Sixteen Tricks for Maximizing a Small Home or Apartment

When Sarah and I were first married in 2003, we moved into a pretty small apartment. According to what I could find online about it, it measured in at about 550 square feet.

We viewed it as a temporary solution. It was okay for just the two of us, but we wanted a family and an apartment like that wasn’t going to work with children.

Or so we thought.

In 2005, our first child arrived. We didn’t have the financial resources at the time to buy a house, so we stayed in that little apartment. We took one of the rooms and converted roughly half of it into a nursery for the baby.

And it worked. The two years where we lived as a “dual income no kid” family had taught us some tricks about living in a tight space, and adding a baby to the picture taught us some more tricks.

In 2007, when we had our second child on the way, we strongly considered staying in the apartment and only moved into a larger home when the right house for the right price popped onto the market.

Even now, we still use some of the tactics I’ll describe here. They work well for making any home seem bigger than it actually is. In fact, these tactics have actually made our current home seem plenty large for the three children we have now, even when we have guests over.

Our dreams used to involve a big home in the country. With some smart choices in our current home, our dream now involves just building a similarly sized house in the country, which will end up saving us quite a lot without diminishing our dreams at all.

Why a Small Home?

Bigger homes cost more. It’s as simple as that.

The price per square foot of a home isn’t an exact measurement of a home’s value by any means, but it’s certainly a factor. If you take out all of the other differentiating factors, such as neighborhood, lot size, and other elements, you’ll quickly see that square footage plays a giant role in the cost of a house or apartment.

This is a particularly important factor for renters and for first-time homebuyers who have to borrow money to pay for the home. The smaller your home, whether it’s a house or an apartment, the lower the monthly payment is going to be and the easier it’s going to be to get ahead of your financial situation.

The median American family income is right around $51,000 a year. Take taxes out of the equation and that family is bringing home about $4,000 a month, give or take depending on their exact situation. The difference between an $800 monthly housing payment and a $2,000 monthly housing payment is make or break for that family – and the size of the living quarters is an enormous part of that difference.

The ability to make a small home seem big is an incredibly valuable one. It can make a small, inexpensive house or apartment feel like something much bigger using just a few wise moves and some simple tricks.

So, let’s get down to business. How can you make a small home seem big and a larger home seem even bigger?

Sixteen Tricks for Making the Most of a Small Home or Apartment

We used virtually all of these tactics in our old apartment. They all helped to make the place feel bigger.

Use Trunks for Tables

Wherever you might have a table, consider using a trunk instead. Trunks provide additional storage space and an old trunk is a nice conversation piece, too. It fits comfortably in the same floor area that a table might otherwise fit and works very well for holding plates, cups, and other items.

Obviously, this doesn’t work for every table, but it can work well for coffee tables, end tables, and bedside tables in most homes. It just converts all of that cubic space into storage space very easily.

It’s often a good idea to fill up the trunks in your main living area with items you might pull out when guests are around so that you don’t go digging in closets or into other places for them. Keep all of your games or your entire DVD collection in one of them so that those things are easy to access near where you might be using them.

Avoid Unitaskers

Unitaskers are devices that only perform one very specific task. My favorite example of a unitasker is a meatball grill basket. Yes, that’s right – it’s a basket that is designed solely for the ability to grill meatballs. You couldn’t do anything else with it even if you wanted to.

Instead of having an item for every possible use, look for single items that can do many, many things. Instead of buying a set of bowls, buy two fairly large bowls. Instead of buying an entire set of pots and pans, stick with one skillet and one pot and see how that works for you. Instead of buying a butcher block of knives, buy just a paring knife, a chef’s knife, and a bread knife and store them in a drawer. Instead of having six electronic components hooked up to your television, just have one device that does all of the things you need (like a modern Bluray player that has Netflix and Hulu and Youtube built right in).

Unitaskers take up space and are rarely used. Avoid them and only buy stuff that you can use for lots of things.

Buy Foldable Furniture

Instead of devoting extra space to a guest bed, get a couch or a chair that features a foldable bed inside. Almost all of the time, it functions perfectly well as a couch, but during those moments when you need a bed for a guest to use, it transforms into that instead.

Another option: install a wall-mounted foldable bed. In situations where you have a guest, just move aside whatever items are sitting in front of it and you have a nice place for them to sleep.

Also, consider a table with leaves so that you can keep it small most of the time and expand it when necessary.

If you really wish to have a spare bed and none of these options work, invest in an inflatable [affiliate id=”53787″]air mattress[/affiliate]. We have a queen-sized air mattress – which is probably overkill – but we inflated it in our apartment several times for guests and have also used it in our home when our house was particularly crowded.

Keep Your Stuff Organized, Avoiding Duplication

I don’t think it’s realistic for most people to have an exact place for every single item in their home. However, you should have a system in place where you can easily find everything in your home.

For example, it makes sense to have an “office supply” drawer where you keep things that are obviously office supplies – tape, scissors, pens, and so on. You don’t need to know exactly where your scissors are. You just need to know where your “office supplies” are so that you can easily find office supplies.

How does this help? If you can easily find the things you need when you need them, there’s never a need to duplicate purchases. If you always keep your scissors in your “office supply” spot, you don’t need to buy a second pair of scissors. If you multiply that effect by the many things you have around your home, it becomes clear how much space duplicated stuff can take up and how much space you can save by simply having appropriate places for your things with some basic organization rules.

Think Vertical for Storage

We tend to think of our living space as a floor plan. When there is a spot in that floor plan that identifies storage space, like a bookshelf or something like that, we recognize that square footage as devoted to storage.

Here’s the trick – that square footage extends from the floor to the ceiling, so why not take advantage of all of that space? Choose tall shelves that extend all the way to the ceiling instead of shorter shelves that only go up a little way. If you have a media cabinet, choose one with a bit less square footage on the floor but one that extends, again, to the ceiling (or close to it).

You can even stack shelving units on top of each other, or have two or three units side by side with a third sideways on top. The key is to stretch that storage space upward where it makes sense so that you’re taking up vertical space, not floor space.

Share Ownership of Large Items

If you have large items that you need to keep around – like a kayak, for example – consider finding a friend with some extra space and share ownership with that friend. Allow your friend to use the item whenever they wish if they’re willing to store it for you. Then, whenever you need it, you can just go visit that friend and borrow the item.

This works well for a lot of larger items that people want to hold onto but they don’t use regularly. Large garden equipment, large sporting equipment, furniture – all of that stuff might end up on “loan” with a friend.

It doesn’t mean it’s not yours any more. It just means it’s getting stored – and perhaps used – by a friend, which means that you continue to have access to it when you need it without the requirement of having space in your home or apartment to store it.

Be Critical of All of Your Possessions

My philosophy with most of my possessions is that if I don’t use it for a year, I can and should get rid of it. It’s just taking up space, after all, so why keep it around?

I do this with my board games, for example. Whenever I play a game, it ends up on top of one of the stacks of games on the shelf. Every so often, I’ll trade away or sell off the games on the bottom of the stacks.

You can apply the same type of philosophy to almost everything you own. If you haven’t used it in a year, be extremely critical of it. Do you really need to keep it around? It’s very likely that anything you haven’t used in a year is just taking up space in your home, so sell it off.

Focus on Less but Classier Decor

It can be very tempting to fill the limited wall space you have with pictures and other items that you’ve always wanted to have on your walls. The problem is that it leaves your home feeling constrained and tight, as though all of the walls are overstuffed and crowded.

A much better approach is to choose few items of home decor. Stick to the ones that are genuinely meaningful to you or offer the classiest feeling for the room.

If you have a lot of items you’d like to display, store the rest in a closet and rotate them regularly. Instead of having ten things on the wall, have three and rotate them. Give the walls some room to breathe.

Have an Oasis

Choose a small portion of your living space and turn it into your “oasis” where you design it to be the way you want it. In our old apartment, Sarah did this with half of our bedroom (my part mostly just consisted of a dresser and a clothes hamper). On the other hand, I turned a portion of the “nursery” room into my “oasis.”

In those spaces, we would just do things however we liked. It was a space for us to feel very comfortable individually so that we would feel less of a need to “overstuff” the other spaces in our home. If I wanted to keep a large collection of some kind, I could, but the space for that was in my “oasis.” Sarah’s space involved a large mirror and a bunch of personal items, such as her musical instruments.

One option for this is to use your bed as an “oasis,” installing shelves behind it and surrounding it by curtains. It can feel like a “retreat” within your home without devoting additional space to it.

Use Fewer But Larger Furniture Pieces

If your home is small, it might be tempting to think that small furniture is the right choice. The problem with that is that people will end up choosing many pieces of small furniture to take care of their needs and all of those small pieces end up taking up more space and being less functional than some larger pieces.

Instead of buying a loveseat and a chair, buy one large sofa (perhaps one with a bed hidden inside). Instead of buying two or three small bookshelves, buy one giant one (see below).

The large items might take up more floor space by themselves, but you won’t need multiples of them, so you won’t be duplicating elements like armrests, for example. A large piece of furniture that replaces two or three smaller pieces usually ends up saving you quite a bit of space.

Use As Much Natural Lighting as Possible

If you want your home to feel bigger, use lots of natural lighting whenever possible. Throw open the curtains or the blinds as much as you can and allow your rooms to be lit with real light.

Our solution has always been to use thin curtains, preferably white ones, as window coverings most of the time. They can easily be opened to allow the view out of the window, but when you want some privacy, they still allow plenty of sunlight to come through, brightening the room.

Open windows also have the bonus effect of allowing a view to the outside, subtly adding more space in your mind. It’s a little optical illusion, but it’s a very handy one.

Add Built-In Shelving

One great way to maximize storage space in a small home is to fill an entire wall, floor to ceiling, with shelves that are directly attached to the wall. You can use these shelves for many purposes, as they can hold decorations, function as a home entertainment center, hold many books, and so on.

By attaching the shelves to the wall, you’re minimizing the floor square footage that the shelves are taking up. By building lots of shelves that go all the way to the ceiling, you’re adding a ton of storage space to those square feet.

This is a nice day-long project for someone with a bit of a carpenter’s touch. It’s not particularly hard to do, but it can certainly change the dynamics of a room.

Use Light, Solid Colors for Walls

Remember the trick of using bright natural light to make a room seem bigger? The same trick essentially works by making the walls a light, solid color. It creates a slight mental illusion of distance and openness, which makes everything feel bigger than before.

This is the reason why apartments always use a light color on the walls. A light color makes the rooms seem bigger than before and thus makes a small square footage seem much more livable.

If you want color, go for it, but choose a very light shade of that color when painting the walls and avoid patterns. Patterns tend to add visual clutter and make a room feel tighter.

Put Mirrors on Doors and In Other Places

Mirrors trick your eyes into thinking that you’re looking farther than you actually are. Thus, mirrors in several places in your home can fool your eyes repeatedly, making everything seem a little bigger.

One great place to do this is on your closet doors. Place a mirror on each closet door in your bedroom and you’ll quickly gain the illusion that your bedroom is a lot bigger than it was before.

Large bathroom mirrors – and even mirrors on bathroom doors – can create the same effect, introducing a sense of largeness and openness that wasn’t there before.

Hang Large Items from the Ceiling or on Walls

Got a bicycle? Can’t possibly ditch that canoe? Consider hanging them from the ceiling or on a wall to get them out of the way.

We’ve done this in our garage with several items. We simply installed hooks in the ceiling studs and used them to hang items such as bicycles and sleds to get them out of the way.

It allows us to store quite a bit more in our garage without making the garage feel overstuffed. (In truth, our garage does feel overstuffed, but the hooks certainly help reduce that sense.)

Renovate Doorways, Making Them Open and Wide

If your home features any doorways that you largely leave open, consider a home improvement project that widens those doorways and eliminates the door.

Doing this makes the space feel open and surprisingly bigger than before. It essentially adds the size of the two rooms together, creating a sense of largeness and openness that wasn’t there before.

You don’t have to take out the whole wall. Just enlarge the entryway into the room and remove the door, extending it to the sides a little and perhaps all the way to the ceiling. It creates a very powerful sense of having more space.

Smarter Space, Not More Space

The real trick is to always look for ways to have smarter space in your home rather than just adding more space. If you find ways to maximize square footage wherever you can by having storage space in unexpected places and efficient use of shelving and combine that with some careful tricks to add a sense of more space in your home, you can change a small living space into one that feels quite large.

Those kinds of choices open the door to living in a smaller home or apartment than you might otherwise have chosen. By making that choice, you’ll save quite a bit on your monthly payments, enabling you to have more freedom with your money to do things like pay off debts or save for retirement.

Focus on smarter space rather than more space and you’ll find that you have a happy home and a happier checking account.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.