08/14/2013 10:45 am ET Updated Oct 14, 2013

When Downsizing Your Home Could Be an Upgrade to Your Life


My husband and I purchased an investment property in Old Town, Alexandria a few years ago. The majestic, multi-unit apartment dates back to the 1780's and shows its age through an elegant and rustic beauty. Originally a wealthy home during the age of America's founding fathers, the building was turned into military housing after World War II, when a housing shortage plagued the United States. To be exact, our apartment on Cameron Street is reported to be the first single-family home that was turned into a multi-unit apartment in the entire country. It's also said that President Truman and Secretary of State Marshall both stayed there.

In addition to providing extra monthly income for us, our investment property is valuable in its own right because of its storied historical significance. This makes the minor touch-ups the building needs from time to time much more of a fun and accepted part of the process rather than a burden we might otherwise take on begrudgingly.

This year one of our tenants moved out of unit #1. This apartment boasts two gargantuan windows that face an old street in this historic Virginia neighborhood. The unit is made up of a sitting area, a living room, a 20-square-foot kitchen, and an even tinier bathroom. For the final walkthrough after our tenant vacated, I went along with my husband. At first glance, it might appear as a sad little apartment with only two entry doors and not much in the space department. But I fell in love with it all over again. Not just for its beauty, charm, and potential, but for its incredible history -- after all, Marshall once slept in this very spot.

My husband and I live in Ashburn, Virginia with our two kids, one dog, and one cat. Our family home is nestled in the epitome of the American suburbs, where away from the crowded streets of Washington, D.C. and the historic cities nearby, the sprawl is greener, bigger, better. The schools are top-notch, there are tons of surrounding parks, and our neighborhood is replete with plenty of safe outdoor space that's perfect for biking, running, walking the dog, and playing--our backyard conveniently backs the gorgeous W&OD Trail.

Our community lends itself to a lifestyle that's reminiscent of resort living. Though not the biggest in the neighborhood by a longshot, our house measures impressively at more than 3200 square feet, which doesn't take into account the fully finished basement. (Since our kids have taken it over, sometimes we forget about it also.)

Out here, worth seems inextricably linked to size. Everything is huge -- our markets, our breweries, our restaurants, our stores, even our post office is big. And the escape from city life doesn't mean anyone has to sacrifice activities. Families have easy access to ballet classes, piano lessons, soccer leagues, and clubs or teams or groups for every activity imaginable. We all drive huge cars and park in giant parking spaces that could probably hold two or three economy cars, if anyone bothered to use those.

As I'm sure I've made clear, these two living arrangements are markedly different. After my deep love for that tiny Alexandria apartment was reawakened, my husband and I made the decision to renovate the small space and move into it each weekend, kids, pets, and all. Our weekend getaway on the Potomac River would afford us to the opportunity to keep our kids near the water (something they love), and we couldn't wait to walk and eat our way through Old Town's quaint and accomplished local culinary scene. And really, that change of pace sounded great. Except for one thing: At our Ashburn home, our master bedroom suite alone is far bigger than the whole of the 400-square-foot city apartment we planned on squeezing into.

Last weekend, after finishing our big project, it was time to test our theories on downsizing. We packed our (small) bags and headed east toward the District. At first, we managed to feel a little lost in those close quarters, dearly leaving the designated spots we'd each claimed for ourselves in this new, quaint nest. There was no TV, but our Internet was alive and kicking. The kids watched their favorite movies, read books, and hung out without moving much. It seemed to us like they might be having space shock and weren't quite sure what to do with themselves. There was no running around, no grand horseplay, no hair pulling, no fighting of any kind -- because there was no space in which to do it. When their voices escalated after getting on each other's nerves, we'd remind them that if we could hear the girl upstairs humming, she could surely hear their yelling, and that would snap everyone back into silent chill mode.

Our first night was a big departure from the suburban experience my kids have grown up with. Strangers passed by the building frequently, prompting my 12-year-old to race to the window each time to investigate. We certainly don't have many people walking in front of our house late at night in Ashburn. At four in the morning, a neighbor came in. Around five, I could hear someone in front of our apartment walking their dog. I heard everything, having stayed up all night to listen to the sound of others living.

In the morning, I walked the cobblestone streets of Old Town with my six-year-old. First to get coffee, then to a spa, then to a local store, then to get our nails done on the way home. We were sore from exploring in our flip flops and found ourselves exhausted before it was even time for lunch. I cooked a meal for us in the very tiny but well-functioning kitchen. and the new cooking process the small space dictated certainly took some getting used to.

We stayed the entire weekend, and we had a lovely time. When we returned home, we felt refreshed, but also delighted to be back in our echoing suburban home, cooled by our high-powered air-conditioning. Making dinner at the Ashburn home felt like a race as I sprinted around my now gigantic kitchen. Compared with the Alexandria apartment, everything suddenly seemed enormous.

The time we spent sharing tight quarters brought us closer together as a family -- we had to be more mindful of the other people we shared space with. It also helped fight against the pervasive suburban-sprawl syndrome, where as bigger and bigger homes are built around us, we think we've outgrown our house. But that's silly, of course, and being with my family in that gem of an apartment in Old Town helped me see exactly why. What I realized is that I don't want more. We don't need it. In fact, I want less. Less is so much lighter. Less is so much easier. Less is so much more affordable. Less is more elegant, more fun. Less is just so much more.