Family life in less than 1,000 square feet
Squeezing four or more people into a small apartment or tiny bungalow isn't easy, but the families who do it say the payoffs can be worth it. Here’s how they manage.
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."
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.
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.
Think outside the box
A small space can often be reconfigured to accommodate the needs of a growing family. When Elise and Bryan Miller had their son, Ry, four years ago, they quickly converted the bedroom of their 650-square-foot Brooklyn apartment to his nursery.
They took over the large, formal dining room for their bedroom, painting it a sunny yellow and using curtains to hide clothes storage.
There's no rule that says bedrooms must by 12 feet by 12 feet. Larger master bedrooms can often be divided with a wall, to create another room for a child. Some couples accomplish this by using a couple of armoires or shelving units as room dividers.
Finding a space for baby is even easier, many apartment dwellers say. Some people Solomon has met even put a nursery into a large bedroom closet, complete with a small crib and dresser/changing table. "It can be more convenient and feel more safe to be close together," Solomon says.
And just because you have a small apartment doesn't mean you can't accommodate guests. One family in Solomon's book built a small loft across the upper part of their staircase to create a sleeping nook for visitors. And some furniture stores sell ottomans that roll out into a twin bed.
A place to put your stuff
One of the most valuable tools for families in small spaces is smart storage. Finding ways to get your stuff off the floor and out of the center of the room helps to make rooms feel bigger.
In the Millers' case, a series of built-ins in their prewar apartment helped to stash toys and electronics. The medicine chest in the bathroom was moved to the wall of the hallway to accommodate shelves with Elise's collection of modern and antique toiletries. Bryan also built a tiny, triangle-shaped desktop to wedge a small computer into one corner of the bedroom.
Some parents with multiple kids in a room say they divide up dressers, giving each kid a drawer or two and a sectioned-off area of the closet, as well as space under their bed to put a drawer or boxes. Bigger kids can keep their action figures or toys out of reach of younger siblings by storing them on shelves mounted higher up on the walls.
With three kids in each bedroom, 6kidsmom,a poster on Modernmom.com, says her family's toys are mostly kept in the basement of her 1,000-square-foot bungalow in totes that are stacked in shelves along a wall.
Robertson and many others had to go vertical with their storage, putting things up on high shelves near the ceiling, or stacking books on narrow shelves. "I put pegs on the rafters and hung things in baskets," Robertson says. When she needed something, she would just take a big pole and get it down.
Likewise, many parents with small apartments make liberal use of big hooks, using them to store coats, clothes and towels and hang tricycles and other large toys from the ceiling.
Many of those who gave up their bedroom put in Murphy beds in the living room, or used a sofa sleeper with a storage ottoman or coffee table with drawers for more storage.
Solomon even elevated her living-room floor 14 inches with a hinged opening on one side, so she could use the space underneath for storage of things she doesn't want her baby to touch.
Space can be saved inside cabinets by using bowls, spoons, cups and other things that nest, or plastic bowls that can be flattened.
Furniture can also be scaled down to fit a smaller place. Stores like New York City’s Tiny Living (Tinyliving.com) sell small lamps, fold-up coffee tables and drop-leaf dining room tables.
Clean up, clean up, clean up
Keeping a small house tidy keeps it from becoming claustrophobic, Solomon says. If everyone is sharing the same patch of living room, there can't be toys, clothes and games strewn across it. "You have to pick up after yourself," she says. For Robertson and Laban, that means having their kids pack up all their toys right after they are finished playing with them.
"We don't mind that he's out there playing," with all of his Legos on the rug, says Laban. "But it all has to go away again."
To keep a handle on clutter when she lived in her small house, Robertson also kept a box by the door for everything that was going out, from backpacks and purses to clothing that was being donated.
Each child had his or her own space at the kitchen table, and Robertson would stack stray belongings there for each child to clear before sitting down to eat dinner.
When the squeeze is too tight
For the Millers, the lack of space for Bryan's guitar practice and Elise's writing ultimately led the couple to leave their small nest. "There was no refuge and no sense of peace," says Bryan. "I think there's a certain pride in being able" to live in such a small space, he says. "But there's also a lot of suffering involved."
In the past couple of weeks, the couple moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia to a 2,400-square-foot home with a backyard. The breaking point came, they say, when they were trying to help their new baby sleep through the night in another room and the constant crying was waking up older brother Ry. "She wound up in our bed for way too long," he says.
Mia, a poster on Apartment Therapy, puts it this way: "Bottom line, before (children) start walking, it is a piece of cake to live in a tiny space. It's after they start walking that you really have to evaluate your setup and make some hard decisions with your place and your things."
But, Mia says, all in all, she would always choose to rent smaller places than she could afford because smaller apartments are easier to clean; they foster closeness among family members; they save them money; and they allow her family to live in better neighborhoods.
While the small house or apartment may just be a stage for many people, it's one that's often looked back on fondly. Robertson, 55, has now moved her family into a 1,400-square-foot house her husband built on the same property as the guesthouse. But one day, she says, she and her husband might just move back into the small house and give the larger place to one of her kids. "I don't know how I would have handled it if I didn't know that we were going to build another house later," she says. "But when my kids were small, I think it was a benefit. Little children want to be close to you."
Personally, I think houses are just too large today. I mean, WHO needs a 2,400SF McMansion when all you have are 2 kids? I grew up in a family of 8 in a 1,000SF home; 4 boys in one room (trundle and twin bed) and 2 girls in another. We didn't have a ton of shoes and clothing like kids do today, and we spent a lot of time playing outside in the fresh air.
My current home is under 1,000SF. I raised 2 kids who shared a 9 x 10 bedroom and as a result, were great friends. They also spent a lot of time playing outside in the woods and fresh air. Toys were periodically culled as they outgrew things. As for clothing, they grew up with what they needed and hand-me-downs were a given. Like my sister and I, they easily shared a 6' closet and as a result, neither they nor I, are great clothes-horses. Incidentally, my bedroom is 10 x 10 and I fill a measily 3' of closet space.
As my kids entered their teens, it got a bit close at times, but I kept telling myself it's only for a few short years. Well it's been 4 years now since the last one moved out and my house is more than big enough for my husband and I. Best of all, unlike a lot of people today, as we grow older we won't have to face down-sizing simply because we can no longer climb the stairs since there aren't any.
We have around 1000sq ft for our family of 4, with two kids, and would love to have more space, but can't afford it.
Where we live 1000sq ft costs around £325000 ($500000). A 2500 sq ft property would cost 1.25 million dollars!