The Best Gear for Small Apartments
Small homes are fragile ecosystems. Throw in some clutter, and a small space becomes chaotic, cramped, and generally unpleasant. But when everything’s in harmony and organized, even the tiniest space can feel expansive and refreshingly minimalist. We’ve been there. Many of the Sweethome’s staff live or have lived in tiny urban apartments of 250 to 500 square feet (some with significant others, babies, pets, and all their stuff!).
To find pragmatic solutions that work for tiny-home owners as well as renters who can’t rebuild their space, we partnered with the folks at LifeEdited, who specialize in designing space-efficient apartments. Some of our picks come directly from the LifeEdited team or existing Sweethome guides; other recommendations are the result of more than 60 hours of collective research and testing.
To be clear, we’re not suggesting you buy a bunch of stuff you don’t need. In fact, editing your belongings might be the best first step. As Graham Hill, founder of LifeEdited, said: “Most of us just have a lot of crap. Take stock in what you truly use and what you don’t. A lot of the time we’ll keep stuff around that we think we use, or only use really rarely.”
Hill should know. After founding the site TreeHugger, he went on to found LifeEdited with the express purpose of helping people live well in small homes. His first project was remodeling his 420-square-foot apartment to provide 650 square feet of usable space. One of Hill’s biggest pieces of advice? “After you’ve gotten rid of the stuff you don’t use, make sure you have stuff that makes sense for the space.”
For this list, we also reached out to other small-space experts, including Erin Boyle of Reading My Tea Leaves (we love her Life in a Tiny Apartment series) and Gardenista, Erin Doland of Unclutterer, and professional home organizer Laura Cattano. The experts helped us define the following five small living principles:
- Choose the right size: Often this means getting smaller versions of things—like a compact fan or cordless vacuum—that will stow more easily.
- Maximize vertical space: Hill uses floor-to-ceiling closets to provide more storage. The same principle applies to hooks, magnets, hanging racks, and pegboards that take advantage of walls and the backs of doors.
- Use nooks: Hill created extra seating in his apartment by adding cushions to extra-wide windowsills. Morsels of otherwise unused space—a shelf under a bench, hooks inside a cupboard—can also be great places to tuck smaller items.
- Fold away: Hill recommends investing in things “that nest, fold, stretch, or that are compact.” Items that can be stored flat or rolled, such as a folding chair, clothes drying rack, or air mattress for guests, are especially good for preserving floor space.
- Go for quality: Well-made clothes, furnishings, and appliances may initially cost more, but you won’t have to replace them in a few years. “Sometimes, the expensive thing is the best and most financially smart,” said Hill.
Table of contents
- I. MAIN ROOM
- II. STORAGE
- III. KITCHEN
I. MAIN ROOM
*At the time of publishing, the price was $150.
One of the great benefits of living in a small apartment is that you have a lot less space to vacuum, and many apartment dwellers find that cordless vacuums provide enough suction power to replace full-size vacuums. After spending 35 hours researching 50 cordless vacuums and 20 hours testing the top contenders, we have found that we prefer the Hoover Air Cordless 2-in-1 BH52120. It’s one of the most powerful and versatile cordless floor vacuums we tested. It handles like an extension of your arm when cleaning floors, and the actual vacuum part pops out into a stand-alone hand vacuum with a variety of accessories for cleaning upholstery and narrow stairs. In our testing, an 11- to 15-minute battery life was plenty long enough to clean an entire 800-square-foot apartment in one charge. And because it’s wireless, you can use it in your car, too. Just make sure to clean it if you notice any loss in suction power. Clogs do occur from time to time and will dramatically reduce performance if unaddressed. But at least it’s easy to clean since it comes apart at all the major joints where gunk likes to accumulate.
After looking at dozens of models and testing two, we found the Container Store’s Nickel Duchess 5-Hook Overdoor Rack ($23) is the best around. It’s solidly built, and the oval nubs at the end of each hook are smooth enough that they shouldn’t damage delicate fabrics. The rack measures 19 ⅜ inches wide and 12 ¼ inches high, with a 1 ¾-inches-wide hanging bracket that should fit over most interior doors.
In our testing, we found the rack hung easily on a small door—24 in. wide and 1 ½ in. thick. There was a quarter inch overhang in the bracket, so the rack did wiggle a little on the door, but not enough to prove annoying. We didn’t find that the bracket scraped the door paint, although we did find one user comment about the bracket making it hard to shut a door—truthfully, though, this could be an issue with any over-the-door rack. The Nickel Duchess 5-Hook Overdoor Rack should be able to hold heavy bags and bulky jackets without bending or breaking.
The Spectrum Windsor 6-Hook Over the Door Rack we tried had double hooks for more storage, but we didn’t like the blunt, mushroom-like ends, which we think could snag a sweater.
For hanging purses and bags, we also like the Container Store’s PerfectCurve Cap Rack ($5). Yes, this sturdy nylon strap with small polypropylene clips is made for hanging ballcaps, but many user reviews claim it’s the perfect system for hanging handbags. As one reviewer, Edwinag, said: “I use it whenever I change out my purses. I can see every purse I have at a glance, and I just grab it, switch out what’s inside the current one, and then hang it up……quick and simple.” In our own test, we found that taller canvas shopping bags tend to overlap too much on this rack, so we’d only use it for squatter purses or hats.
The cap rack isn’t as sturdy as a regular overdoor rack. Although it has nine hooks, each could really only handle a single empty purse or cap or a couple of scarves. The Nickel Duchess rack, on the other hand, could easily hold five heavier bags, a few sweatshirts, and a number of scarves. -CCC
If you live alone, putting away extraneous chairs can make a huge difference in how spacious a room feels. That’s why we like folding chairs for extra guest seating that you can easily tuck away when not in use.
After four hours of research, we suggest going for the Mity Lite Flex One folding chair ($100 for four or about $7 cheaper in white on Amazon, or $20 each at Sam’s Club), a durable, ventilated seat made of steel and flexible polypropylene that molds to the sitter’s shape and can purportedly hold more than 1,000 pounds. Measuring an inch and a half wider than your standard folding chair, it’s still the right size for stuffing into a closet, but it’s comfortable enough that your seated guests won’t feel like leaving the moment they sit down.
We tested the Mity Lite Flex One against our previous top pick, the IKEA Terje, for comfort, and the winner was crystal clear. We were able to sit in the Mity Lite Flex One for hours. In fact, we still use the Mity Lite Flex One in our New York offices today. The Mity Lite’s wide seat and back move slightly with your body, while the tall 9-inch backrest provides plenty of support. The Terje’s rigid slatted-wood seat is 2 inches narrower than the Mity Lite’s, with no give.
The Mity Lite gets impressive, near-five-star ratings on Amazon and on the Sam’s Club website, where people rave about how comfortable and lightweight it is. Amazon says the chair has a 10-year warranty.
Much of the editorial around this category focuses on the looks of the chairs. While the IKEA Terje folding chair got nods from several sources for its neutral, Scandinavian looks and its excellent price, its durability is dubious.
On Amazon, National Public Seating’s padded metal folding chairs have equally high marks from customers, but they aren’t as wide or flexible.
We eliminated metal folding chairs without covered seats because nobody needs that cold-metal-against-warm-thighs feeling at a party.
3M’s Command hooks are the best adhesive hooks we’ve found, and they come in a range of sizes that will hold anywhere from .5 to 5 pounds. People are enthusiastic about them, and they were recommended by Apartment Therapy, Real Simple, and Erin Doland of Unclutterer. The adhesive tape on the back of the hooks sticks firmly to most surfaces but also comes off easily, so you can avoid permanently damaging walls (a common problem with other adhesive hooks). For best results, carefully follow the installation instructions (including cleaning the hanging surface with rubbing alcohol and, once installed, waiting an hour before hanging anything on the hook).
For this guide, we tested three types of Command hooks. The medium Designer Hooks will hold up to 3 pounds, enough for a small bag, collection of belts, or other light objects. As a nicer-looking option for hanging towels, we like the brushed nickel Medium Traditional Hook, which will bear 5 pounds. The small wire hooks work well for anything under .5 pounds, like necklaces or keys. In our tests, all three worked well, although only after we followed every step of the installation instructions—otherwise, the hooks fell off.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $125.
While we love the LifeEdited apartment’s fold-down bunkbeds, they’re not going to work for renters or people without a renovation budget. Because we’ve never found an air mattress we absolutely loved, we tested the best we could find against a few other options, hoping to come up with a more dependable solution. However, we found that an air mattress is still the most comfortable and economical solution for most people.
After looking at 20 options and sleeping overnight on two of the top air mattresses and a cotton roll-up futon, we think the Insta-Bed Raised Bed with NeverFlat pump is the best solution, especially for people who like extra firm support. It’s the number three choice on Sleep Like the Dead (and the highest-ranking option in a twin size) and gets a high rating on Amazon of 4.2 stars from more than 1,700 reviews. The 18-inch, top-flocked bed has a primary pump to fill and deflate the mattress to your desired firmness (firm, medium, plush) as well as a low-humming secondary pump that regulates the firmness of the mattress throughout the night.
If that very subtle buzz bothers you, it’s easy to turn the secondary pump off. The Insta-Bed was comfortable to sleep on all night, and the mattress stayed firm until morning even without the secondary pump turned on. With an 80-inch length—the size of a twin XL—and a 350-pound weight limit, it’s also better for taller folks. The one-year warranty should cover defects in the material or workmanship, but it isn’t supposed to cover standard holes that come with wear and tear; however, many Amazon reviewers report that the company’s customer service is excellent, often talking people through repairs or supplying replacements.
If $105+ is just too much, the Intex twin air mattress is considerably cheaper and pretty good. The air pump fills the mattress in less than five minutes, and the bed’s 18.5-inch height makes it feel a bit more substantial than the standard Aerobed. The raised border is nice for recognizing the edge of the bed before you roll off, but I could do without the pillow top, a higher edge at the head of the bed. The flocked-top vinyl squeaks a bit when you shift, but not much more than other blow-up beds. It’s a bit more marshmallowy than the Instabed, but for $40, it works.
While visiting the Sweethome founder Brian Lam, several members of our staff have enjoyed these Texsport Camping Cots ($49), which also come in a Jumbo size for taller folks. They’re more appropriate for sleepers who prefer very firm support, but our staffers report that they’re sturdy, comfortable, and pleasantly raised up off the floor.
We wanted to love this durable cotton-filled Japanese futon, but even rolled up, it was as bulky as a 3-foot barrel and difficult to store. We also tried the ultra-portable Therm-a-rest NeoAir Sleeping Pad as a super compact option, but found the three-inch thickness too spartan to offer to visitors.
Reusable grocery bag
If you want to free cupboards or drawers of those ever-expanding colonies of disposable bags, we recommend the Baggu ($9), also a favorite of the LifeEdited staff. We tested it against the ChicoBag and the flip & tumble 24/7 bag—two of the other best-selling reusable bags—and the Baggu held far more groceries, was easier to carry, and folded into a 5-by-5-inch pouch.
We do wish the Baggu folded into itself, as the ChicoBag and flip & tumble do. If you lose the Baggu’s stuff sack it becomes much less portable. But overall, the Baggu is a much better bag. It carries up to 50 pounds of groceries—at least two paper/plastic bag’s worth—compared with the 25-pound capacity of the other bags we tested. It also has wider straps that make it much more comfortable to carry, even over the shoulder. -CCC
For reaching top shelves, installing light bulbs, and other times you need a boost, we’d get the Gorilla 2-Step Aluminum Step Stool Ladder. The original model of this ladder had a top step height of 21.5 in. The Gorilla 2-Step keeps the same solid build as our original pick, with a knee rail for balance and a weight capacity of up to 225 lbs. The The Gorilla 2-Step also folds down so you can keep it in a closet or hang it in the dead space behind a door. The original design was best of the 23 step stools we tested for our own guide and was recommended by Real Simple.
If you want something sleeker and more compact, Graham Hill uses the Ultraslim Aluminum Step Stool by Tivoli ($119.95 – $139.95). The ladder comes in two- and three-step versions (with a top step height of 20.25 in. and 31.5 in., respectively), holds up to 220 pounds, and folds to a mere 1.75 inches. Although it’s expensive, the Ultraslim is one of the most design-forward stools we’ve seen, and it gets outstanding user reviews on Williams-Sonoma’s site. Hill has used it for more than two years with no complaints. -CCC
For even the smallest home, we like the 76-Piece HDX Homeowner’s Tool Set ($20), which has everything you need for minor home repairs and fits in a compact box—about the size of a chunky laptop—that you can tuck away in a closet. In our 2013 review of tool kits, we found the Home Depot HDX set has all of the tools we consider essential—a hammer, a tape measure, screwdrivers, Allen wrenches (SAE and metric), a level, needle-nose pliers, a utility knife, an adjustable wrench, slip-joint pliers, and vise grips—plus a pair of scissors, four small spring clamps, diagonal cutting pliers, and a four-piece precision screwdriver set.
Other kits we looked at were too expensive, like the $70 137-Piece HDX kit, or were missing essential tools, like the Apollo Precision Tools DT9408 53-Piece Household Tool Kit ($30). Still others were very low quality, such as the Pittsburgh 130 Pc Tool Set With Case ($40).
Although no one will mistake the HDX kit for a set of pro-grade tools, we’ve found their durability to be more than adequate for around-the-apartment tasks like hanging pictures and assembling furniture.
If you need a fan, the Vornado 660 ($100) is hard to beat. At about 12 inches wide and 13 inches tall, the Vornado 660 has a small footprint but can create a 100-foot-long airstream. With horizontal and vertical airflow positions, it can easily blast any corner of a room. User reviews also note that the 660 makes virtually no vibration or mechanical noise, and in our guide to fans, our reviewer found that the lowest of its four settings is whisper quiet. The 660 isn’t cheap, but it is one of the most powerful fans we’ve found in its class. Most user reviews agree that it’s worth the $100 price tag. -CCC
Minimal, inexpensive, and very effective, nothing beats a vertical hook for storing a bike in a small space. In general, vertical hooks are better than horizontal ones because your bike will take up less of the area on your wall that you need for things like shelves and other hooks. And unlike racks or pulley systems, vertical hooks can tuck bikes into very narrow places like the tiny strip of space behind a front door or between a refrigerator and a wall.
We looked at seven options and found that the Racor Solo Vertical Bike Rack ($12) is perfect for tiny apartments. The Racor can accommodate 80 pounds. (An average mountain bike weighs 30-35 lbs., and road bikes typically weigh less than that.) And at $12, the Racor is $4 less expensive than the other hook we tested. In a side-by-side comparison with the Delta Leonardo, the Racor was easier to mount and sturdier; when we tried to hang the Delta on the wall, the screws that came with it stripped instantly—a major problem if you’re renting and need to take your hook when you leave. The Delta is also only rated to hold 40 lbs. -EO
Vacuum-sealing storage bags
Like the Hulk crumpling a can, vacuum bags supposedly compress bulky jackets and bedding to a fraction of their size. Ziploc’s Space Bags ($27 for 15) don’t quite live up to the hype, but we still think they’re a great solution for stowing away seasonal clothing and bedding. In our tests, we found that the Space Bags lost their tight seal after about 24 hours, but they still kept clothes and bedding densely packed. Ziploc claims these bags allow you to pack twice as much in them as non-compression bags; after the bags lost their tight seal, we’d conservatively say they pack up about 25 percent smaller than when storing items in a storage box or duffle. They also sealed much better in our testing than Storage Kaddy’s Space Cube Compression Bags.
From our testing, we think the Space Bags seem durable enough to be reused, although they probably won’t stand up to the abuse that a plastic or cloth storage case could take. We read many positive user reviews that said Space Bags are reusable, but there seemed to be an equal number of reviewers that said the bags ripped or broke after one use.
We don’t think Space Bags are a perfect solution for everyone. Erin Boyle of Reading My Tea Leaves prefers stowing clothes in cloth bags from Muji, while Erin Dolan of Unclutterer prefers plastic storage bins or Eagle Creek’s compression sacks. But for the price, we think Ziploc’s combo pack of 15 small-to-large bags gives you lots of options for stowing everything from baby clothes up to a king-size comforter. We also like that they’ll protect your stuff from bugs like moths or (dare we say it?) bedbugs. -CCC
Compact shoe rack
We struggled to find a great shoe rack for using on a closet floor, and in the end found the best one isn’t even officially a rack. Erin Boyle of Reading My Tea Leaves recommended wood crates from Home Depot, and we found them a far more dependable solution than the two shoe racks we tested them against.
Ranging from $15 to $23, the boxes come in two styles (one with a divider and one without) that will store sneakers, heels, and even tall boots. We like that these boxes are modular, so you can stack them in whatever formation works for your closet or foyer. Each box doesn’t fit a ton of shoes, so you’d need to buy several to hold the same amount as an official shoe rack. But shoes won’t fall out of them as they can on racks.
If you really want a rack, we’d get the $18 Whitmor White Resin 20-Pair Shoe Rack. It holds a lot of shoes in a shallow space, which can make it a good option for a slim entryway. The Whitmor is easy to assemble and doesn’t fall apart, and we found it much sturdier than the Walnut 3-Tier Grippy Shoe Rack we tested. Shoes, especially high heels, do fall pretty easily between the Whitmor’s bars, though, so you need to be careful when placing pairs on it.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $24.
As a hanging solution, we also like The Container Store’s 24-Pocket Overdoor Shoe Organizer ($24). The horizontal pockets are big enough to stow a pair of women’s sneakers or high heels and tall enough to accommodate a men’s mid-top. Shoes can be stuffed in from the side, and a see-through window in front protects clothes from touching shoe dirt (and allows you to easily see all footwear at once).
Made of canvas and plastic, this rack felt sturdier than the all-plastic 24-Pocket PEVA Overdoor Shoe Bag or the Whitmor Over-the-Door Shoe Organizer that we tested, and it also fit the most shoes (18 pairs of men’s and women’s, plus three toddler’s). Each pocket easily holds a pair of women’s sneakers or high heels, but only one men’s shoe. We’d still store delicate leather dress shoes elsewhere, though, as the soft pocket doesn’t provide as much protection as a shoebox. Even though the organizer extends about 7 inches out when loaded, we were able to shut a closet door without mashing hanging clothes.
This rack gets really heavy when fully loaded with shoes, so it’s not the best choice for a lightweight door or one with wobbly hinges. The pockets hold a men’s size 10, but bigger shoes may fall out. At 22½ inches wide and 63 inches high, the organizer fit nicely on a 30-inch-wide door but will likely obstruct the handle on anything narrower. (The 18-inch-wide Whitmor organizer will fit smaller doors, although the pockets are a little small for men’s shoes.) We didn’t find the 24-Pocket Overdoor Shoe Organizer reviewed editorially, but it gets high user reviews on The Container Store’s site. -CCC
The Seville Classics Expandable Kitchen Counter and Cabinet Shelf ($23) is the best we’ve found for a range of cabinet sizes. In our testing, we found this heavyweight iron riser very sturdy, and because it expands from 15¾ to 30 inches wide, the design utilizes the entire width of a cabinet, creating no dead space (a problem with most risers). At 5 inches tall, we could easily slide 9 dinner plates below the shelf.
If you have tall cabinets with few shelves and want to maximize vertical space, we’d recommend Organized Living’s double risers. These heavy-gauge steel risers are very sturdy, and we found them leagues ahead of identical looking ones we tested from The Container Store. For storing large dishes, we’d go with the $22 rectangular rack, which accommodated a 19-piece dish set with room to spare. The $18 square version wasn’t big enough for large dinner plates, but would work particularly well for spices or squat bowls. -CCC
Pegboard and hooks
*At the time of publishing, the price was $35.
A quick tour through Pinterest shows countless Julia Child-inspired kitchen pegboards hung with pots, pans, and utensils. What these pictures don’t show is that standard pegboard can be tricky to hang, the holes often droop over time, and the curved wire hooks can fall out really easily. That’s why we like the 20-gauge steel Wall Control Metal Pegboards ($34 for two panels), which have predrilled holes for hanging and a flange around each edge, so you don’t need to tinker with spacers or framing. According to the company, when properly installed, a single 16-by-32-inch panel should hold up to 200 pounds.
What really sets these boards apart is the addition of slots to the standard pegboard holes. Wall Control’s matching slotted hooks lock into the pegboard and don’t fall out as easily as round pegboard hooks (although you can use those in the boards, too). The holes will also never droop or rip when a peg falls out. The company sells a variety of sizes of hooks, which can hold between 5 to 10 pounds each. We found the 1⅞-inch hooks ($5 for four) and 2⅞-inch hooks ($6 for four) most useful for hanging pots, pans, and utensils.
One downside to the Wall Control boards is they aren’t as customizable as masonite boards, which can be cut to size (say, if you want to fill an entire wall). But we like that the boards come in a range of finished colors, including white, red, blue, yellow, orange, and galvanized steel (the latter would look particularly nice with chrome appliances). And because the boards are steel, you could use magnetic spice jars on them to create a spice rack.
A few panels in a closet would make a great compact station to hang tools, an ironing board, or other housekeeping equipment you want in one spot.
Compact dish drying rack
If you have fewer than 14 square inches of counter space to work with, get the $30 Chef’n Dish Garden, which can handle all the dishes from a two-person household. It can be used in the sink or on the counter, is compatible with most sinks, and the steeply angled base ensures that it drains well, making it a great choice for both single- and double-sink kitchens.
Though its circular shape might seem like a wasteful use of countertop space, it actually holds more than other compact racks of similar size because the design includes cup holders around its circumference. The Chef’n holds plates upright with tall plastic prongs, which allow you to set dishes in it any which way, even long baking sheets. That can be a problem for countertop use, with water dribbling everywhere, but it’s a bonus for in-sink use. Unlike hanging-basket models, the Chef’n sits in the sink instead of over it; you don’t end up with wasted space beneath it.
The Chef’n also comes with two utensil holders that can be placed anywhere on the rack, which adds to this rack’s flexibility. Another bonus of the Chef’n: The spout flips up to close, so you can pick up the rack and move it around without worrying that any lingering water will leak. The textured exterior prevents glasses from suctioning themselves to the plastic, a problem we found with lesser plastic racks we tested for our guide to dish racks.
None of the other compact racks we considered held dishes or drained nearly as well as the Chef’n. The only complaints among the 32 Amazon reviewers, who gave it an aggregate 4.9 stars, was that the rack is small—which is pretty much what you’re looking for in a compact. -WY
Essential kitchen equipment
Outfitting a tiny kitchen is a little like putting together a streamlined wardrobe; choose high-quality basics that you’ll be able to use all the time. Here’s a collection of things we’ve tested and recommend for small kitchens. Cooking styles, like clothing, are personal, so buy only what you think you’ll truly use often. -CCC
- Three great knives: Graham Hill of LifeEdited recommends investing in an 8-inch chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a bread knife. We’re big fans of Victorinox’s paring knife, because of its low price and sharp edge. We don’t recommend going cheap on your chef’s knife though, as it’s the workhorse of any kitchen. We recommend the MAC MTH-80 8-inch Chef’s Knife with Dimples. It’s $150, which isn’t cheap, but this knife should stay with you a long time. If a budget knife is the only option you have, we like the Wüsthof Pro Knife. This commercial kitchen blade is made to be knocked around. Its slicing wasn’t the best we tried, and its handle may be a bit too big for some people, but this is a great knife from a good brand and the best we could find for less than $40. We haven’t done a guide to bread knives, so we don’t have a recommendation for that category yet; we’ll update this guide when we do.
- An awesome skillet (or two!): The All-Clad 12-Inch Stainless Steel Fry Pan has been our pick for best skillet since 2013 because of its superior heat conductivity, balanced handling, and durability. We just tested skillets again in 2016 in the hopes of finding something better for cheaper, and found that the Tramontina Gourmet Tri-Ply Clad 12-Inch Fry Pan was a solid runner up, but the All-Clad was still better in every way if you can afford the splurge. If you don’t mind the heft and extra care involved with cast iron, we also recommend the Lodge Logic 12-Inch Cast Iron Skillet ($25), which sears meat beautifully, can double as a roasting pan, and is great for panfrying chicken and vegetables. Nest one in the other or hang them by their handles to save cabinet space.
- An all-purpose saucepan: We’re currently working on a full guide for this, but for now we suggest going with the Cuisinart MultiClad Pro Stainless Steel 2-Quart Saucepan with Cover ($50). It has a lip that makes it easy to pour water for tea or coffee, and would work well for heating soup and steaming vegetables.
- Quarter sheet pans: Rimmed baking sheets make great all-purpose pans for everything from baking cookies to roasting vegetables. For a small kitchen, we’d go with the Nordic Ware Naturals Aluminum Commercial Baker’s Quarter Sheet ($13), the smaller version of the pan we chose in our cookie sheet guide. It’s just as useful as a half sheet pan, but fits into small ovens and is easier to clean in a small sink.
- Dutch oven: For braising meats, making soups, and even baking no-knead bread, we like the Lodge Color 6-Quart Dutch Oven ($72). We found the Lodge cooked as evenly as the Le Creuset Dutch oven we tested, and it sells for a fraction of the Le Creuset’s price.
Magnetic knife storage
If you don’t have the countertop space for a knife block, we’d go with Benchcrafted’s Mag-Blok. Made of rare-earth magnets encased in wood, the holder looks almost like a well-sanded and stained furring strip. We tested the $48 18-inch strip, which holds eight knives (for three knives, you could get away with the $35 12-inch version). We really like how the wood protects knife blades from dulling. In comparison, we felt that the IKEA Grundtal knife rack and the Norpro 18-Inch Magnetic Knife Tool Bar we tested could easily dull and dent the knife blades when tapped against the unprotected metal.
At times, the Mag-Blok’s rare-earth magnets felt a little too strong—we actually had to yank a knife off once—but at least it seems knives won’t fall off easily. The Mag-Blok, which comes in a range of finishes, is one of the nicest-looking holders we’ve found. We also like that it comes with countersunk washers and brass screws, which give this holder a streamlined look when hung. -CCC
For fitting a lot of knives in a super small space, we also like the EVA Stainless Steel Magneto Knife Holder ($88). It’s expensive, as far as magnetic strips go, but its innovative jagged teeth design can hold up to eight knives in an 11-inch width. The EVA has slots that keep blade edges facing the wall and thin rubber bumpers that protect the blades from dulling on the metal. Although we love the design of this strip, we found the magnets weren’t as powerful as we’d like (we could knock a chef’s knife off of it pretty easily). It’s also not as versatile as the Mag-Blok for hanging tools, such as tongs and spatulas. -CCC
Many small kitchens don’t have the room to stow a full-size blender or food processor. The Breville Control Grip ($100) can pureé soups, blend smoothies, emulsify mayonnaise, and even chop small quantities of nuts or whip cream (with the right attachments). After testing seven models, we found the Breville had the strongest motor, the best range of speeds, and was the only one with a handy gasket at the base that keeps the blade cage from suctioning to the bottom of the blending container (common with stick blenders).
If you’re only planning to use an immersion blender infrequently (once a week or less), we also like the Cuisinart CSB-75 Smart Stick 2-Speed Immersion Blender ($35). It produces chunkier pureés and smoothies than the Breville, and doesn’t come with any chopping or whipping attachments, but we found the Smart Stick performed as well if not better than spendier models in our test. -CCC
Door-mounted garbage can
The 2.6 gallon simplehuman In-Cabinet Trash Can ($30) is great for small kitchens where there’s little space under cabinets. Because this mounts to the door and extends about only 8 inches, you’ll have plenty of room to store cleaning supplies and other items under the sink. It’s smaller than a full-size can (usually 8 gallons or larger), so you may have to empty it daily, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing considering how smells can permeate a small space.
The simplehuman was the only cabinet can we found with a lid—essential for reducing odor and keeping pests away. You can also hang it on the front of a cabinet during food prep, or remove the hook and mount the can directly to the cabinet.
In our testing, we found this can works best on single-door cabinets. When we hung it inside small kitchen cabinets with double doors, we couldn’t open the door with the can without opening the opposite one first. We also had trouble hanging this can inside some bathroom cabinets, where there wasn’t enough clearance between the top of the door and the bottom of the sink. Make sure to take measurements.
Of the five over-the-door trash can holders we looked at, the simplehuman also had the sturdiest mounting hardware. We didn’t find editorial reviews on it, but it has 4.7 stars after 88 Amazon user reviews. -CCC
Stacking hot/cold drinking glasses
Glasses that can serve both hot and cold beverages cut down on the need for extra mugs and barware. Our step up pick for best everyday glasses are the Duralex Picardie tumblers ($30 for 6)—which also happen to be Graham Hill’s favorite. These are considered a design classic for everything from shots of espresso to red wine, and they neatly nest one into the next for shorter stacks in the cabinet. Made of tempered glass, these delicate-looking glasses can withstand extreme shifts in temperature, and in our tests survived a fall on linoleum (although they broke on concrete). You can find them in sizes from 3¾ oz. to 16¾ oz.
As a slightly less expensive alternative, we also like the Bormioli Rocco Rock Bar drinking glasses ($20 for 6). These aren’t as quite as lightweight and elegant as the Duralex tumblers, but in our tests they similarly withstood extreme shifts in temperature—and they were one of the only glasses that survived a dive onto concrete. The Bormioli also stacked better than any of the other glasses we tested, making them more efficient for storing in limited cabinets, and they don’t scratch or cloud with use. They’re available in sizes from 2.5 oz. shot glasses to 16 oz. -CCC
*At the time of publishing, the price was $85.
It’s easy enough (and arguably more minimal) to heat water in a pot that you already own. But if you drink a lot of coffee or tea and have a small stove (or no stove at all), an electric kettle tucked in a nook can be very useful. Our favorite is the 1.7-liter Cuisinart CPK-17 ($90). It has variable temperature settings—great for different teas—and will keep water warm for up to 30 minutes.
Our reviewer, Tim Barribeau, found that the Cuisinart boiled a liter of water in 4 minutes, 50 seconds, and that it consistently heated water to within 1 or 2 degrees of the desired temperature (many kettles are as much as 10 degrees off). The Cuisinart gets solid user reviews on Amazon, and it was recommended by Wired. -CCC
For coffee in tight quarters, a percolating machine is a space hog. Pour-over coffee, the latest brewing method of choice for coffee nerds, requires very little space. For an forthcoming update to our coffee guide, we tested six home manual coffee brewing devices and found the $23 Kalita Wave to make the best and most consistent cup of coffee. It’s also one of the easiest to master.
The Wave uses a flat-bottomed brewing system that makes for slightly slower dripping, thus commanding less attention from the user. As a pour-over apparatus it’s on the smaller side, meaning it can be easily stored away or even hung up on a kitchen wall. We recommend you purchase a glass Wave, which will best protect against heat loss.
If you’re making more than one cup of coffee at a time, we also suggest a serving vessel, such as this glass Hario Server. Its 800mL capacity means you can make about three mugs of coffee in one sitting. -CW
If your bathroom is cramped, the LifeEdited crew recommends Gilden Tree’s Classic Waffle Weave Towels ($4 to $44, depending on size). David Friedlander, LifeEdited’s communications manager, has used and loved them for years. Made of 100% cotton, these towels are soft and absorbent, but also dry quickly—key for a small, damp bathroom. The towels are also thinner than terry cloth, so they’re easier to store.
Stricter minimalists can consider investing in good peshtemal towels—very thin, flat-woven cotton towels from Turkey—that dry quickly and stow compactly. This style of towel is a favorite of Erin Boyle of Reading My Tea Leaves. Keep in mind, though, that while these soften and become more absorbent with washing, they’ll never feel quite as plush as waffle-weave towels. -CCC
Best compact hamper
For small apartments we like the upright $9 Starplast Tall Flex Laundry Basket featured in our laundry basket guide. Though the Starplast isn’t our top pick, its compact design means it’s small enough to sit in a closet while remaining well ventilated enough to keep damp clothes from becoming fusty. The soft plastic makes this an easy basket to carry, and plastic won’t warp or disfigure from exposure to water; also, unlike wicker, plastic resists mold and mildew. Both plastic and wicker are lightweight and portable, but considering that laundry is often damp, a hamper that won’t let your clothes breathe isn’t a good pick.
For a hamper that’s attractive enough to leave out in plain sight, go with the Seville Classics Water Hyacinth Hand-Woven Oval Double Hamper ($55), which is made of wicker with two separate bins for sorting and removable canvas for transport. It also has a lid, so you won’t need to scramble to hide your skivvies when guests come over. This hamper doesn’t perform as well as our other picks, but it looks nicer. -CCC
Compact clothes-drying rack
After testing three top-rated racks, we prefer the Container Store’s 2-Tier Mesh-Top Drying Rack for a small apartment. Although it holds only one load of laundry, it has a very small footprint—19 by 23 inches and 39½ inches tall. That’s small enough to fit into a bathtub, which we’ve found is often the best place to dry clothes in a small place.
Because this rack folds vertically, you can also fold it up while it’s loaded with clothes and move it to another room, or outside—a bonus if you’ve just hung stuff up, and then unexpectedly have guests. We like the mesh top, which would work nicely for drying delicate lingerie or a sweater that needs to be dried flat.The rack folds down to 2 inches thick, so it’s easy to stow behind a door or on a hook in a closet. In comparison, the Moerman Laundry Solutions Y-Airer Indoor Folding Clothes Drying Rack and Household Essentials Folding Clothes Drying Rack we tried were bulkier.
One quirk that we didn’t love is that the bottom bar that locks the rack into the open positions seems to slip pretty easily, but that’s what makes it so easy to fold up and move around, even when full. And the rack never fell. -CCC
Hanger drying rack
For delicates and smaller items, we like Whitmor’s Designer Plastic Clip and Drip Add-On Hangers ($8 for 3). The three hangers can be used separately or attached together for more storage. The hanger hooks have a unique locking mechanism that keeps them securely on a shower rod, and we like that the three hangers, which can clip to each other like a vertical mobile or hang separately on a horizontal rod, give you 24 clips to work with. In contrast, the Lingerie Drying Rack we tested from the Container Store felt flimsy, and none of the other racks we looked at offered as many hooks.
The Sweethome’s Harry Sawyers uses and likes the Whitmor for hanging baby socks and delicates that shouldn’t go in the dryer. If you use a tension rod, he cautioned not to overload one end. “The trick is to balance the hangers out through the length of the rod and not load them up on one end. Or, you know, get a tougher, wall-mounted shower rod,” he said.
Considering that you can carry an entire library in your pocket with an e-book reader, going digital makes a lot of sense when your space is limited. We like the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite, as we reviewed here, because it has a built-in screen light for night reading and a no-glare screen (newly upgraded to 300-dpi resolution) for sunny days. It can hold 1,100 titles, and the battery runs for up to eight weeks on a charge, even with the screen lighting on. You can use the backlight to read in the dark, which is great for one-room apartments where one person goes to sleep earlier. The $119 Paperwhite comes with ads that pop up during reading, so we recommend springing for the $139 version without ads.
You’ll also want to download the free Kindle app to your smartphone for those days when you leave your Kindle at home. “I think Kindle is great. I’ve probably read 50 books on my phone,” Graham Hill said. “A lot of people write it off out of hand, but you always have your phone with you. It’s amazing to have a library with you all the time.”
If budget is no concern for you, we also like the Kindle Voyage. However, the main quality that sets it apart, its 300-dpi screen, has just been matched by the Paperwhite 2, and it still costs about $80 more. You might want to check it out anyway, because it does come with improvements to page turning and the backlight, as well as a micro-etched glass front to reduce reflections. -CCC
Graham Hill recommends going digital whenever you can. Physical media like DVDs take up a lot of space. He’s a big fan of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Pandora, and Spotify. If streaming movies is your jam, check out AT&T’s new U-Verse package, which bundles high-speed Internet with basic cable, Amazon Prime, and HBO (check your area for availability).
Media streaming box
If you subscribe to streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus, the best way to get all of that content is with our favorite streaming box, the $70 Roku 2. It offers the largest selection of apps, so you’re likely to find the content you want on it. The easy-to-use interface provides a better day-to-day experience than the other products out there, too. In our tests, the Roku 2 fired up Netflix in a quarter of the time the cheaper Roku Stick took to do the same. On top of that, the Roku is service agnostic, unlike the Apple TV and Google Chromecast, which are both geared toward selling content from their own respective stores. The one thing to keep in mind here: If you buy most of your content from Apple or Google exclusively, either the Apple TV or the Google Chromecast is a better choice for you than the Roku 2.
If you want a remote that doesn’t require direct line-of-sight to work and has a 3.5-millimeter jack so you can use your headphones to listen to your TV, or if you like the idea of voice search, the Roku 3 includes all of those features for just $30 more. The interface, speed, and content are the same as on the Roku 2, though, so basically you’re paying extra just for a better remote.
A projector turns even the smallest room into a home theater and eliminates all of the visual distraction of a big TV when not in use. While you can spend several thousand dollars on a top-notch projector, those are designed for permanent home theater setups and can be quite large and difficult to hide. A cheaper model will be as bright (if not brighter) and easier to store when not in use. We just finished testing the lastest sub-$1,000 projectors and we think you’ll love looking at the picture produced by the BenQ HT2050 DLP 3D projector. And it’s easier to setup than others in this price range because of its vertical lens shift adjustment—which gives you more flexibility as to where you can put it and still get a perfectly aligned image.
During Wirecutter’s testing of sub-$1,000 projectors, the HT2050 produced the best contrast and most accurate colors of any projector in its price class and outperformed the previous BenQ HT1075 for the same price. It won’t be as quiet or easy to adjust, or have quite the same level of image quality as our overall best projector pick, and some people may notice DLP rainbows, but it is a very good projector at this lower price point. —Michael Zhao
If you want better sound than what your TV or projector can muster from its built-in speakers, we recommend getting a soundbar. While a nice surround sound setup can consume a whole room and requires multiple cables and a separate receiver, this thing sits right below your TV (or mounts onto the wall) and still provides a level of detail that enhances music’s sound and makes dialogue more understandable. The better ones will even give you the illusion of having multiple speakers set up in different locations—just like a real home theater system.
After conducting a thorough survey of Wirecutter readers and combining those insights with the results of our previous testing, we think the Sonos PLAYBAR is the best soundbar for most people. It sounds fantastic and is easier to set up and operate than any other soundbar we’ve tested. Best of all, it pulls double duty as an excellent wireless music streaming system. This saves you the hassle of buying and finding a place to put a separate Bluetooth speaker in an already crowded space. However, while some soundbars have a variety of HDMI inputs, the Sonos has only a single optical input. It simply plays whatever would be coming out of your TV speakers. This means you’re limited by the number of inputs on your TV, which isn’t ideal if you have a lot of media sources (e.g. multiple game consoles, Blu-ray players), but if your entertainment system is primarily for TV watching, video streaming services, and digital music, its lack of inputs won’t matter.
If you need a less expensive option, the Vizio SB4051-C0 is the best budget soundbar we’ve found. It looks and sounds great, and it boasts the sort of connectivity that most comparably priced soundbars lack. And unlike most of its competition, it doesn’t rely merely on processing to deliver room-filling sound effects. It ships with a pair of (wired) surround sound speakers that connect to the subwoofer. Even if you don’t want to drape wires around your room, it’s easy to switch the soundbar back and forth between stereo and surround mode—you can leave the rear speakers in a closet most of the time, then hook them up temporarily for movie night. It also doubles as a Bluetooth speaker, but won’t sound quite as good as the Sonos. —Manya Susoev
Home Bluetooth speaker
If you don’t have a TV or projector and thus have no use for a soundbar, a Bluetooth speaker is a great way to easily fill a small space with big sound. For an easy-to-use audio system that will work with any streaming service, we recommend the Peachtree Audio deepblue2. It offers a wide sound stage, with clear, crisp highs and mid-range audio and hearty, booming bass—this was the case no matter where we set it up in a room or from which angle we listened to it.
After dozens of new models were tested, the deepblue2 was the unanimous pick of all our panelists during a blind listening session. They loved the sound when listening, and dug its understated, modern looks once the blindfolds came off. In fact, the only other close competitor was the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless, which is hundreds of dollars more—but did sound a bit better if you’re looking to splurge. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a budget-friendly option, we suggest the Marshall Acton, which is about half the price of the deepblue2, although it can sound a little bit muddy at higher volume levels. You can read more about why we like each of these picks in our review of the best Bluetooth speakers for the home. —Justin Krajeski
Here are a few personal small-living recommendations from folks at LifeEdited and the Sweethome, as well as from our experts.
Floor-to-ceiling curtain: If you’re looking for a DIY solution for hiding the visual clutter of open shelving or a modular closet, Hill likes using simple canvas drop cloths. “You can make super inexpensive curtains out of them,” he said. At $12 for a 6- by 9-foot piece of cloth, this is indeed a much cheaper solution than buying yards of heavy-duty fabric. We think drop cloths would also work well for creating a room divider. To hang a heavy curtain, Cattano uses sturdy half-inch plumbing pipe or metal conduit, available at hardware stores. “They both come in 8-foot lengths, can either be cut (where you buy it) or easily added to in length, can be painted, and are inexpensive,” she said. A drop-cloth curtain can also cover other apartment eyesores; we like this DIY project from One Kings Lane for hiding a stacking washer and dryer. -CCC
Camper toaster: If you don’t have room for a countertop toaster, a camper toaster—meant to toast one piece of bread over a campfire—takes up only a fraction of the space and can be used directly on the stovetop. Sweethome editor Ganda Suthivarakom uses the GSI Outdoors Glacier Stainless Toaster ($9), which folds flat when not in use. It takes only one to two watchful minutes to toast a standard slice over electric or gas ranges (but not induction). It was recommended by Carolyn Shearlock on The Boat Galley. -CCC
Microfiber pads: As an alternative to a small dish drain tray, try these microfiber dish drying mats ($5 each). The Sweethome’s Christine Cyr Clisset keeps two of these on hand (rotating them between uses to dry), and folds them in half, since she only has 9½ inches of drying space between sink and wall. She’s also found that the mats work well as a drop cloth under a baby’s high chair and, in a pinch, as a compact bath mat. -CCC
Microfiber cloth: LifeEdited’s David Friedlander loves e-cloths, washable, high-denier microfiber towels that can be used to clean nearly every surface of the apartment. He said, “We picked up one of their Kitchen Packs from Green Depot for the LifeEdited apartment, not knowing what to expect. They work great, cleaning glass, chrome, and counters equally well, all without cleaning fluids.” -GS
Originally published: September 23, 2015