Some words have different meanings depending on the geography of the soil where you're standing when you say them. A "biscuit" in England is a "cookie" in America. "Pop" in the South is something balloons do, while in the Midwest, it's the favored name for a fizzy soft drink. And worst of all, the standards for what constitutes a "small apartment" vary wildly based on location. In New York City, a "small" apartment may be 300 square feet. In Atlanta (where I live and home of the country's largest apartments) 300 square feet is practically unlivable.
What does Apartment Therapy think? An informal survey of our staff didn't reveal much— our NYC residents all agreed that "less than 500 square feet" seemed small, while one remote Salt Lake City-based employee said "I have friends here whose 'small' studios are like 750 square feet." Our Small Cool contest has hard limits, though. "Small" (the largest category, space-wise) is anything between 800 and 1,000 square feet. The smallest division is "Teeny-Tiny," for anything 400 square feet and under.
So is there any way to reach a national consensus on what is "small"? Likely not. "Micro unit" has no standard definition in the United States, according to the Urban Land Institute. The ULI uses a working definition of "a small studio apartment, typically less than 350 square feet, with a fully functioning and accessibility compliant kitchen and bathroom." (There's a lot of great info in that ULI report from 2015—and I would encourage you to check it all out for yourself, if this sort of semantic squabble lights your fire.)
Instead, the ordinances that govern minimum dwelling sizes vary by municipality. Gizmodo, in 2014, published an informative run-down of the minimum square feet required by many U.S. cities for "micro apartments." The smallest? Seattle, at 90 square feet—smaller than the footprint of a mid-sized car. Los Angeles' minimum checks in at 200 square feet, and New York at a surprisingly spacious 400 square feet. But we're talking legal limits. Obviously the guy who pays $450 a month to live in a 9-foot by 4.5-foot Brooklyn crawlspace doesn't care about your legal limits (and ditto for the landlord who rents it to him).
There are also other, more interesting, minimum standards for apartments across the country, according to the ULI report. In San Francisco, legislation exists to protect not only the overall size of the dwelling (220 square feet), but also the size (and existence) of common areas—at least 70 square feet must be allocated to a bathroom and kitchen. In Boston, a micro unit must be 450 square feet and within one mile of public transit, though that limit was relaxed for some recent development. And that doesn't even scratch the surface of the square-footage realities of more creative living arrangements like "tiny homes." A tiny home on wheels is technically an RV—subject to a whole different set of regulations.
But "small" doesn't have to mean "minimum"—you're entitled to bitch about not having enough space, even if you're not living in a micro unit. So let's talk small in a comparison to average. If the lower limit of "small" is at or below the legal required size, the high limit of "small" must be somewhere at or below the average square footage of an apartment in a city.
According to data from Rent Cafe, the average size of an apartment in the U.S. is currently 889 square feet. By region, the average apartment size was somewhere between 843 square feet in California and 974 square feet in the Southeast. (You can check out the average apartment size in your city with this table from Rent Cafe.) That's a pretty definitive top end. If your place is any bigger than 890 square feet, I don't think you're allowed to call your place "small" anymore.
So, What's a Small Apartment?
If we're being driven by cross-country data, I'd say a "small apartment" is somewhere between the average of the lower limit—around 250 square feet—and the upper limit—about 850 square feet. So safe to say a small apartment is one around 550 square feet or less. Pretty much what the New Yorkers in the Apartment Therapy office told me it would be.
But now it's your turn to weigh in. Take the poll below, and then share your thoughts in the comments.