Finding room for the family

Even with a large NYC apartment, these space-saving tips can help

Kids doing their thing in a playroom designed by Kidville
Kids doing their thing in a playroom designed by Kidville

Tolstoy once wrote that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

If he had been writing 150 years later and in a different setting—namely, modern-day Manhattan rather than 19th-century rural Russia—he would have had to note that a lot of that unhappiness comes from living in a cramped apartment with little ones running around.

The number of children under age five living in Manhattan ballooned more than 32 percent during part of the last decade, according to the most recent census figures. Other boroughs, especially Brooklyn, saw increases, too, suggesting that there are now a lot more New York City families with kids then there have been in a long while.

Where to put them all, then, in a city where $1 million might get you but a one-bedroom with a breakfast alcove? It’s a challenge, but there are ways.

“Families ask most about how to fix three top trouble spots: the zone by the front door, overworked closets and the cluttered common room,” Maeve Richmond, founder of home-organizing firm Maeve’s Method, told Luxury Listings. “[These are] areas that quickly fall apart once little ones arrive with clothes, toys and bulky strollers.”

Here, then, are some tips on putting it all back together again, and trying to make for a happy family.

Putting beds to bed

Elevator bed

One of the biggest pieces of furniture in any home is the bed. The city’s long had Murphy beds, which discreetly fold up into the wall during the day. Now, add ceiling beds to the mix. Sometimes called mobile or elevator beds, these sleepers descend and ascend by remote control to precise levels (see the “Best of New York” on page 14). But they don’t come cheap: Ceiling beds can cost more than $20,000, with parts and installation.

Double-duty furniture

“The No. 1 thing I tell families is that furniture has to do double-duty,” said Nancy Heller, founder and president of Goodbye Clutter, a professional-organizer firm in New York. “An ottoman has to have storage; an end table has to be able to store magazines underneath.”

An ottoman with storage

An ottoman with storage

One such piece of furniture ripe for double-duty? Traditional beds, which can house drawers underneath the mattress frame. For younger children, a classic space-saver is the bunk bed; there, too, the drawer concept works.

Don’t forget about doors. “I just did this for a client: I used the back of their kid’s closet door and hung a shoe caddy,” said Jeni Aron, founder of New York home-organizer Clutter Cowgirl. “But in the pockets weren’t shoes; they were his T-shirts and pajamas. He doesn’t have to neatly fold everything—he can just shove T-shirts in each pocket and then he can see [them], because each pocket is made out of mesh.”

Mod pods

Modular furniture tends to be simply designed, as well as lightweight for easy movement, including folding and closing. The Italian firm CLEI has pioneered an entire Space Savers line with city dwellers in mind. Its furniture includes entire pod-like wall systems comprised of fold-out beds with dressers, a desk and shelves.

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If the kitchen’s the busiest place in your household, there’s also CLEI’s fold-out kitchen table. (The firm declined to name its prices upfront.) Organizing coach Richmond also suggested banks of cubed shelving, either open-faced or closed—“A must-have to hold endless loose toys.”

Fake it

Fabricated, temporary walls with built-in doors are popular in in New York, especially with renters.

A couple of caveats: The rooms these walls create can’t be too small—rooms must have windows to be considered legally habitable and, if a room’s going to be called a bedroom, it has to be at least 80 square feet. That said, several firms offer installation for negotiable prices starting at several hundred dollars to more than $20,000; the prices usually include taking the walls down at some future date. If your family doesn’t need an entirely new room, organizers suggest room dividers—like bookshelves and Japanese screens—rather than walls.

Kick the clutter

Heller once talked a client into getting rid of some of the 57 vases she owned and liked to keep out in the living room, including on the coffee table. She also has some advice for even the most devoted bibliophile, which she counts herself among: “I tell people, ‘Ditch the books because they’re all on your iPad now or your Kindle.’” Paperbacks, in particular, should be donated to make room. “Paperback books aren’t beautiful,” Heller said. “They were meant to be passed on.”

As for the clutter spots, particularly an apartment or a townhouse’s entryway, organizers recommend ruthlessly compartmentalizing. Have a bowl or a drawer solely for things like keys or loose change, another for old receipts, a place for smartphones, somewhere to store the mail before it’s sorted, etc. “Get in the habit of putting them ‘in their home,’” Richmond said, “and cut down on time searching for them in pockets or tables or countertops or other household surfaces.”

Nanny vs. au pair

It’s not just the labor costs that can enter into childcare calculations, but the real estate costs as well. Some parents face the choice between a live-in nanny/au pair, or, more typically, a nanny who goes back home at the end of the day. Families save a room if the nanny doesn’t live-in, of course (though au pairs, by definition, generally live with the families, as they are typically part of a cultural exchange). Given that most higher-end Manhattan homes trade for well more than $1,000 a square foot, having live-out childcare vs. live-in can free up hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate—not to mention free up space.

If families want live-in childcare, however, that means providing a separate room with a window. This can mean fake walls, doubling up kids rather than letting them have separate bedrooms or, in some cases, buying an au pair suite elsewhere in the same building.

Rent vs. buy

The age-old conundrum of whether to buy or to rent in New York—every family confronts it. The conundrum has been compounded by both rents and sales prices rising in Manhattan, as the inventory of available homes has stayed low, making set ways of thinking about renting vs. buying seem outmoded.

In the third quarter of 2013, the latest numbers available, the median sales price of a Manhattan two-bedroom apartment was $1.35 million, according to appraiser Miller Samuel; the median for a three-bedroom was a whopping $2.5 million. At the same time, the number of homes on the market in Manhattan was down more than 20 percent from a year prior, while sales were up 30 percent. Translation: It’s a very tight real estate market out there that favors sellers.

That, along with tighter lending and a still-iffy economy, throws a lot of home-hunters into a rental market that’s seen some of its beefiest rents ever in recent years. The median monthly rent for a Manhattan two-bedroom apartment at the end of last year was $4,795. For a three-bedroom, the figure was $7,315 a month.

The numbers jump higher in areas more desirable for parents with young children, neighborhoods like Manhattan’s East Side, where many of the city’s best private schools are located. The median rental price for an East Side apartment with three bedrooms was $7,900 in the third quarter of 2013.

With price tags like that, it’s enough to force families to efficiently use every square inch, or else consider fleeing the island of Manhattan.