How to live in a 970-square-foot home if you’re not a minimalist

It sounds like a collector’s nightmare: moving house from from a 2,000+ square foot home into a tiny five-room cottage. It was indeed daunting for Michelle and Tony Johnson, who were moving with their 4-year-old from a sprawling family home to a small beachside abode in Pacifica, California, a coastside community 10 miles south of San Francisco—and who love collecting everything from vintage vinyl to owl figurines to clothing.

But it turned out to be the perfect place for this family of three.

“Moving into this house presented a lot of space challenges,” said Michelle, who describes herself as an “all around gal,” which is pretty apt. She cares for people ranging in age from 1-99, providing services from nannying to teaching, party planning, organizing and much more. And many of these activities happen in her family’s 970-square-foot house. But somehow, everything magically fits.

“It has space for everything we need,” she said. “The hallway fit all the records. The shelves fit the owl collection perfectly.”

A detached garage provides a cozy crafting haven, and large closets in both bedrooms keep this fashionable family organized. It’s evident even to a visitor that everything comes together harmoniously. The Hygge is strong in this one.But getting there took some work. Reducing your space by nearly 75% requires some tough choices, especially when you’re losing a two-car garage and a basement workshop.

“When we moved we had four garage sales plus made tons of donations,” Michelle said.

One of the toughest things to let go of was an 11-piece vintage furniture set from the late 60s or early 70s that fit perfectly in their previous downstairs bonus room. It was the first thing the couple bought together, and featured a wood-framed couch, loveseat, chair, a coffee table, two end tables and a foot rest.

“They all matched,” Michelle said. “They were kept together over all those years and were in really good condition. We got it at the Salvation Army in the Mission for $300 which may not sound like a lot but at the time we bought it we wondered if we could do it. The price was a stretch.”

There was also emotional attachment to the home itself—Tony’s mother and three siblings grew up in it. Right around the time the couple was getting married, Tony’s grandmother passed away, and his grandfather moved into a nursing home. So the family offered the vacant space to the young couple to rent.

Years later, the family decided to sell. But with crazy Bay Area home prices, they were not in a position to buy such a large place, especially one with a nature preserve as a backyard located on a corner lot.

As luck would have it, Tony’s brother was simultaneously moving from his current beachside home in Pacifica.

“His mom was like, ‘Oh good, you guys can move in there!” And the puzzle pieces fell into place.

They ripped out the carpet in the living room and had the original wood floors refinished. Small as the home may be, the hallway and Elizabeth’s bedroom were add-ons that didn’t feature hardwood, so Michelle and Tony added it. They also added a bench seat in the kitchen, which they hope to update one day soon.Now that they’ve lived in the home for seven years, they’re pros at keeping everything in its place. Michelle relies on baskets to keep clutter under control. And since they’re collectors who love thrifting, the flow of items in and out is constant. Cleaning—vacuuming, dusting, and wiping down tables—is a morning ritual. The result is a home that’s tidy and where Elizabeth’s friends always feel welcome, which is totally by design. Michelle relishes not having to panic about messes if unexpected guests stop by.And we have to talk about the music hallway, which is covered floor to ceiling with album art and other music-related images from Michelle and Tony’s collections.“Tony and I both have a real love for music and bands,” Michelle said. “In high school we both fell into scenes that were heavily steered by music and going to see bands. It’s something that has always kept us connected.” One hallway favorite is a snapshot of a teenage Michelle with Robert Smith, lead singer of The Cure, whom she ran into at Disneyland. Elizabeth, who is now almost 11, requested that Dolly Parton, Elvis and The Supremes live just outside her bedroom door. The back wall is devoted to The Beatles.    “I feel like moving here was so meant to be,” Michelle said. “It’s so cozy and it’s a home that I love coming to every time we walk in the door.”  

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