Small vs. Large: Which Type of Apartment Building is Right For You?

Street scene low risesIt’s rare that apartment-hunting ends in love at first sight, that swoon-worthy abode that is available, affordable, and has all the features and amenities you want. Very rare. More often, the hunt comes down to weighing the pros and cons of a few good-but-not-perfect options. This can be especially tricky when the apartments aren’t really comparable–for example, one’s in a brand-new high-rise building and another is a carriage house in someone’s backyard.

To assist your decision-making, we’re going to have a series of posts examining the good, the bad, and the unexpected about different types of apartments.  Future posts will compare modern vs. historic buildings, and basement vs. ground floor vs. upper-level apartments.

Today, the focus is building size. As you consider your Daydream Ideal Apartment, you probably have a vision of the building itself—a brick rowhouse, say, or a gleaming skyscraper that screams urbanity. As you weigh your options outside your daydream, here are some things to consider, starting with small buildings (e.g. brownstones, duplexes or triplexes) then moving on to larger ones.

Selling points of small buildings

Smaller buildings, generally speaking, will have a bit more character, especially if they’re older buildings—the units will probably be a bit less cookie-cutter and feel less institutional. After all, they’re essentially just houses that happen to have multiple units. There’s no guarantee that you’ll have things like a fireplace or free laundry facilities that you don’t have to share with a soul … but the odds are better with a small building. What you usually give up is an elevator. Instead, that fifth floor walkup keeps you in shape.

Small apartment buildings are also much more likely to be owned by an individual rather than a company—you’ll actually know the name of the person you’re calling with a question, and he or she will know you. Your landlord may even live in one of the other units, so when your toilet explodes, help will be on the way momentarily.

Fewer units means fewer neighbors—fewer shared walls with pounding music, more freedom to use the laundry machine whenever you want without fear of someone moving your clothes because you weren’t there the split second the dryer finished.

Also bear in mind that the size of a building is often an indicator of the scale of the surroundings (it’s a simple matter of zoning codes). Do you want more of a calm neighborhood, with families and quiet streets? Go for a smaller building. On the other hand, if it’s the bustle of downtown that thrills you . . .

Selling points of large buildings

If your dream unit involves postcard vistas over the city, you’ll want an large apartment building. For all the cozy comforts of a brownstone—A fireplace! A porch! Trick-or-treaters at Halloween!–there is, of course, something decidedly chic about the high-rise life, especially when you go out to your balcony and survey your domain.

Similarly, an apartment building is also good if you like the idea of having lots of neighbors—and, perhaps, a communal party room or gym where you can hang out with them, or at least a shared mailroom where you can have all kinds of interesting serendipitous meetings with new people.

And remember how we said that the landlord might live in an adjacent unit, or be more hands-on? Well, here’s a question: How appealing does that sound do you? Even if you’re the ideal tenant, it can be unnerving to see your landlord all the time. And big management companies can be impersonal but they can also use their size for impressive efficiency. I once lived in a large building and called their repair hotline one morning because my refrigerator had conked out. By the time I got home nine hours later, there was a new one humming away in my kitchen, with all of my food placed precisely as it had been in the other fridge. Pretty impressive.

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Author My First Apartment

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Doug Mack is a writer based in Minneapolis and the author of the travel memoir Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide (Perigee Books/Penguin). He has lived in apartments large and small, historic and modern, in Minneapolis and Chicago. Visit his web site at or find him on Twitter @douglasmack.

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Comments (1)

  1. Avatar Tara Allen

    I love that large apartments offer more space to roam. That is awesome that large apartments are more accommodating to your possessions. That is nice that with apartments you can often have communal rooms that allow you to socialize.