I’ve Lived in 25 Small Apartments—The Best Ones Had These 4 Things in Common

published Aug 2, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image

All tiny apartments are not equal. I should know because I lived in 25 of them during an eight-year subletting experiment. My two dozen-plus moves were brought on by my decision to go back to school. One temporary sublet led to another… then another… then another. Somewhere between moves, I found that I loved this semi-nomadic life. Not only did I get to experience a lot of different neighborhoods, furnishings, and set-ups, I even found I was saving money(!). By the time I was ready to get a place of my own, I knew exactly what I needed to avoid (namely awkward layouts, knobbed kitchen faucets, and lovely views of… brick walls) and what was non-negotiable. What makes up a perfect small space exactly? In my experience, it’s these four assets:

1. Natural light

I didn’t realize how important sunlight was until I rented a tiny ground-floor apartment for two months in New York City. The first time I saw it, it was during a snow storm. It was a great price for a terrific location and it seemed cozy, yet comfortable. (Sadly, no, I don’t have photos of my old apartments anymore. Constantly moving meant I needed to keep my belongings lean, and emotional clutter was the first to go.)Two months in, I’d even had the option to sign on for another year once the renter’s lease was up! I didn’t last that long, though.

After a couple of weeks of spending my days in the apartment working from home, I started feeling morose. The lack of natural light made that “cozy” apartment seem cramped, almost confining. There was a large window that looked out on the grass behind the building but being on the ground floor, with tall structures surrounding it, the sun was blocked for all but one hour a day. I decided to move again, this time to a slightly pricier third floor walk-up on the other side of Manhattan. It was bright and sunny—and boy, did it change my mood! Since then, I’ve tried to live in apartments that faced south or west to get the most light throughout the day. Of course, if you only use your apartment to sleep in and never hang out there, then you can probably get away with living in a dark space!

2. Access to nature

A great view or outdoor access can make up for even the tiniest of spaces. It helps keep the place from seeming too confining. While my absolute best apartments had a little extra physical space outdoors, like a patio or garden, even a view of a neighboring or community garden across the street helped me feel like I had a bit more mental space. It didn’t matter how extraordinary the greenery was, either: I found that a snow-covered garden soothed me in winter equally as well as a blooming one in the summer. And even in the spaces where I didn’t have a garden view, I found that putting up flower boxes outside the windows really perked me up. Science backs me up on this: Even just a view of nature has been shown to have multiple benefits, like helping boost self-discipline.

3. Openness

The size of the apartment isn’t quite as important as how it’s set up. I found that in small apartments, the more open the living space was, the more comfortable it was because there were more opportunities to rearrange and place the furniture. In some cases, I preferred an open square or rectangular studio to a one-bedroom because I had many different options as to where I placed a bed, desk, comfortable chair, or loveseat. I found that in the smaller one-bedrooms I had the budget for, I often wouldn’t have enough room in the partitioned sleeping area for more than a bed. In a studio, however, I was able to prioritize the space to fit my needs. Also, by having it all in one open room, I was able to use furniture for two purposes. For example, I could use an ottoman as a nightstand, but clear it off during the day and use it for its original purpose, or extra seating when needed. 

I liked more restrictive apartments, too, though—as long as everything had its place. Once I rented a wonderful chopped-up studio with a slender work area that was closed off from where the bed was and then a slender cooking area that led into a small bathroom. Though I couldn’t move any of the furniture, everything was perfectly proportioned and placed, so it felt a lot more spacious than it was. (A wall of west-facing windows that brought in plenty of illumination and had a view of a Tribeca park helped, too!)

4. Storage space

It took me a really long time to realize how important hideaway storage is in a small apartment. Having clutter—however necessary—out in the open can make a small space feel especially cramped. That’s why while I prefer the look of a pedestal sink, the best apartments I’ve lived in have always had vanity sinks. Coat closets and sliding door storage walls have been important, too! While we can all aspire to be Marie Kondo, you’re going to have belongings in your apartment—probably more than you’d like. It’s fine to have things, but just make sure they’re hidden—especially in a tiny space.

Living in a small space without much built-in storage? Not necessarily a deal-breaker. Here, 9 sneaky ways to add more storage.

More great Real Estate reads: