Make a Smaller Home Work for You


In 2008, Tanille Leal and her husband were living in a 1,500-square-foot home with a dog and a cat in Reno, Nev.

Today, they live in a converted 360-foot 1959 travel trailer, and Leal says they have never been happier.

“The only thing I regret is not having a dining room table,” says Leal, whose home won a runner-up spot in Apartment Therapy's Teeny Tiny category of the Small Cool Contest. “There's something about sitting down to a meal at a table.”

A "Shrinking" Trend

The Leals lost their home to foreclosure in the Nevada real estate collapse, but while the family's choice to downsize was extreme, Kent Griswold, creator of the Tiny House Blog, says there are plenty of reasons to move to a smaller home.

“People are really interested in downsizing and living within their income with smaller or no mortgages,” he says. “They want less space to keep up and maintain, and they want to get rid of all of the stuff in their lives.”

The Griswolds aren't alone: Statistics show that the average square footage for homes is shrinking, and the latest data, according to the National Home Builder’s Association, show the average size of a new single-family home built in 2010 shrunk from 2,438 square feet to 2,377 square feet.

Leal says the first thing his family did before moving was sell about two-thirds of its possessions.

“We converted our CDs to iTunes and got rid of the DVD covers and a lot of clothes,” Leal says. The trick to maintaining a clutter-free life is purging at least once every three months, he says.

Living Large in Small Spaces

Vida Chung, a native of Singapore who has also lived in Italy, Spain and Greece, knows firsthand that Europeans have living in small spaces down to a science.

“Living in small spaces is less of an issue there than it is in America,” she says. “Most European capitals have prohibitive prices per square meter for living space, so first homes are invariably tiny for the average person.”

The area of rural Greece where Chung lives isn't prohibitive on space, but she and her husband chose to live in a 592-square-foot stone cottage with four dogs, which could be extreme for some.

“We decided to invest instead in our dream, which was to live on the water, and for that, we gladly content ourselves with smaller living quarters,” Chung says.

For Chung, having flexible storage space is key to making a downsize work. Temporary divisions such as sliding doors, curtains, roll-down blinds and shades help hide the things that aren't in use while keeping the space open and airy.

“I also consider it vital to have well-designed storage in a small space,” Chung adds. “In our current house, we have storage under our sofa, under our bed, under our staircase, and our kitchen has cabinets and storage space built right up to the ceiling.”

Chung says her weakness is kitchen gadgets, as she loves to cook, but she goes by the “one in, one out rule.” “If I buy a new cast-iron pot, I have to eliminate my old stainless steel equivalent,” she says.

Tiny, Portable Houses

When Judy Iversen, a grandmother in Northern California, decided her son’s home was getting a little cramped with her eight grandchildren, she decided to find some new digs.

She saw one of Jay Shafer’s tiny house designs and decided to draw her own. “I like to cook and wanted to design a place with cooking space,” says Iversen.

Today, Iversen's tiny house is on a moveable flatbed trailer that draws water from her son’s home. Many of these types of houses are springing up in the driveways and backyards of friends and relatives throughout the country, but many cities do not authorize the use of a tiny house on trailer as a permanent residence.

“The city doesn’t condone trailer houses,” Iversen says, “but the neighbors think it is great fun and no one has said anything yet.”

Iversen hopes to lease some land to place her trailer on when her son moves later this year.

Staying Put

Rhonda Mock moved to a 910-square-foot home in Mena, Ark., last year to get a fresh start after a divorce. She had been downsizing from 3,000 to 1,800 to 1,200 square feet before landing in the little 1950s-era home.

“I intended on downsizing again, it was a matter of finances,” Mock says. “I’m used to having a formal living room, dining room, den and a space to do my art.”

The two-bedroom home was built in the 1950s. “There are no walk-in closets or dishwasher,” Mock says. “People said 'Oh, you will get to where you enjoy washing dishes by hand.' I don’t.”

Mock rented the second bedroom to a co-worker and admits it would be easier having that space. “I do feel crowded now,” Mock says. “I’m about 50-50 sold on it. There’s days when it’s fine.”

Mock says it is more confining in the winter and that her large garden space helps make up for the lack of square footage in the home in the warm-weather months.

But exactly how small is too small?

”You need enough space to live comfortably and it will vary from person to person,” Griswold says. “Too small is when you are bumping into everything and/or fighting with those who share the space with you. It’s too small if you lack your own space to get away now and again.”

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