Living Big in a Small Home
After years of upsizing, Americans are enjoying the benefits of more modest living spaces.
With the average home size declining, owners are cleverly doing more with the square footage they have.
Years before house staging came into vogue as a sales tool, Howard
Hoffman was helping sellers rearrange their furniture to maximize floor
space and enhance a homeâ€™s beauty. Hoffman, GRI, SRESÂ®, now owns Stage
& $ell, a home staging and redesign company in Indianapolis.
Chances are heâ€™ll have a lot more business in the years ahead from
people needing to resize their lives. With baby boomers entering
retirement, young adults delaying marriage, and the economy improving
by fits and starts, Americans are starting to embrace the idea that
less is more when it comes to their square footage. The average size of
a new house decreased last year for the first time in nearly three
"Home buyers have been changing," says Fran Litton, a planner with
Evans Group, an architectural firm in Orlando, Fla. "They still want
the luxury and toys, but theyâ€™re putting them into a smaller space."
Although the average square footage of a new house is still double
what it was in 1960, in the last year, it decreased slightly to 2,215
square feet from a high of 2,277 square feet in 2008, according to data
from the U.S. Census Bureau. While the decrease doesnâ€™t approach
mid-20th century levels, it is the first drop in house size since the
recession of the early 1980s.
Smaller houses can mean bigger challenges for real estate
professionals. "Eighty percent of people appreciate only what they can
see," says Hoffman, who also works as a sales associate with F.C.
Tucker Co. in Indianapolis. "You have to make sure youâ€™re showing them
what youâ€™ve got." That means making sure each room is easily
identified. "Get rid of that desk and computer in the dining room," he
says. "Make sure buyers can see itâ€™s a dining room."
Hoffman also advises clients to remove rugs to show off hardwood
floors and take pictures off the walls. "The less the eye has to
distract it, the bigger a room feels," says Hoffman. "People buy what
they see. If they canâ€™t see the floors or the walls, they wonâ€™t buy the
Interior designer Roberta Lathrop agrees. She tells her clients with
smaller kitchens to clear the counters. "You canâ€™t have all the small
appliances sitting on the counter," says Lathrop, who runs Designs by
Roberta in Belmont, Mich. "It will start looking very cluttered very
Smaller houses require owners to rethink what they have and how they
use things. "If you have a smaller house, maybe you donâ€™t need half a
dozen different pans," she explains. "Maybe a single flat griddle that
you can put over a couple of burners will do."
One of the first tasks she assigns clients is to go through their
stuffâ€”ruthlessly. "We all have too much stuff," she says. "Get rid of
it. If youâ€™re attached to an item, or think maybe youâ€™ll need it, put
it in a box and store it somewhere for six months. Then go back through
Have you used it? Have you even missed it? If not, donate it. Get it out of the house." That goes for clothes as well, she says.Assess Furniture Size
Removing clutter is only one aspect of getting a smaller house ready
to sellâ€”or just living contentedly in it. Some big pieces of furniture,
for example, wonâ€™t fit in modestly sized houses.Â
Â "Take a look at the scale of your furniture, and donâ€™t forget
depth," Lathrop says. "Things can be a lot deeper than you realize, and
all of a sudden, thereâ€™s no room to walk because that deep, comfy chair
you love comes halfway out into the room."
Hoffman frequently asks sellers to remove furniture from rooms that
feel overstuffed. "If youâ€™ve got a huge china cabinet in a small dining
room, itâ€™s distracting," he says. "At least take the hutch off."
The color palette is very important in a smaller house, says Matthew
McNicholas, an architect with MGLM Architects in Chicago. "Loud colors
make a space feel smaller because they jump across the room at you," he
says. "You want the walls and your furniture to recede." That doesnâ€™t
mean everything has to match.Â
"Eliminate the high contrasts," he says. Lathrop says the same
colors should move throughout the house. "Blend colors in more medium
tones," she says.
McNicholas suggests installing a single type of flooring throughout
the house. "Using the same color carpet or the same hardwood pulls your
eye along from room to room, and maximizes your perception of space,"
Strategic lighting is another way to create the illusion of more
space, the experts say. "Use corner uplighting and a room will feel
much more open," Hoffman says. In fact, he adds, make sure the house is
flooded with as much light as possible. That means trimming bushes or
trees that block windows and tying back or removing heavy draperies
that close in a room.
Another way to maximize space is to install as much covert storage
as possible, such as pressing the furniture into double duty. Hoffman
encourages clients with children to buy large wicker baskets that
function as coffee tables and toy storage.Â
When selling a smaller house, he tells clients to keep a couple of
large laundry baskets handy. Then, if they have to leave in a hurry for
a showing, they can pack the baskets and take the clutter with them to
Before purchasing any furniture or accessory, itâ€™s critical to map
out a room. "That way you wonâ€™t discover you canâ€™t open the door to the
storage compartment in your new end tables," Lathrop says. She
recommends putting a small console in the entry or living room and
buying bookcases with a cabinet section.
And then thereâ€™s the closets: Clean them out. Kay Courtney, CRSÂ®,
GRI, a broker in Grand Rapids, Mich., encourages her clients to remove
half the items from their closets to get ready for showings.Â
"If the closet is overstuffed, it says to a potential buyer,
â€˜Thereâ€™s not enough storage space in this house.â€™ "And just to live
comfortably, she recommends storing off-season clothing somewhere other
than the closet, such as under the bed. And donâ€™t forget the basement.Â
Courtney says adding a few inexpensive cabinets, even to unfinished
basements, can create lots more storage for off-season clothes and
infrequently used items from the kitchen.
Hoffman reminds his sellers not to forget the outside of a house.
High bushes, overgrown trees, lots of outdoor furniture, and other yard
paraphernalia can make a house look smaller. "People want the ideal,"
he says. "If you donâ€™t have it, create it." Installing flower boxes or
hanging a swing on the front porch adds a touch of charm and coziness
to a smaller house.
For the more adventurous, McNicholas offers a few easy structural
changes that give the illusion of more space. Higher ceilings make a
room feel larger. In an existing house, building out a small soffit
along the edge of the ceiling, creating a tray effect, tricks the eye
into thinking the center of the room is higher than the edges.Â
"It feels bigger," McNicholas says. And lowering the ceiling in a
hallway makes the rooms off it feel bigger and grander. "Even a few
inches makes a big difference when you walk into the room and get the
sense of that extra height," he says.
Buyers also may need some extra coaching when looking at smaller
houses. "You have to show them how they can repurpose rooms, like
splitting that fourth bedroom they donâ€™t need to accommodate a master
bathroom and closet," Hoffman says. Itâ€™s not uncommon for him to bring
along an architect or remodeling expert to help potential buyers see
"People want the perfect house immediately," he says. "When theyâ€™re
buying a smaller house, you have to prep them. Let them know they may
have to make a few changes, but that itâ€™s not scary or overly
He also likes to highlight the benefits of smaller houses. "They
tend to be closer to the city, which means easy access to public
transportation," Hoffman says. "And theyâ€™re often single floor, too,
which can be useful in so many ways, from cleaning to just getting
Another benefit of a modestly sized house is that it forces families
to spend time together, says McNicholas. "When everyone has a room to
be entertained in, youâ€™re not interacting much," he says. "When you
have a smaller space, it puts you together. You can rediscover your
But buyers do have to think differently. "It takes more thought and
planning to live in a smaller space," Lathrop says. "You have to think
about what you need, how you can be more efficient, and where can you
add storage." The key is not to be afraid and to embrace the benefits,
she says. "Itâ€™s much easier to take care of, and your electric bill
will be lower. Whatâ€™s not to love?"
If space is at a premium, home owners need storage thatâ€™s both
functional and beautiful. These days, itâ€™s not hard to find. "Theyâ€™re
coming out with wonderful furniture with storage built right in," says
interior designer Roberta Lathrop. "There are storage ottomans, end
tablesâ€”even chairs with places to store your remote."
When looking for pieces that can double as hidden storage space, pick designs that donâ€™t skimp on the details.Â
"Traditional details like crown molding or base moldings make a room
feel grander," says Matthew McNicholas, an architect with MGLM
Architects in Chicago. The same can be applied to furniture. "A room is
nicer when the details in it are nice," he says. "The trend in bigger
houses is to use less expensive materials because you need so much of
it." In a smaller space, itâ€™s easier to upgrade the materials for a
more elegant feel.
Donâ€™t forget "found" storage, or space that isnâ€™t obvious. Home
owners can install bed risers, which safely lift a bed five or six
inches to create storage space underneath.Â
Another example: spice risers for kitchen cupboards. The
bleacher-like devices create three times the space of a single cabinet.
Many companies now offer heavy-duty shelving that attaches to the
ceiling in garages, basements, and laundry rooms.
Small closets call for big ideas when it comes to maximizing space.
Some are simple and relatively inexpensive, such as adding a second
hanging rod or storing off-season clothes under the bed. Experts
suggest adding a shelf or two above the rods, hooks on the back of
doors and bedside tables with lots of drawers. Decorative hooks on the
walls can be used for purses or belts and ties.
Of course, the simplest way to create more closet space is to reduce
whatâ€™s going into it. "When it comes to closets, we just donâ€™t realize
how much we really have," says interior designer Roberta Latham. She
suggests trying on each piece of clothing to see what fits and what
If it doesnâ€™t fit, donate it. If something needs mending or is stainedâ€”and has been that way more than six monthsâ€”get rid of it.
"Do an inventory and determine how much space you need for tops,
bottoms, shoes, and purses," she says. "Then identify your living
habits. Do you like to reach in and grab, or do you prefer everything
neatly folded away?" That can help determine what type of storage you
Target the closet doors. Replacing a sliding closet door with a
regular double door can add six inches of hanging space. Changing to
bi-fold or pocket doors can add even more space, Lathrop says.
Architect Matthew McNicholas says to look for empty or dead space to add built-in bookshelves or cabinets.
Other than the bedroom, the kitchen is probably the room most in
need of storage space. "There are so many new, more efficient ways of
storing things," Lathrop says. "There are rollouts [in the cabinets],
spice racks, all sorts of things."Â
In terms of design, Lathrop says the trend is toward "a European
look" that has more efficient storage than the traditional American
cabinets. "The kitchen is one of the main meeting areas in a house,"
she says. "You should think about how youâ€™re going to use the space and
what you need to store."
Coat Rack A line of decorative hooks hung on the
wall can neatly store coats, purses, and scarves. Many sets come with a
shelf on top, creating even more space.
Trundle Drawers For storing off-season clothes,
large or odd-sized toys, or anything else that will fit under the bed
or under a table. Be sure to look for rolling casters.
Trunks Trunks made of metal, wicker, or canvas can function as coffee tables or end tables with loads of storage inside.
Corner Cabinets These shelves slide into corners to
turn dead space into storage. They come in a variety of heights,
widths, and finishes, and many have doors to hide whatâ€™s inside. Try
open, hanging corner shelves for a more modern look.