Monthly Archives: August 2012

Not all Insurance Policies are Created Equal

This is not the time to be learning about your insurance limits.

I serve as property manager for my condo association. Lately our insurance for the property has gotten pretty expensive so I have been shopping for a new policy. I had the following interesting exchange with one of the insurance agents:

Me: Yes, I'm also a real estate blogger.
Agent: Oh wow! [Company name] doesn't let its sales agents have blogs, so could you please please do me a favor?
Me: Maybe...
Agent: Can you tell your readers about actual cash value vs full replacement cost? Please?

So hey, here we go. (more…)

Field Guide to Chicago Apartments: The Coach House

The StrawStickStone Field Guide to Chicago Apartments series started a few weeks ago with a guide to identifying, tracking and handling garden apartments when encountered on your apartment hunt. Today we're focusing on the coach house, another excellent and unique choice if approached with due caution.

Like many members of the animal kingdom, the Chicago coach house is a master of camouflage. This unique specimen of rental hides in back yards behind larger buildings, invisible from the street. Unique to Chicago and desperately endangered due to shrinking habitat and restrictive zoning regulations, the elusive and wily coach house has a storied history, a valuable place in the Chicago landscape, and a high value to privacy-seekers, mothers-in-law and garage bands citywide. (more…)

Weekend Links: August 25, 2012

Nerdy Pig by Dani Jones of  Danidraws.

Chicago is quite old, and has the unique perspective of growing up twice - we "rebooted" in 1871 after the Great Chicago fire. The city has a wide selection of historians, both professional and amateur, who have been sharing their work on the web for decades. Today on the weekend links - it's the Chicago History edition!

Blogs & Hobbyist History Sites

First, the amateurs. These sites are not professionally designed, some of them have not been updated for years, and in fact one of them has vanished from the web altogether and is only now available through the Internet Archives. Still, if you're looking to learn about the city's history from people with a legitimate passion for it, these guys will not steer you wrong.

Forgotten Chicago - the articles are great, but the forums are the real draw here. Lots of folks talking about recently (or distantly) departed icons of the late 20th century.

Phil O'Keefe's Chicago Tunnel Company Site - This used to be my favorite site for years, but unfortunately it vanished from the web in 2009. Fortunately it's preserved for the most part in the internet archives, and it's the archived version to which I'm linking here. The site discusses the narrow-gauge rail system that runs under the entire downtown area.

Chicagology - Includes the self-described "larged online collection of pre-fire images in the world." Some excellent coverage of Chicago from before 1871, as well as some detailed essays about other pertinent parts of the city's history.

Chicago History Journal - This may sound like the official blog of some cultural institution but it appears to be a personal effort with some very thorough articles on lesser-known people from years gone by.

Uptown Chicago History - Poor Uptown. It's gone from the most trendy neighborhood in Chicago to a district of great concern over the past 75 years. Find out about how it used to be with articles and abundant photos. - Exhaustive discussion of the Chicago public transit system - mostly the trains but some conversation about the buses, too. If you want to learn about the El, the CTA and its predecessors, this is the ultimate site. I'm linking here to the history page but this entire site is worth exploring. I have spent hours here. Possibly entire days.

Chicago Theatre History Project - The rest of this site is of interest, but the page linked here is truly fascinating. It's a series of maps, splitting city's many theatre companies up by the decade in which they started. Very cool.

Midway History - Books and sites about O'Hare are abundant, but its little sister airport Midway gets pretty neglected. This is the companion site to a book about Midway airport and appears to be very detailed.

Professionally-Maintained History Sites

The Encyclopedia of Chicago - a joint effort between the Chicago Historical Society, the Newberry LIbrary and Northwestern University.

Digital Photo Archives of the Chicago Public Library - The Library system houses multiple collections of photos from early Chicago. There's a pretty large collection of them online including shots of individual houses going back to the 1850's. In particular, since they're the neighborhoods immediately surrounding my office, checkout their collections for Lincoln Square and NorthCenter.

History of Chicago Street Names (pdf) - From the Chicago Historical Society. If you're curious as to how your street got its name, you may be able to find it in here.

The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory - Another joint effort between the CHS and Northwestern. Nicely executed presentation on what is arguably the most pivotal event in the history of Chicago. (Although some might say that changing the course of the river, either of the World's Fairs, or the election of Richard J. Daley might also be of equal significance.)

The Average Chicago Apartment

Remember these two-flats from last week? Time to pay them another visit. We're hunting for the average Chicago apartment.

When new tenants are moving to Chicago they're often shocked to discover that most of the city does not consist of skyscrapers and that most of the apartment buildings are actually approaching a century old. Yes, we have apartments that you can afford, but they may not mesh with what you have in mind when you think of a Chicago apartment. Looking at the housing stats from one can paint a picture of the most common apartment in the city. It has two bedrooms, in a building between two and six units, and was constructed prior to 1939.

The HUD guideline for an affordable apartment is one that costs no more than 30% of your income. (According to a 2009 report from the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, 53% of Chicago residents spend more than that, but oh well. We try our best.)

According to, the median income for a Chicago renter in 2009 was $46,773. 30% of that works out to about $1170 per month to spend on rent.

Today I've put all of this together and went in search of vintage 2 bedroom apartments currently on the market for $1150 to $1200 per month in smaller buildings. I didn't find many - only 12 came up and only 6 of those had photos worth sharing with you. All but one of the listings are at least five miles out of downtown, and you'll notice a distinct absence of name brand neighborhoods in the lot. But I've assembled photo galleries of those six apartments after the jump to give you an idea of what the average Chicago apartment looks like, and where it can be found.

(Oh, and by the way, if you want to rent any of these I can show them to you, provided they're still on the market by the time you find this article. Shoot me an email and we'll figure something out.)


Dear Piggy: I lost my apartment! What do I do?

An apartment is never yours until the day you move in!

I recently received emails from a couple of beleaguered old friends who know that I work in the rental market. Names of the senders have been changed, naturally.

I've been away for the summer and my apartment lease is expiring at the end of the month. I warned my landlord that I would be out of town for a few weeks. While I was gone, the my lease renewal deadline came and went, and now my apartment has been rented out from under me! What can I do? -- Sheila P.

And here's the second one:

My boyfriend and I just rented our first two bedroom apartment together, but when we called the landlord to schedule key pickup we were informed that the current tenant is in jail! The apartment will not be clear in time for us to move in, and there's no way for anyone to know how long it will take to clear the place out. We searched for weeks before we found this place. What do we do? --Marcus R.

A sad day for all. There's nothing so frightening than having your current or future home yanked out from under you. A successful apartment move has many points of failure. Tenants tend to forget that apartment housing is a temporary arrangement, and that even a signed & fully-paid lease is subject to multiple contingencies. If you're in a situation similar to Marcus or Sheila, read on to find out your options.

Analogy Time!

Go forth and shelve righteously, Librarian Repossession Brigade! [photo from 2011 Madison, WI protests by Madison Guy]

I got lucky today. I had a debt of just over $75 forgiven by the Chicago Public Library as part of their "Once in a Blue Moon" amnesty program. An overdue library book is a low-stakes version of Sheila's situation. It is made very clear to us when we borrow the book (or apartment) that we will have to give it back. The date when we will have to do so is also made very plain to us. When that time passes, we can either bring the book back so that others may use it (move out), or keep it to ourselves and rack up fines. The only difference is that the library is not going to send the librarian repossession brigade to forcibly recover the books from our grubby little hands.

Even if Sheila had forgotten her precise lease expiration date over the course of the year, she probably remembered vaguely when she moved in, and probably had a pretty good idea of when her lease was going to expire. She probably assumed that the landlord would allow her to go month-to-month after the lease expired, or maybe she had an inkling of when the renewal offer would arrive and it just slipped her mind with all the travel.

Now, the landlord did the right thing by sending a paper renewal offer. A renewal, once signed, is as binding of a contract as the original lease, and a verbal renewal means a month-to-month agreement. However, in this day and age one would think that an emailed renewal as a PDF attachment would be just as effective. One would also think that the landlord would have called Sheila to warn her when her place went on the market, but this information could well be in the renewal letter itself. Under normal circumstances Sheila would have at least had a warning that the unit was being shown, as advance notice from the landlord would be required before any in-person showing. These days, though, an apartment can rent via video tour without the new tenant ever setting foot in Chicago, let alone entering the actual unit. The scenario, while obnoxious, is possible.

Sheila's Options.

This is a situation where someone is going to get hurt and probably lose some money. The best possible option is the one that causes the least damage to the fewest people. Technically she had equal responsibility with her landlord for ensuring that she still had a place to live after her lease expired. Just like the library "due date" card, the start and end dates on her lease were clearly stated. The landlord has made it clear to her in writing that this scenario could occur.

Option 1: Move out.

If she goes, she needs to find a new apartment or a friend to crash with very quickly. This is obviously a very expensive and inconvenient option, but if the landlord is that uncommunicative it might be for the best. I wouldn't recommend taking this route unless there's no other recourse, though.

Who loses out? Two people: Sheila has to move, and the landlord has to incur the expense of turning over the apartment.

Option 2: Holdover.

Lack of communication only serves to narrow your options.

If Sheila does not get an agreement from her landlord to permit her to stay past the end of her lease, and then stays put, she's now into what's called a holdover situation. The landlord would have to get her evicted via the court system, a process that could well take months. However, Sheila should be aware that most Chicago leases have a holdover clause in the event of just this sort of situation. It usually reads something like this:

Tenant agrees that in the event Tenant fails to vacate and surrender the Premises upon termination of this Lease or Tenant's right of possession of the Premises that: (1) Tenant shall pay as liquidated damages for the entire time that possession is withheld a sum equal to the greater of (i) three times the amount of rent herein reserved, pro rated per day of such withholding, or (ii) Landlord's actual damages if same are ascertainable;

So basically, Sheila's rent just tripled. And she'll have an eviction on her record if she stays on without permission. As much as it would be tempting for Sheila to give back the same lack of communication that she received from her landlord, I'd also recommend that she avoid this particular option. Eviction records last a very long time.

Who loses out? All three parties: The new tenants lose the apartment, the landlord has to evict, and Sheila has to pay 3 times the rent and deal with the judgment on her record.

Option 3: Explain and Negotiate

Both parties are kind of in the wrong here. Sheila was lax in not paying attention to her lease expiration date. The Landlord was also in the wrong to not reach out to Sheila when he didn't received a reply from her and theoretically knew she was out of town. Sheila should also know that the landlord is going to incur a considerable cost by turning the apartment over, even if the new tenant moves in on the same day that Sheila moves out. Both sides have something to gain from talking this out, as long as they can do so calmly.

My thought is that it's in Sheila's best interest to send a polite, non-accusatory letter to the landlord explaining the situation and offering to stay on at a rate that matches the new tenant's rent. She should point out the potential for saving money. The letter should seek a win-win goal.

If the landlord has multiple apartments or friends with apartments, it's possible that he may be able to shift the new tenants to another space. Yes, it's annoying for the new tenants, but the landlord if he's good will get two leases for the price of one and will get to retain a (probably very grateful) tenant.

If the landlord has just one unit, the new tenants are in for a shock much akin to what Marcus is going through, but there's a very good chance that the they had several backup choices in mind. Even if a lease is fully signed by all parties and the deposit has been paid, it is still contingent on the landlord being able to deliver the apartment on the first day of the lease. Tenants, I hate to say this, but the apartment is never fully yours until the day you move in!

Who knows, it's also possible that the landlord forced the new tenant into an earlier lease start date than they actually wanted.

Who loses out? The new tenants, and even then only in terms of time. They will get their deposit back, and there are other apartments. Unless this problem is discovered on moving day, chances are that any damage to the new tenants can be contained and the financial loss will be minor.

All told, option 3 actually causes the least harm, if it can be negotiated calmly and fairly without invoking the demons of the court system and the BBB. Of course, this puts the new tenants in a situation very similar to that of poor Marcus.

Marcus' Options.

This is really a book. I kind of don't want to live on this planet anymore.

At the other end of this spectrum is Marcus, who is probably thinking all kinds of mean things about his landlord and sticking little pins into the voodoo doll of the jailed, outbound tenant. After searching high and low with his partner and viewing about 15 apartments, they were so happy to finally find the one they wanted. And now it won't be ready, there's no ETA as to when it actually will be ready.

Option 1: Sue anyone and everyone.

The landlord had no right to advertise the apartment for rent! The landlord has a binding contract with Marcus! The landlord has to give up the apartment right now! Sue the family of the current tenant! Sue anyone involved in this whole mess!

Yes, Marcus can do this. Let's go to the CRLTO, section 5-12-110(b) for proof.

Failure to Deliver Possession. If the landlord fails to deliver possession of the dwelling unit to the tenant in compliance with the residential rental agreement or Section 5-12-070, rent for the dwelling unit shall abate until possession is delivered, and the tenant may:

(1)     Upon written notice to the landlord, terminate the rental agreement and upon termination the landlord shall return all prepaid rent and security; or

(2)     Demand performance of the rental agreement by the landlord and, if the tenant elects, maintain an action for possession of the dwelling unit against the landlord or any person wrongfully in possession and recover the damages sustained by him.

If a person’s failure to deliver possession is wilful, an aggrieved person may recover from the person withholding possession an amount not more than two months’ rent or twice the actual damages sustained by him, whichever is greater.

Marcus can terminate the lease, or he can "maintain an action for possession." That means suing, kids. And he can sue the landlord or the person wrongfully in possession.

Suing may make Marcus feel better, but it won't get him into the apartment any faster, and will probably take up valuable time that could be spent looking for a different apartment.

Option 2: Go in and remove all of the current tenant's belongings yourself.

This is also known as "breaking and entering," or "trespassing and theft." NO. Just. NO. Unless Marcus wants to get up close and personal with the outgoing tenant in jail - as a cellmate - NO.

Option 3: Wait for the apartment to be ready.

Under some circumstances a holdover situation could be cleared up very quickly. I'd imagine that the family of the jailed tenant does not want to be liable for triple the rent. Provided they can be found quickly and are responsible sorts, the apartment could very well be ready in a week or so. If Marcus really has his heart set on that apartment and only that apartment, it may be worth the wait.

If Marcus takes this option, the landlord may be able to assist with either storage of the furniture or a hotel, and should definitely waive the rent for the time that the property was unavailable. A former client of mine with multiple units offered a spare empty apartment in the same building for a couple of weeks when a similar situation arose due to the death of an outbound tenant, and then had his own workers shift the incoming tenant's stuff into the real apartment once it was cleared.

Option 4: Find another apartment FAST.

There's a fifth option but it involves some wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff that is way beyond my pay grade to explain here.

It's no secret that there are always apartments available in Chicago, and many of them are available to move into today. In a pinch you can always find a space. It may not be the dream apartment you've been waiting for, but it's at least something. On the plus side, if it's available for immediate move in you know for certain that it's already empty!

This exact situation is why I will always sign my renter clients to representation agreements that run for about two weeks after their lease begins. Just in case something unforeseen happens and they cannot move in, I want to make sure they know that I can and I will find them a replacement immediately. I've done several rentals to folks who had the U-Haul sitting out front as we signed the paperwork.

This option does come with two warnings. First, Marcus must make sure to notify the first landlord in writing that he intends to terminate the agreement. Second, in the rush to find a backup apartment do not forget to do some research on the replacement landlord.

Have you ever found yourself in either of these predicaments? What did you wind up doing? Tell us in the comments!

10 Unexpected Reasons Why Tenants Get Rejected

The "Landlord's Applicant Rejection Kit" actually exists, and is published by

According to Chicago's fair housing laws, a landlord cannot use a tenant's race, color, sex, gender identity, age, religion, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, marital status, parental status, military discharge status or source of income as a reason to select or reject their application. They can't use any of those as a basis for showing or refusing to show them an apartment. Most tenants are aware of these laws and most landlords follow them to some extent or another. They may not know all of the specific protected classes for housing, as Chicago has more than other cities and states, but they do the best they can.

High credit scores, verifiable income of a reasonable amount and a clean prior rental record remain the holy trinity of landlords' criteria for approving a renter. They allow a landlord to make a decision on the main issues that matter without risking a fair housing lawsuit. However, in the interest of protecting their buildings and minimizing maintenance costs a landlord may use some secondary, non-protected criteria in addition to the big three. Today we're reviewing some of those surprise factors that could kill your chances of landing your dream apartment so that you can plan around them. (more…)

Weekend Links: August 18, 2012

No themes or schemes for this installment of the weekend links.

The Green Roof on Chicago's City Hall. [via]

It's not easy being green. WBEZ looks into the success rate of Chicago's Green roof programs and the future for this environmentally-friendly innovation in a market with minimal development. ("A green roofs check-in, Anthony Martinez,

...But the city may be able to help. Would you like a free programmable thermostat for your home? How about free low-flow showerheads, CFL lamps, energy audits or tax-break incentives towards green upgrades? The Retrofit Chicago program has been expanded to include the Residential sector, with a focus on older buildings. ("Residential Phase of Retrofit Chicago Launched," Press Release)

1952 called, it wants its racism back. Seriously guys, I thought we were past all of this nonsense by now. A father in Cincinnati has sued his landlord for posting a "whites only" sign at the building's swimming pool. ("Father: 'White Only' pool sign caused suffering," AP via

Condo assessments now optional, says Illinois court. In a ruling that has attorneys and condo associations nationwide looking on in horror, an Illinois court has deemed that owners are entitled to withhold their assessment payments if the association is not sufficiently maintaining the common areas of the property. Can anyone else see the potential for disaster in this? ("Ruling could change course of collection proceedings," Pamela Dittmer McKuen, Chicago Tribune.)

Reuters is all up in our business. A recent Reuters article about whether condos are a viable alternative to college dorms has a very familiar ring to it. I may be kind of biased, but I like our take on the situation better. ("Condos for college kids? Do the math first," John Wasik, Reuters.)

Eviction(s) of the week. I talked about passive-aggressive tenants, but these guys are just plain aggressive. Of course, you've probably heard already that Colorado gunman James Holmes was evicted from his apartment in Aurora. Booby-trapping his apartment and murdering multiple people are cited as the causes for the eviction, although Holmes has not yet officially been convicted of the killings. Meanwhile, an officer in Texas was killed by a tenant while he was in the process of serving eviction papers. Be careful out there, guys. ("Holmes officially evicted from Aurora Home," CBS News. "Eviction's deadly turn no surprise to law officers," James Pinkerton,

Agents, you be careful too. Local Chicago wholesale real estate agent RJ Cit tells us the story of working with an unstable veteran in the process of selling the distressed and badly underwater home of the vet's deceased father. Stalking, threatening phone calls, and assorted other hijinks ensue. Part I and Part II. ("Wholesaling Real Estate - Worst Seller Ever," RJ Cit,


Chicago Real Estate Stats: Single Family Homes vs Two Flats

In this corner, the Chicago single family home...

The Secret Route to a Cheap 5-Bedroom Home in Chicago

Let's talk about two-flats. Despite their prominence in some sections of Chicago, They're often overlooked by homebuyers, existing somewhere in the borderlands between a house and an apartment building. They absolutely should not be ignored. If you're looking for a large living space with a yard and garage, and are willing to do some work as a landlord in exchange for a lower purchase price, you're going to find some excellent deals.

Today I've taken a quick survey of the last six months of sale prices across an assortment of neighborhoods, comparing the results of two specific types of property. On the one hand we have single family homes with 3 to 4 bedrooms. On the other, we have two-unit buildings where at least one of the units has 3 bedrooms and the other has at least 2 bedrooms.

... And in this corner, the Chicago Two-Flat. It's the ultimate Chicago vintage property showdown!

The smart reader will realize that this type of two-flat could actually could serve as a five bedroom home if the owner chose to use both units for themselves. Alternately, if rented out, the extra unit could provide some backup income to help with expenses.

A lot of folks think that multi-unit buildings would be more expensive than single family homes. Today's research will show that this is not really the case. In fact, in most of the neighborhoods I studied, the median price of a two flat was comparable or lower than the median price of a single family, and the maximums were all 35-50% lower on the two flats than the single family homes. (more…)

Landlord Hacks: Care & Handling of the Passive-Aggressive Tenant

Ever get the feeling that you're not really welcome?

Landlords, have you ever encountered a situation where an outbound tenant seems to be deliberately complicating your efforts to re-rent their apartment? It's hard to tell sometimes if they really mean to harm your business or if you're just being paranoid. Today we're going to talk a little about the ways to tell the difference and what your options are if the tenant really is trying to keep you out.

In my experience, one out of every five or six tenants is simply hostile towards any landlord or any person who attempts to enter their space. I can understand where they're coming from. Apartment showings emphasize the have/have not separation of landlord vs tenant more than any other aspect of the rental process. When a landlord gives notice of a showing, most of the time it isn't a request for permission. It's a warning to get out of the way. When I was a tenant I insisted on the full two-day notice, mostly because I was working nights at the time and had to make sure I was awake in my version of the middle of the night every time my apartment was shown. Now after 7 years of showing real estate I take a very different view on the matter. (more…)

10 Questions to Ask Before Listing an Occupied Apartment

The sweetest tenants in the world can become your worst nightmare once it comes time to show their apartment.

A good and prosperous landlord will do everything in their power to minimize the time that their rentals sit vacant in between occupants. In an ideal world, the outgoing tenants would leave and the new tenants would move in on the same day, but unless you keep a model unit sitting empty this means showing the apartment while it is still occupied.

Show an occupied apartment adds a layer of complexity to the situation, risks harming the relationship with the outbound tenants, and bucks the expectations of the prospective tenants in the market. Before you put your occupied apartment on the market, give some thought to these 10 questions.

1. Does the apartment need less than 24 hours worth of work to get it into move in ready condition? Unless your lease specified a move-in and move-out time, your outbound tenants may expect that they've got until midnight to remove their stuff, and your incoming tenants may expect that their lease starts at midnight. By showing the apartment while it's still occupied you are telegraphing that you intend to spend less than one day getting the place ready in between. Make sure that the place looks like it would be clean and habitable with very little work before you put yourself through the madness of a 2-4 hour paint, patch & clean at midnight. (more…)