Courtesy of Wall 2 Wall NY
For countless budget-conscious renters in New York City, temporary walls have long offered a way to subdivide an apartment and split the monthly fee with a roommate. After all, now that rents are at an all-time high, splitting costs with a roommate (or two) might be more necessary than ever.
Roomies or not, these nifty partitions can also mean you can avoid having to find a larger apartment when baby makes three—or if you are working from home and need a designated "office" space.
Pressurized temporary walls, once the default option since they seal off a space and offer the most privacy, are not allowed in many NYC rental buildings. But freestanding bookshelf-style walls that are not permanently attached to the ceiling, walls, or even the floor, can be an acceptable alternative. They are also more popular and customizable than ever.
[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article was published in July 2021. We are presenting it again with updated information for July 2022.]
How do bookshelf walls cut costs?
Moving, even two blocks away (or two floors up), can cost a small fortune in NYC. There’s usually a broker’s fee, a security deposit (now capped at one month's rent) plus the cost of a moving company, if you don't plan on doing the schlepping yourself.
That’s why temporary bookshelf walls can make the difference between being able to afford and being priced out of your current or target apartment. Even basic partitions will allow you to carve out more space from your existing square footage, whether that means splitting a bedroom or sectioning off part of the living room (such as for a nursery).
And in addition to at least some semblance of privacy, bookshelf walls offer something else NYC renters are forever short on: vertical storage that doesn't swallow your floor plan.
What kind of approvals do you need for bookshelf walls?
It helps to know the potential pitfalls of using this type of room divider. J’Nell Simmons, founder of landlordsny.com—an online resource for landlords and property managers—says even well-established management companies can be confused by what constitutes a temporary wall that will pass muster with the Department of Buildings.
“Pressurized walls may require permitting” and landlords can be reluctant to go through the process, Simmons says. “Being compliant with the DOB is of the utmost concern for them.”
That’s because dividing up apartments with pressurized walls to create illegal bedrooms—rooms that are too small and lack windows and two means of egress, for example—have led to tragic consequences in the past. (There are, however, ways to install a pressurized wall safely. For information on how to do this, check out “From 1 room to 2: The insider's guide to temporary pressurized walls.”)
According to Adam Stone, a real estate attorney at The Stone Law Firm who also manages rental buildings through Stone Realty Management, "Assuming they are truly freestanding, bookshelf 'walls' are not actually walls but rather bookcases used to divide space and you do not need permission from a management company to furnish your apartment."
But even though bookshelf walls are technically furniture, Simmons encourages tenants to always check with their property manager “because there are security and fire safety issues at play” and each company can have its own requirements.
If you exhaust the DIY method—or just feel exhausted—sign up here to take advantage of the corporate relocation rate offered by Brick Underground partner The Agency. A tech-savvy real estate brokerage founded by a pair of Yale grads in response to the frustrating apartment searches of classmates and colleagues, The Agency will charge a broker's fee of 10 percent of a year's rent versus the usual 12 to 15 percent if the apartment is an "open" listing (versus an "exclusive" listing where the fee is split with the broker holding the listing.) Bonus: The agents at The Agency are a delight to deal with.
What kinds of bookshelf walls are allowed in NYC?
Based on responses from the management companies contacted by Brick Underground, the requirements can run the gamut and approval is often decided on a case-by-case basis.
Among those who typically allow bookshelf walls, for example, most require 12 inches clearance below the ceiling and 36 inches from a wall, and if doors are permitted, sliding or pocket doors are often the only allowable options.
"I'd say 75 percent of buildings do not allow any door, just an opening," says Eddie Sapienza, owner of Wall 2 Wall NY, named Best of New York 2019 in its category by New York Magazine.
It’s important to contact your landlord before you reach out to a wall company. “I’ve worked with most of the management companies and generally know what is and is not allowed at their buildings,” Sapienza says.
And if he doesn’t know a landlord, he makes sure to send over the specs before constructing anything; in at least a couple instances, he has had to build the model for the landlord to inspect before allowing it to be installed.
Such are the vagaries of NYC rentals; better to be safe than spend money on something that’s not going to be allowed. Ask the property manager before signing a new lease and before installing a bookshelf wall in your existing apartment. Preserving the landlord-tenant relationship is always the best course of action.
Features and costs of bookshelf walls
Once you know the landlord’s parameters you can begin exploring the different options. Prices range from $950 to $2,000 for basic models—by far the more popular and economical choice—and in excess of $2,000 for custom configurations.
Like all things related to construction these days, the cost of materials has gone sky high, Sapienza says. (For example, a single metal stud used in the units has gone from three bucks to $10.) "We are still trying to keep it within $1,100 to $1,200 for a basic wall, plus more for doors, plexiglass, closet, and other additions."
If your building allows doors, know that sliding or pocket doors allow you to put furniture against the bookshelf on either side. Same for the “floating” door offered by Wall 2 Wall, which Sapienza created for the most conservative buildings where nothing is allowed above or below a door in the 36-inch clearance instead of a transom, it works by special hinges. (Note that the higher cost of the special door hinges makes this option more expensive now, too.) Bi-fold doors require a 20-inch clearance, swing doors 36 inches.
Be sure to ask about any fee for removing the bookshelf wall; most wall companies will do this free of charge within a specified period of time, usually two to three years. After that you will need to have it removed on your own.
Read on for Brick Underground’s roundup of bookshelf walls for NYC apartments.
The company's bookcase walls come with shelves and optional doors in many styles, including a standard door with a lock. The unit above, which has a sliding door, costs around $1,100 for a 12-foot-long version.
1DayWall also offers partial walls, which like pressurized walls are installed without screws or nails. They generally stop at about 12 inches from the ceiling and have a doorway opening but not an actual door. These are six inches deep and do not come with any shelves.
Removal is free of charge for a period of 24 months after installation with a four-week notice. After that it will cost $350.
If you are particular about the color matching your apartment walls, Manhattan Pressurized Walls lets you choose between Benjamin Moore White or any other custom color or finish for an additional price.
Pricing on standard bookcase dividers with two rows of shelves and a sliding door is about $1,200 with tax included. The 12-foot unit shown above, which comes with deeper shelves and chrome rods, starts at $1,800.
Customization is also possible, including the one shown here, which has two separate dividers—a 12-inch bookshelf divider on the left and a triple sliding French door system on the left—connected by a structural column.
Removal is free with four weeks notice as per the contract; otherwise there's a removal fee of $420.
The company's Bookcase Partition is available in two options: 12-inch-deep bookshelf walls with optional door and closet rods (such as the unit shown above), and six-inch-deep units with covers on one or both sides (when storage isn't required).
It also offers a Walk-Through Wall, comprised of two partitions running parallel that overlap and are braced together for maximum stability.
Removal is free of charge within three years of purchase.
Wall 2 Wall only makes walls with open shelving (along with optional closets or doors) that are 12 inches deep.
“Even tenants who initially balk at the depth and shelving end up thanking me, saying how much they appreciate having all that extra storage, and vertical storage at that,” Sapienza says. “We can also make pretty much anything anyone wants and can afford, completely out of wood.”
For example, the unit shown above has double French doors flanked by bookshelves on either side and costs around $1,800.
If your landlord does not allow doors, see about getting approved for Wall 2 Wall's freestanding bookcase with a floating door that’s pulled from behind and has nothing above or below it. This typically runs upward of $2,000 given the higher cost of the special hinges right now, but might be worth it for the added privacy.
Removal is free during the contract with at least 30 days' notice.
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