Smallerizing: A little apartment can be a sweet, simpler home

  • By Sarah Jackson, Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, January 30, 2008 10:18pm
  • Life

Downsizing isn’t easy.

Whether you’re moving from a house into a condo during your working years or retiring from a 3,500-square-foot rambler to a 500-square-foot retirement suite, tough choices and space challenges will abound.

We like our stuff, after all. But letting go of belongings is essential if you’re moving into a smaller space.

It’s a reality that comes up frequently at retirement homes.

Staff members at the North Creek Retirement and Assisted Living Community in Bothell, celebrating its grand opening in February, are trying to help prospective renters imagine what it might be like to live in spaces ranging from about 600 square feet to 1,000 square feet.

Six model suites, including independent-living and assisted-living one- and two-bedroom floor plans, have been completely decorated to show just how stylish smaller digs can look with a little design savvy.

“It’s like a tour of homes,” said Debra Landis-Zuleger, an interior designer for Mountain West Interiors.

Each model suite has a theme such as traditional, seaside, urban, tropical and country.

“It’s very difficult for many people to realize that the possibilities are here,” she said. “We want to provide fun and flavor.”

When compared to the unfurnished rooms, all the models somehow seem larger and more expansive when warmed up with furniture and accessories.

“It’s kind of misleading,” Landis-Zuleger said of the unfurnished spaces. “There really is quite a lot of room.”

But because clutter can drag a space down, Landis-Zuleger recommends residents move only what they truly love and things they use every day.

While most retirement communities provide numerous common areas for socializing, entertainment, crafts, games and cooking, extra storage outside the suites isn’t typical.

“Bring those things that mean the most to you and build your space around them,” she said. “What do you really need? What do you touch every day? What are the things that make up your everyday life?”

Of course, it’s all easier said than done.

Christy Urdal and Ruth Granen, who both specialize in relocating seniors, face such challenges every day.

Moving from even a modest kitchen into a kitchen that is one-fourth the size, for example, calls for deep cuts. One recent client did not want to part with his many appliances, including multiple waffle irons and crock pots, not to mention a Kitchen Aid stand mixer.

Urdal and Granen belong to the National Association of Senior Move Managers, part of a booming industry that caters to retirees dealing with such downsizing dilemmas.

They help homeowners pare down and organize their belongings with their new space in mind, using their knowledge as members of the National Association of Professional Organizers.

“We measure their furniture. We get the floor plan. We do a lot of visualization,” Urdal said.

Urdal owns NextStep Transitions and often works in tandem with Ruth Granen, who owns Your Home Inc.

They then help move their clients into their new homes. They make sure computers and TVs are hooked up and that everything is unpacked and put in its right place before they’re done.

Granen, looking at pictures of the model homes at North Creek, said the decorated units looked dreamy but not entirely realistic.

“Everything has to have function,” she said, looking at a living room with a 3-foot-tall plant in a corner. “There’s never room for a houseplant.”

That corner would more practically be used for a chair, Granen said.

Most homeowners who have downsized also won’t have perfectly coordinated or theme-driven decor either, Granen said. Peoples’ belongings are often much more eclectic, but also more personal.

“We want them to feel like it’s their things,” Urdal said. “But it’s laid out differently so it’s exciting.”

When helping homeowners select which furniture to take and which to leave behind, Urdal and Granen steer clients to their most versatile pieces.

Expandable furniture that can serve multiple functions and furniture with storage are two of the most helpful elements of small space living, said Granen, who is also an interior redesign specialist.

They might suggest a homeowner bring only the bottom portion of a china hutch instead of the entire piece so it could be used as a TV stand or a low-profile cabinet.

“These spaces are tiny,” Urdal said. “We’re looking for storage.”

Avoiding clutter is especially important in confined areas, which is unfortunately where it’s mostly likely to occur, Landis-Zuleger said.

“You don’t want to overcrowd these spaces,” she said. “You become weary.”

Though it can be extremely emotional and downright painful at times to part with favorite items, relocating can be a time of celebration, a fresh start, Landis-Zuleger said.

“You can really be uplifted by whatever space you’re in,” Landis-Zuleger said. “It’s just putting your personality in it and having fun.”

Reporter Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037 or

Remember scale: Small spaces call for proportionally appropriate furniture and accessories. Limit the height and depth of larger items such as sofas to less than 40 inches. Small pieces are easier to angle and arrange. Leave your overstuffed chair and sectional sofa behind.

High ceilings: Seek soaring spaces, such as those with 9-foot ceilings, when choosing a small space. They make limited square footage feel more expansive.

Expandable furniture: Gate-leg and extension tables make small spaces more flexible. Some extension tables come with leaves hidden inside for group seating.

Double duty: If selecting new furniture, choose only pieces that offer hidden secondary storage such as ottomans with storage under the cushions or coffee tables, end tables and console tables with drawers. Keep visual clutter in check by choosing storage with solid doors; avoid glass or clear doors or pieces with open cubbies.

Limit seating: If your home is designed for one or two people, plan for extra seating by keeping wooden folding chairs in the closet along with stylish covers or comfortable seat pads.

Put your TV on a diet: If you’re desperate for space, consider trading your TV set for a space-saving flat screen, which can hang on the wall or takes up less room on a surface.

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