Real Estate: Downsizing

Two years ago Debbie and Jim Ward had a bad case of the-grass-is-always greener.

The couple had built their dream home in Bethesda, Md. With six bedrooms, six bathrooms and nearly 6,000 square feet of living space, it was everything they should have wanted in a home. Yet they found themselves looking longingly at the house across the street, which had a nicer, more kid-friendly back yard.

It was their typical MO, Debbie says. Since age 14 she's never lived in the same house more than three years. Like her parents, she and her husband tended to view houses the way corporate climbers view careers: if you aren't moving up every few years, there's something wrong. "We were the ultimate 'House Lust' people," says Debbie, who contacted me after reading my recently published book of the same name. "Two years after we built this house, we had angst it wasn't perfect."

But in recent months they've made a giant transition that fundamentally changed the way they view houses. It began in early 2006, when Jim was awarded a grant to travel the country raising public awareness of disability rights issues. Debbie dreaded the thought of his spending long weeks on the road, shuttling between airports and hotels while she cared for their two sons, now aged 4 and 2, by herself.

To avoid that the couple had a radical idea: what if they sold their Bethesda home, bought a top-of-the-line RV, and the whole family traveled for Jim's work together? For $150,000 they purchased a Fleetwood Discovery recreational vehicle—which, with its full-wall slide-outs, measures 370 square feet. They packed only what they needed and loaded everything else into 19 crates that now lie in a storage facility. Then, trailed by a second RV used to host the disability-awareness events, they started driving.

Friends thought they were crazy—and weren't shy about telling them so. "What are you doing to your children?" wrote one, whose attitude—that children deserve a stable home that doesn't move between campgrounds every few nights—was hardly unique.

But after more than 25,000 miles the family's attitude about how much space they really need—and at what expense—has been transformed. "I'd always thought a big house was what you should get, especially if you're paying a decent price for it—that's the right way to live," Jim says. "This had taught me a lot about downsizing and simplicity." While Debbie admits missing her dishwasher, she says, "Everything we need is right here, and we're within arm's reach of each other."

Living in tight quarters has made the family much closer, the parents agree. Jim says his early discomfort in driving such a large vehicle has eased, and even the unpleasant parts of RV life—like emptying the septic tank—aren't really that bad.

But what about … privacy? "Everyone asks about our sex life," says Debbie, 41. Her standard answer: their kids are young and go to sleep early, and there's a door between the parents' bedroom and the kids' sleeping space. "We just worked it out. It was never an issue for us," Debbie says.

When they began their journey they assumed they'd return to the D.C. area and purchase a house when Jim's tour of duty was complete. But last week they were parked in an RV park in Sacramento, Calif., where Debbie has family, and they're laying plans to vacate the RV and move back to terra firma. But as they've begun shopping for houses again, they're using a new definition of what will make them happy.

They've seen two houses they really liked. One is 2,300 square feet. The other is just under 3,000. Since Debbie and Jim both plan to work at home, they'll need space in their new residence for two home offices. If they didn't, they'd probably buy something even smaller. Even so, their next home will probably cost only half as much as their last one. Their timing could hardly be better: they sold their previous home near the market peak and will be buying at a time when California home prices have fallen. "We were so lucky," Jim says.

But beyond selling high and buying low, the experience has helped them in other ways. Life in the RV "just helped define what a home is and what a home means to you," Jim says. "It isn't necessarily more space or more money."

Debbie makes it clear that their next home, while smaller, will still be nicely appointed. It's not as if she's forsaken the American dream altogether; she has just realized that the endless cycle of "trading up" to nicer homes isn't very fulfilling. "It was this constant 'This will be the answer.' Then you'd come up empty at the end," she says. "It was this searching thing, and I think I'm done with the search."

As the family contemplates its next move, the biggest source of anxiety lies back on the East Coast, inside that storage locker. The Wards aren't really sure what's in those 19 crates of stuff that seemed so necessary just two years ago. But after many months of streamlined living, they're dreading the day they have to deal with it all again.