Thursday, 19 May 2022

Trading space for time: We love our apartment downsize

In 2019, against the advice of friends and family, we traded space for time. Selling our house and most of our things, my husband Rob and I moved into a tiny apartment close to the city. Though we didn’t know anyone who had downsized except after financial disaster or divorce, we made the leap and have never looked back.

Several years back, we bought what we could afford: a new-build in a new estate, with no nearby facilities, deep in the suburbs of Victoria. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Our modest-sized 165m2 (1776.5 sq foot) home was below the 186.3m2 national average (James & Felsman, 2018) but it felt enormous to us. With 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a 2-car garage and backyard, we had room for guests and any future children. Diving into suburban life, we filled our house with ‘stuff’, attending backyard BBQs, children’s birthdays, and yes, Tupperware parties.

It was what we thought we were supposed to want. We knew it wasn’t making us happy, but we didn’t realise it was part of the problem. We tried harder to fit into the suburb life and acquired more things.

Then one day, I saw two blue lines. I was pregnant. Rob and I looked at each other in terror and excitement in equal parts. We’d been down this road before.

Despite medical reassurances that our past wouldn’t be repeated, my son was born very premature. After four rollercoaster months in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), we emerged with our son and headed home. We now had a family to fill our house, but something wasn’t right. We still weren’t happy.

Partly, it was the fact that our baby hated the car but we couldn’t go anywhere without it. The lack of amenities frustrated Rob most – a quick trip to the supermarket was a half-hour round trip. His total daily commute was almost three hours, and I didn’t see him until 7:30pm many nights. Still on maternity leave, I lacked support and he lacked time. Feeling like big change was needed, we began to consider downsizing and moving closer to the city.

Our parents were somewhat appalled. Both caring families, they were worried about our taking space away from our son. They had grown up with big backyards and barefoot freedom; they had raised us the same way. Their fear for us was enormous, and our fear of disregarding them was even greater.

What if we made the wrong decision but were stuck, unable to recoup the cost?

Ultimately, we felt our unhappiness came down to two things: time and lifestyle. It took so long to have our son in our arms, and we wanted more time to watch him grow. We also aspired to walk, ride and move more, to the park, the shop, for a coffee or a meal and set a good example for our son, while hopefully benefitting from the physically closer community.

Several years ago, I had come across the “walkability score” (Walk Score, 2020). This number is exactly what it seems – it takes into account proximity to public transport, health facilities, groceries, entertainment, etc. The walkability score of our current house was “1/100: Almost all errands require a car”. We knew we weren’t happy and we thought we knew why. We started looking for apartments, against our parents’ best advice. Improving our Walk Score became one of the key criteria for our search.

When I saw our apartment, I immediately knew it was the one. It was a 61m2 two-bedroom apartment, with a big balcony, storage cage, and covered car space. Our work commutes would reduce to 20 minutes. There was a park next door, a supermarket one block away and a café almost directly downstairs. Its Walk Score was 96/100 – one of the best in Australia. We put in an offer immediately.

Almost three years later, this apartment has seen two COVID lockdowns and two adults working from home for most of that time. Without a backyard and temporarily no park access, we exercised our active toddler with walks, nature play and cycling. At times with a 5km travel restriction, we paced the neighbourhood, seeing signs everywhere of people supporting each other from afar. The densely populated area meant that daily exercise within 5km still allowed us to see something new each time. Having people were all around us (at a distance) helped us feel less alone. Lockdown was mentally tough, but we think the suburbs would have been much tougher.

I’m relieved we listened to our gut, believed that we understood our own needs correctly.

We have more family time and incidental exercise, and less commuting and driving. We’re out in the community more, with less time isolated at home. At least once a week, one of us will breathe deeply on our evening walk and say, “I’m so glad we moved”. We love our little home and would never go back.

Written by Endeavour Short Course instructor, Sue Sharpe.

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James, C., & Felsman, R. (2018) Economic Insights: Australian home size hits 22-year low https://www.commsec.com.au/content/dam/EN/ResearchNews/2018Reports/November/ECO_Insights_191118_CommSec-Home-Size.pdf

Walk Score (2020) Walk Score https://www.walkscore.com/

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