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Small Home Renovation Ideas That Make a Big Difference

My first foray into post-divorce life involved a 500-square-foot, one-bedroom house…with two kids and a cat. Now, could I frame this experience as being part of the oh-so-cool tiny house living movement? Brand myself as a zen-like minimalist? Pitch myself as a human encyclopedia of small home renovation ideas and knowledge? Probably.

But the truth is, I was just living by the budget. A budget that was dictated by a very modest and uncertain income at the time.

There’s no doubt that an emotional difference exists between setting out to achieve an IG-worthy tiny house dream and being forced to downsize dramatically, but the daily reality is pretty similar and soon the charm of coexisting in a cozy space revealed itself.

My children didn’t have the option to retreat to their rooms, so we bonded over board games and binge-watched tv shows together. For a while, our dining room “table” was actually a small wooden platform—the sort of thing you might see a Buddha statue sitting on in a yoga studio—that we sat on the floor around with our knees touching. The cat had no place to escape from our affection.

Everything had a place—by necessity—and had to be put away immediately in order for life to function properly. Cleaning only took 10-15 minutes, even on the worst day. And every single purchase had to be carefully considered. Where would it go? Does it serve enough of a purpose to be necessary? Will I have to get rid of something else in order to keep it?

Technically, we were poor at the time but that’s not how any of us remembers it. (Except maybe the cat; she has impossibly high standards.) In fact, when I excitedly told my kids that I had finally scored us a two-bedroom house with a living room and a dining room and a yard and a big back porch, they were reluctant to leave our bungalow. Adamantly so. Weirdos. But I understood because I had my own reservations.

All of that is to say that tiny home living can have big benefits. We learned a lot about life living in a little space, and the small sacrifices we had to make all added up to big budget wins. Here are some things to consider if you’re looking for some small home renovation ideas.

Small Home Renovation Tips and Tricks

Living in a small space requires creativity, intentionality, and flexibility. Consider the following if you’re planning home improvements to maximize little living spaces:

Create visual continuity

It’s unlikely that you’ll actually have many wide open spaces in a tiny home, but you can give the illusion of more room by reducing contrasts. For instance:

  • Using one continuous style of flooring material in as many rooms as possible helps make your home feel like one large space instead of a collection of very small rooms.
  • When it comes to paint, you don’t have to live in a sea of white, beige, and greige. However, if you choose to incorporate colors, try to stay within a small range of similar shades to reduce the visual distraction of dramatically-contrasting colors.
  • If it’s possible, open up the space by removing unnecessary walls or creating a wider open door frame between areas. Definitely consult a structural engineer first!

Focus on function

In a smaller space, it’s critical to really evaluate any upgrades, additions, or purchases to determine if they’re helpful, if they’re necessary, and if there’s any way to make something multi-purpose.

  • Forget about a Kardashian-esque closet that’s bigger than most bedrooms, but closet organizers can go a long way in organizing a small space. Consider your actual needs vs. buying whichever organizing system is on sale or looks the coolest. Do you have a lot of shoes? Do you need built-in drawers so you can skip having a traditional dresser? Find a system that works with your actual life. Check Ikea, The Container Store, and The Home Edit Instagram page for inspiration.
  • Okay, hear me out: like Transformers but instead of vehicles they all turn into pieces of furniture. But they aren’t sentient because that would be scary. This is your furniture strategy. Think murphy beds with attached open shelving, living room chairs that fold out into twin beds, headboards that double as bookcases, full-length mirrors that open to store jewelry, or ottomans as coffee tables (preferably with a top that opens for storage). Amazon has a ton of options for space-saving furniture.

Lighten up

Dark rooms and shadows can make a room feel closed off. Find more ways to bring in light to create an open and airy vibe.

  • Switch up your light fixtures, taking care to make sure they match the scale of the room. You don’t want to be ducking around a chandelier that physically and visually disrupts the space. Install recessed lighting or wall sconces to add more light without taking up room.
  • It’s a slightly bigger renovation list item, but adding or enlarging windows can add more natural light and offer the feeling of more breathing room. If that’s outside of your budget for now, go with white or sheer curtain panels whenever possible, hanging the curtain rod high to create the illusion of more vertical space.
  • Mirrors are another great way to trick the eye into believing a room is bigger than it is, and they’re a hot item on interior design blogs right now anyway.

Make space

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make space in places where it may seem impossible. (You should definitely accept it.)

  • Renovating a cramped bathroom? Consider removing the bathtub in favor of a shower with seamless glass doors, build a recessed shelf into a shower wall to hold shampoo and soap, or replace the vanity with a pedestal sink to find more floor space.
  • If you’re redoing the kitchen, opt for cabinets that go all the way to the ceiling, even if you’ll need a step stool to reach. You can use the very top cabinet shelves for longer term storage. Also, implement cabinet organization systems; shelving that’s customized for the contents of that cabinet, turntables to access hard-to-reach items, hooks at the top of cabinets to hang mugs, risers that allow you to take advantage of vertical space.
  • If it works with your area and your style, consider swapping out the chairs at your kitchen table with banquette bench seating that opens for additional storage.
  • “Steal” space wherever you can; drawers or storage cubbies in the area under the stairs, shelving around windows or flanking a fireplace, a desk or table that folds down from the wall instead of taking up valuable square footage of floor space.

Purge to Splurge

Obviously, the easiest way to live an uncluttered existence is to get rid of stuff and not buy new stuff. Neither part of that suggestion is fun for most people though. Two things:

  • First, don’t bring anything into your space unless you know exactly where it’s going to go. Maybe you’ll have to get rid of something else first. It will make you think harder about whether that item is worth it.
  • Second, create a category in your budget for “found” home improvement money. Any time you decide to skip a small splurge or unnecessary purchase, transfer the amount you would have saved into your fun new category. Add even more momentum by selling items you no longer want or need by having a garage sale or by posting it on Facebook Marketplace or a similar site, and put that extra income towards your new home improvements too.
Adjust your spending priorities to turn your small home renovation ideas into reality.
Adjust your spending priorities to turn your small home renovation ideas into reality.

One of the big benefits of having a smaller floor plan is that your home renovation ideas don’t require as much material to go from dream to reality. You won’t need as many cabinets or square feet of flooring as the average-sized home, so save where you can so that you can splurge on high quality upgrades and materials that you’ll love for a long time.

Think about your needs and about how you actually live in your space, make a thoughtful plan, list out your priorities, get estimates for each, and create a budget to help you customize your cozy home so that it fits your life, regardless of its size.

Ready to take the first step towards turning your small home renovation ideas into reality? Try 34 days of YNAB for free and build a better home budget.

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Small Home Renovation Ideas That Make a Big Difference