When James and Robin Briggs shopped for houses eight years ago, they did something fairly typical: They bought the property they could afford - a 5,100-square-foot, six-bedroom, 5 1/2-bath place in Berwyn.
But after the dot-com bust, the couple, who worked in information technology, felt the financial pinch of paying for that big house.
"It was a monster," says Robin Briggs. "Just having the mortgage was one thing. The cost of ownership - utilities and taxes - was really a burden." Plus, home maintenance took more time and energy than they bargained for.
So last year, they moved to a 2,100-square-foot Colonial in Paoli that has plenty of room for their family of three, Robin says.
"It's the best thing we've ever done," she says. "The house isn't the overarching thing in our lives. We don't work to support the house, which is what we were doing before."
Sounds like a case of McMansion Backlash. In times like these, with higher fuel costs, higher food costs, and the belt tightening that has resulted for many, smaller houses - like smaller cars - are starting to look better and better.
"Of course there's a savings when constructing and maintaining a smaller home," says Gregory Paul Johnson, author of the just-published Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned From Living in 140 Square Feet (Gibbs Smith, $12.99) and president of the Small House Society.
"For someone who's very busy or wants to spend more time with the family," Johnson says, "a smaller home means that you have less time or energy tied up into maintaining a house."
At their smaller house, Robin Briggs says, utility bills are about a quarter of what they used to be. And their mortgage payment is significantly smaller, too.
"You don't need as much space as you think. We sold, got rid of, threw away, gave away a huge amount of stuff," she says of their move. And they don't miss it.
With so much less square footage, they've had to make other changes, naturally. Instead of having two offices and a guest bedroom, they now have a single office that doubles as a guest room.
Instead of having a dedicated playroom, one of the bedrooms serves that purpose.
And instead of a separate laundry room, the washer and dryer are stacked in a bathroom.
The Briggses' current home is smaller than the national average, which in 2007 was 2,479 square feet, the National Association of Home Builders reports. In 1950, the average one-family-house size in the United States was just 983 square feet, the NAHB says.
When Martin Focazio and his wife were house-hunting in 2000, they fired some real estate agents unwilling to help them find exactly what they wanted: a small place.
"They couldn't get out of their heads that, according to their calculations, I should have been able to buy this monstrous estate," says Focazio, a consultant with Magnani Caruso Dutton, a digital-media agency. (He and his wife, who teaches part time, moved to this area after renting in New York City.)
"They were pushing us into these six-bedroom, five-bath, four-Jacuzzi monstrosities. It was fairly obscene stuff," Focazio says.
Instead, the couple, since expanded to a family of five, settled into a 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath house on several acres in Upper Black Eddy, Bucks County.
"It would have been such a waste. Why do we need that much house? We didn't want to furnish and heat and cool it," says Focazio.
As with the Briggses' house, the Focazio family's space must multitask. The dining room is also the craft room and office.
And the Focazios have put strict rules on possessions: If it hasn't been touched in two years, out it goes. Also, "if something new comes in, something old has to come out," he says.
First-time buyers seem to be getting the less-is-more message, the home-builders association reports: Those buying new construction are going for houses 500 square feet smaller than the ones repeat buyers are purchasing.
Economics was one deciding factor when Will Moreschi and his wife, Dana, bought a condo conversion in Philadelphia's Northern Liberties neighborhood last year. (The 900-square-foot condo used to be one floor of a townhouse.)
"In this area, it's pretty much all we could afford," says Will Moreschi, 29, a grad student at Drexel University. His wife, 22, is a student at Temple. They wanted a place in the city that made commuting to both schools easy.
Though they had rented before, Moreschi says, the couple wanted to buy even if it meant ratcheting back the amount of available elbow room.
"We thought it was a good thing for us to start with something manageable rather than some crazy house that, it seems, other people buy that they can't afford," he says. "I'm not saying a big house wouldn't be nice, but who's going to take care of it?"
Their kitchen is part of the living area, which Moreschi says makes things roomier than if there were dedicated spaces for each function.
Back in Upper Bucks County, Martin Focazio says his 9-year-old son is starting to realize that their family's house isn't like others in the neighborhood.
After a recent birthday party at a friend's home - a McMansion, he says - the boy mentioned that it might be nice to have a playroom.
"I tell him to go outside," Focazio says. "He has a four-acre playroom."