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Typical "sleeping district"

Apartments Or Houses? How Urban Russians Live?

Most Russians (74%) live in the cities. What are the urban homes like? Are these apartments or private houses? Do people prefer to live in the center or in the suburbs? Let’s explore.

Downtown vs Suburbs

Foreigners do not realize that the tourist photos they see of Moscow do not show what the majority of Muscovites see out of their windows every morning. Moscow’s historical center is cozy and beautiful, Moscow “sleeping districts” are rather dull. The city always needed more residential housing, so the approach to construction outside the city center was mostly functional. Buildings that could fit as many inhabitants as possible, standing close to each other plus a basic infrastructure such as a kindergarten, a school, a medical clinic, a couple of stores, a playground for kids and maybe a park (if you are lucky).

Typical "sleeping district"

Typical “sleeping district”

Moscow is a huge city (~14 Mln people) and traffic in the city is terrible. So, living closer to the center is convenient, since that way you lose less time for commuting. Living in the historical center is considered to be prestigious, but the poor quality of air, the traffic situation, exorbitant prices and the prevalence of commercial buildings make a lot of streets a questionable win. Still, there are several really nice streets where most people would like to live.

Ostozhenka

Ostozhenka – one of the nicest streets in the historical center of Moscow

Close to the city center, mainly at the South-West of the city but also at some Northern districts, there are several nice residential areas, where you have those “Stalin buildings” (built during Stalin’s time) with thick brick walls and high ceilings, large apartments, nice views to the river and big parks nearby.

Stalin buildings

“Stalin buildings”

And, here and there are new residential buildings, which have indoor parking, gyms, private security and other benefits.

One of the prestigious (an expensive) new residential buildings

One of the prestigious (an expensive) new residential buildings

However, the majority of people in Moscow live in the sleeping districts, which look like the first photo.

Dacha - typical landscape

Many typical dachas still have more land devoted to growing produce than to the rest area

How about living in the suburbs? Some people do indeed live at their dachas (and in that case these are more like country houses), but there is no such thing as suburbia in the “American way of thinking”. People do not move to suburbs when they start families and want to raise kids. People want to have an apartment in the city as the permanent home and dacha as a summer-house for weekends. And those people, who do live outside of the city, but work in the center are heavily penalized for the opportunity to have fresh air by sitting in traffic jams on their way to and from work for many hours every day.

So, 99% of Russians, living in the city do live in apartments. To have a private house within the city limits is super rare. There are just several townhouse communities in Moscow and all of them were established in the recent decade or two.

What is The Typical Apartment Like?

The way one describes apartments in Russia differs from the US way of describing apartments. We do not count bedrooms, we count rooms. So, we have one, two or three room apartments. In the rare case – 4 room apartments. The notion of a studio does not exist – there will typically be a separate kitchen and one room in a 1-room apartment. Usually one room will be the living/dining room, and one or two rooms will be bedrooms. Most standard apartments will have one bathroom, having a master bathroom and a guest bathroom is considered to be chic. Apartments lack dedicated storage spaces, so the balcony usually serves as a storage for everything – from winter tires to skis, strollers and other items. We will return to interiors in future posts, now lets finish with the building options.

"Pyatietazhka" - 5-storey residential building

“Pyatietazhka” – 5-storey residential building

There are several types of apartment buildings in Moscow. The least prestigious are 5 store buildings, built in the 50s-70s. Apartments there are super small – the goal of the government at that time was to get rid of “communal housing” (several families, sharing one apartment), so these were never meant to be permanent and still greatly improved the quality of life for young families. These apartment buildings are named “khruschevki” after Nikita Khruschev, who ruled the country at that time or “pyatietazhki” – five-storey buildings. Now, most of these buildings have been demolished and their former residents got apartments in the new modern buildings.

One level up from “pyatietazhka” is “devyatietazhka” – a nine-storey building, also made of large building blocks. Typical 9-story building of the 60s-80s will have about 300 1-3 room apartments and these apartments will be bigger than in the earlier version. However, they are still very small – a 3-room apartment could be around 60 square meters, which means that the biggest room is around 18 sq.m, the smallest 12 sq.m and the kitchen could be as small as 5-6 sq.m.

panel houses

Panel houses – quickest construction method

More modern residential housing may have up to 21 floors, but they are also built of panels (the house is assembled quickly, as from Lego blocks). Apartments in such houses are bigger and may have a better plan, but in general they are not that much different from the earlier versions. People strongly prefer to live in brick houses or houses built under the more modern technology, called “monolith” (when the skeleton of the house is filled with concrete.

Most people prefer either monolith houses or “Stalin buildings” as on the photo above. Solid, thick walls, big rooms, high ceilings – all these are the pluses of “Stalin buildings”, but there are also minuses. These buildings are quite old and a lot of them need serious renovation. New modern buildings are out of the reach of most people, but some of them are nice, have non-standard apartment plans, gyms in the building and indoor garages.

Rent or Own?

To have an apartment in Moscow is a dream of most of 146 Mln residents of Russia. Very few are lucky enough to have an apartment in ownership, many take super overpriced mortgage (15-20% interest rate!) to own a place once they pay back in 20-30 years. For the rest – it is a dream that may never come true.

Still, having an option to get a mortgage is a relatively new thing and even the exorbitant interest rates do not stop people from buying, since it is a way to get an apartment right away. Before people had to wait until they save enough money to buy the apartment and that was really difficult. There are two options if you want to buy – either buy a “second-hand” apartment and do whatever renovation it needs. Or buy an apartment in a new building. What is hugely different from the US – if you buy an apartment in the new building – be ready that the apartment will have only grey concrete walls. No floors, no paint on the walls, no electricity, no bathtub and of course – no kitchen. You buy and unfinished “cave” and let your own team of construction workers install all the wires, smooth the concrete walls, do the concrete floors and later do all the renovation – from floors to ceilings. So, whatever you paid for a square meter (be it $5k or $10K or more), add at least $1-2K for the construction work per each square meter.

Most people rent apartments and prices vary by the city and the district within the city. With the recent exchange rate fluctuations it is difficult to give exact prices, but in general a one room apartment in a sleeping district of Moscow will cost you around $700-900/month+utilities, depending on the district (several months ago the typical rent could have been $1500, but prices fell). For people, who own their apartments, communal charges, gas, electricity etc. will amount to $150-300 a month, which is really low compared to the US, but relatively high, compared to the average salaries and pensions.

Renting apartments is not a good business since there are no laws, that protect a landlord from tenants destroying the apartment and there are no fixed leases. Basically – your tenant may leave when he or she wants and the only thing they will lose is a one-month deposit for the flat (which may not cover the costs of renovation).

Does all that sound scary? It does! Next posts will explore such topics as typical apartment plans, renovation brigades (how to find and manage them), trends in interior design in the last 50 years, shopping for furniture in Moscow and other topics. Stay tuned! I will try to write the next post soon! Send me your questions via comments or site email!

Leave a Reply

  • Lola J. Lee Beno - 3 years ago

    If a family has more than 3 children, do they try to find a bigger apartment or just put up with it? What happens when the kids reach teenage years, with regard to privacy?

    • Tanya Golubeva - 3 years ago

      Hi Lola,
      That really depends on the family budget. If people can afford that – they look for a bigger apartment, so that all kids have their own rooms or at least teens share the room with siblings of the same gender. But for many families that is not possible, so a lot of families live in a two-room (not two bedroom, two rooms apartments), where grandparents share the room with kids. Of course, any of such families can move to the other city, where housing is more affordable, but by doing that they miss on the opportunities to earn a decent salary and to provide kids with better education options. So, the vast majority of people, who live in Moscow will put up with the difficulties, but never leave the capital.

  • Loose Cannon - 3 years ago

    Hello Tanya,

    This article shocks me.

    Is it worth it to make a larger salary in Moscow only to have it destroyed by outrageous expenses?

    In your examples, you said “a 3-room apartment could be around 60 square meters”, with an average of $7500 per sq meter. At an average of 17.5% interest for 25 years! I am using your numbers and taking an average of the numbers you gave.

    That is 450,000 USD for a small apartment, not including the interest! And the Ruble exchange rate is something like 50:1, making it the equivalent of 22.5 million Rubles?

    Is life so bad in the provincial cities where expenses are more reasonable?

    I do enjoy reading your blog. Russia is the one country in the world I’d want to visit. I don’t know why. It just is. Maybe I lived a past life there?

    Kent

    • Tanya Golubeva - 3 years ago

      Hi Kent,

      A lot of people want to live in Moscow because it is easier to find a good (and well-paid) job here. But also, Moscow is the center of cultural life and other things that you can find in the big cities. Big cities attract and people pay premium to live there.
      Quality of life does differ a lot between the capital and the small cities in Russia in many aspects. It is one of the biggest differences, compared to the US. In the US quality of everyday life is more or less the same be it Los Angeles or Boston or any other big city. You decide where you want to live based on such things as weather (Miami, LA if you like sunshine), your tolerance to traffic jams (not LA if you hate traffic) or public transport (not NYC if you don’t like subway), the industry you work in (some industries are more represented at the West Coast for example), whether you love outdoor activities (Minneapolis or Denver might be a good choice then) or whether you love culture (NYC or San Francisco). None of the cities in the US is best for everybody, but all of them are great in some respect, which may be important for you. So, there is no “central city”, where everybody wants to live. If such city existed, real estate would’ve been extremely expensive too.

      Thank you very much for warm words about my blog. Do visit Russia please! You can see Moscow and St’Pete in one week and the best time for visit is May-August. If you want to travel inside the country – add another week or two. It will be very interesting for you to compare Moscow with the smaller towns yourself. Send me a list of questions about Russia if you want (what a traveler wants to know) – I will answer them in this blog.

      Best,

      Tanya

  • Anonymous - 3 years ago

    Moscow not equals Russia. The article is mostly accurate describing Moscow, but far from being so regarding other cities =) And studios do exist even in Moscow although they are extremely rare.

    • Tanya Golubeva - 3 years ago

      You are right. Russia is a huge country. I live in Moscow, so this blog is mostly about Moscow (as stated in the disclaimer))

  • Anonymous - 3 years ago

    Hi, I love your blog. (probably because I think that this is an amazing country)
    and I’d like to know if one day you’ll blog about russian language?

    • Tanya Golubeva - 2 years ago

      Hi,
      Thanks a lot! Yes, I plan to blog about Russian language. The post will be named – Why Russian is difficult even for Russians!
      Stay tuned!

  • Anonymous - 2 years ago

    Painters tape……… really?

  • Lars Bekken - 1 year ago

    Hello!
    Very interesting topic, this is! I would like to buy a “holiday flat” in St. Petersburg. I don’t know if I’ll succeed with that, but insight of this kind is just what you would like to have, as a foreigner.
    I hope your blog is still active? A lot of posts and comments are from “1 year ago” it seems…
    Please continue.

    Best wishes.
    Lars
    Norway.

    • Tanya Golubeva - 1 year ago

      Hi Lars,
      Thank you very much for your message!
      Re blog – yes, it is still active. Here is the current status – I have a) started a new job, thus a bit busy, and b) I am working on booking the blog until the New Year. But in any case, I plan to blog more and have some exciting topics in the pipeline for Oct/Nov and beyond. I know that my readers have not heard from me for a while and promise that I will be back with new stories soon!

      Best,

      Tanya

  • Anonymous - 1 year ago

    Thank you very much you helped me with my school project ??

  • Anonymous - 1 year ago

    Do Russians get a salary for their jobs..does everyones salary differ

  • gemma-rose england - 1 year ago

    Hi
    I am a psychiatric nurse (RMN)just wondering if there are any English speaking hospitals that employ uk nationals.

  • John - 1 year ago

    Hello Tanya, I find your blog about living in Moscow very interesting. I live in Indiana, USA, and one day would love to visit Moscow and other Russian cities. What is the best advice you would give an American visting Russia/ Moscow for the first time? Not so much about renting a place, but just in general, like what are common mistakes that Americans make, or just best advice for a first time visitor, area to stay away from, what is really nice to see? I appreciate any advice and suggestions. Have a great day and it is so nice talking to you.. Thanks, John

    • Tanya Golubeva - 1 year ago

      Hi John,

      Thanks for the great question! I will try to answer it some time soon in my blog. Now – I am traveling in New Zealand myself))

  • Seraphim Hanisch - 7 months ago

    I rent an apartment in Moscow, and the first year we did a standard contract for the lease. Right now we are in a status where a new contract has not been signed, but the owner and I have a good relationship so we have merely made and delayed appointments to do this.

    One thing is inaccurate, I believe – the actual rate of home ownership in Russia is extremely HIGH – about 84%. That means that most people here that have a flat own it. However, the part that is true is that costs for people to buy new flats are pretty high. What often happens is that the ownership of a given apartment has been passed from generation to generation. Since Russia’s population declined and is still just barely above flatlining, there are a lot of hereditary apartments, and there are families that have several apartments as owned properties, and rent them out.

    The trick for me as a foreigner is to get one, so I rent, and have been following the American notion of renting until finding something to buy – and being married so my wife finds with with me. It is a big culture shock for the Russian people to consider it this way, because for them, property ownership is VERY highly regarded.

    It is worth noting that the average Russian carries no debt. So, think about that one. )

  • Anonymous - 3 months ago

    I don’t mean to offend but it seems as if life in Russia would be so depressing unless you are wealthy. In USA you can be middle class and even poor and still have a decent sized place to live and most with grassy yards for children to play in and to have gardens. It seems as your government officials only care about their own quality of life. I

    • Tanya Golubeva - 3 months ago

      Middle class in the US does indeed have better quality of life. In the urban environment, a lot of people also have small apartments, but usually people move to suburbs, when they decide to start a family. We do not have the same pattern in Russia – family stays in the same apartment or buys a bigger apartment and buys dacha – a country house, so that kids could play at the grassy yards in summer.