- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 14, 2010

Just about everything seems to be getting smaller these days. Laptops are lighter, budgets are shrinking, and wallets, well, those are substantially thinner. (If only the same could be said for waistlines!) Now, after years and years of ever-increasing footprints, homes, too, are getting smaller.

Although the average square footage of a new house is double what it was in the 1960s, today’s new homes have been shrinking, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. According to the National Association of Home Builders, 59 percent of builders nationwide are significantly downsizing from the “McMansion era.”

Meanwhile, the new interest in urban living means many homeowners are crowding into row and town houses designed for a simpler age when people had a lot less, well, stuff.

So what happens when you want to sell that small space?

A lot, experts say, if you’re careful about showcasing what you have to its best advantage. Remember, potential buyers tend to visualize themselves — and their stuff — in your space. Confront them with some of the things you live with every day, and they’ll likely just see clutter, clutter everywhere.

“I look at people, listen to people and see their faces when they go through a home,” says Lenn Harley, broker-owner of Homefinders.com, a network of buyers representatives in Maryland and Northern Virginia. “My job is to figure out what they want and need and how they see themselves in the space.”

For home sellers, the job is to showcase the space to demonstrate to potential buyers how much it can be lived in. It’s all about potential. So if you really want to sell your home, you’ll have to present it in a new way.

“There’s definitely a difference between how you showcase a home for sale and how you live,” says Lyric Turner, owner and principal of Red House Staging, a D.C.-based staging and design company. “As much as I’d like to live in some of the staged properties I’ve seen, in real life, it’s not practical.”

Stagers counsel home sellers to get rid of personalized possessions and present the home in a way that will highlight the space itself, not the people who live there. So here are some easy tips that will enable you to minimize the impact of your small space while maximizing its appeal as a place that’s just right.

• Get rid of your stuff. Yes, that doll collection or pile of newspapers in the corner may be meaningful to you, but it likely will be far less significant to that potential homebuyer who might just see it as … trash. So be brutal.

“You want to edit as much as possible,” Ms. Turner says. “A lot of people have made do with small spaces, and they use every possible nook and cranny, but they’ve never gotten around to putting those small-space solutions in place.”

Which means, at this point, stripping down and throwing out is crucial.

“The space is what it is,” Ms. Turner says. “So anything you can do to improve traffic flow is a big help.”

Ms. Turner also recommends reducing the number of books in bookcases and using objects and decor to break up the space.

• Cut things down to size. One of the more unfortunate design decisions of the past few years, stagers say, has been the near-universal use of overstuffed and oversized furniture. That may work in a larger-footprint home, but it can be devastating in a small space. Potential homebuyers like to imagine what they can do with the space, and that’s harder to accomplish when there’s hardly a glimpse of floor or carpet to be seen.

“The most important thing is the size of the furniture,” says Sandy Gardner, owner of Commonwealth Staging in Northern Virginia and president of the Virginia chapter of the American Society of Home Stagers and Redesigners. “Bigger is not necessarily better.”

Ms. Gardner also recommends buying couches without skirts.

“With the floor visible, you get the impression of a wider expanse,” she says.

• Consider your colors. Giving tired walls a fresh coat of paint is a quick and inexpensive way to brighten things. Time was, you could make a small space look larger by employing an array of colors - so long as they all were white. Things have relaxed a bit these days, and stagers will use a punch of color now and then or accessorize with colorful pillows.

“White doesn’t photograph well, ” Ms. Gardner says. “But off-white can give you a little personality. You want to show personality without being too off-putting.”

Stagers caution against using too much color or one that might not be as attractive to the buyer as it is to you.

“Color is a very personal thing,” Ms. Turner says. “So stay away from anything too bold. What looks good to you may not look good to someone else.”

Ms. Turner especially likes Sherwin Williams’ Opaline, a greenish gray-blue shade that seems to work especially well in small spaces.

Designers and stagers also recommend using a group of related colors throughout the house.

“We would like to have a cohesive color plan,” Ms. Gardner says. “We try to use a fabric story — a group of related colors — throughout the house.”

Meanwhile, hanging mirrors on walls or placing them near lighting fixtures also can make a small room seem larger — and brighter.

If you can’t keep away from color, use it in your accessories.

• Consider the use of the room. Small spaces work better when they are uncluttered, and that holds true for functionality as well as form. Decide the primary use of the room and make sure the objects within reflect that use.

“Choose one thing and stick to it,” Ms. Turner says. “Don’t crowd [in] the desk and the bed and the television and the microwave.”

• Placement is key. You want the room to look cozy, and that’s an easy effect to achieve with a small space. But an array of accessories can overwhelm the eye. Choose your furniture carefully, with a view toward coordination and the ability to deliver a punch of color - in small doses.

“Leave some space around your furniture so people can walk around,” Ms. Gardner says. “We don’t like to mash furniture up; it makes things look crowded.”

Ms. Gardner also suggests considering barrel-back chairs, whose rounded backs can go farther into corners.

• Clean out the closet. Consider storing off-season clothing and other items. (Many dry cleaners offer storage for clothes.)

“Buyers are going to yank open your closet door and project themselves in that space,” Ms. Turner says. “If it’s overstuffed, even if it’s not their stuff, it’s going to have an impact on their decision.”

Here too, designers note, potential home buyers like to see the floor. Also, replacing an assortment of plastic and wire hangers with all wooden ones is simple and cheap. Organizing your clothing by color helps complete the streamlined look and can add to the appeal.

“In those small D.C. houses, there’s not a lot of closet space,” Ms. Turner says. “You really should be making decisions about how you are going to live now, with your home on the market.”

• Don’t forget the small stuff. Often, little touches such as a plate rail near the ceiling or a tall bookcase will draw the eye up, creating the illusion of height and expanse. Crown or baseboard molding can provide an elegant touch. Some designers recommend hanging curtains above the normal window level. Using tiebacks will help widen the window space.

“Don’t neglect the walls,” Ms. Gardner says. “Shelves can hold accessories, and it’s a chance to add personality without overcrowding.”

Ms. Gardner also recommends wall-mounted lighting, which can save valuable floor space.

• Remember the bathroom. Even the smallest bathroom space can benefit from a reworked look, Ms. Turner says.

“Try a little color in the bathroom,” she says. “You can even try darker colors and make the bathroom into a cozy cave.”

Or, you can create a retro spa feel by using light colors and white fabrics. After all, everyone likes a trip to the spa.

m Hide the storage. Putting your bed on risers can create storage space underneath that won’t be seen. In the kitchen, spice risers can create more space within cabinets, meaning less clutter on the counter.

“Check out space savers in places like Ikea,” Ms. Gardner says. “They’re fairly inexpensive and go a long way into making things more orderly.”

Check off all of the above steps, and you may well find your small space seems not so small after all. And you may have a few ideas for the future.

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me, ‘I wish I had done this before,’ ” Ms. Turner says. “Hopefully, it will give them some ideas for their next house.”

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