Could you live in 475 square feet? These Old Towne residents say micro-dwelling is ‘liberating’

Cayla Alexander 24 , left, and Leigh Reinert, 35, at their Shaffer Cottages apartments in Orange. ///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Real.Centerpiece.0712 Ð 6/30/15 Ð LEONARD ORTIZ, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER - _LOR0134.NEF - Orange's Shaffer Cottages, circa 1923, have undergone a big remodel/preservation effort and now are home to four tenants, each living in a unit no bigger than 500 square feet. The tiny apts are historical but are extremely tight for living spaces. The investor who bought and restored them just became the first multi-family owner to win a merit award from the Old Towne Preservation Association

Cayla Alexander 24 , left, and Leigh Reinert, 35, at their Shaffer Cottages apartments in Orange.

When newlyweds Cayla and Rob Alexander told their families they wanted to move into a vintage, Old Towne Orange apartment that’s smaller than 500 square feet, the response was unanimous.

“All of them were, like, ‘You’re insane,’” Cayla Alexander recalled.

Actually, the tiny home has had the opposite effect.

Their apartment at the South Shaffer Cottages contains only what the Alexanders treasure – or literally can’t live without. There’s a void of clutter. “It kind of gives you a sense of calm,” said Cayla Alexander, 24.

Their lifestyle reflects a niche housing trend taking hold in cities across the nation, as micro-dwellings catch on with millennials and downsizing baby boomers. Small homes are so big right now they’re even featured on reality shows, including “Tiny House Hunters,” about homebuyers seeking places that span less than 600 square feet.

When the Alexanders get ready to vacate their 475-square-foot apartment, their landlord knows he’ll be able to tap a new tenant quickly.

He has a waiting list.


Hugh Siler bought the 1920s, one-story South Shaffer Cottages four-plex in 2011. He paid $585,000.

It was in sad shape. Some apartments lacked heat. One kitchen had no hot water. On his first day as owner, Siler said, he nearly fell through a rotting bathroom floor.

He said he spent about $175,000 and some 4,000 hours refurbishing and restoring the property to its era.

The apartments now have renovated kitchens with 1920s-style apartment-sized stoves, avocado-colored counter stools from a 1930s Woolworth’s in Fullerton, and small, restored 1940s refrigerators, complete with tiny ice boxes that would fit, perhaps, a single frozen dinner.

Siler found original pull-chain toilets, with the water tanks installed high above the commodes, and apartment-sized claw-foot tubs. He also installed light fixtures, switches and doors that were authentic or newly made to reflect the era.

He and his team disassembled the cottage’s original termite-chewed window frames, kept the ripply, 1920s glass, then built and reinstalled new windows.

For his meticulous efforts, the Old Towne Preservation Association gave him a special merit award this spring.

“He basically went above and beyond what most people would do,” said Jeff Frankel, the association’s preservation chairman. “He did a phenomenal job.”

The cottages, which have air conditioning and heating, rent for about $1,500 per month. At about $3 a square foot, Siler said, the rent is on par with other pricey areas embracing the micro-housing trend. A CNN story recently cited apartments of less than 400 square feet in San Francisco renting for around $1,700.

“People will pay a premium to live in Old Towne Orange,” said Siler, who owns a marketing company in addition to investing in real estate.

Siler has purchased other properties, and said that as a landlord, he prefers smaller units. For one thing, maintenance costs are less.

“With the cottages, I will never have the need to buy carpeting because the original 1923 hardwoods are intact and have been refinished,” he said. “Also, it only takes a gallon or two of paint to repaint the inside of a unit.

“And, once a tenant gives notice to move, I can quickly get the unit repainted, cleaned and ready for the next tenant within two days – or less.”


As the Alexanders prepared to move into the South Shaffer Cottages, Cayla Alexander said they laid out their belongings and asked two questions: What did they want? What must they have?

Eighty percent of it, she said, fell into neither category.

Cayla, a nursing student, and her husband, Rob, a hearing-instrument specialist, have lived in the apartment since December.

Their small cache of cookware includes one skillet, one large pot and a casserole dish.

“We have three bowls and five plates,” Cayla said. “But when you really come down to it, do you need anything else?”

Their neighbor Leigh Reinert, 35, doesn’t want a TV. She thinks it would overwhelm the apartment.

Reinert, a marketing director, watches shows on a laptop, through Hulu and Netflix. She stores some items in suitcases. One holds shoes, another has paperwork, and a third contains sheets and towels.

Her 475-square-foot unit has a compact backyard with trees, plants and a patch of grass. The little oasis and her own storage shed (the other three units share another one) make Reinert’s the most coveted of the four units.

But Reinert said she’s more focused on adding plants to her backyard than what more she could put in the apartment.

“It’s a lot more free and liberating,” she said, “to have less stuff.”

courtesy of:

written by: Marilyn Kalfus


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