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A reader, reflecting on her life, outlines the regrets she and her husband have about buying a big Victorian house decades ago. (Andrea Hill/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
A reader, reflecting on her life, outlines the regrets she and her husband have about buying a big Victorian house decades ago. (Andrea Hill/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

These are the housing choices we wish we’d made Add to ...

Globe and Mail reader Liz Mayer, 59, writes about the regrets she and her husband have about buying a big Victorian house decades ago. Looking back, they realize that buying something more modest would have left them more money to invest and enjoy other things in life. Ms. Mayer and her husband divide their time between Montreal and Stirling, Ont.

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One of the good things about reaching sixty is that you have a pretty good idea of how things turned out. (Grandma? That “wild boy” you said wouldn’t stick around? He stuck – and he’s the one with the pension.)

For my husband and I, things turned out pretty well, but as we watch today’s young adults face scarce jobs, stagnating salaries and expensive housing markets, we realize there are some things we wish we had done differently – especially when it comes to housing.

We wish we had chosen a smaller house

Years ago, when we were raising our kids, we had a neighbour who had a little house, a little car, a little boat, a little motorcycle – and a little airplane. “Just think mini,” he would tell us, “and you can have more stuff.” We laughed at his eccentricity, and went ahead with a two-storey addition to our already-sizeable home.

But our neighbour was right. We didn’t need more space. We could have managed just fine with less room and had more money left over, both to build wealth, and do more of the things we enjoyed – travelling, going out with friends and family, and contributing to causes .

These days, my husband and I live next to a park in a dense, inner-city neighbourhood, filled with low-rise apartments and older three-storey walkups. On weekends, we often see young parents, moms and dads together, playing all day long with their kids. At first it made us wonder. Didn’t they have Saturday chores to do, Sunday projects to complete? But then it hit us: with small spaces, pocket-sized yards, or no yards at all, there isn’t a lot of home maintenance to worry about. Yes, our young neighbours live small – but they have more time for fun.

We wish we had chosen a newer house

When we bought our first home in 1983, big old houses were all the rage. We paid $32,000 for a 3,000 square foot, circa 1875 Victorian – and for almost 30 years, we kept on paying. After hundreds of thousands of dollars, endless renovation and constant maintenance, we had to admit the place was still cold, creaking and crooked – and the gingerbread trim needed painting for the fifth time. On the day we finally moved out, my husband and I stood in the big country kitchen and looked through the cascade of high-ceiled rooms that led to our front door. How we would miss that expansive feeling of space and stateliness. But as soon as we turned the key for the last time, and stepped off the grand old verandah, which, we couldn’t help noticing, seemed to have sunk even further into the ground, we felt nothing but relief.

Even today, when we pass that place, I think about how our sweat really is embedded in the floors we sanded and the woodwork we stripped – and yet I am still happy to be rid of it. I love and prefer old houses, but after experiencing newer ones, I have to admit that they are safer, more comfortable, more efficient and more economical to operate.

In the past few years, there have been astonishing advances in residential building technology – advances that can make even small spaces like apartments, condos and townhouses – feel both functional and luxurious.

We wish we had lived more urban

This is the biggest shift in our thinking. I grew up in the country, my husband comes from a small town, and we raised our own kids in a small city. Much of our time in that small city was spent feeling guilty that we weren’t actually living in the country, which, after all, would have been the best place for our children. Or would it?

The fact is, living in the country is a wonderful thing if you stay in the country. But no one does. Rural dwellers spend much of their lives driving to the city. For road-running reasons alone, it’s easy to make an argument against locating there. But (please stop reading, dear friends in our beloved hometown!) this is where we’re really going to stick our necks out. Given the choice between big city and small city or small town, our advice is: bigger is better.

With a few exceptions – less traffic, lower noise levels – small cities and towns really aren’t more livable. In fact, they have most of the problems of larger centres, without the corresponding richness and variety of services, infrastructure, diversity and stimulation of urban life. Density doesn’t diminish our quality of life; it improves it. Big cities have a magic and momentum that small towns simply cannot match. Besides, sharing the commons is good for our budgets, and good for our souls – it satisfies our need for human connection and constantly renews our energy and outlook.

Today, when we think about quality of life, we think of a young family of four who lives nearby. They occupy the ground floor of a mid-city, two-storey row-house, and rent the upper floor for extra income. Their front door opens directly onto the sidewalk (no snow to clear). Their backyard is really just a terrace (no grass to mow), with an outdoor table and a bit of room for the kids to romp. But that cozy terrace opens onto a quiet, leafy lane, and that lane leads to a world of astonishing livability. Everything the family needs – school, transit to work, shops, services, public art and culture, sport, entertainment – is within a 10-minute walk. A well-used fleet of bicycles delivers even more no-cost, low-impact convenience. Nature dwells nearby, in the ponds, meadows and woodlots of a nearby green space, the built environment is rich, varied and full of character, and up and down the neighbourhood streets, there is a range of human diversity that is almost thrilling.

That family lives simply but supremely, drenched in the complexity, stimulation and modern energy of the metropolis.

They’ve discovered the secrets of living well – the ones we wish we’d learned long ago.

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