Do you really need to live in such a big place?

(Flickr photo by hoyasmeg)

When I was a real estate broker in the D.C. area, I would check out the open houses of what came to be known as McMansions.

Wandering from room to room, many filled with couches and comfortable chairs, I would wonder how the residents decided where they would sit, what they would do differently in one lushly decorated chamber or another and why they needed such a big house.   In Manhattan, too, I often have the same thoughts as I visit  townhouses and sprawling apartments.

My former business partner in D.C. invariably chuckled at my vocalized comments, which were tinged with indignation, even contempt, in a world of rampant poverty–not that I haven’t been a practitioner of conspicuous consumption myself as well.

What has brought such experiences to mind was an article by Susan Rosenbloom in the New York Times, who explores whether living large makes folks happy.

As unlikely as you may think a real estate broker would take such a position, I firmly believe that buyers should think twice about how big a residence they really need.

The emblematic couple in the Times article gave up a two-bedroom apartment, two cars, wedding china and much of everything else to live–happily, they say–in a 400-sf studio in Portland, Ore. Their lifestyle strikes me as pretty extreme, but it also seems like a step in the right direction.

Research cited by Rosenbloom suggests that it’s better for obtaining long-term happiness to spend money on an experience to which you can look forward–for example, a vacation–than on a possession.  One academic quoted in the article on that point, Associate Professor Elizabeth W. Dunn of the University of British Columbia, is the author with colleagues of a paper, the title of which I just love:

If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending it Right

Others in the piece said that one reason that paying for experiences gives us longer-lasting happiness is that we can reminisce about them, even if a vacation experience is marred.  (Years and years ago, I parked a wrapped urn under the check-in podium at an airline’s gate in Rome, only to find that the police had confiscated it and then subjected my former wife and me to intense questioning.  Yet, that anecdote, troubling at the time, proves the researchers’ observations to me.)

A couple of paragraphs in the Times bear reading in their entirety:

Another reason that scholars contend that experiences provide a bigger pop than things is that they can’t be absorbed in one gulp — it takes more time to adapt to them and engage with them than it does to put on a new leather jacket or turn on that shiny flat-screen TV.

“We buy a new house, we get accustomed to it,” says Professor [Sonja] Lyubomirsky [of the University of California, Riverside], who studies what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation,” a phenomenon in which people quickly become used to changes, great or terrible, in order to maintain a stable level of happiness.

Over time, that means the buzz from a new purchase is pushed toward the emotional norm.

“We stop getting pleasure from it,” she says.

With respect to the “one gulp” quoted above, it has long been my contention that views are overrated, that the residents of high-rise apartments with panoramic vistas soon fail to derive as much pleasure as thought by looking out the windows. It must be said, however, that individuals who live in such units invariably deny my opinion.

As I survey aspects of my life–my kitchen counters laden with appliances that I rarely use and obviously could manage without; my closets stuffed with clothes too small, too old (or both) to consider wearing, even after a recent winnowing of the garments;  and the impulse purchases of years past that I have tucked away or no longer see in plain sight–I have to wonder what is wrong with my priorities.

I do know, however, that I look forward with pleasure to purchases I have been putting off such as an iPad, a new laptop computer and a bread machine.  At the same time, I recall how much more than those potential purchases I had anticipated daily my recent vacation and how often I think back with pleasure on that merely week-long respite.

So, yes, I continue to ask this unconventional question:  Do buyers always really need the size residence that they seek or would they obtain greater happiness by allocating to an experience some of the funds required to buy versions of a McMansion?

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Malcolm Carter
Licensed Associate Real Estate Broker
Senior Vice President
Charles Rutenberg Realty
127 E. 56th Street
New York, NY 10022

M: 347-886-0248
F: 347-438-3201
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