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Ask the Bitches: How Can I Survive in an Apartment with No Heat?

Today I’m answering a timely question from one of our Tumblr followers. Takeittothestarss asks…

“Hi bitches! I hope you’re well and that you can help me (in that order). I’ve recently moved out of my parent’s house into an apartment with a couple housemates. Our building is old and not well insulated. It also doesn’t have A/C or heating, so right now it’s cold as balls. I’m wearing 5 sweaters and a blanket and I’m still cold. How do I warm this space up? I can’t make any modifications to it bc it’s a rental and we’re college students in very expensive city, so the less $ the better. Thanks!”

Ah. Heat. Like hope, it leaves the world sometimes, and we’re all worse off for it. But this is a modern late-stage-capitalist twist on a classic tenet of life on the cheap.

If there’s a Ten Commandments of Frugal Living, the first three are probably…

  1. Thou shalt not drinketh the fruit of the latte.
  2. Thou shalt cut thine cable.
  3. Thou shalt put on a goddamn sweater.

This coincides with the first two of the Ten Commandments of Being Dad…

  1. Thou shalt not touch the thermostat.
  2. Nay, seriously, thou shalt not fucking touch it.

I live in New England, which is about as cold and dark as Hell itself. Even now, several feet of snow are pouring down around me. Even worse, I live in an old house that’s still heated by oil.

Each fill-up is about $500.

Give me something for the pain and let me die.

Like most frugal New Englanders, I have shivered my way through many a cold winter day, trying to save a few ha’pennies to buy my husband the new watch chain he so richly deserves. So I’m going to tell you what I know about staying warm. 

Keep in mind that, thanks to our Patreon donors, we don’t need to stoop to spon-con. All the product recommendations in this article come straight from the heart!

Make sure your apartment is legal

The situation you’ve described sounds like it’s probably not legal.

Skimping out on heat is one of the most common rights of passage for landlords who aspire to become scumbag slumlords. And they feast off the poor, not-very-savvy student types such as this letter writer.

I vividly remember the room my partner lived in when we were first dating. It was on the northwest corner of the building, with bitingly cold winter winds holding against it. It was clear the landlord had tacked on the room without proper insulation. Even though the room was a shoebox, we couldn’t get the temperature any warmer than about 55 degrees, even with the aid of a space heater running around the clock. It was fucking miserable.

In my state, that room definitely broke the law. Landlords in our state must keep a residential home heated between 68-78 degrees from autumn to spring.

Minimum heat requirements are a common aspect of tenants’ rights guidelines, so Google “minimum heat requirement” plus your state’s name to learn more.

Approach your landlord

If you find out (as I think you will) that your apartment doesn’t meet your state’s standard, you have a lot of options. And what I would recommend really depends on several things:

  • How present or absent is your landlord?
  • How responsive have they been to past issues?
  • How desperate are you to stay in this particular apartment?
  • What are the legal channels in your state?
  • Do you have access to a tenants’ rights organization in your area?
  • Are your roommates on board with whatever you want to do next?
  • How much time, money, and spoons do you have to dedicate to the issue?

There’s a wide spectrum between “send your landlord a sweetly-worded email” and “load a lawsuit into a rocket launcher and fire it directly into your landlord’s face.” So I can’t advise you without knowing a lot more about both your state and your personal situation.

But my general advice is…

  • Talk to your roommates and get everyone on the same page. Designate only one person to be the voice going between you and the landlord.
  • Communicate only in writing, and save copies of all communications.
  • Start a record of the interior temperature, both during the day and the night. Photograph the thermostat with a time stamp, or start a written log.
  • Don’t be too generous with your approach. A lack of heat is as immediate of a problem as a burst pipe, or a family of raccoons nesting in the attic. Your landlord needs to take immediate steps to fix the issue.
  • Have a plan for what comes next if they don’t take those immediate steps. Depending on your state, you may be able to withhold rent, contact a zoning authority, or get an attorney to represent yourself.

Dealing with an absent, unresponsive landlord is the worst. Be prepared to be very persistent. You may lose a bit of faith in humanity… but it’s better than losing your fingertips to frostbite.

Short-term solutions

I would’ve been remiss if I didn’t start out by advising you of your legal rights. This is not your problem—it is the homeowner’s problem. And you are not the homeowner.

But let’s say you are the homeowner, and you’re just a cheap son of a bitch.

Or you know you’ll be out of the apartment in three months, and you just want to push through the shittiness of being cold without adding the fresh layer of shittiness of being involved in a legal dispute.

I feel you.

Here are some other Bitch-tested, Bitch-approved solutions.

Put on a goddamn sweater

Our letter writer is clearly already following commandment #3, but it’s worth repeating: put on a goddamn sweater. And socks. I’m rich af now, and I still bundle up inside my own home before I touch the thermostat. Also I am my own dad now. #ascendant

Invest in some thermal socks—Heat Holders is a popular brand. Get a sherpa-lined hoodie or cozy sweatshirt to wear around the house. Check out Uniqlo’s Heattech collection for cheap warm underclothes. And fleece-lined jeans are a fucking lifesaver.

Also: get into the blanket-as-cloak look. Lean hard into the Mumm-Ra aesthetic. Join me.

Get space heaters

Space heaters are a lifesaver. They are also power-sucking fire-hazards. I’ve owned six or seven different kinds in my lifetime, and there’s one I swear by.

DeLonghi makes upright, radiator-style space heaters that I absolutely love. There are much cheaper space heaters out there, but I honestly think these are worth the investment. They’re safer, stronger, and more energy efficient than any other model I’ve found for the price. One will heat a small or medium-sized room very efficiently.

Buy an electric blanket

I buy an electric blanket almost every year. Because no matter how washable they claim to be, they inevitably stop working after I cave and try to wash my winter grime off of them. Even when I have to treat them as somewhat disposable, they’re still worth it for all the energy savings.

Forget the wheel. Fuck the printing press. Electric blankets are mankind’s best invention.

Get better blankets

You absolutely can (and should) sleep under more than one blanket during cold snaps. Even layering a light blanket on top of a warmer one can make a huge difference in trapping more of your body heat.

I can’t decide if this recommendation makes me boujie or just straight up old, but here it is: I love the down and down-alternative blankets from The Company Store.

Theirs are the only blankets I buy. I get one, use it to pieces, then buy another one. They last me about ten years on average, and withstand washing well. You can buy them in different levels of warmth. And using one without a flat sheet = the easiest possible bed-making procedure. I actually make my bed every day now (a thing I never did as a kid) because all I have to do is kinda fold it back into place. It’s not Target-cheap or Amazon-cheap, but it’s also not Nordstrom-expensive. I am a huge fan, and I think they’re worth it.

Again! This is not spon-con! Just my genuine enthusiasm.

Add insulation where you can

If you notice it’s especially cold around your windows, you can get heat-insulating window film and tape. It’s a short-term patch for a bigger issue (old or poorly-fitted windows, too little insulation in the exterior walls), but it’s better than nothing.

Curtains, wall tapestries, rugs, and other insulating decorative material can also help keep drafts out. Even adding more furniture has an impact. During the last Polar Vortex (hissssssss!), I had a friend who tacked old blankets in front of her drafty screen door. It worked surprisingly well.

If you’re getting some things secondhand, just remember to check fabric items for bedbugs before you bring them into your home.

Consolidate your space

When it’s really cold, I herd my dogs into the bedroom with me and shut the door. Heat rises, so a higher floor will always be warmer. And if you keep the door shut, the room will warm faster.

Whether it’s with your body heat or a space heater, it’s much easier to heat one room than a drafty apartment with six open doors. You can let your bathroom and kitchen get chilly—when you’re in them, you’ll probably be running a hot shower or using a warm cooking element anyway.

Take advantage of federal, state, and city programs

Gather ‘round, ye cold and frugal home-owning sorts.

I live in a state that offers free energy assessments. So I called to schedule one. I didn’t expect much, but I got so much more than I’d hoped for. They…

  • Assessed every inch of my house, from basement to attic.
  • Made a bunch of customized recommendations for other energy-saving improvements, and advised us on more local and federal programs to take advantage of.
  • Replaced every incandescent light bulb in my house with an LED bulb, for free.
  • Gifted me several smart power strips that could be programmed to shut off overnight.
  • Scheduled someone to come and blow $3,500 worth of new insulation into my ancient horsehair walls—and covered 80% of the cost!

If your city, state, or county offers such a service, use it! Whoever owned our house before us took advantage of rebates to add a pellet stove to the main room, basically for free. And supplementing our oil heat with pellet heat has made us much more efficient overall.

Go somewhere warmer

When you can, get out of the house and get somewhere warm. Go visit a friend; do your work in a library; read or play games in a nice warm coffee shop. If you’re sitting at a place of business for a long time, don’t be a jerk. Order something small and tip generously, please!

Use your body’s natural processes

That subhead sounds like a euphemism for poop. Or menstruation. But it’s not. For once.

No, I’m talking about eating! Through the process of dietary thermogenesis, your body produces about 10% more heat in the hour after eating. So have more frequent, lighter meals with lots of carbs. Mmm. Carbs.

Exercising can also help you feel warmer. Whenever I go out to shovel my driveway, it doesn’t matter how cold it is—by the time I’m done, I’m stripped down to a t-shirt like the impervious Viking ice princess Lagertha.

Give up

This last tip is not for our letter-writer, who is stuck in this situation against their will. Rather, this last one is for anybody out there who’s shivering through another winter trying to save some money.

Don’t be reflexively stingy with yourself. Before you doom yourself to discomfort, actually sit down and do the math. You may find that living inside the ice cavern from Final Fantasy IX is saving you $100 a month. But it might just be $10.

I’ve found that when I’m cold, I look for excuses to be inactive. I want to sit under a blanket, and drink warm drinks, and put on just one more episode of Frasier on Netflix, because the cat is on my lap and I can’t move because she’s just too cute.

After soldiering through many winters with our thermostat set at 59, my partner and I agreed that it was time to start setting it higher. I work full-time from home, and being cold all the time was making me miserable and unproductive.

If you’re determined to be a polar warrior, more power to you. Just remember not to push your luck. Don’t freeze your pipes to spite your house’s… face… or something?

Bitch Nation: what are your best cold-weather tips? Tell them to us in the comments below! And thanks as always to our Patreon donors, who let us earnestly plug products we like because we don’t have to shill for their shittier competitors.

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20 thoughts to “Ask the Bitches: How Can I Survive in an Apartment with No Heat?”

  1. Nice “The Gift of the Magi” reference!

    This situation sucks and I hope you can hold your landlord’s feet to the fire, as it were. Until then:

    Drink hot tea, or hot water with honey and a slice of lemon if you have it.

    Eat hot foods (soup, stew, chili) and/or spicy foods (curry, pepper pot, et al.).

    Layer up! Long johns aren’t super-expensive and they make a huge difference. Buy a pair of wool socks to wear over your regular ones. Fingerless gloves when you’re home, plus a cap or wrap a scarf on your head. (“Mama in her kerchief and I in my cap/had just settled down for a long winter’s nap.”)

    Finally: Rice socks! They can be used in several ways to warm things up:

    https://donnafreedman.com/life-hack-9-uses-rice-sock/

    Wishing you warmth, and tenant justice.

    1. Hats for sure – heads lose a LOT of heat! A decent knit hat will help keep you surprisingly warm.

      Also: if you knit/crochet/weave, invest in some toasty yarn and knit some hats/socks/fingerless gloves/etc. If you’re not a knitter/crocheteer but know someone who is, offer a trade to get some of those yarny goods. Handmade stuff can work wonders. (As a knitter, I recommend patterns with stranded colorwork or double-knitting. Trickier, but twice as warm!)

    2. Donna, you saved me the trouble of writing! I second all your ideas – drink hot coffee, tea or even just hot water (it’s also how I stayed warm in summer over cooled offices). And those rice socks = heaven. I sit with it on my lap, my feet or my neck. Put it in the bed before I get in (under a down comforter) and I can start off warm, which is fantastic.

  2. I like to bake food in the oven so the heat will stay in the room longer. Put small towels (if you can spare) under the door and under your windows. My favorite thing to do is cuddle my partner or my pets for warmth.

  3. I moved from Michigan to Florida. No more snow for me. How I barely survived (because I’m always cold): Layers Layers Layers!

    Inside the house: Athletic socks, wool socks over them, fuzzy moccasin slippers. Leggings, second pair leggings if it’s suuuuper cold, thick pajama pants over them. Skin tight tank top, long sleeved shirt, hoodie. Electric blanket on the bed every night on High, turned on a half hour before bed. Average temperature 68*F.

    Out of the house: athletic socks, wool socks, then fur lined boots. Brought extra shoes in the car. Leggings, then either jeans or pants depending on where I was going. Snow pants if needed. Tank top, long sleeve shirt, sweater, puffy vest, winter coat. Knit gloves under thick wool mittens. Fleece ear muffs and knit hat. Blanket at work to help keep me warmer. Tea, tea, and more tea. Got chocolate as well. All the warm drinks to help. Soup too.

    Good luck! Survival of the fittest.

  4. Growing up in Boston, my dad had a couple odd but effective techniques. One, we closed doors strategically to keep cool/warm air focused where we needed it. Two: those gross plastic/weird fabric picnic table type table cloths. He would hang those in place of curtains with cheap curtain rod clippy thingys. Ugly as hell but worked really well. #notquitemiddleclass #dads

  5. I grew up in Connecticut and my family was pretty poor, so we tended to keep the heat as low as possible for as long as possible. I’m pretty sure we’ve done everything you’ve mentioned on this list. I find that layering clothes (and blankets) helps a lot. a tank top (even a thin one) under a t-shirt and a sweater/hoodie, two pairs of socks, and thick, fuzzy pajama pants. My bed had as many blankets as I could find on it, at one point I think I had like 7 of them, it helped that my grandparents often gave us fleece blankets every so often for Christmas, so we have a lot of them from over the years. Also, using the oven to cook your food helps a lot to keep the kitchen warm while you’re in there because even after you’re done using it, the oven stays hot for a long time so we would keep it cracked open to let the heat escape into the room (although this might not be such a good idea for those with small children).

  6. Sleeping bag on top of the bed. Hot water bottle in the bed (hot water in a Nalgene wrapped in a t-shirt will do) times whatever number is right. Electric bed warmer (like a electric blanket but is under the sheet.) Sleep with a partner…

    Three Dog Night anyone?

  7. +1 to the window film & energy assistance programs! In my old (built in 1904 1st floor duplex in the midwest) apartment, we went to a one hour energy efficiency workshop in our neighborhood and walked out with a box of renter-friendly insulation goodies. This included stuff for door jams, door sweeps, the plastic window film, and even foam to put behind outlet covers. It really makes a big difference in drafty older buildings.

    Also, if you have tile/hardwood floors/threadbare carpet, adding rugs can help with keeping things warm underfoot.

  8. We keep our house on the cold side because I’m cheap, and all my friends and relatives give us sh*t for it. But they also don’t want to dress appropriately for the weather, so.

    I use a space heater in my office since I work from home. Also lots of hot drinks, hot food, layers, activity, etc can all help. I also use rice socks (purchased, not homemade) or a heating pad to get the bed warm at night. Apparently I don’t make any of my own heat, so if my feet get cold in bed they seem to never warm up!

  9. Wool is your friend. I’m sure you can find wool blankets second hand, and at least one of those sweaters should be wool 🙂

    Silk is also your friend- holidays are coming, so silk liner gloves, silk liner socks, and silk longjohns add warmth without much bulk. On the cheaper side, real silk scarves can be found at thrift stores to wear around your neck.

    Keep the back of your neck covered- keeping that warm will help keep the rest of you warm- much like wearing a hat.

    1. I use the tips that Elizabeth mentioned to stay warm in my self-induced 55F (night)-65F (day) home. We have 4 wool blankets on the bed along with a top sheet (uh, because it’s washable) and washable quilt (because the dogs also sleep on the bed). Two of the wool blankets are from the army surplus store and not wide enough for a queen sized bed so we each have one draped extra long on the side to keep out drafts and overlap in the middle. Also wool sweaters. I have many.
      Silk scarves tied jauntily around your neck are a low bulk way to keep warm and just scarves in general go a long way in general body warmth. Got to keep all that blood flowing to/from the brain warm. Think about it, literally ALL of the blood in your body passes through your neck. I also have many bulky scarves and I wear one every day in the winter unless I’m wearing a wool sweater with a turtle neck.

  10. Oh my gosh, this is my sad and cold question! I feel like a kid who wrote to their favorite magazine and got published in that letter writing section. Thanks for all the advice bitches, and friends of bitches in the comments!

    I got an electric blanket and heater this past weekend and my cat and I have really enjoyed that. I’ll definitely look into talking to my landlord too. I also think I should say that (cue guilty and shameful look) I actually live in LA, so the coldest it gets here is maybe 40 degrees… I’ve lived in Scotland before so I do know what actual below freezing temperatures feel like and yet I honestly think the cold feels colder here?! I don’t remember my feet feeling as cold in bed at night over there.

    1. I have no 1st hand knowledge of LA, but I can certainly say that other milder climate areas often have houses which are just not built to cope with winter – so you may very well be feeling colder there than somewhere with a colder climate !

  11. I’ve got a tip for if you’re trying to stay warm and sitting down. If you’ve got a sewing machine or know someone who sews get some cheap gotten fabric, a good pound of cheap white rice and a spool of thread, sew a rectangle of fabric leaving a few inches unsewed, turn it inside out, take a funnel and fill it with rice so that it’s not super dense but if you laid it flat there’s a good half inch of rice, sew up those few inches.
    Now when you get too cold pop that in the microwave for anywhere from 1 minute to 2 depending on the size and you’ll have a heating pad for at least an hour. I use it as an alternative to an electric blanket.

  12. If your house is losing heat via windows, a more accessible alternative to the heat film is bubble wrap. I put bubble wrap over all windows in the last place I lived in because the window frame was a bit rotten (like my landlord, heyyy) and the windows were so cold that sleeping anywhere near them felt like being in a freezer. Come spring, I took them all down, wiped the frames clean, and all good.

    Alternatively, newspaper or tin foil, or covering the windows with ceiling-to-floor thick curtains, for a more eco-friendly alternative.

  13. BAKE, BAKE, BAKE. Use your toasty oven if you have one, and cook away. Find those great frozen foods that cook at 400° and take 20+ minutes, bake a shit ton of cookies (and use them as bribes to visit your relatively close relatives who can afford that good heating). Then slightly crack your oven door when done (with the oven turned off) and let all the residual heat warm up said apartment/room.

  14. Socks and jumpers are obviously SOP, but I also have 3 temperature zones in my flat: bedroom – cold as hell (because I sleep with open windows 365 days out of the year); all other rooms other than my living room/kitchen – cold-ish, only turn on heating if I have a party and the entire flat will be used or someone stays in the guest room, otherwise it just is what it is; living room/kitchen – some point in November I turn the heat on 50% and leave it like that for the rest of the winter. Keeping the temp at the same level 24/7 works out cheaper than turning it on and off and the living room is the only place I actually spend time in (also working from home most days). And yeah, dont leave doors open.

    Plus, when you look for an apartment: the higher up you are, the more the apartments below you will heat your flat. And the fewer outer walls you have the better, i.e. it’s better to live in a building that has buildings on each side than it is to live in one where one side is completely empty (if that makes sense). Oh and double glazed windows!

  15. Pretty much what everyone else said:
    -hats (you can ever wear one to bed, though yes you will get flat hat hair)
    -hot drinks !
    -hot soup
    -hot water bottle on your lap and in bed
    – allll of the layers
    -I used to take a really hot bath before bedtime when I lived in a cold flat. It warmed my whole body up nicely!

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