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 Sweethome staffers 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 reached out to a number of small-space experts, including Graham Hill of LifeEdited, 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.
Some of our picks come directly from these experts 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. Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has recently made this concept popular, and it’s also a point Hill made. “Take stock in what you truly use and what you don’t,” he told us. “After you’ve gotten rid of the stuff you don’t use, make sure you have stuff that makes sense for the space.”
Our 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: Use 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: Take advantage of morsels of otherwise unused space. Creating extra seating by adding cushions to extra-wide windowsills, using a shelf under a bench, or adding hooks inside a cupboard are just a few examples.
- Fold away: Items that can be stored flat or rolled, such as a folding chair, a clothes-drying rack, or an 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. In the long run, they can be financially smarter investments.
Table of contents
- Living/dining room
- Closet and laundry
- Personal stash
Every square foot counts in a small home. While you may not have a foyer, you probably do have some kind of entry hall or nook you can use for storing coats and shoes. A shoe rack and a wall-mounted coatrack allow you to store a lot of stuff while using minimal floor space.
Everyone needs a convenient place to hang coats, hats, and other bits of outerwear. After researching the topic for five hours and investigating more than 15 coatracks, we recommend the Liberty 129848 Hook Rail/Coat Rack. The 27-inch-wide rack can be mounted to a wall or on the back of a standard-size door and can support up to 35 pounds. It’s one of only two models that come with three-point hooks, which maximize storage space and can minimize the wear and tear on clothing and gear.
The Liberty is available with a white backing board and either satin nickel or white hooks (model #129850), and while the aesthetic isn’t exactly award-winning, it’s classic enough to adapt to nearly any decor. It comes with screws for mounting to wood, but no additional hardware for drywall. For this, we recommend using ⅛- by 3-inch toggle bolts. If you would rather have a wood finish, we also like the BirdRock Home Tri Hook Coat Rack, which looks nearly identical, but is typically priced a little higher.
The Liberty is one of the few coat racks that comes with tri hooks, which have one larger upper hook and two small lower hooks (most just have an upper and a lower hook). This creates more storage options for items like hats and scarves. Bulky or heavy items can be hooked over both small hooks simultaneously. This distributes the hanging weight and is particularly important for items with leather straps that might crease, like purses or messenger bags. This holds true for clothes as well; a coat collar can hang from both lower hooks, reducing the strain on the fabric.
If you don’t have room for a full coatrack or simply don’t need that many hooks, we recommend the KES Solid Metal Swivel Hook. It consists of a single mount with three swiveling hooks that can fold flat against the wall when not in use. Compared with the other two swivel hooks we tested, the KES hook moved in a nice, smooth fashion that wasn’t too loose or too tight. It installed easily and was the only tested model that came with all the necessary hardware for mounting to either wood or drywall. We tested the hook up to 25 pounds, which is more than enough for standard items like coats, hats, and laptop bags. We like that it is available in 10 finishes, ranging from the mundane (brushed nickel) to the zany (yellow). And with a price of $10 to $15, based on the finish, it’s also inexpensive enough to get two or three, depending on your needs.
Unlike the other hooks we looked at, the KES attaches to the wall like a towel bar or a toilet paper holder; mount a clip, then attach the hook unit to the clip with a set screw. That means you don’t see visible fasteners, and it’s very easy to adjust the clip left, right, up, or down in case the drilled holes are slightly misaligned. The other hooks we tested (Home Comforts Cast Iron Swivel and the Brainerd Hinged Triple Hook) all need to be mounted with four face screws, and none of them offer the micro adjustment of the KES.
Other models, like the Young’s Hat and Coat Holder, are considerably larger and could be too bulky on the back of a door or consume too much space in a tight hallway. Fully loaded, it would also make for a crowded hook. Better to get two KES hooks and mount them low and high. —Doug Mahoney
Compact shoe rack
We struggled to find a great shoe rack for use 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 about $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 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.
—Christine Cyr Clisset
If you just want something to hang your keys on, there’s no need to risk your security deposit by screwing into the walls. 3M’s Command Medium Designer Hooks are the best adhesive hooks we’ve found. They come in a range of sizes that will hold anywhere from half a pound 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 half a pound, 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. —CCC
Many small apartments have only one room to handle both living and dining. As a result, you have to be efficient in how you allocate space. Every piece of furniture needs to do its task well; it’s even better if it can do two things. Similarly, the more you can get off of the floor and onto the walls, the more spacious the room will feel.
If you’re the type of person who doesn’t let a small apartment stop you from inviting guests over for socializing, you’ll do well investing in double-duty furniture. Stools are especially suited for small spaces, only requiring a small amount of square footage, and easily convertible from an everyday side table to occasional seating in an instant. Folding chairs are a good option too, but then you have to find a place to store them when not in use.
After researching 10 hours and hosting a dinner party with three top contenders, we like the IKEA Sinnerlig. It’s a handsome and modestly priced 13¾-inch-diameter cork-top stool that sits within the sweet spot between stool and side table, offering sufficient surface area for guests to rest their drinks or their backsides. At just a smidge over 9 pounds, the Sinnerlig can be single-handedly moved around with ease, yet the four powder-coated steel legs feel stable and supportive once assembled. Even while supporting a fully grown adult, the stool displayed none of the worrisome wiggle some cheaper models exhibit while shifting body weight, like the IKEA Frosta or the tipsy three-legged Target Chase End Table Small Stool. It can safely support up to 220 pounds.
Aesthetically, the Sinnerlig’s cork top not only looks contemporary and timeless when used as a table—it blends effortlessly into almost any decor—it also acts as a comfortable, soft seat when used as a stool. The taller National Public Seating was more adjustable as a stool since you can fit it to match any seat height, but looked out of place as a table. It’s versatile enough to fit in a living room, dining room, or even in the bedroom as a bedside table.
With a much larger and sturdier all-wood 18-inch-diameter top (more than 4 inches wider than the Sinnerlig) CB2’s side table looks great situated near a couch, and when used in pairs, could effectively replace a larger coffee table. The table’s 19-inch height ends up being nearly perfectly perpendicular to an arm’s reach when seated near a couch or side chair, the sort of detail we appreciated while testing with slightly inebriated guests blindly attempting to park their drinks.
The pre-constructed CB2 table’s antiqued zinc finish steel base and subtle zebra-striped genuine wood finish is a thorough upgrade in fit, finish, and stability compared with the smaller and narrower assembly-required IKEA Sinnerlig. And because of a wider three-legged base, the CB2 piece is nearly impossible to tip over under normal circumstances, something you want in both a table and stool. The larger diameter felt more than accommodating as a stool compared with any of the other smaller-topped models we tested, and the 1-inch thickness allayed any worry of anyone ending upon the floor. And while the CB2 top’s flat surface wasn’t the most comfortable for sitting, it meant you could use the entire area for putting drinks on—unlike the concave, smaller Hem Drifted Stool we also considered in this price category. —Gregory Han
Air mattress for guests
Entertaining overnight guests in a small home can be challenging. If you have the money, you could invest in a Murphy bed (or Murphy bunk bed), as Graham Hill of LifeEdited did in his New York apartment. But that’s not the best solution for renters or people without a renovation budget. Because we have yet to find an air mattress that we absolutely love, 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 21 options that included a camping pad and a futon, we determined that the SoundAsleep Air Mattress (also in queen) is the best solution for most people. It’s the top recommendation on Sleep Like the Dead, too. The mattress comes with its own pump and a dial to automatically inflate to optimum firmness or deflate completely for storage. The flocked top sits 19 inches above the floor; it makes getting into and out of bed much easier. Though it lacks the auto-stop inflation feature of the very similar Insta-bed, what’s nice is that you can top the mattress up with a bit more air as desired. The Insta-bed maxes out at pretty firm and only allows deflation from there.
The SoundAsleep and Insta-bed look nearly identical when you compare them side by side; the pump, which SoundAsleep tells us is made by a third party, may even be manufactured in the same place. (The electronic parts even list the same patent numbers.) The pumps are slightly different, though, with the Insta-bed offering neverFlat technology, which allows a second pump to refill the mattress as it loses air in the night. However, we didn’t love the subtle buzzing of the secondary pump on the Insta-bed.
But what really sets the SoundAsleep apart is overwhelming enthusiasm for customer service. The mattress comes with a one-year warranty which should cover any leaks you may get (and all air mattresses are susceptible to them). Reviewers rave about their experiences with the company, and Sleep Like the Dead’s 97 percent satisfaction rate reflect that.
While visiting The Sweethome founder Brian Lam, several members of our staff have enjoyed these Texsport Camping Cots, 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 3-inch thickness too spartan to offer to visitors.—Ganda Suthivarakom
If you need a fan, the Vornado 660 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. The consensus in most user reviews is that it’s worth the money. —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 is perfect for tiny apartments. The Racor can accommodate 80 pounds. (An average mountain bike weighs 30 to 35 pounds, and road bikes typically weigh less than that.) It’s also 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 pounds. —Eve O’Neill
Counter and cabinet space is usually at a premium in a small kitchen. We’ve found the best solutions involve smartly organizing shelves, utilizing wall space, and selecting smaller versions of appliances whenever possible.
The Seville Classics Expandable Kitchen Counter and Cabinet Shelf 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 nine 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 rectangular rack, which accommodated a 19-piece dish set with room to spare. The square version wasn’t big enough for large dinner plates, but would work particularly well for spices or squat bowls. —CCC
Pegboard and hooks
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 pegboards 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, which have pre-drilled 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 5 to 10 pounds each. We found the 1⅞-inch hooks and 2⅞-inch hooks most useful for hanging pots, pans, and utensils.
One downside to the Wall Control boards is that 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 Chef’n Dish Garden, which can handle all the dishes in a two-person household. It can be used in the sink or on the counter and 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. —Winnie Yang
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 18-inch strip, which holds eight knives (for three knives, you could get away with the 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.
For fitting a lot of knives in a super small space, we also like the EVA Stainless Steel Magneto Knife Holder. 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 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 and the best range of speeds, and was the only one with a handy gasket at the base that will keep the blade cage from suctioning to the bottom of the blending container (common with stick blenders).
If you think you’ll use an immersion blender pretty infrequently (once a week or less), we also like the Cuisinart CSB-75 Smart Stick 2-Speed Immersion Blender. 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 as, if not better than, spendier models in our test. —CCC
Door-mounted garbage can
The 2.6 gallon simplehuman In-Cabinet Trash Can 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. You can read more about why we like it in our full review of small trash cans. —CCC
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: Many pros recommend 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. At about $150, it 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. For a bread knife, we recommend the Victorinox Fibrox Pro 10.25-Inch Serrated Curved Bread Knife, which is light, precise, and comes at a great value.
- An awesome skillet (or two!): We’ve tested skillets multiple times, and the All-Clad 12-Inch Stainless Steel Fry Pan has consistently been our top pick since 2013 for its superior heat conductivity, balanced handling, and durability. If you want something cheaper, 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, 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: The Cuisinart MultiClad Pro Stainless Steel 2-Quart Saucepan with Cover beat eight other saucepans we tested for our full review. It has a lip that makes it easy to pour water for tea or coffee, and works 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, 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. In our review of Dutch ovens, we found that 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.
Closet and laundry
Many small apartments and houses don’t have adequate closet space. And you’re lucky to get in-unit laundry! We’ve come up with a few creative solutions to help you save space and money when it comes to keeping your clothes organized and clean.
Compact closet drawers
Small apartments usually mean small closets, but using the limited closet space you have to its fullest can make a big difference. A compact set of closet drawers lets you use otherwise dead space underneath a clothes rod to store clothing and other gear out of sight—and out of your living space. After looking at 10 models and testing five, we found IKEA’s Algot frame with 4 mesh baskets is a smooth-opening, easy to assemble, and affordable option that works great for most closets. Pair that with the Konmari folding method, and you’ll be able to fit all your clothes out of sight in a minimal amount of space.
We recommend the 4-runner Algot model. At 28 inches high, it fits comfortably underneath a standard rod mounted at 6 feet and hung with shirts, skirts, or other mid-length garments. (But we don’t recommend the 40⅛-inch model because the frame isn’t sufficiently braced for the height. As a result, it bows out slightly in the middle, which causes the drawers to slip off their tracks.) At 5 inches deep, the Algot drawers are a bit shallow (they also come in an 11½-inch depth, but that’s a bit too deep for clothing storage). Still, the 5-inch drawers can hold about 18 large folded men’s T-shirts. The fine-mesh baskets keep clothes tidy. This was not the case with the ClosetMaid 4-drawer basket kit’s wide-weave baskets, which allowed clothes to droop into the holes and develop unsightly creases.
The Algot drawers are also the only metal drawers we tested that have casters on the drawer runners, which helps the drawers open and close smoothly, unlike the clunky ClosetMaid, which dragged constantly and opened unevenly. We also found that the Algot’s drawer stops (plastic pieces that snap onto the corners of the baskets, preventing them from accidentally sliding out of the frame) worked better than the other metal drawers we tried. But you can still purposefully remove the drawer from the frame if you wish (useful for loading up with clean laundry, for example).
The Algot’s powder-coated steel frame was the easiest to assemble among the metal drawer sets we tested, simply screwing together using an included Allen wrench. The Algot drawers are also easy to disassemble—a plus if you need to pack them away for moving. There was no hammering required, unlike The Container Store’s Elfa drawers and the ClosetMaid. However, if you don’t plan on taking them apart, the Elfa drawers are a bit sturdier, have a nicer finish, and offer more size options and configurations than the Algot drawers (though at three times the price). At 7 inches deep, the midsize Elfa basket is more capacious than the equivalent Algot basket, offering about 40 percent more volume (fitting about seven more T-shirts). The Elfa baskets open and close smoothly even with the stops attached (though you can’t lift the drawers fully out of the frame, like you can with the Algot).
We think a set of drawers is ideal for storing clothes, but if you just need a quick way to add shelves and keep belongings together, the Whitmor Closet Organizer Collection 3 Tier Shelves will serve you well. We liked this better than the BrylaneHome 6-Drawer Storage Wardrobe that we tried, because the canvas shelves simply snap onto the aluminum-tube frame, so there are no screws or small pieces to keep track of if you take it apart. The two canvas boxes measure 14 by 10½ inches, so they aren’t practical for storing most clothing, but work well for socks, underwear, or other accessories you need to stash away. The 12-inch-deep shelves were fairly stable, and though they won’t support heavy boxes or big items, they would be great for shoes, towels, sheets, and the like. —Courtney Schley
After looking at dozens of models and testing two, we have found that The Container Store’s Nickel Duchess 5-Hook Overdoor Rack 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—unlike the blunt, mushroom-like ends on the Spectrum Windsor 6-Hook Over the Door Rack. The rack measures 19⅜ inches wide and 12¼ inches high, with a 1¾-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 inches wide and 1½ inch 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. —CCC
Foldaway 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 (which is the exact same rack as the Polder Two-Tier we tested in the most recent update, if that happens to be cheaper) . 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 up stuff, 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
Wall-mounted drying rack
If you don’t have space to store even a compact folding rack, a wall-mounted option can fit most of a load of laundry. We like Polder’s Wall-Mount 24-Inch Accordion Dryer, which takes up almost no space when folded, but provides the equivalent of a 12¼-foot-long clothesline (it folds out to 24 by 18 inches when expanded). If you get clever with your drying configurations and use some hangers on the sides, you can fit a full load of wet laundry on it. There’s a 22-pound weight limit, but we were able to load it past that without it showing signs of distress. We also liked that it comes with all the hardware you need to install it, including drywall anchors.
We like the Polder Accordion Dryer’s plastic-over-steel design more than all-steel designs, like the all-steel Aero-W because it’s much more affordable—the Polder costs only about a third of the price. If you have a larger household and could use the extra line space and weight capacity, an all-metal version would be worth looking into, but that’s less likely in a small apartment.—MZ
Hanger drying rack
For delicates and smaller items, we like Whitmor’s Designer Plastic Clip and Drip Add-On Hangers. 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,” he said. “Or, you know, get a tougher, wall-mounted shower rod.” —CCC
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 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 (they’re unfortunately now discontinued), 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
In our full guide to step stools, we recommend the Gorilla GLA-2. While we still like this model, it’s bulky with a very utilitarian look, so it’s not the best choice for a small apartment where it might need to be stored out in the open. Instead, we’d get the Xtend + Climb SL2Hlight Slimline Lite. It’s a little more expensive, but combines function, safety, and style better than any other step ladder we found.
The SL2Hlight can safely hold up to 225 pounds and the top step is 20 inches high. It opens and closes easily and has a safety bar, which is good for carrying around or bracing yourself while on the top step. In testing, we found it has a very solid feel with no loose or wobbly parts—unlike the Hailo Mini Comfort, which lacked a safety bar and had slightly wobbly treads. The SL2Hlight also has nice non-slip rubber feet. For storage, it folds down to a thin 2 inches thick—perfect for hanging on the back of a door or sliding between the fridge and the wall.
We dismissed other models for a variety of reasons. The wooden Cosco 11-254MGY1 looks nice, but weighs more than 13 pounds, about twice that of the SL2Hlight. The AmeriHome Aluminum Step Stool has small steps and a questionable faux wood finish. At around $160, the Hafele Stepfix is simply too expensive. The Werner 2-Step is a nice cherry red, but has a bar connecting the legs, which can cause problems on uneven floors that are a fact of city living. Also, Bed Bath & Beyond has a version of the SL2Hlight with wood treads, but it’s typically $100, which is about $40 more than the all-aluminum version.
Graham Hill uses the Ultraslim Step Stool, available at Williams-Sonoma. It looks similar to the L2Hlight, but is a bit slimmer and a lot more expensive. We plan to try it in the coming update to our full step stool guide. —DM
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.
If you have carpet or a lot of rugs and want to keep them clean, the Dyson V6 is a worthy upgrade. It’s exceptionally powerful for a cordless vacuum—more powerful than most apartment dwellers need, actually. But it’ll pick up the dust and the pet hair that you didn’t even know was hiding in your carpets. This extra suction also means you don’t have to clean it as often to keep it running at full power. And when you do need to clean it, it’s just as easy to clean as the Hoover. Also like the Hoover, the V6 converts into a hand vac for above-floor cleaning. It ran for a class-leading 20 minutes. That’s long enough to get all the floors and upholstery in an 800-square-foot apartment in one go, with some juice to spare. Its wall-mountable charging dock is a nice bonus that lets you take advantage of vertical storage space in a small floor plan. It’s not cheap, but it’s one impressive cleaner.—Liam McCabe
For even the smallest home, we like the 76-Piece HDX Homeowner’s Tool Set, 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.
Since the screwdriver is the most often used tool, and since the one supplied in the HDX kit is adequate but not great, we recommend supplementing the kit with the Megapro 13-in-1 Multi-Bit Ratcheting Screwdriver or the rebranded (but otherwise identical) Channellock model, both of which we reviewed in our best screwdriver guide. We also think anyone would benefit from the über-tiny Stanley 33-115 10-foot PowerLock Tape Measure. It’s a mini version of our pick for the best tape measure, and its diminutive size makes it a great kitchen-drawer tool. It can measure up to 10 feet, and the blade is coated in a durable Mylar polymer that withstands wear and tear. It’s also small enough for a pocket, so it’s a good grab-and-go item when you’re shopping for furniture. —CCC
Over-toilet freestanding shelf
If your bathroom has limited storage and you don’t want to mount cabinets or shelving, a set of shelves that stand over the toilet can be a useful—if imperfect—solution. We researched 12 models and found The Container Store’s Iron Folding Bath Etagere to be the only set of over-toilet shelves that didn’t require separate mounting hardware for stability. Constructed of slate-gray hollow iron tubing, The Container Store étagère had the widest, sturdiest base of the units we tested, and its matte, modern finish will complement most bath décor (though some of the welded joints were a bit sloppy).
We found that most over-toilet shelving systems (for example, IKEA’s Molger shelves, and Walmart’s Mainstays 3-Shelf Bathroom Space Saver) are not designed to stand on their own: You have to affix them to the wall with screws and anchors, or else they’ll fall over. Screwing the unit into the wall means you can’t move the shelves easily if you want to clean the bathroom floor.
The étagère requires no tools, and assembly is limited to screwing in two cross bars and four adjustable feet, which allow you to level the shelves. The side panels and three 9-inch-deep shelves are hinged, and once you unscrew the cross bars, the unit can fold flat, which is useful for storage or moving.
At 23½ inches wide, it fits around an average-size toilet with about 3 inches of clearance on either side. You need to make sure you have a half inch of clearance between where the unit will stand and the toilet tank (keeping in mind that if you have baseboards, it won’t rest flush against the wall).
The Container Store étagère isn’t perfect. It wobbles and sways slightly if you bump it (though the cross bars, which fit behind the toilet, keep it from tipping). We wouldn’t store breakables on the shelves, and it’s likely not a good fit if you have little kids or pets in your bathroom. —CS
Lightweight bath towels
If your bathroom is cramped, super-plush towels will be a challenge to store and might not dry quickly enough to avoid mildewing. We tested 11 terrycloth towels, and we found that the medium-weight Fieldcrest Luxury Solid Towel folds relatively compactly, dries quickly (key for a small, damp bathroom), and it feels super soft against the skin. In fact, it’s as soft as towels twice the price. At roughly $13 per towel you can easily stock a bathroom with a set of four for under $50.
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 terrycloth towels. David Friedlander, LifeEdited’s communications manager, also recommends Gilden Tree’s Classic Waffle Weave Towels, which he’s found fold compactly and dry quickly. —CCC
Nowadays, you can stream or download pretty much all media from the internet. As a result, most of us have shelves full of discs we’ll never play again and books we’d prefer to read digitally. It’s difficult to relinquish stuff you paid good money for, but consider donating or tossing the things you really won’t use.
Considering that you can carry an entire library in your pocket with an ebook 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. —CCC
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 streamer, the Roku Streaming Stick. It’s as fast to use as any streamer available, with a wider selection of apps than others offer. And unlike its main competitors, Roku doesn’t try to sell content from its own store; rather than prioritizing one streaming service over another within its interface, it lets you customize what it displays to suit your preferences. And best of all for small apartment dwellers, it’s only about the size of a thumb drive. You can read more about it and our other streamer picks in our review of the best media streamers.—MZ
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. —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
Sonos is designed to fill your whole house with music—allowing you to play different music and podcasts in each room, but it’s great for small spaces too. The benefit to this over a Bluetooth or Airplay speaker is that it doesn’t depend on your phone as an audio source. So you can just choose what to play, then move around freely, take calls, watch videos, or whatever, with no disruption to the music being played. We’ve tested every system worth trying and Sonos remains the best one. It supports more streaming services and has a more streamlined search than anything else, and every speaker they offer sounds amazing. The Sonos Play:1 is an affordable entry point to the system that sounds great on its own, but even better as a stereo pair. They may be small, but they’re loud enough to fill almost any room in a small apartment with great sound.
If you want a speaker you can take with you from room to room, or if you’d like the ability to take it on the road, we think the Riva Turbo X is—for now at least—the best portable Bluetooth speaker you can buy. Its sound is clearer, livelier, more spacious, and more natural than its competitors. It gets you closer to the sound of a real stereo speaker system than any other Bluetooth portable we’ve tried, and it’s the only speaker among our picks that delivers enough volume to be heard over loud party conversation.
If you want something cheaper and more versatile, check out the UE Roll. It’s our pick for best bluetooth speaker for most listeners because it combines above-average sound quality with a waterproof, travel-friendly design that practically begs to be slipped into your suitcase or laptop bag. You can find speakers in the same price range that sound a little better, but in our opinion, you can’t find one that matches the Roll’s combination of sound quality, design, utility, and price.—MZ
From years of living in small urban apartments, The Sweethome staff have collected a number of tools useful for living in small spaces, and you might too.
If you want to free cupboards or drawers of those ever-expanding colonies of disposable bags, we recommend the Baggu, 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
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 about $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, home organizer Laura 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, 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. 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
Originally published: June 20, 2016