Like many young married couples, our first home together was a small apartment. One bedroom and 730 square feet, to be exact, in a two-story walk-up outside Washington, D.C. So one of our first joint projects in our new marriage was figuring out exactly how and where to fit all the stuff that each of us brought to the marriage.
It’s not easy to move into any new living situation, let alone when you are dealing with limited space. It takes time and some important logistical considerations to settle into a small apartment, but you’ll know when you’ve arrived because one day, you’ll walk through the door and finally feel like you’re home. That feeling can work wonders for the confusing and dislocating feelings that come with any move.
Here are a few tips that worked really well for us to make our small apartment feel like home.
Step 1: Get rid of things
There’s really no other place to start! Sheer laws of physics dictate that the more stuff we tried to fit into our apartment, the less space there was to do anything with all that stuff. No organizational system or gadget can compensate for owning too many things. And in a small space, real estate is valuable: we realized that our belongings needed to earn their place in our home.
Where to start? One model, as laid out by Francine Jay (aka Miss Minimalist) is to evaluate possessions based on three criteria:
- Is it useful? Do you actually use the item, and does it make your life easier on a consistent basis?
- Or is it beautiful? Does it bring a smile to your face? Or, as Marie Kondo would say, does it spark joy? (The item must actually be visible in your home to qualify under this criteria, not hidden in a box somewhere.)
- Finally, is it meaningful? Does it bring back memories of a special event or person? (But such “sentimental” items shouldn’t be kept merely as “proof” of an experience or out of a sense of obligation to the giver.)
Keeping only what is useful, beautiful, or meaningful is a process that never really ends; periodic “interrogations” of your belongings can help show unessential things the door. But ultimately, owning less stuff — whether your apartment is 500 or 1500 square feet — allows us to live better in small spaces, rather than merely co-exist with our many belongings.
Step 2: Think vertically
Small apartments have limited floor space by definition. So it helps to utilize the “up and down” space that’s available: walls, sides of cabinets and appliances, bottoms of cabinets, tops of bookshelves, etc.
When organizing, put the things you use most often in easy reach, and reserve the higher-up spaces for less-used items — and for short people, buy a folding stool!
Some specific ways to think vertically:
- Use over-the-door organizing pockets not only for shoes, but for outerwear (gloves, hats), jewelry, cleaning supplies, craft supplies, etc. Every door can serve a purpose.
- Attach a pegboard to a kitchen wall and hang pots, pans, and utensils using S-hooks. Bonus points: spray paint the peg board a fun, cheerful color.
- Also in the kitchen, use heavy-duty magnet strips for knives, saving the counter space from a chunky knife block. This also keeps knives away from little hands if you have children.
- Put hooks underneath cabinets to hang mugs. Pro tip: try it with one or two not-favorite mugs first to make sure the surface is the right material for adhesives!
For infrequently used items, it helped us to place them in sturdy boxes (try office supply stores for paper boxes) on the tops of bookshelves and above cabinets. But remember: make sure these are things you actually use and aren’t just storing indefinitely “just in case.” For us, such items would include a tomato squeezer (for canning in the summer) and off-season clothes.
Step 3: Create distinctive spaces within rooms
Our one-bedroom apartment’s largest room was the living room. It had to handle basically everything other than our bed, dining room (a neat feature of our 1920’s-era place), and kitchen.
So we mentally divided up the one living area into distinct “spaces” for different purposes. For example, we arranged our couch and easy chair for a social area, close enough for people to converse, then set up my husband’s desk facing away for an “office” against the opposite wall. Doing this helped define the space and give us the sense of more room (or “rooms”) than we actually had.
Friends of ours with a teeny-tiny studio apartment accomplished something similar by strategically placing bookshelves and a folding ceiling-high panel to create a bedroom “area” so they had a distinct place to retire and the whole apartment didn’t feel like a crowded bedroom.
Other friends with kids created a play corner for toys and kids’ stuff, fencing it off for the child’s safety and so the entire space didn’t become a playground. The options are broad, and there’s no harm in trying out different models from time to time.
Step 4: Choose items that serve more than one purpose
With space at a premium, items we owned needed to really pull their weight. Things that do more than one thing help a lot in maximizing the functionality of a small space. Examples include ottomans or foot rests that contain storage inside; coffee tables with storage underneath; a letter holder on the wall with key hooks underneath; and a sofa bed or futon to provide a place for guests to sleep.
After you live in a small space for a while, you’ll have a better feel for what is needed, and then you can purchase, make, or upcycle accordingly.
Step 5: Make peace with the small space
The last tip is more a note of encouragement to have the right attitude about living in a small apartment. Yes, it can feel cramped. Yes, it’s hard to figure out what to keep and what to get rid of. Yes, it’s easy to fantasize about having a huge house with lots of space to entertain (the hardest part for us was not having the room to host large parties, or having any outdoor space). But there are advantages in living in a small apartment, too, and keeping those in mind helps make it easier.
- There’s less to clean! And you’ll spend less time cleaning.
- You’ll spend less on utility bills.
- For those who share the space with another person, you’ll naturally spend more time together. We sometimes reminisce about how in our first small apartment we could speak to each other normally no matter where we were; it fostered a sense of togetherness.
- There’s more incentive to get out and explore your area, and perhaps discover some real gems.
One major benefit is that there’s less temptation to buy stuff that you really don’t need (since it won’t fit anyway), saving money and time in the long run. And since the amount of stuff to buy is less, potentially you can splurge on one nicer item rather than several sub-par things — or just save the money for something fun.