Many young professionals take location over space, and learn to make the most of it

By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 5, 2009

Matt Sesow pulled out the oven and dishwasher in his Adams Morgan efficiency condo to add storage space for paints and paintings. Every table is used for his art -- or for storing paint or brushes. Even his small seating area doubles as a place to frame paintings on their way to galleries or clients.

His 600-square-foot live-and-work space overflows with the tools of his trade -- and he wouldn't swap it for a luxury condo or a sprawling house in the suburbs.

"It's pretty much all about the painting," said Sesow, who likes waking up and starting to work in his pajamas. He said he's living "as close to a utopia as I could get."

The typical Washington area home is big. Half of the housing stock has more than 2,496 square feet, according to census data, and often such homes have great rooms, media rooms and even bonus rooms above the garage. But a sliver of residents select smaller digs -- studio condos and tiny one-bedroom rental apartments that are less than one-third of the area's median-size home. These residents reflect dual trends that may be picking up traction in a bad economy: work-from-home arrangements and smaller abodes.

People select smaller spaces for many reasons, including economic necessity, a desire to live near downtown nightclubs or to keep their life simple and focused. They may want to spend more of their money on travel, as Sesow does, or to avoid the consumer-driven culture that dictates acquiring ever-more home and furniture.

"It's a question of affordability," said John McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute . With the job market still suffering and people's confidence and credit lagging, those who are buying are going for lower-priced real estate -- and that usually means smaller places. This shows up in Northern Virginia condominium sales rising fastest for units priced below $300,000. Many 20-somethings think their laptops give them license for mobile work, so they expect to labor on their kitchen table -- or in a corner coffee shop. And the work-from-home and home-based-business trends are likely to accelerate in this economic climate, McIlwain said.

Andy Klatt believes in it, working as a consultant for a property management software company from his 450-square-foot studio apartment in a complex near 11th and M streets NW. His rent, $1,200 a month, looked like a deal compared with other places in the area, he said.

"I actually took a pay cut to take this job -- to get me at home," Klatt said. "It was a life choice."

He said he loves the lack of office politics and commuting traffic and enjoys working while lounging on his couch-bed, computer on his lap or on a computer tray. He has no desk or file cabinets. "I keep it really small. . . . I don't want my home to feel like an office," he said.

Instead, he has filled his small space with smaller furniture from Ikea, often with multiple levels for extra storage. "It can get cluttered very quickly," he said, so he cleans up at least once a week.

Developers with smaller condos also are cleaning out their inventory.

"The lower-cost units and the smaller units are selling much more quickly," said Thomas K. Meyer, president of Condo 1, a sales and leasing firm in Arlington. Demand for small condos is much stronger than for the bigger places and hasn't been this robust since the tough times of 1991-93, he said.

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