it to someone else. I sef-finance as much as I possibly can, interest adds absolutely no value or quality to anything. Yes, I have friends that tell me I’m bass-ackward, stupid, living in the 80′s, but they also are asking to borrow money from me when in a bind, not the other way around.

19 Keith December 10, 2009 at 7:45 pm

There was one issue that was not addressed that throws a bit of a wrench into the works. Although a community space would make a lot of sense for those times when only one guest might be in town, holidays are usually the times when people have guests. Generally speaking, everyone celebrates holidays and has guests at the same time, so one or two guest accommodations for 10-15 homes would not solve the hospitality problem when it’s needed most. That doesn’t even mention the fact that those times are the ones when you’d most like to be hospitable since hotels are charging more due to increased demand.

It certainly would be nice to have some shared spaces for guests rather than everyone having spaces that are only used 10-15 days a year at most. The only problem is that those spaces nearly always get used the same 10-15 days per year. Just some food for thought, but I absolutely think this conversation is one worth having.

20 erica December 11, 2009 at 10:30 pm

The “overbooked for the holidays” argument is interesting. I wonder, if you are now acting in a community (say 12 lofts and only one guest suite) if you might factor in the households in the community who are leaving town for the holidays. Neighbors using their neighbors temporarily vacant lofts. It’s dreamy!

For full disclosure, I’m a single who bought a way too big house (2100 square feet — life is cheap in Pittsburgh, PA). It seems more reasonable now that I have roommates. But, with the roommates I’ve lost the guest room. I’m surprised that it’s not so hard to have the guests sleep on the couch. If I actually hang a door in the jamb between the living room and dining room I could offer them an additional hint of privacy.

On a different topic of space and expectations, I am consistently shocked at the disbelief of my friends that my household (three or four people) could possibly share just one bathroom. It kills me that people think I should spend $3,000 – $15,000 to add a bathroom no one in the household needs and I don’t want. I’ve found the “not so big house” movement helpful in thinking about this topic.

21 Carolyn A. January 9, 2010 at 1:30 pm

We moved to Oregon 6 yrs. ago with 2 adult, single children. We bought a 3,000 sq. ft. 32 y r. old home in a hill side neighborhood of custom homes. The lower/street level has a party room, kitchenette, bathroom, office and large family room with fireplace and killer city view in the distance and a private, fenced yard with separate entrance and security system! It is quiet and serene living here.

The extra spaces in our home have served us well as

  1. additional living spaces for our college-bound and job-hunting children, both of whom are graduated and/or out and married; post-living needs, the space served as
  2. preschool rooms and program space for music studio
  3. currently being used as tv room/exercise equipment space and other large room is play room for grandkids!

We’re getting a ping-pong table for the large room. It’s a perfect space/place for grandkids to play and get away from all the adults.

We have made this house “work for us”. In the future, as we find the need, we’ll occupy the lower/main level (900 sq. ft.) and rent out the 2100 sq. ft. of this raised hillside ranch home. It’s a perfect set up for two separate living spaces, if we want to allocate it as such!!

We have a low mtg. and can also consider a reverse mtg. within the next 3 yrs. before my husband retires. Then, our home will continue to “work for us” as we age in place! Just some other options for consideration, coming from 2 seniors!

22 Jason February 18, 2010 at 11:02 pm

I just added a 500 sf additon to my exisitng 1,400 sf home in Savannah, GA. The home originally had 3 small bedrooms (roughly 11×11. I knocked out one bedroom wall and made that into a new dining room. The exterior wall of that sapce was then knocked out and connected to the new kitchen of the additon giving us a nice open space. That left me with two small bedrooms- good for kids. I converted the old dining room (also about 12×11) into the new “master bedroom”. Adjoining this room is the old kitchen. I will use this as the master bathroom and there is also a small 7×11 storage closet off of the old dining room. The idea here is to use the old storage closet as a walk in closet. Because the new bedroom (old dining room) is only large enough for a queen bed and a dresser it will only be used for sleeping and dressing purposes but I can still justify it as a “master” as it will have a nice closet and master bath. So now Im back to a 3 bedroom house. In back of the new kitchen int he addtion, I added an office, laundry, coat closet and half bath. This space measures 12×24 in its entirety but the way it is divided, you can use it as an office, laundry room or a guest suite. I think this is a good idea for people that want that third bedroom but need to really justify it. Guests, no problem. Some extra space to lay out the laundry, no problem. Need to get away and pay the bills or draft a side project, no problem. The point is the space will always be used somehow.

23 Luke May 29, 2011 at 7:50 pm

It’s really hard to find a house nowadays that DOESN’T have too many rooms. I’m a single dude with a big dumb dog, but he doesn’t need his own room. I am in the process of house-hunting right now, and I had no idea how difficult it was to find a home with less than three bedrooms. The ones that do are way too old to be financed with my mortgage company. I totally agree with the idea of this article, but WTF am I to do with the choice of a thousandaffordable homes in my area, all of which are too big for me?

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