What is a Railroad Apartment and Should You Rent One?

railroad apartmentIf you’re thinking of living in New York City, in Boston or in Washington, D.C. , you may have heard of a “railroad” apartment. But what is it? And should you consider renting one?

First, a definition: in NYC, a railroad apartment is typically an apartment without hallways, where each room opens onto the next. It gets its name because it’s similar to a series of railroad cars. For example, if you have two bedrooms, you’ll have to go through the first one to get to the second. This can be a bit hard to visualize: click here and here for images of railroad apartments.  (This type of an apartment is also sometimes called shotgun house, especially in the  South. Wikipedia explains the difference.)

Why do these exist? In New York, particularly in brownstone areas of Brooklyn and Manhattan, many building lots are narrow and deep – and if you have a narrow, long apartment, you don’t want to waste your precious space on a hallway. These units are often in buildings that used to be 4-5 story family homes, but have been broken up, so that each floor is now one railroad apartment, or sometimes two studio apartments.  Before you sign up to live in a railroad apartment with a roommate, think carefully what that means for your privacy and social life.  At the same time, a railroad apartment may be a great solution for one person or a a couple.  Here are some pros and cons for you to consider:

CONS

Little Privacy / Awkward Living Situation. If you have a roommate who’s not a significant other, be prepared to put up with either no privacy, or a very awkward living situation.

For example: if you’re staying in the first bedroom, through which your roommate has to walk to get to his bedroom, get used to being accidentally woken up, and to never quite feeling like you’re alone.

In some cases, this problem is mitigated if the second bedroom has a door out to the common hallway/stairwell that’s shared with other residents of the building (see the first link above for an example). Then, the person in the second bedroom won’t walk through your bedroom, but he’ll have to go into a public common hallway every time he wants to go to the bathroom, kitchen or living room.

Obviously, neither situation above is ideal – whether you’re willing to put up with it says a lot about whether a railroad apartment is for you or how desperate you are.

One Person Will Always Have the Better Deal. As you’ll note above, in both situations, one person had it pretty good – while one person had a very unpleasant situation. Normally, the person who has the “good” setup in a railroad apartment pays more in rent. That said, there’s such a marked disparity in quality of living situations that it’s not uncommon for resentment to build.

Insufficient Doors. Often, a floor-through railroad apartment used to be a living room and dining room, and it’s the dining room has been converted into a bedroom. But, because it used to be a dining room, there’s no real door separating it from the living room. So you may have a screen, or beads, or a flimsy set of French doors instead. If you need peace and quiet, don’t expect it in this bedroom.

PROS

Price. For the square footage and location, railroad apartments are almost always cheaper, particularly if you’re willing to stay in the “bad” bedroom. If your neighborhood or commute is the most important consideration to you, renting in a railroad apartment may be worth it.

Perfect for Singles.  If you are lucky enough to afford your own place, a railroad layout can give you a lot of space for your money.  Here’s an example of a Brooklyn railroad layout from Apartment Therapy.

Perfect for Couples. All the problems above vanish if you’re a couple. You can convert the second bedroom back into a dining room or an office or a sitting room – whatever you want. You’ll be living in the space as intended, and you’ll likely be getting a deal on it.

Nice Layout. Hallways are a waste of space – if you only need one private room.  You’ll get a really cozy-yet-roomy layout with plenty of nooks, ample space and a little bit of variety. A parlor-floor brownstone apartment can boast wonderful details, with high ceilings, wood paneling and even stained glass. It can be a dream.

While railroad apartments might work for roommates who like each other and are flexible (and on a budget), they are a difficult option for singles who want to have a dating life with some privacy.  However, if saving money on rent is the top priority, you should consider them as short term rental option.

For couples, on the other hand, the arrangement definitely can work long-term, and may be desirable enough that it’s worth seeking out.

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Author My First Apartment
Alex

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Alex has rented in Minneapolis, Queens, Brooklyn, and now Chicago. He can kill rodents and roaches when required, and loves picture-hanging projects. If you're ever in town, give him a shout.

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Comments (4)

  1. Michael

    I have been living in NYC since 1999 and I moved into a Railroad in Astoria. We don’t use the term shotgun, ever. Never heard of the term. Its a railroad apt. I live in one now in Brooklyn.

    Reply
    • MFA Editors MFA Editors

      Yes, in NYC we call it a railroad apartment. Down South it’s often referred to a s shotgun apartment because you can fire one shot through the entire apartment. We like the name railroad apartment better.

      Reply
  2. Eli

    You described a shotgun house, not a railroad apartment… the distinctive difference between the two is that railroad apartment does in fact have a hallway, albeit only a single one, but it’s what gives it the name “railroad apartment.”

    Reply
    • Admin Admin

      Thanks Eli for your definition. In NYC, the typical usage refers to a “shotgun house” apartment as a “railroad” apartment, but we know that especially in the South, it’s called shotgun house. We added a little note to the post to clarify.

      Reply