Apartments: Is Bigger Really Better? (Tenant Version)

I used to work for a theatre company that did most of its work in a very large performance hall. It had 25 rows and stadium seating, and the stage was 25 feet wide and three stories tall. (That's the width of a standard Chicago lot - pretty substantial for a city perfoming space.) It would have been a fantastic hall for big musicals, operas, and large scale events. The problem was, this company was a tiny one. They were not doing big shows, but in order to fill that huge space they had to spend tons on scenery and sound amplification in order to make it work for them. In this case, the bigger space was definitely a detriment.

When it comes to apartments, you can have one or the other but not both.

When it comes to apartments, you can have one or the other but not both.

So let's say you and your roommate have $1600 to spend between yourselves for an apartment. You have the choice between a 1000 square foot high-end, loft style condo in Lakeview with two bedrooms, and a 2000 square foot vintage unit with a basic set of appliances and four bedrooms in Irving Park. There are a large number of renters out there who would automatically say that the four bedroom unit is the better deal, even if they don't pick up extra roommates to fill the additional rooms. Bigger = better, right? I have five reasons here to help you explain to your roommate why this is not necessarily the case.

Utility Costs

If heat is not included in the rent at both of the apartments, you're going to be spending at least twice as much to heat the larger unit. Even if it is included in one of them, air conditioning rarely is, and you will need AC in the summer here in Chicago.There will also be an added cost for light bulbs and electricity to light the extra space.

The loft-style apartments with their half walls and exposed brick are usually less energy-efficient than their cousins with full floor-to-ceiling, insulated walls. However, vintage units tend to have older windows, so you're still going to be dealing with heat loss. Even if the vintage unit has newer windows and the landlord is paying for the heat, you still have to consider the carbon footprint used by each unit and live responsibly to avoid making the baby penguins cry.

Beyond the heating costs, there's also the costs of cleaning supplies for each unit, not to mention the time spent cleaning. (If you clean. I recommend doing so every now and then.)

Furniture entropy.

If you move into a four bedroom apartment with enough furniture to fill a two bedroom apartment, your home will look empty. You may try your best to avoid the slow accumulation of furniture, but it will somehow happen. It always does. I call it "furniture entropy." Stuff expands to fill the space it's given. Even if you don't purchase furniture, maybe your friends will store stuff with you, or you'll alley-surf a few items here and there to make the extra space look less empty.

They may look cute and harmless, but they grow up to be sofas.

They may look cute and harmless, but they grow up to be sofas.

When it comes time to move out, you'll have all of this extra stuff to either move, sell or donate. Resold items rarely get the same price you paid for them originally, especially when you take into account the time spent to advertise and sell them. It's more cost effective to go with a smaller place that you can furnish with items you already own.

Someone Else Needs It More Than You Do.

I may get some flak for this, but from a societal standpoint you have an obligation to inhabit a space that's appropriately sized for your needs. You and your roommate do not need that four bedroom apartment. Four bedroom rentals are scarce in Chicago. There are plenty of families and groups of lower income individuals who need that big space. After all, according to the Keating Memo it can house up to eight people!

In fact, I'm going to carry this point even further. Renters without particular needs must give some thought to those who have them in choosing their housing. The recent apartment market has been extremely competitive. Just because you can choose from any range of housing does not mean that you should, especially if it eliminates choices for those who have very few options.

If you have a car, you do not need to live within a five minute walk of a CTA train. If you are petless, you do not need to occupy an apartment that would accept a large dog. If you have good credit, strong income and a solid rental history, gravitate towards the more critical landlords who won't accept tenants that need cosigners to obtain housing.

Doing this with apartments is just as jerky.

Doing this with apartments is just as jerky.

If you can afford $1600 per month, don't take the $1000 apartment. You can go for the $1400 one if you want a "bargain," but leave the budget, economy model for someone who really needs it.

This is not a home purchase.

Buyers need to look further ahead in considering a home purchase. Usually eight to ten years is good, although buyers shouldn't try to find a home that will work for the entire remainder of their lives. They need to consider resale value, upkeep costs, and whether the home will fit their family as it grows over a long period of time.

You, however, are renting. One of the main advantages of renting is that it is easier to get out and move on to something that better suits your needs when your lifestyle changes. Your apartment will need to suit your needs for a year, possibly two. Unless your current lifestyle involves large numbers of houseguests on a regular basis, you'll do just fine with the two bedroom apartment.

You are not Wal-Mart.

There times in real estate when more square footage actually is better. If you're renting a storage locker, perhaps, or retail space, the "go big or stay home" idea definitely applies. Even in residential real estate there are times when the bigger apartment might be the better option. If you're in a situation where you need to live ostentatiously in order to impress assorted members of your profession, then yes, you probably do need a bigger apartment, but chances are you've got more to spend on rent than the $1600 I established above. If you work from home and need office space, go for the four bedroom. Expecting large numbers of guests on a regular basis? Yes, get a space with a guest room. There are always exceptions and that's why four bedroom apartments exist. Just make sure you're choosing your living space based on a current need, not based on an ideal of who you want to be within the next twelve months.

Do you spend a lot of time dancing around your apartment? Maybe you should go for the four bedroom unit. On the first floor. Please.

Do you spend a lot of time dancing around your apartment? Maybe you should go for the four bedroom unit. On the first floor. Please.

When dealing with apartments, standard criteria for assessing value do not necessarily apply. The attractiveness, size and popularity of an apartment does not necessarily mean that it will work for you. I have seen far too many tenants move into apartments that they loved for their looks, and then spend the next twelve months arguing with their landlord over petty concerns. Their attempts to fit their lifestyle into their apartment weren't working, and they opted to take out their frustrations on an obvious, if not logical, recipient. Apartment living is a situation where form must follow function, and practicality needs to be the top priority.