13 Genius Storage Hacks for Your Tiny NYC Apartment

storage hacks for nyc apartment
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

It’s time to stop blaming your storage woes on your New York City apartment. Yes, it’s no sprawling Hudson Valley estate, but there’s way more functional square footage in your converted studio than you could ever imagine.

“There’s a lot of dead space -- if you know where to look for it,” says Cynthia Kienzle, the self-proclaimed Clutter Whisperer. Kienzle is an expert when it comes to organizing, minimizing, and creating space. New Yorkers often call her when they're overwhelmed with their mess or when they just don’t know where to start.

We asked Kienzle to share her secrets for transforming even the most cramped floor plans into roomy, tidy apartments with plenty of useful space. From the tools you need to buy, to where you can find the secret storage compartments hidden in every apartment, these are the 13 ways to add a few extra square feet to your tiny New York City apartment.

Get rid of duplicates

Even the tiniest apartments are sure to contain a few redundant things, especially if you live with roommates (because you all had to bring your personal Keurig). When things are all over the house, Kienzle explains, it’s easy to lose track. “They’re not consolidated,” she says, “so you can’t take an inventory.” Force yourself to ditch the backup running shoes (you don’t even run, do you?) and the second copy of Step Brothers. It may sound small, but the free space will quickly add up.

Toss out the packaging

Go into your kitchen and bathroom and take the packaging off every item you see, like bandaid boxes and cereal. “All I have to do is throw out the boxes [and] I can turn something into a beautiful space,” Kienzle notes. Consolidate whatever you can into single bags or containers (like the 18 jars of basil in the cupboard because you can never remember if you have any) and toss the bulky packaging onto the floor in a pile. It’s a great way to visualize all the space you’ve immediately created.

Swap your hangers

Plastic hangers might be cheap, but they’re also bulky and your clothes are apt to slip right off them. Kienzle recommends making the switch to skinny hangers, like Joy Mangano’s Huggable Hangers in a velvet-like finish. The texture will keep even delicate silks from falling off the hanger into a pile on the floor, and the slim profile (only 1/4”) saves horizontal space on your clothes rod. Pick up a few vertically cascading metal skirt hangers, too, which can be used just as easily for pants.

Create a designated travel compartment

If you have a suitcase taking up real estate in your closet or under your bed, you may as well use the bulky bag to store other items. Kienzle recommends keeping your basic toiletries, shower shoes, and other travel necessities (a neck pillow, your passport) in the suitcase at all times. You’ll always be prepared for a trip, and you’ll make use of often-wasted space.

Upgrade your cleaning supplies

Most New Yorkers don’t need a bulky, heavy-duty vacuum -- let alone have the space to store one. Instead, Kienzle recommends a Dyson Stick. “It only goes for about 15 minutes,” Kienzle admits of the battery life, “but that’s fine in a small apartment.” It’s cord-free, ultra-slim, and works on all surfaces. Kienzle also encourages people to ditch the Swiffer, which adds on extra clutter because of all the different pads and solutions. Instead, purchase a steamer (like the Shark Steam Pocket Mop) that needs only water to sanitize and comes with two machine-washable microfiber cloths.

Build your own closet

An unused corner or wall can be quickly (and cheaply) transformed into the linen closet of your dreams. There’s the classic tension-rod-and-decorative-curtain trick, but Kienzle has a couple other, more seamless suggestions. Use a hospital-style curtain track and rail system to create a more complete (and easy-to-use) divider. Or invest in elfa sliding doors -- newly available at The Container Store.

You could also consider exchanging a wall for a complete closet, like the PAX wardrobe from IKEA. The white, sliding glass doors make the furniture look almost like an extension of the wall -- and they don’t require any additional space to open. With two or three units, you can store all of your belongings in a single space, without mixing and matching various pieces of furniture all around the apartment.

“[You want] long and sleek in a small apartment,” Kienzle advises. “You don’t want a three-drawer chest here and a little thing there. It starts to look like the New York City skyline.”

Archive rarely used items

We’re not going to tell you to get rid of your KitchenAid. But if you only use it twice a year, it’s time to put away the space-hogging appliance. That might mean putting it in your new closet system or on the top shelf of a closet -- just get it off the counter and out of the regularly used kitchen cabinets. Kienzle calls this “archiving,” and it entails moving things out of the way, labeling when appropriate, and being realistic about how often you’ll need to access something. Just because it’s a kitchen tool doesn’t mean you need to keep it in the kitchen.

Discover surprising storage spaces you already have

Kienzle once had a client who absolutely never used her freezer, so it became the perfect closet for the oversized wok. You can easily store pots and pans -- or anything, really, that won’t be damaged by ice cold temperatures -- in an unused freezer drawer or shelf.

“The stove is also a really big real estate hog, because most people don’t bake or use the oven,” she adds. As long as you remember what you’re storing in there (ideally, nothing flammable) you can turn your oven into a spacious cupboard.

The space where your wall meets your ceiling may also be underutilized storage. People with particularly tiny apartments can run shelving along the top of the wall in lieu of a bookcase or closet.

Revamp your bathroom

Chances are, you have a tiny, virtually useless medicine cabinet in your bathroom. You know, the kind where you open the mirror and everything comes spilling out into your sink. According to Kienzle, it’s easy enough to pop out the landlord’s useless in-the- wall unit and cover the hole with an on-the-wall, larger, more functional piece. It’s unlikely your landlord will mind the upgrade, though you can always keep the old cabinet on hand and switch them out before you move.

Introduce multi-purpose furniture

Instead of a standard ottoman, look for a storage ottoman (like this inexpensive option from Target). And ditch a second sofa or a bench in favor of a row of cabinets, on the floor, topped with cushions.

Small hammocks, believe it or not, can also be used as lightweight, easy-to-install catch-alls in your apartment. String them across a corner or hang them from the ceiling and use them as a creative way to get things off the floor or out of the closet (this is particularly useful for bulky sporting equipment).

Stock up on hooks and baskets

Hooks of all sizes are crucial when you need to conjure space out of a New York City blueprint. Use hooks or the elfa over-the- door basket system on the inside of closet doors, hooks on a strip to store jackets and outerwear in a mud room, and clip-on under-the-shelf wire baskets to extend the storage capacity of shelves. “Every square inch is important in a small apartment, so you need to constantly tweak,” says Kienzle. 

Experiment with shoe bags

If you thought shoe bags were just for storing shoes, think again. Kienzle loves the hanging IKEA Skubb Shoe Organizer, which comes with 10 pockets and, in addition to getting your shoes off the floor and into an easy-to-see, organized space, can also be used for winter accessories (hats, gloves, scarves), children's toys, even knitting projects. Keep one hanging in a closet by the front door as part of a pseudo-mudroom. “Those pockets can hold the kinds of things you need when you go out,” explains Kienzle. Keys, business cards, gum, tissues, sunglasses, hats -- whatever you need to grab before you leave your apartment. Or add hooks for coats, a basket for shoes, and a bowl/basket for small items and you can easily create a landing area or mudroom.

Use Lazy Susans

Lazy Susans -- or spinners, as Kienzle likes to call them -- aren’t just for the spice cabinet (though you should put one there, too). One or two-tiered spinners can make an awkward cabinet or deep linen closet much more accessible. Kienzle has even put these inside refrigerators, to make items on low bottom shelves easier to reach.

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Melanie Taryn Lieberman is a success story. She got 15 square feet of space back into her kitchen when she started storing her behemoth food dehydrator in the laundry room.