Staying in your starter home - Part 2, The Townhouse

Staying in your starter home - Part 2, The Townhouse

A while back I did an introductory post on the topic of starter-homes and the people who now realise they have to live in them a lot longer than they originally planned. My aim is to try and set out some ideas and tips for such home-owners, house-type by house type. And the first type I’m going to cover is the 2 or 3-bed terraced townhouse...

At least that’s what I call it. To avoid confusion, what I mean is a relatively recently built terraced house (let’s say Celtic Tiger era), two storey or two-storey plus habitable attic. They are usually narrow and long-ish, with a small enough back garden. Most will have two bedrooms and a bathroom on the first floor; some will have an ensuite bedroom in the attic floor. Sometimes the bathroom is internal, with no window. In the cases where there is no room in the attic there is often a long tunnel to a velux rooflight up on the roof to give the bathroom some daylight. On the ground floor these types of house come with a few layout arrangements, but they are generally fairly open plan, with little in the way of storage or utility space. What they all have in common is that they are not very big, and therein lies the problem for their owners, who are more than likely to have bought them off the plans when there were no kids around and the idea was to trade up within a few years. I have no idea how many of these were built during our national housebuilding craze, but I’d imagine there are quite a few. The plan and photos below show some typical examples of what I mean.




If you are living in a house like this – one that you thought would be a distant memory by now – and you are beginning to think something is going to have to be done so you can get a few more years out of it, then here are some things you could think about.

How long term are you thinking?

Generally when I’m asked out to look at a house like this for someone it’s because they are thinking or extending it to get a bit more living space (and it’s usually because of the kids…) Spending a fairly substantial amount of money on an extension (and it’s always going to cost more than you think) would certainly ease the pressure and provide much needed living space. But an extension alone won’t necessarily solve problems with the existing layout. And it may cost more than you can afford or more than you are willing to pay, especially if you are hoping to move on as soon as you get the chance. Finally, don’t forget that with houses like this there is usually only one way for the building materials to come in – through the front door…

So if you are thinking you need to do something, but feel that extending isn't either feasible, justifiable or affordable, then there are always other options to ease the pressure, even if some compromises need to be made. You should try to imagine what would allow you stay comfortable in your small house, and for how long, and use this as the basis of your “brief”. If you are looking at making changes to your house, then you are probably in one of two distinct camps. If you are in the first camp then you (more or less) happily see yourself living in your house for the reasonably long term, say up to ten years. If you are in the second camp then you would move on in the morning if you could, but you can’t. If you are in the former group, and you have the cash, then extend away… If you are in the latter then it’s worth considering how you might make key improvements on a more restricted budget to buy some more comfort and some more time. With the townhouse being a typical “starter-home” I would say there are plenty of the latter.

Another alternative?

There is of course another way around this problem – to rent out the starter home and become a tenant yourself in something bigger, more suitable and / or better located. It is often the case that someone who has called me out is hoping to weigh up the potential improvements to their house that I might help identify, with the alternative “rent out / rent yourself” solution. So I’m getting a good sense of the pros and cons of this as described to me by the people I meet. I hope to go into this in a bit more detail in a separate post, but certainly it is an option for those who have the problem of negative equity but have not suffered too much on the income side. But back to the idea of working with what you’ve got:

What’s the problem anyway?

Babies! When you combine the small townhouse with the growing family, you quickly come under pressure for living space, for storage space, for utility space so that the washing isn’t always all over the house, for separation so that you can get away from each other for a while. And of course you begin to run out of bedroom space. I’ve had conversations with people where we’ve talked  about how long a boy and girl can share a bedroom for, or where the pregnant home-owner is hoping to have a girl so that she can share the only other bedroom in the house with her older sister…  There is a Spanish saying that a baby arrives with a loaf of bread under its arm. Update that to today and a baby arrives with a truckload of “stuff”, all of it needing to be put somewhere. Okay so the buggy might be kept in the boot of the car. But what about all the rest of it?

Of course, it not always all about babies. Like a lot of Celtic Tiger houses, there are often dysfunctional layouts where houses are just laid out in an awkward fashion, or where obvious things like enough storage are not in place. Washing machines in open plan living spaces can start to do your head in. Your kitchen may appear to be made up entirely of corner units (and without those handy carousels…) with one small dark area of usable worktop. Those double doors are always in the way – whether they are open or closed.  And the layout might just not suit you – if you like open plan and don’t have it, or the other way around.

Let’s assume for a moment that we are talking about how to improve a small townhouse without extending it. In that case you should probably be looking at the following:

Improving the quality of your living space by altering the layout:

Take a look at the layout you have and ask yourself how you feel about it. Is it too open plan for your taste? Or is it the opposite  - too compartmentalised and bitty? Do you want to have people over but find yourself never doing it because your living space doesn’t seem to be suitable? Is there a hallway that could be shortened and some extra space given to the living spaces? The good thing about a small and narrow terraced house (of the recently built variety) is that internal layout changes are often not that difficult to do. I tend to think of these living spaces as being made up of zones of activities (cooking, sitting, playing, eating) and then see if the physical layout and the flow from one zone to the next is working for the people who are using it. There is no one right answer – some people want their zones to be separate, and some want them all in one space. And sometimes you can cheat by using big sliding or folding doors so that you can get the best of both worlds. Again when it comes to doing internal work on a small-ish living space the small size itself can prevent costs going too high.

Finding places where you can provide proper (and good looking) storage:

I’ve often found with the small terraced townhouse that there is a fairly decent amount of space under the stairs but that it is a real headache to access. So it goes the way of all these hard to use storage areas – stuff dumped in the back for all eternity and the hoover at the front, with the door not quite closing on it all. Under a stairs is often the easiest place to build in good storage in a small house – you can install a combination of presses and big pull-out drawers and have the whole thing look very neat. And the stuff that’s in there can be easily accessed, from the long side as opposed to one narrow end – so it’s no extra space but much more benefit than what went before.

After that there is always the more display-like units that can be built in on either side of a fireplace (whether it’s real or not), for the tv, books, photos, a place to leave the laptop, ipad etc.  And there are often funny alcoves that aren’t much use but could hold a lot if they were built in fully with shelving.

Figuring out what you can take out of the equation:

On one job I did with a narrow townhouse like this we trashed out a few ideas and in the end worked out that it would make more sense to build a long shed across the back of the garden than it would to extend. The shed was divided into a simple utility room and a store (mainly for toys). It was simply but properly built, for a lot less money than it would have taken to build an extension, and it took a lot of pressure off the living space and the kitchen units. In that case it allowed us to take away a poky utility and storage room that divided the living space from the kitchen, so the overall layout was much more flowing and bright.

Dealing with your stuff:

One last thought – once when visiting a house just like the ones I’m trying to describe here, I was told by the owner that the current thinking is that children do better and develop better if they play with one of their toys at a time and then put it away afterwards. It’s supposed to counteract boredom, stimulate imagination, all sorts of good-sounding stuff. As far as I’m concerned this information is a godsend – that mass of toys in one corner of the living space (no playrooms in these house types) , apart from wrecking the adults’ heads, is not good for the child either! In my own little terraced house I’m planning to box up toys and store them in the utility room, and then take things down one box at a time. We’ll see what happens!

Please add a comment

Posted by Murray on
Great've described my house to a tee!

We're in the process of considering our options at the moment.


Posted by Stephen on
Thanks Murray... let me know if you come to any conclusions!

All the best,

Posted by Ursula walshe on
Great website with information that captures the difficulties faced with today's home owners and offers no non sense, helpful solutions!

Also considering our options with the challenges of negative equity!!

Thanks Stephen

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small spaces is a one-man architectural practice dedicated to helping people find the best way to add space to their home, or to make the most of what they’ve got. You can find out more here.