Afew years after her divorce, Amy Schaffer decided to downsize from a Bethesda split-level home to smaller living quarters in the District.
“It was open and airy, and great for entertaining,” she recalls of the four-bedroom home once shared with her former husband.
“But there came a point when I realized it was too much house and I wanted to move closer to the city.”
Her wish list for new digs was brief: a location within walking distance of a Metrorail station and a home full of charm.
“I wanted something smaller with character but livable.”
An office space was also essential, since Schaffer, 61, works from home as the executive director of a trade association representing manufacturers of products made from recycled paperboard.
Searching Web sites led her to buy a 1918 bungalow located a couple blocks from the Tenleytown stop on the Red Line.
Schaffer, who paid $740,000 for the shingled cottage, was instantly drawn to its design.
She particularly liked the hefty stone fireplace and chimney at the center of the house, and the second-floor master suite added by the previous owners. “The upstairs woodwork just blew me away,” she says, pointing to built-in bookcases and arts-and-crafts-style woodwork in the attic bedroom.
Schaffer is part of a growing wave of one-person households as living patterns shift both locally and nationally with social changes.
According to data from the U.S. Census, single occupants accounted for 45 percent of all District householders in 2011, one of the highest rates in the country. In 1970, they comprised only 32 percent of D.C. households, but such living arrangements were still more numerous here than the national average. Last year’s U.S. Census statistics from across the country show that 27.5 percent of all American households are one person, compared with 17 percent in 1970.
This increase in solo living suggests downsizing may become more of a trend as the newly single seek to rent and buy smaller dwellings. Schaffer reflects this orientation in buying the bungalow and making improvements to its existing spaces based on personal preferences rather than on a more conventional strategy of remodeling for resale.
“Amy wasn’t making the improvements for the next buyer, a couple or a family of four,” says Megan Padilla who redesigned Schaffer’s kitchen as part of a team from Aidan Design in Bethesda. “Everything we did reflects her personality.”
Rather than expanding the kitchen or opening it up, Schaffer worked within the 9-by-12-foot space to make upgrades. On the second floor, she turned a small bedroom into an office and replaced the claw-foot tub in the bathroom with a shower, taking advantage of leftover tiles from the previous owners’ renovation.
“I wasn’t going to use a bathtub, especially one where you had to climb to get into it,” Schaffer says. “It was not a safe choice and would be especially unsafe as I get older.”
Remodeling the kitchen and bathroom, plus overhauling the backyard and upgrading exterior steps and walkways, Schaffer says, cost about $124,000.
Schaffer says the toughest part of downsizing was shedding many of her belongings. Before moving, she gave stacks of dishes to her nieces, swapped a kitchen table for a friend’s desk and returned her “too-site-specific” bedroom furnishings to the woodworker who had custom-built them.
“But I didn’t get rid of enough stuff even with all the planning,” she says. Once settled in, she sold a love seat and an ottoman on Craigslist. A sleeper sofa for the TV room that used to host guests was replaced and a pair of Ikea chairs were jettisoned because they looked too modern for the cozy space.
“One of the biggest challenges was deciding what to do with my piano,” she says. Instead of trying to stuff the baby grand into the living room, Schaffer found space for it in the hallway next to the main staircase that had once been a bedroom.
Select antiques, oriental rugs and pieces of artwork were kept to enhance the decor. Hanging in the TV room is a photograph of a Southwestern street scene taken by Jonna Mendez, who is married to “Argo” CIA agent and artist Tony Mendez.
Untouched for decades, the galley kitchen in the back corner of the house was in desperate need of a makeover. An old range stood at one end of the room next to a radiator, and the outdated refrigerator and portable dishwasher were shoved into the opposite corner. Cabinets around the windows over the sink and a pantry closet in the adjacent hallway provided the only built-in storage.
“Everything was poorly designed, poorly built, inefficient and ugly,” recalls Schaffer. “I like to cook and bake, so I wanted to make a kitchen that I was comfortable in.”
Rather than transforming the space into a contemporary showpiece, she spent about $70,000 to create a simpler, more classic look in keeping with the Craftsman style of the house. “I wanted the kitchen to reflect that period and be consistent with the rest of the rooms,” she says.
Shaker-style cabinets, dark countertops of synthetic stone and a subway-tiled backsplash are paired with appliances in a white finish. Instead of installing an industrial-looking exhaust hood over the cooktop, the kitchen designers disguised the fan behind a shelf where Schaffer displays her collection of ceramics.
Schaffer chose cork for the floors, based on the recommendation of Maeva Michiels, a District architect who oversaw the renovation work. The springy, shock-absorbent material offers comfort under foot, Schaffer says.
Next to the refrigerator, a tall, skinny cabinet hides the step ladder used to reach the upper cupboards. New French doors separate the kitchen from the adjacent staircase to the basement and, in the dining room, larger versions open to a small deck overlooking the backyard.
Outside, Schaffer fenced in the rear of the property to create a parking space off the alley for guests and replanted the gardens with the help of DCA Landscape Architects in Georgetown. Her insurance company suggested railings be installed along the stairs at the front and side of the house, so she hired Richmond metal artist Andrew White to forge sinuous designs of wrought iron for about $10,000.
Such safety measures, Schaffer says, “are designed to help me stay in the house for as long as I can.”
Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.
“You have to be ruthless about getting rid of stuff,” says Amy Schaffer of living smaller. Here is what she says you should consider before paring down belongings and moving
into a smaller home:
●Measure the rooms and make a floor plan with furniture layouts based on your
current inventory of pieces. Consider the locations of doorways and windows so they aren’t blocked.
●Make sure your furniture fits the style of house. A chrome-and-leather modern chair may look out of place in an historic bungalow or Colonial. “But don’t be afraid to be eclectic in your decor,” Schaffer says.
●When making decisions about what to keep, determine how often you use an item and whether you would buy it today. Unused and outdated things should be the first to go. “Don’t be afraid to get rid of something you’re not sure about,” Schaffer says. “You probably won’t use it.”
●Find organizations that look for donations and will pick up household items you no longer want.