Are there warm apartments in cold climates?
July 2, 2014 3:14 PM   Subscribe

I live in the SF Bay area and I'm thinking about moving to colder climates at some point, but for various reasons I can't handle a cold ambient temperature inside my home, even if I bundle up. In colder areas (specifically New England and the Midwest), how easy/possible is it to find apartments that are well-heated (perhaps buildings with a whole-building radiator system?) or other situations where I can have a warm (68-70 degree) home without paying through the nose for utilities?

For reference: I grew up in Baltimore in a drafty house with shitty heating, so I do have some experience with cold. And while I would like to be on board with the "keep the heat low and put on a sweater" thing, that doesn't seem to work for me due to a particular health issue. Being outside when it's cold does not cause the same problems because I'm usually moving around a lot.

I know I've heard of apartment buildings with radiators that actually make it too warm, so I imagine there might be some that are comfortably warm, but I'm not sure how much this is common. And do such buildings only exist in big cities or might they be around in smaller towns, too?
posted by needs more cowbell to Home & Garden (49 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My apartments in new buildings in DC have been nice and warm. Big high rise and new construction gives you a lot of ambient heat from the hallway and the insulation/new windows means it's never drafty. I think the key is really new construction.
posted by whoaali at 3:22 PM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree it depends on the age of the building, but my general experience is that you'll be consistently warmer in a cold climate than one with mild winters.

My experience with L.A. apartments, for example, is that they hardly bother with insulation or working heating at all, especially in older buildings. So when it does dip below 40 at night in the winter, you have to use a space heater to not freeze.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:26 PM on July 2, 2014 [13 favorites]

I've found that buildings in places where winter is a serious thing have are in general much warmer and cozier than in places where it isn't such a big deal.

So, to say, I would expect, given similar apartments, that one in say Chicago would be warmer than one in Maryland.

That said, newer buildings are better, and there are lots of factors. Also, I prefer forced air heating. Coupled with an AprilAire or some other humidification system, I think it's much more comfortable than radiant heat with no humidification. Plus you don't get shocked everytime you touch something.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:27 PM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

What do you consider paying through the nose?
posted by canine epigram at 3:27 PM on July 2, 2014

I live in the Boston area, which just had one of the coldest winters I remember, and my apartment was always toasty-warm. We have forced hot air vents and live on the sunny side of the house.
posted by xingcat at 3:30 PM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Our apartment in Milwaukee definitely has one of your apocryphal radiators. Turn the dial a tiny notch and instant sauna - we've actually had winter days where I cracked a window to deal with the heat. The building dates from around the 1920s, I believe, although the windows have been renovated more recently.

I've also lived in Iowa City, where my apartment (I think built sometime in the 60s) had those baseboard registers, and that apartment was also decently comfortable in winter, much more so than in summer with my little window AC unit.
posted by augustimagination at 3:30 PM on July 2, 2014

I might stay clear of apartment buildings with radiators, actually. I think it's pretty common in Minneapolis to have radiators that make it too warm (certainly my apartment is that way), but the flipside is that it's either boiling or absolutely freezing. My apartment is definitely extreme, but I have been wearing shorts and had a window open when it's well below zero and slept in a sleeping bag under a quilt for warmth.

Actually, though, I think a relatively new apartment of reasonable quality will probably get you what you want. 68-70 isn't exactly warmer than most people keep their apartments (unless you mean year round, but you asked about heat). You pay through the nose on the west coast for heat because your option for heat is essentially a space heater built into the wall (admittedly my sample size is three apartments) or an actual space heater, neither of which are very efficient.
posted by hoyland at 3:31 PM on July 2, 2014

If you are willing to pay for an actually decent apartment, you can have a warm, non-drafty apartment anywhere. The nice thing is that outside of insane places like Manhattan and the SF Bay, real people can afford decent apartments.

Here in Madison, a crappy, drafty 2 bedroom will run you around 650-850/month, less if you ware willing to live out of town. If you go up to 1300-1500, you are in a nice new 2 bedroom apartment in a new building downtown, and you will be able to control the heat, the windows will not be drafty, etc.
posted by rockindata at 3:32 PM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I suppose I should also add that I'd need to be looking for fairly inexpensive housing, at least for a while, so that's an important factor. (I know newer buildings tend to be more pricey. If I had a bigger housing budget I'm sure I could get a toasty-warm well-insulated/heated place anywhere, but sadly that's not my reality right now.)

I guess what I'm also wondering is, in places like Chicago, and (this may be a different answer) in places like smaller New England towns, how many of the available apartments will be in nice cozy warm buildings versus other situations? Is it standard to have to pay for your own heat in apartment buildings? I'm imagining there are also old houses split into apartments or something, which maybe aren't as well-heated and/or where you have to pay for your own heat, but I'm not sure if those are the rule or the exception.

As for what I consider "paying through the nose" - it's hard to say because I haven't paid for heat myself in a cold climate. Is paying $100 or less per month for gas/electric in a 1br apartment doable? Less than that?
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:36 PM on July 2, 2014

Also, in threads asking advice about moving to colder places, I feel like I've seen a lot of comments about getting used to bundling up/wearing sweaters inside and being careful to find out how much heat will cost in rental places. That's partly what's driving this question/concern. Is there some big divide between people who live in their own houses and those who live in apartment buildings, with those things being non-issues for those who live in apartments?
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:41 PM on July 2, 2014

I would say that the odds are against you in New England for finding a well-insulated place in the "fairly inexpensive" end of the market. A fair percentage of the buildings in my area are more than 100 years old and landlords will count dumping a pile of loose insulation on the floor in the attic as a reason to advertise "all-new insulation". In the Northeast in general you are more likely to find that heat is from a boiler in the basement, even in an apartment, and that you're looking at periodically buying a tankful of heating oil periodically at market prices rather than metered electric or gas for heat, than you are in the rest of the country.
posted by XMLicious at 3:44 PM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

In Chicago, I don't remember any of my friends complaining about being cold in their apartments in the winter, including this past absurdly cold winter. This includes friends who lived in cheap, older apartments. I do think a lot of them had radiator heat.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 3:46 PM on July 2, 2014

I was in an apartment in a borderline sketchy area in Winnipeg for 2 years. It was t-shirt temperature inside all winter and the rent was $470/month heat included.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:46 PM on July 2, 2014

As a rule, you will have to pay your own utilities, and that will include heat. That varies, however - you can find places that include the utilities in the rent. Also, as a rule apartment buildings tend to be cheaper to heat - especially if your apartment is the hotdog and others are the buns.

It will cost around 100 bucks a month to heat an apartment, but it varies considerably. My house in WI was around 250-300/mo. The apartment I had before that was only about 75.

If you are concerned about costs, bundling up in the house is a good cost saving measure. Also, if you can save by lowering the temp when you are out at work - though it takes a while to warm up when you come home. Putting a space heater in the bedroom allows you to keep that area toasty and you can then lower the heat in the house overnight.

Lots of people who are not very well off survive winters with no problems. There are even homeless all year round. It is possible to overthink this.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:50 PM on July 2, 2014

I found it was warmer inside in Chicago during the winter than inside in SF year-round. In SF few people have or use heaters, so it's often in the 60s in an apartment. Great heating (radiators, central heating) is normal in Chicago.
posted by amaire at 3:51 PM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Most apartments in low rise buildings in NYC are really hot in the winter. We usually have our window open all winter (tenant doesn't pay for heat b/c it's not independently controlled). You can find a ton of affordable (for NYC) buildings of this type in Harlem and Crown Heights. Our usual electric/cooking gas bill is around $100 in the winter and $200 in the summer (A/C).
posted by melissasaurus at 3:51 PM on July 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, in colder climates, the buildings are insulated much, much better than they are in temperate/moderate climates like the Bay Area. There's nearly no insulation in SF buildings, so they are subject to much wilder fluctuations in temperature. You will be plenty toasty in Chicago, Boston, or Winnipeg (so long as you're not in a squat).
posted by stillmoving at 3:55 PM on July 2, 2014

I'm not looking for advice about cost-saving measures or whether I can physically stay alive in a cold apartment. I'm asking how possible it is to move to areas that are cold in the winter and live in a warm apartment without paying a lot. I'd really appreciate if anyone answering could stick to that question. Thank you!
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:55 PM on July 2, 2014

There are quite a few brownstones in Boston where heat is part of a monthly condo fee (if you own) or would be considered into your rent. Many of those really old buildings don't have per unit heating separated out so it's the only way to manage it. FWIW, our rental property is always a balmy 70-75 degrees in winter.
posted by floweredfish at 3:56 PM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I lived in NYC I found that the pre-WW2 tenement style apartment buildings tended to run hotter than was comfortable due to being heated by building-wide steam radiator. There's no way of finely adjusting the temperature at the tenant level, it's either running or not.

Theoretically heat is "free", because it's bundled in with your base rent along with a few other utilities (garbage pickup and water, for example).

I'm not sure if this is the case in less urban environments or cities where the housing stock is newer. I know that, for homeowners in freestanding houses, winter heating costs are a significant expense and a consideration when buying a home (what type of fuel, how well insulated, etc).
posted by Sara C. at 3:57 PM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've been living in wintery places for ages and I'm totally with you — when it's cold at home I just can't get warm at all, no matter how many layers i wear, and I'm extra-miserable all winter long. The key for me was renting a place where I had control over the heat but didn't pay for it, so even though it's an old building I can keep it at a nice 75F all winter long.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:18 PM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

My experience (in one of the coldest cities in North America) is that older buildings with steam radiators have massively overbuilt heating systems. The 1912 apartment I lived in for a number of years had three radiators in about 650 square feet -- and pipe stubs showing where two more had been removed. A plumber working on the system explained to me that it was designed to run all winter with the windows open (!), since that's what people considered healthiest in those days. With the windows shut, drafts or no, we usually turned all but one of the radiators off, and it was still quite warm (24C or so) indoors. It's also impossible to meter the heat to an individual apartment with a system like that -- so of course the heat was included in the condo fee (ca. Can. $380/mo. including heat and building maintenance).
posted by irrelephant at 4:41 PM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would look for an apt that had heat included in the rent. Cast iron steam radiators are good, forced hot air less so. Low ceilings are your friend. Shrink-wrap drafty windows. A unit on the south side of the building gets more sun and less winter wind.

The places I've lived that included heat were over-heated so much that dressing for work in the morning was an issue; mostly I hung out in a tank top and shorts. Another, a 2-room studio, I actually turned the radiators off because it was so hot and the landlord complained if he saw windows cracked open. These ranged from the top floor (also good for heat) in a triple-decker to a purpose-built apt block from the 30s to an ineptly-converted Victorian house to a 60s-era low-rise garden apt. None of them were well-insulated.

Theoretically, I suppose that apts that include heat are more expensive than unheated but IME that has not been the case. It would be difficult to determine how well it is heated (if heat is included) without asking the other tenants though. If you look in the winter, you'd get a better idea. A warm radiator in the hallway is a good clue.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:46 PM on July 2, 2014

needs more cowbell: "I suppose I should also add that I'd need to be looking for fairly inexpensive housing, at least for a while, so that's an important factor. ... I guess what I'm also wondering is, in places like Chicago, and (this may be a different answer) in places like smaller New England towns, how many of the available apartments will be in nice cozy warm buildings versus other situations? As for what I consider "paying through the nose" - it's hard to say because I haven't paid for heat myself in a cold climate. Is paying $100 or less per month for gas/electric in a 1br apartment doable? Less than that?"

I just looked it up for you, and my highest bill during Polar Vortex was $183 for a 3-bedroom freestanding house in Illinois with unremarkable insulation, kinda drafty windows, and an absolute shit utility that overcharges me like whoa. (That is combined gas & electric ... probably 20% more expensive in Chicago.) In the summer it can drop to $80. If your heat is electric you will be charged absurd amounts of money (in the Midwest), but gas heat isn't too bad.

When looking at older places, you should consider a) basement apartments (soooooo insulating, if you can stand the basement!); b) the windows, which are the biggest thing by far in terms of older-apartment-insulation; c) the height of the ceilings (very high ceilings cost a LOT more to heat air you're not even using); d) what side of the building you're on and how exposed it is. Wind in the Midwest in the winter comes mostly from the Northwest and that corner of my house is always SIGNIFICANTLY colder. Tree breaks can help a lot (I do not have one). Other buildings can break up the wind, or they can funnel it at your building. Etc. (On days when it's just frigid my house is fine and the furnace will go for a long time between kicking on; on days when it's hella windy, that just sucks the heat right out of the house.)

Where I live the past year's utility bills are part of the disclosures sellers have to do when buying a house/condo/etc, so you can often find that in local real estate listings online. I don't know about renting, but you could look for similar buildings in the same neighborhood that are owned rather than rented, and see if you can get an idea for utilities that way. Chicago does require that your landlord/the utilities provide you a heating disclosure before the lease is signed. CUB has a little info on average Illinois gas bills here, but I believe that's for houses. (Also note it's a January through June cycle at the bottom there, NOT a monthly bill!) Chicago is served by People's for Gas, ComEd for electric.

Also, maybe relevant to you: Most utilities in Illinois offer an "averaging" service where they take the bills for your unit for the past year and average them around the year so you can pay $120 every month instead of $80 in the summer and $180 in the winter, and then in January they refund you or send you a bill for the balance, however it works out. I don't use this but a lot of people prefer it to smooth utility costs in four-season climates and people from more clement climates often don't know about it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:49 PM on July 2, 2014

I've lived in the northeast since 1999. I have never had to dress warming indoors. Radiated heat as opposed to forced air seems to keep things much cozier. My advice would be to find an older building with radiated heat but with updated windows where heat was included in the rent. Even without those things, you can keep your apartment warm for about $100-$200/month (at most) in the winter if you're living in a 1 bedroom. Less if you split it.

I think you will definitely find yourself warmer indoors in the winter in the northeast than you would indoors during the summer in SF.
posted by deanc at 4:53 PM on July 2, 2014

I live in a low-income neighborhood in Ohio in an apartment in a converted old house with forced air heat. My apartment has run cooler and warmer, but this past winter ran an average of 75-80 degrees every day. Yes, really. It's really variable, but my experience with low-end rentals is that the landlords care more about getting people not to call them than they do about the heating bill, and as a result you see some buildings where people actually open their windows in the winter because they have no control over it. This tends to be more true with radiators, but I've had it happen in places with baseboard heat and this place with the forced air, so.
posted by Sequence at 4:59 PM on July 2, 2014

how many of the available apartments will be in nice cozy warm buildings versus other situations?

While paying for heat isn't a big deal in general for a small apartment, sometimes in New England you will come across a rental that uses oil heat, and the tenant will be on the hook to buy the oil. You definitely want to avoid those places.
posted by deanc at 5:07 PM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Some apartments in Portland, Maine have heat included, and 68 would be considered reasonable. In my old 2 bedroom apt., in a pretty cold winter, I budgeted 75/month for gas heat. In my current house, small but with no benefit from shared walls, I'd budget 100+/month for gas heat IF I kept it at 68. I keep most of the house cool, and use a wood stove in the living room. Living room is 65 - 70 with a nice fire going. I use 1.5 cords of wood if I'm at home a lot, and still use a tank of oil, so the cost is similar.

Insulating older housing is a pain, many buildings are still inadequately insulated. But fixing drafts and sealing leaks is not so hard. I don't like to be cold, but I do acclimate to cold weather.
posted by theora55 at 5:13 PM on July 2, 2014

My Chicago apartment has free (gas) heating! We had to use a space heater at night for a couple weeks when it was just starting to get cold but the heat wasn't on full blast. But no, we did not pay through the nose to stay toasty. If anything it was too toasty and we cracked the window a few times...
posted by missriss89 at 5:23 PM on July 2, 2014

My experience (in one of the coldest cities in North America) is that older buildings with steam radiators have massively overbuilt heating systems.

This is absolutely correct. A steam radiator building is what you want. In such buildings the heat is usually included in the rent as it is not practical to meter the heat for different units. In my last apartment (1BR, 1920ish brick building with maybe 30 units, not expensive) I would close the valves on all radiators except one most days and be plenty warm.

The downside is that you don't have much control over the heat except by turning radiators on or off and by opening or closing windows. So if you're also sensitive to high temperatures you may find it tricky to find the right balance. The other issue is that sometimes there can be a delay when the weather changes quickly, so that if it has been warm and then a sudden cold snap hits the radiators might not really kick on full blast right away. (Why this is I'm not really sure.)

Of the apartments I've looked at since I've been in Chicago (older multi-unit buildings on the north side) a large majority have had radiator heat included in the rent. Personally I would not consider an apartment that didn't.
posted by enn at 5:29 PM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my experience, even the crappiest condo or apartment in most of the Midwest - cities, suburbs, exurbs - is much warmer during the winter than some nicer apartments are in places like SF and LA. When I lived in Minneapolis, my apartments were all cozy - in one of them, I had to keep my makeup bag away from the wall with the radiator so that things wouldn't get melty. Heat cost about $60.00/month during the coldest winter months, and more like $25.00 in October and March. On the other hand, I bought my first space heater in LA, where our first apartment had crappy non-windows that were more like large, plastic Venetian blinds.

One big difference, to my mind, is that the building styles that are rented out as lower-cost apartments are really different in each part of the country. In colder, wetter, climates, it's pretty unusual to have the door to your apartment opening directly to the outdoors. (A house or duplex, maybe, but not most apartments.) Most units in a place like Chicago or Minneapolis open up onto hallways or landings. Even some duplexes or triplexes share small, indoor entryways that serve as a kind of buffer zone between cold weather and the rest of the building. Every apartment I've lived in or visited in CA, TX, FL, etc. opens up directly into a courtyard.

Average and lower-cost apartment buildings in Midwestern cities are also, generally, a couple of stories taller than they are in SF or LA. In California, almost every (inexpensive) apartment we looked was only one or two stories tall (and in LA, "dingbat"-style apartments - which are often just one story, elevated over a parking area - are also really common). Being surrounded on almost all sides by other heated apartments also helps to keep things warm. In my experience, even in old, colder buildings, sticking to a middle floor and avoiding corner units (or corner rooms) makes a big difference in how toasty a place stays in the wintertime.

Of course, these are generalizations - but it's definitely possible to find an inexpensive apartment that will stay warm without spending more than $100 on heat in lots of colder cities.
posted by Austenite at 5:35 PM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had a studio in downtown Portland, Oregon from 2007-2013. Winter temps are generally 35-45F and constantly rainy with a few really cold days a year. Significant snow every 5 years or so.

It was an old building but had been extensively remodeled in 2000. I was on the second floor with a hair salon below me and aparments on either side, with my door opening into a climate controlled hallway.

In 6 years, I ran the heat maybe twice and was very comfortable. Heat from the salon below radiated through the floor and I also got heat from the neighbors walls and the hallway.

Never had an electric bill above $30. It was great.

Now I share a slightly damp, slightly drafty, slightly chilly apartment from 1916 with my partner and love it in a different way.
posted by paulcole at 5:58 PM on July 2, 2014

Yeah, I lived in an old brownstone apartment in Boston for five years that had an old school radiator system, so my heat was included in my rent (heat/hot water seems to be pretty common for inclusion in older buildings' rents) and I had control over it too. I usually kept it around 65 out of treehugging guilt, but there were some days I just couldn't take it and kept it much warmer and cozier. Absolutely possible to find, and I don't think it contributed to high rent any more significantly than my neighborhood did.

Plus, in those old brownstones, with apartments to the left, right, and (often) top and bottom of you, you're pretty well insulated. My friends in the triple-deckers so common in some suburbs of Boston, which are freestanding, tend to have both worse insulation and more responsibility for paying their own heating bills.
posted by olinerd at 6:39 PM on July 2, 2014

Is there some big divide between people who live in their own houses and those who live in apartment buildings, with those things being non-issues for those who live in apartments?

I live in a smaller New England town (4500 people) and I usually live in houses or apartments. When I was heating an old Victorian (hey free rent!) that I was living in, it was easily $300-400 a month to keep it at 64 degrees. Heat is included in my rent now, but I am one of those yankee types who keeps it 64 degrees anyhow. And it's very well insulated, not drafty, but it's second story over the garage so the floor is pretty cold.

Smaller towns don't tend to have the sort of older apartment buildings that are likely to have the older radiator-style overheated situation. And if the places were built later, they're a lot more likely to have heat like electric baseboard *and* have separate meters so that you have to pay for your own heat. And rent never gets that cheap the way it might in the midwest or in more urban areas. Last winter we had a week or two of -20° F for weeks at a time. A lot of people that I know rent houses or parts of houses, so not places that are specifically built to be apartments. So like a lot of times you can afford a decent amount of floor space but the pricey part is dealing with heating it in the wintertime.
posted by jessamyn at 6:56 PM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just another NYC data point -- lived in a pre-war building, and we couldn't control the heat; we had (at our landlord's advice) our windows open year round.
posted by odin53 at 7:00 PM on July 2, 2014

Back when I used to live in Milwaukee, my cheap apartments were always toasty in winter -- and heat was always included. This was, as far as I'm aware, also the experience of most of my friends. Milwaukee apartments generally don't mess around with heating in the winter, even at the low end of the spectrum.

Here in SF, it never gets quite as cold outside but never gets quite as toasty inside.
posted by eschatfische at 7:17 PM on July 2, 2014

I lived in an apartment building in Chicago for 8 years. Our apartment had 3 radiators and we never had more than one on, and frequently had windows open during the winter. The heat was included in our rent; window unit air conditioners were permitted for a surcharge. In retrospect, I should've spent the money for the a/c, but I was a grad student at the time and money was tight.
posted by mogget at 7:17 PM on July 2, 2014

I had forced air in Ann Arbor, MI, I'm pretty sure. I don't remember ever being uncomfortable, except that I had one of those bathroom window in the shower situations, so it was hard to regulate the temp and the air circulation in the bathroom. Now I'm in Minneapolis and have lived in one very warm apartment with old steam radiators as described above, an apartment with both radiators and baseboard heaters (on two different floors, in a house cut up into a 5-plex), and now an apartment with baseboard heaters and a couple of really shitty drafty windows. I haven't spent more than $100 a month in the last year and a half.

For what it's worth, none of these places in the Midwest are as uncomfortable to me as when I go home to my parents' place in Virginia, where it never gets that cold outside, but my mom likes to keep the thermostat at like 55 all year long.
posted by clavicle at 8:00 PM on July 2, 2014

We in the Midwest have learned that living in apartments means that heating costs are lower when the apartments are all squinched together. Particularly if you get a second floor unit, you will find that the infiltration of heat from the unit below will work to your benefit over the winters.
posted by yclipse at 8:01 PM on July 2, 2014

Yes. There are warm apartments in cold climates. As others have suggested look for radiator heating that is included in the rent. I live in Nebraska and at one point when I was a poor college student I lived in a studio apartment that was directly above the boiler room. It the warmest apartment I ever lived in with bare feet, tank tops, and shorts all winter long. As an added bonus you can put pots of water on the radiator to humidify the air a bit.

Watch out for single-pane windows in those old buildings though. You can combat the heat loss with plastic, but double-paned windows are really what you want.
posted by ephemerista at 9:14 PM on July 2, 2014

I'm in Portland, Maine (like Theora55), and own a 2-family originally built in 1837. After we bought it about 10 years ago, we redid the insanely expensive oil heating system to high-efficiency gas, and we include heat (along with electricity, water, wireless internet, and 1 parking space) in the rentals.

Our home equity loan + gas prices is less than we were paying for oil when we bought the building!

So, don't assume that the old buildings haven't been updated...just message the owners before you go see a place.

(Edited to say: we keep the heat setting at 68 for our apartment, but the tenants can do what they want. Obviously if they set it at 75 or something we'd notice and talk to them about it, but it hasn't happened in the last decade. Mainers are reasonable. Unless they're driving.)
posted by miss tea at 3:02 AM on July 3, 2014

I have lived mostly in apartments in smaller New England towns and the "toastiness" factor was variable and unpredictable. Some are cold and drafty, some are tight and toasty, some are drafty and toasty, depending on the type and age of the heating system. It's totally a crapshoot, and something you want to ask the previous tenants about, if possible.

The warmer ones come with the downside of being too warm, and you have no control over the temperature.

On the cost front, I have paid $150-300 per month, typically, to stay at level of warmth that you seem to want. Avoid oil at all costs, only natural gas! Heat inclusive apartments do exist, but they are rare in my experience, and tend to be higher-end. But that depends on where you live. In particular, small landlords seem more likely to have inclusive apartments, because it's too expense to split them all off for separate metering.
posted by epanalepsis at 6:09 AM on July 3, 2014

Pick an apartment that has southern exposure and is on the top floor. Pick a building that has seniors. They seldom tolerate cold happily and often crank the heat. If they can tolerate it you can, and when they crank their heat you will benefit because it will go into your apartment or at least provide good insulation.

Mu father lived in an apartment in Montreal on the seventh floor and for several winters he did not turn his heat on at all. The heat coming from below him in the building was sufficient that he would have cooked if he had turned it on. He only needed heat on windy days during a cold spell. Heat was included in his rent. He left it off for his own comfort, not to save money.

If you can get it, get a place that has heat included. Then you will get no surprises with your utilities. My experience (in Canada) has been that apartments are generally wonderfully heated, with the sole exception of the apartment in NDG that I rented because it was literally the cheapest thing advertised when I was house hunting. It had one gas space heater in the hall and no other radiators. It was poured concrete slab floors with linoleum glued directly on the concrete, and walls made of drywall fastened flush to cinderblocks. It was definitely colder than you would like. But this was quite obvious when I viewed the place, as was the crack den up the street.

I have been much colder when living in places I owned where I had to pay my own utilities and being a cheapskate (obvious from the paragraph above) I far prefer wearing ski socks and a sweater at home over paying an extra seventy-five dollars a month. Many of the people you hear about who are trying to thrive in apartments that never get above 62* in the winter are not renters at all.

When apartment viewing asking the current tenant for information about how cold the place gets and ask to get a look at his or her heating bills if the heat is not included.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:25 AM on July 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my experience (lived in New England most of my life) in an older apartment building (say 20-100 apartments) your heat is included, unregulatable, and HOT - easily in the mid-70s all winter long. In a 2-5 family house your heat is usually not included and can be expensive. But I have been much colder visiting friends in San Francisco in April than I usually am in New England in midwinter.
posted by mskyle at 7:43 AM on July 3, 2014

You may be able to find an occasional utilities-included apartment (said as someone in New England with most utilities included, including heat). I don't pay through the nose, yay! I think you're more likely to find it with landlords who've split up their house but never split the utilities, often places where the landlord lives onsite.

If you can't find utilities included: Oil heat is the way to go. Avoid electric heat like the plague. Rent in new construction if you can.

I have heard of some (okay, one) landlords who have crappy heating systems that need to be run higher for some (unknown to me) mechanical reason charging cheaper rent in general to make up for the higher cost of heating in the winter (a former coworker who was also a landlord did this).
posted by carrioncomfort at 8:03 AM on July 3, 2014

I live in a 1200sqf condo in Chicago with high ceilings. It was built as a factory originally and is very well insulated. I have central heat and even during the coldest months this winter, my heating bill was never over $90 and I generally kept the heat at 72 when I was home and 65 when I was out.

Generally though, I would try to find an apartment in a brick building with lower ceilings. Check to see if the windows are double or single pane too since the double pane really helps.

Avoid apartments with radiant floor heat as the sole heating source. Apartments like that are rare (at least in Chicago), but of my friends, the only one who has ever had problems keeping his house hot lives in a condo where the heat is provided solely by radiant floors.
posted by parakeetdog at 11:13 AM on July 3, 2014

Thanks for the answers so far everyone!
It seems like people talking about really warm old buildings are mostly talking about bigger cities. It seems like smaller towns don't have those as much, but how small can I go and still have a good chance of finding warm buildings? Can anyone comment on the Western Mass/5 College Consortium area?

Obviously I'm at the very very beginning of figuring out where I might move to and I'm sure there will be more AskMes from me, but I've realized that having a hard time finding warm, reasonable housing would be a dealbreaker for me. I'm very heartened to know that NYC apartments are warm though for now I'd probably be moving someplace less expensive/less congested where I'd have the possibility of living without roommates.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:11 PM on July 3, 2014

Can anyone comment on the Western Mass/5 College Consortium area?

Yes. I lived there for four years (though often on campus but I had friends who were off campus) You are way more likely to find places that are landlord-friendly with a rotating, captive rental market. And landlord-friendly means electric baseboard heating and you pay the bills. If you get to more populated areas that had more of an economy that wasn't student based you might find more of this, but then you'd be pretty far off. That said, Amherst has some older apartment buildings that might have this construction. THAT said they're not that cheap and you're jockeying with students who get their rent (maybe) paid by loans and/or parents.

Not to say this isn't possible, but basically my take is that the only ways that landlords can afford the free-heat deal is either when rents are already high and/or there are economies of scale such that it comes out in the wash (i.e. if you own multiple buildings or newer construction with a lot of units built to be more weather tight) and/or people are just otherwise not as money-conscious (I am sure my heat-included rent is because my landlady is in her late 80s and the amount I pay for rent is just money in the bank for her since this place's mortgage was probably paid off decades ago, for example)

God that is a lot of parentheses. In short: five colleges might be iffy for this. Further out in places like Springfield and Holyoke you'd absolutely find this but it might not be where you want to be. I left New England for a decade because I could not deal with the chill in my bones and I came back and basically decided to stop being chilly and was able to do it through a combination of things. I feel like this is a manageable goal for you to have and I don't think you need to throw any location out specifically but you may need to be very picky about places you decide to live.
posted by jessamyn at 12:54 PM on July 3, 2014

I think it's also important to mention that some old buildings with steam radiators can be drafty and badly insulated enough that even with the thermostat cranked up fairly high you can end up with an extremely uneven temperature throughout the apartment, such that being within a few feet of the radiator is sweltering and uncomfortable but standing near a window or in the corner of a room, even within direct line-of-sight of a radiator, is like standing in front of the fridge or freezer with the door open in the summer.

So don't regard just the presence of radiators as enough to ensure you'll be comfortable. (Though presumably somewhere that heat is included in the rent and the landlords have to pay for fuel themselves, they will have gone to the trouble to weatherproof and reasonably insulate the place so that it doesn't look like the house where all the Christmas light collectors live when the neighborhood is imaged with an infrared camera.)
posted by XMLicious at 2:31 PM on July 3, 2014

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