Pig Latin: Confusing Chicago Regional Real Estate Terms

We Real Estate folk talk pretty funny sometimes. Here’s some terms that are often confused, even by supposed “professionals.” Today I’m going to be discussing how they should be used within the Chicago regional real estate market. I’ll also give some warnings as to how the terms are misused by certain real estate practitioners who don’t know their stuff.

Deposit vs Fee. A deposit is basically collateral. It’s held for a specified time period and returned to you if you behave yourself. A fee, on the other hand, is never refunded. I have unfortunately seen terms such as “non-refundable deposit” get tossed around, which is just outright incorrect.

Deposit vs. Down Payment. For first time renters, it’s easy to get these two terms confused. For rentals you put down a security deposit. For new home purchases you put in a down payment. I’ve heard many prospective renters ask me how much of a down payment is required by the landlord. While it’s pretty easy for me to translate in my head, those renters immediately give away their lack of experience in the market.

Eaves, Fascia, Soffits, Gutters and Downspouts. The eaves are the part of a roof that stick out from the side of the building. The roof will have a certain amount of thickness to it, meaning that it doesn’t meet up with the wall in a perfect point. The fascia spans the gap between the roof and the wall like a bandage. If your roof protrudes substantially from the side of your house, you will have a soffit underneath the overhang. This is another “bandage” to cover the gap underneath the roof. A gutter is a semicircular tube that runs along the point of an eave furthest from the building where the roof and the fascia meet. Water collects in the gutters and runs through them to a central drainage point. Connected to that drainage point is a downspout, a vertical tube that runs down the side of the building.

From renovationexperts.com. You’re welcome.

Scavenger. When you’re looking at a real estate listing in Chicago, “Scavenger” is the term used to refer to trash collection. As a general rule of thumb you will not have to pay for trash pickup if you’re renting in Chicago. If you’re a homeowner in a building with fewer than seven units the city will provide pickup, covered by taxpayer funds. If you’re owning in a larger building your trash collection will be outsourced to a third-party hauler. The cost will be included in your assessments. Some new Chicagoans will interpret “scavenger” to mean pest control. Don’t confuse the two terms.

School District vs. School Attendance Boundary. The entirety of the Chicago public school system is referred to in state terms as “District #299.” You heard right. Every public school student in Chicago is in the same district. However, some of the schools have geographic attendance boundaries. If you live within those boundaries, your children will be expected to attend the designated neighborhood school. However, in many cases you can opt to send your child to a different nearby school, a magnet, or a charter.

Ceci n'est pas un ranch.

It’s a penthouse! It’s a garden unit! It’s all of the above!

Penthouse. In television lingo a “penthouse” refers to a single unit protruding from the roof of a skyscraper. They’re usually large and luxurious, and possibly the only unit on that particular level. Chicago uses the term more generically. A penthouse in Chicago real estate refers to any top floor property in a multi-unit building.

Rehab vs. Renovation. There was a time when “rehabbing” a property meant a whole-hog, full-on repurposing of a failing structure. Rooms were moved around, entire sections of wall were replaced. Renovation, on the other hand, took a property in decent but dated condition and freshened it up with new finishes and modern amenities. The two terms are now used interchangeably. If you see that a property was “recently rehabbed” it could mean something as basic as replacing the carpet in a couple of rooms.

We’ll call it the Amy Wine House.(Too soon?)

Dining Room. I’ve discussed my issues with counting rooms before, so I won’t dwell on this. It will suffice to say that with “combo” dining rooms a viable option in real estate listings, all a “dining room” signifies is that a real estate agent thinks you’ll be able to fit a 6 person table in some corner of another room.

Deck vs. Porch. In Chicago, those wooden (sometimes metal) structures attached to the back of buildings as fire escapes are called porches. If it’s attached and stacked in multiple levels up the back of a building, it’s a porch. If it’s freestanding and uncovered, it’s a deck.

Any Questions?

Township. When you’re looking at a Chicago real estate listing you’ll see mention of a “township.” Many home seekers get confused and think that this refers to the neighborhood of the property. Chicago only has eight townships. They’re relics from the old days before Chicago was quite so large, and basically delineate the different towns that Chicago swallowed as it grew. There are eight townships: Rogers Park, Jefferson, Lake View, North, West, Lake, South and Hyde Park.
These days township boundaries are only used by Cook County for dividing up property tax appeal deadlines. So, if you’re looking in Edgewater don’t be surprised to see that your property is listed in Rogers Park Township.

Do you have any terms that confuse you from the Chicago housing market? Let me know and I’ll try to cover them in another installment of Pig Latin.

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2 Responses so far.

  1. Regina Montgomery says:

    Thank you for this article. My daughter from Ca will be renting by UIC and its VERY confusing on real estate terms, even in rentals. Can you advise us what to look for in terminology. We have a small home w/o central heating and air and its really hot in summers of 95 degrees. What if rentals say no central heating and air-this would be barely manageable here in CA but in Chicago, I would think..not so manageable. We will be in Chicago in April to narrow down neighborhoods, looks like Pilsen ok, but why so cheap..say 2 bedrooms for 700.00–we aren’t in OC or LA but the Inland Empire 2 bedrooms are easy 900.00 and up with central heat and air

    Thank yo very much,


    • Kay Cleaves Kay Cleaves says:

      Hi – Sorry for the slow reply. I’m not a Realtor anymore and don’t really check this blog too often. Hope you figured everything out.

      In case you still need help, here are some pointers:

      • A lot of old buildings have steam radiators for heat. This is great in the winter, as it’s reliable and usually paid for by the landlord. However, while you can heat a building with steam you usually can’t cool it. Fortunately, we only need A/C here for about 6 weeks out of the year but we need heat for 7-8 months. You can usually get by with a window air conditioner, with the trade off of saving a chunk of change on your gas bill for not having to pay for heat all winter. If you see “heat included” that means steam heat, no AC. If you see “Central Heat” that means Gas Forced Air (usually), tenant-paid. “Central Heat” does not necessarily mean “Central AC” – make sure to confirm that both are present if that’s important to you.
      • There’s a huge price gap between North side and South side apartments. Pilsen’s very trendy right now because of cheap rents in some of the properties, although it’s rapidly gentrifying so you’ll see enormous price variances between old school and new school landlords. There’s also a big difference between the eastern half of Pilsen (along Halsted) and the western half. Also, because “Pilsen” has become recognizable as a brand name neighborhood a lot of areas on the edge of Pilsen will call themselves “Pilsen” when they’re really less savory neighborhoods or so far away from the center of the neighborhood as to make calling it “Pilsen” a stretch.
      • If you’ve been watching Pilsen rent rates and are seeing a place at a price that seems way too low, there’s two other possibilities. 1 – it’s a basement apartment. 2 – it’s a scam. The most common rental scam out there involves scammers copying legitimate ads in popular neighborhoods and reposting them at lower prices. If you contact them they’ll claim they’re overseas on missionary work, or provide a similar excuse for why they can’t actually show you the inside of the property. You think the place is too good to pass up and send in your deposit and first month’s rent, for which you get nothing back, since the scammer is not the real landlord.

      Good luck to you. Hope you find something great.

Hi! Please note that I'm no longer a licensed Realtor and I don't check the comments very often anymore. You're welcome to leave questions but be aware that it may be a few months before I see it. For faster response, please use the Contact page to email me your questions.

-Kay C.

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