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Small places fill a niche

Whether for thrift or for simplicity's sake, some homeowners enjoy living large in a tiny space.

September 14, 2003|Diane Wedner | Times Staff Writer

Step into Bryce Prunty's condo in Santa Monica and enter a Tom Thumb world. Tiny dining table, mini-appliances, one closet. No pantry, no counters, no clutter.

"It's a challenge living in this small space," Prunty said of his two-story, 225-square-foot unit -- about half the size of a typical two-car garage. "It's a challenge, but it's fun too."

In an era in which soft drinks come in 48-ounce cups and family automobiles can transport a platoon, small living spaces seem quaint. But many first-time buyers, downsizing couples, singles and older homeowners say they prefer diminutive homes for the low-cost, low-maintenance lifestyle they provide.

Real estate agents generally classify "small" homes as those occupying 800 or fewer square feet, typically with one bedroom and one bath, no garage and a small yard. Marketed as "quaint," "charming" or "condo alternatives," they often are the least expensive homes in a neighborhood. Many were built at the turn of the last century for local industry workers or as weekend homes for wealthier residents and sold for less than $2,000.

Prunty, a 30-year-old tech-job recruiter, bought his one-bedroom condominium for $230,000 -- or $1,022 a square foot -- about a year ago, the day it came on the market. The condo, one of 14 converted apartments making up his complex, suits Prunty's ordered lifestyle.

"Americans are such packrats," Prunty said. "I box things I don't need. If I haven't opened the box in one year, I toss it."

His philosophy explains the lack of clutter. A pull-down storage bin, discreetly hidden behind the front door, stores Prunty's shoes, laundry and sundry items, and a free-standing butcher block stores knives, canned foods and a blender.

A wood-framed spare bed, with built-in storage drawers beneath the pale green, velvet-covered mattress, is tucked beneath a small staircase that leads to the upper-level bedroom/living room. A narrow full-length mirror across from the unit's one small closet downstairs is attached to the wall with a 4-inch rod, which also provides hanging space for clothes.

Cleverly placed storage racks hold food items and cooking utensils, and Prunty has devised a tidy method for cooking dinner for his girlfriend, who frequents the cozy condo on weekends.

"I clean the dishes while I cook," Prunty said. "It's a habit you get used to."

The condo complex, a half-block from the beach, is made up of two buildings connected by a courtyard brimming with hanging flowerpots and landscaped individual flower beds. Units range in size from about 200 to 800 square feet. Each has a small porch, and residents share a common barbecue grill.

"We're like a big family," said Paula Truman, one of Prunty's neighbors. "My door's always open."

That one-big-family atmosphere has attracted buyers to tiny Pacific Lane in Old Torrance over the decades as well. The narrow walk street of about a dozen 660-square-foot gingerbread cottages was built in 1918 to house railroad and industrial workers, said Re/Max Executives agent Tom Babiar.

Marsha Agnor bought a two-bedroom Pacific Lane home eight years ago for $120,000, to live closer to her daughter and granddaughter.

"It was Camelot to me," the 60-year-old relief-agency coordinator said. "I had been living in a condo in Panorama City, and suddenly I had a backyard with pine trees."

Although the property lacks a garage, Agnor found charm in the bathroom's original claw-foot tub and the Murphy-bed closet. She updated the electrical wiring, installed French doors to the backyard and reluctantly sold the house recently to a young family for $233,000.

"We have so many double-income, no-kids people buying here," said Torrance agent Janice Plank of Prudential California Realty. "They love the character and the charm of the old houses, and many buyers end up staying longer than they thought."

Twenty-two miles north of Torrance, in the Elysian Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles -- dubbed Frogtown years ago for its onetime proliferation of amphibians -- Theresia Randall sat in the living room of her 792-square-foot house and reminisced.

The 85-year-old former bakery worker recalled moving into the two-bedroom cottage on her wedding day in 1939. Her father-in-law put $250 down on the $1,100 house, a gift to the newlyweds. Today the house would sell for $190,000, according to Yennis Wong, a Los Angeles Coldwell Banker agent.

Randall, a widow, has a lot of memories tucked away in the old house, along with stacks of books, photographs and mementos. Relics of the original design can be found too.

An old-fashioned pull-down electrical switch turns on the lights. In the dining room, the home's original windows are dusty but still functional. The old Sears wringer-style washing machine, bought 60 years ago for $35, has been replaced by a modern washer/dryer set. Beneath the throw rug in the living room, an ancient coffee-can lid is embedded in the original pine floor, covering up a hole in the woodwork.

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