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Creative storage ideas for small spaces

For Chesapeake Home + Living
Short on space? Try one of these creative storage solutions.

Baltimore’s quintessential rowhouses have many charms, but ample storage space is typically not among them.

“It’s a constant challenge,” says Hampden resident and professional organizer Mary Cate Claudias of Charm City Organizers. In her rowhome, Claudias takes advantage of every nook and cranny, from spaces above cabinetry to a gap under the stairs to the basement, where she turned a small open area into an efficiently organized spot to house files and her husband’s baseball card collection.

Whether it’s a result of a growing family, a space-intensive hobby, or a move to a smaller home, homeowners frequently face storage and space challenges. Finding creative ways to make the most of smaller spaces is at the top of many homeowners’ wish lists.

Experts say that figuring out how to most efficiently use the space in your home starts with two things: defining your needs and understanding your space.

“It’s going to sound very simple, but the design is created by the need,” says Steve Black of Chesapeake Closets. “People will look at a picture they’ve seen and they try to fit that into what they have, whether or not it matches their need. But we start with the need.”

With your needs in mind, the next step is to evaluate the existing space, says Tim Meuchel of TM Contracting. “Once you understand how a space is constructed, you can often find hidden spaces behind walls or under stairs.”

Hiding in the Basement

Even in small homes, basements are prime storage spots. But without planning and conscious organization, their potential is often lost. Claudias’ Hampden basement is a shining example of how to put “dead space” in the basement to work.

She knew when she moved in that the space under the stairs could be used for storage — it was just a matter of how. “The previous owners had tried to make it a closet, but it was just an open, empty space, so it was easy to fill with boxes,” she says.

She and her family needed space to store inactive files, books and her husband’s baseball card collection — but she wanted the area to be organized, not a jumbled mess of boxes. “We built a countertop and hung curtains to hide the space when it wasn’t being used,” she says. “We added one large filing cabinet and mini shelves on the sides and a large shelf in the back. We maximized that little space and created storage we never had before.”

Manage the Mudroom

Home entryways naturally become repositories for all kinds of stuff, from mail to backpacks to dirty sports equipment. Dumping things just inside the door is natural human behavior, and experts suggest trying to work with it rather than changing it. A few hooks and baskets in a mudroom area can go a long way toward keeping the whole house organized.

“Have hooks, baskets, bins or even old-fashioned lockers to hide gear,” advises Claudias. “They can look great, and things won’t be strewn all over the porch or the floor.”

Maximize the Bath

Though usually small, bathrooms are full of nooks and crannies that can be repurposed for additional storage.

In Diane Scar’s Mount Washington townhouse, she discovered that her master bath and a powder room had extra space “hiding” in the walls. Working with Nadine Sachs and a handyman, Scar added a nook for towels and speakers to her master bath. In the powder room, which is currently under construction, an extra three feet of space between the original wall and the plumbing will be converted to open shelving for pretty linens.

Niches in the shower and shelving between the plumbing for double sinks turn dead space in the bath into usable storage, says Peter Twohy of 2e Architects. He also recommends a trick to keep bathroom counters uncluttered: In the vanity, add drawers with holes and power cords designed to hold hair dryers. “You can plug your hair dryer in, and then the only way to close the drawer is to put the hair dryer away,” he says.

Kitchen Tricks

“Cabinet manufacturers have gotten really on board with organizational products and functionality,” says Claudias, citing items like built-in turntables and double-shelf utensil drawers.

Polly Bart of Greenbuilders, Inc., agrees.  “We’re doing a kitchen right now that has a teeny metal shelf that will hold things — soap and steel wool and stuff like that. It’s cute,” she says.

Bart also notes that kitchen designs typically include three to four inch wide “filler panels.” Instead of leaving that space empty, she recommends putting it to use. “We had a couple who bought a wine holder that could carry four bottles stacked to put in one of those spaces,” she says.

In Scar’s kitchen, one of those spaces became a narrow pull-out shelf. “That’s where I have all my spices,” she says. “I label them — they look great in this little self-contained drawer, and I can easily access the spices.”

Closet Expansion

Closets can be used for much more than storing clothing — though they do that well, too. When her clients, a couple, moved from a large Roland Park home to a Silo Point condominium last summer, Nadine Sachs was tasked with helping them make their new, smaller space livable and functional.

With the help of contractor Mark Loewner, owner of Closet Innovations, Sachs transformed a large closet into a space that does triple duty as a closet, home office and guest room. On most days, the room looks mostly like an office with extra storage. But when the couple’s grown children come to visit, it transforms into a guest room — with the help of a Murphy bed.

For a family with triplets, Black converted a townhouse bedroom closet into a multi-use space. “We took off the doors of the closet and did a combination of changing table, drawers and hanging,” Black says. “It was a creative endeavor.”

Scar wanted a place in her closet to neatly — and attractively — store her large collection of scarves. She found a simple solution in a piece of pegboard from Home Depot outfitted with hooks. “We painted it to blend in with the closet and just hung the scarves,” she says.  “It looks so pretty and organized.”

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Storage Strategies

Feeling cramped? These strategies for getting the most out of your storage space will help you see your home in a new light.

Organize and prioritize: “When dealing with tight spaces, it is very important to prioritize,” says Tim Meuchel of TM Contracting. And purge constantly, says Mary Cate Claudias of Charm City Organizers. “The more stuff you have, the more challenging it is to maintain organization,” she warns. Claudias suggests keeping a bag or box near a doorway or in the garage, next to the car, to collect items for donation.

Look for gaps: Polly Bart of Greenbuilders, Inc. notes that in every house — especially older homes — there are lots of small gaps that can be repurposed as storage space. These include small spaces between kitchen cabinets, empty areas between walls, little bump-outs from a wall that used to hold wires or heating elements, and spots between the roof and sloping walls in homes like Cape Cods.

Look up: “The biggest tip is to use your vertical space,” says Mary Cate Claudias. “Anytime there is space above cabinetry that is not used efficiently, try to re-evaluate to throw in open shelving, different cabinets, cube storage or hooks and racks.” Vertical space is especially key in storage-heavy areas like garages, basements and closets, she says. Steve Black agrees, saying that items like skis and fishing poles might even find homes lying flat across ceilings.

Consider ventilation: Polly Bart warns that remodelers need to consider ventilation when configuring storage spaces. “Inefficient storage is good for ventilation,” she says, laughing. “If you have a lot of compact storage, you need to ventilate or it will get musty. So run a fan or a dehumidifier sometimes to make sure your precious things have some air circulation.”

Mine the Internet: Even the professionals go online for inspiration. Claudias points to Pinterest as a great source of ideas; the home design website Houzz is also a useful website for both inspiration and home design and building professionals.