Monthly Archives: December 2012

StrawStickStone Rent Index: 4th Quarter 2012


It's winter in Chicago. We've discussed the Chicago rental off-season before and you'll be seeing it reflected in all of the Q4 numbers today. Nearly every sector is down, and that's to be expected. Market activity has fallen off by 40-50% since Q3 as happens every year. What's important in a situation like this is to look at the sectors of the market that bucked the downward trend.

4th quarter Chicago rental market activity has been the worst so far this year. All told it's amazing prices have only dropped by less than 10% in most places.

Downtown, the smallest units saw upward movement on the price points. Studios and small one beds were in demand, which is pretty much always going to be the case in downtown Chicago. Students & in-town business make up most of the tenant population and their demand is consistent. Interestingly, the price point for 3 beds was also elevated. Given that we're looking at an average price point over $5000 per month for these units, I'm thinking that the more budget-minded families stayed put in their units for the holidays while groups of adults and the extremely wealthy were able to move. This would tilt the price point towards the more expensive units favored by the latter group.

In name brand neighborhoods people are scaling down their expectations - vintage 1 beds and 2 beds were up while the more fancy units were down. In fact, even though only 10 vintage 1-beds rented in this zone, their average rent rate was higher than their modern counterparts. This may indicate that the drawing power of granite, stainless & condo-quality has weakened among the renting contingent in these trendy areas. I don't think it reflects renters "settling" for the lesser quality vintage. It reflects a view that both styles, vintage and new, are seen as closer to equal now. Overall what I'm seeing in these areas is that the demand for space & privacy is paramount, outstripping high-end finishes and deluxe appliances. Studios and single family homes increased in value. The larger vintage units increased as well. That's one claustrophobic, isolationist group of renters in the trendy areas this fall.

One other factor may be inspiring the shift in the name brand areas - vintage units are far more likely to come with heat included, and the fourth quarter brings the concern about heating costs to the forefront of tenants' minds. The individually controlled (and funded) central heat in the newer condos is not so attractive when you're looking at 4 months of below-freezing temps immediately upon moving in.

Moving out to the generic, budget-friendly neighborhoods in our outer ring, it's a story abount laundry. The only segment to see an increase in rent out here during Q4 was the one bedroom apartments with laundry in the unit. Meanwhile, looking at the 3 bedroom rental activity, I'm seeing equal numbers of apartments in the "3 bedroom condo" and "3 bedroom with laundry" segments. Some of the rentals with laundry were likely single family homes instead of condos. However, we must remember that for every unit rented, several were passed over and remain vacant. The lesson we learn here is that renters working through the MLS for 3 beds in the outer ring expect in-unit laundry. Washer/dryer in unit is no longer optional. In the slower market where tenants can pick and choose, they're basically ignoring buildings with coin laundry and absent laundry.

gonna have a bad time

Again, this may be due to the onset of winter. Many basement laundry rooms require trekking down a rear outdoor stairwell, frequently icy and usually cold, in order to get laundry done. Wintertime makes in-unit laundry far more critical, especially among the larger family groups that favor the "generic" neighborhoods for their lower rents.


The real estate industry took a while to learn how to sell short back when the market first started to dive. Former homeowners who short sold during this time have seen their short sales drop off their credit already and have been able to buy for some time. However, many were so burned by the experience that they chose to remain renters. However, 2010 was when the first-time homebuyer tax credit ended. The folks who short sold towards the end of 2010 got Realtors who knew what they were doing. They are likely to be more optimistic and they will be able to buy again this year. I see them leaving the rental market pretty quickly as soon as they can buy.

Therefore, I predict overall market stasis for Chicago rentals next year, based on the trends we were seeing in Q2 and Q3 2012, as well as signs of life from the sales market. I anticipate a slow flow of renters back into the purchase market this year, especially in late Q3 and Q4 of 2013. This will lengthen market times a bit and the rent rates may stagnate, especially in the generic neighborhoods, but I think it will be another year before the rent rates decrease at all.

I'm going to repeat the advice that I gave last quarter. If you're an accidental landlord, it's time to consider selling this year. You can help keep the rental rates up and solve some of your own headaches. Sales inventory is at an all time low. I'm seeing properties spend less than a week on the market, and in some cases renters are purchasing their rented condos.

As for those who stay in the rental market, I do think that in-unit laundry is going to jump from "a nice luxury" to mandatory in the generic neighborhoods this year, at least among the renters who work with Realtors. I already see most of my renter clients demanding it and these wintertime numbers are very telling.

The Numbers

Avg (Count) Change since Q3 Low / High
Studio $1323 (63) Up 0.4% $790 / $2700
1 bed, Vintage Invalid (0) n/a
1 bed, Condo $1904 (305) Up 7.0% $1100 / $9500
1 bed w In-Unit laundry $2058 (161) No Change $1275 / $9500
2 bed, Vintage Invalid (1) $1550 / $1550
2 bed, Condo $2741 (237) Down 2.0% $1300 / $6500
2 bed w In-Unit Laundry $2859 (158) Down 2.1% $1300 / $6500
3 bed, Vintage Invalid (1) $4200 / $4200
3 bed, Condo $5502 (40) Up 1.5% $2000 / $11500
3 bed w In-Unit Laundry $5695 (30) Up 7.7% $2900 / $11500
3 bed Single Family Invalid (0) n/a
Pets**** Dogs OK: $2457 | No Pets: $2295 | Cats Only $2052
Name Brand Neighborhoods*
Avg (Count) Change since Q3 Low / High
Studio $1057 (35) Up 2.7% $975 / $1250
1 bed, Vintage $1677 (10) Up 23.0% $1100 / $2800
1 bed, Condo $1504 (121) Down 1.8% $995 / $2700
1 bed w In-Unit laundry $1537 (35) Down 6.2% $1000 / $2700
2 bed, Vintage $1985 (12) Up 13% $1150 / $2800
2 bed, Condo $2213 (187) Down 2.9% $1150 / $4000
2 bed w In-Unit Laundry $2289 (144) Down 2.7% $1150 / $4000
3 bed, Vintage Invalid (5) $2050 / $4000
3 bed, Condo $2965 (67) Down 1.1% $1300 / $5600
3 bed w In-Unit Laundry $3162 (99) Down 0.3% $1950 / $6000
3 bed Single Family $3696 (16) Up 12.4% $2300 / $6000
Pets**** Dogs OK: $2537 | No Pets: $1973 | Cats Only $1640
Generic Neighborhoods***
Avg (Count) Change since Q3 Low / High
Studio $817 (22) Down 6.5% $550 / $1175
1 bed, Vintage Invalid (5) $800 / $1375
1 bed, Condo $1358 (108) Down 0.9% $800 / $2300
1 bed w In-Unit laundry $1573 (42) Up 5.4% $900 / $2600
2 bed, Vintage $1287 (15) Down 12.4% $800 / $2300
2 bed, Condo $1636 (214) Down 3.3% $650 / $3250
2 bed w In-Unit Laundry $1725 (139) Down 0.9% $920 / $3250
3 bed, Vintage Invalid (7) $1200 / $2850
3 bed, Condo $2087 (58) Down 7.1% $1100 / $3900
3 bed w In-Unit Laundry $2095 (59) Down 5.4% $1150 / $3900
3 bed Single Family $1669 (16) Down 13.7% $850 / $2900
Pets**** Dogs OK: $1902 | No Pets: $1771 | Cats Only $1477

* 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 fourth 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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Slaying Dragons, Discarding Rings, Confronting Landlords

"I requested service six hours ago! Why don't I have hot water yet?" - Text message from tenant, 10pm, Feb 2 2011 - Snowpocalypse Chicago.


"Why should I have to pay for it? My lease says you will maintain the fixtures!" - 375 lb Tenant after breaking his toilet seat for the fourth time.


"I've got my lawyer on speakerphone and we will sue you if you don't fix the mailbox!" - First verbal report of a problem.

Customer service and long term contracts do not go hand in hand. From cell phones and cable providers to apartments and employers, once you're locked in to a long term contract you may cease to be a customer at all in the eyes of the company. In the case of a landlord, the desire for retention becomes even less important. The experienced landlord learns that your decision to stay or leave is more dependent on other factors in your life, like your income and your family status.


Lingua Franca: Thinking About the Language of Apartment Leases

Do you remember the first time you read Shakespeare in school? For me it was in seventh grade. I'd heard a lot of hype about him up until that point, but nobody had warned me about the strange, antique form of English he used and how difficult it was to understand. I hacked through it, but for a kid who was used to whipping through a couple of novels a day it was a pretty chastening experience. To paraphrase "Star Trek," it was English, but not as I knew it.

So here's an interesting bit of trivia. If you threaten to sue someone in the process of working on a Wikipedia article, you'll lose your editing privileges. The reasoning behind it stems from the "chilling effect" that legal threats have on other writers. Most folks are pretty scared of getting dragged into a courtroom, even if it's just as a witness. It's time consuming and the threat of going to jail or racking up massive fines is always present. TV shows like "Law and Order" have contributed to this idea that court is definitely a place to avoid.


Mistakes on a Plane (or, When Pigs Fly)

Some travel errors could have a far bigger effect on your life than this movie ever did.(image via Wikipedia!)

Some travel errors could have a far bigger effect on your home purchase than this movie ever did.
(image via Wikipedia!)

So as my regular readers know, (Hi Mom! Hi Dad!) I recently took a vacation to California. A splendid time was had by all and I'm feeling nice and refreshed. However, I did have to spend quite a bit of time in airports and on planes, and couldn't help but notice all of the potential hazards that await a prospective home buyer who's trying to save for a down payment and get a loan. Since I know a lot of you will soon be traveling through the holidays, I figured a few warnings might be of use so that you don't return from your trip to a nasty surprise.

Protect your savings (more…)

Beyond the CRLTO: Other Chicago Rental Laws

In the Chicago rental housing market the CRLTO (Chicago Residential Landlord-Tenant Ordinance) gets all the glory when it comes to laws. More and more landlords and tenants are aware of it, and this is probably for the best as the penalties for violations are quite steep. However, there are other laws that also pertain to rental housing in Chicago that should not be ignored. Here are some that you may not know about. There are certainly more laws that apply, but these are some of the most crucial.

Artistic interpretation of the Chicago code of laws governing rentals

Federal Laws

Lead Based Paint Disclosure. The law requiring the disclosure of lead based paint hazards to anyone buying or renting a home has been on the books for twenty years. If a property was built before 1978 the landlord must tell the tenant about any lead-based paint hazards that they know of before renting it out. They also must provide a copy of the EPA's "Protect Your Family From Lead In Your Home" pamphlet. Read more about the law.

State Laws (more…)

Guest Post: Give the Gift of Good Credit (The Best $10 Renter Gift Ever)

Kay is on vacation this weekend. Today's post is from Bill Butler, CMO of

You know what I find to be difficult during Christmas? Giving a gift that will actually be relevant in a year.

Think about it. The cool tablet or laptop that is so high on everyone’s list this year will be an ancient artifact by next December, probably collecting dust on the figurative shelf with every other consumer electronic that isn’t hot off the press. Landlords who want to give something nice to their tenants also face the challenge of finding gifts that are cross-cultural, don't take up a lot of room, and are inexpensive without making the landlord look like a cheapskate.

Maybe it’s a just sign of the materialistic times we live in, but pretty rare for me to receive a gift that still holds resonance 12 months down the road.

To be fair there’s nothing quite as gratifying as getting the latest gadget you so desperately pined for on Christmas morning, but if we followed the path of immediate gratification all the time we’d probably end up like that guy from the movie “Supersize Me”.

That didn’t turn out well.

Larger property management companies have been giving tenant gifts at the holidays for years now as a way to help retain renters and build community spirit. However, gifts purchased in bulk can be kind of tacky.

The folks at Rental Kharma think that some Holiday Gifts should get better with time. Yes of course I’d be happy with a nice bottle of red wine but lets look in another direction.

How about credit?

56% of all Americans have subprime credit.[1]Anne Kim, "How Many Americans Have Subprime Credit?" Center for Enterprise Development, Dec 3 2012. That’s a pretty staggering number.

If you think watching TV on a non-H.D. monitor is bad enough, try buying any sort of car with a credit score under 600. Good Luck.

And for many young adults their credit is only going to become more important as they take on more responsibilities and financial obligations. (I told you wine isn’t the only gift that grow better with age.)

Your renters will eventually move on, and hopefully move up. But their rent payments to you normally don't contribute to building the good credit score they'll need to move on with their life. So this Holiday season, if you have good renters living in your apartment, consider giving the gift of good credit.

Rent payments currently are not included on credit reports. Your Rental Kharma gift can change the credit of a renter in your life by enabling that individual to finally build credit with the next two years of their rent payments to you.

Santa may not get many requests for better credit but then again his demographics are a little skewed.

Further down the line when that renter you helped out is finally able to buy a home thanks to his or her good credit, you’ll be getting all the thanks.

Learn more about the best $10 gift ever.

And with all the money you save consider buying yourself a nice bottle of wine.


1 Anne Kim, "How Many Americans Have Subprime Credit?" Center for Enterprise Development, Dec 3 2012.
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Six Homes, One Payment

It's been a while since I've gone and done some real math for you guys. Let's fix that. It's easy to look at the sale price of a home and have that be the deciding factor on what sort of house you buy. However, your monthly payment is what will dictate if you can stay in that house once its yours. Today we're going to calculate the average affordable monthly payment for a Chicago homeowner, and look at six different types of homes they could afford with wildly different purchase prices.

Step 1: Establish the monthly payment.

We've used the American Housing Survey (AHS) data from 2009 before. It's a little dated at this point but it's the only trustworthy survey that has numbers for the City of Chicago. Within that survey we discover that the median income for a Chicago Homeowner's Household was $56,200 per month. Divide that by twelve months and you get a monthly income of $4683.

Many lenders use 33% as the percentage of your income that should go towards housing costs. For today, we'll consider those housing costs to include your mortgage, your property taxes, your homeowner's insurance, assessments, and utility bills. 33 percent of $4683 is just over $1545, which is the number we'll shoot for.

Step 2: Determine some scenarios.

For this exercise I wanted six different scenarios, all for the same monthly payment. I chose three single family home options and three condo/co-op options.

  • A 5 bedroom single family home in Austin
  • A 3 bedroom single family home in Lakeview
  • A 3 bedroom LEED-certified single family home in North Center
  • A 1 bedroom condo in a high rise building with doorman & pool in the Gold Coast
  • A 2 bedroom condo in a vintage courtyard building in Lincoln Park
  • A 2 bedroom condo in a small co-op in Lakeview

Step 3: Source some utility, insurance and property tax rates.

For utility rates I went back to the same AHS data. I discovered that on the low end a homeowner would pay about $115. The median was about $350 and the high end would be way up around $700 per month for a big drafty house with a deluxe cable package and super fat internet bandwidth.

For the monthly insurance I used a ballpark figure that insurance would be the sale price divided by 3500.

Property tax numbers were sourced from actual listed 2011 taxes for properties similar to the ones I'm describing that have sold within the past four months in Chicago.

For all purchases I'm assuming an interest rate of 3.5% (the current national average on except for the co-op, as those tend to be tougher to fund. For the co-op I'm using an interest rate of 3.625%. I'm also assuming a down payment of 20% of the purchase price. If you'd like to play with the interest rate, down payment and other financing aspects, you can check out the mortgage scenario calculator I wrote a few months ago.

The monthly homeownership cost consists of many smaller pieces.

Step 4: I do math for you.

The first scenario is the big single family home in Austin. This area has low property taxes but high insurance rates. Since it's a big, old house the utility usage is about as high as it can possibly get.

5 bedroom Single Family Home in Austin
Monthly Property Tax Escrow $125.00
Monthly Homeowner's Insurance Premium $80.87
Monthly Utilities (Heat, Power, Stove, Water, Cable) $700.00
Monthly Mortgage Principal & Interest $636.29
Total Monthly Payment  $1,542.16
Initial Loan Balance  $139,521.58
Maximum Home Price  $174,401.98

The next scenario is for a smaller single family home in Lakeview. Property taxes are much higher here than they are out in Austin, as are list prices. However, the insurance premiums would be a little lower here and for the smaller house it would cost much less in terms of utility bills.

3 bedroom Single Family Home in Lakeview
Monthly Property Tax Escrow $750.00
Monthly Homeowner's Insurance Premium $32.88
Monthly Utilities (Heat, Power, Stove, Water, Cable) $350.00
Monthly Mortgage Principal & Interest $405.00
Total Monthly Payment $1537.88
Initial Loan Balance $90,191.47
Maximum Home Price $112,739.34

So, moving in from Austin to Lakeview means you can afford $61,000 less house if you want to keep your monthly payment consistent. Now, what if we scaled back our neighborhood choice to something nice but not outrageous in terms of property tax, and cut back those utility bills with a LEED-certified Green home?

3 bedroom LEED Certified Single Family Home in North Center
Monthly Property Tax Escrow $350.00
Monthly Homeowner's Insurance Premium $80.57
Monthly Utilities (Heat, Power, Stove, Water, Cable) $115.00
Monthly Mortgage Principal & Interest $992.43
Total Monthly Payment $1538.00
Initial Loan Balance $220,982.46
Maximum Home Price $276,228.08

So moving just a few blocks north from Lakeview to NorthCenter and focusing your search on green homes can more than double how far your monthly budget will stretch for the same size house. Pretty cool.

Now what about condos and co-ops? Our first condo is a little one bedroom in a building full of amenities. Let's figure that the building has a full-time doorman, an exercise room, party room, roof deck, elevators, business center, receiving room and a dry-cleaners on site. These buildings tend to include most of your utilities, and the insurance premiums are really low. The assessments, however can be quite pricey. The number I've chosen for assessments in this case is far from the lowest in the Gold Coast area, but leaves at least a little room for a mortgage payment on top.

1 bedroom Condo in Amenity High Rise, Gold Coast
Monthly Property Tax Escrow $183.33
Monthly Homeowner's Insurance Premium $25.78
Monthly Utilities (Power, Cable) $115.00
Monthly Condo Assessment $900.00
Monthly Mortgage Principal & Interest $320.89
Total Monthly Payment $1,541.61
Initial Loan Balance $70,705.66
Maximum Home Price $88,382.08

Wow. What a difference those assessments made. But not all condo buildings have ridiculously expensive monthly dues. In fact, the median condo assessment in Chicago according to the AHS was $325. A big condo in a smaller development will have higher property taxes, but much lower condo fees.

2 bedroom condo in small development in Lincoln Park
Monthly Property Tax Escrow $487.38
Monthly Homeowner's Insurance Premium $41.33
Monthly Utilities (Heat, Power, Stove, Cable) $350.00
Monthly Condo Assessment $150.00
Monthly Mortgage Principal & Interest $517.03
Total Monthly Payment $1545.75
Initial Loan Balance $113,371.02
Maximum Home Price $141,713.78

So. Suddenly another $50k to spend. Kinda neat, don't you think?

Now, I've been neglecting co-ops and one of my clients yelled at me for doing so lately, so I'm going to make a point to include them more. So, our last option is a co-op. Because the co-op pays taxes as a single entity, your property taxes in this case would be rolled into your monthly payment. However, since many major lenders won't finance purchases in co-ops you'd have to settle for a higher interest rate than normal on your loan. Your insurance premiums would also be higher, as many insurers avoid writing policies on co-ops. In this case I've chosen a real co-op that includes heat, water and cable in the monthly membership fee. I should note though that the listed amount of $548.80 is on the lower end for a co-op monthly payment.

2 bedroom in Modestly Priced Lakeview Co-Op
Monthly Property Tax Escrow $0.00
Monthly Homeowner's Insurance Premium $80.57
Monthly Utilities (Power, Stove Gas) $115.00
Monthly Co-op Membership, Incl. Taxes & Remaining Utilities $548.80
Monthly Mortgage Principal & Interest $781.00
Total Monthly Payment $1527.47
Initial Loan Balance $171,252.66
Maximum Home Price $214,065.83

So Why Do We Focus on Price?

So with six wildly different prices all leading to the same monthly payment, why do we talk about price at all? Well, while there's a massive gap between the low end and the high end of buying power outlined above, we do need to consider what's realistic in the areas I specified. While the last two condo prices are within range of a short sale, the other four are pretty much non-existent in the neighborhoods I chose unless you're a cash buyer working the foreclosure market. You can muck about with the assorted components of the monthly payment all you like, but if you can't afford to purchase the property in the first place it's all academic.

The point of all of this isn't to say that the price should be totally neglected. Rather, it hopefully will serve to give you an understanding of how lifestyle choices can affect your buying power. After all, if you knew that your choice to live in a high rise was going to knock $125.6k off of your price point, would you still want all of those amenities? If going for a new, green home could more than double the amount of house you can afford, would you still want that lovely old Victorian?

On the other hand, if you're comparing the monthly cost of owning a home with the cost of renting, it is worthwhile to consider the whole scenario. The monthly rent for most of these properties would be between $1800 and $2400 per month and you'd still have to pay utilities on top.

This Friday we'll have a guest post for the landlords. I'll see you guys Monday.

Assessing the Association

I was recently talking with a first time buyer about the assorted contingencies that she'll have to fall back on if she puts in an offer on a property. For those of you not accustomed to real estate lingo, contingencies can be thought of as "escape routes" - they're reasons you can use to get out of your purchase contract. If you're working off of a standard Chicago area housing contract to purchase a condo, you'll usually be able to use the following reasons to get out of your purchase contract:

  • Inspection contingency (Major problems with the property found by a licensed home inspector)
  • Lawyer review contingency (Problems in the purchase contract language)
  • Home sale contingency (If you have to sell your current home first before you can buy a new one)
  • Loan contingency (No loan, no property.)
  • Condo association contingency (Problems with the bylaws or financial status of the condo association.)

Plane image adapted from a United Airlines safety card. Thank you for flying CondoAir.

I mentioned that buyers often do not see the bylaws, financial statements and meeting minutes of a condo association until just a few days before closing.

"Isn't that really late in the game to be finding out that kind of information?" she asked. "Shouldn't you know the financial health of the association before you make an offer?"


Rent Bacon: October 2012

The Offseason is Upon Us!

As I've discussed before, the rental market slows down in Chicago once October 1 passes. Rent Bacon is a year-over-year analysis, and as the quickie image shows, the market is still up as compared to where it was this time last year, but compared with the activity and prices of two months ago we've slowed down considerably. This is to be expected. However, the average rent for a 2 bed/2 bath rental downtown remains firmly stationed above $2500 per month and for the near north area it's sitting pretty over $2000.

Detailed Analysis


A Way to Remember the Essential Services

If you're a Chicago landlord or tenant in an apartment covered by the CRLTO, you've got two levels of problems that can possibly arise. One type is your standard, run of the mill maintenance issue. For most of these, the landlord has 14 days from the time they are notified in writing of the problem to fix the issue before the tenant can invoke the law. Other problems are considered "essential services" and must be repaired within a much tighter timeframe: 72 hours.

True facts: "Aardvark" is the Afrikaans word for "Earth Pig." This here is a baby aardvark. This will make sense momentarily.