Family life in less than 1,000 square feet (© © Plush Studios/Getty Images)


Even in the median-sized 2,469-square-foot American home, many parents would tell you there's more stuff than space. And yet families of four, six and even eight are willingly squeezing themselves into apartments and bungalows of 1,000 square feet or less.

Typically, the extra elbow room is sacrificed for nice neighborhoods with good schools or rich cultural amenities.

It's not easy, say the families who do it, but the payoffs can be worth it. "Living in a smaller space allowed us to live in a really great place with wonderful things for us to do as a family," says Janel Laban, managing editor of www.apartmenttherapy.com, who lives with her comparatively small family of three in an 850-square-foot condo in downtown Chicago's Lincoln Park. And because they are so close to public transportation, the Labans don't need to own a car.

Decades ago, fitting a family into 1,000 square feet wouldn't have seemed like such a stretch. In the middle part of the last century it was common for new family bungalows to be less than 1,000 square feet.

But since 1973, the size of the average new home has swelled by 49%, according to the National Association of Home Builders, with separate play and media rooms, laundry rooms and a separate bedroom for each child.

"In the 1990s, people talked a lot about cocooning," says Shay Solomon, a green builder and author of "Little House on a Small Planet," who shares her small house with her husband, a renter and an infant. But cocooning was a misnomer, she says. "Cocoons are a space that is snug and cozy. I think people were beehiving. … And the worker bees had to travel far and wide to pay those mortgages."

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But fitting a family of four (or more) into less than 1,000 square feet requires some thoughtful organization, and a whole lot of cooperation from family members. Here's how several families managed to pull off this feat.

Respect others' space
Sharing tight quarters often means vying for the same space, like the stretch of carpet in front of the TV or the kitchen table, families say. Picking up immediately after you finish a hobby or project is important.

And, Solomon says, it helps to be a little quieter than you might otherwise be, so people can have the privacy of their own thoughts. Because everyone can see each other for much of the time in a small space, it's also important to read physical cues about privacy.

In Solomon's small house, if her spouse doesn't meet her eyes when she walks into a room, it's because he is thinking or writing and doesn't want to be disturbed.

Of course the upside of such tight quarters, Solomon says, is that you are forced to resolve arguments quickly. "I can't be fighting with someone and seeing them all the time," she says.

Headphones were key for Laurel Robertson, who lived with her husband and three kids in a 710-square-foot guesthouse in central Texas for a decade, before her husband built a larger house.

Kids could watch the same animated movie over and over again, without disturbing her or her husband reading or talking in the same room. And at night, she could watch an R-rated movie or listen to rock music without the kids hearing it from their rooms. "There's a lot of stuff you don't necessarily want your kids hearing," Robertson says.

On the other hand, she says, there's less wondering about what your teenager is up to in his room. And, she says, because everyone can hear more of what's going on around the house, she thinks her kids became sounder sleepers.

Scaling back
The biggest challenge for most families living in small spaces is not finding room for the kids, but finding room for everybody's clothes, books and stuff, Robertson says. "I had to train my relatives, 'Don’t give my kids huge stuffed animals, give them small things.'"

Laban and others say they regularly cycle toys out as new ones came in, donating to schools and nurseries. Those items that stay have to be things that are played with or used all the time. "We only have things in our house that we really need and love," Laban says.

One mother of six, responding to a message-board post, says she buys her younger kids a few well-matched outfits and she arranges them that way in drawers, so there are no extra pants or shirts floating around.

With many parents in small apartments sharing closets with their kids, having a well-edited wardrobe is especially important. One organizer suggests taking everything out of your closet that you wouldn't pack for a one-month trip. Out-of-season clothes can be stored under a bed, or in an attic.