Monthly Archives: June 2012

Weekend Links for June 30, 2012

[Generation rent cartoon courtesy of The Downward Spiral.]

From my browser to yours comes the 2nd installment of the StrawStickStone weekend links!

  • Journey to the center of the earth: MentalFloss (a personal favorite of mine) ran an excellent article this week about air rights and underground rights for homeowners.
  • Introducing "Generation Rent." HuffPo has a great article about the surge of young adults who are moving to/staying in the city and choosing convenience & renting over the suburban homeowner lifestyle. Faced with uncertain career prospects and rising energy costs, the foot-friendly cities are giving rise to a new generation with very different cultural values.
  • Why yes, Realtors can help with Rentals. A recent "Real Estate Matters" column from the Tribune serves as a great reminder that Realtors are in the housing business, not just the home sales business.
  • What's included in your mortgage's APR? I had a great conversation with one of our office's in-house mortgage lenders this week about the hidden fees that can be rolled into your mortgage. Sometimes those fees can mean the difference between a good loan and a great one. Find out what makes up the difference between your interest rate and your APR with some guidance from
  • Early property tax bills in the mail for Cook County. Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas has announced that 2nd installment property tax bills for 2011 will be in the mail this month and due August 1. In previous years the bills have always been late, with due dates sometime in the fall. The bills have been late for so long, in fact, that most bank have come to expect an October or November due date, as have most title companies. This sudden burst of punctuality will mean that most escrowed property tax accounts will come up short, and that any property tax prorations included in home sales for the first half of this year will have been incorrect. Stay tuned for StrawStickStone's take on the mess this coming Wednesday, but for now find out more at the Sun-Times article.
  • Rowing for cancer survivors. A former tenant that I placed in two apartments is on a quest to fund her non-profit. Jenn Gibbons is founder and coach of Recovery on Water, a Chicago based not-for-profit rowing team for breast cancer survivors. Jenn formed the group in response to research that physical activity helps reduce the chance of breast cancer recurrence. This summer she is rowing the circumference of Lake Michigan solo to help raise money for ROW. Follow her adventure and make a contribution to the cause at

Do you have a link to a real estate or Chicago-related item that you'd like me to share here? Let me know!

StrawStickStone Chicago Rent Index: 2nd Quarter, 2012

It's hard to believe, but it's been three months since I posted the Q1 Rent Index. I'm back again with the rent rates from the Chicago MLS for the 2nd quarter of 2012. As before, I'm separating the stats by type of neighborhood, and tracking different styles of apartments. This time around, since I had the data handy, I included the change from last quarter. For the sake of making this easier to read, I've split them into three separate tables.

Chicago's rental market has always seen a slight increase in rent rates from the offseason (winter and early spring) to the peak market. This transition usually occurs between March and April, and the comparison between Q1 and Q2 bears this out. Nearly everywhere saw an increase. You must remember that this reflects a regular response to the ebb and flow of the rental market, not a major ground-shift trend. Unless an area saw an increase greater than about 5%, there's no reason to panic about rents rising too fast. Even so, considering the year over year growth that we've seen, there is cause for concern when even 4% is added to an already strained renter's budget.

Two sectors did see a decrease in average prices, although one of those sectors had such small sample sizes in both quarters that even one very unique property could knock the numbers about considerably.

Avg (Count) Change since Q1 Low / High
Studio $1331 (106) Up 10.18% $995 / $2500
1 bed, Vintage Invalid (5)   $990 / $1600
1 bed, Condo $1878 (478) Up 3.1% $1025 / $5600
1 bed w In-Unit laundry $1977 (241) Up 1.6% $1270 / $4200
2 bed, Vintage Invalid (4)   $1975 / $2300
2 bed, Condo $2841 (368) Up 0.8% $1495 / $8500
2 bed w In-Unit Laundry $2957 (289) Up 4.9% $1495 / $8500
3 bed, Vintage $1949 (13) No Q1 Data $1250 / $2850
3 bed, Condo $5247 (93) Up 6.2% $1800 / $25000
3 bed w In-Unit Laundry $5134 (82) Up 6.5% $1800 / $25000
3 bed Single Family Invalid (0) No Q1 Data N/a
Pets**** Dogs OK: $2654 | No Pets: $2350 | Cats Only $1945
Name Brand Neighborhoods**
Avg (Count) Change since Q1 Low / High
Studio $967 (41) Up 1.3% $550 / $1300
1 bed, Vintage $1258 (16) Up 5.2% $800 / $1800
1 bed, Condo $1511 (206) Up 2.3% $950 / $2700
1 bed w In-Unit laundry $1598 (43) Up 6% $1050 / $2700
2 bed, Vintage $1858 (35) Up 24.6% $1100 / $2800
2 bed, Condo $2185 (332) Up 0.6% $1050 / $3500
2 bed w In-Unit Laundry $2235 (216) Up 1.8% $925 / $3500
3 bed, Vintage $2711 (28) Up 8% $1590 / $5500
3 bed, Condo $2987 (140) Up 4.4% $1800 / $4950
3 bed w In-Unit Laundry $3106 (146) Up 3.8% $1495 / $5500
3 bed Single Family $3236 (19) Up 4% $1300 / $5000
Pets**** Dogs OK: $2397 | No Pets: $1996 | Cats Only: $1844
Generic Neighborhoods***
Avg (Count) Change since Q1 Low / High
Studio $818 (33) Up 0.3% $525 / $1250
1 bed, Vintage Invalid (8) No Q2 Data $950 / $1400
1 bed, Condo $1385 (167) Up 5.8% $750 / $2150
1 bed w In-Unit laundry $1456 (88) Up 3.7% $750 / $2000
2 bed, Vintage $1289 (21) Down 2.1% $900 / $1800
2 bed, Condo $1680 (329) Up 2.4% $760 / $2900
2 bed w In-Unit Laundry $1708 (259) Down 0.6% $760 / $2900
3 bed, Vintage $1850 (15) No Q1 Data $1250 / $2850
3 bed, Condo $2033 (103) Up 0.3% $950 / $3600
3 bed w In-Unit Laundry $2142 (93) Up 4% $1100 / $4800
3 bed Single Family $2122 (17) Up 13.8% $900/ $4800
Pets**** Dogs OK: $1665 | No Pets: $1552 | Cats Only: $1228

* Downtown: Within 1.25 miles of the intersection of State & Madison, Chicago
** Name Brand Neighborhoods: Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Bucktown, Wrigleyville / Lakeview
*** Generic Neighborhoods: Uptown, NorthCenter, Logan Square, Avondale, Irving Park, Humboldt Park
**** Average rent rates based on pet policy across all sizes of apartments.

Read more about Name Brand & Generic Neighborhoods.
Read more about why cat-friendly apartments are cheaper.

Stats based on printed rent rates for the second quarter of 2012 as listed in MRED LLC’s ConnectMLS for the city of Chicago. Completed rentals only, no active listings.

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10 Things You Can Do Regularly to Save Money

Many of you reading this blog are saving up for a down payment, security deposit, cash purchase of investment property, or a similar major expense in the near future. With slim paychecks and rising expenses it can be difficult to squirrel away the recommended 20% of every paycheck.

When I transferred from property management to brokerage I knew I was going to take a pay cut for a while as I rebuilt my business. Here are some of the things I've done to cut my expenses. Maybe they'll work for you, too.

  1. Don't pull your scores - real FICO scores are expensive. But definitely check your credit report.

    Check credit reports regularly. You get one copy of your report from each of the three credit bureaus every year. I usually pull one at the start of the year, once over Memorial Day weekend and once over Labor Day weekend. The dates go in my calendar. The FICO credit scores are not free. And the Scores offered by many of the "free" credit score websites that have popped up lately are not FICO scores. They use a different scale. The free reports you can obtain through are just a list of your open accounts, but for checking accuracy that's all you really need.
    My Cost: $0 and 15 minutes. My Savings this year: $0, but I learned that one old collection account had dropped off of my report this year.

  2. Call insurance companies annually. Did you know that health insurance plans since the beginning of the year have had to cover preventive care 100% before your deductible? Do you even remember what your car insurance deductible is? It's always good to check with each of your insurance providers annually to find out if you can get a better rate. That goes for homeowner's/renter's insurance, business liability insurance, landlord umbrella policies, car insurance, and health insurance for the self-employed. You won't always get cheaper insurance if you call, but it's always worth the effort.
    My Cost: $0 and 25 hours. My Savings this year: $75 in car insurance plus $5580 in health insurance plus $120 for annual checkup now covered by insurance.
  3. There are other sites out there that allow comparison shopping but they're owned by corporate entities. Plug In Illinois is the state-sponsored site and likely to be more neutral.

    Switch electricity suppliers. Hey Chicago! You don't have to get your power from ComEd. You don't. It's worth looking into other options, especially if you have central AC. New carriers in the area offer lower prices. Investigate your options at the Illinois Commerce Commission's "Plug in Illinois" site.
    My Cost: $0 and 45 minutes. My Savings this year: About 5% off my bill plus the good feeling of knowing that my electricity is now coming from renewable sources.

  4. Track cell phone usage. Do you know how many minutes are on your cell phone plan? How about the date when your contract expires, if you're on a contract? When was the last time you used all of your minutes or text messages? Have you been with your cell phone provider long enough to earn a new phone? Do you not know? Maybe you should check. It's especially useful to track your voice minute usage and make sure your plan suits your current lifestyle.
    My Cost: $30 for a new smartphone last year. My Savings last year: No savings but I got a phone and a mobile broadband router for the same price I'd been paying for just voice service on my old carrier. (I'm on a 2 year contract so I'm holding tight on this until next year. The expiration date is definitely in my calendar!)
  5. Appeal property taxes regularly. I've discussed this at length in a prior article about property taxes. You get a window for appealing your taxes every 3 years, and under certain circumstances you can appeal outside of that window. If any home similar to yours has sold nearby you in the past year, it's worth trying to appeal your taxes based on their sale price.
    My Cost: County filing fee. My Savings this year: About $200/mo.
  6. Always get multiple estimates. Calling around for estimates can be annoying and you always feel like you're being a pill. However, you learn in the process about the task at hand, and businesses that won't provide an estimate are not going to remain in business very long. Treat your bank account like it's a business operating account. Allow yourself a certain amount of petty cash for expenses, but if a purchase will require more than your petty cash allowance then go do the proper research.
    My Cost: $0 and a few hours of time. My Savings this year: $500 on a dental treatment and $700 on an exterminator.
  7. Chicago's got some of the best water in the world. (Lake Michigan photo by John Chimon)

    Learn to love ice water. Beverages cost more than food. This is true for most restaurants, and especially for alcoholic drinks. Pop & sugary juices are not healthy either. With the exception of my morning coffee (homemade, french press, black) I stick to ice water from the tap for most of the day.
    My Cost: My portion of the water bill in my monthly assessments. My Savings this year: At 20 cents per can of soda, at least $113.75 so far this year, plus the wear and tear on my pancreas.

  8. Shop slowly. This started with my mother's habit of carrying items around with her in the store as a "test drive" before purchasing. She generally does not make a purchase unless it's on her shopping list or she's toted it around with her in the store for a while. In my case I use my 2 week "Do I need an Ipad" test on pretty much all of my major purchases before I even walk into the store. Mom has picked up on this test and was recently using it herself. She's quite the frugalista, so I'm very pleased.
    My Cost: Quite a bit of time doing research. My Savings this Year: At least $700 on an iPad, $200 in unnecessary clothing & shoes, and $80 in makeup.
  9. Be nice. Win stuff.

    Buy low, tip high, stay consistent. I don't want my thriftiness to hurt the individual workers. I want them to be able to afford to go shopping too. Tips are 100% take home for the laborers, while unit cost is retained by the corporation. Whenever possible, especially in the service industry, I make sure to tip high and I frequently reap the benefits if I'm a returning customer.
    My Cost: Minimal. My Savings this Year: At least $80 in free beers from grateful bartenders, plus $30 from being able to go longer between manicures.

  10. Refinance the mortgage. Much like insurance, you won't always win on this one. However, as long as mortgage rates stay below what you currently have and you stay on top of your credit score, you have at least a shot at a successful refinance of your loan. This is the one scenario where the cost may outweigh the savings. Make sure you run the numbers before you go ahead with the refi. Check with a different lender at least once a year, or once every 3-5 years if you recently refinanced.
    My Cost: About $700 in 2010 for a HARP refi. My Savings: About $28k in interest.

Do you have a money-saving tip to share with us? Let me know in the comments!


When Should You Start Looking for an Apartment?

How soon should you start looking? Well that depends on what you need.

I get this question all the time. How far in advance should a renter start looking for an apartment in Chicago? The answer is extremely varied and depends on your needs, of course. However, there are some definite deciding factors that may help you to schedule things properly. Of course, I've got some handy charts to help as well!

Who can use these charts at face value?

These charts are intended for renters who are looking in Chicago with agent representation. Maybe you want a high end rental, or you're moving from out of town. Maybe you're working with a tight schedule and can only attend a handful of showings. Or perhaps you know you're really picky and want the biggest range of options available to you.

Regardless of your reasons, if you've chosen to work with an agent or locator these charts will probably work for you at face value.

If you're working alone, back up your start date.

The numbers I was able to wring out of my research uses the MLS exclusively. When dealing with rentals in the MLS you must remember that many landlords will try to rent their apartment on their own before they agree to pay an agent's commission. This means that if you're willing to go door to door and crawl through the Chicago Reader looking for spaces you may be able to find something as much as a month earlier than my charts here will show. You can still use them as a benchmark, though - just add 4 weeks what's displayed on the charts.

[Landlords can use this info to calculate when best to launch their listing!]

Many of the bigger & cheaper property managers will hit the market as early as they can. Apartments covered by the CRLTO can be shown as early as 60 days in advance. So in addition to those Type-A folks who feel comfortable cruising the blocks without a representation, the renters looking for the cheapest budget rentals will also want to start a month earlier than these charts show. (This year that means below $1500 if you're on the north side of Chicago.) (more…)

Weekend Links

I figure you guys could use a weekly break from my yammering so I'll be doing links on the weekends. Don't know if this will continue forever but it's worth a shot.

  • The Future is now: The Illinois legislature has approved an amendment to the Illinois Security Deposit Return Act that allows deposit receipts and statements of damages to be sent via email instead of registered post. Friend of the blog Rich Magnone gives some good analysis of the new amendment.
  • Saying nice things: I should also mention that Rich is an excellent Chicago Eviction attorney and legal advisor for landlords. His site,, contains a ton of good info for landlords from the legal POV. He's thorough and practical and has excellent taste.
  • Gambling with Apartments: It's always interesting to see what big corporate thinks of our living situation. See how the REITs who invest in large-scale apartment complexes are assessing Chicago's rapidly rising rents and falling vacancy levels. REIS Reports has one take on the booming downtown luxury rental market, and Crain's Chicago Real Estate Daily has another great take on the matter.
  • Oldie but goodie: over on Get Rich Slowly, a blogger talks about how ruining his credit score was the best thing he could have done for learning how to live within his means.
  • A bit of good news: Another agent in my office (Baird & Warner City North) was one of the experts consulted for a front page Chicago Tribune article on Friday. Chicago home prices break 49 month losing streak.
  • The ultimate move-in checklist: The Chicago Housing Authority performs some of the most stringent housing inspections in the area on behalf of its Housing Choice Voucher Holders, also known as recipients of "Section 8" housing assistance. They make a version of their inspection checklist available for the public. See if your apartment would pass a CHA inspection. (PDF)
  • Eviction of the week: a tenant renting out his apartment for short stays using the popular AirBnB short term rental service has found himself served with an eviction suit. Maybe he can use some of the $20k he earned from his illicit side business to buy his own place instead. Find out his side of the story at Fast Company.

Reality TV Week: Extreme Makeover Home Edition

Extreme Makeover Home Edition Logo

Shall we move a bus or two today? (Logo via

I'd normally be writing a statistics post today, but given that this is our special reality TV week it seems right to do a very special opinion post instead. I'm talking about "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" today, a show which wrapped its successful 9 year run in January of 2012. Specifically I'm talking about the implications of this show's premise, popularity and the criticism it has received as a reflection of our cultural views on real estate. We can learn some valuable things from this show about the American view of poverty, and how it's interpreted through the lens of mass media. Equally valuable is the public's reaction and what it tells us about our cultural view of profit via real estate.

Houses vs Noses vs Time

Lest their be any doubt at the outset as to where I stand on this show - EM: HE was, much like House Hunters and World's Worst Tenants, created to sell appliances and home building supplies via mass spectacle. In this case it's making a spectacle of the poor and unfortunate souls who were deemed pitiful enough to merit new houses. Back in ancient Rome those poor souls would have been fed to the lions or bears for spectacle. Now we tear down their houses and replace them with opulent mansions filled with Sears appliances and run up their utility bills into the five-figures in the process.

Don't get me wrong - I'm all for helping out the less fortunate. EM:HE, though, was a frosting of generosity plastered thickly onto a cake of "let's sell lots of furniture." (more…)

Reality TV Week: World’s Worst Tenants

World's Worst Tenants Logo courtesy of SpikeTV

Time to get a little trashy.

So a property manager, a process server and a former Marine walk into an apartment. Sounds like the set up for either a joke or a reality series. When one of my coworkers brought the new show "World's Worst Tenants" to my attention a couple of weeks ago my first thought was "Wow, how trashy can you get?" and the second thought was a bit of regret that I didn't come up with the idea myself.

Regardless, I'm here to offer my thoughts on the first two episodes, which are all that have aired at the time of writing. (A third airs Tuesday evening but I'll have to have this article in the hopper by then.)

The Premise

As best I can tell, they've got two burly property managers (who call themselves "eviction specialists") and a wispy process server with at least some knowledge of the landlord-tenant laws driving around southern California in an Escalade. They visit a selection of the worst problem tenants and are shown alternately threatening, roughing up, busting and saving the lives of the more extreme examples of the rental business.

An excerpt for your viewing pleasure (or distaste) and then on to the analysis after the jump.

Full episodes are, of course, available at from the link in the first paragraph. I probably don't need to tell you this but the clips are not safe for work. (more…)

Reality TV Week: House Hunters

House Hunters Title Card

Is it real? Is it Memorex? Does it matter?

What's 12 years old and follows a very familiar architecture that we've all come to know and love? No, not your parents' McMansion - it's "House Hunters" on HGTV. Most of you will probably be familiar with the show - probably moreso than I am, as I don't have cable and rarely watch television. However, this week I've gone ahead and watched about 10 episodes in a row (bleah!) in honor of the recent blog entry at They interviewed a former "House Hunters" buyer who accuses the show of being totally fake. General reaction on the web has not been one of surprise, although a few people have seemed reasonably disappointed.

Given the wooden "I love it"s and "I hate it"s and the incessant repetition of certain phrases, anyone with a brain could have figured out long ago that parts of this "reality" series were scripted. However, I've seen countless comments to the recent blog entries about this latest revelation that indicate a bevy of viewers who think "House Hunters" portrays the buying process as it really happens. I've also worked with buyers who have been die-hard fans of the show, so I'm sure this news is not the happiest in the world.

HGTV responded with a press release stating, in part,

We’re making a television show, so we manage certain production and time constraints, while honoring the home buying process.

... In other words, "seriously guys? You thought this was all real? Helloooo!" (more…)

Chicago Real Estate Statistics: Porker’s Index

Harper's Index has always been one of my favorite sources for trivia. I've nicked their format once before and it was a blast. Since Friday is the day when I count things for you it's time I return to that format for a smattering of curious figures.

Number of true search results in Amazon's library for:

  • "How to be a good landlord": 91
  • "How to be a good homeowner": 100
  • "How to be a good tenant": 0
  • "How to be a good manager": 2,535
    Source: as of June 10, 2012

Number of Google search results for:

  • "I hate my tenants": 47,500
  • "I love my tenants": 118,000
  • "I hate my landlord": 985,000
  • "I love my landlord": 3,480,000
  • "I hate my job": 6,130,000
  • "I love my job": 29,600,000
    Source: as of June 10, 2012

Number of new Chicago Craigslist postings in an hour for:

  • Apartments for rent: 950
  • Jobs - all categories: 26 (note: Craigslist charges to post job ads in Chicago)
  • Computers for sale: 15
  • Missed connections: 6
    Source: between 6:25pm and 7:25pm on June 10, 2012

Average student loan debt for 2010 grads:

  • Illinois state average for 4-year college graduates in 2010: $23,885
  • School of the Art Institute of Chicago: $39,306
  • University of Chicago $22,359
  • NEIU: $10,976

Other things you could buy for $23,885:

  • 3/4 of a year's rent in a luxury 2 bedroom Chicago West side Loft condo (Source: ConnectMLS)
  • A 2012 Ford Mustang. (Source: [1])
  • 28.8 Top end Ipads with Cell service. (Source:
  • 31.4% of one year of an average Chicago public school teacher's salary (Source: [2])
  • 55.4% of one year of an average rookie Chicago cop's salary (Source: [3])
  • 871 shares of Facebook stock today.
  • 42 shares of Google stock today.
  • 19% of a single share of Berkshire Hathaway stock today.
    Stock sources: Google Finance

Average list price per square foot per month for:

  • Lakeview 2 bedroom rental (assuming 700 sq ft per 2 bed): $3.27
  • Lakeview 2 bedroom condo purchase distributed over 30 years: $1.30
  • Lakeview storefront rental up to 700 sq ft: $1.83
    Source: ConnectMLS

US National Interest rate averages as of mid-June 2012:

  • 36 month new car loan 3.44%
  • Standard 30 yr Fixed Mortgage: 4.21%
  • Stafford student loan: 6.8%
  • PLUS student loan: 8.5%
  • Average Business credit card w/o "rewards" APR: 13.13%
  • Average "Student" credit card APR: 13.16%
  • Target Credit Card: 25.24%
  • Chicago payday loan, repaid in 2 weeks: 405%
    Sources: (, [4], [5], [6])

Base Rent rates for interesting commercial spaces:

  • 7500 sq ft of storefront space on Division in Wicker Park: $23750/mo
  • 8000 sq ft next to Circuit Nightclub on North Halsted: $13000/mo
  • 2400 sq ft former 7-11 with parking lot in Lincoln Square: $4800/mo
  • 6250 sq ft dog care facility w. equipment on Western in Roscoe Village: $3500/mo
  • 5000 sq ft church in Austin for Sunday afternoons and one weeknight: $1500/mo
    Source (Loopnet)

Landlord Hacks: Calling the Prior Landlord

Landlords who use just a credit report to background check their clients really bug me. Rental payments are very rarely reflected in a credit score. Experian has a specific credit score for rentals now but it only applies if the prior landlords have been reporting payment history to Experian. This does not happen in the real world.

I know that reliance on the credit report has become a quick and legal way to assess the chances of a tenant paying rent on time. However, when the [bleep] hits the fan many tenants will stop paying their bills, but keep paying the one thing that doesn't show up on the credit report: their rent.

This is one of the reasons why renting is inescapable for many of the lower income residents of Chicago. They let their bills slide in favor of rent. So their credit score lowers. So it gets harder for them to get credit or better housing or a loan to purchase a home.

The surest way to verify rent payment has been practiced by landlords for centuries: pay a visit to the prior landlord and ask them. However, as with all things, the advent of the information age combined with fair housing legislation has introduced some complications to this ordinary business of checking references. Find out how to do this the proper way after the jump.