November 25, 2008

Reader Question: Houses for a Big Family

Kristine writes:
My husband and I are looking to move to a new area of the country, and although we don't have kids now, we're planning on at least 3 kids, probably 4. We're hoping to take advantage of the housing/economic crunch and buy the house we're going to live in for the next 20-odd years, rather than getting a teeny starter home. Any advice on "must have" or "wish I had" features when it comes to a big family?

Ah! Yes! I HATE to move, and so when Paul and I bought our first home, we were looking for a home that we could live in until we, um. Died. Or whatevs.

And what we did was, we bought a house with POTENTIAL. It's a 3-bedroom 1-bathroom raised ranch (also called a split-level), so it was listed and marketed as a starter home. But my dad, who is Very Handy (the kind of Handy that can, like, build a garage) took a look at it and what he saw was the unfinished basement. In a raised ranch (or split-level, have it your way), the basement is only partly under the ground. The basement can still have regular-sized windows, like a regular floor of the house. That meant that what we were buying was an 1100-square-foot house with the potential to be a 2200-square-foot house.

Furthermore, it has a good empty back yard, so theoretically we could build OUT if we wanted to, though I don't think we will. I guess we could put on an upper level if we really wanted to---though again, I don't think we will. We could add a garage out to the side, because there's space there too, and that's something we probably WILL do some day, so we can go from the car to the house without slipping on ice and breaking our elderly hips.

The house also had a porch built on a house foundation instead of an a porch foundation, which is something I never would have noticed but the inspector went nuts over (the happy kind of nuts, saying, essentially, "OMG SQUEE! You could totally convert this into house-space!"). This meant that when we thought, "You know what would be awesome? A dining room!" we could enclose the porch.

Of course, if your dad isn't Very Handy, this plan might not work for you. It's worked for us because my dad contributes his labor free of charge, and so when he makes a change to our house we only have to pay for the supplies. If we had to pay for the labor, we wouldn't have a dining room OR a semi-finished (2 bedrooms, a linen closet, and a family room) basement.

In that case, we still would have ended up here, because this was the most house we could afford. But if we'd had more wiggle room, I think I would have looked for two bathrooms. It is a major pain to have to wait in line or to have someone dancing outside the door waiting for you, and that's with three of us not potty-trained yet.

I'd also be looking for something that wasn't Too Big. That seems like an odd thing to do, but it's not going to be ALL that long before the kids are gone and Paul and I are here by ourselves again. It'll be nice at that point to just close off the basement except for when we have guests, and go back to our "starter home"-sized house.

So! Those are the two things---no, three things---I think are good to look for in a house for a larger family:

1. Potential (room to expand)
2. Not Too Big (can still live here after the kids leave)
3. Two bathrooms

Oh, wait! I have one more thing! Look for a good driveway! Or room to make the driveway bigger! When the kids are older and there are more cars/drivers, it's nice not to have to park on the lawn, or have to have everyone move his or her car every time someone wants to go somewhere.

4. Good driveway, or good driveway potential

Oh, wait! Another thing! The YARD! Oh, heavens, the yard. It's so nice if it has a yard big enough to KICK EVERYONE INTO. The house can get so loud and so nuts, and it is wonderful to be able to just go *BOOT* and send everyone to a relatively safe, enclosed back yard.

5. Yard


Jess said...

The driveway! What a good point! We are thinking that we'd like a Final House too, instead of a starter home, and we are also thinking we don't want anything too big, but OMG I can't believe you guys only have one bathroom. We are definitely hoping for 2+ bathrooms. But I hadn't thought about the driveway. You are so helpful!

Tuli said...



Don't live there for years like I did THEN find out the place is infested with termites.

MoMMY said...

Ok, as the mom of 4 boys (almost 14 - 8) I will tell you what I think...

We have 1.5 bathrooms. I'd kill for another shower.

Could not survive without my seriously large mud/laundry room.

Also, seriously large family room. We had a small house which was fine when the boys were small but I soon realized - they get BIG. And then they have BIG friends.

Oh, LARGE KITCHEN a must. As for the rest of the house? Eh, doesn't need to be big.

Kylene said...

I grew up with three siblings and potentially 4 foster kids at a time living in the house with us. So that's (count it) eight kids and two adults all at the same time. And if anyone has friends over, it gets even worse. This is what I would recommend:

1. Two bathrooms. If you're living in this house when the kids are in high school, you will give your left kidney to have another bathroom.

2. A family room. This way, you can have a space where the kids can make a mess with all their toys and you can have a toy-free zone in most of the rest of the house. When they have friends over, you have a place to send them. If at all possible, make this room as far away from your bedroom as possible.

3. A yard. Exactly the same as Swistle said. A place to throw them all out of the house.

4. A large pantry in the kitchen. If you have four kids and if any of them are boys, you're going to be hitting the grocery store every single day unless you can buy in bulk and store it.

5. A non-scary neighborhood. Kind of obvious, but good to mention anyway.

6. A dishwasher.

Marie Green said...

I'd add that if possible, the driveway should be FLAT- many newer homes around here have driveways that are slanted towards the street... so you kiddos can never ride bikes/trikes/scooters w/o zooming down the slant towards the street. We bought an older home and just happened upon the flat (large) driveway- our kids can play and play and PLAY on their wheeled toys and not end up on the street.

Also, we were looking for an older home, b/c that was our aesthetic. The house we bought is beatiful, but had LOTS of wallpaper (UGLY, not pretty wallpaper). But we are do-it-yourself-ers so we saw past the ugliness and could see how awesome the house would be once the LARGE ORANGE FLOWERS were gone.

(Removing wall paper and adding paint is labor intensive, but cheap. All of the "bigger ticket" things were already updated: electrical, plumbing, fixtures, kitchen, etc)

Finally, I wish we had a mudroom, with long, open, locker-style cubbies for everyone. Right now, we come into the family room, so it always looks messy with everyone's coats etc.

catnip said...

Driveway is very important - must be flat for the kids to learn to ride bikes!

It's also important that there is no standing water anywhere nearby. We bought in winter and the marshy area in the woods was frozen so we didn't know we bought in mosquito hell.

Kylene said...

Oooh, I agree with MoMMY and Marie Green about the mudroom. We had one of those with huge cubbies for all our jackets and outdoor stuff--both clothing and play things. Huge help in keeping things organized, helping cut down on fights about stuff, and keeping the house clean.

Our laundry was on the other side of the mudroom and Mom could throw all the laundry on the floor to sort it out, there was enough room. And if/when it flooded, it was on concrete so it didn't make too big of a mess.

Our chest freezer was out there, too. That freezer was another huge help for Mom.

drowninginlaundry said...

For us it was:

2.5 bathrooms / 3 bedrooms upstairs
large pantry in the kitchen
big enough yard for a play unit and a dog run
parking for extra cars on the driveway if needed
a basement that could be developed well (extra bedroom, playroom (which is up to code for another bedroom) and family room down there now)

We lucked out and found our perfect home - and we will likely never move unless my partner gets transferred. Total finished square footage including a basement is about 2600.

Cherish said...

I grew up in a family of 6 kids and I have four boys myself. I agree with everything Swistle said and most of the commenters so far..

The big pantry is something that I am really starting to love even though my kids are still small. With so much food to buy you dont want to be stuck with no cupboard space.

I have a mud room and I love it! All of our crap goes in there and so our main entranceway (that guests use) is never cluttered or messy.

I would also add though that stairs can really suck if you have to use them a lot for all your chores. Like I have my laundry room in the basement which means that I have to carry the laundry up and down two flights of stairs and as you can imagine, we do a lot of laundry!

A family room is also really nice because when the weather isnt so great and the kids are driving you nuts it is a good space to make them go to just to keep the quiet down. It is no good if the family room is on the same floor as where ever you will be though.

Mims said...

We also moved into (built, actually) our split level "starter" home and the unfinished basement is a wonderful thing. You can make it into anything you want!

We turned a 3 bedroom, 2 bath into a 5 bedroom, 3 bath with a separate office, family room and laundry room by finishing the basement.

Also, for us a 3 car attached garage was a must. We have 2 cars and my husband likes to tinker and wanted the extra space.

I suppose what you can get for your $ depends on the part of the country you are looking, too. MN is relatively inexpensive, I think.

Kelsey said...

Things which really weren't an option for us BUT I wish we'd been able to find were: mudroom, we come right into our kitchen, but we have a totally goofy door set up which leaves no room for leaving shoes, etc. by the door. Plus that is the dog's space when we're gone so we can't leave things on the floor. I wish we didn't wear shoes in the house - it would be so much cleaner if we took them off - but there is literally nowhere to leave them. Anyway, I really, really wish we had a mud room and we'll probably give up garage space to add one, someday (like in 10 years). I also wish I had a main floor laundry. Our is in the basement, I always forget about it, and our clothes are always wrinkled, or left in the washer to get dank.

Saly said...

Hub and I are against moving as well. Our house was a starter house with potential, though I didn't always see it as such--I just wanted to get the hell out of there. As we build up and out though, I finally see it. And respect that it has been in Hub's family for 70 years or whatevs. I agree with you on the driveway thing because I am tired of parking on the lawn in the winter.

Cherish said...

Sorry for commenting twice, I just wanted to tell you that I gave you an award on my blog. You probably get lots of them but I still had to pick you :)

Vicky said...

Location, location, location! Really check out the neighborhood. Visit the neighborhood at different times of the day. You may feel like a stalker but it is so worth it. You will want to know if traffic gets bad when everyone is coming home from work.

Kristine said...

Thanks everyone! Fortunately I have a very Handy husband, and I am occasionally a willing assistant. I'm so printing out all of your advice and handing the specs to the realtor with our price point!

I love the power of the internet... all this collective wisdom just waiting to be found!

Emily said...

I grew up in an average-sized family (mom, dad, me and 2 sisters), and then my dad died and my mom got remarried and suddenly we were a house of 9, with kids ranging in age from 21 to 7. My #1 recommendation: make sure you have at least one playroom/family room with doors that close. The main level of the house my mom and stepdad bought is a completely open floorplan, and sound carries, so everyone was getting shushed all the time. Not fun.

Good luck; hope you find something FABULOUS!

elckd said...

As the owner of several small (consecutively larger, but still) starter houses, I have a hard time imagining "too big". I keep buying them, fixing them up, and making nice profits that allow me to get what I *think* will be my final house. At least that's what I said when we moved to our current, 3 bedroom, 2 1/2 bath place with a huge fenced in yard, inground pool, garage etc. I thought I'd never need to move, especially since the basement was a good candidate for renovation. Then I had ONE baby. I need a separate house just for the pack n' play, and jumperoo, and swing, and all the gianormous push along toys AND, AND, AND. After his 1st birthday last week I decided I was definitely going to have to move again if we are going to have another!

Michelle said...

Sidewalks... I LOVE having sidewalks because it's safe(r). And don't forget the school system. With 3-4 kids, you're going to be spending a lot of time there, so make sure you're good with it AND that it's on solid financial footing so your taxes don't go way up. OH! Taxes. Make sure you buy smart. Same town, county X = $7000 taxes. Same town, county B = $6500 taxes. Same town, county B different school district = $13000 taxes. WHOAH. Make sure you look into the taxes because those are huuuuuge. We looked really hard for a good neighborhood with friendly people who had lots of kids around. That makes a big difference. Oh, and a park nearby. I love going to the park and letting the wee ones play. And talking with the other parents. And I need at LEAST three bathrooms, but I'm spoiled ;)

Alice said...

this is all fascinating! and, uh, something i've never even considered. yaaaay renting ;-P

desperate housewife said...

I would second (or third or fifth or whatever it's up to now) the mudroom suggestion. Also, a BIG laundry room is wonderful for us. A laundry room on the MAIN level, so that things can be transported easily, and don't get forgotten about or left to pile up because the washer and dryer are in an inconvenient place. Also, for us it's been wonderful so far to have everything on one level. Babyproof is such a pain in the butt, at least for me, and it's nice not to have stairs to worry about along with everything us.
My other suggestion, if you go with having everything on one level, would be to find a house with a living room or den or some kind of hanging-out-in space that is on the complete opposite end of the house as the bedrooms, so that you don't have to watch TV with the volume way down once the kids are in bed.
AND! For the love of all that is holy, have at least 2 bathrooms. What I would GIVE for another bathroom...

desperate housewife said...

Um, that's everything ELSE, not everything us.

Erin said...

Great tips. I love our current home, except the yard leaves something to be desired. I think we'll enjoy the yard more when the kids are older, but it's on a HILL. Which makes babies fall over.

Not Your Aunt Bea said...

2 bathrooms (minimum), a mud room with storage for stuff, a laundry room, a nice size yard, a family/play room (with doors- maybe french doors so you can see- so you can close off the noise).

Ellen said...

I will also add, to all this good advice, that it's superhelpful to have attic storage. It's mind-boggling how much crap one family can accumulate!

Omaha Mama said...

Storage/cupboard space/counter space in the kitchen.
Convenient, decent sized laundry room.
Two things I didn't think too much about till we lived here. Where I have neither.

Hadey said...

We live in a 2 br/1 ba 955 sq. ft house with a 17 month old and one on the way. We have a basement that is being finished to add a master bedroom, bathroom, laundry room, family room and pantry. I can tell you that if it wasn't for the basement I would be going CRAZY. I feel like the walls are closing in on us every day and cannot WAIT until the basement is finished.

That being said, if we didn't have the basement, here are the things that I think you MUST have with a large family: dishswasher (oh, how I long for a diswasher); ample closet/storage space (we have 2 tiny closets that are overflowing with clothes and shoes, and NO OTHER storage space upstairs); big dining room (we don't have a dining room so we always eat on the couch - boo!); garage and/or driveway (unfortunately we don't have either so we have to park on the street which is very frustrating when neighbors have company and park in front of your house); at least 2 bathrooms (trying to get 3 people ready in the morning at the same time with one bathroom is frustrating to say the least).

Good luck with your search and let us know how it goes!

Jodi said...

And um, when you have a big house you have to CLEAN that big house.

I have 7 kids. Our house is not bad at 1800 sq ft although we are finishing the attic to add two more bedrooms. The main floor is perfect though. The main thing is bathrooms (we have 2) and a large enough living room for everyone.

Tracey said...

Things I must have that cannot be added and therefore are a must have:

Big yard.


Other things that are important:

2 living spaces. I cannot handle the great rooms that are a family/living/dining/kitchen space. There is nowhere to escape the noise and mess!!


Laundry room!!

Big kitchen!!

Anonymous said...

I have to say, I'm happy with my small house. It's 1250 sq. ft and functional.

It would be lovely to have another full bath, but not necessary. It would be lovely to have a driveway, a basement, and a 4th bedroom, but not entirely necessary.

That being said, at some point, per my SO, we will be moving to a "larger" house. Hopefully not more than 1800 sq. ft.!

That being said, we have only have two children. They no longer have any big space toys like bouncers and excersaucers and the like. But, we bought this when they were newborn and age 2 and it worked just as well then as it does now. A third, I think, would fit okay. We'd just have to adjust how we use the space a little bit.