Renters' New Reality: Paying More for Less

Even as the size of new apartments keeps shrinking, rents continue to rise.
Crowded New York apartment buildings

In a time of expensive mortgage payments and rising house prices (even if they are slowing down), renting remains an attractive option for those who can't afford to own their own place but are sick of living with their parents. But a new nationwide study from apartment listing service RENTCafé shows renters are paying more money than ever for less space. The average size of an apartment built in 2018 was 941 square feet, a 5% decrease from apartments built 10 years ago, while rents for newly constructed apartments have climbed 28% to an average of $1,994.

RentCafe data

Of course, not every renter wants (or can afford) a brand-new apartment, but older dwellings tend to offer even less space. The average size of an apartment in the country, regardless of age, is 882 square feet—obviously smaller than the 941 square feet of newly built apartments, meaning the smaller size of older apartments is dragging down the overall national average.

All real estate is local

Not all apartment markets are created equal, and you don't have to hold a realtor's license to realize apartments in San Francisco will be smaller and more expensive than those in Indianapolis. In general, the higher the population and geographic density of a city the less space the renter gets for their money, as you can see from the following list of the 8 cities with the largest apartments.

CityAverage size in square feetAverage rent
Tallahassee, FL1,038$1,177
Marietta, GA1,025$1,096
Columbia, SC1,006$1,003
Decatur, GA1000$985
Birmingham, AL992$917
Norcross, GA991$999
Gainesville, FL990$1,185
Atlanta, GA987$1,320

Now take a look at the 8 cities with the smallest apartments on average:

CityAverage size in square feetAverage rent
Seattle, WA711$1,906
Manhattan, NY733$4,041
Chicago, IL733$1,808
Washington, DC736$2072
San Francisco, CA737$3,442
Tucson, AZ738$769
Los Angeles, CA771$2,265
Glendale, AZ781$866

Comparing the two tables, it becomes clear that renters who want more space for their money might consider moving to the southeast, as Florida and Georgia have fairly large apartments on the market for comparatively cheap rents. In fact, three of the cities with the most spacious apartments—Marietta, Decatur and Norcross—are all about a half hour's drive from Atlanta, which is also on the list.

On the other hand, unless you're earning at least a seven-figure salary you shouldn't move to Manhattan with the expectations of living in your own Friends-like apartment (Rachel must have been raking in those tips). That shouldn't surprise most people, but Arizona cities such as Tucson and Glendale also have smaller-than-expected apartments, which is more of a mystery. It's a good example of how you need to do your homework on the ins and outs of the local real estate market before you make a move.

James Ellis

James Ellis is a Staff Writer for ValuePenguin, covering credit, banking, travel and other personal finance topics. He previously wrote for Newsweek, Men's Health, and other nationally-published magazines.

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