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How to Live Big in a Small Space

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By: Michele Lerner

While tiny houses capture the imagination of many people, the National Association of Home Builders reported that the median square feet of a new single-family house rose to 2,436 during the first quarter of 2018. But for many first-time buyers on a budget and for downsizing baby boomers, a smaller single-family house, townhouse or condo is both affordable and desirable. Buyers of smaller homes can take some lessons from tiny house dwellers to maximize the serenity and function of their home and to make it feel as large as possible.

When they move into a newly built home, homeowners may be surprised by the way the same square feet – or less square feet – than their previous home seems bigger.

“Today’s homes seem larger even when they’re not because so many walls have been removed and the floor plans are open,” says Louis Conrad, president of Surge Homes in Houston. “At the same time, houses today are more efficient than ever and are designed with every inch to be functional.”

Homebuyers can look for homes with features, both standard and optional, that maximize their space.

Floor plans and features for functionality

Lengthening sightlines and increasing natural light make rooms feel bigger and brighter, but sometimes window placement needs to be adjusted to accommodate the need for furniture.

“Everyone wants big windows but sometimes in a smaller home you won’t have enough wall space if you make the windows floor-to-ceiling,” says Conrad. “You may be better off raising the window above the height of your couch so you can place it against a wall in a smaller room.”

A smaller house is easier to live in when storage is maximized in every possible space. 

“In our Del Webb active adult division, we offer extra-depth garages that buyers can use for a workbench or for storage shelves,” says Rhett Yeary, a senior designer for Pulte Group in Dallas. “We also offer the option to add a full-size staircase to finished attic storage space above the garage.”

The garage entrance is an ideal place for functional storage that eliminates clutter in the rest of your house, says Heather Martin, designer studio manager for Fielding Homes in Charlotte.

“Efficiency is extremely important in a smaller home and what we call the ‘family foyer drop zone’ works hard,” says Martin. “We install cubbies with hooks and beadboard on the wall that makes it look like a piece of furniture and a bench with more cubbies below.”

Pulte provides an “every day entry” space in nearly every one of their models, says Yeary.

“First-time buyers often build their own bench for the space or buy an IKEA piece to fit in, while at a higher price point we build in a bench with cubbies and storage above and below; a base cabinet with a counter for a charging station and a coat closet,” he says. 

Customized closets are another smart solution for smaller homes. Pulte adds storage under stairs wherever possible for items like sports equipment and holiday decorations, and offers optional cabinets and clothing rods in their laundry rooms.

“It’s important to think vertically, in cubic feet, not just square feet,” says Conrad. “You can add shelves up high in closets and bathrooms and store things under your bed. You can even put closed cabinets in living areas to store extra linens or your winter clothes.”

Walk-in closets often have wasted space, says Conrad, who recommends customizing closets based on an inventory of your clothes and how you like to store them. While some builders customize closets for you, it’s also possible to add your own shelves and extra rods with less costly items from Target, IKEA and the Container Store.

“Our linen closets usually have three shelves, so people can store a vacuum there, but we also offer a five-shelf option so they can be personalized,” says Yeary.

Kitchen by Highland Homes
Plan Glenhurst kitchen in Round Rock, Texas by Highland Homes

While Yeary says it’s best to pare down your possessions before you move into a smaller home, particularly in the kitchen, he also recommends opting for extra features such as a turntable in a corner cabinet and a cabinet with extra drawers to reduce clutter. 

“Some of our buyers like a cabinet over the refrigerator and some don’t, but it’s one more place to add storage at either the same depth as the other cabinets or extra-deep to match the refrigerator depth,” says Yeary. 

A planning center or small built-in desk in the kitchen can function as a home office or homework spot and eliminate the need for a desk in another room, says Martin. 

Buyers can also choose a center island with functioning cabinets and shelves for cookbooks or other items for extra storage, suggests Martin. An island with space for seating can eliminate the need for a breakfast table.

Folding tables that can be expanded only when needed are a good option in a smaller kitchen or dining area to keep them feeling more open most of the time.

Furnishing your home to make it feel bigger

While eliminating clutter with good storage options helps keep your house organized and serene, color schemes and furniture choices can also make your space feel larger.

“Light, neutral colors like pale gray and creamy beige walls and white or light gray cabinets and counters make rooms feel more open and larger,” says Martin.

 “Natural or light wood floors are more popular now, too, because they don’t show dirt and make a room look bigger than the dark-stained floors people were choosing for awhile.”

Keeping scale in mind can make a difference in a smaller home, but you don’t need to miniaturize everything, says Conrad. 

“Space-efficient furniture like couches and beds with narrow frames and a smaller dining table and chairs make a room more comfortable,” says Conrad, “but you can add a mirror with a big frame or some big artwork. Minimalist furniture with a big painting looks great.”

A little bit of strategic planning as you build your house and when you move into it goes a long way toward living big in a small space.

Michele Lerner is an award-winning freelance writer, editor and author who has been writing about real estate, personal finance and business topics for more than two decades. You can find her on Google+.
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