Living Without

As rentals get smaller, tenants learn to make do minus a few of the basics

June 22, 2012

Ben Hifman grew up planting herbs and vegetables in his Minnesota backyard. “It’s something I’ve always done,” he says.

When he moved to Washington, he hoped to continue his horticultural hobby. But how? “There aren’t many one-bedroom apartments with space for this,” says Hifman, 28, who’s a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency.

So he filled dozens of Dixie cups with dirt and seeds for parsley, carrots, cabbage — even artichokes. Hifman carefully lined them up on his windowsill, watering them every day and tracking their progress. He plans to transfer his seedlings to a spot in a community garden.

Such are the trade-offs made to live in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

In the D.C. area, getting an apartment is tough enough. Finding a place with a backyard, a washer/dryer or a dishwasher can seem next to impossible. Many apartment-hunters are willing to pony up for a place that lacks a refrigerator, a stove or an oven. Even windows have gone from an essential to an amenity in popular neighborhoods.This lack of what some might call necessities is a symptom of D.C. apartments getting smaller, says Ernesto M. Santalla, a Washington-based architect and interior designer.

More people are choosing to live alone in one-bedrooms and studios, Santalla says. With space in the area — especially downtown — at a premium, landlords can eke high rents out of small spaces. And the smaller a place is, the less likely it is to have anything like a dishwasher, or even an oven.

Some D.C.-area residents don’t find these necessities to be, well, necessary. “People here are busy,” Santalla says. “I tell my clients to ask themselves, ‘How often do you actually eat at home?’”

Inventive renters learn to live without what’s missing, finding work-arounds to make up for it.

Michelle Warren, 29, has rented the same charming apartment for two years. It’s close to the Capitol, with high ceilings and sunny bedrooms. One thing it doesn’t have — a dishwasher.

Warren has gone back and forth to places with and without a dishwasher for eight years. “I’m kind of used to it,” she says.

She and her roommate have an informal agreement — they clean their dishes as soon as they’re finished eating. It gets trickier when serving a group. “It’s difficult to cook big meals,” she says.

If you miss your appliances, there are solutions. Think about buying small, stand-alone devices that serve multiple functions, Santalla says. Unlike big appliances, these don’t have to be permanently installed — you can store them wherever you’d like, and bring them along with you to your next apartment.

GE makes a 2-foot-wide portable dishwasher that can wash 14 place settings in one load. The $750 dishwasher has a wood-laminate top so it can double as extra counter space, and wheels for portability.

If you want to go even smaller, you can find countertop dishwashers for $200 to $300 from brands including Danby, Haier and STP (Amazon.com or Homedepot.com). Most are less than 2 feet wide and fit between the countertop and the cabinets. They typically weigh about 50 pounds.

If you don’t have an oven, a convection microwave could be a good solution. It’s sized like a microwave, but functions like an oven. These cost between $300 and $500 and are available at major big-box stores.

Santalla also recommends mini-fridges with freezer drawers built in. Haier makes a foot-and-a-half-wide minifridge that’s $150 at Home Depot, and most major big-box stores carry a variety of minifridges priced between $100 and $200.

In kitchens with little or no counter space, buy a butcher’s block or a kitchen cart with a solid top, says Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, CEO and co-founder of the interior design blog Apartment Therapy. If cabinet space is what you’re lacking in the kitchen, consider hanging pots and pans from a lattice on the ceiling.

Outside of the kitchen, the most common thing renters want more of is light. When Gillingham-Ryan wanted to create the illusion that his place had more windows, he replaced a closet door with a translucent curtain and put a light inside the closet. “People thought it was a window,” he says. “Visual tricks can make a big difference.”

Amanda Erickson is deputy editor of PostEverything.
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Vicky Hallett · June 22, 2012