Converting an empty barn into a five unit apartment building.

26 Replies

In 1992 I was negotiating the purchase of a 4,400 sq ft commercial building. The seller had recently retired and offered to include an adjacent lot with a second building for no cost if I could close within two months. I did close in time and ended up with the building I was originally interested in and a second “free” building. (The second building was originally a post and beam dairy barn that was later converted into a small feed store.)

Since I was couch surfing at the time I decided to convert part of the barn into a one bedroom apartment. I still had plenty of unused space in the barn. My dad and mom liked my apartment, so dad and I built a second one-bedroom apartment for them. Then I built third one-bedroom apartment and rented that to some college students. The fourth one-bedroom was built for some of my nephews. Finally I built a two bedroom apartment for myself after I got married. If you lost track the total is 4 one-bedroom apartments and 1 two-bedroom apartment.

Things that went great:

  • 1.I gained experience framing, wiring, dry-walling, and plumbing, on five apartment units.
  • 2.Several members of my family and I had a place to live for twenty years.
  • 3.Maintaining the property over couple decades made me a better carpenter by exposing some minor things I could have built better the first time.

Things I wish I had done differently:

1.Lack of exit strategy during design of common areas. Because my parents and I lived in the same building I left approximately 1,100 sq ft open that both families could utilize. This common use area was great for us, but now I have huge space that I am not collecting rent on.

2.Not properly vetting my property manager. I deployed overseas four times and was not able to manage the apartment building effectively, so I hired a property manager when I worked as a contractor in Afghanistan. The manager never did back ground checks, so I ended up evicting 4 tenants the year I returned from Afghanistan. My goal was to have the apartments fully rented so that I could refinance them when I returned stateside.

My goal for the future:

1.My goal is to incorporate the common areas into additional bedrooms for the apartments.

a.1,100 sq ft of common area is unacceptable.

2.Combine two of the single bedroom apartments into one three bedroom apartment.

The local college built additional dorms, so more demand now for 2 and 3 bedroom apartments for families instead of one bedroom apartments for students. I ran a ghost ad for a three bedroom for rent and found strong demand.

My new design is 3 three bedroom and 1 two bedroom.

I will post some video next week on how I plan to convert the common areas into additional bedrooms. 

@Gregg Reinbold very cool! I love the history behind it and how you kept building spaces for family. Being from the city it's hard for me to wrap my hard around the barn aspect and would love to see pictures!

Carrie Giordano

Being from the city it's hard for me to wrap my hard around the barn aspect and would love to see pictures!

Here are a few pictures of how barn the changed as I built a living space inside.

 This is the second floor of the barn (haymow).  We had just removed the grain bins and where starting to frame the bathroom. You can see the post and beam in the background.  The second picture shows almost the same view, the bathroom wall is just behind the refrigerator.  Some of the updates I want to make are built-in micro-wave, replace the tile in the kitchen and the carpeting in the living room with all porcelain tile.  The two different flooring types takes away from the open concept.  I also want to push the wall out 3 feet in the living room  to display the post and beam.  Last thing is to raise the ceiling in the living room.  We framed the new ceiling at a height of nine feet but if I follow the original barn roof  the ceiling would be 16 feet at the peak.  The exposed post and beam and high ceiling would add some character to the apartment.

@Gregg Reinbold

How did you go about insulating the barn?   Did you apply closed/open cell spray foam - or strap and use packed cellulose/hemp/fibre - the outer walls and underside of the roof deck (requiring an over roof) or did you maintain ventilation under the roof-deck and insulate over your ceiling?

- What about between the floors and units - 5/8" drywall on resilient channel with rock wool insulation in-between for sound proofing / fire code?

I've been involved with converting a warehouse before which is a similar process, save there was no need to remove animal odour from the building before starting.

Originally posted by @Roy N. :

@Gregg Reinbold

How did you go about insulating the barn?   Did you apply closed/open cell spray foam - or strap and use packed cellulose/hemp/fibre - the outer walls and underside of the roof deck (requiring an over roof) or did you maintain ventilation under the roof-deck and insulate over your ceiling?

Roy, I owned a sawmill at the time, so we had plenty of lumber to frame inside the walls and use fiberglass insulation.  on the second floor we framed in a lower ceiling so that we still have 7 feet between the second floor apartment ceiling and the peek of the barn roof.  I will be using closed/open cell spray when I take down our ceiling and follow the original roof line for the cathedral ceiling in the living room/ kitchen area.  I also added a new steel, so i have ventilation between the new steel and the original roof.

- What about between the floors and units - 5/8" drywall on resilient channel with rock wool insulation in-between for sound proofing / fire code?

We have 5/8" drywall on both sides between all units for fire code.  Better sound proofing is also something I will be improving during this rehab.  Currently I only have one apartment that has another apartment over it. I am considering adding resilient channel and a second sheet of 5/8' drywall on the ceiling. 

 The barn had not been used for animals for over forty years, so I didn't have any issues with odor.

@Gregg Reinbold

Here we are {now} required to use resilient channel and 5/8" fire-rated drywall on both sides of common walls and ceilings/floors, along with fire rated insulation (such as Roxul Safe-n-Sound) in the cavity.  A side benefit is the Roxul (rock wool) insulation helps with sound proofing ... we have even begun putting it the walls surrounding washrooms and laundry rooms when we undertake a deep renovations.

This was an absolutely fantastic idea that has clearly been worth its weight in gold!

Did you have any zoning issues that you faced to get this up to 5 units? 

Brilliant! Hats off to you, Sir. Now when a newbie asks how they should start in real estate, I will tell them - buy a barn, and start building!

Did you have to cut any windows into the barn roof for natural light into the units?

Originally posted by @Steve Wilcox :

Did you have any zoning issues that you faced to get this up to 5 units? 

Given that this was - a barn - I'm guessing it wasn't in a highly restrictive downtown area :)

Then again, this is NJ we're talking about :)

I love this idea.  Were the floors stout enough to support the added weight or did you have to add some to the structure?  I'm guessing the roof and exterior were in good condition.  Keep having fun with this project.

Awesome post! Really great way to invest creatively with sweat equity!

Greg...way cool story.  It caught my eye as soon as I saw the barn. 

 My wife and I ended up with a barn story also. there was this barn built in 1799 and converted to be used about 20 years ago as a high end restaurant.  Ended up sitting vacant for about 10 years...rotting away...and the bank foreclosed on it.  Bank basically gave it away (because it was so run down)...we converted it to a reception hall that is doing really well.   

I like the pics and the info you provided also.  Great thinking outside of the box parlaying a "free" throw in into a cashflow cow.    

Awesome barn story!  But the best thing I learned from this post wasn't about the barn.  It was the ghost ad to test the water before putting out the money!  That's a fantastic idea and I'm trying it out today.

Escellent Story thanks. Im curious how the other property went?

Steve Wilcox the property is located in a small town, so there was not any problem with zoning. I think the town was glad to have a building that was still on the tax roles

Dmitri L, yes we added most of the windows and doors.  The property is located in Western NY state, but I'm temporarily in NJ

Blake S.  My dad and I operated a small sawmill in the other building On the property. I sold the sawmill equipment after my dad passed away. My wife and I later used the building for a second business.  That business didn't survive my multiple trips to Iraq, so I'm cleaning the building out so that I can rent it also

Any time someone casually drops "Roy, I owned a sawmill at the time..." into a sentence, I know it's time to pay special attention. Thanks for sharing the wisdom, Gregg.

Nice work Greg.  Just goes to show you.  There is most always a way to make money in RE.  Are any of the family still in their units?

Bruce 

My nephew just left the apartments to go drive combine for a harvest crew that work their way across the county harvesting grain.  He was the last family member to live here

Great job!! Very creative.

A couple more pictures of the barn conversion. The second floor ( hay mow) of the old barn was used for grain storage when it was used as a feed mill.  The bins were 2x6 studs and plywood and held tons and tons of grain. The grain would gravity flow down a chute into a feed cart to be taken over to the grinder or be bagged for cattle feed.  Most of the chutes were made of plywood, but the three biggest chutes were metal.  The chute pictured here measures 7 x7 wide and 5 foot tall.  From the prospective of this picture I would be directly under one chute and the other two chutes in a line toward the window

I love what you have done with that barn. There are a few old cotton mills in my area I'd love to try this with

I posted a video on You tube showing how I plan to combine the (2) one bedroom apartments built in the original barn haymow into a 3 bedroom apartment.  The first living-room will become the third bedroom. The second apartment walls will be opened up to show off the post and beam construction of the original barn.  Here is the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGT_z-YjqaQ

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