Can I live in a warehouse?
January 19, 2011 1:16 PM   Subscribe

Can I rent and live in an abandoned warehouse or commercial building?

Ideally, I could rent an abandoned (but structurally sound) warehouse or large open building and live there.
I don't need the amenities usually included in apartments or condos: pool, gym, laundry mat, neighbors.

Most recent example from a movie: Tron Legacy. The protagonist lives in an old steel building under the highway.
Other examples: Enemy of the State. Gene Hackman's character has a warehouse-type place that he setup shop in, and secured his 'office' with a chain link fence.

I can secure the area enough with good locks, a monitored security system, webcams and zoneminder.

Also, is this a terrible idea?
posted by cellojoe to Grab Bag (35 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The bad idea parts are probably

- likely illegal
- even not the greatest warehouse or commercial space probably costs more in rent than you think.
- expensive to heat/cool
posted by ghharr at 1:27 PM on January 19, 2011

I've had lots of friends who have rented warehouses, abandoned slaughter houses, etc. to live in. It's really a case by case basis. It's usually someone had a weird connection to the guy who owned it or something.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:27 PM on January 19, 2011

It sort of depends on what you mean by "abandoned." But yes, you can rent an industrial-style building and live in it in many parts of the United States.
posted by The World Famous at 1:29 PM on January 19, 2011

Yeah, you could live there provided it has the basics (as opposed to amenities) like heat, water, sanitation, and etc. However, you'd really want to confirm with the landlord that this is an acceptable use of the space as they may concerns. Someone I know did not get their lease of a commercial space renewed for just that - living there in addition to grooming pets there. It's not necessarily a bad idea as many older commercial buildings were designed to have living space upstairs of a shop or something, but your basic warehouse might not be so homey.
posted by pappy at 1:32 PM on January 19, 2011

State/city laws matter.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:32 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might be able to snaffle a deal as a caretaker/superintendant where they pay you to live on the premises; check job listings instead of residential listings. And if you know any "captains of industry" or at least "dudes who own buildings" bring up the subject; if you're reliable you might be surprised what drops in your lap.

Zoning is the usual obstacle to living in industrial space; places people sleep have very tight regulations on electric and heat and plumbing and stuff. So you almost certainly won't find listings in your paper. But under the table? All-the-time.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:33 PM on January 19, 2011

It may not have a shower, proper kitchen, and will not meet zoning codes for occupancy. You may not care about occupancy requirements, but warehouses do have fires, so please give that some consideration when you plan space. You could advertise on craigslist that you want a temporary space for a band, and then talk to various warehouse owners.
posted by theora55 at 1:34 PM on January 19, 2011

Best answer: The legal issues will be almost entirely about zoning and insurance. The landlord of a building that is zoned for commercial use has entirely different expectations placed upon him than for the exact same building zoned for residential. If the landlord knowingly allows this, not only is he breaking the law, he's also breaking his insurance policy and opening himself up to all sorts of actionable legal issues from you. For example, if you smack your head on an exposed beam, you could take him to court for allowing such shoddy living conditions.

And you, as the tenant, can't sign away these liabilities. They will exist for the landlord no matter what paper you sign for him.

So, even if you found someone willing to do this, know that he would be taking a significant risk on this deal.

You'd be better off renting a house and making tenant improvements to adjust the space to your needs. Or finding a "loft" space that was commercial but is now zoned for residential / artistic use.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:41 PM on January 19, 2011

In Tron: Legacy, young Flynn lives in a construction of shipping containers, something seriously proposed by many as a solution for pre-fabricated housing. This is probably much cheaper and easier to realize than converting a warehouse.
posted by fatbird at 1:41 PM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

* Even if the space has electricity, it probably won't have outlets where you need them. Probably you could solve this with heavy-duty extension cords that are made for long-term use?

* You may have more neighbors than you bargained for if you aren't careful about securing your foodstuffs from rodents, raccoons, insects, etc. Even stray dogs and cats might find their way in if the space isn't tightly sealed. Containers made for storing food in the wilderness might be useful.

* You would have to take your garbage somewhere, unless everything was aboveboard and you signed up for some kind of service. Garbage service at a commercial location might be more expensive than in a residential area. (Just guessing there, but something to check into.)

I don't think it's a terrible idea, but I think making the space livable would be pretty expensive.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 1:43 PM on January 19, 2011

It's a terrible idea for the reasons listed above, but that's no reason not to do something. I have friends that lived in warehouse space and it was a hell of a lot of fun. If you don't care about always being super comfortable in your space and don't have a lot of stuff worth stealing, it can be pretty cool.
posted by electroboy at 1:51 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to live in 4000 sq ft of a warehouse space in downtown St Louis, basically arranged as one big space in the shape of an L. The building was technically not legit for housing, but was an otherwise legit building, complete with real business on some floors. The guy who'd lived in my space before me had put together a basic shower, and I had a toilet, but no cooking facilities of any kind beyond a sink, hotplate and microwave.

I was not the only person living in their space. It was a really fun time, but sometimes I wonder how we made it out alive.

Upsides, decoration can be most anything you want. I covered all the windows in one room, painted everything black, and then would invite artistic friends over, give them a section of wall, and let them have fun. I provided friends' bands with a space to perform in, threw a couple raves, built big art with an arc welder, and met some crazy ass people.

Downsides, you have to pay business rates for all your utilities, you won't be able to get renter's insurance, and when problems happen, you're living outside the law which can limit your recourse. Trash disposal can be more of an issue than you'd think. In our building there was only one dumpster, and you could only buy usage of it in one day/whole container increments, meaning you ended up stockpiling up trash, in your living space, until you had enough for a full load. In St Louis, during the summer, this meant a 50 gallon trash drum overflowing with maggots about once a month.

You can't count on, nor demand, 'liveable' conditions. The first winter in the space, the boiler was working overtime, and I ended up sweating most nights even with the windows wide open. The next winter, they didn't keep the building much above freezing and an overnight guest set a couch on fire with a space heater which prompted a nasty visit from the fire marshal and a stern talking to about involving the authorities from the landlord the week after that. Most spaces that will offer under-the-table living arrangements are not in the best neighborhoods, crime-wise. Locks and security systems only delay thieves, never keep them out entirely.

Bottom line, you will have stories to tell for the rest of your life. I miss the space still.
posted by nomisxid at 1:57 PM on January 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

I have heard of several shared warehouse residences in Oakland - juggling, art, etc., and I knew someone who lived with 10 other people in one in Salt Lake City (that was 10 years ago, and the rent was $100/person).
posted by aniola at 1:58 PM on January 19, 2011

Best answer: The main problem you'll face is zoning regulations and fire codes. Some properties are not zoned for residential occupancy, and local authorities take that seriously. Living full time in a space like this might also break fire codes, and local authorities take that seriously, as well. In situations like this, rental brokers are unlikely to rent the space to someone they think plans to convert it to a residence.

Aside from the legal factors, it seems like it would largely be a pain in the ass. I used to live in a commercially zoned artists' residence, and it had its drawbacks. It was a pretty unsavory area, and often cab drivers wouldn't believe that I really lived there. I had to worry about walking around late at night because the streets were deserted and there was a not insignificant population of crazy homeless men squatting nearby. It was hard to get takeout delivered. It was far from public transit. Our downstairs neighbors were a cable company, and the cable guys would arrive at work at the crack of fucking dawn and make a ton of noise, park their trucks on the sidewalk blocking our front door, stupid shit like that. Across the street was a used car dealership with a really loud PA system we could hear inside the apartment.

On top of those inconveniences, you also have other inconveniences associated with living in a space that isn't intended for residential inhabitants. We had to pay separately for garbage pickup, and recycling wasn't included. We got in trouble when we tried to slip our recyclables in with a nearby residential property's stuff. There wasn't a lot of residential infrastructure nearby - it was a pain to get groceries, and forget stuff like a library, gym, laundry, interesting restaurants, or any of the other things people usually like to have in their neighborhood. It could also be pretty isolating since there were no residential neighbors for at least a quarter mile in either direction.

I lived there years after the space had been built out. Originally it was a raw warehouse space without so much as a kitchen. I think there was a working bathroom and some offices carved out which worked as the first few bedrooms, but things were wild for a long time. The people who started the collective had to source every. single. object themselves - from the kitchen counters to the shower. It's like building your own home. Except way harder, because nothing is optimized for residential life.

And we were lucky in that there were 10+ people living in our space (which also helped with tasks like Costco runs and dealing with the lack of infrastructure) and we had a huge gallery to throw awesome parties in - I cannot imagine the isolation of doing this alone.
posted by Sara C. at 1:59 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm really just looking for a large place to live cheaply. As stated, I don't need the amenities of the typical apartment complex, I just need the basics. A "large efficiency/studio" apartment would be OK, too.

The "loft" space mentioned by Cool Papa Bell sounds ideal if I can find one.
posted by cellojoe at 1:59 PM on January 19, 2011

Look for a "loft" in industrialized/meatpacking areas of a city. You will definitely find one.
posted by hal_c_on at 2:09 PM on January 19, 2011

To speak to some other issues that have been raised by others:

It was impossible to heat in the winter, and insanely hot in the summer. Our space did not come with a heating system - that's something else we had to provide ourselves. The office section had been built with central A/C in mind, though we couldn't afford to maintain that system. As a result the bedrooms were absolutely sweltering in the summer.

There were not a few times that we had hot water problems in the middle of winter. As in, it's January and we're all taking ice cold showers.

As noted above, electricity, and specifically access to outlets in the right places, was an ongoing problem. Even after the original folks built out the space and wired power to the various bedrooms and studios.

Rodents were always a problem, though that may have been more due to a bunch of dirty hippies and post-college slobs sharing a sprawling home.

Trash disposal was complicated due to the fact that we shared a dumpster with the cable guys downstairs and pickup didn't happen as frequently as it does for residential spaces; if the disposal company didn't show one week or the cable folks had an especially big load (or if there was an ill-timed gallery installation/deconstruction), we could be SOL in terms of taking out the trash. Having bags of garbage waiting around the house for a week or so = GROSS. By the way. And probably contributed to our vermin problems.
posted by Sara C. at 2:10 PM on January 19, 2011

I don't need the amenities of the typical apartment complex, I just need the basics

You realize that stuff like a kitchen and a place to bathe (not just a toilet), heat, and hot water are not "amenities", right?
posted by Sara C. at 2:13 PM on January 19, 2011

Response by poster: @Sara C.

I do realize that a toilet and hot water are not "amenities". I do want a toilet, shower, and hot water.

I just don't need the extras like a pool, laundry mat, gym, club house... The extras that an apartment or condo community includes.
posted by cellojoe at 2:21 PM on January 19, 2011

Here's a recent piece from a Montreal weekly which discusses the perils of industrial loft life. The tl;dr is that you will have no residential lease and whatever rights accompany that in your jurisdiction. The artists in the building described were thrown out without cause a few months back, and now the building is up for rent at a much higher rate – and the old tenants have no recourse. If that kind of uncertainty doesn't faze you, allez-y.
posted by zadcat at 2:28 PM on January 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

For what it's worth, my grandparents (hey! they are hip and cool grandparents!) live in a loft that was built out by developers in the more traditional "Warehouse District Loft" pattern. Their former abandoned warehouse came with laundry facilities, a pool, etc. My apartment, which as far as I'm aware was built as an apartment building, does not include any of that stuff.

If you want a living space that doesn't come with a gym or pool or laundry, look for a living space that doesn't come with that. Amenities are a totally separate issue from what kind of housing stock it is.

It also occurs to me from looking at your profile that you live in a part of the US where this sort of property is thin on the ground (and the available stock has already been developed into above-mentioned luxury loft condos in places like Houston, Dallas, and Austin). And it's also a part of the country where there isn't much rental housing stock to begin with, and any nice apartment living is going to come packaged with the stuff you say you don't want. Your potential solutions are going to be either to rent a stand-alone house, or to move to a part of the country where people do this sort of thing and there are copious abandoned warehouses. So, maybe Pittsburgh or Detroit?
posted by Sara C. at 2:29 PM on January 19, 2011

I think a lot of loft housing is considered pretty trendy and can be expensive precisely because you can do anything with it. A lot of people rent them and then build walls or put it whatever kind of flooring they want -- the ceilings are high, there is sometimes exposed brick and large windows -- all fairly desirable architectural features. There are lots of regular apartment buildings that do not have gyms, pools, or club houses. Perhaps if you looked in middle to lower income neighborhoods, you could find these.
posted by bluefly at 2:52 PM on January 19, 2011

I used to live in a former warehouse building that was rezoned for residential/commercial space. Cheap rent for the space ($1800 for about 2500 square feet, right downtown in a big city - now I live in a $1500/600 square foot place - big difference :)

However we had a huge mouse problem, finicky electricity, alternatively boiled/froze, and could only run certain devices on certain days (rotated with the neigbours).

It was a blast though, lived there with 2 other people (most people had 5 or 6, as you could build your own walls etc as you liked).

If you can find a space like that (they are hard to find) I would recommend it.

Mine has sadly been rezoned for super fancy condos and will be destroyed soon (thus why I moved)

Good Luck!
posted by devonia at 3:07 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just don't need the extras like a pool, laundry mat, gym, club house... The extras that an apartment or condo community includes.

well, move to a regular apartment in most cities, then... I don't know where you're located, but it seems like you're making a big leap to go from super-fancy building-with-a-pool to an industrial space that may or may not even be properly insulated.

That said, lofts did start out as industrial spaces that artists fixed up themselves (put in kitchens and bathrooms, and dealt with the zoning later). Rent was lower mostly because the neighborhoods were unsavory, expected to be used for storage. Once it caught on, though, any real estate developer fixed their eye on those kinds of spaces, so it's pretty hard these days to find a large industrial space that you could live in that isn't already being marketed that way.
In other words, I don't know how much money you'd save. Square footage is square footage.
posted by mdn at 3:10 PM on January 19, 2011

Although the type of space you want isn't entirely impossible to find judging by the responses upthread, I think you're asking for a lot more hassle then you realize. I mean, the examples you use are movie characters, so they don't have to deal with shit like going out to get groceries in the dead of winter at midnight or ordering a pizza to be delivered to an industrial park. If you just need a no-frills type of place to live, I'm sure you can find it. I work for a building management company and that's all we traffic in.

I guess the question is, is this something you want to do, or are you looking to do this to avoid paying high rent in a "nice" building?
posted by hafehd at 3:17 PM on January 19, 2011

I've known several people who lived in these sorts of places, although I wouldn't call them "abandoned", to me that sounds like a building in quite bad shape, rather than a place with a working sink and toilet like you have described.

Person A rented part of a building that had commercial businesses for neighbors. High heating costs in winter, hot in summer. People living there before had put in kitchen and shower areas. Person A also used the larger areas of the space in their business.

Person B rented something that was a cross between a storage unit and workshop space, maybe 200 sqft or so. The building specialized in renting workshop spaces with 24 hour access, and the units had sinks and toilets. All of the doors were of the garage type that rolled up overhead. B built a shower-like contraption that drained into the sink. Not sure if they had permission to use it as a living space, but most of B's possessions looked like the sort of things one might find in a workshop.

Person C owned a building zoned for residential/commercial dual use. Lived in a room that must have been at least 4000 sqft, had bedroom in what would have originally been a supervisor's office overlooking this. Extremely hot in summer due to sun exposure of building, very expensive to heat in winter to even relatively cold temperatures. Shower was built out into room by C outside of the existing bathroom. C showered at gym in winter due to building being quite cold. Occasionally had 12 or 14 foot portable swimming pool set up indoors in summer.

I'm quite sure B was the only one paying less for housing than they would have for renting a house (more common here than apartments) in a decent neighborhood, and that's without taking the cost of utilities into consideration.
posted by yohko at 4:05 PM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gene Hackman's Enemy of the State digs were almost certainly an homage to his warehouse digs in The Conversation.
posted by holterbarbour at 4:19 PM on January 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Check out artistic districts. You might be able to find warehouse space converted into artist lofts "slash" living areas.

There's a small warehouse complex in my city that, if I was single and a bit more Bohemian, would look fantastically appealing. It's adjacent to the public market, it's got private parking, it's got huge lofts with huge windows...
posted by carlh at 4:32 PM on January 19, 2011

My father did this for years. Among some of the interesting places he rented were:

1) an abandoned belt factory, we got a lot of belts
2) an abandoned shipyard, complete with a broken down pier
3) an abandoned pencil factory, we got a lot of old pencils
4) an abandoned bakery

I donʻt know about the legality, but he did live in the places.
posted by fifilaru at 5:31 PM on January 19, 2011

Best answer: I'm an artist and have lived in various warehouses and lofts for years. Currently I live in a live-work zoned building that used to be a cookie factory.

You basically want to look in shitty industrial neighborhoods that you wouldn't want to walk through at night, that's where these places are. Crime and pests will be a constant problem. The spaces are impossible to heat - even ones meant for you to live in (I am freezing my ass off as I write this, my roommates and I probably own over a dozen space heaters/blankets between us). The landlords usually don't care what you do - which is great - the catch is they don't ever want to hear from you so I hope you are handy. A common phrase to look for is "live work". Ask around among your artist friends, they will be the ones who know about these places - often they are not advertised (obviously, because many of these set ups are illegal) so you will have to hear about it through someone or calling numbers off of warehouses and hope to get someone who is ok with a don't-ask-don't-tell policy.

If dealing with the illegality, absentee landlords, and hassles of arranging your own shower sounds like too much trouble then what you are looking for is simply a "loft" apartment. Just look for ones that are actual, real converted warehouses and not "loft style" condos.
posted by bradbane at 5:43 PM on January 19, 2011

No, you can't rent an abandoned anything. Who would you be renting it from if it was abandoned?

If you mean a disused warehouse or factory or something, then sure. But they're almost always without appropriate climate control and in crappy neighborhoods. Possibly rats and bugs as well, and you won't get attentive landlords or maintenance staff.

the amenities usually included in apartments or condos: pool, gym, laundry mat

Having spent my life as a renter in Boston and New York, I am howling with bitter laughter at the idea of pools and gyms being "usual" amenities for apartments. I know things are different off the Coasts, but sometimes I forget how different.

Try it, I guess. Look for "loft space" and "warehouse space" in listings.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:41 PM on January 19, 2011

I live in a loft in downtown LA in a commercial building. The area is zoned for live/work, and I signed a commercial lease. I use space heaters, but it's not all that cold. We have hot water, put in a shower and toilet, and kitchen sink (Ikea). Trash in in a dumpster shared by all tenants. It's not crime-ridden but it's noisy during the week, as I'm near the produce district and Amtrak. Bugs and vermin aren't any more of a problem than any other rental. My landlord owns a furniture company.

Look on CL for live/work or mixed-use. And remember, people do lots of things in movies that we don't do in the real world.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:15 PM on January 19, 2011

The thing you should wrap your head around is that it can be a heaping helping of no fun at all if you expect a super to come change lightbulbs or fix broken locks or plumbing or heating or anything.

I, too, lived the wild and wooly industrial space as living space lifestyle and it was fucking awesome for a twenty year old who worked in the building trades and didn't mind too much being able to hear his upstairs neighbor fart. The neighborhood was life-threatening though, I had to bring girlfriends from door to door (there was no just dropping by past dusk), and as I got older it lost lots of it's charm. Especially dealing with my neighbors (and if they don't live above you, they might include that homeless guy who watches you leave and come home everyday and one time, when you're away for a week-end, breaks in and has at it with all your stuff. (I knew this one very wealthy artist who had a grotesquely huge space in DUMBO (Bklyn) that looked like it was totally empty. He had built a fake wall behind which they packed all their stuff whenever they went out for more than a day because they knew they were bait. )

The secret you might not have discovered yet is that, depending on where you are, it might not really cheaper after you calculate in commercial rates for utilities and insurance and the maintenance work/ build out you will have to do to make it liveable (if you can't do it yourself especially).

It might be more work and more expense that you are anticipating.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:00 AM on January 20, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the tips! I'll start looking for a "loft apartment" that's legal and comes with a lease, and not "abandoned" warehouses.

This was a crazy idea I guess, but I'm glad I asked.
posted by cellojoe at 3:37 PM on January 20, 2011

The Lofts, a Landlord and a Battle to Remember. Summary:

A similar situation occurred in Dumbo in 2000. Approximately 60 artists were evicted from their lofts at Joshua Guttman owned 247 Water Street. In December, 2000, the city’s Department of Buildings ordered the building vacated, citing fire hazards. After the artists were allowed back in, the developer then tried to evict the tenants who sued Mr. Guttman, seeking protection from eviction under rent-stabilization and tenant-rights laws. In 2003, seven days after Mr. Guttman applied to have the zoning for the building changed to allow for legal apartments, the building was mysteriously burned down. Let’s hope the residents at 475 Kent Street will get better results.
posted by dhartung at 5:29 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

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