The year is 2006. It’s August and my new husband of 5 months and I are looking for a new home to buy. He’s tired of living in a rental in town and dealing with cranky neighbors. We want to buy something small and inexpensive – and we’re ready to renovate. After almost buying a 1906 foursquare in the heart of Stony Plain, Alberta (sigh – I still moon over that place) and then backing out at the last minute because its foundation issues made us sick to our stomachs, my dear hubby convinced me to visit this strange “home”. It’s a four bay garage on a 3 acre parcel in the countryside near Stony Plain. We made our appointment to see it, and now we’re viewing it for the first time with our bubbly realtor. “It’s a fixer-upper”, she’s told us… and she wasn’t kidding. Upon entry, I am overwhelmed by the rubbery, moldy stench of the place. There are bare, unpainted walls, a black tar-like floor and dust everywhere. There’s a “kitchen” on one side with a hot plate and a sink. The bathroom is dirty, there’s tub is so shallow you couldn’t wash a cat in it, and the DIY plywood vanity is laughable. The home has no basement, and there are two tiny bedrooms. Everything is filled with garbage and junk. I feel sick. I turn to my husband and I see his eyes gleaming with possibility. He turns back to me: “Let’s get it.”
It’s now almost 7 years later and we’re still living here in what I affectionately call “Our Garage House“. The exciting thing? We’re building a brand new two-story heritage style home right behind it and it will be done this year! I wanted to share my new DIY home journey with all of you, but thought I should start at the beginning – with our strange and dear Garage House. If you also live in a small space (or are thinking of moving to one), I thought you may be interested in seeing someone else in your shoes.
Here’s the grand tour (and some little notes on what we’ve done and how we manage to live as a family of four in 880 square feet with no basement):
We replaced almost all of the windows and doors on the house, making them as large as we could to let as much Southern sun in as possible. It really helped make the garage feel less cave-like and it added a bit more charm to the look. I planted a couple of lilac bushes on either side of the door and attempted a garden, but I’m horrific at gardening so that fell flat.
Entry & Office
Look at the before picture when we viewed the home – gross, right? I think one of the best decisions we made was adding a little half wall to the right of the door as you enter, creating a small office nook on the other side. It also allowed us a spot for hanging jackets and purses. I tucked a bench in there too. I didn’t take any photos of my office, but you can simply imagine a desk behind that wall, filled to the ceiling with papers and books.
Kitchen & Dining Area
The kitchen is the first thing you see when you walk in our tiny home. Ew – it was disgusting before. We salvaged my parent’s 20 year old kitchen cabinets, painted them white (they were yellowy, early 90’s oak) and used Ikea laminate and butcher block counters to cover them. We splurged on stainless steel appliances, but I love them very much. The island is probably one of my favourite parts of the house – I use it for everything (food prep, fabric cutting, photo backgrounds, bill paying, eating…).
I didn’t take a before photo of our dining area, but it’s to the right of the kitchen:
There used to be one small solid door outside in that corner, but we replaced it with glass double french doors (another good decision) to let even more light in. Honestly, we never use this table to eat – it’s where I have my sewing machines and this is the only time that it’s ever been clear of craft things. We eat on the island or the living room coffee table.
The living room is directly to the right of the entry, and it’s completely open to the dining room and kitchen (which I’m very thankful for – otherwise this place would be suffocating)! We added a wood stove, and the massive front window made an amazing difference to the space (I scored it at Home Depot one day; it was someone’s return that I was able to buy at 50% off). The TV hutch is an IKEA as-is piece that we store a whole lot of things in (like toys, craft supplies, movies and electronics). The TV is hubby’s baby.
The flooring in our Garage House is 0.88/sq. ft. laminate we bought at Rona. We used a nice, thick underlay over that yucky tar floor that was here originally and the smell is completely gone! The flooring has held up surprisingly well for its cost, and we’re definitely going to choose laminate again for our new home for its cost and wear.
The one bathroom this house has is large (thankfully) and it’s directly in front of the main entrance. It was DIS-GUS-TING originally, so we gutted it completely and installed a huge tub/shower combo, a large IKEA vanity, and some fresh paint and wainscoting. Unfortunately the bathroom is the only place we can fit our washer and dryer, but they stack and tuck nicely behind the door as you come in. I just have to be as organized as I can with the laundry so that it doesn’t take over the bathroom (which is hard for me)!
There are only two rooms in our wee house, so the smaller one (to the left of the entrance, just past our office nook) is the kid’s bedroom. When it was just Little C, we easily fit a crib, dresser, bench and toys, but now that Baby A is here we’ve had to rearrange it again. Little C sleeps in an IKEA bunk bed that I put a curtain on, and we jam all of her toys and extra clothes underneath. We can JUST fit Baby A’s crib beside it and a dresser on the other side, but it is TIGHT. Luckily (kind of?), Baby A still sleeps in our room in a crib beside our bed for now… that’s an entirely different story (hurray for light sleepers)!
Our master bedroom is beside the kid’s room. Most people consider their master bedrooms a retreat, but we simply can’t as a family living “small”. Not only is it our bedroom, but it’s the piano room, the baby change table room, the electrical panel room, and it houses our biggest storage closet. We removed the wall between this room and the kid’s room completely, and then used a row of ceiling-high IKEA kitchen cabinets as a divider. We needed all the storage we could get! We fill these units with our clothes, our seasonal things, and other household items we need at arm’s reach (the rest of our storage is my hubby’s shop in the back corner of the acreage – the shop is also where I keep the stock for my baby clothing business). I’ve tried to “pretty up” this room with some DIY pillows and a duvet – small spaces need to be light and bright!
The following are my tips for living in a small space and making the most of it. I want to be honest with you – it’s hard. I often find myself comparing my home to my friends’ bigger ones. I’m getting better at it (and now that our new house is coming that makes it easier), but it is a struggle. I have to tell myself that we have saved a lot of money on utility bills and on “stuff” to fill the house with. It’s also helped me remember that “things” hold no real value in life – it’s people (and you get to hang out with your family a lot in a small space)!
- Storage is king – find as many creative ways to fit storage furniture into your little house as possible. Buy furniture with drawers, use tons of baskets and think vertically – shelving and cupboards can go from floor to ceiling!
- If you buy something new, put something old out – continue throwing old things away or donating them, otherwise your house will fill up FAST
- Think of rooms and furniture pieces as multi-purpose things – our master bedroom has a lot of uses, and so does our living room coffee table (and almost everything in our home, really!)
- Light & brightness helps so much – if you can update and enlarge windows, it really helps. Use light and bright paint colours and decor pieces. I do have one dark chocolate brown wall in my living room, but it’s where my big picture window is.
- Have as good of an organizational and cleanliness system as you can – I am BAD at this. If I cleaned my house more often and had a better system for filing away paperwork, I think that would really help me feel more at peace in my home!
Finally… be content with your little home. It’s small and it’s OK. And… when you do clean it, it’s so fast! When I’m having a bad day, I go outside with the girls and enjoy the fresh prairie air – there’s wide open spaces out there! And small homes make cozy families, right?
If you’re a small home dweller, I’d love to hear how you manage. Please let me know in the comments below!
This post is part of my “Our DIY House” series where I’ll share with you my most exciting DIY ever – building a country house from the foundation up with my talented hubby! We’re crazy, we’re creative, we’re on a limited budget and we’re planning on having it finished in the Spring of 2013.