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Ups and downs

Which floor? It's a critical decision renters often make as an afterthought, but it can make or break happiness.

October 29, 2006|Peter Bennett | Special to The Times

TO life's many choices -- paper or plastic, Mac or PC, Leno or Letterman -- apartment dwellers face another: upstairs or downstairs. No decision would seem more critical. Yet, strangely, few seem to consider the question upfront.

"It only becomes an issue after people move in," said Kelly Arft, senior property manager for the Renken Co. in Claremont, which manages about 150 apartment units.

That may be too late for those who value their sleep, sanity, security and other requirements for happiness. Unlike homeowners who enjoy a measure of privacy behind fences and hedges that separate them from neighbors, apartment renters in increasingly high-density Southern California often share ceilings and floors with people who live above or below them. To find their place in this vertical world, they must honestly assess their personality and lifestyle preferences, as well as their tolerance for sounds, odors and other conditions not of their own making.

"In real estate, home buyers are always talking about location, location, location, but for renters, location is as much about the floor they live on as the neighborhood they choose to live in," said Ann Krauter, a broker and owner of Dilbeck Premier Properties in Claremont.

All single and fortysomething, renters Kelli Sipp, Audrey Rivers, Jim Martinez and Gabe Valdez live in a vintage 1920s four-unit apartment complex in the Pasadena Playhouse District, with Sipp and Rivers in the two downstairs rentals and Martinez and Valdez in the upstairs units. With hardwood floors, cathedral ceilings and crown moldings throughout, the building is beautiful. But the walls are thin.

During the week, upstairs neighbor Martinez, an L.A. County Transportation Department employee, bounces out of bed at 5:30 a.m., showers, dresses and shuffles around the kitchen before striding out the door for work. Rivers, who lives below, wakes up right along with Martinez.

"He's my alarm clock," said Rivers, who keeps similar work hours to Martinez's. Rivers, who works for a seismograph company, wasn't always so noise-tolerant. Until she moved into the apartment four years ago, she lived in a house and savored her solitude in a neighborhood where the cutting of grass or use of a leaf blower on Sunday caused her to contemplate calling out the National Guard.

"In the beginning," she said of adjusting to apartment living, "you think every sound is aimed at you. You are totally controlled by the upstairs people because you don't know when they're going to drop a TV or jump into a pair of cowboy boots or what."

It was the "or what" that irritated Sipp when she moved into her apartment last year. "I heard everything Gabe did up there," Sipp said. "Vacuuming, flushing the toilet, his conversations, his cat skidding across the floors."

But Sipp has mellowed. "As time goes by, you become familiar with the sounds around you," she noted. "You discover you have room in your life for noise."

Martinez tries to muffle noise. He's learned to pad around his apartment in his socks more often and switched his daily exercise routine from early mornings to late afternoons.

After raising her family in single-family homes, Cheryl McDonald, a courier service owner now living in a two-bedroom upstairs apartment in Upland, felt confined.

One night while she was washing dishes as her 18-year-old son, Michael, played video games, a neighbor bolted upstairs and banged on her door. "Are you turning this place into an aerobics studio?" McDonald recalled him saying.

McDonald said she would have preferred to live downstairs but family members convinced her that upstairs units were safer.

For that same reason, Stephanie Thomas moved into an upstairs apartment in Rancho Cucamonga with her 15-month-old daughter, Kylee.

Although many upstairs residents say they feel safer, they concede that downstairs is unbeatable for easy access. Each time Thomas lugs a load of laundry or a bag of groceries upstairs with her baby in tow, she says she regrets selecting her upstairs apartment.

Many downstairs occupants also maintain it's easier to evacuate in an emergency. Medical aid can reach victims more quickly -- a priority for many elderly renters, who may also no longer have the agility or strength to tackle stairs.

Sipp simply feels more connected to her neighbors and neighborhood living downstairs. Outside her screened front door, she enjoys a small brick patio, a birdbath and a tidy green lawn, only paces away from the theaters, restaurants and bookstores that populate the Playhouse District. The interior decorator walks to her dentist, doctor, pharmacist and bank.

"It's like a little 'Cheers' neighborhood here," she said.

Beware the zoom lens

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