How do you imagine life in the big city? Chances are it’s an image borrowed from shows like “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother.” Apartments with high ceilings, large windows, and plenty of living room — all shared with roommates, of course. But more and more urban renters are ditching the elbow room and the entourage and discovering that you can live big in a home that’s smaller than small.

For people around the world, ultra-compact apartments are already offering mammoth-sized benefits in terms of cost, efficiency, and location. As the world’s population grows larger, smaller living spaces will only continue to increase in popularity. Enter the micro apartment, also known as the microflat. What is a micro apartment, and is this the scaled-back housing craze that will make urban living sustainable? It’s time to take a magnifying glass to everything that’s behind the micro apartment craze!

An image of a man using a kitchen to demonstrate what a microapartment is.
Source: (Kipras Štreimikis / Unsplash)

Meet the micro apartment: the perfect home for someone who’s almost never home

While people who live in major cities may be quick to compare notes on just how small their apartments are, not all tiny apartments are true micro apartments. Micro apartments also shouldn’t be confused with studio apartments. The average size of a newly built apartment in the U.S. is 757 square feet. While many studio apartments are around 500 feet to 600 feet, there’s technically no limit to how large or luxurious a studio can be.

Talking size

The micro apartment is in a class of its own when it comes to cutting features down to size. Although there is no standard definition of a micro apartment, most are less than 350 square feet. For comparison, the average size of an owner’s suite in a new home is 350 square feet. For many people, the ability to live in a city full of attractions, culture, and opportunity is worth calling a place with such a tiny footprint home. Often, it’s the only way that someone can afford to live alone in an urban area like New York City, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, or San Francisco. For those who need to be near prime downtown locations for their jobs, “small living” is more attractive than a monster commute. For the jet-set crowd, micro apartments are becoming popular as a more budget-friendly pied-a-terre in the world’s best cities.

City leaders support micro apartments

Stamp-sized apartments are getting the stamp of approval from many mayors and governors around the country. In places like New York City, city officials have been slowly introducing zoning changes to allow for smaller units to be built. Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced a plan in 2015 to use rezoning to create thousands of new apartments that could be rented for below market value in the Big Apple. The goal is to create or preserve more than 300,000 affordable apartments by 2026.

The anatomy of a micro apartment

Based solely on blueprints, micro apartments aren’t radical departures from the apartments that most people are used to calling home. They are intended to provide a “fully stocked” home for a single tenant. Here’s what’s typically packed into the blueprint of a micro apartment:

  • Kitchen area with an island, small table or eating nook
  • Living space/living room
  • Sleeping space/loft sleeping area
  • Bathroom

In many cases, micro apartments come fully furnished. They don’t generally require lots of furniture because they incorporate multifunctional and flexible furniture and storage spaces. It’s pretty common for a piece of furniture in a micro apartment to wear many hats. This can include lofted or foldout beds, foldout desks, and kitchen islands with extra storage underneath. “Your apartment is a Swiss army knife,” says top New York City real estate agent Martin Eiden.

Making the most of a small space requires extra-clever design. Modern builders have perfected the art of creating the illusion of space when designing micro apartments. Far from being cramped spaces that feel stifling, many newer micros feature high ceilings, large windows for airiness, and balconies to provide bonus square footage in an outdoor living space. Eiden notes some micro apartments come with “a moveable wall that’s electric, and it can divide the apartment in half to have a workspace during the day, and bunk beds on the other side so … you click a button, the beds fold up, the desks go away, and now you have a living room.”

Micro apartments are often housed in buildings with communal spaces that offer residents a resort-like existence featuring lounges, laundry rooms, fitness centers, entertainment rooms, and rooftop decks. Some buildings also cater to busy, career-oriented tenants by offering housekeeping services and Wi-Fi baked into the cost.

An image of a kitchenette to depict what a microapartment is.
Source: (Andrea Davis / Unsplash)

What’s driving the growth of micro apartments?

While many people picture sprawling suburban neighborhoods when they think of the U.S., the reality is that 82% of the total population of North America lives in urban areas. It works out to about 473.8 million people calling densely populated areas home. That doesn’t exactly leave a lot of opportunities for large homesteads spaced out with perfectly manicured lawns.

One trend spurring the rise of smaller homes is the increasing number of single-person households. There is a general trend of shrinking household sizes as the population of the U.S. grows. In fact, In 2017, 28% of households in the U.S. were one-person households. That means people simultaneously need more houses and smaller houses. Builders are responding by shrinking new units. This is where we see the rise of the micro apartment begin to change major urban landscapes.

A profile of the micro apartment resident

While it’s easy to get caught up in the utopia-like hype of living so efficiently, micro apartments come with their limitations. They are not intended to house families. They aren’t even meant for couples. This is a living situation meant for solo living. So who chooses a micro apartment lifestyle and why?

The transient urban professional

Micro apartments are popular with young professionals who live alone. While they often can afford moderately high rent, micro apartment “target tenants” aren’t quite in the position to shell out rent for a skyscraper on Park Avenue. They’re willing to pay for location and convenience at the expense of losing space. They don’t mind foregoing extra square footage because they’re really never home. Instead, they’re spending most of their time working, socializing, or being active outside of their apartments.

Many only intend to call a micro apartment home for a year or two before hopping jobs to move to a new city. Others will eventually move to larger apartments if they decide that they like what they’re seeing after testing the waters in their current cities. It’s not surprising that tenants of micro apartments are less likely to renew their leases than people living in traditional apartments. However, the fact that micro apartment tenants also report higher satisfaction levels with their apartments means that the reduced renewal rate probably has more to do with lifestyle than the micro-living experience.

The wealthy, eco-conscious urbanite

Living micro is more than simply a necessary evil for urban professionals who long to be close to their jobs. It’s often a deliberate choice by urban dwellers who choose to live small. The desire for lower carbon footprints and minimalist lifestyles are driving the popularity of micro apartments among some high net-worth individuals.

Those who choose micro apartments as their permanent abode are buying, not renting, and they often pay a premium for their “small, but perfect” city home. In the heart of the Big Apple, a 400-square-foot micro apartment can cost between $300,000 and $600,000.

“In terms of an absolute dollar per square foot, they’re going to be more expensive than other apartments,” says Eiden. For this segment of the market, having a small, neutral, or negative carbon footprint is worth paying more for less square footage. Although the majority of micro apartment buyers are urban professionals, the demand from high-net-worth individuals who want a low-impact lifestyle will be the main driver of the micro apartment trend, he says.

An image of the New York City skyline to depict what a microapartment is.
Source: (Florian Wehde / Unsplash)

The big draws of a micro apartment

An unavoidable truth about micro apartments is that they’re really only viable when they’re in hot urban markets. People drawn to micro apartments are ultimately securing access to a prime location in a bustling city. This puts them close to restaurants, bars, and public transportation.

These dwellings provide a much more affordable alternative to a traditional studio apartment. In fact, according to the Urban Land Institute Multifamily Housing Councils, most micro apartment residents can expect to spend about 20% to 30% less per month than they would with what would be considered a traditional apartment. But that doesn’t mean that a micro apartment is necessarily a budget option. If you’re looking to go the rental route, monthly rent for an upscale micro apartment in a good location could easily top $2,500.

The efficiency of these units can offset total living costs thanks to lower utility bills. Plus, their compact size also means they’re very easy to maintain and clean!

Another big benefit of micro apartments is that you don’t have to worry about finding or sharing space with roommates. For many young professionals, a few extra hundred square feet means nothing if they need to share that space. Micro apartments provide pure privacy. This is also important for busy professionals who happen to be especially social, because keeping early mornings and late nights can be a big source of conflict among roommates.

Micro apartments can also take care of potential loneliness problems for people who live alone and do want to have a sense of community. The co-living concept used for most new “micro developments” creates the feeling of living in a post-college dorm. Many of these communities host community events like movies on Friday night, Saturday volleyball games, or weekly trivia.

The big flaws of a micro apartment

For some people, micro apartments come with enough drawbacks to fill more than a few hundred square feet. For people who live in cities with inclement weather, there is the possibility of long winters without much opportunity for going outdoors.

There is also the storage struggle. Choosing this type of living arrangement means having to constantly audit every single item before bringing it home because it will take up an exaggerated amount of space in relation to the size of the apartment.

Being a host is virtually impossible in a micro apartment. There’s little opportunity to host a big holiday dinner, a card night, or a birthday party in 300 square feet of space. When people move to a fun city, it can be frustrating not to have the space to host friends and family from back home who want to visit for a few days.

The cost angle is mixed with micro apartments. In many cities, a micro apartment isn’t necessarily cheaper than the average rent in the area. “In terms of an absolute dollar per square foot they’re going to be more expensive than other apartments,” says Eiden.

Moving into an upscale micro-unit development often comes with other premiums as well. If you’re moving into an unfurnished apartment, tracking down specialty furniture that actually fits can be an expensive, time-consuming prospect. Plus, the furniture purchased will essentially be useless once there’s a move to a standard-sized home or apartment.

There’s also zero growth potential with a micro apartment. This can be frustrating for someone looking to put down roots in a city because there’s no opportunity to bring in a roommate or second tenant. Lastly, many micro apartments do not allow pets.

Is a micro apartment for you?

The consensus is that micro apartments really work when they work. They offer a place to crash at night for working professionals who live on takeout and dry cleaning, and thrive on the energy of city life. However, the benefits aren’t universal. Losing the ability to host a dozen dinner guests, fill a home with eclectic furniture, or keep a pet isn’t always worth the convenient location and affordability of micro apartments. While there’s cost efficiency built into the micro model, there’s no guarantee that a micro apartment is the cheapest option in a neighborhood.

At the end of the day, any person moving to a new city for an opportunity that’s going to keep them busy should consider micro apartments for all of the convenience and efficiency they bring. Start your search for the perfect micro apartment by contacting one of HomeLight’s top agents. Just don’t expect to put down deep roots in a pad that can barely fit a houseplant!

Header Image Source: (eldar nurkovic / Shutterstock)