Living in a Small Space

(This is cross-posted at BlogHer.)

I moved to a new apartment last weekend, and so far I really like it. It’s a two-bedroom unit in an older brick building, and it’s located within a short walking distance to a variety of shops, restaurants, and a stop on the DC metro.

The apartment isn’t small, but it doesn’t have an immense amount of storage, either. The living room is large, which is nice. The kitchen is long and narrow, but it also has a lot of cabinet space, so I think we’ll be okay there. But there’s only one bathroom, a small linen closet in the hallway — and then my bedroom, which is the smaller of the two, with only one small closet (I volunteered to take this room since my roommate has more furniture and knickknacks than I do). The closet is far from walk-in size.

I knew it would be this way before I moved in. We could have found a newer place in another part of town, but we both wanted to be in Old Town Alexandria. There’s a lot of stuff to do in the area, and it’s a great location, just a few miles from DC (we’re close, but not too close).

But when you move in with someone else — especially when you’ve both previously lived on your own — it’s inevitable that you’ll have to deal with the issue of not having enough space. I was unpacking some boxes last week (towels and sheets in the linen closet; toiletries and cleaning supplies in the bathroom), and everything fit. But it’s only my stuff in there right now (I’m living by myself for a few more weeks until my new roommate joins me).

When two females live together in separate bedrooms, it’s a different kind of space-situation than if I were moving in with — well, for instance, a boyfriend. In that situation a two-bedroom apartment might seem a bit bigger since you’d both be sleeping in one room, the extra room could be used as an office or guest bedroom, and you probably won’t have as many “doubles” of things.

As it stands right now, my roommate and I each have our own vacuum cleaner, cordless phone, pots and pans, dishes, silverware, blankets, lamps, etc. It seems kind of silly to store all this duplicate stuff in one place during the time we live together — but what can you do? It’s not like one of us can get rid of what we have — when we no longer live together, there’s a good possibility we’ll need it again.

Many people live in small spaces. In fact, just from watching shows like HGTV’s Small Space, Big Style, I know there are a lot of people who live in far less square footage than I do. I don’t care about having two vacuum cleaners stored in the hall closet, or shelves stuffed to the brim with our combined collection of towels, sheets, and blankets. You just have to put more thought into what you’ll allow into your personal space. When you have less space, I think you tend to be more discerning about what you allow in (especially during the holiday season, when the gift-giving tradition means you’re likely to gain even more possessions).

We’ve all heard the saying that when you make more money, you tend to spend more money. I think the same thing can be said for space: if you have more of it, you’ll find something to fill it up. There’s nothing wrong with living in a small space, or downsizing your possessions to fit into that space. Every time I’ve weeded through my possessions — even when I’ve had trouble deciding whether I should really give something away — I’ve never regretted getting rid of it after the fact. Out of sight, out of mind.

Do you think your space is small? This woman lives in an 84-square-foot house:

When Dee Williams started this “experiment,” she wanted her house to be as green as possible. So it was built using many salvaged products. She used second-hand wood, a flat-bed trailer and doors from a Dumpster and boat.

She used shredded blue jeans for some of the insulation. It must work: she said she spends about $6 a month for heat in the winter and less in the summer. [...]

The home looks like a log cabin inside and out. She optimizes space with a folding table and hidden drawers. She climbs a ladder to get to her bedroom, which is more like a loft with a skylight.

Holly said the idea of living in a small space appeals to her.

What appeals to me is the small space. I have always loved little houses and small spaces. I’ve never been one for material possessions. I have minimalistic tendencies. After all my years of having to fit all my worldly goods in one suitcase, I could so easily do this.

USexpatriate has lived in a one-room, 360 interior-square-foot cabin [409 exterior footprint] for the past three years. She gives great advice about banishing clutter, how to hide downsize your possessions (or hide what you have, if you don’t want to get rid of it), and decorating small spaces. She also knows she’s not alone in her love of living small.

I’m hardly alone. Even as the size of the average new American house has more than doubled (from 1,100 square feet during the post-WWII housing boom to more than 2,225 by 1999), more and more people are also exploring small-space living. These include, most visibly, RVers spending months in their cleverly designed rolling homelets, simple-living advocates wanting to use fewer resources, homeless camper-dwellers, folks living on boats, and country newcomers who are camping out in garages, trailers, cabins, or sheds while building their dream homes. Finally you’ve got people like me who’d rather have 409 paid-for square feet than 2,225 square feet of mortgaged luxury.

Another advantage of living in a small space is that it doesn’t take as long to clean — but, as USexpatriate says, there’s a flip-side to that, too.

In small spaces, every dirty dish left on the counter, every pile of bills you set on a tabletop upon return from the Post Office, becomes “proportionally” a big mess. Unlike in a large house, they’re right there in your face. They might be taking up your only work space or eating area. Also, when all your activities are confined to one small space, that space will get dusty and dirty more quickly than when your activities are spread around 2,000 square feet.

Amy Read lives on a boat in Mexico with her family. She’s learned how to downsize their lifestyle to fit in the small space, and when she went on a recent visit back to the States, she was surprised at the amount of stress she felt.

So, there we were in Texas, with absolutely anything and everything available to us, after having to scrounge and learning to do without in Mexico. What were all those things I needed that I couldn’t find in Mexico? I don’t remember, but here is a bleach pen, and here is a WD-40 dispensed like a felt tip marker, and here is a cell phone holder that also holds business cards and has a key ring. Not that I need any of these things, but my, how clever! How convenient! And Armour All sells wipes for your dashboard and for your chrome and for your tires, what a great idea!

Suddenly I’m getting caught up in capitalism and consumerism. But, I only have 48 hours to get done what I need to get done. And I only have a 46 foot boat to store stuff in. And, I don’t NEED any of this stuff anyway!! It was all terribly stressful.

Louise lives in a 300-square-foot RV with her husband. Her suggestion for corralling clutter is to use lots of baskets.

I’ve found that using baskets and bins to contain small items really helps. Things that we use often are out where we can access them, but contained in such a way that they don’t fly around when we’re moving. It also makes it easy to put things away immediately after use, which streamlines the process of getting ready to hit the road.

Sara enjoys living a minimalist lifestyle in a small space, and enjoys the personal advantages of having an uncluttered house.

Yes. When your home is organized and decluttered — you will be a different person. Your outlook on life changes. Situations that seemed out of control and chaotic now seem manageable. When you wake up and walk to the kitchen to make coffee and your counter-top is clean — your day just got that much easier.

The state of your home is in direct proportion to the state of your heart/mind. When you have piles of stuff all over your house, your spirit just gets bogged down with all of it whether you know it or not. When you don’t have to worry about moving your STUFF around, cleaning your STUFF, and storing your STUFF — you have a lot more time to spend doing things things that you love and spending time with your family and friends! And that’s what life is all about.

Krystal describes the appeal of a miniHOME.

This is the world’s first off-grid, high-style, portable house. At only 325 sq. ft., it’s packed with amazing little nooks and crannies, and all the modern conveniences of a typical house … except that it uses just 1/10th of the energy.

I love how functional everything is in the home. The dining room table is rigged to triple as a side table, a kitchen table, or a dining room table, depending on how many guests you have. The sliding full-sized closet doors also double as the washroom door. The staircase upstairs to the loft doubles as a bookshelf, and the kitchen has 4 ft. of space in-between each side, so it can easily accommodate 2 people … plus, with the loft, that means the ceiling is 13 ft. high!

Related posts and links:

1) City Mouse features space-saving and organizational design ideas, like
apartment-size recycling bins, invisible bookshelves, and hanging closet organizers.

2) A story in the Washington Post featured a man living in a 187-square-foot condo in Dupont Circle.

3) Declutter It! hosts a weekly Organize Your Life blog carnival.

4) HGTV has tons of articles about living in and decorating small spaces, like Top 10 Apartment Decorating Don’ts.

5) An article by Rosemary Sadez Friedmann, an interior designer.

6) Some people use space-saving devices that serve more than one function, like a combination microwave/coffeepot.

7) The Container store has great storage options. I like these modern (and expandable) ideas for a home office area.

9 Comments



  1. i love decluttering and organizing and purging stuff out of the house and the container store is my favorite store. the thing that changed my life in this regard is the tv show “clean sweep.” it’s the perfect show for people who have a hard time getting rid of things once they have it. i highly recommend it to everyone interested in decluttering.

    what i’ve realized, and what a lot of your resources echo, is that the key to fitting into a space isn’t just the size of the space, it’s how the space is organized. our house isn’t that small (maybe like 1700 square feet of living space) but having been built in 1923 and then haphazardly remodeled over the years, it’s not a very efficient use of space. it’s a lot harder to find room for usable space and storage than a smaller, but better laid out, house would be.

    and while it’s “green” that we bought an old house on a small lot near public transportation vs. new construction out in the exurbs, these old house are very energy inefficient.

    but it’s worth it to me b/c i love my house and neighborhood, and we are working on it all the time to get it more energy efficient and better organized in terms of space. for instance, we just did a great remodel of the kitchen that gave us tons more space without changing any of the actual dimensions of the room. and it is also much more “green” because the small size of the space meant that we could spend more money on green building materials and energy efficient appliances.

    Posted December 10, 2007 at 11:37 am #
  2. Whoa, the 84-square-foot home is a little much for me. I feel like adding in some extra space to accommodate her own plumbing would have been okay. Or was the point that she was mobile? Either way, I think a shower would have been understandable…

    Posted December 10, 2007 at 1:59 pm #
  3. Yeah, some of those are mighty extreme cases! But very interesting point about smaller places highlighting clutter and forcing you to organize more. It definitely does lead you to keep it in order, or drown, one!

    Posted December 10, 2007 at 6:03 pm #
  4. I thought I lived in a small house (even though it still feels huge to me compared to my apt) but it’s nothing compared to some of the ones you listed!

    Posted December 11, 2007 at 12:38 am #
  5. Great stuff – you should be a researcher :) I am a declutterer from way back and find that less stuff makes me happier. I get all excited when AmVets is coming by for a pickup! Still, we do have plenty of space – 2200 sq.ft for 5 people. I could live in much less. Not sure that my hub could. Or that the smell of our sons might not kill us.

    Posted December 11, 2007 at 9:44 am #
  6. Oh my goodness, I loved this post, Zandria! I’m a Small Space, Big Style addict, and I’m always inspired into another frenzy of decluttering every time I watch. I’ve had Goodwill come by 4 times already, and it always feels good when it goes.
    Yes, you are right… the bigger the space, the more stuff I stuff into it. (Just like my bag… I went from using just a wallet in my back pocket to carrying around a diaper bag full of more-than-just-diapers… thank heavens for potty-training!) We moved from a 2 bedroom apartment to a 3 bedroom 1400 sq.ft. house, and our stuff just grew exponentially… now we have to deal with it. tough but rewarding!

    Posted December 11, 2007 at 8:33 pm #
  7. Great post, Zandria! Love your blog. I look forward to hearing more about your smaller space once your roommate settles in. I wouldn’t get rid of duplicate things either if I thought I’d need them later.

    Posted December 14, 2007 at 6:33 pm #
  8. Thanks for the mention Zandria! I just discovered your blog and I love it.

    In addition to my small home shop I also blog on small home and city living at downtownmouse.blogspot.com

    Thanks again.

    Posted March 28, 2008 at 10:04 pm #
  9. I’ve recently come up with a simple storage idea for small spaces that should be of interest to you. My wife and I were redoing our “everything” room and needed more shelves. But the only wall space that wasn’t being used was behind the door. I couldn’t find anything to fit, so I built a bookcase with angled shelves that did.

    People saw it, liked it, told me to patent it, which I did, and the result is HEIDIĀ®, a shelving system that hides behind doors and creates extra storage without taking up any usable floor space. We designed it to be easy to assemble and install, found this great cabinet maker in LA to manufacture it, and just went live online, July 1st, to offer it to apartment dwellers, college students, and anyone like us who is both living small and has “stuff”.

    You can check us out at http://www.heidi-shelves.com . I’d be happy answer any questions you might have and I’d certainly love to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

    peace…………….ag

    Posted July 19, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

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  1. [...] the past few years, and I’ve talked about the challenges of living in an apartment with a limited amount of storage space. There’s nothing wrong with getting rid of stuff you’re no longer using. In fact, I [...]

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