What do you need to know about buying a garden-level property?

White townhouses with garden level
Real Estate Image Gallery A garden-level apartment gives you an up-close-and-personal look at urban living. See more real estate pictures.

A garden-level apartment is considered to be generally situated between a basement and first floor, so that people standing up inside it would find their heads at or around street level. Found in brownstones and buildings across America, street-level homes have come in and out of vogue several times over the years.

In the post-World War II era, young people left their family homes for the urban workforce, and the basements remodeled to fit this growing need for housing resulted in what's now known as the classic garden-apartment style. Think here of the Kelly Girls and other members of the female working class born during the war.


The '70s, in chic and growing New York neighborhoods like Chelsea and the Meatpacking District, saw garden-levels reinvigorated. The metropolitan, street-level effect -- imagine the thousands of fellow city-dwellers passing by each day -- was seen as artsy and trendy.

"Garden level" is often thought of as a euphemism for "basement" (or "dungeon"). But with interest in city life now spreading to areas once considered superfluous to the downtown set -- Brooklyn and the Outer Boroughs, for example, or the revitalization of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco for another -- we're seeing these classic spaces restored in all manner of ingenious ways for a more modern style of living.

In real estate, as with anything else, everything old is eventually new again. In the case of garden-level apartments, we see revitalization of neighborhoods that have lost their one-time luster: That means new entertainment districts, hot neighborhoods and restaurants blooming on once-historical sites. Those classic brownstone neighborhoods have become hip again, and all the basement and garden-level apartments they contain now mean access to the nightlife just outside your door.

Let's take a look at some of the basic qualities of garden-level properties and the quality of life you can expect from this kind of residence.



Qualities of Garden-level Properties

Of course, the "dungeon" connotation of the garden-level apartment doesn't come from nowhere: Diminished natural light, faulty drainage and old construction can add up to a pretty dire scenario. For those used to larger or more airy spaces, the garden-level home can seem dark, small or downright depressing. But with a little investigation of the circumstances -- and an eye toward minimizing these effects -- a garden-level home can be just as comfy and charming as a Los Angeles bungalow or midtown condo.

Before buying or renting, consider the underlying and structural qualities of the space. Areas of damage can be subject to quick-fix solutions that leave the true problems unattended, so you'll need to look out not only for obvious water damage and cracks in the foundation, but also new plaster and drywall patches that might be covering up a bigger problem. Look at the street, including drainage systems, gutters and pavement quality, to determine whether or not flooding will be a concern.


Next, consider the living conditions inside. Architectural styles can vary widely and are quite subjective: The ultramodern, "industrial" look of one property might be the perfect fit for your style, or a more classically designed or renovated apartment -- identical to those in the floors above -- could suit you better. Of course, if you're buying, these stylistic concerns are remedied easily enough if you're willing to put in (or pay for) the labor, but you must consider whether you want to take on that sort of lengthy and inconvenient project.

Finally, think about the unchangeable aspects of the space: Windows provide natural light and are key to setting the tone and distinguishing your home from a dungeon. Ceiling height is rarely negotiable, but it contributes greatly to the overall feeling and flow. The amount of usable space is another concern, although there are plenty of resources and tips on urban living that can help you get the most out of these parts of the equation.


Quality of Life

Brownstone with garden level
Being at street level puts you in the midst of a city's hustle and bustle, which some city dwellers find exciting.

Ultimately, garden-level living is not for everyone, and your greatest decision on the subject should also be your first: Will you enjoy living in this space? Is access to the nightlife and entertainment nearby worth it? Can you handle the nonstop foot traffic going past and the sounds of your neighbors?

It isn't enough to be willing to deal with it. You must be attracted to the idea -- after all, you'll be living your life within that often small, usually less well-lit space. Without a healthy respect for the bustle and vitality of urban life, which will be taking place practically in your living room, you may find yourself overwhelmed and cramped, no matter how much you enjoy imagining the situation in theory.


Once you've decided on a garden-level home, it's time to accentuate the positive and eliminate as much of the negative as possible. Make sure you have a landline, as cell phone reception in garden levels is notoriously bad. On the other hand, the insulation effects of your surroundings mean that you'll be warmer in winter and cooler in summer than your neighbors. Brainstorm ways to bring in light and color without inviting in the more dangerous aspects of urban life. Get a sense of your neighbors, because they'll be a larger part of your life than you might anticipate. Look at urban-living blogs for creative decorating ideas to make the most of your space, and use your outdoor access to bring as much of the outdoors inside as possible.

Interior design and use of space are largely about making your home somewhere you actually want to spend time, and that's even more important to consider with a garden-level apartment. Your home should be an oasis, as comforting as it is exciting. The key to creating a life at street level is balancing public and private space in whatever way suits you best. You've chosen a certain kind of adventure, but every adventure means risking burnout, too, so keep your own comfort in mind.

If you're invigorated by the excitement of urban living, then a garden-level apartment might be the right choice for you. Just make sure to keep a little bit of room for yourself. And good luck!

For links to more great information, click to the next page.


Lots More Information

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  • Apartment Ratings. "Comparing a Studio and a One-Bedroom Apartment." Feb. 24, 2010. (March 22, 2011) http://ohmyapt.apartmentratings.com/comparing-a-studio-and-a-one-bedroom-apartment.html
  • Better Homes and Gardens. "Making Small Rooms Seem Big." (March 22, 2011) http://www.bhgrealestate.com/views/live/makeover.aspx?id=170
  • Georgia Alliance of Preservation Commissions. "Frequently Asked Questions about Local Historic Districts." University of Georgia. (March 22, 2011) http://www.uga.edu/gapc/links_doc_pdf/FAQs%20about%20local%20districts.pdf
  • Simmons, Daniel P., III. "This Old Studio Apartment." This Old House. (March 22, 2011) http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/photos/0,,1629897,00.html
  • Yee, Sue. "Efficiency Apartments." HousingInfo.com. April 28, 2007. (March 22, 2011) http://www.housinginfo.com/efficiency-apartments/