Nicholas Herman and his wife, Shannon Claire Smith, had dreamed for years of moving from Charlotte to Washington. In April 2014, Herman, 30, flew to Washington for a job interview. When Smith, 29, arrived to pick him up from the airport, he handed her his phone: He had an e-mail offering him the position in the George Mason University development office, starting in two weeks.
First, she burst into tears.
But as she dried her eyes, she was already figuring out a plan to downsize.
“I began working like a madwoman,” says Smith, who now works at American University as a Web content and marketing coordinator while also running a design business and writing a design blog, Burlap & Lace. “We knew that in D.C., all we could afford was a one-bedroom, so we had to sell and donate most of our possessions. We weren’t even sure we could keep our king-size bed.”
The only nonnegotiables were their pets: Pomeranian Max and two cats, Fritters and Miss Kitty, would have to be welcome in their new digs.
Goodbye, 2,300-square-foot traditional suburban house with three bedrooms, a nice yard and a two-car garage.
Hello, 850-square-foot one-bedroom in a 1928 building in hip Adams Morgan.
Herman and Smith, who met as students at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, were married in 2009 and bought a house in a foreclosure sale around the same time. They upgraded the house with DIY projects, laying laminate flooring, changing kitchen countertops and installing crown molding. But they always talked about relocating to Washington, where Smith’s best friend lived. “We like the energy of the city,” Herman says.
So with his offer in hand, they focused on how much they could get rid of in four weeks. The plan was for Herman to start work and come back on weekends to help.
First, they went apartment hunting. They found a pet-friendly one-bedroom rental for $1,850 — about three times their monthly mortgage payment in Charlotte. “We wanted a building with history and character and quirky detailing,” Smith says. “Our home in North Carolina was a cookie-cutter house and was builder’s-grade-everything.” The apartment had original hardwood floors, a cute dining alcove, high ceilings and a glassed-in former porch that let in lots of natural light. The kitchen was tiny but had two built-in china cabinets with glass doors.
Back in Charlotte, they hosted yard sales, listed things on Craigslist and donated to charity. They dumped most of their furniture, half their clothes, 90 percent of their books and all of their holiday decorations. “We realized there was no way to store a fake Christmas tree in an apartment,” Herman says.
“We watched from our window as people stuffed our tree into their car and pulled away,” Smith says, “just like the Grinch.”
The couple didn’t have a lot of sentimental attachment to most things, as they had bought them secondhand. “We had no investment pieces,” Smith says. “These were just our starter pieces.”
At the end of every weekend, they posted a “curb alert” on Craigslist and stacked up pieces that hadn’t sold, free for the taking. “People showed up and picked our driveway clean,” Smith says. The last day, “I mopped my way out the door.”
They rounded up the pets and drove seven hours north, following their small moving truck. Inside were two white dressers, a desk, a small table, a sofa, a KitchenAid mixer, a knife block, dishes and the king-size mattress set, and what was left of their clothes and books.
Then it was time to settle in. “We had to think about design in a totally different way,” Smith says. “In North Carolina, we had extra space, and I filled it with stuff.”
They thought of ways to make each room serve several functions. “I wanted to embrace the size and wanted it to be as bright and bold as possible,” Smith says. “I wanted to break the rules and be colorful and have fun with things like painting the ceiling in the hallway pink.” (That would be Pink Popsicle by Benjamin Moore.)
They struggled with the long, narrow living room layout. To make sense of it, they created three spaces: an entry area with a console table and place for mail and keys, a library wall of open bookshelves (to keep it from feeling closed in) and a lounging area with a sofa and TV. The dining alcove got a stylish new Scout & Nimble hanging lamp that glows copper inside when lighted. Smith painted a blackboard wall in the kitchen and installed a tiny herb garden of mint, oregano and thyme in wall-mounted pots.
There have been new DIY projects: building a radiator cover in the bathroom, painting white cotton Ikea curtains ($14 a pair) to make them look custom and creating a headboard that required the two of them to wrestle $10-a-yard banana leaf fabric over layers of plywood, upholstery foam and batting. Thrift-shop bedroom lamps were updated with black drum shades from Target.
Their small space doesn’t deter them from entertaining. They had 30 for a make-your-own-gin-and-tonic party and a baby shower for 20, where Smith took everything off her bookshelves and filled them with presents. Last year they hosted Friendsgiving in their living room, sticking their sofa in the dining room and renting two tables to seat 20. Herman roasted two turkeys in the seven-foot-long galley kitchen. They are hosting the second annual Friendsgiving this year.
Yes, they do miss grilling and having parties spill outside to the back yard.
But they have no regrets. “It’s like a giant weight of knickknacks has been lifted off our shoulders,” Smith says. “We honestly don’t miss our old stuff.”
So how do you downsize from a suburban home with a two-car garage to a one-bedroom apartment? Shannon Claire Smith and Nicholas Herman got rid of most of their furniture plus 90 percent of their books and half their clothes in about a month. Here are some of their tips for anyone about to make a move.
1. Edit, edit, edit. Reevaluate your past choices. Ask yourself whether you would buy that piece again, given the chance. If the answer is no, consider listing it on sites such as Craigslist or Krrb, and use the money toward something you absolutely love.
2. Have weekly yard sales. Price a new batch of things each week for a weekend sale. Keep prices low to get them moving. Think of buyers as people who are doing you a favor by hauling your things away for you. At the end of the day, take the leftovers to the curb and put out a curb alert on Craigslist or Freecycle.
3. Don’t expect to make money selling stuff. Time is of the essence. The idea is to get the stuff out of your house.
4. Think of this as an opportunity to start fresh. You may have had used or hand-me-down furniture sticking around as placeholders. By moving, you’ll be able to make new choices and hopefully upgrade to things you like better.
5. Ask for free storage. If there are things you just can’t part with (prom dresses, heirloom chests) but have no room for in your new place ask friends or relatives with large basements and attics whether you might store them there. Under no circumstances should you rent a storage unit. You’ll never get rid of it.
More from Lifestyle: