Just so you know, my father owned a construction company so I’ve been around the construction related trades all of my life, and I managed a construction crew when I was in college. I’m not licensed in any construction trade, but I’m not your average DIYer either.
I used to live in condominiums. I’ve owned and renovated three condos which is how I came to know these things. The construction principles hold true for apartments, but I wouldn’t mess with someone else’s property. When I do work on my condos, I just notify the HOA that I am doing some work and it has never been a problem.
Ceilings – Part 1
Ceilings offer the greatest amount of unseen storage. A rule of thumb you might use is that each story (level) is 10 feet. If your ceiling is 9 feet, you probably have at least another foot of space above your sheetrock. If your ceiling is 8 feet, I bet you have 2 feet of room.
A unit above mine had a water leak which caused the removal of 100% of a ceiling in an efficiency. Even though the ceiling was 9 feet, I still had an easy 12 inches of open space with very long unobstructed runs. It didn’t have traditional single board joists – they used trusses making it VERY easy to move wiring around. I re-routed some of the wires to make it more efficient and create fewer obstructions. I was able to attach 15/32nd inch plywood to the ceiling effectively creating shelves. Screw a row of plywood to your joists and stock it. Screw up the next row and do the same. Continue the two foot shelving process as needed.
Pro tip: The big box stores will cut the boards for you. My ceiling joists were set on 24″ centers. I had the home center cut the plywood into 4 equal 2 foot by 4 foot sheets. In other words, they cut the wood three times and they charged me $3. This made the wood easier to handle and allowed me to carry entire sheets of plywood in my Nissan Altima (a GREAT car BTW). After the wood is attached, you can simply attach the sheetrock directly to the plywood (be careful of your method of attachment so you don’t damage what is up there. If you don’t care how it looks (as in it may be your hunting cabin) then forget the sheetrock. Install one sheet along the wall, leave an opening, install two more sheets, leave an opening, install two more sheets, and leave an opening. This way you can reach all your stuff and have a significant amount of storage.
BUT WAIT! I DON’T WANT TO COVER MY ENTIRE CEILING WITH WOOD AND THEN THE SHEETROCK WON’T BE THE SAME LEVEL!
No problem. Cut enough 2″ strips of plywood to affix to the remaining exposed joists. Now the ‘new’ bottom of your joists will be the same level as the ceiling storage area. Also, it is easier to attach sheetrock to a 2″ wide board than it is to a 1.5″ wide board. To guarantee evenness, you have to use EXACTLY the same material underneath the sheetrock.
Ceilings – Part 2
If your unit looks like most apartment buildings with a pitched roof, and you have the upper unit, you will have a HUGE space above your ceiling. I cut a hole in a closet ceiling, installed an accordion type attic ladder, and decked probably 400 SF of ceiling above my unit. There was so much room up there that I set up my tools there. The attic was my workroom which I didn’t expect to have in a condominium. I even installed an air conditioner. There was A LOT MORE than 400 SF I could have used. I just didn’t have a need for it. The job was a lot harder than it sounds because of the maze of pipes and wires laid on top of the joists without thought that had to be moved or avoided (I effectively created a new set of joists on top of the existing joists). I hate it when tradesmen do that lazy crap.
Pro tip: The farther you can get away from the electrical panel, the easier it will be. Usually there is a direct run of electrical wire from each breaker in your panel to some part of the house (usually a particular room or high load appliance such as an oven, dryer or air conditioner). If your electrical panel has 20 breakers, you will have to find a way to get over those 20 wires that fan out to the main portions of your unit. The further you are away from the electrical panel, the greater the distance will be between the wires. Where I currently live, the wires and pipes coming across the garage were so congested that I literally built a bridge above the joists to avoid the mess which made my already low clearance even tighter. Yeah, it kinda sucks, but now I have a trolley (like in The Great Escape) in my attic which is kinda cool.
Fireplace / Chimneys
My condos were built in the early 1980s. It wasn’t a consideration of mounting anything other than a picture above the fireplace. I wanted to mount my flat screen there and run electrical and data cables behind the sheetrock to make it look good. When I opened the wall, I was shocked how much empty space was back there. There was so much room, I created a ‘closet’ to hold all of my A/V equipment. I had at least 24″ of depth and a height of over 8 feet – that’s only on one side of the fireplace. I strongly suspect that the other side of the fireplace had the same empty space.
INTERIOR Walls Only – Don’t mess with exterior walls
I bring this up not because it is a good source of hidden storage, but to open your mind to possibilities. If I wanted to hide something that I wouldn’t likely need (such as precious metals or ammo stockpiles) and I couldn’t afford the $1,000 for a gun safe, I would just put them in the walls. There is a 3.5″ void between the pieces of sheetrock. You cut out the sheetrock, stash your stuff, replace the sheetrock, tape and bed the seams, texture to closely match the adjoining pieces and paint. The most challenging part is matching the texture which is quite difficult. That is one of those skill sets that painters have and are well worth paying them to do. But, if it is a wall nobody will see or notice (such as the interior of a closet), then consider it. It really is freaking easy and very inexpensive. If you had to buy the tools, it might cost $50.
Historical Note: this is what some people did when the Hunt brothers attempted to corner the world silver market. Thieves would break into homes just to steal the silverware. Instead of risking losing family heirlooms, resourceful people started stashing their silverware inside of walls.
Tip #1: Don’t remove the wood in a wall unless you know how to determine if the wall is load bearing. Use a pro for that.
This is what my attic looks like above the load bearing wall.
Tip #2: Don’t mess with portions of the wall that have electrical boxes. Generally electrical wiring runs vertically inside the walls in the same void as the electrical outlet is located. Sometimes electrical wiring runs horizontally through wall studs generally at the same level as the electrical outlet, but that is much less likely. Electrical outlets are nailed to a stud. You can remove the decorative plate and find out which side of the electrical box the stud is located, and proceed accordingly.
Tip #3: Don’t mess with exterior walls. Use a professional for that. Exterior walls in multi-family construction are firewalls and they are load bearing.
I have a closet that is so long and narrow that I can’t even get to the end of it. It is wasted space. I am considering installing a ‘false’ wall in that closet. NOBODY (including me) would ever notice that the closet does not extend all the way to the exterior wall. I can effectively create a 30″ x 28″ storage area that could only be discovered by someone using a tape measure and literally drawing the floorplan of the exterior walls, the room with the closet, a measured detail drawing of the INTERIOR of the closet (which real estate appraisers don’t even do to the necessary detail to discover the abnormality) and the adjacent room with all of its offsets. It would be completely undiscoverable.
Fur-downs are dropped ceilings. They are an architectural feature common in houses built prior to the mid-1980s. They are most often found above the cabinets in kitchens and bathrooms.
Usually fur-downs are vacant voids and only serve aesthetic purposes. Sometimes they are used as air ducts, and sometimes they conceal wiring or pipes. Even if there are wires or pipes, they are still useful. In the picture above, parts of the fur-down have air ducts, but other parts are complete voids.
The good thing about fur-downs is that they are usually framed just like every other part of the house meaning you will find 2×4 studs in exactly the same places you would expect to find them usually on 16” centers.
Fur-downs offer you considerable possibilities. Besides just closing it back, you can add non-functional air vents which are architecturally appropriate and allow access to whatever you put inside.
Now you have six hidden places you can stash a lot of stuff in a condominium (or home for that matter) that I bet you never even considered. Just remember to remove the valuable stuff before you sell it. I’m 95% sure I forgot some stuff I had stashed, but I can’t remember what it was. That’s the problem with stashes from my experience.
Be well. I’ll see you on the other side.