Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Some Thoughts on Space

And I'm not talking the NASA kind of space...sorry, Rachel.

Here at Chez Barbieri, we are fans of two shows that air on our beloved HGTV: House Hunters International and House Hunters, the domestic version. They air, conveniently, every night after dinner, and we hunker down together to see different houses and their inhabitants.

The concept of each show is deceptively simple but fascinating: a person or couple is interested in moving, buying for the first time, or investing in a vacation property and are shown three possibilities. We, the viewers, are given a tour of each house just like the person or people on the show and are told what it costs. We then make a decision based on the information we’re given, and in this family, turn it into a game where we guess what the prospective buyer(s) will end up with. Ultimately, we are voyeurs, looking into the lives of the people who own the property and the prospective new owners. At the end of the show, the choice of the buyer(s) is revealed and we see what decorating touches are put on the new abode.

I am happy to say that I am almost always right in my guess as to which house or apartment will be picked. Patrick comes in at a close second, leading me to believe that the kid has a knack for real estate.

House Hunters International airs first. In this edition of the show, buyers are usually looking abroad: a British couple looking for a pied-a-terre in Paris, say, or an ex-pat American looking for a home in Scotland due to a transfer. What is astounding to me about the international version is how little people want or expect from their home. They are more interested in the particular appointments or fittings in the abode, like a beautifully tiled, river-rocked shower, or a gorgeous bay window overlooking the Seine, or maybe a lovely “garden” (aka back yard) where the children can frolic in the Provencale sun. There is no talk of “stainless steel applicances” or “three-car garages” or “square footage” like there is on the American version of the show. People are concerned with “granite countertops” or the size of the master bedroom suite. They are certainly not concerned with Jacuzzi tubs that spray water at you from all angles or the pool or the hot tub that may or may not fit in the back yard. All they are really concerned about is basic comfort and beauty, not the size of anything.

It’s interesting to watch the two shows back to back because they truly contrast the way we look at how we live here and abroad. It’s evident from watching the two shows that many Americans are concerned with size and lavishness with basic creature comforts taking a back seat. Perhaps many people think that size and comfort go hand in hand, but after watching people in Europe search for the perfect living situation, it appears to me that they do not. I’ve watched as European couples stand for several minutes eyeing beautiful and delectable olives that hang outside a rustic kitchen window, whereas in the domestic version of the show, you might see this very same tree removed to make room for a larger patio or a “water feature” beside the in-ground pool. The large garage, with space to store items that probably will go unused until the next move as well as several cars, is essential to many of the home buyers. And each child needs their own room, obviously, whereas in the overseas version, we see people sharing small spaces in order to live in great, picturesque neighborhoods or bucolic idylls.

I always say that my own house would be perfect if we had one detached garage space, another shower, and an office for me that had a door (and wasn’t housed in a cramped attic space that has become the repository for all unwanted family items). Four of us live in fifteen hundred square feet and share one shower and two toilets. Whenever the kids complain about waiting their turn to get into the bathroom, I remind them that we’re living the “European way” and to quit their belly aching. We’re close to the village, we can walk everywhere, and our neighbors always know if something suspicious is going on. There’s something to be said for that, right? Who needs a Jacuzzi when you have all that?

I’m interested to hear from our Stiletto faithful—how do you live and do you think you need more space? Could you do with less? What are the most important aspects of your home, those that make you feel great about your space? Let us know.

Maggie Barbieri


  1. I like the space I have. I try not to put too much stuff in, but an extra room to put my computer and quilting equipment would be heaven.

    As long as I can see most of the floors and walls, then everything is okay.

  2. Room for the books - not open space plans for us.
    A good (if small) kitchen.
    Great walking neighborhood.
    It doesn't take much to make us happy.

  3. Maggie, you and I are definitely psychically connected. When I watch those shows with Ed, I think the same thing (actually, we say it aloud!). It's kind of disgusting when you see an American looking at apartments in Rome, and they're more concerned with why the kitchen isn't updated or why there isn't a master suite. Um, hello, you're in the middle of Rome! What else do you want? We seriously need an attitude adjustment over here.

    Our house is about 1,500 square feet, and it suits us perfectly as I get one of the bedrooms for an office and Ed gets the finished basement room for his Man Cave. Before this, I owned a condo that was 950 square feet (and that's stretching it). But I remember seeing the article on me in St. Louis Woman Magazine when it came out, and the writer had said that I live in a "modest house," like it was important to point out that I didn't live in a mansion? Ed and I still quote her sometimes, and we laugh. Because when we watch "Property Virgins" and see people buying houses they can't afford, we're super glad we didn't even look at real estate that would've made us house poor. (Speaking of "Property Virgins," why does that Sandra Rinamato chick always ADD down payment to the amount of the pre-approved loan and say, "That's what you can spend!" No, lady, you should make sure your down payment is at least 20% so you don't pay PMI, no matter what your pre-approved loan amount is! Geez, no wonder we got in such big trouble here with people putting 0% down for so many years! Crazy! Oops went off on a tangent there, sorry!)

  4. We have way too much space because we once ran a licensed facility for developmentally disabled women. We now have two guest bedrooms. A grandson has another bedroom, and we took over two bedrooms for ours. If we ever need money, we might rent out rooms.


  5. I've noticed the same thing when I watch those shows! Although, I have to admit that my second thought is "what the hell were thinking with that bath? I'm pretty sure that the toilet should not be IN the shower." I agree Americans could absolutely use an attitude adjustment, but it's also true that Europeans could certainly learn something from us about lavatories.

  6. We have plenty of space for the family. There's only 3 of us and Sonny-Boy just started his 1st year of college (living in the dorms), so there are only 2 bodies actually IN the house. With 2600 sq. ft., we're chock full o' space.

    I look at bigger houses and think, "more space means more to keep clean." No. Thank you.

  7. I enjoy playing the "House Hunters Game", too.

    We have about 2500 square feet, 2 stories, 4bdrms, 2.5 baths and a three car garage. We have far more space than we really fully use, but when we bought the house 11 years ago part of the goal was to get a better tax break than we were getting on our townhouse. Like most people, we use what we have: one bedroom is Mark's workout room, one is my craft room with adjacent walk-in closet office for me (the closet has a window, an HVAC vent, and Mark popped in a power outlet and phone jack so it works perfectly as a tailor-fitted office!). This still gives us one very nice guest room. If we ever finish the basement, we'll move the workout equipment down there (quieter). We have a good kitchen that we use well--dbl wall oven and a nice island cooktop. Our covered front porch lets us sit out and have coffee or a drink on even rainy days and is very fun to decorate at various holidays.

    Spoiled, right? Right.

    All that said, we would be more than okay with downsizing. No reason to right now (actually plenty of reason NOT to do so), but we are talking about going to something smaller and/or in about five years buying a condo in the city of Chicago and living a city+suburban life.

    The biggest reason against less house is that it means a different house. We found this place together, put our favorite trees and plants in, added a patio and have a small pond with a couple of fat Koi in it and put in my kitchen garden. We have much fun with friends and family here. We sit down together and talk about our troubles and joys and the walls here define sanctuary and contentment to us. We made it our place and we are happy here. Though we know we'd be happy wherever we made our home, it's hard to think about leaving this one.

    I have certainly lived more simply and with less. I don't think I was any less happy, just that the details were different. We always think that it's not as much the size of the space but the layout--if it works and has good light and air circulation, etc. and feels safe and solid, it won't matter if the room is 10x12 or 20x24.

    I don't think some trends in home building and outfitting are bad per se, just not my taste. I'm not a stainless steel appliances type (too industrial), I don't like granite counters (too cold), and although the house came with a big whirlpool tub in our bathroom, I don't like the jets in it, though I do sometimes like being able to have a roomy hot soak after shoveling snow, etc. So, stuff is good only if it's the stuff YOU value, not what someone sold you on.

    One last note on what we call the Taj-Mahouse option: a handful of years ago we did look at a bigger house that was beautiful and had all sorts of extravagent features. It was very pretty and to buy it would have been making the choice to put a lot more of our incomes into only the house. But, in the end, the only real quality of life point the big house provided was that we really liked the town and location. The neighborhood was really good for us. Still it wasn't that much better than the neighborhood we have now. Then, we got around to discussing the TAXES on this fine monstrosity. That did it. I will never--ever--pay roughly $2000-$3000 per month in property taxes. Never ever. The municipality hasn't been constructed that would give me enough amenities for that kind of money.

    In the end, home and life are really only rewarding filled with love, laughs, and the results of using our hearts and minds for good. If you have that sort of life and the peaceful contentment it generates, that you drink your coffee from a cracked mug or don't have a 200 sqr foot mud room with a doggie shower just won't be an issue.