The need for cheap rent can sometimes compel people to settle for cramped, poorly maintained, and possibly even dangerous apartments. Sometimes, that shoebox apartment sounds like a super inexpensive steal, but something so small may be signs that a full-sized apartment is being subdivided, possibly illegally.
Housing authorities require homeowners to obtain permits that outline how many rooms a home can legally contain. An illegally subdivided apartment is any space that has more rooms than this legally binding permit allows. Sometimes, landlords go out of their way to disguise the signs of an illegally subdivided apartment, but more often than not, you can spot something that’s not up to snuff if you look for the following clues.
Basement and cellar bedrooms
A cellar is any room in which at least half the height is underground. Often, cellar bedrooms are illegal, as is the case in New York. Thus, if you visit an apartment during your housing hunt and find a bedroom in the basement, you may want to ask if that bedroom is legal.
If a basement bedroom has more than half its height above ground, it is technically legal, but basement bedrooms are still risky. Unfinished basements – the majority of basements in crowded urban settings – are not ventilated, and they often contain pipes and electrical structures that you should only approach when repairs are needed. Having these structures in your bedroom could, for example, expose your property to water damage if a pipe leaks.
Just as a bedroom shouldn’t be too low, it shouldn’t be too high. Attic bedrooms are generally a sign of an illegally subdivided apartment. Attic spaces can breed toxins and host all manner of pests that pose dangers to tenants. Although some suburban homeowners will spend money on converting their attic to an inhabitable, ventilated, structurally sound space, attic bedrooms in urban settings shouldn’t be trusted without proof that the right construction has been done.
Electricity via an extension cord
It’s one thing to use an extension cord in your bedroom to turn a double electrical outlet into an electric source for all your chargers. It’s another thing if an extension cord is the only source of electricity in your room, with no standard wall outlets in sight. This power source setup likely means that your landlord is providing you electricity from another part of your apartment – since the walls surrounding your room weren’t legally erected, they lack the required electrical outlets.
Padlocks on your door
Most interior doors in apartments include a privacy lock that doesn’t require a key or padlock to use. If your bedroom does have key locks or padlocks, you may be looking at an illegally subdivided apartment. Landlords may offer these security features to minimize the risk of grouping together strangers in illegally subdivided apartments – a not-uncommon arrangement for landlords looking to maximize profit no matter the safety risk.
Unreasonably small apartments
Some landlords will illegally subdivide apartments into units so small that tenants can’t even stand in them. If you find a room that feels unusually, dangerously small – smaller than even the tiniest of ordinary bedrooms – you’re likely looking at a subdivided apartment. These arrangements are especially precarious, as their high fire risk can be deadly.
Even if you’re operating on a paper-thin housing budget, all you’ll need is common sense to avoid illegally subdivided apartments. You might be tempted to go for the cheapest option possible, but keep in mind that your livelihood – and your life – are at stake.