5 simple ways to make your home feel bigger (© Wilkosz & Way/Corbis)

With home values falling and job losses mounting, Americans are putting their spending habits under the microscope. For would-be homebuyers, that might mean purchasing a smaller house that fits more comfortably into your budget. For homeowners, it could mean putting off plans for that family-room addition. But even if your home has limited space, it doesn’t have to feel cramped, says Sarah Susanka. Instead of expanding the size of the property, Susanka, an architect and author of the best-selling book “The Not So Big House,” says homeowners should make better use of interior space. In an interview with U.S. News, Susanka shared five simple ways that homeowners can make their houses feel bigger without expanding the size of the structure.

1. See it, use it: Often, rooms in American homes are located behind staircases or are otherwise hidden from main thoroughfares. “If you can’t see a room, you tend not to use it,” Susanka says. Leaving one or more rooms unused can make the house feel cramped, since activity is concentrated in a smaller area. “If you can open up the view from the kitchen or the family area to that underutilized space, you will start to use it merely because you can see it,” she says. To open sightlines, Susanka recommends building a “framed opening,” which is usually a foot or two wider than a doorway, into the wall that’s obstructing the view. “If you can’t open the wall completely, you can make an interior window instead,” she says. “That little strategy by itself will make your house both feel and live bigger.”

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2. Diagonal view: Another secret to making a house feel larger is opening up what Susanka calls a “diagonal view,” or a line of vision that extends from one corner of the house to another. To do this, homeowners may need to remove some segments of the wall that’s blocking the line of vision. Once again, you might consider installing a framed opening or an interior window. “It can be a fairly narrow split that allows you to see from one corner to the other,” Susanka says. “I’ve had a lot of people over the years tell me that that little trick has served them extremely well. Their house instantly feels larger because they are able to look along the longest vista that’s available.”

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3. Double duty: Susanka says the floor plans of many of today’s homes have failed to keep pace with changes in lifestyle. For example, many homes still have formal dining and living rooms. “As a residential architect, I learned from my clients that 85 percent of them literally never used their formal living room and only occasionally used their formal dining rooms,” she says. When remodeling or building a home, Susanka suggests combining one living area and a dining area so that the new space can serve both formal and informal functions. “I call it doing double duty,” she says.

Consolidating will free up space that can be used for something else, such as a home office or a media room. If you are really attached to your formal dining room, consider lining it with bookshelves so it can also serve as a library. “Plenty of people have too many books and no place to put them,” Susanka says. “Books are a type of interior décor that can’t be beat.” If you convert a rarely used room into one that’s more suited to everyday use, the entire house will feel more spacious, she says.

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4. Get comfortable: Along the same lines, Susanka says that many American homes are decorated with visually appealing but uncomfortable furniture, especially in formal dining or living rooms. “Nobody is going to sit on that furniture,” she says.

That’s one reason rooms with such furnishings often remain empty, which in turn drives a greater share of household activity into a smaller area of the house. Simply find furniture that’s both comfortable and functional, Susanka recommends. “If you don’t like sitting in it, nobody else is going to like it either,” she says.

5. Vary ceiling heights: Many houses built in the past few decades include a great room, which Susanka describes as an open space that contains an informal living room, an informal dining room and a kitchen. Although such spaces often are expansive, they don’t have anything that distinguishes one activity area from another, so the whole space ends up feeling awkward and ill-fitting, she says: “If there is no contrast between spaces, we end up seeing it all as one large, amorphous nothing.”

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In order to establish some contrast, Susanka recommends adjusting and varying the height of the ceilings. “Maybe a lower ceiling over the kitchen, a medium-height ceiling over the dining area, and the tall ceiling over the living space will give the contrast you need to make the area really begin to work together,” she says. “It often comes as a surprise that by lowering some ceilings to create a hierarchy of activity places, the whole space actually ends up living larger.” Raising a ceiling can be an expensive proposition because it requires changes to the support structure of the house, but “when you lower a ceiling, you are not affecting the structure,” Susanka says, “so it is usually quite easy to do.”