Food for Thought

Richard Quinn

FULL DISCLOSURE: I wrote this out of frustration, bordering on desperation.

More than a year ago, I bought a condo and took out what was supposed to be a short-term mortgage, which we’d pay off once we sold our home of 45 years. Silly me. You guessed it: I still have the mortgage and I still own the old house, with not even a single offer received. The No. 1 reason for buyers’ lack of interest: The kitchen is too small. Nobody gets past the kitchen.

My house has one other drawback: There’s no toilet on the first floor. You would think a society obsessed with working out could walk up a flight of stairs once in a while. Over 70 million Americans have a fitness center membership. I need just one who wants to live in New Jersey.

Clearly, by today’s standards, our kitchen is indeed small. On the other hand, it was large enough for a family of six, for cooking three meals a day and for preparing 135 Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinners. Here’s the kicker: More than 50 years ago, someone expanded the kitchen by four feet from its original 1929 size.

No doubt the necessities of the 21st century require a great deal of counter space. Without that space, where would we put our mini-waffle maker, panini maker, programmable pressure cooker, rice cooker, air fryer and bread maker?

Our kitchen has a small eating area and is next to a formal dining room, which is separated by an actual wall. When we bought the house, there was a swinging door, which we removed as our only concession to the open plan concept. I think there’s something to be said for having a place to eat and nothing else. Here’s a datapoint that shocked even me: “60 years ago, the average dinnertime was 90 minutes. Today it is less than 12 minutes.” Perhaps eating in a wide-open space that encompasses kitchen, dining area and family room has something to do with that.

With all the space we demand for our kitchens, you would think they receive heavy use. Not so much. Only 36% of Americans cook and eat at home daily. Others don’t cook but eat at home—probably on the couch.

It’s not only large kitchens that we demand. New homes were an average 1,048 square feet in 1920, 1,177 square feet in 1940, 1,500 square feet in 1970 and 2,657 square feet in 2014. Even as we demand more space, the number of people in the space has declined. Now I better understand the plaintive cry, “I need my space.” Average family size was 3.76 people in 1940, 3.58 in 1970 and 3.14 in 2018.

More and bigger is an American thing. But those big houses with large kitchens cost more to buy and to maintain. Property taxes, insurance, utility bills and general maintenance of home and property are all proportional to the size of a house, not to mention the mortgage payment. My woefully inadequate house carries a tax bill of $14,500, while a newer house across the street tops $20,000.

Have Americans opted for that professional kitchen and 2,600-square-foot house and, in the process, traded away their ability to save for retirement? We used to call that house poor. But that was in the olden days, when we used to sit around the dining room table and talk about such things.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include Fashion StatementYou’re on Your  Own and What’s Your Plan. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.

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