To life's many choices -- paper or plastic, Mac or PC, traditional dating or speed dating -- apartment dwellers face another: renting an upstairs apartment or downstairs. No decision would seem more critical. Yet, strangely, few seem to consider the question upfront.
"It usually only becomes an issue after people move in," said Kelly Arft, senior property manager for the Renken Co. in Claremont, Calif., which manages about 150 apartment units.
That may be too late for those who value their sleep, sanity, security and other requirements for happiness. Unlike homeowners who enjoy a measure of privacy behind white picket fences and lofty hedges that separate them from their neighbors, apartment renters in increasingly high-density neighborhoods often share ceilings and floors with people who live above or below them. To find their place in this vertical world, they must honestly assess their personality and lifestyle preferences, as well as their tolerance for sounds, odors and other conditions not of their own making.
"In real estate, home buyers are always talking about location, location, location, but for renters, location is as much about the floor they live on as the neighborhood they choose to live in," said Ann Krauter, a Glendora, Calif., Realtor.
At the 207-unit Monte Verde apartment village in La Verne, Calif., that Laurie Fehey helps manage, she said the upstairs/downstairs debate is evenly split.
"I find that for as many people that want to live upstairs, an equal number want to live downstairs, but whichever camp they're in, they're usually very passionate about their choice," Fehey added.
Making the Upstairs Case
Monte Verde resident Kelly Thompson is a fervid upstairs advocate. She said she feels safer and enjoys a greater measure of privacy living upstairs. "You can leave the sliding glass door open and not worry about somebody surprising you in the middle of the night," she said.
"I also like the view better," she added, pointing to a pool in the distance shaded by a large eucalyptus. Because Thompson savors her solitude, she tries to keep the noise she makes on the down-low, knowing every sound she emits -- flushing the toilet, vacuuming or accidentally dropping a salt shaker -- is often amplified downstairs.
"I try to be neighborly and tread lightly," she said. "I limit my aerobic workouts to those times when I know my downstairs neighbor isn't home."
Val Robitzski, a property manager with Access Management Company in Flemington, N.J., said rents typically rise as the floor number increases. "People want to get away from street-level noise and they want a view," she said.
Better views and a bigger buffer from street traffic, however, don't fully explain this price difference. Many people will simply pay more to one-up their neighbor -- a living-above-the-crowd, penthouse bias that's been hard-wired in humans since the first cliff dwellings were carved out.
"You're paying for prestige and privacy," Robitzski added.
An upstairs unit can occasionally wreak havoc with the unit below, another reason for staying aloft.
Because of the law of gravity, clogged water pipes and leaky air-conditioning ducts typically cause greater damage to lower units. Renter's insurance provides some peace of mind, but even when ground-floor renters are compensated for damages, they still have the hassle of filing claims, scheduling repairs and seeking substitute shelter.
One weekend, Bonnie Bogharian, a retired gift shop owner, was driving home to her downstairs apartment in Palm Springs, Calif., but never made it past the front door. A leak later traced to a faulty upstairs air conditioner had flooded her apartment, damaging paintings, carpets, clothes and furniture. "If I had to do it all again," Bogharian said, "I'd never live downstairs."
Making the downstairs case
At the Monte Verde, management actually charges a premium for living downstairs. Instead of being confined to an upstairs balcony, downstairs residents get to enjoy a small yard and barbecue area and feel more connected to their natural surroundings.
"Parents with small children have to worry less about their kids knocking around and making a ruckus or screaming at them to keep quiet," Fehey said. "Plus, living downstairs, there are no groceries, loads of laundry or tired babies to lug up the stairs."
In emergencies, medical aid also can reach victims who live downstairs more quickly -- a priority for many elderly renters, who may no longer have the agility or strength to tackle stairs.
In addition, downstairs dwellers often don't have to undergo the agony and added expense of hauling couches, refrigerators and other bulky furniture and appliances upstairs.
"Any time we're dealing with flights of stairs, you can figure on the move taking longer and costing more, said Loretta Romero, a dispatcher with All American Moving Services in Albuquerque, N.M.
Utility bills will also run less if you live downstairs. Closer to the roof and the sun's searing rays, upstairs units tend to be hotter, so air conditioners must run longer.
No end to the debate
Living upstairs, Thompson said she feels less vulnerable to unexpected knocks at the door and the roving eyes of strangers -- or even of other neighbors. Director Alfred Hitchcock played on those fears in the classic 1954 movie, "Rear Window," where a wheelchair-bound photographer, portrayed by Jimmy Stewart, spies on his neighbors from his apartment.
The trade-off for the security she feels living upstairs is having to tackle a set of stairs that lead to her apartment, but Thompson downplays the sacrifice.
"After five years of climbing those stairs, I'm now in better shape," Thompson said cheerfully. "I turned the thing I hated most about living upstairs into a positive!"
Where do you stand in the upstairs/downstairs debate? Comment below, and remember, before making your move, examine your habitation preferences.
You can also read how others view their living arrangements on ApartmentRatings.com, which includes a comprehensive database of ratings and reviews of apartments in the United States.
Peter Bennett is a writer for MyBankTracker.