Category Archives: Homeowners

Buy it! Sell it! Fix it! Furnish it! But don’t get burned in the process.

Cook Eviction Stats Part 10: Series Conclusion

About a year ago I encountered several urban legends about the Chicago rental environment that circle around the idea that the system is biased against landlords. I don’t like to see assumptions go unchallenged, so I set out to find out the statistical truth behind each of the component parts. Here are the original assumptions, with their results.

  • The courts favor tenants over landlords in eviction cases. FALSE.
  • The suburban courts, especially in wealthy areas, are more favorable to landlords when it comes to eviction. FALSE.
  • The evolution of the CRLTO is making the landlord-tenant situation progressively worse. TRUE.
  • Eviction only happens to bad landlords in bad areas of town. FALSE.
  • Lawyers and Juries have a marked effect on the outcome of eviction cases. POSSIBLE.
  • The CRLTO is biased against landlords. POSSIBLE.

The courts do not favor landlords in eviction cases.

Across Cook County, the courts have not historically favored landlords over the past 8 years. Just over 62% of landlords won their cases. Therefore, we can say based on raw stats that the system does not empirically favor the tenant. However, the surrounding research shows that the entire justice system favors the plaintiff by default, and with good reason. If someone is going to bring a case to court, chances are they have very good reason for doing so.

When that 62% number is weighed against some of the stats for other types of trials, it comes up short. Compared with felony trials, traffic court, and even housing court in other areas of the country, landlords do have a harder time winning their cases than other types of plaintiffs. So no, officially there is no gross bias, but winning an eviction case isn’t a walk in the park either.

We do need to stop and consider what happens with the cases where the landlord doesn’t win, though. Many of them don’t make it to trial. Sometimes it’s due to successful pre-trial mediation, other times it’s due to clerical errors. Either way, a lot of the “losses” will come back with the errors corrected and “win,” or the tenant will wind up leaving the apartment before trial anyhow, which also counts as a “win.”

Overall, I’d say based on the research we’ve done here that there is no bias at the court level.

The suburban courts don’t make it easier for the landlord.

Some landlords seek to use loopholes in order to file their city cases in suburban courthouses, assuming that they’ll have an easier time winning in an area surrounded by people just like them. If they were going through a jury trial and had to assemble a jury of their peers, maybe this would be the case. But most eviction cases are bench trials, heard only by a judge.

Looking at the five outlying courts in Cook County, especially the ones in the wealthier northern sections of the county, it is actually harder for a landlord to win an eviction case. If you’re trying to win both parts of a joint action case (possession and a money judgment) it’s even tougher.

Additionally, the suburban courthouses are simply not equipped to handle the overflow of Chicago’s massive eviction caseload. The judges aren’t as well-versed in Chicago-specific rental laws. All told, it’s a far better idea to stay within the expected boundaries and file your case in the city where the apartment is located, like you’re supposed to.

The evolving CRLTO is making it tougher to avoid eviction court.

Over the past 8 years, the number of apartments in Chicago has decreased and the population has decreased while the number of evictions has remained consistent. This tells me that it’s getting tougher for landlords and tenants to handle their business on their own without involving the court system. I would suggest that this is related to the evolution of the Chicago Residential Landlord-Tenant Ordinance, and the associated awareness campaigns that have brought it to the attention of more tenants in recent years.

When it comes to interpersonal conflict, especially over money matters, it is a human tendency to seek an outside authority figure to make the final call. As laws and regulations become more complex, it’s easier for both sides to pass the buck to a higher power instead of trying to work things out between themselves. In the case of Chicago rentals, landlords are afraid (with due reason) of taking any action on their own, lest they be accused of retaliation or “self-help evictions,” both of which are illegal. In the case of tenants, many are all too willing to leverage their landlords’ fear of the city codes in order to get more time in their apartments without paying.

As the CRLTO gets more complicated, it will by default funnel more of these disputes into the court system.

Evictions happen to everyone and affect everyone.

With a 1 in 20 chance of eviction distributed across 550,000 Chicago apartments, it is entirely possible for the owner of a three-flat to dodge eviction court for a decade or so. However, it’s more realistic for a landlord to expect at least one eviction over the course of their investing career and enjoy the pleasant surprise if you manage to avoid it.

Tenants also need to be aware of the odds, especially if they’re rooming with strangers. If your roommate has been evicted before you will have a much harder time finding an apartment. You may wind up having to pay higher rents and more cash up front in order to be considered for any housing at all, let alone your ideal apartment.

Overall, the cost of evictions affects the entire population of Chicago, funneling huge amounts of cash and time away from productive use and into the justice system. That money could be used to purchase and rehab additional apartment buildings, allowing more residents to find housing. Even a 1/3 decrease in eviction filings in a year could potentially free up enough cash to purchase and renovate every bank-owned apartment building in Cook County.

Landlords use the “bias” as a reason to avoid investing in the Chicago market. A far better reason would be the cost of evictions. However, cost is something you can plan around and should not be used as an excuse to avoid an entire market.

Lawyers and Juries don’t win cases. They win Time.

The average eviction case lasts only 3 minutes in the courtroom. Most cases are eventually found in favor of the landlord. The presence of juries make only a 1-2% difference in the final rulings of most court cases. The role of supporting players at eviction court has to be discounted. However, this does not mean they are totally ineffective.

A lawyer representing a landlord does most of their job in the preparation. Many of the 38% of failed eviction cases are due to inadequate preparation or clerical errors, and a good lawyer who knows their stuff can make sure that the landlord gets it right the first time. A lawyer representing a tenant has a better chance of getting a continuance, which buys the tenant more time in the apartment before the axe falls.

If a tenant exercises their right to a jury trial, it will likewise not win the case for them. They will drive up the landlord’s costs and buy themselves even more time in the apartment, but chances are very high that they will still eventually get a visit from the sheriff.

Tenants can “win” eviction cases. There are a handful of reasons why they could get the case thrown out. There are ways they can get the landlord slapped with enough fees to negate any back rent they might owe. They can even appeal or file a countersuit in the event that an eviction goes through unfairly. However, for the most part if a tenant has not paid the rent and the landlord knows what they’re doing, the eviction case will probably be found in favor of the landlord regardless of what happens and who helps out in the middle.

The CRLTO is biased against landlords, and for good reason.

My investigation of the CRLTO was completed well before this series on the courts. However, I wanted to close by referring back to it, as I did find it to be biased in favor of the tenant. Line for line, more duties are loaded onto the landlord and the penalties for infractions are steeper on the landlord side as well. If there is a systemic bias against the landlord in Chicago, it lies within this document, not at the court level. The courts are merely enforcing and interpreting the laws as they stand.

I would argue, though, that there is a good reason for the CRLTO’s strictness. Of the four major things necessary for human survival – food, air, water and shelter – shelter is the only one that is largely handled via private enterprise. It’s also the least easily renewable resource of the four. If you’re a utility or agricultural enterprise dealing with any of the other three, you’d better believe that you will be dealing with government restrictions coming out your ears. Like the CRLTO, most of those laws are to keep the providers from causing harm to the general public. As much as the 1% might dislike it, most laws are written to protect the consumer majority, even if it’s to the detriment of the provider minority. However, for food, water and air quality the restrictions are implemented on a large-scale basis and mostly out of sight of the average layperson.

Housing is the only sector of basic human needs where strangers are regularly providing the raw materials via private commerce. It stands to reason that the government-mandated quality standards for housing are just as robust as they are for the other “big three.” However, because they have to be understood and followed by the common man, housing laws are more “in your face.”

Chicago is a massive city, encompassing all races, ages, income levels and nationalities. There unfortunately cannot be separate rental laws for cold water flats and high rise lofts. The rich and poor cannot be held to different codes. In my opinion, the CRLTO may be beastly and complicated, but so is the Chicago rental population. The two go together perfectly.

Conclusion: It’s not about bias, but about knowing your role.

The greater issue here is tiny private landlords being held to the same standard as massive public utilities companies by the public at large. It isn’t political, nor is it class warfare. Rental housing is a bizarre hybrid of bare necessity and finite resources, slammed into a commercial framework. When you decide to invest in rental property, you are positioning yourself among utility companies and government agencies that provide necessary things for Chicagoans to keep existing safely. Like many of those agencies, the public who uses your services will view your line of work with a culturally acceptable amount of disdain. They will forget that you are running a business, until such time as they’re unhappy with your service.

Is Chicago biased against landlords? Commerce may be biased against housing. Courts may be biased towards the plaintiff. Laws are generally tilted in favor of the consumer. But is Chicago anti-Landlord? Let’s say no. Let’s say, once and for all, no.

Thanks so much for reading this series. Thanks also to the support folks who have made this possible: The Hon. Timothy Evans of Cook County Circuit Court, Rob Boyke at the Cook County Clerk of Court’s IT department, Rich Magnone of Reda, Ciprian, Magnone LLC, and Taylor Southworth.

I’ll be taking Friday off. See you Monday.

This is part of a series on Chicago evictions. You should probably start at the beginning. Here are the rest of the articles:

Part 1: Intro
Part 2: Yes, Virginia, there is a bias
Part 3: Are other trials also biased?
Part 4: Comparing districts
Part 5: Are evictions filings increasing?
Part 6: Forcible Entry vs Joint Action
Part 7: What does it mean for tenants?
Part 8: Lawyers and Juries
Part 9: The Cost of Doing Business
Part 10: Series conclusion

Cook Eviction Stats Part 9: The Cost of Doing Business

Evictions in Cook County are a multimillion dollar industry. With close to 40,000 cases happening each year, the amount of time and energy devoted to people who don’t pay their rent is mind-bogglingly vast. In fact, today I want to take some time to discuss what the eviction industry is costing Chicago in terms of lost time and money. And tenants, if you think this doesn’t pertain to you, it does. Remember that the resources that a landlord puts into evictions could otherwise be spent purchasing and rehabilitating the apartment buildings that are currently sitting empty and inaccessible.

Long time readers will know what this means. I’m going to do math for you. Again.

Yay math time!

Yay math time!

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Cook Eviction Stats Part 8: Lawyers and Juries

We’re talking about lawyers and juries and how they affect the eviction numbers today, along with some interesting data that I picked up along the way. This article is deviating a bit from the its predecessors in the series, in that I’m not going to be relying too heavily on the numbers I got from the Cook County Clerk. I’ve had to reach beyond to do some additional research. Instead of footnoting everything like I usually do, I will instead provided a bibliography of sources down at the bottom so you can read all of the reports at your leisure, if that’s your thing.

You can fit a couple of eviction hearings in the time it takes to cook Ramen.

You can fit a couple of eviction hearings in the time it takes to cook Ramen.

I want you to imagine a scenario with me for a moment. You are a landlord. A tenant moved into your apartment in October. It is now February and you have not seen a rent check since the first month. The tenant has moved in a whole crew of additional occupants, and a pit bull. They have also apparently spent their rent money on a big screen TV, because you can see it on the floor of their apartment, leaning against the wall underneath the big hole that it left when it fell down.

You filed to evict in after the 2nd missed rent payment, in early December, like any good landlord. Due to the wait and the holiday season, your court date was scheduled for early February. You arrive in court. You’re ready to tell your whole story.

Talk fast. You’ve got 90 seconds in front of the judge. You have to split that with the tenant if they decide to mount a defense. Better know your stuff. (more…)

Cook Eviction Stats Part 7: What does this mean for tenants?

I’ve spent the past 6 sections of this study focusing mostly on what the Cook County/Chicago eviction statistics mean for landlords. It’s time to focus a little on what they mean for renters. I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not going to tell you how to win your eviction case. There are far better resources than me out there for saving your bacon. This article is focusing on the numbers.

A lot of you have been involved in eviction cases.

7 out of every 100 apartments in Chicago will be the subjects of eviction cases each year. Given that apartments often house more than one person, this means if you’re a renter in Chicago, you’ve got quite a bit more than a 7% chance of winding up involved in an eviction suit.

This is what we're talking about here. It's undignified, it's obvious, and it's humiliating. And a lot of you have been through it before.

This is what we’re talking about here. It’s undignified, it’s obvious, and it’s humiliating. And a lot of you have been through it before.

By comparison, 8% of married Illinois residents wind up in divorce each year, according to the census bureau.[1] You probably know several people who have gotten divorced last year. This means that you may well know even more people who’ve been involved in an eviction case, although they’re probably not going to admit it to your face.

It costs a landlord quite a bit of time and money to file an eviction case. They’re not usually going to do it if a tenant hasn’t given them good reason to do so, and they’ve exhausted every other possible means of solving the problem. Eviction means they wind up with a vacancy on their hands, and usually one in worse condition than one where a tenant moves out of their own free will. However, if they’re gaining no income from a deadbeat tenant, it eventually becomes more cost effective for them to incur a short term vacancy.

There are a few basic things that a human being needs to survive. Food, water, air and shelter are the big ones. If you’re not earning enough money to remain in your apartment, there are plenty of steps you can take to get out of your lease before the court has to mandate that you do so. If a renter has allowed their shelter-related problems to spiral downward to the point of eviction, what does that say about their ability to prioritize?

This exists. It was mentioned in the New York Times. I don't even.

This exists. It was mentioned in the New York Times. What is this I don’t even….

Chances are good that you will get involved in partnerships with strangers at some point in the near future. It may be a business relationship, a roommate situation, or a dating scenario. Cook County makes it relatively easy for you to check if a person has been evicted before. Perhaps you should take a few minutes to for fact checking before you saddle yourself with a scrub.

You have slightly less than 40% chance of not getting evicted.

62.7% of filed eviction cases in Cook County wind up with the landlord getting the tenant thrown out of the apartment, with many of those cases tacking on an order to pay the back rent. It’s easy when looking at that percentage to envision the other 37.3% of cases involving renters proudly facing their landlords in court, delivering the smackdown of righteousness, and maybe getting their landlords slapped with fines for daring to drag everybody down to the 1st District courthouse.

This is not a picture of you in eviction court. Sorry.

This is not a picture of you in eviction court. Sorry.

I’m not saying that doesn’t happen sometimes.

However, those other cases could have had any of the following, less exciting conclusions:

  • The landlord and tenant settled out of court.
  • The tenant’s lease expired and/or they moved out before the court date.
  • The landlord accepted a partial payment of the balance due, and had their case thrown out.
  • The landlord forgot to show up for court.

Half of those causes are clerical errors, and will probably wind up in a re-filing of the same case at a later date. As for the other half? Well, the point of filing an eviction case is to get a tenant out of an apartment before the lease ends, and sometimes to force them to pay back rent. If those goals are accomplished in any other way, then the case doesn’t need to go all the way to its conclusion. I’d say less than 10% of the tenants who are taken to eviction court wind up “winning” their case at the point that they’re standing in front of the judge.

Even if you win your case, there are repercussions.

There’s been a recent trend with the weak economy where people just stop paying their rent or mortgage and wait for the axe to fall. Renters who are reading this series may be doing so with an eye towards this kind of strategic delinquency, hoping that the eviction proceedings will take long enough that things will turn around for them before the sheriff comes to call. Here’s the thing: your credit will recover in time from everything else you can do to it, but an eviction filing will follow you forever regardless of the verdict.

In all of this analysis, I’ve not really addressed one glaring issue: the fact that I could pull eviction statistics going back to 2004. In fact, if you visit the website of the Cook County Clerk of Court, you’ll find that you can search through online case records going back to at least 1991. In other words, some of those records are old enough to drink.

In order to find out about a low credit score, someone would need your permission and a lot of your personal data to pull your credit report. By contrast, if the state of public records access remains consistent, anyone and their brother can dig up that information without you knowing. That includes future potential roommates, landlords, business partners and employers. Yes, it’s possible for a researcher to see that your case was dismissed. But that’s because it’s possible for them to casually breeze through all of the details of your case.

Now, some of you will react to this with outrage at the courts for making the data public. However, the public records are available because the courts are paid for by the taxpayers, and we have a right to know how our money is being spent. If you want to avoid having the details of your eviction lawsuit made public, don’t get involved with one in the first place.

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  1. [1]US Census Bureau: Marital Events of Americans: 2009

Cook Eviction Stats Part 6: Forcible Entry vs Joint Action

There’s two different types of eviction cases that can be filed by a landlord in Cook County. One is called “Forcible Entry & Detainer,” and the other is called “Joint Action.” In order to explain the difference I’d like to take a moment to talk to you about Buffalo wings. This will make sense in a moment, I promise.

Chicken Evictions
just wings The Wings. The meat of the matter. What you’re really there for. Forcible Detainer & Entry. In other words, the landlord wants to get the tenant out of the apartment. This is the core purpose behind every eviction case.

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Cook Eviction Stats Part 5: Are eviction filings increasing?

The Chicago Landlord-Tenant ordinance has been amended many times since its creation in 1986. The most recent changes were in 2004, 2008 and 2010. By and large these changes have been in response to major trends in landlord-tenant behavior. For example, since 2010 landlords have had to tell their tenants the name and address of the bank where a security deposit is held. This was so that tenants could still track down their deposits if the bank foreclosed on their apartment building.

As is often the case with law changes, the general reaction to new CRLTO amendments has involved a lot of hand-wringing and fretting among landlords. Meanwhile, the economic troubles that have plagued our country in the past half a decade would theoretically cause more tenants to miss rent payments and get into situations that might prompt an eviction case. This nasty combination of tighter laws and a weaker economy made me wonder if the rate of eviction filings was getting higher or lower over time.

Evictions by Year: City and Suburbs (more…)

Cook Eviction Stats Part 4: Comparing Districts

How this article started

It is a peculiarity of American evictions that they are held at the county/parish level instead of at the city/municipal level as one might expect. This means that even though Chicago rentals are generally protected by Chicago-specific laws, evictions are handled by the Cook County District courts, of which there are six.

Cook County District Courts
District/Location Coverage
1st, Chicago City of Chicago
2nd, Skokie Northern Suburbs
3rd, Rolling Meadows Northwestern Suburbs
4th, Maywood Western Suburbs
5th, Bridgeview Southwestern Suburbs
6th, Markham Southern Suburbs

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Cook County Eviction Stats Part 3: Are other trials also biased?

When I started this adventure I based my concept of “a fair court system” on an ideal of 50% of cases won by the plaintiff (the landlord) and 50% won by the defendant (the tenant). Even something between 48-52% would have been sufficient. The results I got from the Cook County Eviction stats over the past 8 years indicated that 62.8% of eviction cases were won by the landlord. If I compared this to my idea of a perfectly fair system it clearly indicated a bias, and not the “anti-landlord” bias purported to exist by many Chicago landlords.

The world is not perfect. Neither is the justice system. I started wondering if my ideal 50/50 split of verdicts was even attainable outside of a courthouse run by androids and angels. What if the court system is structured so that 62.8% is as close as you can get to a fair trial in the US? I started digging to find out the verdict balance in some other types of cases.

Is it possible that the Cook County Eviction court is the fairest one of all?

Could Cook County Eviction court be the fairest one of all?


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Cook County Evictions Part 2: Yes, Virginia, there is a bias.

OK that was mean of me. I gave you a teaser at the end of Monday’s article, indicating that there was definitely a bias in the Cook County courts when it came to evictions. I even gave you a pie chart with the numbers intact but the categories redacted.

When I did my small-scale analysis in May 2012, I came to the conclusion that the system was biased when it came to money judgments but basically fair when it came to getting possession of apartments back from deadbeat tenants. Landlords stood to win their cases about 50% of the time, which is exactly what you’d expect to see in an unbiased system. However, once I obtained the large-scale data from 8 years of eviction history and crunched the numbers, a different picture emerged. This picture will allow us to temporarily put to bed the pervasive urban legend that the courts are biased against landlords.

That’s right. 222,323 cases were found in favor of the landlord. 131,423 cases were found in favor of the tenant. The division is consistent across all six districts and consistent regardless of if you filed for possession only, or for possession and money. So if you’re a landlord, you’ve got just about a 2 out of 3 chance of winning your case. So there. Ha.

Maybe Not. (more…)

Cook County Evictions Revisit Part 1: Intro

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

In May of 2012 I did a three part series that tried to debunk the urban legend that Chicago’s government entities are biased against landlords. I investigated the CRLTO and found it to be weighted heavily in favor of the tenant. I also investigated eviction proceedings using the Cook County Clerk’s website. Based on the information I used, I came to the conclusion that the courts were also biased in favor of the tenant. However, I didn’t feel too confident with those results.

I'm not doing so well in disproving the rumor that I count beans as a hobby, am I?

I’m not doing so well in disproving the rumor that I count beans as a hobby, am I?

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Dear Piggy: Should My Condo Association Raise Assessments Every Year?

I’m involved with a local support group for board members of self-managed condo associations, since I am one myself. I generally try to participate from a civilian perspective and only put on the Realtor hat when it’s absolutely necessary. However, one of the members specifically asked me to provide some objective information about best practices for raising assessments on an annual basis. I think she was hoping that I’d dig up an article written by someone else, but I figured I could do a blog about it myself.

What Does an Assessment Pay For?

In Chicago, monthly assessments can cover any number of expenses for the publicly shared parts of a condo development. According to the Illinois Condominium Property Act, they must pay the repair and replacement cost for at least the following items:

  • Structural components
  • Mechanical components
  • Surfaces of the building
  • Common areas
  • Energy systems

… In other words, pretty much all of the areas of the property outside of the individual condos and the other sections of the building assigned to specific owner, such as parking spaces and storage lockers.

Additionally, Chicago assessments tend to cover water and sewer costs, building insurance, maintenance costs for the grounds, and electricity for the common areas. We’ll call these the “basic condo package.”

Other common add-ons for a “deluxe condo package” could include heat, doormen, cable, wifi, trash collection, elevator maintenance, and community benefits like business centers, pools and health clubs. Co-ops will also often include property taxes in the monthly dues. But for today we’ll just look at the “basic” package, since it will apply pretty much citywide.

Why should we increase our assessments?

Costs are rising.

Looking at the “basic condo package,” the cost of every item has increase substantially over the past ten years.

A recent article on NPR stated that homeowner’s insurance premiums were projected to increase by 10% in 2012 due to increased severe weather nationwide.[1] The price of water in Chicago has increased from $9.02 per 1000 ft3 in 2002 to $18.75 per 1000 ft3 in 2012, and costs have been approved to increase further to be $28.52 per 1000 ft3 by 2015. Sewer costs are increasing to match.[2] The cost of electricity increased from $0.1026 per kW/h in 2001 to $0.1599 per kW/h in 2011, an increase that would have been far greater had rates not been frozen from 1995 to 2009.[3]

The cost of something like landscaping or repair services is tougher to determine, but for most services of that nature the primary cost to a company is labor. The Department of Labor can give us the income history for most professions. For landscapers and groundskeepers in Chicago, the average hourly wage has gone from $10.68 in 2001 to $12.73 in 2011.[4] The cost for highly skilled and/or licensed labor, such as electrical work or tuckpointing, is certainly higher. The cost of the materials they use has not lowered, nor is it likely to. One can only presume due to the wailing and gnashing of teeth seen from the small business owners due to rising employee costs that these numbers will only go up in the foreseeable future. There is no doubt that maintenance costs will increase across the board.

While savvy condo associations can negotiate lower costs for bulk electricity, cable or trash pickup, they won’t be able to stem the tide of rising costs forever. Like it or not, you will need more money in 5 years to do the same things you’re doing now.

The IRS says you should.

You have to go to the doctor more as you get older. Your building will need more frequent "checkups" too.

You have to go to the doctor more as you get older. Your building will need more frequent “checkups” too.

It’s commonly accepted that the value of a property decreases as it gets older. The costs required to maintain an old building are far higher than those required in a new one. In fact, when it comes to commercial property, the IRS gives you a number you can use to calculate how much more you’re going to have to spend on your property as it ages. It’s called depreciation.

According to the IRS, a multi-unit apartment building will fully depreciate over 27.5 years. Most condo buildings in Chicago started their lives as apartment buildings, so we can go on the same scale. This means that just to cover the increased demands of aging, you should be increasing your reserves by at least 3.6% each year.

Cutting amenities may lower property values.

Of course, an association can remove services in order to keep assessments at a consistent rate. Many condo residents have voted to scale back on things like doormen and pools in order to keep their monthly bills low. However, the IL Condo Property Act specifically states that assessment costs should take into account both the impact on owners and the impact on market value.

Downgrading your association from a deluxe condo package to a basic one does have an effect on the value of the home. The cost per square foot difference between a full-amenity condo vs a basic one is not just due to location. Besides, these are the common areas we’re talking about. Cutting costs too far can reduce curb appeal and increase the chances that a home inspector will find major structural issues that prevent a new buyer from purchasing in your development.

Everybody Else is Doing It.

The most popular condos have no fear of raising assessments. How do we know they’re popular? Because people bought them. No article of this nature on StrawStickStone would be complete without a trip to the MLS for some sales stats. True to form, I went and checked on the monthly assessments for 2 and 3 bedroom condos in smaller associations that sold successfully in the past 10 years. Since the question in this case came from a Lincoln Square property owner, I based my search in Lincoln Square.

The chart below shows the median monthly condo assessments.

The chart shows the median, which went from $133 at its lowest to $203.5 in 2012. The maximum went from $300 to $470 in the same timeframe.

They went up! In fact, they went up by quite a bit. And I should note, the sample size for each year was anywhere from 175 to 430 units, so this is not a small bit of fluky data.

Increases are built into the Illinois Condo Property Act

While the ILCPA doesn’t give a condo board totally free rein over the monthly costs, annual increases up to 14.99% are permitted without allowing the owners at large any means of fighting it. If you increase more than 15% the owners can petition the board for a vote on the hike, but anything below that and you’ve got clear sailing as far as the state law is concerned.

Other sources of income have gotten scarce.

The ILCPA also suggests that associations consider bank account interest and the ability to borrow money as considerations when setting monthly costs. Both of these alternate source of income have seen decreasing yields over the past 10 years.

It used to be that an association could reliably make a decent buck from interest payments on their reserves. Back in 2000 an association could get over 6% interest by stowing their funds in a 6 month CD. However, with rates currently at 0.32% on that same 6 month CD, this source of alternate income is not an option that will keep pace with rising costs.

As for obtaining loans, any home buyer or developer will tell you that the money for large scale property matters is not plentiful these days. While the interest rates for payback are as low as they’ll ever be right now, the hurdles required to get a lender to work with you have multiplied since the housing crash.

If you were living anywhere else, your costs would increase too.

The monthly payment on a 30 year fixed rate mortgage doesn’t increase over the life of the loan. That’s a real nice, but it’s the only part of your monthly expenses that stays consistent. If you were living in a single family home your costs would increase regularly. If you were renting an apartment, your rent would most likely increase every year. There is no reason why you should be exempt just because you’re living in a condo association.

Is there a limit to how high we can go?

Yes. There is a limit. Not a firm one set by law, but a limit of credibility and viability for the owners of the property. Of course the ILCPA has that 15% break point after which the owners can officially challenge an increase, but even below that there’s issues to consider.

A board who raises assessments too high will risk more than dirty looks from their neighbors. An owner who cannot afford rising monthly payments is likely to stop paying altogether. If a condo development has over 15% delinquency on assessments, no lender will touch it with a 10 foot pole. If the association has to evict someone for non-payment, that means court costs and time spent, not to mention the risks and higher insurance premiums that come with having renters in the building. Oh, and recent eviction lawsuits may have the same effect as delinquency when it comes to how lenders look at your HOA.

When I was doing the MLS study above, I took a look at maximum assessment costs as well. None of the sold condos in the area have gone above $471 in the past 10 years. Now, this is a far cry from some of the lakefront full-amenity high rises, where the monthly dues for a 2 bed condo exceed $600 on a regular basis. The point is, you need to scale your increases to fit the income brackets in your building.

Yes, people notice high condo assessments. (via Curbed Chicago x2 plus Redfin forums)

Cutting amenities may hurt your property values, but people also notice when assessments get too high. (via Curbed Chicago x2 plus Redfin forums)

Recommendations

It’s tempting to set a consistent amount to increase assessments each year. However, associations are incorporated as not-for-profit entities. A big surplus means refunds at the end of the year, which makes it tough to turn around and ask for more money later. The better approach is to increase annually so that people get used to the idea, but for only the amount that you need.

Here’s how I do it. Two months before your annual meeting, I contact our vendors and obtain estimates for the coming year. This lets me run the actual numbers and still get the new budget into the hands of the association the requisite 30 days ahead of time. I also take into consideration how expenses have increased from year to year historically, but there’s nothing like actual estimates to prove your point. When presenting your increase to the board, make sure you can back up all of your numbers with evidence. This will make it a lot easier to swallow.

Oh, and no matter how much you cut corners, make sure you’re allotting at least 10% of your budget to reserves each year, and make sure it’s a line item in the budget. A reserve study performed by experienced engineers will let you know exactly how much you should be saving, but regardless of the outcome of the study, at least 10% is required so that new owners can get mortgages when they buy into your building.

So yes, increase every year, but not by an arbitrary amount. As is the case with every article here, a little research and a little math will tell you how to proceed.

  1. [1]Homeowners Insurance Rates Rising in 2012, NPR.org
  2. [2]Know My Water and Sewer Rates, CityofChicago.org
  3. [3]ComEd Historical Residential Rate Monthly Averages, Info-Trex
  4. [4]Department of Occupational Employment Statistics, US Bureau of Labor Statistics