Monthly Archives: September 2012

StrawStickStone Rent Index: 3rd Quarter 2012

So it's the end of the third quarter. Do you know where your renters are? If the rental stats from the MLS have any truth to them, I'd say they're getting out of town and/or starting to buy property. The past two quarters have shown high numbers and pretty major rent rate growth in all three of the Chicago neighborhood styles that we measure here at StrawStickStone. (See the Quarter 1 and Quarter 2 reports.) This time around, we're seeing lower prices, which should come as a welcome relief.

First of all, the total count of units rented was very slightly lower in pretty much every neighborhood. We're about 7% down compared with Q2 activity. Bear in mind that I am running this survey with about 4 days left in the month, so we could very well still make up the difference before Saturday. However, these numbers do include the massive September 1 move date up against Q2's Big Bertha moving date of May 1. The number of units rented should be pretty much identical to what we saw 3 months ago, and it was. It stands to reason that our average rent rates should also be pretty close, but they weren't.


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Making It Your Own vs Just Owning

Today: Extreme home decorating, TRON style! (Just kidding. Well, about the TRON bit, at least.)

I used to work in Chicago's ample theatre scene for several years before I got into real estate. In fact, theatre is what brought me out here - I started my Chicago tenure with a year-long stage management internship at Steppenwolf in the late 90's. The best introduction to this article that I can think of involves reaches back to those days for the story of a set designer who was pretty well known in Chicago for her adventurous scenery endeavors.

Normally when a set designer first visits a performance space he or she will take measurements of the existing dimensions so that they can create a set that will fit on the existing stage. This is logical. The designer I'm speaking of would walk into the theatre with her plans already fixed in her mind and start her assessment of the space with "okay, first off we'll need to knock out the back wall of the building." Most of the time she was quite serious about this opening volley and would have to be negotiated down to something that left the masonry reasonably intact.

Oddly enough, her sets wound up being the most creative and best suited to the scripts they surrounded than any of the others I've seen to date.

So what does this have to do with the real estate market?


Dear Piggy: Doesn’t my Landlord have to repaint every year?

In keeping with the spirit of normal Chicago apartments, this will be the only color in the whole article.


"I thought my landlord had to repaint every X number of years?" I get this question all the time. Usually from tenants who are either a) looking for a reason to move, b) looking for a reason to sue their landlord, c) looking for a fight, d) looking for permission to repaint their apartment in a different color of their choice, or e) originally from other states where such things actually are required. The short answer for Chicago apartments is NO. Your landlord is not required to repaint.

It's an urban legend, guys. In fact, they're not allowed to enter your apartment for any reason unless you tell them something is broken, something is obviously broken like water overflowing into another apartment, or they're showing the apartment. However, like all urban legends it has its roots in the truth. (more…)

The Average Chicago Condominium

We've done average apartments. How about average condos?

Second verse, same as the first.

A few weeks ago I did a little overview of what the average Chicago apartment looked like. It was pretty popular. But my office is on me for material that they can promote from their new social media campaign, and they're not so pleased with all the rentals that I do. (They are a residential sales brokerage, after all. They want me selling stuff, not renting it. Hint hint.) So, we're going to do the same thing with condos today as I did with rentals before - find the profile of the average condo and then pick out a few from the recent sales bin to show you what they look like.

What's the point? Well, if these are all hovering around the median price point for recent sales, then you can reasonably expect to find something comparable at or around this price in the immediate future somewhere in Chicago. Prices have started to tick upward, especially at the lower end of the spectrum, so we may not see this as the average for much longer. More importantly, this serves as a historical snapshot of what the average Chicago home buyer could afford to purchase in 2012. (more…)

Your New Noisy Roommate: Steam Radiators in Chicago Apartments

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that this article was linked on October 18, 2012 from a certain HVAC newsletter with the instructions to "find as many errors as possible" in the article. This has resulted in a stream of hate mail and comments including some threatening me with injury and death. As such I have disabled all comments other than one from a solitary, polite commenter which explains how radiators are supposed to work in a perfect situation, even if they don't work that way in most budget-range Chicago apartments.

So, it was 41 degrees last night in Chicago. Many of you probably found yourself searching the web for "Chicago heating laws" or something similar. They exist. It gets cold here. Heat is considered a life-essential service for a little less than 3/4 of the year. Today we're featuring a handful of facts that you should know if you're owning or living in an apartment with landlord-provided steam heat.

They will make noises, but they shouldn't be too loud.

Here's the basic premise of a steam radiator. Water is heated in a boiler down in the basement. It turns to steam, which flows up a big pipe, past a few safety valves and into your big clunky radiators. The metal radiators absorb the heat from the steam, which condenses back into water as it cools. The water flows back down to the boiler either through the same pipe or through a separate, slightly narrower pipe. Repeat ad infinitum. These are called one-pipe and two-pipe systems, respectively, and they are very, very common in Chicago's old-school vintage walkup apartment buildings.

That's a lot of physics going on. In a perfect situation you would hear no noise, but these are Chicago apartments we're talking about here. The systems are rarely in good condition, but they'll suffice. What's important here is to know what's reasonable and what's dangerous. You will hear some ticking as the metal radiator expands & contracts in reaction to the temperature changes. There will be some hissing as excess air escapes through the pressure release valve on your radiator. You may even hear the gurgle of water as it flows back out. These are all normal sounds and part of living with your noisy new heat-giving friend. However, there's one sound that you should not hear: knocking. (more…)

Chicago Luxury Apartments Explained for the Rest of Us

Will we soon be seeing articles like this about Chicago?

A Peculiar Answer to a Housing Shortage

The apartment rental pundit blogs are buzzing lately about the future of the Chicago market. In 2011 the Depaul Institute of Housing Studies announced that Chicago would be short on affordable rentals for the next 20 years if we were to start building more stock right at that moment. This year ground has been broken and/or plans announced for the construction of thousands of new apartments in downtown Chicago . However, most of these are luxury skyscrapers. To the outside observer one would surmise that these developers have missed the point. Why would they build a rash of $2000/month 2 bedroom apartments when "affordable" is somewhere around half of that amount?

The answer lies in the availability of funds for projects of this nature. Banks have become far more stringent in lending to any potential homebuyer. For those looking to use borrowed funds to build large scale apartments the available funds are even scarcer. A construction loan large enough to fund the construction of affordable apartments would be due back in full after 5-7 years. While this would be theoretically possible if the units were sold off as condominiums, the "get rich slowly" model of business that accompanies a rental-oriented business model is focused on steady, ongoing cash flow, not immediate gains. A landlord renting out the units at $1000 per month would take far longer to pay off the construction loan than a developer who sold off the units at $200k each.

Unless a landlord has a standing line of credit or large amounts of cash on hand, building affordable apartments remains a pipe dream. The only major source of money to build apartments is coming from REITs, and they're only interested in one thing - getting big cash flow coming in as quickly as possible. (more…)

Landlords in Distress

This boarded up foreclosure in West Garfield Park probably meant more evictions than a week of landlord-tenant cases at the county courthouse. (Photo by Garin Flowers/ Medill News)

A few months ago I did a series of articles on the statistics of Chicago Evictions. However, those articles focused only on tenants with past due balances, omitting the other primary source of evictions. It isn't always the tenant who falls behind. A landlord in debt to her mortgage lender can put every tenant in her building at risk of eviction if she falls behind on her loan payments. Today I'm investigating landlords to see if there's any specific risk profile that is a worst-case-scenario for foreclosure, and if landlords are any better than their tenants at making payments on time.

The answers, if you're curious, are Yes and No.


The problems with Rent to Own

Please, pick one or the other.

Oh, rent-to-own. You sound so attractive, but you're so misconstrued. I get many calls from renters, often those with weak credit or low-paying jobs, who have seen the term "rent-to-own" tossed around. Seeing that I'm a Realtor who works in rentals, they figure I must do a ton of these. They are usually surprised when I immediately launch into a full-on campaign to talk them out of the idea. It's just a terrible arrangement for both the landlord and the tenant unless you are so bad at saving money that you simply cannot put together a down payment in any other way.

Fluctuations Hurt Everyone.

First of all, prices change over time. This means that an agreement like this where the purchase price is set at the beginning of a 3-5 year lease is going to wind up screwing somebody over. If sale prices go up, the landlord gets hurt by being locked into the old low price. If prices go down, the tenant gets cheated out of some cash and may not be able to close the deal if the property doesn't meet or exceed the value of their new mortgage once the time comes to hand over the title.

Give a Yard, Get an Inch

Secondly there's the typical structure of a rent to own agreement. The chart below, while simplified, illustrates the difference between the common perception of "rent to own" on a $1000 apartment, and the reality of the situation.

Based on $1000 rent rate.

Not quite what you had in mind, was it?

There's a lot of restrictions on a rent-to-own. You have to take into consideration the landlord, the mortgage lender, and your own needs. If someone has a property on the market it means they want to get rid of it. They don't want to hang around for 3 to 5 years waiting for you to buy it. They want it gone now. By pulling it off the market for you for 3-5 years even in an appreciating market they may lose out on a buyer who does want to buy it from them now. They will want to charge you for keeping the property out of the sales market. This is called the "option amount" and it gets tacked on to the regular fair market rent. So you're now paying $1200 for that apartment. $1000 in rent and $200 for the option.

Meanwhile, once your rent-to-own time period comes to an end and you're looking for a loan to complete the purchase, a lender will look at the market rents for that building. Only the amount in excess of the fair market rent will be considered as eligible to go towards the down payment. If you're lucky, they might assess the fair market rent at $800, meaning that you've got $400 left that the bank will let you allocate.

Of course, your landlord may also have a say in the down payment allocation matter, too. After all, they'll have to hold on to the amount earmarked for down payment until the actual sale occurs several years down the road. They can't use it for today's expenses. Many will let you contribute only 20-25% of your monthly rent payment towards a down payment. The rest needs to go towards operating costs.

Get A Yard, Feel the Pinch

There's also the issue of maintenance. Many landlords get sold on the idea of a rent-to-own deal because they think a prospective buyer will take better care of their property than your run of the mill tenant. Some landlords take this even further and fob a lot more of the maintenance over to their renters. Suddenly items like landscaping, snow shoveling and basic repairs are dropped in your lap. I've seen some landlords work out something very similar to a deductible, which their tenant must contribute towards repairs before the landlord kicks in to assist with the cost.

Rent-to-own agreements are generally outside of the province of the Chicago Landlord Tenant Ordinance. You're pretty much on your own, relying on whatever is included in your lease & rent-to-own contract. Needless to say, you want to get attorneys involved very early on in this process.

Collateral Damage

A security deposit equivalent to about one month's rent is expected in apartment rentals. While some larger landlords are moving away from the deposit, you'll still have to put up some sort of collateral against damage to the unit before you move in. In most cases of normal rentals, the deposit is the maximum you would forfeit upon moving out, unless you leave behind an enormous rent balance or massive damage better served by an insurance claim.

In the case of a rent-to-own, the option amount is generally not refundable. It is definitely held in escrow so that the landlord doesn't spend it before the title transfer occurs, but if you don't exercise your option to purchase at the end of the lease period the landlord will keep it. This means that if you choose to walk away from a rent-to-own without buying, your forfeited collateral could be far worse. Check out the difference in the chart below.

Based on $1000 deposit, $200 option add on, 3 year lease prior to purchase.

There are different tiers of rent-to-own agreements that may have far more stringent penalties. In a Lease Option agreement, the option is at risk as shown in the chart above. In a Lease Purchase agreement, the landlord might also be able to force you by lawsuit to buy the property when the rental period is over. So, unless you're absolutely serious that you want to live in this home for at least 8 years (3-5 as a renter plus 3-5 as an owner) you should only enter this kind of agreement with extreme caution and the advice of an attorney and agent who have done it successfully before.

Cultural Predation

The rental-purchase market for goods other than housing is pretty darned pervasive among certain subsets of the population. The FTC did a survey in the late 1990s and reported that the majority of customers using rent-to-own as a purchasing option were young, poor, and black. Most do not have more than a high school education.[1]James M. Lacko, Signe-Mary McKernan, and Manoj Hastak, Survey of Rent-to-Own Customers, January 2000,

Those who are culturally accepting of rental-purchase as a viable route to ownership of furniture, electronics, etc. will be far more likely to enter into these financially unsound agreements when it comes to housing as well. I don't know about you guys, but anytime I see a purchasing structure targeting the poor and inexperienced members of the population I get really suspicious. A dishonest property owner stands to gain a lot more in retained collateral from a buyer who is very eager to purchase but unlikely to be able to close the deal.

The FTC had to nose in on the affairs of rent-to-own businesses even when it was on the smaller scale of renting furniture. That's with large, obvious companies that rely on large numbers of consumers paying small amounts. A home seller, on the other hand, can fly under the FTC's radar and needs the approval of only one person - you - in order to make quite a bit more than you'd spend on a couch. Caution is needed.

Something Closer

When most people picture a rent-to-own scenario, if it's anything like the "Imaginary" section of the bar chart I drew above, they're may be thinking of seller financing. In the case of seller financing, the title changes hands up front, but instead of going to an outside bank to obtain a loan, the seller allows the buyer to pay off the purchase in installments with interest. Here's a table that explains the differences.

Rent to OwnSeller Financing
Title transfer occurs at end of lease period. Title transfer occurs up front, at least in part.
Buyer must obtain an outside loan. Seller is the originator of the loan.
Property must appraise at or above the amount of the loan. No appraisal required.
Purchase or loss of option money required at end of rental period. After 3-7 years, balloon payment of loan balance required.
Only the amount in excess of fair market rent goes towards the purchase price. Entire payment, less interest, goes towards purchase price.
Standard down payment allowances apply, as you're applying for a regular loan. Seller will very likely require 20% down payment up front.
You can build up your credit to become loan-worthy while living in the unit, if the landlord is amenable. You'll probably need excellent credit right off the bat to convince the seller that you'll honor the debt.

Obviously neither is a magic bullet for a buyer with weak credit and no savings. One commits you to a very long term arrangement at a pricey premium. The other requires you to be ready to buy up front, but allows you to wiggle around low appraisal amounts and conforming loan maximums.

Preferred Method: Self Control

There will always be homes on the market. In fact, if you're planning on renting-to-own, chances are good that the same property you want to rent-to-own now may well come back on the market in 5-7 years anyhow. Who's to say that it will still suit your needs? Come to think of it, considering that only a small subset of owners are willing to do lease-purchase or lease-option agreements anyhow, who's to say that any of their properties will suit your needs in the first place?

If you aren't ready to buy now, paying a costly premium to rent-to-own will not help matters. You need to be both financially and mentally ready to take on the responsibilities of homeownership. Better to set up a mandatory monthly transfer to an outside savings account to build up your down payment, find a cheaper apartment and focus on rebuilding your credit score on your own. You'll be far more confident in yourself and in a stronger negotiating position after 3-5 years if you are able to demonstrate the necessary self-control to do it this way. You'll have learned the money-saving skills necessary to keep your home for a good, long time.


1 James M. Lacko, Signe-Mary McKernan, and Manoj Hastak, Survey of Rent-to-Own Customers, January 2000,

If Homes were Marketed Like Apple Products

PC Operating System Market Share, March 2012

The Core of the Matter

With 31% of the smartphone market,[1]Zach Epstein, NPD: Apple was best-selling U.S. smartphone vendor by wide margin in Q2, August 23, 2012, 66% of the tablet market[2]AP, Worldwide market share for tablet systems a market dominated by Apple’s iPad, Sept 5 2012, and 6.7% share of the very splintered and entrenched desktop market[3]Market share for browsers, operating systems and search engines, August 2012,, Apple is a company that cannot be ignored. Among Generation Y, the Millennials and their younger followers the share is even higher. If you're talking about real estate buyers, typically the more financially stable segment of the population, I'd posit that you'd see an even higher market share given to Apple.

Younger generations have avoided buying cars.[4]Brad Tuttle, Car Ownership Not Popular With Generation Y, May 2, 2012,  The first major purchase they make will instead be a computer or smartphone. Technology is now their first introduction to installment payments for big ticket items. A computer is often the first item where a young consumer must buy with an eye towards maintenance costs and longevity. They may have to choose between a style leader something that's less fashionable but more affordable. Basically, buying a computer is now the average Chicago consumer's training for buying a house.

Apple has succeeded where the real estate industry has failed. They've convinced those cash-strapped younger consumers to pay a premium for equipment. (more…)

Rent Bacon, July 2012

Zone 1 saw much slower growth, Zone 2 saw a slight relaxation in pricing. Zone 3, on the other hand...

First Friday means we're frying up another heap of Rent Bacon. This strangely named monthly series offers the most compact, flavorful summary possible of the Chicago rental market in a bacon-shaped chart. <<< That's the chart. My analysis is below.

My suspicions from last month's report were confirmed by July's numbers. The innermost zones both showed dramatically slowed growth compared to the astronomical increases we saw in the first two quarters of 2012. Zone 2, the near-to-mid north area, saw both lower rents and longer market times compared to July of 2011. However, Zone 3, consisting of the far-north and near south neighborhoods, saw a repeat of June's massive improvement over 2011.

Has it Peaked?

Downtown may well have peaked. With only 3.3% rent growth and no change to the number of rentals on the market I think we may have reached our limit. Rents are still increasing but I do not think we will see a return to the heady 10-14% year over year increases that we saw in the 2nd quarter.

However, the 2 bed/2 bath constraint on downtown may be limiting our numbers. I've taken this to be my benchmark for a "normal" rental, but with rents increasing the first thing people will do is to downsize. This made me wonder if there was some absorption in the 2 bed/1 bath market downtown of those who cannot keep up with the spiraling costs. A quick glance at the numbers for 2 bed/1 baths confirms it - rents for these lesser units increased by 8.9% and the rented inventory increased by 10.7%.

I do think that the downtown market has reached an event horizon. Market time averages simply cannot go much lower without resulting in a disturbing number of the best listings staying online for less than an hour. $2410 per month for a 2 bed means that the average tenant needs to be earning at least $86.4k per year. A repeat of the 13.7% year over year increases that we saw in April would push it very close to the brink of requiring a six figure income for an average apartment. The 3.3% y-o-y rent increase that actually occurred is bad enough for this weak economy's tenant pool.

But what about Zone 2?

This is not the first time in 2012 that Zone 2's bacon strip has been in the red. However, two outside factors should be borne in mind, and here I go again with my typical style of giving you stats and then telling you to ignore them.

July of 2011 was the first time that the average cost of a 2 bed/2 bath exceeded $2000 in Zone 2. In fact, Zone 2 saw a 4.8% increase month over month between June and July of 2011. That's pretty major. The other thing to remember is that the negative showing results entirely from a market time that's only one day longer in 2012 than it was in 2011. Percentages are funny creatures that way.

Besides, while I think a lot of the Zone 1 folks overflowed down a notch into the 2 bed/1 bath units, I think the Zone 3 folks migrated outwards to Zone 3.

Pushed Out

Zone 3 rents have increased 16% this year, going from $1292 in January for a 2 bed/2 bath to $1500 in July. That's bad news for an area that normally caters to the least affluent members of the Chicago north side population. July 2012 saw a 10.7% increase in rents over July 2011, and a massive 35.1% improvement in market time. At the beginning of the year someone earning $46.5k per year could afford to comfortably rent up there. Now they have to be clearing $54k, or $27 per hour, full time, year round. Your average Chicago housekeeper earns about $11 an hour.[1] A couple of them would not be able to comfortably afford an average 2 bed/2 bath rental in an area like Rogers Park.

The Numbers

 Average RentAverage Market TimeTotal Rented
Zone 1
July 2011 $233424 days246
July 2012 $241022 days246
Zone 2
July 2011 $205625 days106
July 2012 $207026 days94
Zone 3
July 2011 $135557 days26
July 2012 $150037 days21

Stats reflect pricing and activity for 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartments listed in ConnectMLS as with rented dates during the month of July. Analysis of specific areas is available upon request.

What is Rent Bacon?

Rent Bacon is a quick visual summary of what’s happening in the rental market this month compared with this time last year. It breaks the city down into three zones. For each zone, it takes the change in average rent rates and the change in average market times as percentages, and then averages the two percentages together on a 3 to 1 weighted basis.

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.)

Want more Bacon? Here’s last month’s update.