Holiday Gifts for the Chicago Renter

So last week I did a holiday shopping list for Chicago landlords. It's only fair that I spend some time speaking to the other side, too. There's plenty of sites out there oriented towards small-space decor, so I'm not going to dwell on items to frou-frou up an apartment. Instead, as is our way here, I'll be focusing on practical items for Chicago renters that address apartment annoyances and serve multiple purposes. As before, I'll offer a selection of price points from high end luxuries to tiny stocking stuffers.

Top Shelf

Portable Appliances. While many Chicagoans have moved on up to deluxe rentals with all the trimmings, your standard issue renter is dealing with a basic kitchen consisting of a stove, a refrigerator and a smattering of cabinets which may or may not date from 1972.

Standard issue Chicago apartment kitchen. (Actually, there's far too much storage for a Chicago apartment, but you know what they say. The camera always adds 10 cabinets.)

So there's some dispute over whether or not portable appliances are a violation of the Chicago lease. When you're shopping for them look for ones that use as little water & power as possible, and make sure that they will run on standard electricity.

That being said, I was terribly fond of my Countertop Dishwasher ($250-350) while I was still renting, and sold it to my next door neighbors when I moved into my condo. I've never personally tried one of the Portable Washing Machines ($50-100 for manual, $150-400 for automatic) but they're also quite popular, especially for delicates and uniforms that need to be washed daily. These items can be a little tricky to find at smaller vendors but I know Chicago-based Abt carries several different models of each.


A lot of these "gift ideas for renters" lists will talk about closet organizers and this is a great idea. However, a lot of those organizers require permanent installation, which is a bit much for a lot of renters (and may violate your lease). Storage space is definitely at a premium in many Chicago apartments, from the pre-industrial vintage units to condensed scions of the open-design high rise movement. It's a worthwhile endeavor to find gifts that help to maximize the available closets. Look for closet extender bars, which hang from existing closet hardware, or cascading hangers, which collapse vertically when not in use to save on space.

Your stove can hold a turkey or it can hold warm air, but not both at the same time.

Tiny ovens are a plague for many Chicago renters. Many are no more than 20" wide on the outside (about foot and a half on the inside), which means a lot of bakeware purchased for larger cooking spaces simply will not fit. A gift of narrow bakeware will be much appreciated and used consistently. Meanwhile, counter space is at a premium in many places too. An over-the-sink or over-the-stove cutting board ($25-50) can almost double your prep space in some cases.

Of course the other problem with cooking in a Chicago apartment is the presence of ionization-style smoke detectors. These react to particles in the air, meaning that they're very susceptible to false alarms from cooking and baking, or even a steamy shower. Three states have outlawed them but they're still allowed in Chicago and, being cheaper than the alternative, they're pretty prevalent in rentals. Rather than risking death by removing the smoke detector batteries, swap out the ionization-style detector for a photoelectric smoke detector ($15-20). They respond to heat instead of particles in the air and are equally responsive if not more responsive than the ionization detectors.

Does this look like your smoke detector? If it does, we are never ever ever hanging out together.

Dining rooms are a vanishing species around here, so if you're like me, you wind up stuck for places to eat if you have guests. A pack of four folding TV tables ($40-50) will be a welcome alternative to crouching over coffee tables or snacking at your computer. Also likely to be missing are coat closets. An over the door coat hanger ($15-30) or a more stylish coat stand ($60-150) will spare your renter friends from having to drape coats over chairs.

Stocking Stuffers

If Aunt Hilda is giving fruitcakes again this year this may not be necessary. But. Doorstops. ($5) Seriously. Almost every vintage Chicago apartment has at least one door that will not stay closed, be it due to frame warping or floor warping or simple changes in humidity that change the size of the door. The old-school, wedge-shaped doorstops in this case are used not to keep the door open, but to keep it shut. Sometimes you just need a little privacy, you know?

Like the portable appliances mentioned above, some amount of caution is required for this next one as it may violate your lease. However, broken buzzers are a common annoyance in Chicago multi-unit buildings, and many folks also come and go through the back door where there's no doorbell at all. A temporary, battery-powered wireless doorbell ($15-40) is not something that a renter would likely pick up for themselves but they'll probably find a way to use it.

When I first moved into an apartment my mother searched high and low to find a clothes drying rack. Not the big ones that rest on the floor, but the type made for motor homes that hang on a shower curtain rod. The collapsible, hanging drying rack ($7) pictured below is my favorite style, but other types are available.

Great for drying delicate items and darkroom photos. Or both at once if you're into that kind of thing.

I'm somewhat ambivalent about the idea of getting a replacement showerhead for your renter friends. Some people are very picky about how they like their water pressure. However, if you know your friend's showering preferences, a swank new showerhead is pretty easy to install and can make their daily ablutions far more enjoyable. Extra bonus for those of you with tall friends - a shower extension arm may be enough. Some folks have never enjoyed the wonder washing their hair without ducking. You can fix this today. Please. Think of the tall people.

Not Recommended

My personal vendetta against space heaters has popped up here and there over the past 10 months of writing this blog. Even if the newer models reduce some of the fire hazards of the old ones, you still need to bear in mind the impact on a tenant's electric bill. Electric heating & cooling devices have the biggest impact on electric usage of anything a person could own. Better to get them a selection of blankets & throws than a gift that keeps giving back to ComEd.

Space is at a premium in most apartments, so single-purpose appliances should be avoided. Versatile devices like stick blenders, rice steamers and toaster ovens are fine, but the yogurt-maker and the waffle iron may need to wait.

So what's on your list this year? Let me know if I missed a major item, and I'll see you on Wednesday.