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Downsizing doesn’t have to be a lonely existence

Design experts offer tips for making your space multipurpose and ready to entertain.

Corner banquettes like this one can add extra seating without taking up extra space.Sean Litchfield

When Rita Wilkins first downsized from her 5,000-square-foot home, she sized way down, moving into an 867-square-foot apartment near Philadelphia’s Washington Square Park. The new place was perfect for Wilkins, until her granddaughter Emmy, now 2, came along. With no room to host her first grandchild overnight, Wilkins “right-sized” to a 1,700-square-foot home. Her current abode has plenty of room for Emmy, including a versatile guest room that serves as a bedroom and a playroom when she is visiting and a library and sitting room when she isn’t.

“We want our kids to come and stay over, and we want our grandkids to come and stay over, but that’s only going to happen about once a month,” Wilkins, an interior and lifestyle designer specializing in downsizing at Delaware’s Design Service Ltd, said. “So then the question becomes, the other 30 days of the month, how do you want to use that room?”


For baby boomers who are considering downsizing, it’s a crucial question. Taking a 5,000-square-foot lifestyle and squeezing it into 1,000 square feet or less is no small feat. How you view the space matters, said Tanya Fletcher, co-owner of Sterling Transitions, a downsizing management company.

“When you downsize, every little inch counts in the new place. We see people initially think that their second bedroom will be a full-blown guest room, but we usually will try to get them to kind of think about other ways to make it more multi-use, because this is the only extra space they have,” Fletcher said.

Maximizing utility doesn’t have to mean minimizing style or comfort, however, according to Denese Butler, owner and founder of the Boston-based design firm The Perfect Vignette.

“For grandparents that want to create a space for their young one, I think it’s so important to invest in kid furniture that fits into the current aesthetic of their home,” Butler said. She recommends the modern baby brand LaLo for stylish pieces that fit seamlessly into a contemporary home or Wayfair or Overstock for more affordable options. When the style of kids’ furniture fits the style of the rest of the home, it’s easier to find a dual use for it. A cute table for the grandkids to eat or play at can become a side table or a place to store plants.


Sometimes, accommodating guests may not require an extra piece of furniture, but simply a reimagining of what a piece can be. An oversized coffee table, for example, can double as a place for guests to dine, Butler suggested. Hosts can set up zabutons — Japanese sitting cushions — around a coffee table to create seats that can be tucked away when not in use. Butler said she favors a round table over a square one to maximize the number of people who can sit at it, recommending the ones from the furniture design company Blu Dot.

Indeed, you don’t need a formal dining room to host guests for a meal. For those who downsize from a full dining room to an eat-in kitchen, finding ways to incorporate more seating is key, Brookline-based designer Cecilia Casagrande said. “If you want a setup that doesn’t take up as much space as, say, eight chairs, you can try a corner banquette,” Casagrande said. These can be built into the kitchen or bought separately from places like Ballard or Crate & Barrel.


Even a few tray tables set up by the couch can make for a more intimate and comfortable dinner. “At the end of the day, it’s about creating the memories and the experience,” Butler said.

For those set on having overnight guests, finding ways to incorporate sleeping spaces without lots of extra bedrooms can take creativity. Heidi Cheris, cofounder of Details Design Consultants in Newton, recently did just that for a client, turning one guest room into two by removing a built-in desk area and opening up a walk-in closet. The former closet, separated from the main guest bedroom by pocket doors, is now home to a desk, TV, and a pullout sofa, allowing it to function as a sitting room or bedroom, depending on the owner’s needs.

The floor plan for the double guest bedroom Details Design Consultants created.Details Design Consultants

Even in places where there isn’t any extra space, there are plenty of ways to add multifunctional sleeping spaces, said Anna Novak, owner of the Washington D.C.-based downsizing companies Simply Downsized and Home Transition Pros.

For those more concerned with convenience than comfort, Novak suggested a daybed (her go-to for these is World Market), which could serve as a couch or lounging space by day and guest bed by night. Some will fit a twin mattress or even a trundle bed underneath, Novak said.

Murphy beds are another option for those looking for out-of-the-way sleeping spaces, Brookline-based architect and interior designer Jonathan Cutler said.


“There are Murphy beds that can transform into desks and couches that are great for offices or living room areas,” Cutler said. He recommends the ones from Resource Furniture, a company that specializes in space-saving pieces.

The sofa in this Chestnut Hill home pulls out to transform this living room into a cozy guest room.Eric Roth

With Murphy beds, however, “You get what you pay for,” Novak cautioned. “I wouldn’t recommend buying an inexpensive Murphy bed or buying anything that you assemble yourself,” she said, recalling a client who had a guest tear a Murphy bed from the wall while sleeping on it.

For the little ones, this may be less of an issue, but for those hoping to provide a space for their adult children, a pullout sofa may be the way to go, Novak said. Although for some just the thought of a pullout mattress can cause back pain, today’s models have come a long way. Some, like the sleeper sofa from American Leather, are just as comfortable (sometimes even more so) as an actual bed, Novak said.

Therein lies one of the main tenets of downsizing:

“People shouldn’t think of downsizing as a downgrade but as an upgrade,” Novak said. “You’re upgrading your life to things that are nicer, that you value more. You have a chance to have something better than you had before.”

Wilkins, who now spends time that previously would’ve gone toward maintaining her massive 5,000-square-foot home with her granddaughter, would agree.

Kelly Garrity can be reached at Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes.