Our Little Bungalow: Starter Home Or Forever Home?

We all know the phenomenon: A young couple buys their first cozy little home, and for a time, it’s the perfect fit for their fledgling family. Just the right size. Just the right layout. Everything they could ever want or need, all under one roof.

But then, as years go by and children grow and plans to expand the family further loom in sight, suddenly that cozy little house starts to feel cramped. They weigh the costs and frustrations of expanding the home to meet their growing needs against the costs and frustrations of selling and moving, and eventually decide that moving is the way to go.

So for today’s post, I wanted to explore the question — Could that be happening to us in the foreseeable future? Is this our “starter home,” or our “forever home”?

Random collage of our house in all four seasons.

A random collage of our house in all four seasons.

When we bought this house in 2011, we certainly weren’t thinking in terms of living here for a few years and then moving on. At the time, that didn’t even seem like a very wise mindset to be in, what with the uncertainty in the housing market and all. A small two-bedroom Chicago bungalow was a perfect fit for a young couple with their first baby on the way — and with a full unfinished attic and basement to possibly expand into down the road, there seemed to be no reason the house couldn’t work for the long run as well.

And all of that is still true now… Except now it’s almost three years later, and we’re that much closer to expanding our family again, and those unfinished spaces are still just as unfinished as when we bought the house. But when it comes down to the question of whether we’re more open to the possibility of moving now than we were when we first moved in? That’s tough to even think about, because we love so many things about this place:

  • The Location. Being within the city of Chicago means we have the luxury of multiple commuter train lines and over a dozen bus stops within easy walking distance. Beyond that, we have a real bonafide grocery store at the end of the block, and Lily’s daycare just a few houses down, and an elementary school we can stroll to without crossing any busy streets. We’re a one-car family, yet it doesn’t feel like a strain at all when there’s so much available by foot or public transit.
  • The Neighborhood. It’s just so friendly and warm, with a small block party every year (which I’ve actually written about here on this blog three years in a row — check out 2013, 2012, and 2011). There are a ton of kids, including five or six within a year of Lillian’s age that I know of just within a block of us, and possibly more that we haven’t met yet.
  • The Character. It’s one of those subjective things, but it’s hard not to love the style and character of this classic 1920’s Chicago Bungalow. It’s withstood the test of time for the better part of a century, seeing multiple families call it home, and everything from the iconic peaked roof to the cozy fireplace in the living room has a certain indescribable charm.
  • The Memories. Even though it’s only been a few short years, we’ve been hard at work making memories in this place. It’s where we brought Lillian home from the hospital, and the only home we’ve ever known since becoming a family of three.
House Memories

Our house as the backdrop to various memories.

Overall, this house has a lot going for it. The only drawback is that one pesky little detail I alluded to in the beginning of this post:

  • The Size. Bedroom-wise there are just the two small ones, which are around ten by ten feet each. The single bathroom is about as tiny as a bathroom can be while still fitting in a sink, toilet, and tub. And the main level has exactly two closets, zero of which are in our master bedroom. (A floor plan can be found in this post.) In short, it can feel a little cramped, and in its current state it’s hard to imagine living here comfortably if or when we expand our family to include a younger sibling for Lillian.

Even though there’s definitely a lot more in the “pro” column than the “con” column when it comes to this house, the size issue is kind of a big one — and could even arguably carry more weight than the other points, which boil down to things like convenience, preference, and sentimentality.

One other important thing to note in all this is that we aren’t “stuck” here. We’re lucky not to be underwater with the mortgage, as was so widespread in the wake of the housing crisis — we bought at a good time, and negotiated aggressively on the price. We even have some equity, and if the property value estimates on Zillow.com are anywhere near accurate, more than I would have expected after just a few short years. If we wanted to sell now, there seems like a good chance we could, and we might even walk away with a little extra in our pockets.

But to where? Could we find another home with the additional space, in a neighborhood we’d love as much as this one, with as many amenities and transit options within walking distance, at a price that would make more financial sense than a home addition to expand the attic or basement? Maybe. But somehow it seems doubtful.

So! All of that was a very long-winded way of saying that, right now and for the foreseeable future, we have no plans for leaving this house. We may not be able to completely rule out the possibility of moving someday — you never know what the future holds, and all that — but right now we’re definitely looking at this place as more than just a “starter home.”

On that happy note, we’ve been seriously pursuing options for remodeling to make better use of some of our house’s currently unfinished space — more details to follow in an upcoming blog post!

In the meantime, I’m curious to hear if anyone else out there has gone or is going through a similar thought process on the whole starter home vs. forever home question. Do you plan to stay in your home for the long haul, or are you looking forward to upgrading to something different / bigger / better down the road? Feel free to share any thoughts or stories in the comments!


  1. Hi, there. Well, now that you mention it, Bill and I have been thinking of remodeling our house or maybe even getting a new one. The reason behind that is the fact that we have a lot of kids between us and hopefully more grandchildren coming, too. ;) Your house is so cute, and it seems like you’re in a really good neighborhood. You do have that attic that can be remodeled into a new bedroom. It’s good to know, too, that you have options since you’re not upside down in your mortgage, I’m sure that whatever you all decide to do will be great. Love you all!!

  2. I don’t remember that we thought much about starter vs. forever when we bought our first home. The school zone was the critical thing, and price. We just felt very lucky to have found a 3 bedroom concrete block home in the school zone we wanted. The children were 4 and 6 when we moved in. The first squeeze was when we didn’t have much room in the living room for the piano, family activities, and furniture placement. The path from the front door to the hallway cut a diagonal from corner to corner! So we added a den and workshop to the back of the house. As the children grew older the bedrooms began to seem small, and I didn’t like that the front door opened right into the living room which was always messy with my school stuff. As our incomes grew we began to think about a bigger house (with an entry hall)! So we self-contracted and built it ourselves. Looking back, I wish we had done that sooner, so the children would have had more years to enjoy this home before they grew up and moved out. Making your house a home is the important thing, and you and Joe are doing that. You’ll know when and if you need to make a move!

  3. I have to say I never felt cramped in the house I grew up in, and I learned a lot about building, both when we added on to the back of it, and when we built the one mom is in currently. About the only thing I’d change would be to have MAYBE moved a year sooner (for me to go all 4 years at Pace) or a year later (for my brother not to have had to commute as a Senior at Woodham). I’m with mom on the school zones too – if they are good for when Lillian starts school, that add a powerful plus onto the pro’s you have already mentioned for staying. I’d say stay at least through her elementary years if that’s the case. And by then, you’ll have a nice bit of equity built up, if you do decide to move.

  4. great blog. we are in the same situation. exact same bungalow as you all have and we are now in the “do we move” or “do we remodel” phase. Lots to think of but I think we will remodel. we aren’t ready yet to buy our forever home but definitely looking for ideas on ways to remodel and expand to take advantage of all the existing space we have. looking forward to reading more about your process

  5. I live in a beautiful Milwaukee bungalow that my parents bought 55 years ago. I have raised my own children in it. I plan to die in this home. I hate the ugly Mc Houses in the burbs and the lack of community; in my Bay View neighborhood , young couples are buying old houses because there is simply nothing like them when it comes to character, quality and beauty.

    You mention that you have attic and basement space: Use them! You could even put in an extra dormer if you wanted to.

    You do not mention how big your yard is. If it is suitable for you, that should be a big “pro”. Children need a backyard to play and have their friends over.

    The points that you mention , to me, would be very strong reasons for me to stay: daycare close, transportation into the city is readily available and does not involve a long commute, good neighbors, etc. These are all very important points. It also seems that you area is relatively crime – free. Another important point. Also – most people do not live in such a lovely neighborhood as you if they are within Chicago. A lot of Chicago is gray and ugly – not anything like your neighborhood.

    Unless you have loads of $$, it will be hard to find the perfect home. My home is not perfect; however, there is SO much that I like about it that I would never dream of selling it. People come over all the time and ask me if I am in the market for selling my house. I tell them that it is my home and is priceless and I will never sell it. It will go to our children.

    Be grateful for what you have , and what you have is really quite nice. Of course, if you find that the space is simply too small, then perhaps you should sell. Remember, though , that there is a good side to being “cramped” : people spend more time together in a house that is smaller. This is a good thing.

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