small space living

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small space living

104228_apartment_balcony It has been over thirteen years since I lived in a house.

Since moving from my parents home I’ve lived in a small college (dorm) room (sharing a bathroom with twelve other students); I’ve lived on the floor (literally) sharing a tiny two bedroom unit with two blokes (ahem, and no shower curtain); I’ve shared upmarket units and not-so upmarket units. Now I’m raising a family in a small, three bedroom townhouse.

As a result, I’m intimately familiar with the benefits and specific challenges of small space living.

Benefits of small space living

Like many people, I long for a backyard and a house where the neighbours (and their poor choice in music) are out of earshot. However, our financial reality means medium density living for some years to come. Which brings me to the main benefit of small space living: the cost. Compared to standalone houses in the same location, an apartment or townhouse costs less to purchase upfront, less to rent and less to maintain.

There are other benefits to apartment living.

The smaller the unit, the less space to clean. No second bathroom to scrub or guest room to vacuum, saving you time to do more fun stuff. There is also no lawn to mow or yard to maintain.

When it comes to maintenance and repairs, your unit block may have a building manager to oversee maintenance and many maintenance jobs come under the governance of a body corporate. For example, we just got our fence replaced at the expense of the body corporate. In the very least, a building manager will be able to let maintenance workers into your unit while you are at work, meaning you don’t need to take a day off work just to have your toilet unblocked.

Living in apartments usually means inner city living. You will probably be close to public transport as well as shops, work, entertainment and amenities. Often you can get by completely without a car.

This accessibility means that you can spend less time at home and more time out and about. We don’t have a backyard but we do live right in the centre of town. This means we can (and do) walk to the park a few times a week, walk to the shops, walk to the library and walk to the beach. When I think longingly of a bigger house in the ‘burbs I remember how isolated that would make us.

It’s easier to keep and eye and an ear on the kids.

Your apartment might offer shared facilities such as high speed cable, a pool or a gym, which you can use for free. If you live in a stand alone house, you either have to pay to install these facilities or pay to use them somewhere else.

The smaller space means that it is cheaper to heat and cool, and you use less lighting. Sometimes you can even keep your unit warm with the residual heat from your neighbour’s heater! Oh yeah, and that tiny hot water heater under the kitchen sink means no long, hot showers, saving you money there too (ok, maybe that’s a challenge as well).

Finally, less space means you have less room to store clutter, which prevents you from wasting money on buying it in the first place. And a smaller space is cheaper to furnish.

Small space living is becoming the new green, a response to space stealing McMansions. Less space = less stuff, less energy consumption, less cleaning and less impact on the environment.

As I write this, I’m starting to look back with nostalgia on our little unit in inner Sydney. Then I remember the specific challenges of small space living, specifically, not a lot of space for all our stuff. But I have to admit, the solutions got me a little exited as well. Time to reassess our own living space again.

Tips for making the most of small space living

Before buying or signing a lease on a unit, you need to do a little detective work to make sure your neighbours aren’t 3am Metallica groupies. Haunt the place at different times of the day and night and on different days of the week to get a feel for the neighbours. Also, consider what the walls are made of: I have found the cement walls of a high rise are extremely good at keeping the neighbour’s noise out compared to the thin, fibro walls of townhouses.

Keep small spaces clean and clear of clutter. While there is less cleaning overall, small spaces really highlight any mess and there are no spare cupboards to toss the clutter in when the visitors arrive. For this reason, to keep your small space liveable, you need to keep on top of clutter.

Minimise. This is so much easier today than it was when I was starting out at college. CD and DVD collections can be digitised rather than taking up precious space, you can play music on an iPod docking station rather than a full stereo system. You can also watch TV on your laptop and use a hand held vacuum rather than a big, clunky thing.

Get small, multifunctional furniture. Fold out futons, lounges with storage below the cushion, fold away chairs and tables, cardboard boxes that double as tables and storage units, chests for coffee tables. If space is at a premium, avoid large lounge suits that take up all the space, instead opt for a smaller lounge for yourself and fold away chairs for guests.

Arrange what furniture you have around the edges of the room. When I lived at college people lamented that I got a bigger room than they did. The truth is that all the rooms were exactly the same size, but I arranged the bed and desk around the edge of the room, leaving plenty of free space in the middle. This gives the illusion of space.

Speaking of illusions of space, neutral coloured walls and decor and lots of light also give the illusion of space. Let as much light in as you can and let it reflect off plain white walls. Add a splash of colour (and your personality) here and there with decor items and pictures. A mirror will also make a room look bigger.

Think vertical when it comes to storage. Opt for tall bookshelves rather than wide ones. Hang stuff on hooks. Store things above the kitchen cupboards. If you have a lack of storage space, make a display of your crockery, linen or other things you usually store.

Divide your space into mini-rooms or functional areas, the TV and stereo in one corner (the entertainment room), the bookshelf and a pile of cushions in another corner (the lounge room), the desk in another corner (the dining room).

Earphones for each occupant is a great investment in a small space. That way you can each listen to your own weirdly annoying taste in music without driving everyone you live with up the wall.

If there are many people living in a small living space, designate areas that are theirs to leave projects half completed. This might be a bedroom, half a bedroom, under the bed or a corner of the dining room table. Project bags and boxes (and puzzle mats) also come in handy for works in progress.

It takes a certain amount of creativity and a lot of character to cohabitate in a small space. But that’s what being frugal is all about.

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