Foreign visitors and most expats prefer living in downtown Kiev–they usually have the income to take advantage of entertainment options in the city center, and greatly appreciate the convenience of being where the action is. But when it comes to picking an apartment building, these so-called “pragmatists” can be downright romantic and frequently they’ll tell a real estate agent, “I want to live in [or buy] an apartment in an older building downtown.” Older buildings in Kiev come in two basic “flavors”–Tsarist and Stalinist, they tend to be clustered in the city center, and depending on their condition, can be quite comfortable for living. In this article we discuss the pluses and minuses of renting and buying apartments in these types of buildings.
KIEV’S TSARIST BUILDINGS
The late 19th to early 20th century represented a high point of architecture in Kiev that incorporated many styles, including Neogothic, Neorenaissance, Neobaroque, Neoclassic and New Russian. Chief among these styles was Art Nouveau, a style that is characterized by the inclusion of spires, towers, mosaics, fanciful windows, gates, and balcony grates, decorative facades, entrances, stairwells and roofs The Art Nouveau period lasted up until the years of war and turmoil that began with the Russian Revolution in 1917. Today all of these pre-Revolutionary buildings are collectively referred to as “Tsarist” buildings by Kiev locals.
Tsarist buildings tend to be five storeys tall and apartments in them feature high ceilings (up to 4.5 meters), thick brick walls, and large living areas (usually 4-6 rooms) up to 150m2. Each of these buildings was built according to an original design making them aesthetically appealing and visually distinct from the mass of Soviet-era buildings. Originally Tsarist buildings lacked elevators, but today some renovated buildings now have them. Several Tsarist buildings are marked with plaques that identify them as protected architectural monuments.
KIEV’S SOLID “STALINKAS”
Kiev architecture from the 1920’s to 1950’s is known as Stalinist and these buildings are also known as “Stalinkas.” Compared with Tsarist buildings, Stalinkas can be taller buildings (8 or more storeys tall), but the apartments in them tend to be slightly smaller (3-4 rooms and usually up to 85m2 in size) although ceilings can be nearly as high (up to 4 meters). These solidly built, functional buildings are usually made from red or white brick, or concrete slab, and have a classic, square-shaped design with spacious corridors, stairwells and apartments. While Stalinkas may lack the originality and aesthetic appeal of Tsarist buildings, apartments in them are still valued for their spaciousness, durability and construction quality, especially when we compare them with later period Soviet-era buildings. Most Stalinkas are located in Kiev’s center and near-center districts. For example, Kiev was ravaged by World War 2 and the city’s main street Khreshchatyk was completely destroyed and rebuilt with Stalinist architecture.
REASONS TO BUY AN APARTMENT IN AN “OLDER BUILDING” IN KIEV
While Kiev features a handful of exclusive leafy districts such as pricey Pecherski Lipki, overall, living downtown is just not seen as desirable or prestigious by many Ukrainians in the same way that it is in the EU or US. This tendency can be partly attributed to cultural factors. Ukraine is still a traditional country where agriculture, rural life and nature are highly romanticized. And Ukrainians tend to be less logistically-minded than Westerners and seem more willing to endure a brutal daily commute in order to live in a newer building or even outside Kiev altogether. And of those Ukrainians who want to live downtown, a majority seem to favor living in newer buildings. To be polite, many newer apartment buildings in central Kiev lack the charm and originality of the city’s older Tsarist and Stalinist buildings. This preference for newer buildings among Ukrainians drives up the prices of these buildings. These days the best value for buyers in Kiev can often be found in buying, renovating and letting out an apartment in an older building. The charm of these buildings combined with the convenience of their downtown location makes them highly attractive as rental properties, especially for foreign expats and short-term visitors. Frequently, apartments in Tsarist and Stalinist buildings also serve as offices for small companies.
If you’re considering buying an apartment in one of Kiev’s older buildings, one less discussed but interesting thing to keep in mind is that it’s sometimes possible “privatize” the attic floor and the roof when you buy a top floor apartment. This can be a complicated and drawn out process, but local specialists can help you with the paperwork. If you’ve ever stood on Castle Hill in Prague and looked down on the Old Town, you might have noticed the sea of rooftop balconies and mansard apartments that dot the horizon; this is a preview of what is sure to come in Kiev.
DOWNSIDES AND DUE DILIGENCE FOR TSARIST AND STALINIST BUILDINGS
Of course, there are some downsides to buying or renting an apartment in a Tsarist or Stalinist building, such as a lack of secure parking. However, some older buildings can have courtyards that offer residents dedicated parking spots. And sometimes you may need to travel a little bit to find a supermarket or decent sized grocery store or fitness center.
While an apartment in an older building in Kiev can be a good value investment, it’s important to do your due diligence beforehand. Things to look out for include water pressure, especially for top floor apartments, and electricity–often older buildings have been subdivided into several apartments and the building may not have enough load capacity to support apartments with modern appliances. Sometimes the electricity in older buildings is not properly grounded and there’s a risk of power surges. Older buildings can often lack an elevator; although one may be added if there’s a back service stairwell. You’ll also want to find out if the apartment you’re considering has its original wooden floor beams or if have they been replaced with reinforced concrete. And even if the building where you’re considering buying has been renovated and updated, it can still often be a good idea to engage a specialist for a home inspection, also known as a “technical due diligence” report. Lastly, some Tsarist buildings can be protected architectural monuments, so it’s important to find out if the apartment you’re considering is subject to any restrictions that would interfere with any renovation plans that you have in mind.
KIEV YUPPIES AND NEW URBANISM
As Ukraine’s economy recovers and continues to develop, we can expect that Kiev’s already clogged streets to continue to bog down. The economic value and opportunity cost of Ukrainians’ time will rise, and eventually more people will seek to avoid the suburban traffic jams that result from sprawl and opt for a more urban existence. And as Ukraine continues to become less traditional, with young and successful Kievans deferring marriage (and/or having children) until later and later, it is easy to imagine the emergence of an expanded yuppie class with the spending power and desire to enjoy the benefits of living downtown. So will a rising class of Kiev yuppies and other market forces lift the value of older buildings in the city center and nearby Podil? Or is this a New Urbanist fantasy? Stay tuned.