Living Large in a Small Home – Tips for Small Space Living

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More of us live in smaller homes due to affordability and practicality. Here are some small space living tips to make the most of your space.

As Australians, we love our big houses – four bedrooms, a study, a guest room, ensuites, an entertainment area and a formal living room, a backyard with plenty of lawn…

Instead, we (two adults, two kids) live in a three-bedroom townhouse – not super-small, but a lot smaller than your average home and with no backyard.

I’ve had people come to my house and say, ‘I don’t know how you live like this; I could never live in a house this small.’

Gee, thanks, it’s not that bad.

A fellow school mum told me once that they were going to live in a ‘tiny’ home while they built their ‘real’ home. I gushed about watching tiny home shows on YouTube, and she said, ‘oh no, by tiny, I mean three bedrooms, one bathroom.’

Um, since when is a three-bedroom home not a real house?

The tides are turning on the big house, no yard trend.

Affordability, practicality, environmental concerns and an increasingly urban population are shifting towards smaller homes.

This has some benefits and challenges and requires clever planning and construction (like soundproofing).

Benefits of Small Space Living

Let’s look at the benefits of small-space living first.

  • a smaller home is usually cheaper to purchase
  • a smaller mortgage reduces debt stress
  • the less space you have to heat and cool, the less your energy bill
  • there is less cleaning to do
  • there is less maintenance, saving money and time
  • if you live under a corporate body, they take care of major external and structural repairs
  • you have to share (yes, this is a benefit! sharing seems to be a forgotten skill these days)
  • apartments and townhouses are generally closer to amenities and public transport, reducing or eliminating the need for two vehicles, saving a considerable amount of money
  • being closer to work means less time commuting, and more time with family
  • you’re forced to keep stuff to a minimum, saving you money on crap you don’t need
  • you spend a lot more time enjoying public spaces

Challenges to Small Space Living

If you have a growing family, small-space living can present challenges you don’t get in larger homes.

Our lounge room is so small we have to move furniture around every night to eat at the dining table.

If I do a big cook-up for the week, I often have to put dirty pans on the stairs to make space on the kitchen bench.

My work desk is in the lounge room. It’s not unusual for me to juggle client work while my son is watching TV right next to me and my daughter is trying to talk to me.

  • lockdown was particularly hard for those living in small spaces with no yard (hopefully, we never have to go through that again)
  • lack of storage and counter space; families generate a lot of stuff, and it can be hard to find storage space for it all
  • getting some private alone room can be difficult
  • no home office space if you work from home
  • finding space for large projects is hard, and you can’t leave projects lying around
  • if you live in a built-up area, parking can be a problem
  • noise can be an issue (although this can be an issue anywhere you’ve got crappy neighbours).

Small Space Living is an Artform

One important concept in art is negative space – the space around the primary objects and the shape that negative space takes.

What does art theory have to do with small-space living?

Often what we lack isn’t space but the ability to perceive the space we have in a problem-solving way. We fail to see the negative (or, in this case, the underutilised) space.

Think vertical space. Hanging space. Wall space. Roof space. Dead space. The unused space under the bed. On the landing. Even up the stairs.

This was temporary when our house flooded, but they are not in the way.

Think floating shelves. Hooks. Ceiling racks.

The aim isn’t to fill every negative space because that would be claustrophobic. The aim is to creatively maximise the space you have while strategically minimising the stuff you have.

More Space or Less Clutter?

When you look at the things you own, you might be surprised how much stuff you have that never gets used.

Despite decluttering regularly and getting rid of unwanted stuff, I still come across things I realise we no longer use or need, not to mention all the free things we have picked up off the side of the road over the years.

And it’s amazing how much space you can free up once you get rid of all that clutter.

Living in a small space forces you to think about the clutter you bring into your house, saving you money and time organising and caring for all that clutter.

Before looking at more storage, organisation strategies, or a bigger home, it’s worth having a serious declutter first. You might just find a whole heap of extra space.

One tip is to digitise as much as is practical. Instead of having a filing cabinet, digitise your files. Instead of keeping DVDs, use a streaming service. Books can be read on Kindle or borrowed from the library. Music and games can be streamed or downloaded. Recipes can be found online.

Multi-Purpose Space and Multi-Functional Furniture

Seeing space as multi-purpose rather than for a single activity expands your space.

For example, we realised that we have whole rooms that aren’t being used for ten hours during the day, even when we’re home. We ‘converted’ our garage into a living, storage, games, washing, and craft room.

Once I started looking, I saw wasted space all around us, like the bedroom – another room that is only used at night. With some organising, that space can be used day and night for different purposes.

When it comes to multi-functional and space-saving furniture, there are a lot of nifty solutions on the market. Consider:

  • beds with built-in storage
  • lounges, coffee tables and ottomans with built-in storage
  • dining table benches or window seats with storage
  • hutches used as homework or office space that can be closed to hide the mess
  • extendable dining tables
  • bookcase with a fold-down table
  • pull-out sofa
  • lounge side tables and bedside tables with storage
  • bunkbeds
  • loft bed with integrated storage (my kids would love one of these)
  • foldable chairs
  • Fold-down beds, futons, daybeds

But you don’t need specially designed furniture for it to be multi-functional.

The dining table, for instance. Not just for dining, it can be used as an office desk, a sewing table, a craft space, a storage table, an extra cooking bench, and a cubby house.

Tips for Making Your Small Space Feel Bigger

I lived in a college dorm room when I went to university, and everyone who visited said my room seemed bigger than the others.

It wasn’t; I just organised the furniture to maximise the floor space and give the feeling it was bigger.

Here are some tips for making a small space feel bigger:

  • arrange the furniture around the edges of the room to leave empty floor space to move around in
  • use furniture that fits the area rather than bulky, oversized furniture
  • Let in as much natural light as you can – sheer curtains help maintain privacy while letting in natural light
  • let storage like bookshelves go all the way to the ceiling – this maximises storage and draws the eye up, making the space feel bigger
  • but to give the illusion of spaciousness, ditching the curtains and rugs can help
  • add plants and greenery for a touch of nature
  • use light coloured, plain, coordinating walls and furnishings to make the home feel light and bright
  • use furniture with exposed legs
  • use strategically placed mirrors to give the impression of depth and spaciousness
  • keep the space tidy and uncluttered

Tips for Maintaining Privacy and Sanity in a Small Space

Private space and being able to escape the hubbub and spend time alone are essential for the well-being of adults and kids alike. As an introvert, I struggle if I haven’t had enough alone time.

If there’s one thing that makes small-space living easier, it’s a good pair of headphones for everyone.

When everyone uses headphones, you can escape the sounds of questionable music choices or the sounds of monsters dying in Diablo III. And if your neighbours are on the other side of cardboard walls, they will also appreciate the use of headphones.

It’s important for kids and adults to escape distractions and focus. When space is limited, headphones can help.

The downside to headphones is the potential hearing damage they can cause, so it’s a balancing act, especially with kids. Kids’ headphones and many devices have noise limits, which can help.

Other tips for maintaining privacy include:

  • room dividers, especially ones that incorporate storage
  • a cheaper alternative to room dividers is hanging internal curtains
  • using closets as private nooks, especially big ones under stairs
  • Letting everyone have a space they can call their own, decorate as they like and that others can’t intrude on. That might be a corner of a bedroom if it’s a shared bedroom, but everyone needs a space to call their own. For me, it’s my work desk, and I get cranky if anyone dumps stuff on my desk.
  • using a bed tent or hanging bed canopy
  • creating a hidey-hole using a clothes rack
  • teaching kids (and adults) to respect closed doors

Sometimes what we need aren’t bigger solutions but better solutions. If the alternative is upsizing to a larger house, then decluttering and reinventing the space you have can potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars in mortgage interest repayments on that bigger home, not to mention the extra costs of maintaining it.

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  1. Emailed from Babara,

    “with regard to using space more constructively: treads (not risers) on staircases can be removed and replaced using hinges at the rear side. they can then be lifted by the overhang and the interior ‘space’ becomes storage for all sorts of small items. on an average staircase of twelve (in the USA) stairs that’s a lot of unused space.
    a shelf completely around a room at the level of the top of the windows and door also provides a load of space for attractive baskets and boxes filled with ‘stuff’. can you tell we lived in a very small house with two children at one time?”

  2. Hey Melissa,
    Just ‘found’ your blog through Rhonda at Down to Earth. Yay! Am very excited and will be trawling through your archives! I have 3 young children and am a stay-at-home mum so I am always interested in ways to live happily but more simply. Good on you for blogging and enjoy your pregnancy, Emma.

    1. Hi and welcome! Hope you find the blog useful. Enjoyed looking through your farm picutures on your blog, reminds me of the scenery around where I grew up (although I was a townie too).

  3. I certainly agree that there is no need for a big house. After 6 years in a 200m2 house we have just downsized to a 78m2 flat. Got rid of a lot of stuff we didn’t need.

    One source of info I regularly read it the TINY HOUSE BLOG: http://tinyhouseblog.com/

    Lots of posts about people living in small spaces

    1. Thanks Brian, interesting blog! I’ve seen a couple of the houses on Treehugger. I love the creativity needed to work with small spaces!

  4. Hi Melissa, this post resounded with me! I have more kids than bedrooms – not common these days. Might I add small houses have a smaller environmental impact. I certainly don’t have ‘being organized in a small space’ down pat, but wouldn’t have it any other way! I love new small space ideas so thank you for sharing.

    1. Hi Linda, very true about the reduced environmental impact of small houses! I don’t have being organised down pat either, but I’m working on it! :)

  5. We are planning a rebuilding on our property. Just a 3 bedroom place, with a some multi purpose zones.

    Friends are horrified when they find out that there will be no parents retreat, kids retreat etc. Normally we love a guest bedroom due to family being interstate, but we have worked out a way to incorporate one into the craft/library/study zone.

    My sister had a gorgeous book on living in small spaces. Wish I had borrowed/kept it ;)

    1. Parent’s retreat….now that would be nice :). I substitute with the lock on the bathroom door and and iPod with earphones lol.

  6. We moved to a smaller house earlier this year & it is great! and it keeps getting better as we restore things to working order. The bid house we had before used to depress me & I always felt overwhelmed by it, especially when it came to cleaning!
    We now have a bigger yard & spend more time outdoors & doing projects, which is better than just being inside all the time.
    Thanks for an enjoyable post.

    1. Thanks Karen. I find our house gets better too, the more we work on making it suit us.

  7. Thankyou Mel, another great post/ wealth of ideas. Love the stair library. Might I ask, do you have a backyard? Do you count that as an extra room? I would love a part “B” post about outdoor space use. (or a round up of the stuff you already have…just remembered you’ve already shown your outdoor space on the compost post.)

    Emma, welcome to Frugal and thriving, AWESOME isn’t it :)

    Barbara, thanks for the stair storage idea :)

    1. Hi Rachel,

      A backyard is the one thing I would really, really like!! Especially as the little fella gets bigger. It’s something I miss from my childhood. A smaller house with a decent backyard would be perfect.

  8. http://www.ikea.com/aa/en/catalog/products/20176376/ I just wanted to add these make a great gift idea (under $10) for people living in small spaces or you could make your own using the basic idea. I like to add a photo. A practical and cute framed photo with storage :)

    I am also a big tea drinker and find this can display what teas I have for easy access and decoration on my fridge. Instead of having a huge list of choices I just show guests the fridge and tell them to take their pick. These are also great for holding tablets out of reach of children. Stationary items (out of harms way) and so on.

    I find some inspiration on you tube, but most of the stuff is directed at very organised and tidy singles. As you know Mel the older and more mobile children get the less “up high” storage is available.

    1. Thats a great idea. I never think to look on YouTube for stuff. And yes, lol, I’m running out of up high places.

    1. My ‘ideal’ laundry solution would involve, ahem, other members of the household picking up their dirty clothes and putting them in the wash themselves :). But yes, we too have laundry everywhere some days.

  9. BarbiBradbury says:

    Our house was our starter home but will be out home now until we can no longer climb stairs lol! I always wanted a bigger house, I begged for it, considered worse areas, needed it craved it… but we can’t afford it nor need it. I have learnt how to de-clutter, re organise, keep things tidier and now love our home. We live in a 84m2 townhouse (including staircase).

    1. Us too, a starter home, that will be the family home for a few years to come at least. And it’s grown on us.