Everything I Learned About Small Space Living in NYC

Everything I Learned About Small Space Living in NYC

When I first moved to NYC I had $408 in my checking account, no job, and a huge dream. This was in 2005, a time before there were unlimited blog posts about how to “live without starving in NYC” so there was a lot of trial and error. I had no idea how to read the subway map and I lied to several restaurants about my “NYC experience” so I would be considered for highly coveted bartending jobs.

The one thing I did know how to do was live small. Growing up we lived in a house with less than 900 square feet — and that was for four of us. Once I went off to college I was SO excited to live in dorms and did so for my entire college career.

It really isn’t surprising that I eventually found Professional Organizing as a way to make money off of all this small space living experience!

As we were packing up our 1,300 square foot house in Queens a few weeks ago we were dreaming and scheming about all the garage storage we were going to have in our new suburban life…

How much gardening Nick was going to do in our massive yard…

How excited we were going to be to have a driveway…

And now we’re very seriously considering living in a 5th Wheel, which totals out at 375 square feet of living space, while we travel around the U.S. fixing up our real estate projects.

We’re nuts, right?

Well, I don’t know. Maybe there is something to this small space living. Maybe I’m subconsciously drawn to it because it’s all I’ve ever known and it’s actually a great way to live.

However, NYC small space living is its own beast. Yes, there are a few tried and true tips that I swear by, along with thousands of other people, and that I’m including here because they are good points for me to revisit as we settle into the idea of living smaller than we ever have before. But there are a few other things about living in NYC that I think you should know if you’re thinking about moving to this amazing city – or, if you’re already there, this might give you a few ideas that may help your lifestyle.

Location, location, location

Here’s the deal, yes – apartments in NYC are small, but anyone who has lived there long enough can tell you that if you’re looking for more space you’ll either find it in the outer boroughs or upper Manhattan in neighborhoods like Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood. Sure, you’ll travel more to get to most of the action, but if space is what you need and you don’t want to pay a premium, then you’ll want to look at these specific neighborhoods.

When I first moved to NYC, I lived in Harlem at 157 and St. Nicholas Place. It was a massive three bedroom, one bathroom apartment complete with a proper kitchen AND living room. I then moved even farther uptown to Inwood to another three bedroom apartment and added a dining room to our living quarters. Everyone had their own room with a full-size bed, or larger, and we were able to afford it as artists just getting settled. Bonus – the outer boroughs and upper Manhattan are usually more affordable as well.

Choose Your Roommates Wisely

Speaking of three bedroom apartments, you can assume I didn’t live in these apartments by myself. If you’re going to commit to living in a small space, like an NYC apartment, you better love who you’re living with and they better love you too.

As a clean freak, my roommates knew how important it was that the common areas were clean. A few roommates still make fun of me, to this day, about my living quirks – like when you wash silverware, I liked them to be placed in the drying rack ‘standing up’ so the part of the utensil that went in your mouth wasn’t touching the bottom of the drying rack. It was a weird and probably annoying request. But, in return, I made sure my roommate’s weird quirks were met and, whenever there was a conflict, we felt comfortable enough to chat about it.

Delivery is a Way of Life

It’s funny, whenever I travel or I’m talking to anyone who doesn’t live in NYC, they have no idea what Seamless is – but, for New Yorkers, it is a way of life. It is a platform where you can easily shop any restaurant that delivers to your current location. Sometimes your space is so small, cooking at home isn’t enjoyable or easily possible. Not to mention, us NYers love to work long and late. Often, the last thing you want to do is come home and spend time cooking.

This specific service hasn’t always been around, but the concept of delivery in NYC has always been popular; apps have just made it super easy. You can get groceries, laundry, dinner, and even your wine delivered to your door. So, feel free to skimp on the pots and pans and don’t feel obligated to purchase and house laundry detergent.

Think Outside the Closet

IF and only if you are lucky enough to have closets in your NYC space, make sure you’re maximizing their height and functionality. But closet organization is a whole other blog post. Lets talk about the other spaces in an NYC apartment that can be used as storage.

Remember all that space you have in your kitchen cabinets because you don’t like cooking? Why not use that space for items that matter more to you?

I had a client who lived in a tiny Hell’s Kitchen apartment who was never home enough to cook. She either ate out or ordered in for every meal. So, when she called me to help her maximize her small space I encouraged her to think outside the box when it came to figuring out where to keep all her fabulous shoes. She loved shoes and handbags but only had so much closet and wall space. So…we utilized her cabinets, oven, and yes, even her dishwasher. She never used these appliances for their intended purposes, but with 400 square feet of total space, why not use these nooks for items she cared about keeping close by? Don’t be afraid to get creative and live however suits you.

NYC Small Space Living Rarely Means Small Budget

A big part of the small space movement is saving on living expenses. Sure, as an artist, bartender, and finally budding entrepreneur I was able to pay my bills and go out with my friends, but that took a lot of creativity and resourcefulness elsewhere in my lifestyle. Living in NYC on a moderate wage is possible – but you have to be very diligent with your budget. Everything is more expensive – delivery, groceries, clothing, restaurants, you name it. I lived in NYC for 12 years and LOVED having this concrete jungle in my backyard, but there are financial trade-offs to this sort of small space living.

Oldie but Goodie Tips for Small Space Living

  1. Go UP!
    1. When you have less floor space you must use your walls and sometimes ceilings to maximize your space! My favorite product was the Elfa system from The Container Store. Yes, it wasn’t cheap, but after I purchased a custom unit for my 400 square foot Upper West Side apartment that would act as storage for my small kitchen appliances, pots and pans, and other miscellaneous household items I then took this sturdy unit with me on 3 other moves. The Elfa system is customizable even if you need its function to change a year or two after purchasing it. There are other products out there, but in my many personal experiences with purchasing it and after years of helping clients with their smalls pace dilemmas, it’s my favorite verticle storage solution by far.
  2. Everything must be multi-functional
    1. My bed had several drawers
    2. My couch always had space underneath for storage
    3. Coffee tables can also be dinner tables – with storage inside!
    4. Never underestimate the power of the real estate on doors
  3. Learn how to get and stay organized
    1. Live and die by the One In One Out Rule: If you want to bring something new into your space something old must go.
    2. Have a clear and healthy relationship with your belongings. Your real estate in NYC is expensive – make sure you’re only storing things that are absolutely necessary for everyday living and things that make you undoubtedly happy.
    3. Give yourself a break, small spaces can quickly get out of hand. Organizing is a skill that must be revisited from time to time. If you’ve set up a system that isn’t working anymore, change it.
    4. Shameless plug: if you can’t get organized on your own, invest in someone who can help you. Professional Organizers are serious about their profession and can help you change your mindset and help you live more comfortably in your own home. Visit NAPO-NY (National Association of Professional Organizers) for more information.
Living in NYC is so rewarding on many levels. I’ve traveled the world and have yet to personally discover any place quite like it. Its diverse culture and thriving communities are second to none. Home life in NYC is unique and you should approach your space with an open mind remembering there are no hardset rules. Don’t judge yourself if your coffee table is also your dining table but is also your work table. So what if your dishwasher is where you choose to house your clean dishes so your cabinets are free to store your knitting supplies. Small space living is all about living on your own terms.

Thinking about moving to NYC? Have a specific small space living dilemma you want to share? I’d love to start a conversation! Feel free to reach out to me at or find me on Instragram @nestrs.



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