Maximizing Apartment Space

Author Gale Steves explains how to maximize apartment space and why it's important to understand what renters really need in an apartment.

Savannah, Ga.—Are you making the most out of the space in an apartment? Gale Steves, author of Right-Sizing Your Home: How to Make Your House Fit Your Lifestyle recently spoke to MHN about maximizing apartment space and the importance of understanding what renters really need in an apartment.

MHN: Congratulations on your new book!

Steves: Thank you! It’s actually a book that came out of my own apartment living experiences. When I came home to work, I realized that I couldn’t have a dedicated room for an office—like I did in my own office—so it forced me to start thinking about how we use our space. I’ve lived in New York and recently moved to Savannah, so I thought to myself, “OK, which room is going to go,” and then I realized I had to multitask the room that I had selected because I couldn’t give up my dining room. I mean, where would I eat otherwise? So the right-sizing concept came out of realizing that when you live in an apartment or condo, many times you can’t tear down a wall. You have to learn how to use the space wisely and well.

What the real estate agent or the builder might call a room doesn’t mean that you have to continue to think about that room in the same way. For example, I wanted my fairly unused dining room to function as a dining room, but I also realized it had to be my office—it was the only space left! The challenge for most people who are in a confined space where they cannot make major changes in it, or they cannot move a room out, or they can’t expand it, really forces people to either rethink how they use the space, or even rename a space so that it becomes part of their daily life.

MHN: Is that essentially what right-sizing is?

Steves: Yes. It’s really not adding on, it’s learning to re-use what you have and taking advantage of rooms that might not fully be used. I used to laugh and say, “Oh, I use my dining room all the time,” and I just don’t tell them it’s for my office! I took what was my mother’s china cabinet and changed it into storage for my paper goods and my files. I use the dining room table for sorting things. I fully use my dining room in a way I had never imagined, but it certainly got the job done. I could clear everything away, and no one would be the wiser. It could turn back into a dining room for the seven times a year I would use it.

MHN: It was interesting how you said you convert your space back into a dining room. Is that part of right-sizing—having the areas be convertible?

Steves: Think multi-tasking. If you’re in a condo or an apartment where you have a finite space, you might think of dedicating a room as a dining room, but if you only use it a certain number of times a year, it might also make a great library to store books, you can also use it, as I did, as a work space.

When a real estate person shows an apartment, they’ll say, “This is the living room, this is the dining room.” Well, who says that it has to be! Maybe it would be more convenient to have a small multipurpose room, which can be the dining room when you leave, but you need an extra place [for your] small children, and during their [early years], they’re not going to be sitting with linen napkins. Maybe it’s better to think of it as a playroom, for example.

Another area that’s multitasking is the family room, which is still called by some builders a living room. It’s a homework center, it’s for sitting and watching TV, it’s for entertaining and, of course no one admits to eating there, but we all do—myself included. There’s hardly a room that doesn’t have a potential for multipurpose. I mean, plenty of people say, “I have to have a dedicated guestroom,” but how many people use that guestroom? If you only use that guestroom a few times a year, it can also be used as an office, it can be used for crafts, it can be used for hobbies, as long as you have a place to store things in there. What I’m doing is trying to take a practical approach to how we actually live, and I think for many people who are in the business of multifamily, offering what I’m calling “flex spaces,” or including it in the sales spiel, would really help people envision what they can do.

MHN: Going back to something you said earlier about a room that’s maybe called a dining room, but might be better suited as a multipurpose room. Do you think the name affects the psychology of people?

Steves: I do, I absolutely do! If you want to test it, go out with a real estate agent and listen to what they say. They’re still stuck with the living room, dining room, everything but the front parlor. They have a certain name for something, and then that’s it. They don’t think beyond it. I think it would help people—particularly if you’re doing a model apartment complex, to have a flex space. Show people the possibilities! I think the model has a great way of affecting people, and I think that would help in terms of marketing. It can still be a living room/dining room situation, just don’t call it that.

MHN: Let’s talk about space. For example, I live in New York…

Steves: I feel your pain! When we sold our apartment, the woman bought it because what I had done with the space. I had actually used every possible inch. No space cannot be expanded. I think if you live in a small space, either look down—is there a space you’re not using?—or look up. I lowered the ceiling in a hallway, and that’s where I put things out of season. Of course, under your bed is a very good place.

MHN: What about for rentals? What if you couldn’t lower the ceiling or make any structural changes?

Steves: Well you probably can’t do that, but there’s some spaces that if someone is renting [they can use], such as back-of-the-door storage. There’s a wire rack storage system that can go on the back of the door. You can enhance your storage. I feel like in a small space you’re probably more fussed about the storage of things than you are about the living space, but I do think that if you have bookcases, why don’t you bring them all the way up to the ceiling? Take advantage of a wall. Don’t put dust collectors up there; put things that you really will use.

MHN: What about the kitchen area? Any tips?

Steves: If you’re renting, it’s a little tricky. But there is an area that a lot of people don’t think about, and that’s the backsplash. Great place for spice racks, great place for racks where you can put condiments on. There are rods that you can attach with minimal holes, and you can hang your spatulas. That’s a space that a lot of people don’t think about. It’s great real estate.

Another thing is to not put every appliance you have on your counter, because that’s clutter. Put the things that you’d use on a daily basis. Like, you wouldn’t need your waffle iron all the time. And look for appliances that store small. I’ve scaled down to a smaller food processor, and I thought, I have a food processor and a blender, do I really need both of them? So I’m starting to look at what I really need, and the things that I don’t need, I store away.

MHN: How do you determine people’s wants vs. needs in an apartment?

Steves: I think that when people say what they want, it’s usually a little bit different from what they need. If you watch that show House Hunters on HGTV, everyone feels they are entitled to stainless steel and granite. I laugh, and I throw popcorn at the TV! People are very influenced by what they see on TV, what they read in magazines, and that’s what sets off what their wants are, but what do they really need? It turns out that what people really need is convenience, meaning surfaces that are convenient and rooms that are convenient, and also comfortable.

MHN: Do you think people need to know what they need going in?

Steves: Yes, or to have the sales person be able to come in and romance them a little bit about the issue. People come in with, “Oh, I have to have so and so.” And the truth of the matter is they don’t need to have so and so. What they need is something that really functions well, as well as looks good.

I think some of the right-sizing concepts can certainly help a landlord or a manager to get leases signed. I try to approach how we live from the function point of view first, then the form side—I want it to look beautiful, but I really want it to work well.

MHN: So function is more important.

Steves: I used to laugh and say I had a very large bathroom in Manhattan, and it was the size of a twin mattress. People would gasp, and say, “How could you function in there?”

MHN: That’s funny, because when you said that, I thought, “That’s a pretty decent size for a bathroom!”

Steves: Right! When you imagined it you said, “Wow, you had a big bathroom!” So I think it’s a matter of perception. When people come in and say, “Oh, I have to have a big bathroom,” you know, how do you use it? If you had to trade off between a big bathroom and an extra closet, which would you take? There are options, and I think that if the people who are designing these, the people who are styling the model, and the sales people are all on the same page, I do feel that they will help themselves, and help focus the potential customer, to understand the flexibility of an apartment or condo. We don’t all live the same. If each of us rented the same apartment, we would change it, because I need this and you need that. From the practical standpoint, the home is under a lot of pressure. Whether you live in a house or an apartment, there’s still the same need for space and the various functions you do.