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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putting Some Hearth and Soul Into Your Home

MTA saleswoman pointing out a neo-classical marble mantelpiece to a customer at the Fireplaces store near Sokol metro station.
A fireplace would be without a doubt a rather fashionable way to make your apartment warm and cozy this winter -- but not the most common.

To have your own fireplace, you must either search high and low for an apartment that already has a kamin or install one yourself, which is less easy than it may sound. Most apartments do not meet City Hall's long list of eligibility criteria, so you likely would need to go through the additional hassle and expense of applying for special permission.

Fireplaces were not always so scarce. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, all buildings were constructed with chimney shafts, and apartments were heated with tile-covered corner fireplaces positioned so that as many as four adjacent rooms could share the same chimney. Heat, not the blaze's aesthetic beauty, was prioritized, and the flames were hidden behind the stove's metal doors.

In Moscow, only a handful remain. "During the Soviet period, such fireplaces were considered luxury items, associated with the bourgeois," said Leigh Ehrlich, director of the Moscow office of real estate firm Pulford. "When the Soviets came up with central heating, they were quite pleased with themselves and their modern thinking, and they decided that was sufficient to keep people warm." Chimney shafts were either dismantled or fell into disrepair from decades of neglect.

"Out of 50 apartments in Moscow, you might find two or three -- max -- with a fireplace," Ehrlich said. Most are simply decorative, or they are 1970s-style smokeless gas fireplaces. But in either case, "it's still fake fire," she said. "I've seen less than 10 places with working fireplaces in Moscow."

In St. Petersburg, the situation is somewhat different. There, more buildings with chimneys survived, as there was never the same effort to modernize and rebuild the downtown.

Nonetheless, there are far fewer fireplaces than there are people who want them, which allows landlords to charge a premium for them. A landlord might ask hundreds of dollars more in rent for an apartment with a fireplace, Ehrlich said, adding, though, that prices are often arbitrary and there is no guarantee of getting that much. "In any case, it's a plus. It definitely gives you marketing power. Even if it's decorative, it still adds value," she said.

Despite the recent surge in popularity and the proliferation of fireplace stores around the city, the number of fireplaces remains low because the bureaucratic and legal hurdles to installing one can be daunting.

"It's a sufficiently complicated procedure," said Manana Gongadze, manager of the store Fireplaces near Sokol metro.

Which is not to say it's impossible -- as long as your apartment is located on one of the top two floors of your building. The city's regulations stipulate that you can have no more than one upstairs neighbor. The concern is that the smoke and heat from external chimneys should not bother those living above as the metal pipes snake along their walls and windows.

However, there is some flexibility, said Vladimir Poligalov, whose firm coordinates the preparation of legal documents to submit to the Moscow city government commission that must give approval for any construction project.

"Technically, the law makes it practically impossible for anyone to get authorization, but in principle, you can find a way around everything," he said. "We simply explain [to City Hall] what we'll do to compensate for any of the areas where there might seem to be a violation. We aren't deterred."

He said that clients almost always receive the requested permission but conceded that probably only 10 percent of those who would like a fireplace have an apartment that meets the eligibility requirements.

Documentation of structural integrity, fire safety and public health standards must be provided as well, and a fire department inspector and chimney sweep must verify that there is a chimney in good working order.

"It's the chimney that's most often the sticking point," Poligalov said.

The whole process can be expensive. Poligalov estimated the full permissions procedure would take one to three months and cost some $2,000.

The fireplaces themselves start at $1,200 for Russian-made ones and range upward of $10,000 for European models, Gongadze said. "People choose the most expensive model they can afford. Fancy fireplaces have become status symbols," she said. "Not only are they cozy and warm, they're prestigious."

Then the physical installation costs an additional $1,000, on average.

But least drova, or firewood, is cheap -- "kopeks, really," Gongadze said -- and easy to find at supermarkets, like Ramstore and Perekryostok. In St. Petersburg, it is often sold at gas stations.

All this would suggest that the path of least resistance is to buy a fireplace not for your city apartment, but for your dacha, where City Hall's permission is not needed. But if you are thinking about braving the approval process to install one downtown, keep in mind that old wives like to say it is good luck to touch a chimney sweep. It can't hurt.