Survival Tips for Small-Space Living

Tips and tricks to help space-starved downtown dwellers stay organized

Living downtown gives you easy access to cultural events, great food and public transit, but higher property prices mean you'll likely end up with a relatively small space to come home to. With some organization, however, you can survive (and even thrive) with meager square footage.

This small but well-designed backyard is a great place to enjoy the city view.

Conquer Clutter

There's nothing that makes a small space feel cramped more than having too much stuff. Curbing your clutter before you move in will keep you from getting overwhelmed on moving day.

How do you choose what to keep and what to pitch? Don Aslett, author of Clutter's Last Stand: It's Time to De-Junk Your Life, says to give each item the same test.

"How long you've had it, who gave it to you, how much it cost -- all that's irrelevant," says Aslett. "Just ask yourself 'Does this enhance my life right now?'"

If you haven't touched it in two years, it goes. Ditch anything you have in duplicate. If you have children who live elsewhere, tell them to pick up their stuff or it'll get sent to the curb. Leave behind notorious clutter items like unfinished projects, unread books and paint and cleaning products that are more than half empty.

Once you've sorted out the keepers, have a yard sale. Remember, the more you sell the less you have to pack and pay to move. Be willing to accept lower offers for those hard-to-sell items, especially if it is something that will end up collecting dust in your new home. Consider donating unsold items to your favorite charity.

Make Sure Your Furniture Fits the Space

Organizing a small space starts well before you move in. When living in small spaces, it's important to find furniture that is in scale with the size of the room. Start preparing for your move by measuring your furniture to see it if fits.

"Large homes can easily accommodate oversized furnishings, but a smaller space will feel cramped and stuffy," says Monica Ricci, founder of Atlanta-based Catalyst Organizing Solutions.

If you're moving from a larger home, you may also have too many pieces of furniture. Texas designer Dawn Burns-Pratt, ASID, recommends using masking tape on the floor to visualize the size of each piece. This will also help you think about how you'll arrange the furniture in your new pad.

If you've got bulky or extra pieces, sell them through consignment or classifieds and use the money toward buying smaller stuff that won't overwhelm your new square footage. Tailored furniture tends to look better in a small space than big, overstuffed pieces do. Also, choose furniture with visible legs to establish a more open, airy feel. But don't fall victim to "doll house syndrome" -- buying furnishings that are too small to be comfortable or practical.

Figure Our Your Priorities

Because small spaces are very limited, you need to figure out your priorities and allocate accordingly. Some people need a desk area, but not a dining area. Some people want a living area and would prefer a bed that folds up. Make the space work for your needs and don't hold yourself traditional dwelling arrangements. After all, it's your home.

Use It, Don't Lose It!

When you're living in a small space, every square foot matters, so plan your storage scheme carefully to make sure you're using every inch. Think about how often you use each item, and draw a diagram that shows where each item will go. The less often you need to access an item, the less accessible it needs to be.

Living in small spaces presents two options: Building up or building under. Consider using tall bookshelves for a more dramatic effect, or take advantage of the space underneath your furniture to store things you'd love to keep out of sight. Need a place for your out-of-season clothes? Banish the under-bed dust bunnies in favor of a storage container. When Santa isn't in town, store your Christmas decorations on high shelves.

Get creative to maximize your storage space. Multipurpose furniture -- like a coffee table with hidden storage -- is a must for a small room.

Be sure to make a list of what you do put in long-term storage so that you won't lose track of what you do have and end up buying duplicates.

Use Color

One of the best ways to expand a space is with very clear colors, says designer Mark McCauley, ASID, author of Interior Design for Idiots.

"Choose a palette of sharper colors as opposed to duller ones. Sharp as in bright chintzes mixed with colorful plaids or really hot reds and electric blues, yellows and greens."

While some designers frown on the idea of painting one wall a different or deeper color than the others, it can work wonders in a small space, says designer and actress Libby Langdon, a contributor to HGTV's Small Space, Big Style.

"Don't be afraid of bold colors," she says. "Sometimes a darker color on one wall can make it recede, making the space look larger."

Just as different wall colors can divide your apartment into different work areas, different shades of the same color can unite all the rooms, as can a pattern that's repeated. "In a small space, in particular, these little touches -- the pillow that matches the lampshade fabric, the style of the mirror that echoes a side table -- can all add up to a cohesive space," McCauley says.

"Apartment dwellers can get color on their walls by painting big canvases, hanging fabric or using wall decals," she says. And when you're ready for a larger space? You can take your color with you and go.

Separate Spaces

Lofts typically do not have interior walls, so be creative to avoid a "bowling alley" affect -- furniture shoved against the walls with a long space in the middle.

Create different "zones" in your apartment by grouping furniture. Pulling the furniture off the wall and creating conversation groups will actually make your apartment seem larger. If you want to make some areas more private, strategically placed shelving or decorative screens can create privacy.

Don't worry, you can take it with you.

Accessories, fabrics, artwork, rugs, light fixtures, drapes, mirrors -- they all add wonderful style to a rented space and are all wonderfully portable. Even bare walls can be dressed and undressed, with moldings that you add for architectural distinction or stick-on wallpapers and decals. Even if you're not renting, temporary decorations allow you to personalize your home quickly and change it on a whim.

Items that stimulate the senses can also contribute to making an impersonal space personal, says L.A. designer and artist Elizabeth Moore. "Every home, even an apartment, needs an aspect of water. It adds a feng shui kind of vibe that's very soothing," she says. "In an apartment you can have a little fountain. That nice trickling sound is so musical. Fish tanks are good, too." And when it's time to move, pack up your little waterworld and go.

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