Resolutions for Chicago Real Estate

So it's 2013. Funny how that happened. World didn't end, although for some of us we were wishing it might have done after the New Year's Eve parties. I'm sure some of you already have resolutions that found you duking it out over a treadmill this morning. A few more never hurt, though. Here's a few that you might want to consider if you're thinking of moving or buying property this year.

For Renters:

Try communication before confrontation. It doesn't matter if you talk with your landlord directly or with the office staff of a big property management corporation. It doesn't matter how badly things escalated last year over assorted issues with your apartment. This is a new year and time to start over. If you've had big problems, schedule a time to sit down calmly with a decision-maker for the property and review how both sides can resolve problems in an efficient and effective way. Don't go for the big guns like lawyers and unions until you've tried to talk it out first.

Seriously? Always around?

Seriously? Always around is the nicest thing on the list?

Likewise, make a point of warning your landlord if you know there are problems on the horizon. Whether it's money problems or crowds of house guests, it's better to notify ahead of time and work out a game plan than it is to sneak around and hope they don't notice.

Remember, moving is more expensive than you think. Is it time to move this year? Are you ready to spend a month and a half worrying about it? How about the cost for security deposit, move in fee, pet deposit, utility transfers, packing materials and moving companies? What about the time you'll have to take off from work to look at apartments and to move? (And yes, if the market remains as fast-paced as it's been over the past two years I do recommend making time in your workday to view apartments.)

I've dealt with the true cost of moving in depth before. While apartments may be disposable, time and money are not. Make sure you really have a solid reason to move before you make that investment.

For Home Buyers:

Visit new neighborhoods twice a month. If you're looking to purchase property I've got a surprise for you. The slow, leisurely market pace is not really all that slow anymore, especially for name brand neighborhoods. Market times for single family homes in areas like Lincoln Park and Lakeview are rapidly falling into seller's market territory. If you've waited until now to become a first-time buyer, then chances are very good that you may need to look beyond your comfort zone to find your ideal house.

If you explore all of the Chicago neighborhoods you get a party and possibly a pony.

If you explore all of the Chicago neighborhoods you get a party and possibly a pony.

Take some time to get familiar with new areas. If you're renting, chances are you're in one of the neighborhoods that caters to renters. Areas that are predominantly owner-occupied have a different feel. Make a point to investigate different sections of Chicago (and not just the restaurants!) a couple of times a month. Remember, you may wind up living there in the not-so-distant future.

Learn to work with basic tools. Before you leave the relative safety of apartment living where repairs are completed by others, it's wise to have some experience with basic tools that can help keep your living space suitable for living. Make sure you know how to use a drill, hammer, plunger, wrench and level. Learn about wall anchors. Get in the habit of cleaning regularly. If you're going to be purchasing a single-family home or multi-unit building, make sure you know how to mow a lawn and shovel. Don't just watch other people use them on HGTV. Go out and get some hands-on experience.

For Landlords:

If you've got a vacancy, spend a few nights in a vacant unit in your apartment building. Try to do so once in the summer and once in the winter. I cannot stress this enough - do not ask other people to live in property that you wouldn't inhabit yourself, at least temporarily. Staying at your investment property will clue you in to the quirks that could make or break a tenant's interest in renting or renewing their lease. Make the walk to the CTA. Try to park out front - is it possible? Are you warm enough at night? Can you get your laundry done comfortably? Is there really bad noise in the area? Can you hear every footstep of your neighbors upstairs? All of these things are pretty useful for a property owner to know.

If you have to bring any of this gear with you, a) you may want to reinvestigate your business plan and b) don't let your tenants see you.

If you have to bring any of this gear with you to stay at your property a) you may want to reinvestigate your business plan and b) don't let your tenants see you.

Spend a day observing at eviction court. Civil courts are open to the public. Dress appropriately, leave the cell phone and camera at home, and head down to the county courthouse to be an audience member for a day. If my stats from this year are anywhere near accurate, you've got a 1 in 20 chance of winding up on the stand in eviction court every time you rent out an apartment. Better to know the facts of the matter and be at least somewhat familiar with the proceedings before you're dealing with it as a major player.

For Everyone:

Check your credit reports regularly. There are now four Fair Credit Reporting Act-compliant bureaus who are keeping payment records about you. Checking your score is not generally necessary more than once a year, but checking the actual data on your reports is crucial so that errors can be corrected promptly. I usually request one report each quarter. Equifax, TransUnion and Experian are easy - get them at Unfortunately, you have to call in or request your CoreLogic report in writing.

Practice the "one in, one out' system. You will eventually have to move out of your current residence, or someone else will have to do it for you. I learned this method from my parents as they got ready to move a few years ago. If you bring something into the house, something of equal stature has to be removed - either recycle it, donate it, sell it or discard it. Even if you're not moving this year, this particular resolution can help keep your home inventory light so that you can get out quickly when the time comes.

Get involved in your local area. I'd like to think that established homeowners are generally good about investing time and effort into their community. After all, a strong neighborhood means strong property values. Unfortunately many blighted areas of Chicago suffer from a resident population strong in blog comment rhetoric but weak in action. Renters and landlords are equally at fault for playing the "not my problem" card all too often. Protip: sitting around and kvetching about crime, gangs and graffiti may make you feel better but it won't improve the situation.

Just who are you calling an oxymoron, huh?

Just who are you calling an oxymoron, huh?

Even if you wind up living somewhere else in time, your efforts to improve your current area will have the effect of bringing up Chicago as a whole. Learn about the local schools. Help at a community garden. Support mural-building and area clean-up efforts. Work for river or lakefront improvement efforts.


Inspired? Annoyed? Already doing all of these things and want to suggest ideas of your own? Excellent! Let me hear about it in the comments. I'll be back on Friday.