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Priced Out of NYC, They Bought a Tiny Suburban Home in New Jersey. Now What?

Dec 20, 2023Dec 20, 2023


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Living small

The 900-square-foot house had three bedrooms, but the children's were shoe-box size. Updating them required ingenuity and ideas from "An American in Paris."

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By Julie Lasky

Much has been written about "good enough" marriages, but what of "good enough" houses in "I guess we have to live somewhere" neighborhoods?

This is the story of a family who began with low expectations and then fell in love.

In 2016, Amanda and Alain de Beaufort were renting an apartment with a garden in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where they had access to a new school with a Spanish/English program for their two children. (Mr. de Beaufort, 49, is from Colombia.) The family had achieved urban-suburban balance in a community they treasured. They were happy.

Then one day, their landlord sold the building for cash and gave them a month to pack up and move out.

"OK, we’ll just buy something in Sunset Park," Ms. de Beaufort, 46, recalled saying, before making the cruel discovery that no affordable properties remained in the neighborhood. The couple cast their eyes on nearby Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. They flirted with Westchester County.

They did not consider New Jersey. "It wasn't cool," Ms. de Beaufort said.

Soon, she was sleeping on the sofas of friends as she house-hunted, while her husband and children bunked at her parents’ home in New Hampshire. In this precarious state, they succumbed to a campaign waged by a friend in Maplewood, N.J., who described that township, about 20 miles west of New York City, as a cross-Hudson-River extension of Brooklyn. (At least one newspaper article has made the same comparison.)

The couple bought a small house on a pretty, tree-lined street in Maplewood and declared it their not-forever home.

If they were going to move to the suburbs, they thought, they might at least enjoy ample space. But the 1923 colonial was roughly 900 square feet, with three tiny bedrooms and a sliver of backyard — smaller than New York City apartments they had occupied. Furthermore, its previous owner, whom Ms. de Beaufort described as "a DIY guy," had a fondness for murky colors and copious, awkwardly placed storage nooks.

"It was endearing what he did," she said. "But it wasn't done right."

Ms. de Beaufort, who is the director of communications for the architect Daniel Libeskind, could sense the virtues lurking beneath the most regrettable surfaces. Although the house was not overflowing with suburban amenities, its small yard and windowed basement were useful for her side hustle as a botanical dyer. (She imprints items like socks and tea towels with blossoms, and she and Mr. de Beaufort sell them through a company called ADB Botanical Color.)

More to the point, the house had been listed for $265,000 — $100,000 below the family's budget — so they could afford to give it a face-lift.

Ms. de Beaufort began in the kitchen, which had damaged black-tile counters and jury-rigged wiring that looked ominous. She replaced the misaligned Home Depot cabinets with custom Shaker-style ones, maple plywood for the top set and painted wood for the bottom. (The paint color is the Farrow & Ball pink notoriously called Dead Salmon.) Beneath the wood-patterned linoleum flooring, she found and refinished actual wood. For the new counters, she went with a quartz that resembled terrazzo. By the time she finished, she had spent about $36,000.

In the living room and primary bedroom, she repainted the drab walls white to make the spaces look bigger.

But what to do with the children's quarters, which were effectively shoe boxes, subdivided from what had once been a single, small room?

As the lockdown made this question more urgent, Ms. de Beaufort consulted a local interior designer named Hollie Velten. Ms. Velten is schooled in the travails of urban expats. Many of her clients are former renters who "are a little overwhelmed with a new acquisition of real estate," the designer said. "Or they are suddenly second-guessing their decision to move to the boring suburbs and want to make it their own."

She worked closely with Henry, now 13, and Adela, now 11, on picking the colors and features for their miniature domains.

Henry's room — so small that he had to climb over the bed to get into it; so small that the tax assessor declined to count it as a bedroom — became a pumpkin-orange cabin with lemon molding and accent patches of sage.

Partly inspired by the opening sequence of "An American in Paris," where Gene Kelly rearranges furniture and pulls objects out of closets simply to sit down to breakfast in his Left Bank studio, Ms. Velten installed low-key plywood bookcases and shelves that provided storage without calling attention to the crying need for it. On one wall, plywood panels radiate warmth on their own, but also open to reveal a closet and a study nook.

The previous owner had broken through Henry's ceiling to create overhead storage. Ms. Velten replaced the fixed ladder with a library model that could move aside, allowing access to the closet. Climbing the ladder, one finds a compact loft with a window, where Henry likes to lounge and listen to his collection of vinyl LPs.

"They’re going to be, like, smoking weed up there at some point," Ms. de Beaufort said.

In Adela's shoe box, Ms. Velten turned a niche that was formerly a play space into a sleeping area painted the color of purple cauliflower. The niche and surrounding areas include cubbies and inconspicuous storage drawers. In between shelves are flashes of wallpaper from the British company Common Room, patterned with snakes, moons, oysters, coral and clover.

Adela's "whole idea was to have this mermaid-cottage vibe here," Ms. de Beaufort said. But she is grateful that her interpretation was sophisticated enough to allow the room to be used for guests once she grows up and leaves home.

Because the couple are now planning to hang around.

They are enjoying the renovated bathroom that Ms. Velten redid with square, sage-green floor tiles and chrome fixtures for an apothecary look. (The total cost for renovating the bathroom and remaking the children's bedrooms: about $75,000.) They have planted perennials — including indigo — in the backyard for Ms. de Beaufort's botanical dyeing adventures. And they love Maplewood.

Now that they have put so much thought into the house, "it's like it's been customized," Ms. de Beaufort said. "I don't want to get rid of it and start again."

Living Small is a biweekly column exploring what it takes to lead a simpler, more sustainable or more compact life.

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