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Growing families feel the squeeze

Sunday, February 22, 2009 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:38 p.m. CST, Monday, February 23, 2009
Brendan Canty and Michelle Cochran with three of their children, from left: Mabel, 22 months, Asa, 11, and Leo, 8. After four children, their Washington home doesn't seem so huge.

WASHINGTON — When Brendan Canty and Michelle Cochran moved in 1997, their Washington house seemed big.

"We had no kids, and we thought the house was so huge — I mean crazily huge," Cochran said.

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But four children later, it doesn't seem so huge. Over the summer, they got rid of some stuff, packed up a lot more, redid their floors and painted, all getting ready to sell. They found a house that was bigger and needed some work. Then the markets plummeted, and they decided to stay put.

When housing prices were rising each year, people found it easy to trade up to bigger places as their families grew. But prices have changed course, and now even well-off families such as Canty and Cochran's are dealing with having more people in smaller spaces than they ever expected.

Canty, who has six siblings, didn't have a room of his own until people started moving out. But American houses have steadily grown bigger over the years — and few families have seven children — so for some, one bedroom per child is the expectation.

In 1991, the average American home was 1,672 square feet and 53 percent had three or more bedrooms, according to the Census Bureau's American Housing Survey. By 2007, it had grown to 1,789 square feet, and more than 60 percent had three or more bedrooms.

Mabel, who's 22 months old, is sleeping in a crib in Cochran and Canty's room. Asa, 11, has the room that used to be the nursery. The two younger boys — Leo, 8, and Truett, 5 — share the other bedroom, where all three boys slept when Mabel was littler.

Canty and Cochran count themselves lucky. Their house isn't tiny, about 2,200 square feet. They put an addition on the back about six years ago.

"We've done some really big things to our house, and we had sort of thought that would be it," Cochran said.

Canty, who was in the rock band Fugazi, has already given up his music studio space in the basement, and Cochran gave up office space upstairs. But now, with three bedrooms for six people, more might be necessary. The basement is largely finished and could be turned into bedroom space.

Nadine Greenfield-Binstock and her husband, Andy Binstock, don't have the option of adding more space. They live in a condo of less than 800 square feet in Washington with their son, Eliav, 2. Most units in their tier of the building have just one bedroom, but a previous owner had closed off an alcove with glass doors. When the Binstocks moved in, that was the office, but now it's Eliav's room, with extra curtains on the door to keep the light out.

Meanwhile, the Binstocks are expecting child No. 2 in July. They can't afford to buy another home until they sell their current one. "As it is, it's really uncomfortably tight," Greenfield-Binstock said.

Sampson Lee Blair, an associate sociology professor at the University at Buffalo, said that after years of dropping, American fertility rates have been slowly but steadily increasing. That has led to some families feeling squeezed.

"With increasing fertility rates, you've got to put them somewhere," he said, making it difficult to find privacy.

Andy Binstock and Nadine Greenfield-Binstock have spent a lot of time searching for pieces of furniture that are the exact right size and provide the maximum storage. They trade space-saving tips with friends in similar situations and quit going to Costco because they didn't have space for huge packs of anything.

Interior designers suggest other ways to save space, such as lofting a bed and putting a desk or other furniture underneath it.

Lisa Adams, of Adams Design in Washington, said if renovations are possible, homeowners should try to find space that's not being used as efficiently as it could be and repurpose it. Adams did that for her daughter, turning a closet into a sleeping alcove.

"Generally, you try to steal from spaces that don't need to be as big as they are," she said.

Rick Matus, who runs the design/build department for Case Design in Bethesda, Md., said building lofted beds in bedrooms or work space in a dining area can be helpful. You're limited in a small space, making it difficult to chop it into rooms, he said.

Outside space helps, too, Cochran said. Their house backs up to Fort Reno Park, allowing that to become like their backyard. Cochran and Canty said they feel as though they've made their space work.

"We used to be people who were happy anywhere, and we still are people who can be happy anywhere," Canty said.


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