Living in a 3rd-Floor Walk-Up Isn’t for Everyone, But I Love It

published Jun 20, 2023
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A row of colonial homes graces an historic neighborhood in Charlestown, MA
Credit: James Kirkikis | Shutterstock

It all started my freshman year of college, when I was assigned to room 311, three floors above the carpeted lobby. Then, my first apartment was on the top floor of a not particularly charming three-story building that I adored. These days, several apartments later, I live in unit number three in a lovely building with one apartment per floor. While there have been some exceptions to the third-floor rule over the years, I’ve never not lived in a walk-up. And let me tell you, I love it. 

Living in a walk-up, as many apartment dwellers well know, is hard. And for anyone with an injury, disability, or small children, it’s even more challenging. Just when you’ve finally gotten home, you then have to heave yourself up several flights. As far as I know, no one has ever arrived at the top step of my apartment without having to catch their breath. You have to muster every ounce of strength to muscle all of your groceries up the steps in one go, because the idea of making two trips is so disheartening. Every time you leave the house and skip down the stairs, a dark shadow in the back of your brain says, soon you will have to ascend again. It’s Sisyphean. And don’t even get me started on moving in and out of a no-elevator building when you live on a floor that is not the first. It’s the “pivot” scene from “Friends” with no laugh track. 

And yet. There is a nice rhythm to going up and down the stairs each day. I appreciate having some built-in movement when coming and going, especially on cold winter days when I’m not walking to my destination. I’m grateful for my legs that can help me make the trek, and I’ve always been scared of elevators, anyway — sure, I’ll ride one if I must, but I will be checking the inspection certificate. 

Credit: Konstantin Aksenov/Shutterstock

When living on the third floor has meant living on the top floor, as in my current apartment, the climb is always worth it. Sitting at my desk right now, I get to look out into the leafy branches of the trees that line my street, and when I’m on my deck I can watch an unobstructed sunset. Not having anyone live above me is bliss, too — there’s no wondering why upstairs neighbors are moving furniture at midnight or scampering across the floor in tap dancing shoes. 

There are also bottom-line benefits. Walk-up apartments are generally no more than six or so floors tall, meaning you never have as many neighbors as in a giant apartment complex. I’ve always appreciated how easy it is to know most of my neighbors and feel more like I’m living in a community than an anonymous building.

Andrea Gillespie, a public relations professional in Chicago, has lived in both kinds of buildings, and points out that elevator access doesn’t always mean time saved. “I rented in an elevator building but chose to purchase a walk-up in downtown Chicago. Elevator maintenance costs really add up in the assessment fees and if one or more cars are broken, it can be a real inconvenience. Getting out the door in the morning, I’d always have to add 10 minutes to my commute just to wait for the elevator.” 

Not to mention, though there’s no golden rule that says a walk-up apartment is less expensive than a unit in an elevator building, that can often be the case. Scrolling through Streeteasy, limiting my search to units under $2,000 yields 1,019 options in New York and New Jersey; when I filter that search by buildings with elevators, that number goes down to just 161 possible apartments. Properties with doormen, elevators, and other conveniences typically charge higher rent to pay for those luxuries. As a result, climbing a few flights can often save you some serious cash over living in an amenity-blessed building.  

I cherish other, smaller, things too. I love coming home and catching a whiff of what my neighbors are cooking for dinner as I pass each landing. I love hearing my friends pad up the stairs and calling down a hello before I can see them. I might even love the breathless feeling of opening my door when my arms are loaded with groceries and plopping all my bags on the ground.

Yes, I could be in denial. Perhaps one day I’ll overcome my phobia of elevators and cruise past the ghost of my past self, huffing and puffing up the stairs! But for now, I am a big fan of my walk-up. So much so that soon, I’m going to be in the market for a new apartment — and I will not be writing off any lucky third-floor contenders.