A Third of New Units Are Larger

After years of shrinking the size of apartments, developers are forced to reconsider this option as residents no longer want to compromise on space, argues columnist Lew Sichelman.
Lew Sichelman

Forty-eight square feet may not sound like much. After all, it’s just six by eight.

But it’s a big deal in the apartment sector. With more and more renters working from home, 48 feet is just enough for a small at-home office.

In existing units, it’s tough to carve out any kind of space for an office. But after years of shrinking the size of their apartments, developers are now adding a few feet here and there until residents have enough space to work without compromising the rest of their living environments.

According to a new analysis of Yardi Matrix data by RENTCafe, apartment builders have recognized the need for more permanent workspace. Of the 92 cities in which apartment floorplans in buildings under construction were analyzed, more than a third were larger than what was built five years ago. 

Larger units increased by nearly 50 square feet on average, a generous amount in apartments where there isn’t usually much extra space to begin with.

Specifically, one, two and three-bedroom apartments are expanding in size in 36 percent of the cities, RENTCafe found. One-bedroom units are being built 28 square feet bigger, two-bedroom units are 9 percent larger and three-bedroom apartments are “a whopping” 105 percent larger than half-a-decade ago.

As with most design trends, COVID-19 has sped up a movement that began before the pandemic. People are now “more conscious of the space in which they live and work,” said Doug Ressler, manager of building intelligence at Yardi Matrix. “The pandemic has significantly accelerated issues (that were) on designers’ minds well before 2020.”

Take the Llewellyn, a recently completed 318-unit property in Los Angeles. When it was designed three years ago, the team intentionally made the apartments larger. At the time, Alex Valente of High Street Residential says in the report, the approach “went against the grain” of other developments in downtown LA.

But to allow future residents to share the cost of living with a roommate or utilize a separate and private work-from-home space, the Llewellyn’s units are 20 percent larger on average than its competitors and the mix is 65 percent two-bedrooms, Valente said.

The average increase in unit size in locations already building larger apartments is a mere 48 square feet. But it’s enough, the report points out, for a small home office, a bathroom or some other type of space “that can provide a lifestyle upgrade for renters spending more time at home.”

“This is a wind of change in apartment construction—especially in urban areas—and it’s setting the stage for new trends in living preferences following the pandemic,” the report emphasizes.   

But not everyone is convinced, at least not yet. Daryl Spradley, senior vice president of Charles Wayne Consulting, told researches that “it’s too early to know for sure whether it’s an effect of the pandemic or not.”                        

Spradley maintains the growth in apartment sizes is triggered mostly by “developers who are addressing ‘renters by choice’ and ‘digital nomads.’” These are high-income people who choose to rent for various reasons linked to lifestyle, such as mobility.

“The number of people who earn more than $100,000 a year is significantly higher than it was two or three years ago,” the consultant said. “Those who are renters are obviously renters by choice because they can go out and buy a house.”

The RENTCafe report is based on floorplan size that was available in the 92 cities as of May for projects then under construction. Consequently, it says, “it’s quite possible the trend will be confirmed as more data becomes available and developers have more time to adjust their construction plans.”

Additional Report Highlights

  •  Twenty-seven of the 33 locations where apartment sizes are growing were urban areas, an indication of “a sudden demand” for larger city apartments to address the new reality.
  • Almost all the five cities where apartments are becoming larger are medium-sized cities in urban areas, but with populations of less than 600,000.      
  • In Everett, Wash., the home of a Boeing factory, apartment sizes are literally taking off. Units under construction there are 267 square feet larger on average than five years ago. When delivered, the average size will be 1,195 feet, an airplane wing larger compared to 928, the average size completed in the last decade. 
  • While developers in Everett were building the largest units, those in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Athens, Ga., weren’t far behind—an average of 1,139 and 1,132, respectively.

Yardi Matrix and RENTCafe are sister companies of Multi-Housing News.