NYC Downsize: What to Know About Making a Home in a Small Apartment


Sometimes, life has a funny way of making us learn to travel a little lighter.

There are plenty of reasons throughout our lives we might choose to downsize into a smaller home — maybe it’s the result of a relationship ending, or maybe it’s a move to simplify your world — but none is as romantic as the move to New York.

That’s why The New York Times has such rich material for stories like this one, a profile of a 25-year-old musician named Jack Leahy (stage name “Socrates”) who moved from Austin to Williamsburg and pays $450 per month to live in a crawl space with a 5-foot ceiling.

In many people’s eyes, Jack is making a virtuous sacrifice. What he lacks in head room, he makes up for in ambition. It’s a dimension of what Sinatra meant by “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

If you’re trying to make it somewhere, and moving into a small apartment in the process, this guide is for you.

Whatever your reason for downsizing, the transition to small requires ambition. Let this guide provide the practical and spiritual support to bolster that ambition.

Jump to a particular section below, or just continue reading:

A plan of attack
What to bring, what to store, and what to discard
How to use a self-storage space strategically

Everyday living: Tips for decorating and optimizing the space in your apartment
Get creative with open shelving
Create closet space if you don’t actually have one
Actually, have mirrors throughout the apartment

Tiny apartments can even accommodate families who know how to maximize their space
Design rooms to convert between child-friendly and adult-friendly as needed
Make sure no one ever feels squeezed out of a room
Instead of cluttering the apartment with toys, get the kids outside as much as possible
Take it slowly

A plan of attack: Define your space, imagine how your life fits into it, then downsize from there

We reached out to New York City interior designer Danielle Colding, the 2012 winner of HGTV’s Design Star, about the challenges New Yorkers face when trying to scale their lives down into apartments that only offer a few hundred square feet of space.

Colding says this is an ongoing challenge for everyone in the city, herself included. “My first piece of advice is to think about the practical necessities,” she says. “A place to sit, a place to sleep, a place to dine and a place to work are the main areas in my own house. So, I usually need to make sure I have things in place to fit those needs.”

Defining each of those spaces also means finding a place for some of your biggest furniture — your bed, your dinner table, your couch, maybe a desk. Once that’s done, you can let your imagination kick into overdrive.

“After function, I focus on form,” Colding says. “In my current move, I have decided to only move things that I absolutely love. A general rule of thumb that I subscribe to is to only have things in your home that either fulfill some need (function) or that make your heart sing (form).

“I think when you focus on things that you love, spaces have a more personal feel. I don’t believe in following trends or design looks that are too perfect. Truly personal, eclectic designs evolve over a lifetime where every object has some meaning or story behind it. To me, that is the most beautiful way to live with stuff.”

What to bring, what to store, and what to discard


The initial downsize is often the most difficult part of a move into a smaller apartment, especially if you’ve lived in your current home for a while. The furniture, the decor, the books — these things you’ve bought or were gifted help tell the story of your life. Editing, therefore, can be an emotional experience.

But it’s always possible to find a home for your things, and that’s your next step. Start organizing your things into one of three categories:

  • What you absolutely want in your new apartment
  • What you can store for later
  • What you no longer need and can give away or sell

As a starting point, Lindsey Campbell, writing for House Beautiful, has a helpful list of things that should never going into the “discard” pile. These include heirlooms, photographs, important documents, and fine jewelry (plus the boxes they came in). If there isn’t space in your new home for these items, store them somewhere safe and accessible.

On the other hand, the team at BMO Harris Bank’s Your Financial Life blog have handy list of things you can do without:

  • Old, unimportant papers (shred them)
  • Anything you have duplicates of
  • Anything that’s long needed to be fixed and you’ve never gotten around to it
  • Any cleaning supplies you can just restock after you move
  • Old clothes

Be honest with yourself during the decluttering phase of this process. Letting go of things can be difficult, and it’s easy to talk yourself into keeping things you don’t really need.

“Before you can let go of your stuff, you’ll need to let go of why you think holding on is a better option,” says Courtney Carver, author of the excellent Be More With Less blog. “Challenge your beliefs by writing them down. Identify three things you are holding on to, and answer the following questions on paper:

  • Why is it important for me to keep this?
  • What is the worst thing that will happen if I let go?
  • Is it making me happy to hold on?
  • What’s on the other side of letting go?”

If you need help with decluttering, have a professional organizer work with you to sort through your things.

How to use a self-storage space strategically

Still, you might find yourself going back and forth with certain items as you get a feel for what your new place can accommodate. That’s normal. Just remember that for anything your new apartment doesn’t fit, you don’t automatically have to say goodbye to it.

We have some helpful tips on our site to help you figure out what should go into storage, how to pack it up as space-efficiently as possible, and how to get the most out of your storage space.

New Yorker Tracy Kaler, who has an 825-square-foot apartment on the Upper West Side she calls home, recently wrote about how she makes the most of her storage space. “Most of the items that go in the storage unit are those that we don’t use every day, or things we don’t need but aren’t ready to part with –– yet,” Kaler said.

“For instance, like those pants you love but can’t fit into right at the moment, but hope to one day wear again –– don’t we all have those? Those go to storage. Or fans that we desperately need in the heat of the summer, but don’t need in winter, those would be in storage.

“Also, some of our holiday decorations go to the basement, and others remain in flat containers under the bed. We keep some extra pillows and home goods that we’re not using at the moment down there too. And then, we just have miscellaneous stuff that doesn’t fit in our apartment.”

And remember, you don’t have to get this perfect. In fact, as you settle into apartment living, you’ll find yourself getting better at the Keep/Store/Discard game.

“It is crucial to always be editing,” Colding says. “I am currently in my millionth round of letting things go. It feels amazing to say goodbye to the things that don’t speak to me while being left with items that all have personal meaning.”

Everyday living: Tips for decorating and optimizing the space in your apartment


What makes many people feel uncomfortable in a small apartment isn’t the space itself so much as it is the things intruding upon that space. In other words, clutter.

Keeping a small apartment clutter-free is the key to making it livable.

“Density is a thing not many people think about when it comes to their homes, but I came to realize that it was the most important measure of space,” writes Greg Kroleski, a project manager in San Francisco who lives in a 400-square-foot apartment with his wife and two children. “Any time you have an optimization problem, you need to identify your limiting factors. In a house, it is density.”

At the risk of getting super-technical, what Kroleski means is people living in space-scarce homes need to think about their space in three dimensions. Thinking about his home’s volume — each of those 400 square feet times whatever vertical room is available — led to a useful insight: Each home has specific high-density space (storage spaces) and low-density space (living space).

“Many people struggle with space because much more of their home volume occupies the awkward middle ground,” Kroleski says. “Their living spaces are cluttered and their storage spaces are not packed.”

That’s all clutter really is — stuff occupying a living space when it should be in a storage space. As long as you have plenty of storage space, especially if it’s low to the ground or under bigger furniture, you can actually make your living space feel airy and relaxing.

It’s just a matter of knowing how to use every cubic inch of space you have. Here are a few tips to get you started:

Get creative with open shelving

HGTV’s Kayla Kitts recommends open storage in the kitchen — preferably floor-to-ceiling shelving. If the shelving is against the wall, it becomes your go-to space for organizing appliances, cookware, dishes, and everything else that tends to get stuffed far back into a cabinet.

And if the shelving floats in the middle of the room, it can effectively divide the kitchen into cooking and dining spaces.

In a recent piece for Curbed, writer Ameena Walker and photographer Max Touhey did a great job of showing how one New York couple maximized their shelf space in a 225-square-foot studio. They divided the main room into a sleeping zone and a living room with a standing shelf, and they built shelves above the kitchenette to give that tiny space some order.

Create closet space if you don’t actually have one

It’s amazing what a wall-mounted rack and a glass-front cabinet can do for a bedroom. As Danica Rog at Freshome points out, a functional piece of furniture and a garment rack can turn any corner into an organized space that looks like it could belong in a great vintage store.

“Garment racks have become the icon for minimalist closets,” she writes. “They come in a wide variety of colors and styles, as well as price ranges. I found mine at Ikea for less that $10. It’s black, and more study than I expected for something so inexpensive. It’s perfect for my space, and I love the aesthetic it gives my room.”

And don’t forget a good mirror, which is both functional and creates the illusion of space. “Mirrors are a great way to visually trick the eye into seeing a space as larger than it is … and a tall mirror — all the better!” says Jackie Clair, whose York Avenue blog is full of great NYC apartment life tips.

Actually, have mirrors throughout the apartment

“Mirrors are the quickest way to make a room appear larger,” The Everygirl says. “While you may not want [them] wall-to-wall, lean an oversized full-length one against a key wall or hang multiple ones salon style to create a statement wall.”

And while you’re at it, opt out of window treatments if you can, the site says. That way, you’ll have more huge glass panes to give your rooms some added depth, and hopefully a nice view. “If your room requires some privacy, try gauzy sheer white drapes for an airy feel that will keep prying eyes out,” The Everygirl writes.

Tiny apartments can even accommodate families who know how to maximize their space


Last year, New York real estate site Brick Underground published a fantastic piece on a family of four that lives in a one-bedroom East Village rental. It might sound a little extreme for most families, but these parents have found they save about $20,000 each year by not upsizing to a multi-bedroom apartment.

“We travel (this past year, we spent a week at The Biltmore in Arizona, a week at Disney, a week in Cape Cod and we’re planning a winter trip to the Caribbean), we can continue to afford a full-time nanny and we enjoy the culture NYC offers — Broadway shows, like Matilda and Aladdin, meals at nice restaurants, like Children’s Day at The Four Seasons — without feeling guilty about the cost,” says one of the parents, who is identified simply by the initial K.

For most New Yorkers, life in the city is defined by calculated tradeoffs. Individuals, couples and growing families all find themselves weighing the benefits of extra living space versus life in one of the world’s great cities.

Many families choose the latter — and they’ve become very good at navigating the compromises a New York lifestyle forces them to make. The key is being able to define and effectively use every cubic inch of space available.

Here are four tips from parents who have learned to make a tiny home work for their families through sheer trial and error:

Design rooms to convert between child-friendly and adult-friendly as needed

New Yorker Ilsa Cohen, writing at the Mommy Nearest blog, got creative last June when her son was born. After a year sharing a space with three others (her fiancé, her dog and her infant son), Cohen has learned how to repurpose rooms on the fly.

First, she recommends using shelving units or some other type of storage to serve as a room divider. This can create nooks and other little spaces where parents can seek out some much-needed privacy.

Why the need for privacy nooks? Because Cohen recommends giving the baby the bedroom. “Before, we were practically prisoners in the bedroom once the baby went to sleep in the living room,” she writes. “Now we feel free to use the rest of the apartment in the evening without worrying about waking him up.”

Otherwise, she suggests a crib on wheels so the baby can sleep in whichever room you’re not currently using.

Make sure no one ever feels squeezed out of a room

For a small apartment to feel like a home for everyone, kids and adults, you have to make sure everyone feels as if they have a place to settle in at all times. That’s the essence of sharing space.

“If beds are used up or currently off limits, we use pillows and blankets to create a cozy reading nest,” says Evelyn at the Smallish blog. “If the table is covered in paperwork that can’t be moved, the kids will get a kitchen-floor picnic snack. If I’m cooking dinner and need to sauté without stepping over a child or answering 52 questions about Thomas the Train, then I must take a couple minutes to set the boys up for some individual play time in the toy corner.”

Along those same lines, parents need to make sure the apartment can accommodate other adults. The whole point of living in a city like New York is so you can have fun, right? So, don’t hesitate to host dinners at your place.

“You might be worrying about where everyone is going to eat,” Joanna Goddard says. “And the answer is on the floor. Or on a cushion. Or on the sofa.

“Place coats on the bed, or otherwise away from the ‘kitchen.’ Guests love to hang coats on the backs of chairs and dear lord if that doesn’t make things crowded, fast.

“Cover your couch with a sheet (especially if one of your dinner guests is a [one] year old and flinging penne across the room…). I know it sounds grandmotherly, but upholstery is a beast to clean, and this way you won’t have to worry.”

Instead of cluttering the apartment with toys, get the kids outside as much as possible

“Keep toys to a minimum,” writes Annie at the All Things Big and Small Blog. “Buy ones that are beautiful ones so they aren’t an eyesore to look at. Buying wooden toys that are aesthetically pleasing and eco-friendly, helps the environment and looks nicer! Three and a half years later, we are still playing with the same toys and have hardly bought any new ones for our second baby.”

Actually, bookmark that post: She has a helpful checklist for creating a nursery in a small apartment that any first-time parents will want to check out.

Another bookmark-worthy resource is the site A Child Grows in Brooklyn. It’s a great place to find family-friendly events all throughout the city so you can all get out and explore.

Take it slowly

Finally, don’t forget that your home needs to be a safe, peaceful space where everyone can get away from the chaos of the city whenever they need.

“The city buzz, traffic, and people rushing from one place to another all look so hectic and frantic,” says BuildDirect. “Your home should be a respite from all these. Incorporate music in your home, light candles, and dim the lights.

“Do not rush into everything and say ‘hurry up, you’re late’ or ‘move faster and finish your food.’ Give enough time for meals and other family activities. Slowing things down will change the energy at home.”

And if you need a little extra space to achieve that kind of peaceful, organized atmosphere in your home, Extra Space Storage has facilities throughout New York City to help you out.

Images by: Tran Mau Tri Tam, Clem Onojeghuo, Roman Mager, ©pressmaster/123RF Stock Photo