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11 Tiny House Hacks to Make the Most of Your Dorm Room

Essential space-saving tips, storage ideas, and design inspo every college freshman should know before move-in day.

Tiny house dwellers typically have less than 400 square feet for their entire living quarters—bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, and living and dining area. So it makes sense to steal some of their small space hacks when preparing to live in a dorm room that, on average, is about 130 square feet.

“You always hear about dorm rooms being small, but it’s hard to imagine just how little space you have until you arrive with all your essentials—including clothing—and then find out you have nowhere to put them!” says Jeff Gawronski, CEO and product development director of DormCo.com, an online retailer of dorm supplies. “We don’t realize how much space is needed to hold everything. Being prepared to utilize the space you have is key.”

Arranging furnishings in minimal space is like fitting together pieces of a puzzle. Experts will tell you that the first step toward a tiny dream home is a lot of planning, and lucky for you, we’ve done the advance work.

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1. Make your bed front and center.

Living small isn’t about deprivation, according to Alexis Stephens and Christian Parsons, the couple behind the documentary storytelling and community education project Tiny House Expedition (and who travel the country in their 130-square-foot home on wheels). Stephens, a self-described “recovered pack rat,” told Business Insider that the secret to being comfortable in a small space is selecting some of your favorite things and then designing around them.

“The number-one way that students make their dorm feel homey is through their bedding,” says Gawronski, who recommends a stylish comforter and some throw pillows.

Some students really go to town, like these two from Ole Miss, who, as freshmen, redesigned their dorm room with custom-made headboards, bed skirts, and pillows. Though this might not be your aesthetic, their approach makes sense.

2. Connect with your roommate(s) before move-in day.

Sophie Wilkinson of Brooklyn-based co-living company Common offered this tip to Remodelista. Checking in with your future roommate(s) before you arrive means you’re less likely to end up with two microwaves and no coffee maker … or a surprise freak-out about bunk beds. Once you’ve got that worked out, you can get planning with a sketchpad or a design app.

The students behind this viral Texas State University dorm makeover, for instance, did a lot of preplanning, from measuring to selecting a color palette and furnishings. The actual transformation from cinder-blah to dream dorm room took just 10 hours to complete, thanks to their advance work.

3. Use your .edu email to get discounts

The Texas State University makeover cost $2,400, but you don’t have to take out a student loan to create a great look. According to 2018 statistics from the National Retail Federation, college students spend $942.17 total for back-to-school items, with $109.29 going toward dorm furnishings.

This Insider guide to dorm room shopping has a helpful breakdown of best pages to visit on 8 dorm shopping sites, as well as where to click to save money. Some retailers give college students discounts: your .edu email address gets you 15% off at PBteen, 20% off at Bed Bath & Beyond, and Amazon Prime Student deals. (Creating a registry at DormCo, The Container Store, and Bed Bath & Beyond can also help with guidance for graduation gifts.) You can even hit the thrift store for one-of-a-kind finds.

Dorm Room Designs: Quick and Cheap Organization Hacks

4. Loft—or lift—to use your under-the-bed space

Image: Loft bed and pullout couch by ellevalentine

One of the most popular ways to create more space in tiny homes and dorm rooms is to loft the bed. (Some colleges and universities don’t allow lofting, so be sure to check first.) The extra space underneath can be used for a desk, seating, or a mini fridge.

If you’re someone who likes to flop on your bed for an afternoon nap or spread out and work on projects, lofting may not be for you (because you may not want to climb up and down a ladder every time you get in and out of your sleeping space).

If that’s the case, consider bed risers. “Gaining an extra 23.5″ under your bed is a big deal when it comes to more space,” Gawronski says. That’s enough for a mini fridge, drawer, shelves, and hampers. Some bed risers even have USB ports and electrical outlets for added places to recharge and plug in.

Bed-riser bonus hack: Pick up some bed skirt panels or a print bed skirt to conceal your stored items. Or use woven baskets that are visible and add their own design element.

5. Get rolling

image: DormCo Suprima Rolling Underbed Storage Shelf
Image: DormCo Suprima Rolling Underbed Storage Shelf

Many tiny houses themselves are on wheels. Apply this portability to your furnishings, making them easy to move around for access in tight spaces, or if you need to clear some space in your room. Under-the-bed rolling storage is one good option. Carts are another good storage option, whether you’re using them in the closet or to store pantry items. Use a slim rolling cart for snacks or books under a loft or in between a bed and a mini fridge.

6. Go vertical

image: DormCo Over the Bed Shelf Supreme
Image: DormCo Over the Bed Shelf Supreme

One of the most common tiny home hacks is vertical design—and that goes beyond the loft bed. Work around school-issued furniture by placing shelving on top of the desk or over the bed.

“Typically, universities don’t allow you to opt out of their supplied furniture,” Gawronski says. And even if they do, the cost and hassle of putting it into storage probably isn’t worth it. (But if you are looking for inspo, check out these great-looking loft beds that, let’s be honest, would make your room look amazing.)

Depending on your dorm room, you may be able to hang design accents from the ceiling, like hanging fruit baskets to store other things. (Unless, of course, you have a bunch of fruit.) Create your own whimsical hanging nightstand or buy one already made if you’re not feeling crafty.

7. Speaking of nightstands …

Image: Amazon.com Whitmor Bedskirt Storage Organizer
Image: Amazon.com Whitmor Bedskirt Storage Organizer

Tiny homes have only the most necessary of furnishings. If a nightstand will take up too much space, consider a bed skirt organizer or pocketed caddy that attaches to your mattress, to hold bedside essentials like your phone and glasses. (The caddies are also ideal for lofted beds with no nightstand options.) Another space-saving solution are floating shelves next to your bed or a floating nightstand with just enough space for essentials or something decorative.

8. Think multipurpose

Image: DormCo Yak About It® The Shoe Rack Bench with Top Cushion - Black
Image: DormCo Yak About It® The Shoe Rack Bench with Top Cushion – Black

For instance, don’t just buy a shoe rack. Buy a shoe rack bench with a top cushion that doubles as a seat. “Since you have such little space, dorm supplies need to be multifunctional,” says Gawronski. Consider how your furnishings, whether it’s an ottoman or a side table, can double as storage. Even lamps can serve double duty, with bases that have USB ports for charging phones or a tiered dish design for holding jewelry and change.

9. Hang it up

Image: Container Store Chrome Metal 6-Tier Blouse & Shirt Tree
Image: Container Store Chrome Metal 6-Tier Blouse & Shirt Tree

“Your dorm room closet will most likely be smaller than your closet at home, so you have to get creative,” says Gawronski, who recommends sweater shelves, shoe shelves, and over-the-door hooks. (Over-the-door storage is prime closet real estate, whether you opt for a hanging shoe rack or a hanging laundry bag.) Make the most of the inside space with hanging organizers and shoe caddies, drawer sets, and tiered or ultra-thin hangers.

Don’t forget DIY hacks like some of these from a MakeSpace.com compilation: additional hooks at the back of your closet, storing tank tops on shower curtain rings, and using S-hooks for your jeans and pants. You can also expand your clothing storage space with rolling clothing racks and a corner clothes rack, provided you have an extra corner.

Consider a wall organizer for stashing keys, papers, and other small items that can get lost. And a simple rack with hooks or pegs can hold jackets and backpacks.

10. Did someone say wallflowers?

Image: Urban Outfitters Whimsical Floral Removable Wallpaper
Image: Urban Outfitters Whimsical Floral Removable Wallpaper

Trade in your high school posters for something more sophisticated, like removable wall decals in styles ranging from petite gold starfish to blossoming branches, birches, and trees. There are even whimsical options like a ship’s porthole and inspirational quotes and words.

Peel-and-stick wallpaper can really transform a cinderblock space. (The Texas State students used brick fire-retardant peel-and-stick wallpaper for their walls and desks.) Options include brick and salvaged wood, as well as stacked stone, geometric designs, and classic wallpaper patterns. You can even find paintable peel-and-stick wallpaper.

11. Create privacy with multipurpose dividers

Tiny homes usually have fairly open floor plans, and spaces are often divided by sliding doors or curtains. Carve out some privacy in your dorm room with movable screens or easy-breezy curtains. “Even if you’re good friends with your college roommate, at some point everyone needs some space,” says Gawronski.

“Even if you’re good friends with your college roommate, at some point everyone needs some space.”

— Jeff Gawronski, product development director of DormCo.com

Shoji screens or curtains on tension rods can be easy ways to divide the space. There’s even such a thing as a bed tent if you want to zip out your roommate when noise-canceling headphones aren’t enough.

For an option that’s less like camping and more like a canopy bed, try privacy room dividers on wheels. Open shelves can be used as room dividers for an airy feel that provides storage and privacy at the same time. DormCo suggests that its “Don’t Look at Me” privacy frame on wheels, when outfitted with a tight sheet, can be used with a projector for movie nights.

Dorm room decor has gone way beyond the milk crate, and you can find design inspo all over social media, including Pinterest. Besides tiny home hacks, look at dorm-specific ideas on shopping sites such as IKEA’s Back to College section, with room ideas and hacks from professional designers. Dorm room shopping site Dormify has a quiz to help you find your style, as well as real room tours. PBteen, Pottery Barn’s teen-centric shopping site, offers dorm design hacks, “style stories” for ideas that match your personality, and student curators who come up with real-world tips. Target’s dorm room line even led Architectural Digest to declare, “We’re Buying Target’s Dorm Room Decor for Our Grownup Apartments.


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