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a bike leans up agains a sign on a winding road
by
Laura Rowley
,
April 14, 2022

Why I Swapped My Single-Family Home for Tiny Spaces Coast to Coast

For most of my professional life, the geography of employers held me fast.

As my work went remote, I also found myself newly single and flummoxed about where to live.

Last year I made a series of curious real estate decisions. It’s kind of like I chopped up my four-bedroom home and dropped it from a plane. Part of it landed in Texas and the other pieces fell in California, Iowa and New York. Imagine an HGTV pilot with the working title “Empty-Nester No-mad-ness.” I now have modest rooms of my own in each place, for the same monthly cost as my old single-family home.

This feels exactly right. My heart lives in the Midwest, where I grew up and most of my family remains. My brain flourishes on rapid-fire East Coast energy, where I built my career. My body appreciates the West Coast, where I’ve run by the ocean and hiked in the mountains.

For most of my professional life, the geography of employers held me fast. Then along came Covid, and I slipped the surly bonds of the open-plan office and floated away like a carnival balloon from a child’s grasp. As my work went remote, I also found myself newly single and flummoxed about where to live. Instead of picking one spot, I established tiny, affordable outposts on my soul’s frontier.

It started in 2021, when I lived with my youngest daughter in a house in Iowa that I had rented from friends, after selling our family home a few blocks away. The downsizing process unfolded like an epic poem, feats and adventures and purchases that once gave shape to my life, descending into the netherworld of the Goodwill drop off. Bookcases – and most of the beloved volumes they held, some dating back to college. The rickety antique dining set that I bought at a tag sale and never found time to restore. A massive pile of sheets and pillowcases, which seemed to have mated and multiplied in the linen closet when I wasn’t looking. Every issue of a magazine I edited in the 1990s -- into the recycling bin. It didn’t matter if these things sparked joy. The reality was I had no room for them.

We had planned to rent until my daughter started college in the fall, and I’d move back to my small studio in Manhattan. Then my brother decided to sell his condo in Texas. He’s a financial guy, and knew I was trying to rebuild after my divorce. He also suspected that after eight winters in Iowa, I didn’t want to spend that season in New York. During a visit (which he cunningly scheduled for February) we ate brunch outside in the 70-degree sunshine, and he pulled up a spreadsheet. He explained the benefits of establishing a primary residence in a state with no income tax. He proposed selling me his place at a discount and leaving his furniture and décor. The numbers made enormous sense, but more importantly, his wife is blessed with exquisite taste. I decided to base myself in Texas, and spend five months a year in New York.

Then my oldest daughter, who lives in Los Angeles, got a new job and a raise. Her lease with three roommates was up, and she began hunting for her own place. My brother put a bug in my ear: How often would I visit? What would that Airbnb cost? How often would her sisters visit, given the demise of our traditional family home? My daughter had the budget to rent a one-bedroom; he suggested I subsidize the difference between that and a two-bedroom. A spreadsheet was opened, numbers crunched, Zillow endlessly surfed.

Now I had a room of my own in L.A.

When my middle daughter announced she was going to graduate school in Iowa, I did the same thing. I have lots of family within a few hours’ drive, and my youngest has a big group of high school friends at the same college. (And compared to L.A. the subsidy was a screaming bargain.)

And now I have a room of my own in the Midwest.

As housing situations go, it’s a little weird. I can be nomadic, but also grounded and connected to the places that feel most like home. I travel light, stashing a little clothing at each place. Opening the closet elicits the pleasurable rush of a reunion with longtime friends: My favorite LBD, there you are!

I realize I could have simply moved to Texas and retired sooner. But after the isolation and heartbreak of Covid, my priorities have shifted to deepening my relationships, travel and play. Luckily my kids are cool with sharing their space. I also like the flexibility – in a financial emergency, subsidies can be swapped out for roommates. I won’t do this forever, and I have a plan to reach my retirement goal, even if takes longer than it might otherwise.

In the meantime, there’s no place like home(s).

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