How do you maximize a small home for a family of four?
January 5, 2012 1:00 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for ideas/resources on maximizing a small house's space for a family of four.

After having our 1450 sq. ft. ranch on the market for the last year with no serious interest, my wife and I are thinking of going the route of trying to make the house we have now (I'm 30, she's 29) the house we die in. It's a 3-bedroom home, and at the moment we have only a two-year-old (we plan on adding a second and final child in either later 2012 or early 2013, depending on the biology). The bedrooms are smallish at the expense of a large great room (which by itself is probably 500-600 sq. ft.), which we love because it allows us to have friends over and entertain.

Even though the kids' bedrooms may be a bit smallish when they hit their teen years, we figure that it will provide them with ample private space, while at the same time 'forcing' them to be part of the family. And there are definite modifications we'll make to the home, knowing that we plan to stay there forever (new cabinets in kitchen & bath, possibly making a small kitchen remodel to give us a few more square feet). It will still force us to be pretty minimal in the amount of "stuff" we own, though, which is something I'm in favor of - my wife and I figure that by going this route we can pay off the house much quicker than buying the McMansion we had our eye on, and we can spend that money on things like mind-expanding trips to foreign lands (when the kids are old enough to appreciate it), or early retirements.

But we need advice. Ideas. Resources. Whether it's your own experience, favorite blogs/sites, magazines, books, whatever - what are the things we should be thinking about when we start to go through the house and revamp room by room? What should we look for in furniture? Everything I'm finding online relates to how to maximize a studio apartment, which is sorta-but-not-really applicable.

In short, how do we maximize the space we have?
posted by po822000 to Home & Garden (31 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Sarah Susanka's "Not So Big House" series is chock full of ideas.
posted by carmicha at 1:04 PM on January 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am a fan of loving living small blog. It's not my blog, but it does fit my living situation - my place is only 700 feet. This blog really gives some great picture ideas around decorating.
posted by It's a Parasox at 1:05 PM on January 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

My advice is "the more infrequently used:the more inconveniently located." Every month or so, take a look at the clutter around you -- books, kitchen appliances, whatever -- and ask yourself if you've used it in the last month. If not, move it to a slightly more inconvenient place, out of the way of your daily life. When that place gets full, look at the stuff there and take everything you haven't used in a year, and move it to an even more inconvenient place. That place is full? Offsite storage locker, or garage sale.

Tweak the time periods as necessary, but the idea is: Living space is only for stuff you use (art excepted). If you follow this it will make your dwelling seem larger.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:13 PM on January 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you have enough room for playing, you can use the bedrooms for sleeping only -- no need to keep tons of stuff in there as storage. So maybe you can split the bedrooms into a shared Bedroom and a Playroom. That might also be helpful for having a guest bed or futon in the playroom, while still allowing that room to be used on a daily basis. When your kids get older they will crave and need space of their own. You've recognized this already, which is good.

The biggest thing you should think about is keeping your life simple. Fewer clothes and toys; always culling things. You don't have to be tidy 24/7 (and with kids you won't be), but make do with less and have more fun outside the bedrooms/house.

Always think up. Use the ceilings and wall space as efficiently as possible. Kids LOVE lofts and the spaces above and below them, so think about how you could do that when they're old enough to be safe.
posted by Madamina at 1:18 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are a few things you can think of, as well. We put an addition on our house, as for the same amount of money we would pay to 'upgrade' we could get the extra space and more that we wanted (we added a great room, plus a master suite by pushing up the attic). Also, any house, even though it would be the same as expanding, we would end up having to fix up and put more money into to bring up to what we had already done to improve our current home.

What is 'smallish'? 10'x10' would be 'smallish' to me, but you may differ. Our smallest bedroom was 11x12, which I just converted into a playroom by taking out the large closet, putting in a built-in, and keeping a small 18" closet so it can still be sold as a 'bedroom'.

Do you have a basement? finishing a basement is fairly easy, and adds loads of space for the children to have a hidden-away space they can play, etc. even if it's a smaller space, it would be a dedicated play space. (as an aside, I found these great foam interlocking tiles that have a wood-grain pattern that looks like hardwood - great for play areas).

Attic space, as well can be converted into usable storage or even living space, without doing a big (or small) addition.

Converting an attached garage and putting up a detached garage is also another option.
posted by rich at 1:25 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

My husband and I raised three children in a house that size. Bedrooms were for sleeping: tv, computer, and games were in the living room and shared. I did let them have a telephone in their rooms. My husband and I gave the master bedroom (not really bigger than the other bedrooms) to our girls, while my son had his own bedroom. To accommodate their friends overnight all the beds were trundle or captain beds, with a pullout extra place to sleep underneath. Storage was limited, but that encouraged neatness (to some degree, and helped with lots of reminders). A decent attic housed Xmas and other seasonal items, and our cars were parked outside, to leave room for sport equipment and yard work tools.
posted by francesca too at 1:33 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just bought my little cape cod in 2010 and there are four of us full-sized people in it (my boys are teenagers and both about 6 feet).

If they are close in age and the same gender, I strongly suggest not having your kids sleep in separate bedrooms. Even if boy/girl, until adolescence there's no reason for them to sleep apart. Bunk beds, or a single bed with a pullout trundle, means the bedroom is used for sleeping and dressing and bedtime stories only. Playing and hanging out (and computer time, which becomes a big deal when they're adolescents) is done in the public areas. That way the spare bedroom can be an office/quiet reading room, a guest room, a craft room, a whatever room, even a storage room if you don't have much closet space.

Before my kids started doing their own laundry (yay!), we had a silly color-coded system for towels, sheets, and other things (camping gear, etc.) Everyone got one towel only, & two sets of sheets. M's were green, B's were blue, mine were orange, etc. On Saturday I'd pull everyone's sheets off the bed, wash them w/the towels, and put them right back on the beds. No need for a linen closet full of sheets and towels, and everyone took better care of their things. I tried the same thing with cups/plates/bowls but I wasn't as good on the follow through and we do have plenty of kitchen storage. (The infrequently used appliances live in a cabinet in the living room.)

We don't have a basement so our washer/dryer was half in the kitchen. We moved it upstairs into unused eave space and created some closet/storage space up there at the same time.

If I think of something else I will post it. Recently I did split my boys up so they would have their own space, but that was due to illness and if they were both healthy/on the same regular schedule I'd have kept them together. I miss that little third bedroom, which was the only place introverted mom could get some alone-time.
posted by headnsouth at 1:38 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the posts so far!

For what it's worth, no basement, and attic access is through the garage, so it would remain storage-only. The kids' bedrooms are 10' x 10' and 10' x 11'. Master is 13' x 12'. Our great room (at its widest points) is 27' x 14'.

Two car garage (and we like parking both in the garage - I'm worried about keeping this tenet the most when the kids get older and get a bunch of sporting equipment), and the lot is only a quarter acre, so probably no outbuildings.
posted by po822000 at 1:49 PM on January 5, 2012

3 of our last four houses were under 1500 sq feet and we have 2 elementary-school aged boys so it is very do-able to raise a family of 4 in a small house. Our neighbor in GA had 2 teens an their house was 1200 sq ft.

If at all possible, have the kids share a bedroom and have the 3rd bedroom be a playroom/office.
Every 6 months put all the toys they are not playing with in a black garbage bag in the garage. If they don't miss it, it goes to goodwill after 3 months.

Every piece of furniture should serve double-duty, if possible. For example, your coffee table should have storage underneath it so that you can hide games/magazines/clutter.

Every time clutter starts to accumulate somewhere that is a sign that you need a trip to Ikea to come up with a creative storage solution. :-) Ikea is your friend.

When remodeling, add built-in shelves in every room. They are a huge help.

Ask family to give gifts such as classes instead of toys to minimize toy volume. When we moved from 2000 sq feet to 1400 we got rid of 2/3 of our belongings.
If you have not used it in 12 months, get rid of it.

Get small-scale furniture. Big furniture will make the space feel visually crowded. You may need to look to antique shops to find smaller scale furniture.
posted by LittleMy at 1:57 PM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I grew up with an older brother and just have to chime in that making two adolescent boys share a room is torture, especially if another room is available. My brother put me through hell and it was awful not having any personal space where I could get away from his bullying or just read a book in peace. Our house just didn't have any more rooms, but I can't see doing that to kids if you don't have to.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:06 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Storage above the cars in the garage can be quite useful. I saw a project online once where someone had installed racks to slide Rubbermaid-type storage bins into (similar to how a hanging wine glass rack works), but I can't dig it up easily right now. Very useful for outdoor toys and sporting goods.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:08 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

You'd mentioned sporting goods being a potential future storage problem. If you and/or your kids are avid bikers it might free up more space in the garage by building a bike shelter. Something small, open and near the garage might do the trick; make it of the same wood as other outdoor structures and it can blend in.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 2:11 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: drjimmy11 - don't worry, for a period of time, I shared a room with my siblings. Unless the kids specifically want it, I'm going to assume they want their own space.

Rock Steady - saw that, I think this is what you were thinking of?
posted by po822000 at 2:12 PM on January 5, 2012

Those "Not So Big House" books tend to be about houses that are twice as large as my two-bedroom townhouse. The author uses an odd definition of "not so large."
posted by bentley at 2:17 PM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Rock Steady - saw that, I think this is what you were thinking of?

Yup, that's it exactly. I keep meaning to try it in our garage.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:26 PM on January 5, 2012

I had a tiny room as a kid - maybe 10 X 8? and I had a bed that was up by the ceiling so there was room for a desk underneath, and a pull-out chair for when I had friends over. I loved the high bed! at the time we made our own loft arrangemenbt by bolting together different pieces of furniture, but now they sell lots of ready made loft beds.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:28 PM on January 5, 2012

We recently downsized our house, and our two teenagers ended up with smaller rooms so we could have bigger living space. We do actually see more of them now! For my son we bought this which maximizes his room space. Bunk on top, trundle on the bottom, desk space and drawers so there is no need for other furniture. It allowed him to put an old loveseat in his room so he can sit and play video games. He still has sleepover space with the two beds.

Yours are too young for this now, but it is a great option for later. We are glad for the smaller house now. We bought a house that ended up being much larger than needed when we thought our family would grow beyond 4. It is nice to have less to clean, less to clutter, and less to pay to furnish and maintain.
posted by maxg94 at 2:31 PM on January 5, 2012

We have a fairly big house, but no basement.

Consider lofting the kids' beds, and if that's not viable, get some bed risers. We are able to store tons of stuff under the beds this way.

You can also build a loft in the garage.
posted by imjustsaying at 2:45 PM on January 5, 2012

Dimensionally, your house sounds like my house plus one bedroom (except in my house, one of the two bedrooms is an office), and it sounds like we have similar aesthetics.

Big wins: closet space = lots. We did a big remodel before we moved in, and we had a target square footage for closet space that was pretty high. Our bedroom has a 12' wall that is nothing but closet storage; the only other piece of furniture in the room is a bed with a built-in side table so it feels cleaner and more spacious.

We also have a big built-in bookcase that is flush with its surrounding wall. Again, by removing the bulk of multiple bookcases, the room feels more spacious. The house is also easier to clean, having less stuff on the floor. We've also got a built-in desk, and if it were practical to do more built-ins, I would have.

I saw a bit on TV about a 700sqft house that had been gutted, with a big pod being built in the middle to serve multiple purposes: parts were closet space, parts opened up to be home-office space, etc. Smart idea.

I don't think we implemented any ideas from it, but an interesting book to look through is The Very Small Home. These are all Japanese houses. Some have some really interesting tricks for maximizing space utilization.
posted by adamrice at 2:55 PM on January 5, 2012

Tricks I use:

1. Use wall space. Put up shelves; screw hooks into the walls; use plate hangers; wall mount all displays.

2. Cable management. Zip tie all cords and wrap them. Removing clutter frees up floor and wall space, makes the space appear larger.

3. Put holes in the walls and put things in the holes. Good for cable management, also.

4. Buy or make space-saving furniture. My drafting table works as a chalkboard, a table, or a drafting table. If I needed a second table, I'd mount it to the wall with hinges. Also, table legs are unnecessary; I chopped up a corner desk and attached just the top to the wall with brackets.

5. Get rid of your bed; it's a giant waste of space.

Trick I'd like to use:

1. Chop a hole in the floor and embed a chest freezer in it. Saw this on a Japanese TV show.

2. Excavate the yard and build underground storage space as needed.
posted by American Christmas Devil at 3:32 PM on January 5, 2012

Take care of your yard too.

We have a pretty small house too and we find it a lot more livable when we can spend time outside. In the warm months we practically live outside.

We've got a charcoal grill, a propane grill, a fire pit, a hammock, a tire swing, a table and chairs, a garden, and an open grass area. Our yard is small but with all those things it feels more like another room of the house.
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:45 PM on January 5, 2012

Use loft or captains beds in the kids rooms are super useful and clear up space. Loft beds are great for older kids and they can have computers or a desk underneath them.
posted by wwax at 3:52 PM on January 5, 2012

Fine Homebuilding has helpful articles on making previously unused space into useful storage.
posted by yoga at 4:18 PM on January 5, 2012

One thing to remember is that it is only recently that US houses got so large -- an average new house in the 1960s was about 1200 square feet, for example, and those were for families with plenty of kids. And those large houses are also unusual compared to the rest of the world. Check out this chart comparing average new houses internationally.

In other words, you'll have a comparatively easy time of it if you and your family live more or less similarly to how people lived a generation ago, in terms of the amount of just plain stuff that you allow into the house. And it's not just the amount of stuff -- it's the size of the stuff, particularly furniture, as was mentioned above. Compare mainstream contemporary furniture to older antiques or to midcentury modern styled pieces -- the couches, tables, beds, and chairs are a third or more larger. That's great if you are trying to fill a 3500 sq ft house with 12 foot ceilings and lots of extra rooms, but doesn't work at all in a more human-sized house like yours.

Lastly, even a very small garden shed will reduce storage pressure on your garage immensely for all kinds of things like gardening tools, bicycles in the winter, etc, and they are cheap to build.
posted by Forktine at 4:20 PM on January 5, 2012

There are a lot of resources on planning garage space. There are tons of plans here. This is one that shows how to get the storage space without taking away square footage from the floor. Depending on the space between your garage door and the ceiling, you may be able to build shelving down from there, too (or buy a ready-made product for that) for infrequently used things.

You can use the same principles inside, too, with shelves up nearer the ceiling in bedrooms and other rooms for displaying things that aren't used often--like this, perhaps.
posted by BlooPen at 5:05 PM on January 5, 2012

No one's mentioned Apartment Therapy yet, which I find pretty useful for ideas (my family of 4 lives in a little under 1,500sf). The editors published a book called the Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure, which walks you through the process of evaluating and improving your home, bit by bit.

Small Notebook is another nice blog for ideas on living simply with a young family.
posted by hms71 at 5:26 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Think about going up. We're tall people, and we have a small kitchen (4 adults & a baby in 1400 square feet -- we're remodeling our basement to add a little more space), so lots of things go UP. Extra bags of chips are kept on a ledge near the ceiling, we have several hanging baskets, things we rarely use go in the top shelves of the cupboards.
posted by linettasky at 8:02 PM on January 5, 2012

I'd suggest looking to European blogs and magazines. 1450 sq feet is significantly larger than the average British family home.
The average size of newly built homes in the UK is more like 825 sq feet, compared 2300 sq feet in the US.
posted by sleepy boy at 4:26 AM on January 6, 2012

I have 3 kids in a 1500 something sq ft house. When there were only two kids it was fine. It's more cramped now, but not too bad. Once each kid turned about 10 years old, they pretty much got rid of most of their toys and their things got much smaller. Instead of train sets and toy kitchens and whatever, it's just iPods and laptops and a wii and a lot of books. And a ukulele or two. There are still American Girls on shelves and a big bin of Star Wars toys and some old special stuffed animals, but they happily got rid of almost all of it as they got older. So there is definitely an end date on a lot of the crap. (Our sporting goods stuff that came with the kids getting older doesn't take up much space - just baseball stuff, some soccer balls and bikes that live chained to the porch railing or in the shed. If we lived somewhere with skiing or snowboarding or something, it'd be different. When the kids were younger they did martial arts. Very small amounts of equipment. Sparring pads lived under the bed or in the car. If its baseball season, the equipment lives in the van.)

I had another baby, so I threw the temporarily clean house out the window for another 7 years or so, but you aren't planning on that. (My kids are 14, 11 and 3. Just when all the little kids toys left, we started over. Totally on purpose. The toy kitchen and Candyland and 600 baby dolls and dollhouse are all back.)

Anyway, rethink the way your house is set up. My house has six rooms (plus two bathrooms) - four small rooms and two bigger rooms. Until recently, it was set up like you would expect - small living room, big playroom/den/sewing room, big kitchen/dining room three small bedrooms with two kids sharing one. We rearranged things so that the two girls moved to the big den and the den went into a small room. We put a giant storage cabinet down the center of the girls' room to divide it into two rooms. (The rooms are all 11 feet wide. A cabinet really does completely divide the room.) The den is now just sewing room/kids' tv/wii and most of the toys have moved to the three year old's room which is more centrally located. There are overflow toys in the living room and kitchen, but they are out of the way. It is sort of an awkward set up since we have to go through bedrooms to get to other rooms (double shotgun house. The old setup had bedrooms in corners so that you never had to go through a bedroom.) but it works really well. Also, our bedroom has never been near a bathroom. The china cabinet is in a hall by a bathroom. Towels, sheets and boardgames live in an armoire in another hall by a bathroom. There's a dirty clothes basket under the china cabinet. I used to have shallow toy drawers that slid under the sofa. I totally wanted to cut holes in the floor and attach bins underneath for trapdoor action figure/lego storage. (I did not.) It seems strange, but it works. (The bathroom is all the way across the house from our bedroom, but it's really just right over there in a small house.) So rethink how your house is set up. Just because that room is supposed to be a bedroom or whatever, doesn't mean it has to be. Also, we don't have much closet space at all, so all of the stuff is basically just out or in bins and it isn't bad. If I actually had a closet for toys, it'd be great. So don't worry, it works. I think if we had more space, we'd just have even more crap.
posted by artychoke at 7:13 AM on January 6, 2012

Family of four and 830 sq. ft. here. I wish I had your problem! Great tips on this post but the most important thing to know is that human beings are incredibly adaptable. When my youngest daughter's crib and walker took up 30% of the available floor space of our living room for two years we just got used to it. Awkward as hell? Certainly. But by the time it came to take the crib down we'd become completely accustomed to it.

Also realize that your kids won't be missing anything as they won't know what its like to live in a McMansion. Of course that will change at some point when they get older but they will always think of it as home, and a cozy one at that.

We spend most of our time together in our "big" kitchen/living room combo (about 420 sq. ft.) Nobody is ever out of sight from anyone else for very long and that's really nice in a way.

Have fun
posted by pandabearjohnson at 2:04 PM on January 6, 2012

We are two parents and four teenagers plus a new baby living in a three-bedroom flat that is about 1,100 sq ft with one bathroom, about to move to 1,200 sq ft flat newly renovated, with two bathrooms - whoo! Your space sounds very very ample in comparison.

Look at apartment design books in Asia where space is super tight and people are used to living together. is good too.

The first thing is this idea that everyone gets their own private room. That's really new and most of the world still lives communally. If your kids grow up sharing their space, that's normal to them. It's critical they have their own areas, like their own desk or corner, but sharing a room for my kids (two boys in one, two girls in another, baby in our room) has made them closer by default.

In the new flat, we looked into cutting up the space so they could have their own tiny rooms, but we would have lost the big living room space, and they would've been in capsules practically. So they're sharing a room, but with heaps of storage and very little furniture - beds with drawers under them, built-in desks with shelves and nothing else. We've set up the wall spaces around their beds/desks to be covered with all their things easily - blackboards, pinboards, magnetic frames, shelves etc.

The rest of the house is very simple with lots of built-in storage. One tiny room is just all storage - we're painting it bright yellow with cheerful baskets and white shelves so you're happy to go in and out of it. The kitchen is compact but packed full of little things - built-in garbage cans, extra drawers instead of shelves, a tiny pantry tucked into an alcove etc. The bathrooms are purely functional, with built in storage and our focus was making them super-easy to clean. The big room is all built-in storage and shelves.

We did the whole house in the same colours - dark grey flooring and white walls - so the space feels continuous and larger. OTOH, I saw a fabulous tiny house where every room was completely different in colours and textures, like a tiny rich paintbox.

We've gotten rid of most of our furniture - one sofa, one dining room table, everything else is built in or very lightweight (cane chairs as extra seating).

You can totally pull it off. Get rid of all your junk ruthlessly, keep things light and built-in, and focus on experiences in your house - having a big coffeetable where your kids play games and build things, and all their lego and stuff can be stowed under, having a long shelf at the floor level for their books, etc. The new baby is in a moses basket crib as the smallest we could find, and everything else is divided into two plastic buckets stacked by our bedside, with one drawer in the wardrobe. Instead of a changing table, she has a changing cloth folded up in one of her buckets. I'm pretty sure she doesn't care that she doesn't have a nursery.
posted by viggorlijah at 10:18 PM on January 7, 2012

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