Category Archives: Landlords

Keep your rental filled and pick up a few more to spare.

Talking Trash

Chicago garbage pickup (or “scavenger service” as we Realtor wonks like to call it) is a bigger deal than you’d think for landlords. It tends to get overlooked by newer landlords, and even the experienced ones don’t like to spend too much time dwelling on the topic of handling other people’s junk. However, there are some laws to keep in mind and best practices to follow when it comes to dealing with your tenants’ trash. Today I’ll be reviewing the basics for you.

Trash pickup is also called "scavenger service." This little guy is also a scavenger, but of a different kind.

Trash pickup is also called “scavenger service.” This little guy is also a scavenger, but of a different kind.

First off, the city sanitation ordinance can be found here. Additionally, the recycling regulations can be found here.  Regardless of the size of your building I’d recommend that you give it a glance. Violations are penalized with tickets from the police.

Who Pays for Trash Pickups in Chicago?

If your building has four units or fewer, the city will pick up your trash as if it was a single family home. You pay for this service through your property taxes and sales tax. This also goes for individually rented condos in buildings with up to four units.

If the building has more than four units, you will have to hire a private hauler to collect your tenants’ trash. There are several private haulers that work the Chicago grid – most are Teamsters. Larger condo developments will also have to hire private haulers – this is paid for out of the owners’ assessments.

The most common private haulers that I see around here are Waste Management, Lakeshore Recycling, Groot, Allied/Republic, Flood Brothers and Veolia.

Either way, tenants in Chicago expect landlords to pay for scavenger service.

How Much Trash Is There?

The trash carts supplied by the city for small buildings hold 96 gallons of waste, or a little less than half a cubic yard. Based on my observations, a family of three will fill approximately one of those carts per week with regular trash, and another one every two weeks with recyclable trash. (If you have a bunch of dirty hippies living in your building it may be the other way around.) The last week of the month in moving season will see far more trash, as will the holiday season.

If you’re buying an apartment building, the prior owner will probably have trash containers out back that you can use to gauge how many you’ll need once you take over the reins. It’s possible that the trash contract may be passed over to you at closing. It’s a good idea to check out how the trash looks on the last day of a month to gauge if more containers are needed. Overflowing dumpsters lead to tickets – it’s always better to err on the side of too much space and downsize later if it isn’t needed.

It’s important to communicate with your tenants regarding how they handle trash if you want to keep the ticket brigade at bay. Make sure that tenants know to bag their trash and secure the bags firmly. Make sure they know that trash needs to be removed from the building regularly, not left to pile up inside their apartments. Take time to inform them about which materials are considered to be hazardous – this includes batteries, toner cartridges, paint and lighter fluid. If you allow cats in your building, make sure your tenants dispose of the cat litter with the trash instead of flushing it.

Also make sure that they notify you if the dumpster is too full. It’s better to head over and pack down the trash or schedule an additional pickup than to incur a $200 fine because a nosy neighbor got annoyed and called 311 on you.

What About Recycling?

According to city ordinance, renters must have recycling options made available to them, even if you’re in a small building in an area without blue cart service. The recycling method you provide must allow for separation of recyclables at your building. You also need to make an effort to educate your renters on what items to separate. Unfortunately for the planet, the recycling ordinance is pretty toothless and rarely enforced. However, it’s important to remember that the tenant pool tends to consist of younger residents with very eco-conscious leanings. A visible recycling program is not only good for staying on the good side of the law, but it’s also a great marketing tool.

Blue recycling carts in their natural habitat. (Photo by Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader)

Blue recycling carts in their natural habitat. (Photo by Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader)

Most private haulers will offer specifically marked recycling-only dumpsters. If you’re hiring regular dumpsters make sure you also provide a separate container for recyclable items.

How about Big Stuff?

Sometimes your tenants will need to discard larger items. Without proper preparation, this can lead to a big mess in your alley. Furniture left outside of dumpsters can lead to broken glass littered across the alley, thieves picking over the items, and the general enmity of your neighbors. Mattresses left lying out are a sign of a bedbug infestation, which can cause panic among your other tenants even if no problem actually exists.

Therefore it’s important to communicate to your tenants in the lease and explicitly in conversation that large items need to be placed in the dumpster. If they have something that’s too big to fit, they need to warn you immediately so that you can schedule an extra pickup with the city or with your private hauler.

Similarly, if you’re planning on doing any renovation work or clearing out an apartment formerly occupied by a hoarder, you may need to hire an extra dumpster on your own even if the city provides pickup. These types of projects create far more trash than your standard equipment will be able to contain.

By the way, if you do schedule a last minute extra pickup with a private hauler, be prepared to pay them in cash with a nice tip for going out of their way for you. Even if you have a contract for regular service, these kind of trips are above and beyond a trash hauler’s normal duties.

What About Shops and Restaurants?

If you’ve got a mixed use building, you’ll probably wind up with a few retail shops or restaurants renting from you in the commercial spaces. Unlike residential renters, most commercial tenants in Chicago are expected to pay for their own scavenger service (along with all the other utilities). Sometimes a very small office can piggyback onto your dumpsters, but any business that requires a sanitation license will probably be required to demonstrate that they’re in charge of their own trash collection.

This is about as close as you ever want to get to a grease dumpster. (Photo by TrashMonkey29 on Flickr.)

This is about as close as you ever want to get to a grease dumpster. (Photo by TrashMonkey29 on Flickr.)

If you’ve got restaurants, doctor’s offices, hair salons, catering businesses, childcare facilities or anything that generates a lot of icky trash, you’ll want to ensure that you leave enough space in the rear of your building for each business to provide their own dumpsters. Restaurants in particular may need space not only for a regular dumpster and a recycling container but also a grease dumpster.

Grease dumpsters require their own special precautions – while they’re designed to contain liquid waste, it’s easy to spill when you’re pouring hot grease in the dark. Hosing down the ground around a grease dumpster is actually illegal. You’ll need to make sure the ground nearby is fully cleaned with detergent to keep rats away and make sure the alley doesn’t become a skid hazard for passing cars.

What if There’s No Alley Access?

In order for trash to be collected, it needs to be accessible. For most buildings in Chicago this is an easy task. Dumpsters live in the alley, trucks pick them up there. No fuss, no muss. However, there are a few locations in the city where alleys do not exist, or if they do, there is no way to get to them from the house without a very long walk.

Before you purchase a rental property you need to consider how trash pickup is handled. If there is no way for you to leave trash containers in a place where both tenants and trucks can access them, you will need to make plans to haul the trash out to the street for pickup on a regular basis. Unless you’ve got a good crew of workmen on hand or plan to live on site, I guarantee that this will get old really fast. In theory you could offer a barter deal to a reliable tenant to haul the dumpsters out on trash day, but you’ll still want to follow up regularly to make sure they’re actually holding up their end of the bargain. This is probably not a situation that you will be able to resolve on your own, either. You can’t just go adding alleys on your block.

Should I Chain My Dumpsters?

Yes. Illegal dumping – that’s when other people put their trash in your containers – is a “three strikes and you’re out” offense in Chicago. The first two times you get a ticket, the third time is a felony with jail time. Building contractors in particular are notorious for dumping their construction debris in any nearby unsecured container. Make sure it isn’t yours.

Additionally, dumpster diving is not just for thrift shop loving hipsters anymore. Identity thieves have a field day rummaging through tenants’ discarded papers. Grease theft from grease dumpsters is also common, since grease is used to make biodiesel and can therefore be resold at a high price. (Most grease dumpsters are designed to have higher security than your normal dumpster for just that reason.)

However, before you go chaining up your trash containers make sure you’ve considered the tenant training you’ll have to do to make this kind of precaution successful. Tenants will need to have keys to the chains’ padlocks. They will also need to be instructed to re-secure the dumpsters after depositing their trash. Your success rate will depend a lot on how well you convince your tenants of the necessity. Better pest control and protection against identity theft should be your two biggest talking points on that front.

Private Hauler Gotchas

Long Term contracts. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could sign your renters to a five or ten year lease that allowed you to raise their rents arbitrarily at any point? Well, private trash haulers do exactly that. And they generally require four to six months advance notice to get you out of the contract. Make sure you negotiate heavily before you select a hauling company.

Graffiti. You’d think that for the cost of service, the haulers would regularly swap out dumpsters that get tagged, right? Unfortunately this is not the case, and the taggers know it. Dumpsters are one of the most popular locations for graffiti, since landlords assume that the haulers will clean them and vice versa. If your building’s dumpsters are located close to the street or an alley intersection they will be particularly likely targets for tagging. Make sure that you keep some paint on hand to cover any tags.


 

Next week I’ll be doing a three part series on the quality of building materials. (Trust me, it will be more interesting than it sounds!) See you then!

Safety and the Illusion Thereof

One of the most common questions among renters and buyers moving to new areas is whether or not those areas are “safe.” In fact, the majority of moves, be it between apartments, condos or houses, are within a very short distance. Safety and comfort levels are definitely a factor in this particular statistic – people stay within the area that they know. However, with rising prices in both the rental and purchase housing markets, many Chicagoans are faced with moving to new sections of the city where safety is an unknown factor. As for the folks moving from outside the city, it’s tough enough to understand the hundreds of distinct neighborhoods within the city limits, let alone to compare crime statistics to a reasonable extent.

Antique maps show monsters and dragons beyond the edges of known lands. This is coincidentally also the worldview of people who are moving to a new neighborhood.

Antique maps show monsters and dragons beyond the edges of known lands. This is coincidentally also the worldview of people who are moving to a new neighborhood.

As much as I’d like to reach every renter and buyer and explain to them how to statistically analyze crime risk in a given neighborhood, I can’t do so. Even if I did, my own rational explanations would be massively overwhelmed by the media hype surrounding Chicago’s high crime rates. Those crimes may be consolidated in areas far removed from your neighborhoods of choice. They may have little to no bearing on your daily life. However, they are prominent in the minds of any home seeker, and it’s tough to combat emotional conviction with reason. What you must fight against is not the idea that your particular area is a bad neighborhood, but that the entire city is a homogeneous, crime-ridden hole.

If you’re a landlord or home seller, it’s therefore far more critical to be aware of how safe your neighborhood feels. You can rattle off all the stats in the world, but if a potential buyer or renter feels wrong in your immediate vicinity they will not be interested in making an offer on your property. This is even more critical if you’re expecting to get an above-average price for your listing, since those tend to be taken only by folks from out of town who don’t know any better. Curb appeal in Chicago is not just about the visual appeal of your yard and building. It is also majorly affected by the aura of safety or danger projected by your block.

Familiarity Breeds Contentment

I’ve been living in Chicago for 15 years now, but I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut and spent several summers mucking about in small New England towns. The last town where I worked before moving here was so small, the residents got offended if they saw you locking your car doors. Now, this doesn’t mean that I was a wide-eyed hick when I moved out here in the late 90’s, but it did take a bit before I found my “city legs.”

Lincoln, NH. My last "home" before moving to Chicago.

Lincoln, NH. My last temporary “home” before moving to Chicago.

Before I moved out here the worst sort of crime I encountered was a prank phone call or two. Since then I’ve had my car windows smashed in three times. Now, for Chicago these crimes are pretty benign, but the first time it happened to me it was still pretty shocking. The third time? I’d gotten used to it. I rolled my eyes, called up my mechanic (Speed Dial 6) and hauled out the vacuum.

As owners in Chicago we become inured to the level of criminal activity that surrounds us. The longer we stay here, the more difficult it becomes to see our neighborhoods through the eyes of a newcomer. Unfortunately, if you’re trying to market your home to a new resident that is exactly what you have to do.

Zeroing Out the Scales

For me, getting into a buyer or renter’s head often involves a day trip to the suburbs. I encourage prospective home sellers and landlords to do the same before they put their property on the market. There is not enough difference between Chicago neighborhoods to truly serve as a “control” in our safety experiment. You need to get out of the city completely – maybe even out of the county – and go spend a day walking in the shoes of someone from the outside. I don’t just mean a quick jaunt to Evanston, either. Get out beyond the reach of the El and walk around a residential neighborhood that has absolutely nothing in common with the city. The best time to do it is a weekday afternoon.

Observe everything while you’re out there. Notice how far the houses sit back from the street. Pay attention to the people walking around, the cars and where they park, the separation of commercial and residential areas. Observe what happens when a school lets out for the day. Spend some time walking around after the shops close.

"Honey, look! They still have front-in parking here! That's so cute!"

“Honey, look! They still have front-in parking here! That’s so cute!”

Once you’ve zeroed out your mental scales for what clean, wholesome livin’ is all about, it’s time to head back into the city and reassess your home turf.

I Spy With My Little Eye…

Upon returning from the city outskirts, it should become far more apparent what factors contribute to and detract from the feeling of safety in your own neighborhood. We’ve probably all had our moments in the city of turning down the wrong block and instantly knowing that we were unwelcome. However, if you’ve paid attention to the details in the suburbs you should be more able to pinpoint exactly what contributes to an illusion of safety.

Here are a few that I wrote down on my last trip back in from the hinterlands:

  • Claustrophobia. The distance from the sidewalk to the buildings (the “setback”) gets very shallow in some parts of Chicago. This can lead to a feeling of claustrophobia that can be off-putting for newcomers. The areas of the city that tend to feel “safer” also have deeper front lawns. Do buildings in your area crowd in close to pedestrians?
  • Gates and Grates. There are entire blocks where black iron fences line the street in front of the homes, and shops are secured with accordion grating. It’s a common enough sight in Chicago that locals tend to ignore it. To a newcomer, it can imply security problems and fear of trespassers.
This is probably not the "gated community" your prospective buyers and tenants have in mind.

This is probably not the “gated community” your prospective buyers and tenants have in mind. (Photo by therodabides on Flickr.)

  • Sounds. Listen to what’s going on, both during the day and at night. Do you hear lots of shouting? Traffic? Car alarms? How about friendly sounds, like the ice cream truck or the bus announcing streets as it drives along? Is it deathly quiet?
  • Interactions. Do the people walking past seem comfortable with your presence? Do they make eye contact or hurry past? Are there people just sitting around in their yards doing nothing? How about the local kids – what do they do after school? Are there parents and caretakers around? What about pets? Do you see a lot of people with small companion animals? Are there lots of strays? Do you see a lot of dogs that could be mistaken for guard dogs or fighting dogs?
  • Cars. What types of cars park near your house? Are they in good condition? Are there lots of cabs? How about old beater scrap metal trucks? Is there visible broken glass in the street left behind from break-ins? Any cars with the Denver boot, or piles of parking tickets?
  • Cameras. It isn’t tough to figure out that security cameras cameras in Chicago are a sure sign of a troubled neighborhood. Even without the obvious flashing blue lights, security cameras are a tipoff to newcomers that something has probably occurred to merit their installation.
  • Alleys. Newcomers won’t check, but Chicago residents know that our streets are like mullets – business up front, party in the back. Take a walk down your local alleys. Are they clean? Well-lit? Are the garages in good condition or are they covered in graffiti? How about the porches – are they well-maintained, or decrepit and covered in junk? Are the dumpsters tidy, or overflowing?
  • The Commute. The neighborhood around your house extends as far as the closest El station. Many newcomers will test the safety vibe of an area by making the walk from the train to their new prospective home. Alone. After dark. You should definitely do the same and make sure there’s nothing untoward to scare off a potential buyer or renter. Are the sidewalks in good condition? Are there panhandlers or large groups of loiterers hanging out anywhere along the way? Are there large stretches of empty stores or vacant lots?

These are only a few factors that contribute to my personal sense of safety in any given section of Chicago. I’m sure there are many others. Safety is a very relative thing, and I’ve lived here for a while now, so even with trips to the suburbs to freshen up my outsider eyes I know I’ve grown pretty blasé about the things that make Chicago feel like a city.

Assemble your own list of criteria and test it out by visiting a new section of the city. Do you feel safe there? Why? If not, why not? Which of your criteria are within your control to fix? Which ones do you just have to accept? Would you adjust your asking price accordingly because of them?

More Articles About: , , ,

10 Mistakes Made by First Time Landlords

Last year I did two articles about mistakes made by first time renters and first time buyers. Today we’re going to look at errors made by first time landlords.

1. Setting Arbitrary Rent Rates

The price a tenant will pay has little or no bearing on your monthly costs. They will compare what’s available and, if your price is reasonable, they will rent your unit. If your price is too high, they won’t even look at it. If it’s too low, they will wonder what’s wrong with it or take you to be a sucker.

Apple can get away with pricing higher than anything else. You cannot.

Apple can get away with pricing higher than anything else. You cannot.

(more…)

Rent Bacon: March 2013

No Foolin’.

The Rent Bacon index number is an indicator of how a district is performing compared to the HUD Fair Market Rents. Landlords can use it to figure out how much more to charge this year. Tenants can figure out how much more it will cost to move.

The Rent Bacon index number is an indicator of how a district is performing compared to the HUD Fair Market Rents. Landlords can use it to figure out how much more to charge this year. Tenants can figure out how much more it will cost to move.

New month, new Rent Bacon. Rent Bacon gauges the change in actual value of apartments in Chicago on a quarterly basis using rental data from the local MLS. The index takes into account the rent rates, market times, and ratio of rented units compared to listed units. This month we’re looking at 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartments throughout the city. For more info on how the index is calculated, check out this explanatory post.

Observation #1: Better value

Now this is not something obvious from the chart above, but it is quite clear if you compare it against last month’s results for 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartments. The index value for 2 beds is considerably higher, peaking over 300 for the smaller units. Does this mean that they’re actually a better value? Yes, absolutely. (more…)

Field Guide to Chicago Apartments: Studios

fieldguideIt’s been a while since we pulled out the old Field Guide for a humorous look at some of the different types of Chicago apartments. Last summer I gave you an overview of garden apartments and coach houses. Today we’re going to look at another common species of apartment with many quirks: the studio. As the economy starts to recover, many renters who have paired up with roommates through the recession will be able to move out on their own again. Studios, designed for single occupants, will be their next logical stop.

Habitat: Restricted

Unlike the previous two species we studied in the Field Guide, the studio apartment (apartmentus minisculus ecubiculus) cannot be found throughout Chicago. In fact, their territory is quite constricted. Studios can only be spotted in areas that currently attract large numbers of single residents, or in areas that attracted them in the past. They tend to flock together in high rise buildings along the lakefront and close to major transit hubs. Their slow appreciation makes them of little interest to condo developers. The ones that exist inland are usually converted from former hotels or clustered around college campuses and hospitals. (more…)

Different Types of Insurance

I had initially planned to discuss mortgage insurance today, but in the process I’ve encountered some folks who are confused about the different types of insurance involved in the real estate business. So I’m going to do a quick overview of the major types of insurance involved in owning a home.

Homeowner’s Insurance

This is your standard insurance against damage to the home and land. It also may cover damage or loss to your personal belongings kept on site, and medical bills for people injured on your property.

Catastrophes happen a lot. Be prepared.

Catastrophes happen a lot. Be prepared.

If you’re buying a house with a mortgage you have to get a Homeowner’s Insurance policy, and your lender will escrow the premiums as part of your monthly payment, then pay your insurance company out of escrow. If you’re buying a condo, it’s the association that has to provide proof of a building-wide condo insurance policy.

Your lender will probably require you to name them as an “additional insured” party on your policy. This major reason behind this is that catastrophes involving your house may also kill you. If your lender is also on the policy, they will be able to approach the insurance company to recoup their losses without going through probate.

This would be the point where I say that cash buyers don’t need homeowner’s insurance. I’m going to phrase it slightly differently. Cash buyers are not legally obligated to buy homeowner’s insurance, but they still need it.

Condo and Renter’s Policies

Condo Owner’s Insurance and Renter’s Insurance only covers your belongings and the surface of your walls and floor. The policies usually cost far less. Until very recently, condo owners were not required by their lenders to have insurance policies. This has changed in recent years – if you’re buying a condo with a loan, your monthly premiums will be escrowed by your mortgage lender just as if you were buying a house. You will need to have your policy in place at closing.

More and more landlords are requiring their tenants to provide proof of renters insurance within a month of moving in. There’s no bank to escrow the payments for renters, though. They’ll have to pay the insurance company directly, just like with car insurance.

As with homeowner’s policies, landlords and condo lenders may require you to add them as additional insured parties. In the case of condos, a condo association may also want to be named on your policy.

Landlord Insurance

If you are buying property as an investment, you will need to get landlord’s insurance instead of homeowner’s insurance. If you change from living in a home to renting it year round, you will need to switch to a landlord’s policy. They cover a broader range of incidents, with bulked up liability coverage to protect you from tenants seeking the deepest pockets in the room. Some landlord policies will also be able to reimburse you for rent income that you lose due to property damage.

Unfortunately, these aren't the deep pockets your tenants are looking to raid. (Mmmm. empanadas...)

Unfortunately, these aren’t the deep pockets your tenants are looking to raid. (Mmmm. empanadas…)

Premiums for landlord policies can be escrowed like homeowner’s policies or paid directly to the insurance company.

Umbrella Insurance

Most owners of small homes and condos will not need an umbrella policy, but large condo developments and landlords will want to look into it. In the event of a massive incident that causes huge injuries, loss of life or large-scale damage beyond the limits of the standard policy, the umbrella policy will kick in to help with the rest of the repair costs. If you have a higher risk feature on your property like a pool, or if you use the land for crops or livestock, or if you’re planning on allowing renters to stay in your home, I recommend that you consider an umbrella policy.

Title Insurance

Title Insurance policies are available for homeowners and for their mortgage companies. The way American land rights work, there is no way to be absolutely certain that you are the only one with a claim to the title of the house you’re buying. Your lawyer will do their best to make sure that all previous owners, contractors, lenders and the government have given up any claim to the property, but the records only go back so far. In the event that someone else comes forward and claims to have a right to your house, your title insurance will protect you.

She may have won the lottery, but if the prior owner forgot to take her off the title, she could also still have claim to  YOUR house.

She may have won the lottery, but if the prior owner forgot to take her off the title, she could also still have claim to YOUR house.

In Illinois, title insurance is issued by the company where you have your closing. That’s why many closings happen in such odd locations – they’re held at the offices of title insurance companies. Your closing is basically the time when the title insurance policy is issued. You pay for it in one lump sum as part of your closing costs.

Mortgage Insurance

If you take out a loan for more than 80% of the cost of a home, your lender will think that you don’t have enough skin in the game. It would be too easy for you to walk away from your loan with so little invested. The risk of default on these kinds of loans is much higher. To cover some of the cost of foreclosure, lenders will require that you have mortgage insurance on your loan.

Mortgage insurance for conventional loans is called “PMI” – private mortgage insurance. These policies are covered by third party companies that specialize in this particular type of insurance. For FHA loans, mortgage insurance is called “MIP” – mortgage insurance premiums. They’re covered by Ginnie Mae.

Much like the Judean People's Front (now known as the People's Front of Judea) from Monty Python's "Life of Brian," PMI and MIP are the same thing with slightly rearranged acronyms.

Much like the Judean People’s Front (now known as the People’s Front of Judea) from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” PMI and MIP are the same thing with slightly rearranged acronyms.

PMI rates vary depending on how much or little you put down. They are usually less than 1% of your total loan amount per year. Once you have paid down your loan to the point where you have at least 20% equity, you can contact your bank and have them discontinue PMI. However, if you don’t request it, they won’t stop charging you for it.

MIP rates are the same for any loan regardless of down payment. If you took out an FHA loan prior to this year, your rate was 1.25% of your total loan amount per year or less, and you will be able to terminate those premium payments when you reach 22% equity. However, rates are going up for people who take out FHA loans after the end of March 2013. If you wait until the 2nd half of 2013 to take out an FHA loan you will also be required to make MIP payments for the life of the loan regardless of your equity.

MIP and PMI premiums are added to your monthly mortgage payment that you send to the bank. They count towards the maximum amount you can pay in a month, which means they can really put a crimp in your buying power. Mortgage insurance is often the most expensive policy a buyer can have. Homeowner’s insurance in Chicago is usually less than $80 per month. Condo insurance is often less than $30. But PMI on a $300k loan could be as high as $225 per month, and MIP on that same $300k loan will be $437 starting in April.


Monday we’ll be talking about various signs you should look for to determine if the market has recovered in your neighborhood. See you then!

Celebrity Tenants

Between my current career as a Realtor and my prior career as a stage manager, I’ve been lucky enough to deal with several celebrities during my time in Chicago. Like anyone else, they have to live somewhere too. As a landlord, it’s very possible in Chicago that you’ll be contacted by a celebrity (or a member of their entourage) who is interested in renting your apartment. Here are some do’s and don’ts for dealing with the celebrity renter.

Don't get so starstruck by a famous tenant that you lose your business sense.

Don’t get so starstruck by a famous tenant that you lose your business sense.

Do: Remember that “famous” is very relative.

It might be a professional sports player, a celebrity chef, or a movie star. It could also be a local news anchor, car dealership owner, or even your child’s school principal. Or it could be someone you’ve never heard of, like the bass player from an 80’s hair band or a voice actress from one of your kids’ favorite cartoons. It could even be the author of your favorite real estate advice blog. :) (more…)

Rent Bacon: February 2013

Let’s talk about 3 bedroom apartments.

The Rent Bacon index number is an indicator of how a district is performing compared to the HUD Fair Market Rents. Landlords can use it to figure out how much more to charge this year. Tenants can figure out how much more it will cost to move.

The Rent Bacon index number is an indicator of how a district is performing compared to the HUD Fair Market Rents. Landlords can use it to figure out how much more to charge this year. Tenants can figure out how much more it will cost to move.

It’s March. That means it’s time to see how the Chicago rental market performed over the past three months in that fancy statistical analysis we like to call Rent Bacon. As a reminder, we changed formats last month to make this monthly feature more useful. In the process we created a rent index which can be used as a means of comparing value between neighborhoods and gauging how much rent could go up or down over the next year. If you want to read more about what the numbers mean, check this explanatory post about the new Rent Bacon.

This month we’re talking about 3 bedroom / 2 bathroom apartments, and investigating how they’ve performed over the past three months. This is the first time we’ve really looked at 3 beds, which are pretty much the top end in terms of size as Chicago apartments go. You might be able to find something larger in a single family home for rent, but they’re few and far between.

Observation #1: The Gap

In a previous installment of Rent Bacon, I remarked that I saw indicators of people flowing from very expensive Zone 1 to moderately priced Zone 2 when rents got really high downtown. However, that movement didn’t continue from Zone 2 to the even lower-priced Zone 3. My surmise was that the folks who live in Zone 3 – the outskirts of the city – are more likely to move up in size in their same area instead of moving further inwards when their situations changed.

Today in reviewing the index prices we see another potential reason – the gap between Zone 3 housing costs and the inner districts is massive, especially when it comes to apartments large enough to house a big family. Look at the chart above. Look at the gap between the bottom two lines. The average 3 bedroom apartment in Zone 3 is fully 33% cheaper than anywhere else in the city. This is not just a matter of people on the city outskirts loving their neighborhoods. The price gap may be completely insurmountable. A family would have to be earning $84k per year to meet the “affordable housing” limits in Zone 1 or 2. Unless you’ve got a white collar breadwinner or two blue collar/no collar working adults in the family, that just isn’t going to happen.

Observation #2: The winter really blows for 3 beds.

Winter is a tough time to move for the families that tend to occupy 3 beds. It means uprooting the kids from school and packing up a massive amount of stuff during the worst possible weather of the year. The rental market in Chicago generally slows way down in the winter, but for 3 beds it’s a bit more extreme than we see with smaller apartments. All three of the zones saw major drops in the 4th quarter every year going back to 2010. This year has been particularly nasty.

Zone 3’s values took a major hit, falling 11 points since the same time last year and 78 points since the 3rd quarter of 2012. Rent rates actually improved, so the change in value is largely attributable to a glut of extra units coming on the market. As I discussed in an earlier article, January is always a big month for relationships to fall apart and one bedroom rentals spike upwards accordingly. The improving economy has allowed large groups of roommates to split up, which may be resulting in more large units on the market.

Zones 1 and 2 are sitting pretty and showing growth compared to last year. However, the growth is drastically slowed. Last summer the downtown index peaked at 295.65 and the Zone 2 index at 292.99, so we’ve fallen off a bit from those lofty heights. However, when compared with last winter, an equally slow season, the inner districts actually gained 10-14 points.

Zone 1 is seeing static rents and steadily increasing market times. However, this trend should reverse itself once the spring market hits, so don’t count on it being a trend that we’ll see through the year. Meanwhile, Zone 2’s market times are stable, but the rent rates have relaxed a bit and is suffering from a slight inventory glut that’s hurting it’s rent-to-list ratios. Again, this should be remedied by the spring market when a large number of renters suddenly hit the scene all at once to snap up the leftovers from a slow winter season.

Observation #3: That Chart is Too Steep to Sustain

That’s a pretty nasty slope on that chart. Zone 3’s values at their peak last year had inflated to reach downtown’s 2010 values. That kind of growth is far too rapid for renters – traditionally the poorer members of society – to sustain on an ongoing basis. While the rents in Zone 3 have remained largely stable, the rental pace and market demand out there have made it very difficult for someone working 50+ hours a week to find anything good. Meanwhile, in Zones 1 and 2 average rents have increased by between $400-500 for a 3 bed in just 3 years. This means that the average 3 bedroom renter has to be earning between $14k and $18k more in 2013 than they were in 2010. I somehow don’t think that’s realistic.

Chicago has earned the envy of other northern US cities for a long time when it comes to our roomy apartments and comparatively low rents. When you stack downtown Chicago rents against New York ($6000 for a 3 bed) or San Francisco ($4500) prices we’re still pretty cheap. Even so, 18% growth in rents over 3 years is about twice the pace that an average renter can handle. There must be a slowdown. I see it happening within the next 2 years.

everything is going to be alright

The Numbers

Table indicates values for 1 bedroom/1 bathroom rentals based on MLS data.

Average RentAverage Market TimeUnits Rented | ListedIndex
Zone 1
Dec 2011-Feb 2012$252359 days60 | 107261.19
Dec 2012-Feb 2013$254748 days64 | 98271.08
Zone 2
Dec 2011-Feb 2012$218843 days95 | 123226.78
Dec 2012-Feb 2013$233742 days75 | 102241.59
Zone 3
Dec 2011-Feb 2012$149553 days38 | 6760.52
Dec 2012-Feb 2013$157460 days22 | 4749.41

The Zones

The Chicago neighborhood zones remain consistent between this version and the last.

Zone 1 covers central Chicago from South Loop through Lincoln Park. (Actual coordinates: 2000 South to 2000 North, from Western Ave to the Lake).

Zone 2 covers the near North side of Chicago, including Lakeview, Bucktown, Uptown, Lincoln Square, Roscoe Village and NorthCenter. (Actual coordinates: 2000 North to 5200 North, from Western Ave to the Lake.)

Zone 3 covers the Far North and Near South side of Chicago, including Edgewater, Andersonville, Rogers Park, West Ridge, Chinatown, Bridgeport and Douglas. (Actual coordinates: 5200-7600 North plus 2000-4500 South, from Western Ave to the Lake.)


 

I’ll be back on Wednesday with some advice for a renter who got a nasty surprise this month. See you then!

Dear Piggy: Does anybody shovel around here?

So did any of you have this running through your head last week? I know I did.

Yes indeed, I’m a child of the 90’s and we had snow last week here in Chicago. Quite a bit of it. And it prompted one of my regular readers to send in a question:

Dear Piggy,

How about an entry on how you can be fined if you don’t clear snow from your sidewalks, including tenants (and that you can call 311 if people AREN’T clearing)?

So that means we’re talking about shoveling today.

Who owns the sidewalk? (more…)

More Articles About: , , , ,

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!

(more…)