What Is a Railroad Apartment? Everything You Need to Know About NYC Railroad Apartments

NYC tenement railroad apartment in the 1930s. Courtesy of the New York Public Library

If you want to live in the greatest city in the world, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices. There are plenty of disagreeable aspects that New Yorkers are willing to overlook: absurdly high housing prices, obnoxious tourists, let’s not even mention those subway rats. 

For many, myself included, it’s well worth the price to live in the Big Apple. 

Sure, your one-bedroom apartment costs more than the majority of houses cost in many cities across the country.  

In New York, some might be willing to risk it all and lie in a “railroad-style apartment.” These apartments are literally homes without hallways which feel extremely similar to railroad cars. They’re most common in New York City but can be found in other major US cities like New Orleans, ​​Washington D.C, and Chicago, where they are colloquially referred to as “Shotgun Houses.”

Most railroad apartments were built in the late 1800s to early 1900s during an era when the tenement house was all too popular in New York City. These apartments were the epitome of this philosophy, maximizing the space available to create a small but unique apartment. 

Railway-style apartment floorplan by Daniel Rauchwerger

Today, many believe that these railroad apartments are a great way to save money and enjoy an open-concept living space. Fortunately, you can save up to a whopping twenty percent if you choose to live in a railroad apartment instead of a traditional one. 

This decrease in price is not without reason. Railroad apartments were built to satisfy a dire need for space in the city and often were constructed to be as narrow as possible. Similarly, when most of these apartments were built, there were few building regulations, so many lack air circulation, access, and proper windows. However, with modern devices, many of these issues can be fixed. Lighting, air circulation, and access can all be fixed fairly easily. 

On the flip side, you will be moving into an open-concept living space that allows you to decorate your flat however you want. You’ll have to get creative so that you don’t fill up the little space you have with overstuffed furniture, but often there’s ample space for sleek modern furniture and minimalist home designs. 

Another aspect that you may enjoy is the ample real estate on the walls of railroad apartments. Most don’t have many windows leaving you with plenty of places to hang artwork, pictures, or colorful wallpaper if that’s your thing. 

Another important aspect to take into account is that you are not paying the usual New York City premium for older apartments. Pre-war apartments are extremely popular for their charm, high ceilings, unique architecture, and sense of community. As a result, they often come with high competition and premiums. But, with pre-war railroad apartments, that’s not the case. The old-style charm and distinct lack of dividers make them an extremely unique flat to find in New York City. 

Of course, there are certain ways that you can make the most of a railroad-style apartment.

  1. Embrace Minimalism: With the lack of space and hallways, it is important to make sure that you can access all parts of your apartment. Most people who live in railroad apartments embrace minimalism so that they can use the space they have to their advantage. 
  2. Use the vertical space to your advantage: Like most pre-war homes, railroad apartments generally have high ceilings. So if you are planning to stay in a railroad apartment longer term, you should embrace ways to use this space to your advantage. 
  3. Utilize the lack of windows: Railroad apartments are notorious for their lack of windows, but that does not have to be a problem. The ample wall space is a perfect place to hang artwork, decorations, or other memorabilia to give your place a unique feel. 
  4. Be creative: Railroad apartments can be extremely cozy. You should be prepared to get creative with your use of space and interior design to capitalize on the space that you have.

One downside to railroad apartments is their lack of privacy. The open space can make it difficult to live with a roommate. But if you live with a spouse or by yourself, this is no longer a problem. 

So if you’re the kind of person (or couple) who enjoys living in a unique space, a railroad apartment is the perfect affordable option for you!