A Railroad Apartment: Tips to Help You Make the Most of Your Space

Today as the area of homes seems to be increasing, a railroad apartment seems like a relic of the past. But these unique apartment styles offer some measurable advantages over traditional spaces. They are also a great way to keep your costs low in high-cost cities like New York and San Francisco.

Railroad Apartment
Jonathan Schloss / Architect

Yet, there are also some downsides to a railroad-style apartment. Along with the low cost to purchase these homes comes a lower resale price down the road.

According to Jonathan Miller in the New York Times, railroad apartments sell for 15%-25% less than other apartments of the same size with standard layouts. Yet, in places like New York City, almost every home is a good investment because prices remain high.

What is a Railroad Apartment?

A railroad apartment is constructed in a narrow fashion. These apartments run from the front of the building to the rear in a long succession of rooms.

The rooms are connected to one another without hallways in between much like railroad cars. Railroad apartments are also called “floor-through apartments”.

The railroad apartment was known in common usage as a railway flat. These were first introduced in New York City in the 1830s to help with overcrowding. At this time, there were not the standardized building codes common today.

Railroad apartments were functional units and not designed with thoughts toward beauty or comfort. Most of the railway-style apartment units were unsanitary, cramped, shabby, and had poor lighting.

These types of apartment configurations became common in other large cities like Chicago and Boston. You can find railroad apartments in large tenement buildings and more narrow brownstones.

Design of a Railroad Apartment

A typical railroad apartment layout has three to five rooms. Most of the New York City railroad flats do not have hallways, though some railroad apartments in other cities have hallways.

Modern people value privacy, so efforts have been made to add partitions and screens to railroad flats to provide a more usable space. Some railroad apartments are even large enough to subdivide rooms and add hallways to create a more liveable home.

Pros and Cons of a Railroad Apartment

There are definite advantages to a railroad style apartment for young home buyers and renters. But, for others, these style homes present a challenge to modern living styles.


  • Cost – The initial cost of renting or buying railroad apartment units is cheaper. This is a good way for first-time home buyers and renters to get into the market and establish equity or credit.
  • Availability – Railway housing was common in large cities. These units are easy to find and plentiful in areas where housing is more expensive.
  • Unique Interior – Most railroad apartments are in historic buildings. Many of them still feature unique architectural characteristics. These include high ceilings, exposed brick walls, and more elaborate molding.
  • No Wasted Space – All the available space in railroad apartments is inside a room and usable.


  • Lack of Privacy – In railroad apartments, you must go through one room to get to another. This does not create privacy in the rooms in the middle of the layout.
  • Awkward Living Conditions – The layout of railroad apartments are not great for families or people with mobility issues. The size of them also inhibits great storage solutions making the home more cluttered.
  • Resale – This layout does not work for everyone, so there are fewer people who are interested in railroad apartment units. This drives down the resale price.

Tips for Railroad Apartment Style

Railroad apartments may not be ideal for everyone, but they are just the right answer for others. Here are some ideas that we have gathered to help you make your railroad apartment look beautiful and function in an efficient way.

Use Natural and Artificial Light

Use Natural and Artificial Light
Street Easy

Make the most of the lighting you have and add more as you can. This includes the use of natural light from windows and doors.

Keep the window coverings to a minimum to expand all the natural light that you have. Use sheers or linen curtains or shades in areas where you don’t need as much privacy. In areas like bedrooms, employ layering techniques that allow you to let in more light during the day but close them for privacy in the evening.

Also, add unique light fixtures and other ambient light sources in areas where it makes sense. Interesting light fixtures will help take the focus off the size of the space but add to its character.

Task lighting in strategic areas like reading lights and under the counter lights will help increase comfort and efficiency. Layering light sources like this helps give the room a sense of balance and comfort.

Keep Colors Cohesive and Neutral

Keep Colors Cohesive and Neutral
The Brooklyn Studio

When you are trying to make an area look larger and more open, light neutral colors work best. This can include whites, creams, light grays, beige, and greige. If you love dark and bold colors, feel free to accent with these tones to add interest into your design.

Because these rooms run right together, it is best to create cohesion in the entire space. Therefore, keep one color dominant as a wall color and another as the accent color.

When The Brooklyn Studio redesigned this NYC railroad apartment, they used this strategy. This doesn’t mean that you can’t personalize each room. Personalize with unique furniture and wall art.

Add Storage

Add Storage
The Little House in the City

Build in storage in areas where it makes sense. The Little House in the City features this railroad apartment with floor-to-ceiling bookcases in the living room.

These work well for walls that would otherwise be useless for storage. Add collections of your favorite found objects. Use baskets or decorative boxes to create a more unified look on your shelves.

Also, consider adding storage to fixed features like radiators and fireplaces. You can cover a radiator to create a table or a shelf that is usable space rather than a lost area.

Think of Creative Ways To Add Space

Think of Creative Ways To Add Space
Niche Interiors

Don’t neglect creative ways to help your railroad apartment become more livable. Consider murphy beds or pull-out sofas as good sleeping solutions for teens. This can help the room double as a hang-out/study area and a bedroom.

Privacy Screens

Privacy Screens
Deborah French Designs

No doubt, railroad apartments lack private spaces. But, a well-placed privacy screen or room divider can give you a sense of retreat.

There are beautiful and stylish privacy screens that add to the chic look of a railway apartment. They also add function to large rooms to create more distinct spaces.

Less Is More

Less Is More
Food 52

Decluttering is one of the most important steps to having a well-functioning railroad apartment home. This means getting rid of unnecessary objects that you have that aren’t useful and don’t bring you joy.

This may also mean getting rid of large furniture that doesn’t fit well in the apartment. Furniture that fits well in the room is best.

For her railroad apartment, Alex Kalita abstains from a large coffee table. Instead, she allows a path straight through the living room with a small table well-placed beside the sofa.

Luxury Materials

Luxury Materials
Eric Petschek: The Organized Home

Just because the apartment is small, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be beautiful. If you have the opportunity and the budget, add luxury materials where you can.

This will give your home a more custom look. In most of these rooms, you will need small quantities, which will make it more affordable.

Consider this railroad apartment design from Noam Dvir and Daniel Rauchwerger. They used luxurious marble countertops in their railroad apartment kitchen. The long line of the countertops creates a cohesive and custom look in the kitchen.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)FAQ

What is the prospect of railroad apartment resale?

Because of the tight housing market in the U.S., all properties are easier to sell. This includes railroad apartments. These apartments are more difficult to sell in normal times. But, if you make sensible alterations to make the apartment more cohesive and include better storage, you should be able to find the right buyer for your apartment.

What is a shotgun vs railroad apartment?

Shotgun and railroad style homes are often used in place of each other. You can find shotgun homes in many southern cities like New Orleans or Charlotte, N.C. These are tiny homes built right next to each other. Most do not have side windows but windows in the front and rear of the home. Shotgun homes are about 12 feet wide. Like Railroad houses they have three or four rooms in a line from front to back.

Where is the best place to look for a railroad apartment for rent?

The best place to look for a railroad apartment to rent would be a large, northern or midwest city like New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, or Boston.

What are the most affordable railroad apartment ideas to help my space work better?

Painting your space is a less expensive solution that will make your whole home flow better. Adding room dividers in the form of storage is another less expensive idea. This way, you can create more privacy and storage at the same time.


Railroad apartments have a unique layout and style that make them work best for people who are young and with small families.

For others, they offer drawbacks like the lack of privacy and awkward layout. In these times where real estate prices have continued to rise, railroad apartments are a viable option for anyone looking to enter the U.S. housing market for the first time.