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—or to avoid having to find a larger apartment when the baby makes three.
Pressurized walls, once the default option since they seal off a space and offer the most privacy, are often not allowed in many NYC rental buildings. Freestanding bookshelf-style walls, which are not permanently attached to the ceiling, walls, or even the floor, are an acceptable alternative. They are also more popular and customizable than ever.
[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article was published in June 2019. We are presenting it again with updated information for July 2021.]
How bookshelf walls cut costs
On top of the monthly rents are the up-front costs of signing a new lease (FYI: the security deposit is now capped at one month's rent) and hiring a moving company. Merely moving two blocks away can cost a small fortune in NYC.
That’s where temporary bookshelf walls can make the difference between affording and being priced out of your 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 privacy, bookshelf walls offer something else NYC renters are forever short on: storage.
What kinds of bookshelf walls are allowed in NYC
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 according to the Department of Buildings.
“Pressurized walls require permitting and a change in the building’s Certificate of Occupancy, something no landlord wants to go through,” 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.
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 to tell the management company you are bringing in a new piece of furniture.”
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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.
Based on responses from the management companies contacted by Brick Underground, those 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.
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,” says Eddie Sapienza, owner of Wall 2 Wall NY, named Best of New York 2019 in its category by New York Magazine.
If Sapienza 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 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.
Some companies contacted for this article, including 1DayWall and RoomDividers NY offer two options: 12-inch-deep bookshelf walls with optional closet rods, and six-inch-deep units with covers on one or both sides.
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.”
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). Bi-fold doors require a 20-inch clearance, swing doors 36 inches.
If you are particular about the paint 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. They’re units start at $1,000 depending on the lumber market (see some examples below).
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.
For more helpful hints about bookshelf and other temporary walls, check out our Insider’s Guide to Temporary Walls.
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 Triplemint. A tech-savvy real estate brokerage founded by a pair of Yale grads in response to the frustrating apartment searches of classmates and colleagues, Triplemint 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 Triplemint are a delight to deal with.
Read on for Brick Underground’s roundup of bookshelf walls for NYC apartments.
1) This basic bookshelf divider from Manhattan Pressurized Walls starts at $1,000.
2) This is a 12-foot bookshelf divider wall from Manhattan Pressurized Walls, which comes with deeper shelves and chrome rods starting at $1,800.
3) This Wall 2 Wall unit has double French doors flanked by bookshelves on either side, offering ample light and storage. Cost: $1,800
4) 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). Cost: $1,875
5) Wall 2 Wall’s L-shaped configuration fits neatly into the corner of a bedroom, $2,100.
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