Should I rent an apartment with electric baseboard heat?
June 2, 2008 1:00 PM   Subscribe

Should I rent an apartment with electric baseboard heat?

Looks like I'll be staying in this college town one more year (hopefully not more than that) but I need to find a new apartment. I've finally spotted an inexpensive apartment in the desirable area of town, but it's the top floor of an older house, and it's listed as coming with electric baseboard heat.

I'll be touring the place tomorrow, and may soon be faced with a decision of whether to rent; however I'm pretty worried about the cost of heat in winter, here in the midwest, where power prices have jumped quite a bit.

Right now, I don't know what the heating cost of the place was last year; perhaps I'll be able to find that out. But I wonder what people's opinion of this sort of heating are, and whether it should be deal-breaker.

Also, I'm wondering whether there are any cost-saving requests I ought to make of the property management company before signing the lease. For example, I was thinking of asking to see the attic, and then asking them to insulate it some more (perhaps simply pumping some insulating materials over the floorboards, if the attic has a floor). Perhaps I should also request a "smart" thermostat of some kind? This is a fairly cheap rental unit, from a fairly cheap rental company, so I doubt I could get new windows, etc.; however I'd be interested in any relatively "quick and easy" requests I could make of the rental company that might reduce the heating bills in this new place come winter.

Many thanks.
posted by washburn to Home & Garden (15 answers total)
Electric baseboard can be cost comparable to other forms of heating (and probably cheaper than natural gas these days but I'm just making an educated guess). It would be better if you had a fan or two to distribute the heat - perhaps you could ask them to install a ceiling fan. You would probably be laughed at if you asked them to re-insulate and they would probably politely decline to replace a working thermostat for a more expensive one. Ask them to repair/replace the weather stripping instead and to replace any missing sealant around the existing windows. Another thing you can check for is to make sure the radiant panels for the baseboard are in good shape. If they are busted up, the heating is less efficient.
posted by mrmojoflying at 1:31 PM on June 2, 2008

Being on the top floor, and assuming the older house is probably not particularly well insulated, you'll probably benefit from the heating of floors below you. I lived in the converted attic of an old house in the upper Midwest when I was in college, and the forced air ducts simply did not work on our floor. We got no direct heat at all. However, because heat rises, it was never uncomfortably cold up there.

You may summer (if you don't have AC) to be much worse than winter. It was for me.
posted by COD at 1:38 PM on June 2, 2008

In my experience, electric baseboard heating is not too expensive compared to forced air (gas/oil).

I've been a landlord and for a cheap apartment I would never agree to any of your requests. If the rent is cheap and the place is in a desirable area of town, they will find someone who doesn't have your requests. I'm curious about why you think you would be such a great tenant when you are a student staying for only one year.

Ask to see the heating bill from the former tenant. Don't just take the management's word for it.
posted by FastGorilla at 2:01 PM on June 2, 2008

I live on the top floor of a three-story apartment building, and we only had to turn our heat on at night last winter.

It would be great if the electric baseboards can be adjusted in each room.

I might also add that I lived in houses heated with forced-air for three winters, and each winter I caught cold after cold after cold. Forced air is pretty dry (and is also dusty and dirty) which makes it easy to catch a virus. Since moving in to the place with electric heat, I haven't caught one cold.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:06 PM on June 2, 2008

Electric resistance heat is almost always the most expensive method of heating. But with so many variables, it's tough to determine exactly how much it'll cost. If you can't find out what last year's bills were, ask the building to either subsidize the cost, or include the utilities. Asking them to make improvements is probably a losing game, because if it doesn't work, they can still claim they did everything you asked.
posted by electroboy at 2:09 PM on June 2, 2008

Funny, reading this question, I thought, I had an apt on the top floor (actually used to be the attic) of an older house - in Champaign, I wonder where this one is. And it looks like you're in Champaign. Is this house on University by chance?

And, in any case, our attic apt. had electric baseboard heat and it was fine - this was back when natural gas was a lot cheaper. Our apt got a lot of heat from the floors below and our utility bill was not out of the ordinary.

I would take it without any conditions, because, as FastGorilla said, the landlord will most likely find someone else who doesn't put conditions on the leasing.
posted by nightwood at 2:11 PM on June 2, 2008

If the other aspects of the apartment suit you, then go ahead - but I would suggest you NOT use the baseboard heaters. They are huge energy hogs, and most people that I know that have had this type of heater find that they blow the circuits quite often, since you don't have the luxury of changing the plug that they're drawing from. They also don't heat very well, yet ironically, they get really, really hot - and that means that you can't have any furniture or electronics near them. Your best bet would be to get an oil filled spaceheater like one of these. They can be moved around, take up very little room, have almost zero fire hazard, and have a thermostat.

Don't bother asking the landlord to replace windows or insulate...he will laugh at you.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:21 PM on June 2, 2008

I'm surprised that no one's mentioned it, which makes me almost think I'm making it all up in my head. Anyway, I have electric baseboard heaters in my apartment and they really, really, dry the air out during the winters. Keep that in mind while you're apartment shopping if dry winter air bothers you a lot. I had to buy a dehumidifier to make up the difference, but it's such a pain to have to fill it up every night.
posted by pete0r at 3:27 PM on June 2, 2008

There's nothing inherently bad or expensive about baseboard heaters. And as others have said, the top floor is the warmest, anyway.
posted by rokusan at 3:31 PM on June 2, 2008

Also, I think you'll find a lot of opinions about different heating methods (i.e. forced air dries things out, steam is "better", etc etc), but very little facts. All you should worry about is cost. All heating systems will have problems if they're not installed properly, but there's not much you can do about that.
posted by electroboy at 5:14 PM on June 2, 2008

Electric resistance heat is almost always the most expensive method of heating.

True -- or at least, this has been the case. However, in my experience, it's also the quietest form of heat (I've never lived with heated floors, though).
posted by Rash at 5:33 PM on June 2, 2008

Thanks all for the answers so far. After posting this, I actually took a walk down to look at the property and ran into the unit's current tenant, who said that the cost of heating in the winter was her main complaint about the apartment. Still, the bills were not nearly as high as I'd feared.

She also mentioned that her landlord had already spoken to her about perhaps installing some ceiling fans to improve the situation, as mrmojoflying suggested in the first answer to this thread.

The fan thing points out something that is good for renters to remember: most landlords, I think, are at least somewhat receptive to suggestions for improvements that serve to maintain and enhance the value of their property. As a long-time renter, I've made a practice of often suggesting maintenance and improvement ideas when I sign or renew a lease. This might seem like common sense, but too often renters feel trapped by landlords and unable to negotiate the provisions of their lease or for improvements in the property. But a nice thing about renting however is the fact that there are always plenty of landlords to choose from.

Nightwood: nope, not on University, but in the neighborhood.

A final question:
A number of people have warned against asking about putting additional insulation in the attic. But how expensive would this really be, I wonder? Especially if it just involved blowing or tossing some loose insulation into an attic that is usually closed-off? It seems to me like this might not cost any more than putting in the ceiling fan(s) that they're already thinking of installing. Again, I don't know; however Google says that this is a pretty easy and inexpensive fix. So, I'll probably at least ask about insulation and etc. (perhaps the attic is already well insulated), just to see what they'll say. At worst, I'll give them a little something to laugh about.
posted by washburn at 9:19 PM on June 2, 2008

A number of people have warned against asking about putting additional insulation in the attic. But how expensive would this really be, I wonder? Especially if it just involved blowing or tossing some loose insulation into an attic that is usually closed-off?

I'll try to break it down from a landlord's point of view:

1) Ceiling fans are an actual visible improvement to the apartment. The money spent on the fan directly benefits the ability to rent the unit and increases the value of the property by more than the cost of the fan.

2) Ceiling fans are a clean install requiring simple tools and are relatively easy for someone used to apartment maintenance.

3) Insulating is a dirty, physically demanding job, and the apartment is desirable without re-insulating.

4) Re-insulating is simply not the kind of concession that you make to a potential sets a bad precedent for what can be asked and what can be acquiesced to. You are probably not be this kind of tenant, but oftentimes, a tenant who asks for lots of things such as this is going to be a problem. Most landlords believe that their rentals (particularly college-town rentals) are meant to be adequate. It simply doesn't pay in the long-run to provide a tenant with anything more than that and it *really* doesn't pay to appear to be the landlord who might provide it.
posted by mrmojoflying at 5:41 AM on June 3, 2008

I have a portable oil space heater, but use it in an area beside my desk where there isn't any baseboards. It works ok. Keep in mind though, that you don't necessarily need to keep the place toasty, owning a few fleece jackets or sweaters and actually wearing them inside can help a lot.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 6:16 AM on June 3, 2008

Regarding electric heat, it may be the most expensive to operate, but it's the cheapest and simplest to install. So if you're not paying the bills, there's no incentive to install anything else. A heat pump costs about half as much to operate, but the installation is about 5 times as much.
posted by electroboy at 7:20 AM on June 3, 2008

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