Save Money Living in a Smaller Home

Save money living in a smaller home. Buying or building a small home is a great way to significantly reduce your energy use, and you don’t have to sacrifice comfort or style to do so. Learn how you can make the most of minimal space to create an efficient and enjoyable home of your own.

Learn how to save money living in a smaller home. With a total of 640 square feet, the Speed family home is just right.

Learn how to save money living in a smaller home. With a total of 640 square feet, the Speed family home is just right.

Photo by Frances Idlebrook

Content Tools

The best way to slash your energy bills is to save money living in a smaller home. Choose a compact, well-built home such as this sweet, neat and petite home in Franklin, Maine.

Sometimes good things do come in small packages, would you be surprised to know you can save money living in a smaller home? As the housing market in America super-sized and homeowners demanded more square footage for their new homes each year, Sarina Speed and her husband, Ben, went the opposite route: They decided to build the smallest house possible to fit their needs. Their two-story home in Franklin, Maine, clocks in at 640 square feet and stands 18-by-18 feet, smaller than some garages. The couple shares the home with their toddler, Noah, and a cat.

Quirky, small houses are a tradition in Maine. And the Speeds’ home was as carefully planned as some coastal mansions.

Sarina says it was important for her and her husband to build an environmentally friendly home that required a minimal amount of fossil fuels. The couple originally planned to build an off-the-grid home powered by solar panels, but the initial investment would’ve been too much. After months of research, the couple decided the easiest way to achieve energy efficiency was to reduce the size of the house. Their research paid off; their monthly electric bill is about $20 (they heat their home using a woodstove).

That’s amazing in this day and age, says Dick Brown, former program manager for Efficiency Maine, a program that helps Mainers save money on their electric bills. “Somebody with a $20 electric bill is basically using the minimum amount of electricity,” he says.

Sarina acknowledges that the roots for their decision to build a small house were put down at an early age: She was born into a home that measured just 16 by 16 feet. “I was fairly accustomed to the idea of smaller,” she says.

It helped that since she and her husband met, they have pared down their belongings to the bare essentials. There isn’t a lot of space to store things to be used someday. “You only really keep the things that have memories for you,” she says.

But creating a comfortable home is about more than paring down; it’s about good design. In a small home, every square foot of space is important. “Every corner has to be planned,” Sarina says.

The Speeds bought their small-house plan from small-home designer Jay Shafer through his company, Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., based in Sebastopol, Calif. Shafer, who lives in a 96-square-foot home, has constructed or provided plans for 70 small homes, ranging in size from 65 to 774 square feet. The Speeds then modified the plan to fit their needs.

In small-home design, the devil is in the details. The Speeds’ home employs dozens of space-saving tips: Stereo speakers are wired into the home and a flat-screen television is mounted on the wall. Vertical space is maximized with small shelves, and kitchen implements are hung from the ceiling. The bathroom and bedrooms are just big enough to move around comfortably. And there’s even the ingenious Splendid clothes washing machine that doubles as a dryer.

They also employed a host of tricks to make the space seem bigger than it is: A high percentage of windows to wall space lets in plenty of natural light. The walls are brightly colored, creating an airy and spacious feel in each room. And instead of a wide-open floor plan, each room has its own distinctive features or divider to differentiate it from the others.

Living in a small home for the past two years, says Sarina, has changed the way she goes about everything. “It makes for a lot less cluttered life,” she says.

John Gordon, an architect with Gordon-Stanley Architecture on Mount Desert Island and the 2006 winner of the Maine State Housing Authority’s Mainestream Green Home Design Contest, is impressed with the size of the Speeds’ home. He says he’s constantly trying to help his clients think smaller in the same way.

“It’s quantity versus quality,” Gordon says. “We’re trying to convince people to just build better.”

He thinks small-home design will become more popular as the price of home heating continues to climb.

Besides being cheaper to maintain, the Speeds’ home was cheaper to build, costing $55,000, including road and foundation work. To keep costs down, the couple did much of the non-technical labor themselves or with the help of friends.

Sarina understands her home won’t have the same resale value as a 2,000-square-foot house, but she’s found the value is comparable when adjusted for size. Still, she knows the next owner of the home, if there’s to be one, probably won’t be as efficient at space management. “We’d probably market it as a summer home,” she says.

Although they’re considering having another child, the couple has no plans to move to more spacious digs. Sarina thinks the house may benefit from a mudroom and another bedroom someday, but all additions will be designed to be just as cozy as the main house.

“I doubt it will ever exceed 1,000 square feet,” she says.

brenda c
2/7/2011 5:26:38 PM

Our home burned down last year. After our bills were paid we did not have enough money to rebuild right away. We bought a large travel trailer to live in while we worked on saving money and designing a home for just the two of us. First surprise is that we have to build a home with at least 1200 sq ft. We do not want one that large. Second surprise is that we are being required to either purchase a building permit which we are not ready for or we have to move our camper from our land to a licensed rv park. There is not one nearby. We are at a loss at what to do. We lived in the same home for over 25 years and now we are thinking about moving out of this county because of all of this.

1/19/2009 10:36:35 AM

MC - have you thought of building a separate "guest house" for the grandparents? When they are no longer with you it could remain as a guest house, being heated only when you have quests or used as another function - office, shop, etc. Or perhaps even sold and moved. Another plus to that is that older folks often don't keep the same hours as younger people and this would give them some privacy.

11/28/2008 8:55:10 AM

Wow-- really inspiring!! We're deciding whether to renovate a badly constructed 1300 sqft cabin into a greenish house for somewhere between 2 and 5 adults (me, the hubby, and some combination of his parents and my dad just depending on whose health fails when)and 3 kids, or save like crazy and rebuild really green. My debacle is this: 1300 is just about exactly right for 7-8 people (at least, it is if we all learn to really co-operate). But we're not all going to be here forever. The parents are certainly a temporary situation; I don't expect any of them to be alive in 15 years' time. The kids are, eventually, going to leave. I don't like it, but kids do that. Whatever we do, unless it's leave or starve, my husband and I plan to live with it for the rest of our lives. We love this place; it's our forever home. Unless something happens, 1300 sqft is going to be a lot of waste for two old farts and a bunch of cats. Rebuilding probably means clearing at least part of the other end of our lot. It would be a better place for a house, in terms of passive solar (southern exposure), esthetics, and eventual resale value (lakefront w/view). We would, undoubtedly, rehabilitate the old house site as garden space/habitat, but better to leave existing habitat alone in the first place. If it's going to happen, I want it to be minimal. How many sqft do you think five adults and three children need to keep their collective sanity and stay on the right side of the law?? I've never run-in with DCFS, but being Pagan in the Bible Belt means I live prepared. Any suggestions for how to design a house that's a happy compromise for five now, up to eight later, and two eventually??? Or other suggestions for how to house a father who's expressed a strict desire to not live alone, for good reason, and two inlaws who aren't going to be able to afford their own place (If you ever need an incentive for debt

debbie stuckey
10/29/2008 2:33:43 PM

We are looking for small Gambrel Roof house plans.Please e-mail any information.

10/18/2008 1:09:07 PM

This is a great article. It just proves that you don't need a huge home to be a happy family. More families need to adopt this method. It's a great money saver with a less negative impact on our environment. The home we live in is less than 1000 sq. feet and I can't imagine needing anything bigger.

10/8/2008 3:42:16 PM

I couldn't find a house small enough, so I bought a two-storey one and sealed off the second floor. Now I can afford the most efficient type of insulation. I figured that with today's energy prices and environmental concerns, that would be the best way to keep my heating bills affordable and my ecological footprint to a minimum. Gina B.