Apartment hunting can be a nerve-wracking experience even in the best of times. Today, as even medium-sized housing markets like Seattle and Portland are heating up to keep pace with big-city counterparts Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, it’s more likely you’ll be spending more money on less space than ever before.
But the clever don’t have to compromise. Whether you’re moving out on your own for the first time, downsizing, or you find yourself in a new housing market where the dollar doesn’t stretch quite as far as you’re used to, you’ll need a foolproof list of tips, tricks, and hacks for surviving and thriving in a small space without breaking the bank… or your spirit.
DREAM IN DIGITALOf all the strategies at your disposal, “Get rid of what you don’t need” can have the biggest impact on your quality of life. And it's insanely easy. In fact, it’s possible to downsize without really getting rid of anything at all. Here's how you can throw away your analog life without losing what's truly important to you.
Find a happy medium for your happy media
If your collection of books, Blu-Rays, and video games has become unwieldy, it’s expensive to move and will likely take up disproportionate space in your apartment. Consider offloading some or all of your collection and investing in an e-reader and subscribing to streaming services for video and music. Nothing beats digital for instant access to the books, film, and music you love but don’t need to enjoy in vinyl quality or on constant rotation anymore.
Of course, no one would advocate ditching your extras-laden Criterion Blu-Rays, your autographed Harry Potter collection, or your original pressing of London Calling. Pick your darlings like you’re trying to save them from a particularly slow fire. What’s left, you can donate or sell online, and it’s like you’ve hired yourself to clean out your apartment.
Support your local library
Additionally, check with your local library about digital borrowing options. Most public libraries now have the capacity to digitally lend books from their collections, as well as music and movies, which you can download directly to your devices, often without leaving the comfort of your tiny living room.
(And remember to donate to the library! They do good work, and that $50 you chuck their way is a fraction of what you would have paid in purchase prices.)
Store all the transient info, too
Digital also provides a great short-term storage solution for receipts, tax returns, business cards, and other documents (even photographs). Just be aware that while catastrophic losses are less common than they once were, data can still degrade over time, so don’t toss those baby pictures just yet. You’ll want to hang on to anything that you’ll still want in pristine condition thirty years from now. As a rule, though, if you wouldn’t put it on the wall, you might as well put it on the cloud.
GO VERTICAL BEFORE HORIZONTALIf your bathroom sink doubles as your kitchen sink, it might be time to change your set-up. That doesn't mean a bigger (and likely way more expensive) place, it just means it's time to invest in a vertical strategy. Building up will expand the tiniest of apartments -- and your view on life. When square footage is at a premium, it’s time to think in three dimensions. Using the vertical surfaces in your home is a great way to solve your storage dilemma.
Love thy shelf
Don’t run out and get a large armoire. They cost a bundle, loom over the room, and possibly house vengeful ghosts. Instead, compliment a smaller dresser with a shelf. One advantage of older apartments is they tend to have higher ceilings. While this is bad for your air conditioning costs, it’s great for placing shelves all the way up, especially above shorter furniture, where it will balance the upper aesthetic. It’s a great way to get ocular comfort and storage.
Make the odd corners work for you
Even in unlikely spaces, extra shelves can be a boon in a tiny home or apartment. Installing a shelf above the front entrance door, for example, won’t provide much clearance, but makes a great place to store mostly flat seasonal items like hats or gloves.
In the bathroom, install shelves above the toilet and towel rack to transform the available space. For a decorative touch, attach squared baskets to the walls by their bottom sides to create useful storage cubbies.
You can also place an extra tension-type rod inside the shower and hang baskets for extra storage of, and easy access to, personal cleaning supplies.
Clean your feet
Sure, a shoe organizer hanging over your door, is great for… well, organizing your shoes, which do take up a lot of real estate. But that organizer can also be used to store and organize cleaning supplies. The compartments make it easy to access your bleaches and soaps, as well as cleaning rags, while freeing up space under your sinks.
A shoe organizer is also an easy way to separate your art supplies, sewing bits and bobs, or organize nails, screws, nuts, and bolts by type and size.
Get higher to go lower
Adding risers under your bed or couches will provide extra clearance for storage under furniture without sacrificing comfort, especially if you combine them with a bed frame that doesn’t require a box spring. You can maximize your ease of access by attaching wheels to plastic storage totes to roll them in and out from under the bed or sofa. Or, to take full advantage of the storage under your mattress, consider replacing the bed frame altogether with a pair of wide dressers.
Avoid functional fixedness
Ugh, lids. From jars to snapware, they’re going to be impossible to organize at all different sizes, and so lightweight the least jostle sends them flying. Fortunately, the answer is something nobody uses anymore.
Since vinyl is the new compact disc, insomuch as your kid brother doesn’t know what either is, and since you’ve listened to our advice already and offloaded your music collection in favor of a streaming subscription, you can put your old CD storage rack to good use in the kitchen. Use a vertical CD tower to organize the lids of your reusable food storage containers, or even as a drying rack for plates and other flat dishes.
Take it up a peg
To truly capitalize on the vertical surfaces in your apartment, install pegboard to one (or more) of your walls. Pegs provide a storage and organizational solution for your keys, purses, reusable grocery bags, and totes, and can even be used to hang larger items, like your bicycle, keeping them out of higher traffic paths in your home. Just make sure the pegs are rated to handle the appropriate weight and that the pegboard is anchored to the wall studs. Nobody likes ripped plaster and broken bikes.
Use every side of the cabinet
In the kitchen, use pegs on the inside of cabinet doors to hang measuring spoons and cups and other common utensils. This keeps them hidden but well organized and easily accessible and frees up some much needed drawer space for your Taco Bell Fire Sauce packets.
What about outside the cabinet? Great for hanging the tools you’ll grab the most, while its underside is an excellent place for hooks to support your mug collection. Don’t feel like drilling? Get some Velcro coins for your most commonly used spices and hang the lightweight seasonings over wherever you do your meal prep.
SAVE ELECTRICITY, SAVE MONEYIf your apartment has gas heat, then count yourself among the lucky few. Gas is relatively cheap, efficient, and because it’s difficult to measure usage from unit to unit, landlords often foot the bill. Unfortunately, most new apartments built today are fully electric, which means cooking, heating and cooling your home can be surprisingly costly over time. There are a few shortcuts that can make your digs comfortable now without an electric bill making you uncomfortable later.
First, use your newly-liberated counter space to host a toaster oven. There’s no sense in using a huge oven just to cook, say, a potato. Preheating takes forever, it consumes copious amounts of energy, and it turns your apartment into a sweatbox, which just makes the air conditioning work harder. A sturdy toaster oven can be had for as little as 30 bucks new, or for less than half of that if you’re willing to trawl Craigslist. As an added bonus, many toaster ovens include a removable rotisserie bar, which conventional ovens lack. Also, you can make toast. Yay, toast!
Generate heat sensibly…
Same rules apply to your personal warmth. Before using whole home electric heat, or air conditioning if you’re lucky enough to have it, consider using a portable heater or A/C instead. There’s not much sense in heating or cooling parts of the home you’re not currently occupying, and smaller, more energy efficient units can go with you as you move from the living room to the bedroom at the end of the day. Infrared heaters especially can be purchased new for less than $100, and convert an impressive 83% of the energy they consume back into heat. Many feature bells and whistles like timers and automatic shutoffs.
…and keep it where you put it
Installing energy-saving curtains will also help regulate the temperature inside your apartment, trapping heat in the winter and keeping you cool in the summer. As an added benefit, you’ll never sleep as well as you will when your bedroom’s as dark as the deepest cave in Mordor.
Keep the clothes cool
Heat isn’t going to sterilize your clothes unless you wash in boiling water, and even if you do, you already put soap in there to kill germs, ya knucklehead. If your apartment includes an in-unit clothes washer, save money by using cold water washes. About 90% of the electricity used during a wash cycle is consumed while heating the water, and most detergents are formulated to be equally effective regardless of water temperature.
CREATE EASY ACCENTS THAT WON'T EAT YOUR SECURITY DEPOSITIf you spend your working life in an office with white walls and beige carpet, the last thing you want to find when you get home at the end of the day are white walls and beige carpet. Unfortunately, the majority of landlords frown on tenants tearing up the carpet or repainting the place. But if you don’t find ways to turn it into an expression of what makes you comfortable, then you don’t live there; you’re just crashing.
Make it an extension of your personality
If you want to give your rented home a little character, you’ve got to improvise. Something as easy as a colorful accent rug or throw pillows can go a long way toward adding some character to your living space (and protecting you from having to clean a stain out of the carpet).
The same is true of framed art on the walls. If you want to save money, go for art prints rather than originals, or check out your local thrift stores, which often have art for sale already in a frame. (Sometimes you’ll buy an ugly piece just to get a beautiful frame.) Original pieces of art can also be found for bargain prices at art festivals, with the added benefit of directly supporting the artist.
Apply color in surprising places
To add more color to your apartment, paint your furniture. Sure, those bookshelves you bought at the big box store might’ve come out of the crate in the same off-white as your apartment wall, but there’s no reason they need to stay that way. You might as well make them your own.
Come up with your own changes
And finally, look around, see what else you can personalize. Maybe the drawer pulls and cabinet handles are ugly. Maybe you just want a fluffy bathmat. Maybe you just put a motion sensor light in the closet that doesn’t have electricity. You’ll be surprised with how a little change for the price of a beer -- often the work of five minutes with a screwdriver -- can bring you a sense of satisfaction.
Ultimately, whatever you come up with will be rewarding because it’s a change you thought of. Some utility or aesthetic occurred to you and you made it a reality. You pushed the world into the shape you wanted it to be. Because no matter how small the space, when it’s what you want it to be, it’s a home.