For the first time in our decade-long marriage and nearly 15 years of cohabitation, my husband and I live in a space that is more than a thousand square feet—barely, but still! We’re long-time city dwellers, which means we’re used to small apartments that we rent instead of own, just for the luxury of living in the heart of it all.
Now, don’t get me wrong—small is, of course, relative. When we first moved into our current London flat, it felt palatial. It might be because our first-ever apartment together in Manhattan had a sink so tiny that you had to bend down and wash your face directly next to the faucet to avoid spilling water everywhere. Or it could be because, in our last-ever NYC apartment, the center of the wall separating the living space and the bedroom doubled as a TV stand that rotated 180 degrees so you could watch from… literally anywhere because it was an alcove studio. Or is it because, in order to get a (very standard sized) sofa into the London flat just before this one, we had to hire a professional to come take it apart on the sidewalk and reassemble it inside our living room?
Whatever the reason, I know this much is true: we’ve always valued location over size, and that comes with a few sacrifices. It’s also made us self-appointed pros when it comes to thinking creatively on how to make the most of a space.
Whether you’re downgrading because you want to live on a smaller scale or because your budget means it’s a requirement, I turned to three actual experts who gave me some insight and advice on things to look for when assessing a small apartment of your very own.
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Carefully Consider the Floor Plan
Molly Franklin, a real estate agent with the New York-based Corcoran Group, highlighted the importance of how a small apartment is laid out. “Galley kitchens and sleeping alcoves are clutch. An open kitchen eats up an entire wall and can make orienting your furniture difficult.” While some studio apartments might seem like glorified dorm rooms, “an alcove for a bed can give you a sense of privacy should you have guests over.”
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Look for the Space You Can’t See
As Franklin points out, “Small spaces are best served by smart storage as clutter can quickly overwhelm.” Look for built-in storage opportunities and note the size and height of the closets. Along with clearing clutter, more storage equals less furniture you’ll need taking up valuable floor space.
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Take a Tape Measurer
Lauren Riefflin, StreetEasy Home Trends Expert, says, “Go into a home tour knowing the dimensions of your big furniture items, like a bed, couch, dressers, and desk, and leave with the precise dimensions of each room in the apartment. This will help you visualize your layout while you’re on-site and avoid any surprises on move-in day.” (Obviously, after my great sofa fiasco of 2018, I come from a place of personal experience when I say: I concur.)
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Don’t Underestimate the Perks of Outdoor Space
Whether it’s a tiny balcony, a small patio, or even the oversized platform of a fire escape, outdoor space can “offer an oasis of calm,” Steph Briggs, co-founder of La Di Da Interiors, points out. “Reinvent your small outdoor space with potters and plants. If space allows the addition of outdoor furniture, that can add another room to your small apartment.”Continue to 5 of 8 below.
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Consider More Than Just the Square Footage
A place that’s 750 square feet can sometimes feel smaller than 500 square feet if it is overly dark. Briggs says, “Small apartments don't need to feel small. Choose an apartment with plenty of natural light, large windows, and a neutral and light color palette and you will instantly have gained the feeling of space.”
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Treat No Space as Lost Space
Take note of whether or not the halls are wide enough to add hooks or fit shelves. When it comes to small space living, no space should be lost space. Briggs shared a story of a client who used her ironing board as a workstation in her hallway. Obviously, this isn’t ideal (for about a million reasons), but it raises an excellent point: assess the hallways and corridors.
Lauren Riefflin agrees. “Be creative and take note of spaces that may be underutilized by existing tenants. A common example is the front entryway, which could potentially transition into extra storage.” Molly Franklin adds to this, noting, “a foyer can serve double-duty as a mini office or reading sanctuary.”
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Draw the Eye Up
When it comes to hanging shelves, Riefflin also points out that the mere act of placing your shelves at a certain height can create the illusion of a larger space. “Shelving is a great storage solution and installing shelves above eye level around your space brings the eye up,” she says. This makes “your ceilings appear higher than they are.”
If the space does have high ceilings, then Franklin suggests using them to your maximum advantage. “High ceilings, foyers, and long entryways also are important to create a sense of space in a small apartment. With less square footage, vertical space matters. An entryway with high ceilings can become a gallery for beloved art as well as provide room for functional storage nooks.”
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Shop Thoughtfully and Consider the Pieces You Have
When it comes to furnishing a small space, think outside the box. Riefflin suggests “investing in pieces that are multi-purpose.” Look for “a dining table that has wine or bar cart storage, a floor lamp that has shelves, an ottoman that has storage, or a bookshelf that has drawers. For every item that has a dual function, you’re saving yourself the space a single-use item would take up on its own, leaving you with more living and breathing room.”
You can also consider how to upcycle pieces you (or family and friends) might already own.
Small space living isn’t for the faint of heart—and it may seem overwhelming, especially if you’re downsizing from a larger home or moving into your very first place on your own. But the pay-off can be great, and finding the right space is key.