Americans love their square footage. For the past 20 years, homes across the nation have been growing larger at a rate of roughly 5% annually.
At some point, though, all that space starts to turn on you. Constant maintenance, empty bedrooms, and steep monthly bills have you seriously thinking about selling your home and downsizing (all the way down!) to an apartment.
But with great freedom comes… well, some sacrifices. Going from a spacious, private single-family to a unit with shared walls is one of of the most drastic housing changes you can make.
You want to be logistically and emotionally ready for the road ahead or your move to apartment living will be like a bad case of whiplash.
With the advice of real estate pros who’ve helped homeowners with decades worth of clutter successfully fit their stuff into a one bedroom, we put together an essential guide to downsizing to an apartment with everything you’ll need to know to make this transition a smooth one. That way you can let go of all the stuff holding you back and enter this new phase with confidence.
Start Decluttering and Simplifying Your Belongings
When it’s time to move into your new, much smaller abode, inevitably some of your things will have to go. So it’s best to start the process of downsizing to an apartment sooner than later—while you’re searching for the perfect pad.
You’ll have to do this to get your house on the market anyway and ready for showings. Consumer Reports says there’s a 3-5% value increase for a clean, decluttered house—so paring down is only going to benefit you from every angle.
According to Psychology Today, parting with the belongings you’ve accumulated over decades is easier said than done, as our material possessions over time come to “support our sense of identity like scaffolding.” But letting go of the clutter can actually be freeing, if you can get over the strong sense of attachment and move on.
Two of the best rules of thumb for downsizing stuff are to employ the one-year rule, and to go digital with as much paper as possible, which includes magazines, bills, and other stacks taking up precious space. And have you heard about the Marie Kondo method of decluttering? It helps you decide what to toss and keep based on whether or not an item “sparks joy” for you.
Or take the strategy of Laura Matthews, who downsized from a three-bedroom in Massachusetts to a one-bedroom apartment on the beach in Santa Monica, as reported by Time.com.
Matthews found comfort in downsizing by selling or giving away items that held sentimental value to others that could really use them. A vintage chest of drawers went to a family who planned to restore it; a theater company took her grandfather’s desk (a great play prop no doubt!) She connected with these recipients online through sites like Craigslist and Freecycle.org.
Sell Your Furniture on Craigslist
Don’t be fooled by the plain and rudimentary design of Craigslist, which still looks like it came straight out of 1995 (when the site first launched.)
It’s arguably the best place on the web to sell furniture (though not so much decor). To post your bulky couches, La-Z-Boys and platform bed frames for sale on Craigslist, click on “post to classifieds” in the upper lefthand corner of your city’s homepage (start here to find your local Craigslist site).
Select “for sale by owner,” and then you’ll be directed to specify what you’re selling. From there, you can fill out the specs and price of your item and get your listing live. You’ll communicate with potential buyers via email.
To effectively sell on this platform, keep an eye on your post and if you haven’t received any bites, repost your listing a week or two later to bump it to the top of the search results. Always include multiple high-quality photos that show your item clearly, and be specific in describing its dimensions and condition.
Give Your Items Away Through Freecycle
Got possessions you no longer have use for and would like to give away rather than sell? Donate your items through Freecycle.org, a nonprofit network made up of thousands of groups and millions of members that collectively are the “largest internet-based gifting community” in the world.
Through Freecycle, you can gift any item that can be reused. Simply join your local Freecycle community to post your “Offer,” and you’ll receive emails from groups or individuals in your community who are interested in the item. You get to select who you’d like to give it to and arrange the exchange.
While you’re starting this next stage of life with more stuff than you know what to do with, another person somewhere just bought their first house and has a bunch of empty rooms to furnish. The internet has made it easier than ever to find a great home for the items you’d rather not set out at the curb. Another hot place for selling stuff on the web is Facebook Marketplace, which allows you to post and sell items right from your Facebook account (no extra app download necessary).
Just remember to mind your safety when organizing drop-offs and pickups with strangers. Use the buddy system, or arrange to meet in a public place.
Go Small to Dream Big: Make Your Apartment Wish List
Top real estate agent Dawn Rushton of Maple Valley, WA, always begins with her conversation with clients wishing to downsize by asking them about their main motivations.
Rushton, who ranks in the top 1% of local selling agents says, “I always want to determine why a seller is considering a move. When a seller’s goal is to go into a smaller…they are doing so because they are looking to lower their monthly debt, simplify their lifestyle or often, because of advancing age, they are looking to find a home that requires less physical maintenance.”
Now’s the time to dream big about all the freedom and flexibility that you’ll enjoy with nothing but a small space (and maybe just a lease) tying you down.
Apartment buildings are everywhere, meaning you have more control over your location and can choose to be close to urban centers for much less than if you had to pay for a full house—that’s not to mention the access to maintenance-free amenities many complexes offer.
With this in mind, you can make a list of must-haves and nice-to-haves to guide and narrow down your apartment search by asking yourself:
- What’s your budget?
- How much space do you need?
- What’s your ideal number of bedrooms and baths?
- Are you planning to entertain and host a lot of guests?
- Which do you desire more: peace and quiet, or proximity to local happenings?
- What local attractions would you like to live near, if any (shopping, restaurants, the beach)?
- What are your desired amenities (pool, gym, dog park)?
- Do you need a designated parking space?
- Do you need an apartment that’s pet-friendly?
- Is private yard space important to you?
Another big question is: Are you looking for an apartment where you can age in place? An apartment can be a great housing option for seniors who no longer want to deal with maintenance of any kind. If that’s the case, consider looking for single-story, first floor units so that stairs are never an obstacle.
Do You Want to Buy or Rent an Apartment?
Although we associate the idea of an apartment with “paying the rent,” when you’re downsizing from a home to an apartment, you may have the option to buy as well.
If you’ve lived in your current house for a long time and built up a nice nest egg, buying an apartment could be a feasible and attractive option. In that case, you’d use the proceeds from your home sale to purchase the unit outright, or at least put down a hefty chunk of change on it.
We advise that you wait until you have an offer under contract on your current home before you buy, to avoid juggling two mortgages.
The downside of that route is that buying a unit typically means you’ll be required to handle maintenance, unless the complex is part of a homeowners association that takes care of it, in which case you’ll have to factor in HOA fees.
Renting an apartment, perhaps reminiscent of your college days or the lease you signed after landing your first job, grants you more flexibility to get up and go visit the grandkids or travel Europe without worrying about snow removal or mowing the lawn. But of course, you’ll never see that rent money again.
Weigh the pros and cons of renting or buying an apartment carefully before making a decision that’s best for you.
Get Serious About Your Apartment Search
With your priorities and wish list nailed down, it’s time to put your apartment search into overdrive.
Luckily, the internet has made apartment browsing super easy (and dare we say fun!)
Take Apartments.com for example, which offers a visually pleasing, user-friendly search experience with lots of filters (dog-friendly, cat-friendly, parking, laundry facilities, pool, fitness center) in addition to the obvious ones (beds, baths, price) to narrow down your query. Apartments.com is perhaps most well-known, however, for its “Plan My Commute” feature that lets you search for a place near a specific address.
Abodo is another apartment search site that comes highly recommended with various sorting tools and a handy feature that turns apartment icons gray after you’ve looked at them so you can remember what you’ve already reviewed.
Wherever you begin your apartment hunt, harness the power of the internet to limit your search to those top places you’d like to see in person.
If you’re in a super hot rental market in New York City, work with a top real estate agent who knows the inventory inside and out to start booking tours.
Visit Several Apartments to Get A Feel for What’s Out There
If you’ve spent most of your life living in a big house, it’s hard to understand what smaller spaces really feel like.
“The most important thing to consider, in my opinion, is how the smaller space will affect their quality of daily life,” says Rushton. For this reason she always suggests her clients to tour spaces before making a final decision. “Think about how [you] would use the available space,” she says, “and whether or not the lack of the extra rooms or the size of the rooms will affect day to day life.”
Even with photos and square footage listed online, most of the good (or bad) feelings you’ll have about an apartment can only be understood when you’re physically standing in the space.
Furniture placement, natural light, and the floor plan all greatly affect the look of a smaller space—and this is something you’ll want to see for yourself.
Make a plan of action for visiting a few apartments—units within your budget, size, and desired location. Try to be open-minded, as in most cases the units you’ll be touring will be vacant.
Make note of a unit’s square footage before you arrive and then take a mental picture of the space when visiting. For many homeowners coming from larger properties, gaining a true sense of square footage is half the battle when downsizing to an apartment.
Also take note of available storage space and any creative storage solutions that pop to mind that would help you organize your current belongings in the unit. Then shop places like the Container Store to get the bins, boxes, under-the-bed drawers you’ll need to make downsizing to an apartment possible.
Finally, if you’re serious about a unit, bring a measuring tape with you to figure out which furniture will fit (and what items you’ll need to get rid of). That way, you won’t be paying to move stuff that you have no space for!
Review and Sign the Lease for Your New Apartment!
So you fell in love with a one-bedroom in the heart of your local town center, with a cute balcony, tasteful upgrades and sparkling pool. Now it’s time to sign the lease, and, we get it, it’s been awhile since you reviewed one!
Before you sign on the dotted line and make the deal official, review the lease carefully and check for:
- All the basics, such as the agreed upon monthly rent price, length of the lease, and the security deposit
- Which utilities (if any) are included in the rent
- The damages policy (make sure you aren’t liable for anything that happened before you arrived)
- Maintenance coverage (Is there a maintenance pro on call to unclog your drain, or will they just cover yardwork? Read the fine print.)
- The pet policy, if you have furry friends
- Rules about subletting
- Your renewal options for when the lease expires
Congratulations on Downsizing to an Apartment You Love
No one said downsizing was easy, but living minimally has been linked to a healthier lifestyle. And an apartment can give you newfound freedom you never imagined with the ball and chain of a house and mortgage locking you down.
First things first, you’ll need to sell your house and close that chapter before you make this transition, so work with a top real estate agent in your area who has experience selling homes just like yours and helping clients with downsizing. (You’ll thank us later.)
Ultimately, it isn’t your old stuff that’s going to make you happy. But being in a new, manageable space where you can get up, go and live your life with just the essentials and your passport in hand? That will.