Nicholas Herman and his wife, Shannon Claire Smith, had dreamed for years of moving from Charlotte to Washington. In April 2014, Herman, 31, flew to Washington for a job interview. When Smith, 29, arrived to pick him up from the airport, he handed her his phone: He had an email offering him the position in the George Mason University development office, starting in two weeks.
First, she burst into tears.
But as she dried her eyes, she was already figuring out a plan to downsize.
“I began working like a madwoman,” says Smith, who now works at American University as a Web content and marketing coordinator while also running a design business and writing a design blog, Burlap & Lace. “We knew that in D.C., all we could afford was a one-bedroom, so we had to sell and donate most of our possessions. We weren’t even sure we could keep our king-size bed.”
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The only nonnegotiables were their pets: Pomeranian Max and two cats, Fritters and Miss Kitty, would have to be welcome in their new digs.
Goodbye, 2,300-square-foot traditional north Charlotte house in the Keeneland near Northlake Mall with three bedrooms, a nice yard and two-car garage.
Hello, 850-square-foot one-bedroom in a 1928 building in the hip Adams Morgan section of Washington.
Herman and Smith, who met as students at UNC Charlotte, were married in 2009 and bought a house in a foreclosure sale around the same time. They upgraded the house with DIY projects, laying laminate flooring, changing kitchen countertops and installing crown molding.
He worked in fundraising at UNCC, and she was self-employed with a blog and design business. But they always talked about relocating to Washington, where Smith’s best friend lived. “We like the energy of the city,” Herman says.
So with his offer in hand, they focused on how much they could get rid of in four weeks. The plan was for Herman to start work and come back on weekends to help.
Shedding their stuff
First, they went apartment hunting. They found a pet-friendly one-bedroom rental for $1,850 – about three times their monthly mortgage payment in Charlotte. “We wanted a building with history and character and quirky detailing,” Smith says. “Our home in North Carolina was a cookie-cutter house and was builder’s-grade-everything.”
The apartment had original hardwood floors, a cute dining alcove, high ceilings and a glassed-in former porch that let in lots of natural light. The kitchen was tiny but had two built-in china cabinets with glass doors.
Back in Charlotte, they hosted yard sales, listed things on Craigslist and donated to charity. They dumped most of their furniture, half their clothes, 90 percent of their books and all their holiday decorations. “We realized there was no way to store a fake Christmas tree in an apartment,” Herman says.
“We watched from our window as people stuffed our tree into their car and pulled away,” Smith says, “just like the Grinch.”
The couple didn’t have a lot of sentimental attachment to most things, as they had bought them secondhand. “We had no investment pieces,” Smith says. “These were just our starter pieces.”
At the end of every weekend, they posted a “curb alert” on Craigslist and stacked up pieces that hadn’t sold, free for the taking. “People showed up and picked our driveway clean,” Smith says. The last day, “I mopped my way out the door.”
Figuring out a narrow room
They rounded up the pets and drove seven hours north, following their small moving truck. Inside were two white dressers, a desk, a small table, a sofa, a KitchenAid mixer, a knife block, dishes and the king-size mattress set, and what was left of their clothes and books.
Then it was time to settle in. “We had to think about design in a totally different way,” Smith says. “In North Carolina, we had extra space, and I filled it with stuff.”
They thought of ways to make each room serve several functions. “I wanted to embrace the size and wanted it to be as bright and bold as possible,” Smith says. “I wanted to break the rules and be colorful and have fun with things like painting the ceiling in the hallway pink.” (That would be Pink Popsicle by Benjamin Moore.)
They struggled with the long, narrow living room. To make sense of it, they created three spaces: an entry area with a console table and place for mail and keys, a library wall of open bookshelves (to keep it from feeling closed in) and a lounging area with a sofa and TV.
The dining alcove got a stylish new Scout & Nimble hanging lamp that glows copper inside when lighted. Smith painted a blackboard wall in the kitchen and installed a tiny herb garden of mint, oregano and thyme in wall-mounted pots.
There have been new DIY projects: building a radiator cover in the bathroom, painting white cotton Ikea curtains ($14 a pair) to make them look custom, and creating a headboard that required the two of them to wrestle $10-a-yard banana leaf fabric over layers of plywood, upholstery foam and batting. Thrift-shop bedroom lamps were updated with black drum shades from Target.
Their small space doesn’t deter them from entertaining. They had 30 guests for a make-your-own-gin-and-tonic party and a baby shower for 20, where Smith took everything off her bookshelves and filled them with presents. Last year they hosted Friendsgiving in their living room, sticking their sofa in the dining room and renting two tables to seat 20. Herman roasted two turkeys in the 7-foot-long galley kitchen. They are hosting the second annual Friendsgiving this year.
Yes, they do miss grilling and having parties spill outside to the backyard.
But they have no regrets. “It’s like a giant weight of knickknacks has been lifted off our shoulders,” Smith says. “We honestly don’t miss our old stuff.”
From house to apartment
Moving from a 2,300-square-foot house to a one-bedroom rental required Shannon Claire Smith and Nicholas Herman to rethink everything. Here are some tricks they used to think outside the “rental box” and make the most of their smaller living space.
Create zones: Breaking up a long space into smaller, separate areas makes your home seem bigger. Use furniture or rugs to define “rooms.” Carve out a designated entry area for keys and mail, a comfortable spot for seating and a functional work space.
Bring the focus up: Hang artwork and curtains tall and wide. Put curtain rods just below the ceiling. Install floor-to-ceiling shelves to maximize storage without taking up floor space. Stretching the surface area of the walls creates the illusion of height and space.
Paint, if you’re allowed: Painting an accent wall or hallway creates depth and dimension. Don’t be afraid of bold or dark colors; they give the illusion of depth.
Light it up: Avoid overhead fluorescent lighting. Place lamps and mirrors strategically to create mood lighting and bounce natural light around the room. Replace boring light fixtures with vintage finds.
Update your bathroom: Replace dated faucets and install a rain shower head; stash the originals to swap back when you move out. Consider building a screened radiator cover to hide the bulky unit as well as provide another surface. Smith and Herman painted a black stripe around the room to mimic tile.