Making Small Living Spaces Work: How We’ve Maximized Our Tiny Home

The most common question we get about living on a boat is, “What’s it like living in such a small space?

It’s a reasonable question. It was one of our biggest concerns before making the move. Most people only know life in houses or apartments larger than 500 square feet. Making the move to a boat or a trailer or camper or even a tiny house means relearning some things.

We downsized from 1950 sq. ft. to 350 sq. ft. when we moved onto a boat. We had a 3-bedroom house with a large living room and decked-out kitchen. Our dining room had an 8-person table and our kids had a dedicated play room. We even had a spacious laundry room, utility room, and office. Our 2 car garage with two-story storage loft and extra half bath made our house feel gargantuan.

Erica standing at the galley sink in the salon
Erica standing at the galley sink in the salon

So, moving into 350 sq. ft. made us nervous.

Would the boys have room to play? Would we get tired of being so close? What if one of us needed time alone or some quiet space? Will the boys do well sleeping together? Where will we eat meals? Will there be space to entertain friends? Will we still have enough privacy to have a healthy sex life? Will a tiny kitchen work for the way we eat? Will there be enough room for all our stuff? Will the whole place end up getting super cluttered?

So. Many. Questions.

We mulled and talked and researched and talked some more about living in a small space. Thankfully, we weren’t the first family with kids to move into a sub-500 sq. ft. living space. Hundreds of families have done it before us and documented their decisions.

Reading on the top deck after bed time
Reading on the top deck after bed time

Pinterest boards and Instagram accounts that highlight ideas for living in small spaces were really helpful. We began to believe that, with a little ingenuity and patience and mindful contentment, we could make the move into a boat without losing our minds.

When we found the right boat, it was time to set about the task of making it feel like home. The previous owner had done a ton of great work to maximize space.

“Where do we put everything?” – Figuring out the storage situation

When we bought the boat, there was storage everywhere. Every nook and cranny had a cabinet or box inside it. In fact, six months later, we’re still finding new storage compartments we didn’t know about.

The couch/bench in the salon (main cabin) was one big storage box. We filled it with food and tools. The steps and sinks had storage underneath, so cleaning supplies filled those spaces. Every mattress laid on top of massive storage boxes, so they were filled with household supplies.

Of course, there was still traditional cabinetry and pantries and cupboards. Everyone has their own closet and having two heads (bathrooms with a shower) means we each get our own space for clothes toiletries.

Mechanical equipment and larger tools have dedicated, secure space in the engine room along both fuel tanks (150 gallons each). On deck we have a 50 gallon box that stores 4 propane tanks and all our dock lines, canvas window coverings, and miscellaneous outdoor gear. The upper helm has more storage for deck chairs and stabilizers (for anchoring in rough seas).

The boys have to climb to wash their hands
The boys have to climb to wash their hands

Of course, we still had to downsize. Lots of stuff is stored away in a room in Jacksonville. We didn’t bring any furniture since it’s all built into the boat. All of our winter clothes are in a box in storage until the weather cools off, which still hasn’t really happened as of today (November 28).

Almost all our flatware and glasses stayed in storage. We only brought four of each thing (plates, cups, forks, etc) since we decided to never ever ever attempt to entertain guests for meals.

Clever tricks and modifications to our small home

The boat had a table in the salon when we bought it, but it was large and imposing in the small space. We got rid of it, but we still needed some solution for a table for the kids to eat breakfast or for us to have family meals or for homeschooling.

The boys' v-berth getting the fort treatment
The boys’ v-berth getting the fort treatment

Under the kitchen counter there’s a space for a refrigerator. Since we have two 12-volt coolers (one for fridge and one for freezer) sitting elsewhere in the salon, the space for the refrigerator was empty.

Erica’s dad built a slide-out table that mounted under the counter. We bought two small stools for the boys to sit on. It’s big enough for the boys to sit at while they eat breakfast or do school work. It slides completely out of the way when it’s not being used.

For those times when we all want to sit together to eat, which is usually dinner time, we bought a folding table that fits in a small hideaway. It’s also handy when I want to work from the boat and the weather isn’t nice for working on deck.

Lucas playing in the "dashboard" in front of the helm
Lucas playing in the “dashboard” in front of the helm

The salon has a “dashboard” area in front of the lower helm. It’s become the Lego play area. The boys’ extensive collection of random Lego pieces stays there and it’s big enough for both boys to play and build things. Plus, they get a great view straight across the bow of the boat.

Finally, I mentioned that we opted for two electric coolers (Engel Marine Fridge Freezer) instead of a mini-fridge. We did this for a couple reasons. First, they can be run on 12-volt batteries, which means we can run them from the house batteries when we’re living on the hook. Second, we can move them around if we need to adjust the layout inside. Or, if necessary, take one out altogether if we need the space for something else.

Uber-salon: thinking outside the single-use box

When we lived in a house, we had single-use spaces. We’d eat in the dining room, lounge in the living room, clean clothes in the laundry room, etc. Each room had one purpose and one primary use.

The boys watching a movie in the salon
The boys watching a movie in the salon

Now, with 350 sq. ft., the salon is a super multi-use room. We use it as a play area, living room, dining room, kitchen, laundry room, school room, nap area, foyer, and work room. Everything happens in the salon and it’s designed in order to accommodate every different activity it hosts.

Family acroyoga happening in the salon
Family acroyoga happening in the salon

One of the best decisions Erica made when we moved onto the boat was to make a thick rug that covers the entire floor space of the salon. It’s so soft and comfy that the kids prefer to wrestle there than anywhere else. It’s great for yoga and stretching in the mornings, too.

Dock space and the great outdoors

Most houses have a yard or garage or some outdoor area that’s dedicated to that living space. We have that, too, sorta.

The big bow is a fun place to play
The big bow is a fun place to play

When we’re moored in a marina, we have some space on the dock that we can claim and use. We have a dock box that stores life jackets for the boys (when we’re on the Whaler fishing or adventuring) and other dock lines and fenders. When we’re under way, the dock box has a safe spot on the swim platform.

The boys love to run and play on the dock. They fish for the little biters in the marina. They explore and meet other boaters. They watch fishermen clean their catch. They draw on the concrete with chalk. It’s like their personal driveway.

One wonderful side effect of living on a boat is it forces you outside. Since there’s not much space inside, we have to stretch our legs pretty often. Marinas are great places for exploring, but living on the hook provides its own chances for adventures.

Our Whaler stays tied to the boat at all times, which means an impromptu fishing trip to the flats is as easy as stepping off the boat. Playing in the back yard means going for a swim. Catching dinner means fishing off the upper deck.

Final thoughts

Moving from a large house to a small boat was much easier than we expected. The boys adjusted immediately; kids are pretty resilient. Erica and I got used to the compromises we had to make. Less space and less stuff plus more adventures is a good trade.

Author: Scott (Captain)

I'm the husband, dad, and captain of the Wanderer. I own a web company that dabbles in application development and SEO. I work from anywhere with a decent internet connection, which is most often the deck of our trawler.

2 thoughts on “Making Small Living Spaces Work: How We’ve Maximized Our Tiny Home”

  1. Such a beautiful family! Very interesting way to live 🙂

    I see happy faces in your posts 🙂

    My prayers are with you. Greetings from Turkey.

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