When we think of garden-level apartments these days, it's rarely with that sense of classic Hollywood glamour that the old New York brownstone basements used to evoke. (Think of Kim Novak's apartment in "Bell, Book and Candle," or even the classic urban sets and settings of "Sesame Street.")
In an age of commuter trains and flight to the suburbs, the aspirational emphasis is on space -- privacy, fences and lawns -- over the diversity and vibrancy of urban living. But to those who enjoy the life of the city, a garden-level home is not just a dark basement dungeon: It's a whole new view of the world.
Creating your life inside this urban space is an adventure: a constant, fascinating flow of lives and stories just past your window. Getting out of the dark basement and making a garden-level space work for you is just a matter of thinking outside the box.
Let's check out some of the things you should look for in a garden-level property.
It's important to look for a garden-level space that has windows and gets some sunlight. The effect of natural light on one's disposition and general mood can't be underestimated. As research continues into Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and similar syndromes, we're learning more and more about the effects of Vitamin D and sunlight on a variety of health concerns. It's important to maximize the amount of natural light in any home you consider as the quality most central to setting the mood, both for guests and for your day-to-day life.
"You want to live in a place you want to live," as the saying goes, so make sure you'll be comfortable before you buy or rent. Static-cling film on the windows can help with privacy, and hanging a mirror on the wall opposite your window can make a room appear lighter and larger. And be mindful of the placement and direction of windows: Southern and western exposures are preferable, although the latter may cost extra in cooling costs come summer.
When we think of street-level apartments as basements, those negative connotations come mostly from water damage: mold and musty smells, flooding and insects attracted to water. The garden-level home for you must be designed -- or redesigned -- with these concerns in mind.
First, look at the street outside: Are the gutters wide and capable of draining off even excessive floodwaters? Are the edges of the street curved down, so water doesn't collect in puddles? Are there any signs of recent damage, or renovation, to indicate the level of regular maintenance to expect over the coming years?
Inside, be wary of obvious signs of damage and decay. But also look for fast, cheap solutions to lingering problems, such as new drywall patches and panels, slapped-on paint and other indications of quick fixes that haven't necessarily treated the underlying issues.
Your window on the world -- or at least its feet! -- goes both ways. Consider balancing your need for light with your need for privacy. Street-level homes often afford even smaller personal spaces than the apartments above you. Efficiencies and studios mean some private activities usually reserved for our bedrooms and bathrooms take place on a larger stage.
Ironing clothes before dashing to work, grabbing a forgotten towel and even just entertaining friends can quickly become a show for the world outside. Imagine your routine, and plan accordingly.
While sheer café curtains provide ambient natural light and privacy during the daytime, at night your interior lights will broadcast your world like a movie screen! Similarly, blackout curtains can keep nosy passersby out at night, but come morning you'll be waking up in a cave.
Monitor traffic patterns and neighborhood personalities, and think about curtain systems to account for both day and night lighting.
Whether you're home or away, windows can be an advertisement to thieves. Most garden-level apartments are outfitted with window bars and locks, and you'll want to double-check or replace those as a tenant. But there's also the preventive measure of making sure you and your home aren't targets to begin with.
Again, you'll need to balance your security concerns with your need for light, which means considering options: A sheer café curtain or sash provides cover during the day, but you'll need something a bit less inviting for nighttime protection.
Your patio or garden decor should contribute comfort and style as you maximize whatever outdoor areas come with your home, but it can also be stolen or, worse, advertise the probable belongings within. Keep outdoor furniture and furnishings to a minimum, or stick with disposable outdoor furniture, and always turn off outdoor lights when they're not in use.
In terms of interior space, your first consideration after square footage should be ceiling height. It doesn't contribute to the advertised measurements -- unless used as a selling point -- but depending on the year and style of the architecture involved, ceiling height can vary widely, and it has a subtle but great impact on the way we view our home spaces.
In fact, ceiling height is nearly as important as light itself. A high ceiling can collect light and make the space seem far larger than it truly is, while a lower ceiling contributes to that "dungeon" feeling you want to avoid.
However, low ceilings shouldn't necessarily be a deal-breaker. Through placement of art, mirrors and other eye-catching objects -- or clever use of wallpaper or paint -- you can increase the impression of height without feeling cluttered. The walls aren't really closing in, after all!
When visiting a garden-level property, keep in mind you'll be living in the apartment. It sounds simple, but it can get complicated. Don't be fooled into planning your life around the space based on your fantasies.
Imagine not only your dream activities -- cocktail parties, or writing a novel on the patio -- but also your daily routine: Will you use that breakfast nook? Will the patio see that much use across the seasons? Analyze the space in terms of your probable activities, and you'll see more easily whether the space is right for you. It's possible you need more -- or less -- space than you think.
Will you really avail yourself of the nightlife, restaurants and nearby attractions? How many nights a week will you come home exhausted and simply want a place to lay your head? Location, like any other selling point, is only worthwhile if it has meaning for you.
There's also a place for ingenuity in your future plans. When you visit a garden-level property, you'll probably see it furnished to maximize floor space and square footage -- but this can also make the space seem less usable, paradoxically, since you're being presented with one smallish space. Use your imagination to see the ways in which the space can be defined to fit your specifications and needs.
Folding screens, rolling screens and inexpensive bookshelves -- even couch, chair or rug placement -- are time-honored ways of dividing efficiency spaces to make them both more usable and more comfortable for living.
Look at the property to be sure you'll be able to define spaces for sleeping, eating and entertaining. You should be able to employ that square-foot paradox to your own benefit, and by keeping these false "walls" at or below head level, you'll preserve both flow and light while maintaining privacy -- and using your space as efficiently as possible.
Many garden-level homes have some sort of semi-private outdoor access. It's a good idea to consider options for how to best use outdoor areas before moving in, to make sure you take advantage of the space.
Tending plants in an attached patio or vestibule is one way of bringing the outdoors into your home. The city garden is a proud tradition, whether in simple window or herb boxes, or -- if you're blessed with the space -- larger DIY planters. A simple trellis with flowering vines minimizes your project's footprint while providing a wall of color or fragrance.
If you enjoy being outside, you might define your outdoor space as a living area. Sturdy furnishings, scented candles and some nice outdoor cushions are all you'll need to create a reading room or private dining area in the middle of the city.
In a garden-level space, you'll be contending with the noise of neighbors, possibly in all directions. Passersby and neighborhood characters may also find their way into your life, in both welcome and unwelcome ways. But there's no need for strangers to remain that way, and it's in your best interest to get to know them.
Neighbors should be sources of comfort, not fear. Part of the adventure of urban living is this close proximity, and when the proper boundaries are created and enforced, it will contribute to the vitality and excitement of life in your new home.
You can ensure that this will be the case by investigating the situation before committing to an apartment. It's more important in an urban situation than in any other apartment scenario to get a sense of the surroundings and whether or not they'll be friendly. Use your wits and follow your instincts, but remember to keep an open mind.
When we buy or rent, it's important to think about the changes life can bring five or 10 years down the line. Whether you're single or simply child-free, make sure to take the possibility of changes to your family, lifestyle and even simply your preferences into account.
What about your job and finances? Is it possible you'll end up wanting -- or being able to afford -- a larger or more private place before your commitment is up?
Consider the reasons you're considering garden-level and whether you're interested in committing to them for a while. These sorts of living spaces fill a specific need, but if you aren't sure you're the garden-level "type," it bears thinking about.
On the other hand, remember too that your garden-level apartment or condo is not a lifetime commitment. It's an adventure in living as close to the heart of the city as you possibly can.
For more great information, check out the links on the following page.
Most homeowners insurance won't cover your home if you're renting it via sites like Airbnb. HowStuffWorks looks at insurance policies that will.
- GardenGuides.com. "Guide to Container Gardening." (March 22, 2011)http://www.gardenguides.com/how-to/tipstechniques/containerindoor/container.asp
- Hamer, David. "Learning from the past: Historic Districts and the New Urbanism in the United States." Planning Perspectives. 2000.
- Niedringhaus, Ashley. "Space-Saving Solutions." Real Simple. (March 22, 2011)http://www.realsimple.com/home-organizing/space-saving-solutions-00000000045171/index.html
- Puckett, Nancy. "My Basement Apartment." DivineCaroline. April 2007. (March 22, 2011)http://www.divinecaroline.com/22294/28479-basement-apartment
- Schwartz, Wes and Kayla. "Good Questions: Aren't Basement Apartments Too Dark?" Apartment Therapy. Sept. 25, 2008. (March 22, 2011)http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/boston/good-questions/good-questions-arent-basement-apartments-too-dark-064204