The Joys of Living Small: 3 Families Share Their Tiny Houses

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"Our stuff was taking over our lives."

Amanda Prince, 42, and Robert Prince, 45, share a 960-square-foot home with their children, Estella, 10, and Teagan, 7, in Big Bear, California.

In early 2012 the Prince family was living in a 2,700-square-foot home in San Diego with four bedrooms, three baths, and a three-car garage. It had a cavernous living room, a formal dining room, a kitchen with Carrera marble counters, and a sprawling yard with a hot tub. "We'd achieved the American Dream, but it wasn't working for us," says Amanda. She had come to see that space as a burden. "I was constantly cleaning and organizing and dealing with maintenance," she says. "I was a glorified caretaker." The amenities also went to waste. Estella and Teagan had their own bedrooms, but Teagan hated sleeping alone. And Amanda's walk-in closet was so cluttered she often couldn't find her favorite items; the girls had the same problem in their overflowing playroom. "We had family talks about how wasteful our society is, and the bad effect on the environment," Amanda says. "Then it hit me -- we were part of the problem. We were buried in stuff."

One day last March she saw the environmental entrepreneur Graham Hill (founder of the sustainable-design websites Treehugger and LifeEdited) on TV giving a tour of his New York City apartment -- designed for comfort, elegance and efficiency and occupying just 420 square feet. Hill believes that minimizing your use of space, energy, and material goods maximizes your health, happiness, and financial well-being. "That blew me away," says Amanda.

She replayed the show for Robert, who agreed that they needed to simplify. With the girls' help, they weeded out the family's unnecessary belongings and donated them to charity. But an emptier nest convinced Amanda they should flee it altogether. And she knew exactly where to go.

The Princes had recently purchased a two-bedroom vacation home in Big Bear, a mountain town two hours east of Los Angeles. The cottage was a third the size of their San Diego place, but with two stories, an open floor plan, and lots of glass, it felt surprisingly spacious. Whenever the family visited, they found it hard to leave. During a weekend trip Amanda proposed a permanent move. Robert, a data-security specialist for a power company, was skeptical but changed his mind when they returned to their echoing McMansion.

His employer agreed to let him transfer to the L.A. branch and telecommute three days a week. By June Amanda and the kids were already settled in the cottage. Robert rented out the big house, loaded a moving van, and joined them for good.

These days his home office is a foldaway desk in the couple's upstairs bedroom, next to the room shared by Estella and Teagan. Amanda, a photographer and blogger, manages her business from a laptop in the living area, where the whole family tends to congregate. "It's just like in our old house -- we all end up in one room," she says.

Living more consciously has sharpened the family's appreciation of nonmaterial pleasures. They bike and jog on nearby trails and volunteer at the local community center to help needy neighbors. When the father of one of Teagan's classmates lost his job, the whole class pitched in with food and clothing. "We don't miss what we left behind," Amanda says. "Our new life has made it easier for us to be the people we want to be. Even our dog is happier."

Continued on page 3:  "The economy made us do it."

 

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