Empty rooms? Get rid of them

Reader Vicky writes in to ask:

I was wondering whether you might have any thoughts on what to do with the empty spaces left behind from de-cluttering. Specifically, we have decided that two full rooms of our house – the guest bedroom and the formal dining room – are serving no purpose and we would like to get rid of everything in both rooms. But what should we do with these new wide-open spaces? Having a blank formal dining room right as you walk in the house is a bit of an eyesore, and moreover it creates a temptation to fill the space with new purchases we don’t need.

Now, you should take what I’m about to say to you with a grain of salt, because you’re talking to a serious unclutterer here, but I would take the opportunity to do something radical.

Sell your home and move into something smaller.

American home sizes have more than doubled since the 1950s, yet we constantly complain about not having enough space. The bigger a house we buy, the more we buy to fill it, and this has led to the proliferation of the self-storage industry. Now that you’ve realized that you don’t need those two extra rooms, why look for excuses to fill them up again? That said, if you’re passionate about ballet, for example, and you’ve always wanted a dance studio and it will bring you joy to have one, by all means repurpose the room to be a dance studio. But, you wouldn’t be asking what to do with your space if you had a definite idea.

To me, a formal dining room is a unitasker. If you don’t use it more than two or three times a year, why bother with it at all? And, think of how much money you’ll save if you move into a smaller, cozier space. You could have your house paid off in much less time, or move in closer to the city to shorten your commute.

40 Comments for “Empty rooms? Get rid of them”

  1. posted by Julie on

    I definitely want to move into a smaller home. The problem for me is finding one in my area! The homes are bigger, bigger, BIGGER in each and every subdivision that pops up. I know there’s one out there so I’ll keep looking.

    I really enjoy your site; it’s an inspiration to me. As a mother of three small children, the advice I’ve found here has been remarkably relevant. Thank you!

  2. posted by Marina @ Sufficient Thrust on

    I just wrote a post called “Why Furniture Is More Evil Than Google” about how we waste so much space and effort on ‘traditional’ things like full living rooms that we don’t actually use or need. Someone commented that they turned their dining room into an exercise room, and I thought that was great!

    http://www.sufficientthrust.co.....an-google/

  3. posted by Craig Bradley on

    I think this question demonstrates a failure to see the forest for the trees. Presumably there’s no ongoing expense to the dining room furniture, so just getting rid of it to get rid of it doesn’t make any sense.

    The notion of decreasing clutter should really be equally about maximizing utility. Getting rid of the furniture requires x amount of energy expenditure and then you’re left with…a problem. This is the opposite of utility. This is creating a problem where none existed.

    So the “sell the house” answer is not radical at all. It’s actually the only thing that makes any sense if it’s that important for Vicky to rid her life of whatever’s in those rooms now.

    Empty for the sake of empty makes no sense.

    Uncluttering without considering utility is nuts, and is not what this site has ever been about, or at least that’s how it smells from here.

  4. posted by Bethany on

    I think that formal living rooms and dining rooms are a waste. They’re a waste of time (why clean a room you never use?) and money (you have to furnish them and pay more for a house with them!). When I get my own place I’m hoping to find an older townhouse with a single living room with room for a dinner table, or a kitchen that’s bit enough for a table. If you factor in a finished basement, there should be plenty of room. The only houses I’ve really seen without the extra rooms are older townhouses.

  5. posted by Kate Davis on

    Those figures are very interesting. I would love to see the equivalent figure for the UK as I believe the opposite is happening here.

    Anecdotal information I have is my parents in law house was built in the 1950s and has a third of an acre plot while the new build houses we have been looking at are lucky if they have an eighth of an acre.

    Some of the houses we’ve seen you would struggle to put a double bed with bedside tables in the master bedroom or a table and chairs in the dining room and actually use them.

  6. posted by deecee on

    For us, the question is how to make what we have work the best for us. We had a formal living room and a separate dining room, just inside the front door that just wasn’t working for us and did look terrible just empty. We gave a lot of thought to how best to use the space, and turned it into an office/library. We made a list first of all the ways we wanted to use it. We put up nice shelves and moved all our books there, set up two desks with both our pc’s, moved in a comfortable chair and ottoman with good reading light and a nice rug. We keep all our office supplies, paperwork, books, software, paper records, etc., there and the room is probably the one we use more than any other in our home, and where our friends tend to congregate, too. My husband and I even spend quality time there listening to music together and talking after dinner. If our kids had been younger, we would’ve added a table for crafts/homework. The accessories and storage components are probably a little higher end than we would normally have bought, since the room is so visible, but that’s turned out to be a positive in that we enjoy being there more than we would a plain-jane office stuck in a corner somewhere.

  7. posted by SuperChuck on

    A buddy of mine bought his first house a couple years back. When I walked in, I noticed a giant room on the first floor with beautiful hardwood floors and immediately thought “pool table”. He thought “home theater”. His wife thought “formal dining room”.

    If you consider your interests, there’s always use for “one more room”. A home office, library, pool room, craft room, sewing room, ping pong, ballet, shuffleboard, workshop, pantry, storage…

    Personally, I enjoy having a “formal” dining room (nothing in my life is really formal). When we’re not entertaining, we use it for crafts, studying, playing board games, etc.

  8. posted by ADM on

    Consider making the dining room a library/TV-free zone. Look around your house and see if you can use furniture from other parts of the house to create a cozy spot for reading, listening to music, etc.

  9. posted by ellipsisknits on

    I agree downsizing is a bit of a sketchy option. Depending on your market, it might work, or it might be a lot of money and hassle to move to a house with ultimately lower resale potential. Houses are package deals. There may not *be* a smaller house in with the sort of lot and neighborhood you want.

    Ironically, we’re specifically looking for a home with a formal dining room so we can use it as an office. Since my husband & I are both techies who spend a lot of time on our computers, we don’t want an office sequestered in a basement or spare bedroom.

    A lot of good ideas have already been raised, so I only have a few to add. Maybe divide your living room into a ‘media room’ and a ‘sitting room’? Make it into a mini-gallery with some nice art? Make a conservatory or garden room? While you could close the bedroom, letting a main room sit empty probably would just attract clutter.

  10. posted by MA on

    My condo is about 1200 sq feet, but it’s poorly laid out so there’s a lot of wasted space. I could really use a few hundred more square feet, say something between 1970 and 1990. I don’t need or want a McMansion, certainly don’t need a formal dining room… but I would like a bit more room for my family. If only the real estate prices in the DC/MD area weren’t so ridiculously overpriced!

  11. posted by kweeket on

    Another trend I’ve noticed is new homes and condos have a en suite for EVERY bedroom, and another bathroom for guests. Am I the only one who feels this is excessive?

  12. posted by mmr on

    I am a real estate broker and ever since I started reading this website and have uncluttered myself I cringe on the inside when I hear someone ask, “does it come with storage space?”

    The same goes when I am looking at apartments with my buyers and find closets and rooms overflowing with crap and bulky objects (that look horrible I might add).

    The fact of the matter is that some people do need the space and some people don’t. What can also be said about that little diagram is that back in teh day people built a house with rooms off of another room. But now because of the way some buildings are designed you have hallways and other wasted spaces, so take those square footages with a small grain of salt.

    But yes, the dining room should go.

  13. posted by mmr on

    @kweeket

    Like I just said, I’m a broker in Manhattan, and all new condos basically have one bathroom for every bedroom plus a powder room (or half bath if you will). Is it overkill? Yes and no.

    Yes it is overkill because two people really never use the bathroom at once and you can pretty much always bank on the fact that having two kids and one bathroom will work out just fine.

    No because if you have older kids they will want their stuff laid out in different manners.

    And that half bath or extra full bathroom? Those are clearly for guests and such, but the fact is, you aren’t allowing a guest to use your private bathroom which is somewhat dignified if you ask me.

    The best case scenario for having an extra bathroom is in a one bedroom apartment. You have one ensuite which is yours and one for your guests.

  14. posted by Wesa on

    I agree with downsizing. We recently moved from a large 2 bedroom apartment to a one bedroom apartment. Losing one bedroom meant we had to come up with creative ways to fit everything from the “office” into the main room. The dining room table is now my study space (full time student), and when we use it for meals, I pack up my laptop and books and set them aside.

    Some of our peers have garages full of crap that they only go through maybe once a year. Others are looking for or already own homes that have a room for an office, a room for a television with games, a formal sitting room, a living room, a formal dining room, plus 2 -3 bedrooms on top of that. Then they have to fill them with “stuff”. To me, it’s pointless.

  15. posted by lahope on

    What’s wrong with an empty room? Some friends of mine have an empty living room. His mother decided to surprise them with a sectional and had it delivered one day when they were away from the house. They ended up putting it in the garage immediately and donating it shortly there after. I don’t know what they use their empty room for, but it works great for parties. It has a beautiful hardwood floor! She is a performance artist, so maybe she uses it to rehearse.

  16. posted by ClickerTrainer on

    I use my empty dining/formal living space to train my dog. Works for me.

    The suggestion to sell and downsize is silly once you factor in the realtor’s fees to sell. Huge financial hit. There is nothing wrong with empty rooms.

  17. posted by dtj on

    Houses aren’t the only things growing.

    http://alchemic-spot.blogspot......their.html

  18. posted by PJK on

    One thing I’ve noticed is that while houses have gotten bigger, that often doesn’t mean that the useable space goes with it. Open floor plans and windows on every wall make it difficult to place furniture, so even though the room may be twice as large, what’s the point? There is almost no wasted space in the layout of our house – no useless foyers or large stairway landings contributing to extra square footage that isn’t useful. Also, each room has only 1 window, which is just right for the size of the rooms. I also wonder about cathedral ceilings…I’ve never aspired to live in a cathedral, and how am I supposed to paint the ceilings, get the cobwebs in the corners, or change those light bulbs? A whole lot of inconvenience with very little in return, if you ask me. I’m glad I don’t have them.

    I live in a 4 bedroom, 2 bath 888 square foot house built in 1968. The 4th bedroom and 2nd bath are in the finished basement, so our living space is really probably about 1400 square feet (1776 SF if you include laundry and storage), but for some reason they don’t seem to include finished basements in square footage.

    But anyway, I find that even though our rooms are smaller than new houses, we just have less furniture in them. I would much prefer 4 smaller bedrooms (our largest is about 12 x 12) than 2 or 3 larger bedrooms, because each one can have a different function. We each have a bedroom office (we work from home) and we have a guest room, which is great since all my family and friends are out of state and I love visitors. We have no dining room, but our eat-in kitchen can sit 6-8 comfortably. Okay, maybe it would be considred “cozy” since pulling the table out makes it hard to get to the cabinets and do stuff in the kitchen, so while I don’t wish for a dining room, a slightly larger kitchen would be nice, but that’s probably my only “gripe”. We also have a family room and a living room. We use the living room when we have company because the family room is set up more for watching TV (recliners and TV unit) than for facing each other and having conversations. Also, there’s no coffee table in the family room for setting out appetizers and drinks. Plus, taking company down to the basement after dinner doesn’t seem quite as natural as moving into the living room. Also, if I’m preparing dinner in the kitchen, I can still participate in conversation through the wall cut out as people munch on appetizers in the living room. So I definitely wouldn’t give up my formal living room, though if the family room were also on the main level, then I might.

    @ Kate Davis – Although US houses are getting larger, I don’t think the same is true for the plot of land. If anything, I’d say we have the same issue. There are lots of McMansions that cost half a million dollars and yet they seem to be ridiculously close to their neighbors…sometimes so much so that if your windows and theirs were both open, you could have a conversation with each other!

  19. posted by PJK on

    Holy Cow, I had no idea my post was so long. Guess I should have uncluttered my writing ;-o

  20. posted by kweeket on

    @mmr

    I see what you’re saying, but I grew up in a five-person household with one bathroom, and it never really was a problem. I think learning how to share that scarce resource was a good life lesson, too.

    I find the threat of guests an excellent motivator to keep the bathroom tidy, and I wouldn’t want to have to buy double the bath goods and keep two toilets clean. I could deal with the one-bedroom/one-and-a-half-bath scenario you described, but really I would like the option to NOT have that extra bathroom. Or for that matter, huge closets or any of the other “amenities” offered in new houses/condos.

  21. posted by Michele C on

    I have been trying to sell my 2500 sq ft home for 6 months….The market has gone dead in my area. After buying the home 2 years ago with 3 kids I realized we did not need the space. The dining room does not get used. The kids stay in the living room with us and we have 4 bedrooms that are rarely used. We live in a rural area and I would so love to downsize to a smaller townhouse closer to the city…

  22. posted by lahope on

    Selling a larger house to buy a smaller house would make no sense in the area where I live. Santa Monica is the 4th most expensive housing market in the USA after Beverly Hills, Greenwich CT (?), La Jolla, CA. Unlike other area of the country, housing prices are going UP, not down. Furthermore, in CA because of Prop 13 taxes are artificially low until you sell and buy again–then you are assessed at market rates (this is largely for the benefit of corporate headquarters like Levi Strauss, etc that NEVER move). Meanwhile you pay a realestate agent to sell your house plus all the escrow fees, etc. It simply doesn’t make economic sense here to sell a large house that you have owned for awhile and buy a smaller, but more expensive house. Bad advice. Stay put and enjoy your vast expanses of empty space!

  23. posted by Nat on

    I don’t see any problem to downsizing to a smaller house if it made sense. However, for the problem at hand it’s too soon to start considering it. Once the rooms are decluttered, there are a couple of questions that should be mulled over. Are there other areas in the home that feel a little too tight? I find that any time I declutter a space, I find plenty of things that I already own ready to move into that space which in turn create better flowing spaces elsewhere in the house. In my home, I don’t like having the TV in the living room which I like to use for entertaining. I intend to move the TV to one of the extra bedrooms. Depending on the floor plan, “formal dining rooms” can become extension of the living room. (Actually I have nothing against the “formal dining room.” We eat in ours every day and use the kitchen nook for a home office, plants and landing strip, but it’s something that makes sense in our floorplan.) Are there any activities/hobbies that you’d like to do but don’t b/c you don’t have a dedicated space for it? Several years ago, I emptied a guest room in order to have a place to make art. It’s a lot easier knowing I can start something without worrying about being forced to finish and move it before dinner b/c the only space I have to work is the dining room table.

  24. posted by mary 2 on

    I use my living room to read and listen to music and entertain (NO TV allowed in this room) We do tend to eat in the dining room once a week, and do homework there nightly. I don’t understand the trend of the ceiling in the main entrance going up to the roof. (kinda like a bank entrance) Now that’s wasted space.

  25. posted by Lois on

    If you love the neighborhood you live in don’t leave just to be in a smaller house. Be creative, hang a hammock or swings, use it as a sanctuary, yoga room, home office. If you have good sunlight, grow herbs to cook with and start plants from seed that you can later put in a garden.

  26. posted by Maria on

    Our formal dining room is rarely used, but it’s a HUGE money saver. My husband and I use it for “date night”. He tries a new gourmet recipe and we eat in there, no distractions, and talk. We have no desire to eat in restaurants anymore. I can’t even imagine how much cash we’ve saved with this little ritual.

  27. posted by Anne on

    I think the psychological reason we assume “bigger is better” is this: we take Robert Frost’s “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” wrong. Rather than having a system for negotiating problems in shared space, rather than having a willingness to do a bit more than feels like “our half” of the work, rather than knowing that being civilized means taking care of as much of our stuff as we can and then helping others with theirs… we figure that the way to be truly happy is to have a solid, light-proof, wall between us and others. And I think we get it wrong.

  28. posted by Colin on

    There’s a lot to be said for re-purposing the newly freed up space, as others have indicated. This is a subject near to my heart because much I approve of living in a smaller house closer to town, I did the opposite this summer.

    We moved out of DC into Bethesda mostly because we actually got *more* space for the money than if we had tried to get a slightly larger house in the old neighborhood – with the added benefit of better schools. The extra space was for people, not stuff, and we have been going through multiple rounds of decluttering as we get the new house organized better.

    The point of the extra space was to accomodate guests better – a real benefit between visiting grandparents and a steady rotation of friends coming to conferences in DC – and also make telecommuting more of an option via a small home office. My company allows it, but working in the (unheated, un-air-conditioned) basement or bedroom of our old house was the only way to steer clear of my charming but extroverted children – and that wasn’t making it.

    So, I’m taking up more room than I used to, but I drive less… and if we ever feel like we’re busting out of this house, it will only be a signal to de-clutter. And I’m only about 3 miles further from my clients downtown.

    As for finding somewhere closer to the city that’s cheaper, I’d like to see that trick completed in a neighborhood that’s worth living in – near any major city. Perhaps the person who described getting McMansions for $500K – as opposed to 2/3 of a townhouse – could achieve it, wherever it is that they live.

  29. posted by Andamom on

    Empty rooms… Hmmm. I really wouldn’t know what that’s like. Our family of 4 lives in a Brooklyn apartment with 907 square feet — that’s 2 parents, 1 teenager and 1 toddler. We have one bathroom and to be quite honest really could use a second because contrary to what mmr (the Brown Harris Stevens broker) said, people really do need to use the bathroom at the same time.

    Another comment I love from that broker is about ‘bulky objects’ and no storage space – We don’t have outside space, extra wall space, etc. and I have had to configure all kinds of things to get art portfolios, bicycles, our stroller, high chair, and my husband’s music equipment to fit. I’m so sorry if those items ‘look horrible’ – but I use them daily or don’t want to place them in a rented storage facility where they can get damaged.

    As unclutterer staff can attest to, I am constantly commenting about getting down to the basics, but I really get frustrated with real estate brokers who seemingly want us to live in 100 square foot apartments with our children and pets. I apologize for being so open — but I’m really bothered by the unrealistic suggestions.

  30. posted by dtj on

    Our formal dining room serves a very useful purpose. It contains our exercise equipment and is used as our staging area for everything from international trips to decluttering fests. It has never had a stick of kitchen furniture in it, save for china hutches and such.

  31. posted by Jessica on

    Thank you!!! Unclutterer, thanks for reminding us Americans that excessive is not always the way. As an eco conscious person, very large houses waste lots of energy (more specifically in heating and cooling) and developers whip them up quickly, cheaply, and with toxic materials. Thanks for addressing this serious social and ecological issue that is happening all over the country.

  32. posted by Jim Gitzlaff on

    A lot of people are spending a lot of energy burning straw men. Why all the talk about “formal” living rooms and “formal” dining rooms? What makes them “formal” is the use to which the homeowner puts them. If you fill the room with impractical furniture, is that the fault of the home builder, or you? We have an “informal” dining room – with nice furniture that can stand the rigors of real world use – where we eat every meal.

    Anyway, all of this is completely beside the point. The so-called “formal” dining room was a staple of traditional home design. In other words, all the smaller houses that were being built back in the 1950s and earlier had “formal” dining rooms. So the excesses of modern construction have nothing to do with this.

    Instead, the real problem with dining rooms today is that most contemporary new homes give you multiples of things you only need one of. E.g., why have a 12×14 dining room and a 11×13 eat-in space in your kitchen? How many places do you need to eat?

  33. posted by Kate on

    My DH and I went house shopping last weekend. I have been saying for a long time how much I want that 4th bedroom (just for guests) and a two living/two dining room house. But when we started looking it came down to some very real questions

    1. If I have more room, I will “need” more furniture to fill the space, but
    2. If I have more room, I will have larger house payment and no money to buy said “needed” furniture, and
    3. Once I have said extra rooms and said “needed” furniture, I will simply have a larger area to clean, more to dust and less time to do it in since I would have to go and work another job to cover the cost of the bigger house and the more “needed” things.

    Instead we found a modest house with a great backyard and much less space than I thought I wanted. But it lends to more family togetherness, less place to put stuff and more time to spend with what really matters– those in the house.

    Subsequently, I’ve been told Woman’s Day has a good article this month relating to this “house fat” mentality. It’s very interesting.

    Also see the Not So Big House movement by Sara Susanka who points that we really need about 1/3 of the house we think we do if it is done with quality and thought. (http://www.notsobighouse.com)

  34. posted by Karen on

    We had a similar problem in that we never used our formal living room and small dining room. We had the grand idea to switch them and it has proven to be a fabulous solution. Our large dining room table fits much better in our long, former living room. Everyone has more room at family gatherings and it always looks nice when folks come to the front door.
    Moving the living room furniture into the former dining room really brought an intimate, cosy atmosphere to the room. It has made two formally useless rooms in our home inviting and accomodating. Good luck!

  35. posted by tay on

    Hillarious…I have been fussing about the same exact problem. I have a formal living and dining room that are USELESS. The dining room is not large enough for everyone to dine in when we have functions (and we never use it on a day to day basis); and the formal living room is truly forgotten about. both rooms are situated opposite each other in the front of the house. Problem is no one enters through the front of the house.

    I’m a think outside the box women and my significant other is a stuck in the past man. I’m modern, and he’s traditional. Trying to find a happy medium is difficult. I am really consumed with making the house function around the way we move and behave… so I am enjoying the fact that there are so many like minded individuals on this site.

    There were a lot of wonderful suggestio

  36. posted by tay on

    sorry.Hit the enter button…

    There were a lot of wonderful suggestions. As for me, I’ve been blessed with a handy man and I am considering having him take down the walls that connect the formal living room and family room ( as they are side by side) making one large room and then using one section (what would’ve formally been the formal dining room) as a study

  37. posted by Cujo on

    We took a different approach here: We made a habit of eating in the ‘formal’ dining room (on our china, no less), and repurposed the eating area in the kitchen for arts and crafts (and the kids still eat breakfast in there). But our floorplan is pretty open (1970’s split-level: ugly on the outside but so functional inside), so the dining room doesn’t feel as formal and cut off as it does in a colonial.

  38. posted by WilliamB on

    My house has small bedrooms, which I love; fewer baths than bedrooms, of which I approve; a formal living room made not-formal so that it’s used daily. It had a dining room, too, of which I did not approve. As with many others I would not use a separate dining room much; next to it was the tiny galley kitchen, which didn’t suit me at all because I like having my guests around while I cook. And have you noticed how *everyone* always ends up in the kitchen?

    So I knocked the wall out between the two rooms.

    Now I have a double-sized kitchen with a large eat-at island in the middle. The kitchen-side has plenty of counter and cabinet space and the den-side has chairs and a couch and a rug. It’s very homey and welcoming and 80% of living goes on in that room.

  39. posted by chacha1 on

    So glad to see I am not the only one who combs the archives. I love this kind of discussion.

    WilliamB, you B smart. I would have done exactly the same thing, because everybody DOES end up in the kitchen!

    My DH and I have a 2BR, 2BA mid-century apartment that has (with semi-private patio) nearly 1500 sq.ft. Our “living room” has only glass-fronted bookcases and wall-mounted mirrors; we use it as a practice and teaching studio (we are dancers). The “den” is our TV room. The dining room is a staging area until we throw a dinner party, which is fairly often. The 2nd bedroom is a home office + guest room. It’s a great space and as a rental costs us approximately 1/3 what it would cost to buy that square footage in our area.

    And having lived with two bathrooms for two adults, I will never willingly go back to only one!!

  40. posted by Karyn on

    @chacha1 – Me, too. 😉

    Living in a small studio apartment, I would love the idea of having a large, empty room to use as a “yoga room,” as some people suggested. Beats having to fold up my futon to sitting position just so I can roll out the yoga mat! On the other hand, I can’t beat the cheap monthly rent that comes with being able to get by with a studio. 😀

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