Backed Against a Rent Wall

Need two bedrooms but can only afford one? Try building a temporary wall

July 19, 2013

When Zara Frankel, 28, and her roommate were looking for an apartment in Northwest D.C., they knew rents would be steep. So the two apartment-hunters decided to try something a little different.

Instead of hunting for a pricey two-bedroom, the pair found a spacious one-bedroom in Cleveland Park, then hired a contractor to build a temporary wall in the large living area, creating a second bedroom.

“Rent is so expensive here,” says Frankel, who works at PBS. “The only way I could really afford to live somewhere is to divide a one-bedroom into a two-bedroom.”

It cost the pair about $1,200 to build the L-shaped wall, but Frankel says what they saved in rent made it more than worthwhile.

Ask Permission, Not Forgiveness

The first thing to do if you want to build a temporary wall: Contact your landlord or leasing agency and find out their policy, says Joel Cohn, the legislative director for D.C.’s Office of the Tenant Advocate (see box on next page).

And check your lease. It may contain a specific provision about alterations and repairs — prohibiting such work, requiring landlord approval or otherwise, he says.

Jessica Lilly, 26, contacted the QuebecHouse (2800 and 2801 Quebec St. NW; 202-204-2000) when she and her former roommate Laiah Idelson, 26, wanted to build a temporary wall to carve a second bedroom out of their apartment’s living room.

The building management had one requirement for Lilly’s wall: It couldn’t attach to the ceiling or floor. To accommodate that request, the contractor built a pressurized wall, which is a self-standing wall made with a wooden frame and drywall, extending from the floor to the ceiling. It’s held in place by pressure and not attached with nails or adhesives.

Frankel’s building had different requirements.

“I was told you need to have a vent or an air unit in every ‘bedroom,’ ” Frankel says. “So my roommate has the air unit that would give air to our kitchen or living room.”

The Cost of Saving Money

Lilly’s roommate paid a contractor about $800 for their wall in 2009, which, she says, was a big expense.

“But compared to the idea of getting a two-bedroom apartment instead, it’s a total drop in the bucket,” says Lilly, a teacher, who has since moved to Hyattsville, Md. The roommates split the roughly $1,700 monthly rent, with Lilly paying $100 more for the “real” bedroom.

These days, contractors in the D.C. area charge between $1,000 and $1,200 to build temporary walls.

You don’t have to hire a contractor, though.

Amanda Parker, 26, took a DIY approach when her dad helped her build a temporary wall in the living room of her former apartment in Archstone Glover Park (3850 Tunlaw Road NW; 866-995-0395).

Parker says the drywall and 2-by-4 wooden planks cost about $300 when she bought them at Lowes and a local hardware store back in 2007. They also used a table saw, a hammer (or nail gun) and nails, measuring tape, a level, drywall putty, drywall nails and a sander.

Her DIY project was a success.

“It was a running joke, which one was not the real wall,” says Parker, a fundraiser for a nonprofit. “It looked like a real wall, and you could push and push and push and it wouldn’t fall over.”

By creating a third bedroom, she and her two roommates were each able to shave $300-$400 off their $2,200 rent.

Plan It Out

Before the wall goes up, create a floor plan of the apartment layout to see how the wall will affect window and AC/heating unit access.

Parker didn’t realize until after her wall was built that she had hijacked the living room’s only AC/heating unit.

“After we started building our wall, we realized, ‘Oh my gosh, the rest of the apartment doesn’t get air now,’ ” she says. So she built her own 5-foot-long wooden air duct to channel air from the AC through a hole in the fake wall and into the main room.

Such creative fixes can be avoided with planning. “Go into the space where you’re building a wall, give it a really good look,” she says.

Know the Downsides

No matter how well you plan, a temporary wall is never going to be a perfect solution.

Newly created bedrooms often lack closets, and poor sound insulation is a constant problem.

“You have to be a sound sleeper and have really courteous roommates to live in a built bedroom,” Parker says.

Then there’s the issue of what happens when you move out.

“We are responsible for taking it down,” Frankel says of her wall. The company that built it offered to take it down for free within two years, but that window has passed. She’ll have to pay a contractor to do it when she goes.

There are also decor issues.

“It’s so thin you can’t hang anything on it,” Frankel says of the wall. “So you have like one bare wall.”

On the plus side, “You can paint it whatever color you want,” she says. REBECCA KERN (FOR EXPRESS)

 

Quality Matters

Not all walls are created equal. “Once you see a few of them, you can really tell the difference in quality between good ones and bad ones,” Zara Frankel says. While saving money up front may be appealing, you could pay for it down the road. Ben Fieselmann and his roommates decided to save money by forgoing the $50 worth of insulation and dry wall needed to complete the inside of his wall. They weren’t pleased with the result: The wall was far from soundproof. “I would definitely recommend completing the wall,” he says. (RK)

 

The ‘Tear Down This Wall’ Threat

Every tenant knows the Golden Rule of Renting is, “Don’t do anything unto your apartment that you don’t want taken out of your security deposit.”

Some landlords allow tenants to put up temporary walls to create an extra bedroom, but don’t start construction without asking first, says Joel Cohn with D.C.’s Office of the Tenant Advocate.

Even if your lease doesn’t say anything about apartment alterations, you should still ask permission, Cohn says. An alteration that affects the premises may be considered beyond any “right of tenancy,” and the consequences could be severe — your landlord could demand the work be undone or even evict you.

If your landlord approves the work, and you live in the District, you still need to contact the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which enforces D.C. construction codes. It can approve an alteration plan, issue a construction permit and give final approval, Cohn says.

The department will make sure the new space meets requirements for light, ventilation, heat, electricity, square footage and more. It may or may not require proof that the tenant obtained approval from the landlord, but if it finds approval wasn’t obtained, the tenant will be fully liable, Cohn says.

Even after a permit is issued, contractors doing the work must comply with the District’s licensing requirements, and an inspection will be conducted when the work is done to make sure no relevant regulation is violated.

And don’t plan to pack the wall in your suitcase when you leave. Cohn says any structure (moveable or fixed) could belong to the landlord after the tenant leaves. R.K.

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Rebecca Kern | July 19, 2013