Small Home or Apartment? Here are 6 Ways to Make the Most of Your Cramped Space

This story is part of 12 Days of Tips, helping you make the most of your tech, home and health during the holiday season.

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When COVID-19 hit in 2020, my wife and I, with our two young children, decided to move in with my parents, in part to pay off debt, and in part to save money for buying our own house. We moved out of the first house we’d lived in as a family (before that, it’d been a series of apartments ranging from 600-720 square feet) and traveled to stay with my parents, where we would claim half of the second floor, including a bathroom, two bedrooms and a loft. We installed our own makeshift kitchenette and reacclimated to a space under 1,000 square feet.

Over the years, we’ve had to learn the hard way how to live in small spaces while controlling the spillover of toys (our children’s) and books (ours) that inevitably occurs. We’ve donated or sold a lot of our possessions (trimming down to two bookcases was not easy), but more importantly, we learned how to organize for the space. And the core tenet by which we now organize is this: everything that can must serve a dual purpose, usually as storage.

But let’s get more specific. Here are six of the best storage ideas we’ve discovered over the years that can help you make any cramped room or apartment feel more spacious. For more DIY tips, learn how to build a custom pipe shelf, the best way to organize a fridge and how to maximize your kitchen cabinet space

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It’s easy for low wall space to be used for furniture and high wall space to be used for decoration (think posters or paintings). There are plenty of ways to use your walls more efficiently, though, whether it’s by installing a magnetic strip to hold your knives, a shelf to hold more books or a repurposed letter type case drawer like the one pictured above to hold various small trinkets or toys that might otherwise clutter your space.

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We’ve become big proponents of cube organizers over the years in part because they make it easy to keep a room looking uniform even as you change what you’re storing in it. Cube organizers are particularly helpful in kids’ areas, where the daily cleanup of toys can quickly become overwhelming.

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Whether it’s the top of a high shelf or banisters that easily become collectors of clutter, you can find ways to use these flat spaces to add more storage (that looks good) to your living area. As books are one of our most common bits of clutter, we’ve added shelving to the top foot of the wall in various apartments, and here we’ve used bookends to use a bannister for extra book storage.

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Don’t be afraid to display your stuff

In our current kitchenette setup, we have little space to store daily essentials, such as coffee mugs. So we spent a few months looking for decorative shelves where the stuff we needed to store could be displayed — not as clutter, but as an aesthetic choice.

We’ve used the same strategy in the bathroom, where there’s no medicine cabinet, and in closets where we’ve set up makeshift vanities over the years. In the picture above, you can see what one of our countertops looks like: it’s full of stuff, but functional and not bad to look at.

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Use uniform containers (such as mason jars)

One problem with living in small spaces is battling the constant appearance of clutter. While different people have different needs, thinking more creatively about containers can be helpful. In the kitchen, for instance, we’ve found using mason jars to be helpful for storing all of our various cooking and baking materials — we keep oats, grains, sugars, rice and other bulk materials in these jars, topping them off occasionally from larger bags we can keep at the back of the pantry closet.

This keeps manageable amounts of ingredients accessible without adding to the appearance of messiness in the kitchen.

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Keep your floor space segmented

In the various apartments we’ve inhabited over the years, we’ve often had to make do with a single central room, which triples as a living room, dining room and playroom for the kiddos. The problem is, when the kids scatter toys across the floor, that means your living room and dining room are also trashed.

One way to help limit this is by segmenting the room, or creating zones. This can look as simple as keeping your couch and TV on one side of the room and your chair and bookshelf on the other. Or you can arrange your furniture to help arrange the room in more elaborate ways.

The idea is, if you’re using one zone — say, the TV area — you can tidy it up more easily before transitioning elsewhere, keeping the room in general shape even as you move around and use different areas. In addition, this strategy just makes it easier to cohabitate with others in a small space.

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