Category Archives: Landlords

Keep your rental filled and pick up a few more to spare.

Talking Trash

Chicago garbage pickup (or “scavenger service” as we Realtor wonks like to call it) is a bigger deal than you’d think for landlords. It tends to get overlooked by newer landlords, and even the experienced ones don’t like to spend too much time dwelling on the topic of handling other people’s junk. However, there are some laws to keep in mind and best practices to follow when it comes to dealing with your tenants’ trash. Today I’ll be reviewing the basics for you.

Trash pickup is also called “scavenger service.” This little guy is also a scavenger, but of a different kind.

First off, the city sanitation ordinance can be found here. Additionally, the recycling regulations can be found here.  Regardless of the size of your building I’d recommend that you give it a glance. Violations are penalized with tickets from the Department of Streets & Sanitation, which are just as annoying as parking tickets.

Who Pays for Trash Pickups in Chicago?

If your building has four units or fewer, the city will pick up your trash as if it was a single family home. You pay for this service through your property taxes and sales tax. This also goes for individually rented condos in buildings with up to four units.

If the building has more than four units, you will have to hire a private hauler to collect your tenants’ trash. There are several private haulers that work the Chicago grid – most are Teamsters. Larger condo developments will also have to hire private haulers – this is paid for out of the owners’ assessments.

The most common private haulers that I see around here are Waste Management, Lakeshore Recycling, Groot, Allied/Republic, Flood Brothers and Veolia.

Either way, tenants in Chicago expect landlords to pay for scavenger service.

How Much Trash Is There?

The trash carts supplied by the city for small buildings hold 96 gallons of waste, or a little less than half a cubic yard. Based on my observations, a family of three will fill approximately one of those carts per week with regular trash, and another one every two weeks with recyclable trash. (If you have a bunch of dirty hippies living in your building it may be the other way around.) The last week of the month in moving season will see far more trash, as will the holiday season.

If you’re buying an apartment building, the prior owner will probably have trash containers out back that you can use to gauge how many you’ll need once you take over the reins. It’s possible that the trash contract may be passed over to you at closing. It’s a good idea to check out how the trash looks on the last day of a month to gauge if more containers are needed. Overflowing dumpsters lead to tickets – it’s always better to err on the side of too much space and downsize later if it isn’t needed.

It’s important to communicate with your tenants regarding how they handle trash if you want to keep the ticket brigade at bay. Make sure that tenants know to bag their trash and secure the bags firmly. Make sure they know that trash needs to be removed from the building regularly, not left to pile up inside their apartments. Take time to inform them about which materials are considered to be hazardous – this includes batteries, toner cartridges, paint and lighter fluid. If you allow cats in your building, make sure your tenants dispose of the cat litter with the trash instead of flushing it.

Also make sure that they notify you if the dumpster is too full. It’s better to head over and pack down the trash or schedule an additional pickup than to incur a $200 fine because a nosy neighbor got annoyed and called 311 on you.

What About Recycling?

According to city ordinance, renters must have recycling options made available to them, even if you’re in a small building in an area without blue cart service. The recycling method you provide must allow for separation of recyclables at your building. You also need to make an effort to educate your renters on what items to separate. Unfortunately for the planet, the recycling ordinance is pretty toothless and rarely enforced. However, it’s important to remember that the tenant pool tends to consist of younger residents with very eco-conscious leanings. A visible recycling program is not only good for staying on the good side of the law, but it’s also a great marketing tool.

Blue recycling carts in their natural habitat. (Photo by Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader)

Most private haulers will offer specifically marked recycling-only dumpsters. If you’re hiring regular dumpsters make sure you also provide a separate container for recyclable items.

How about Big Stuff?

Sometimes your tenants will need to discard larger items. Without proper preparation, this can lead to a big mess in your alley. Furniture left outside of dumpsters can lead to broken glass littered across the alley, thieves picking over the items, and the general enmity of your neighbors. Mattresses left lying out are a sign of a bedbug infestation, which can cause panic among your other tenants even if no problem actually exists.

Therefore it’s important to communicate to your tenants in the lease and explicitly in conversation that large items need to be placed in the dumpster. If they have something that’s too big to fit, they need to warn you immediately so that you can schedule an extra pickup with the city or with your private hauler.

Similarly, if you’re planning on doing any renovation work or clearing out an apartment formerly occupied by a hoarder, you may need to hire an extra dumpster on your own even if the city provides pickup. These types of projects create far more trash than your standard equipment will be able to contain.

By the way, if you do schedule a last minute extra pickup with a private hauler, be prepared to pay them in cash with a nice tip for going out of their way for you. Even if you have a contract for regular service, these kind of trips are above and beyond a trash hauler’s normal duties.

What About Shops and Restaurants?

If you’ve got a mixed use building, you’ll probably wind up with a few retail shops or restaurants renting from you in the commercial spaces. Unlike residential renters, most commercial tenants in Chicago are expected to pay for their own scavenger service (along with all the other utilities). Sometimes a very small office can piggyback onto your dumpsters, but any business that requires a sanitation license will probably be required to demonstrate that they’re in charge of their own trash collection.

This is about as close as you ever want to get to a grease dumpster. (Photo by TrashMonkey29 on Flickr.)

If you’ve got restaurants, doctor’s offices, hair salons, catering businesses, childcare facilities or anything that generates a lot of icky trash, you’ll want to ensure that you leave enough space in the rear of your building for each business to provide their own dumpsters. Restaurants in particular may need space not only for a regular dumpster and a recycling container but also a grease dumpster.

Grease dumpsters require their own special precautions – while they’re designed to contain liquid waste, it’s easy to spill when you’re pouring hot grease in the dark. Hosing down the ground around a grease dumpster is actually illegal. You’ll need to make sure the ground nearby is fully cleaned with detergent to keep rats away and make sure the alley doesn’t become a skid hazard for passing cars.

What if There’s No Alley Access?

In order for trash to be collected, it needs to be accessible. For most buildings in Chicago this is an easy task. Dumpsters live in the alley, trucks pick them up there. No fuss, no muss. However, there are a few locations in the city where alleys do not exist, or if they do, there is no way to get to them from the house without a very long walk.

Before you purchase a rental property you need to consider how trash pickup is handled. If there is no way for you to leave trash containers in a place where both tenants and trucks can access them, you will need to make plans to haul the trash out to the street for pickup on a regular basis. Unless you’ve got a good crew of workmen on hand or plan to live on site, I guarantee that this will get old really fast. In theory you could offer a barter deal to a reliable tenant to haul the dumpsters out on trash day, but you’ll still want to follow up regularly to make sure they’re actually holding up their end of the bargain. This is probably not a situation that you will be able to resolve on your own, either. You can’t just go adding alleys on your block.

Should I Chain My Dumpsters?

Yes. Illegal dumping – that’s when other people put their trash in your containers – is a “three strikes and you’re out” offense in Chicago. The first two times you get a ticket, the third time is a felony with jail time. Building contractors in particular are notorious for dumping their construction debris in any nearby unsecured container. Make sure it isn’t yours.

Additionally, dumpster diving is not just for thrift shop loving hipsters anymore. Identity thieves have a field day rummaging through tenants’ discarded papers. Grease theft from grease dumpsters is also common, since grease is used to make biodiesel and can therefore be resold at a high price. (Most grease dumpsters are designed to have higher security than your normal dumpster for just that reason.)

However, before you go chaining up your trash containers make sure you’ve considered the tenant training you’ll have to do to make this kind of precaution successful. Tenants will need to have keys to the chains’ padlocks. They will also need to be instructed to re-secure the dumpsters after depositing their trash. Your success rate will depend a lot on how well you convince your tenants of the necessity. Better pest control and protection against identity theft should be your two biggest talking points on that front.

Private Hauler Gotchas

Long Term contracts. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could sign your renters to a five or ten year lease that allowed you to raise their rents arbitrarily at any point? Well, private trash haulers do exactly that. And they generally require four to six months advance notice to get you out of the contract. Make sure you negotiate heavily before you select a hauling company.

Graffiti. You’d think that for the cost of service, the haulers would regularly swap out dumpsters that get tagged, right? Unfortunately this is not the case, and the taggers know it. Dumpsters are one of the most popular locations for graffiti, since landlords assume that the haulers will clean them and vice versa. If your building’s dumpsters are located close to the street or an alley intersection they will be particularly likely targets for tagging. Make sure that you keep some paint on hand to cover any tags.


Next week I’ll be doing a three part series on the quality of building materials. (Trust me, it will be more interesting than it sounds!) See you then!

Safety and the Illusion Thereof

One of the most common questions among renters and buyers moving to new areas is whether or not those areas are “safe.” In fact, the majority of moves, be it between apartments, condos or houses, are within a very short distance. Safety and comfort levels are definitely a factor in this particular statistic – people stay within the area that they know. However, with rising prices in both the rental and purchase housing markets, many Chicagoans are faced with moving to new sections of the city where safety is an unknown factor. As for the folks moving from outside the city, it’s tough enough to understand the hundreds of distinct neighborhoods within the city limits, let alone to compare crime statistics to a reasonable extent.

Antique maps show monsters and dragons beyond the edges of known lands. This is coincidentally also the worldview of people who are moving to a new neighborhood.

As much as I’d like to reach every renter and buyer and explain to them how to statistically analyze crime risk in a given neighborhood, I can’t do so. Even if I did, my own rational explanations would be massively overwhelmed by the media hype surrounding Chicago’s high crime rates. Those crimes may be consolidated in areas far removed from your neighborhoods of choice. They may have little to no bearing on your daily life. However, they are prominent in the minds of any home seeker, and it’s tough to combat emotional conviction with reason. What you must fight against is not the idea that your particular area is a bad neighborhood, but that the entire city is a homogeneous, crime-ridden hole.

If you’re a landlord or home seller, it’s therefore far more critical to be aware of how safe your neighborhood feels. You can rattle off all the stats in the world, but if a potential buyer or renter feels wrong in your immediate vicinity they will not be interested in making an offer on your property. This is even more critical if you’re expecting to get an above-average price for your listing, since those tend to be taken only by folks from out of town who don’t know any better. Curb appeal in Chicago is not just about the visual appeal of your yard and building. It is also majorly affected by the aura of safety or danger projected by your block.

Familiarity Breeds Contentment

I’ve been living in Chicago for 15 years now, but I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut and spent several summers mucking about in small New England towns. The last town where I worked before moving here was so small, the residents got offended if they saw you locking your car doors. Now, this doesn’t mean that I was a wide-eyed hick when I moved out here in the late 90′s, but it did take a bit before I found my “city legs.”

Lincoln, NH. My last temporary “home” before moving to Chicago.

Before I moved out here the worst sort of crime I encountered was a prank phone call or two. Since then I’ve had my car windows smashed in three times. Now, for Chicago these crimes are pretty benign, but the first time it happened to me it was still pretty shocking. The third time? I’d gotten used to it. I rolled my eyes, called up my mechanic (Speed Dial 6) and hauled out the vacuum.

As owners in Chicago we become inured to the level of criminal activity that surrounds us. The longer we stay here, the more difficult it becomes to see our neighborhoods through the eyes of a newcomer. Unfortunately, if you’re trying to market your home to a new resident that is exactly what you have to do.

Zeroing Out the Scales

For me, getting into a buyer or renter’s head often involves a day trip to the suburbs. I encourage prospective home sellers and landlords to do the same before they put their property on the market. There is not enough difference between Chicago neighborhoods to truly serve as a “control” in our safety experiment. You need to get out of the city completely – maybe even out of the county – and go spend a day walking in the shoes of someone from the outside. I don’t just mean a quick jaunt to Evanston, either. Get out beyond the reach of the El and walk around a residential neighborhood that has absolutely nothing in common with the city. The best time to do it is a weekday afternoon.

Observe everything while you’re out there. Notice how far the houses sit back from the street. Pay attention to the people walking around, the cars and where they park, the separation of commercial and residential areas. Observe what happens when a school lets out for the day. Spend some time walking around after the shops close.

“Honey, look! They still have front-in parking here! That’s so cute!”

Once you’ve zeroed out your mental scales for what clean, wholesome livin’ is all about, it’s time to head back into the city and reassess your home turf.

I Spy With My Little Eye…

Upon returning from the city outskirts, it should become far more apparent what factors contribute to and detract from the feeling of safety in your own neighborhood. We’ve probably all had our moments in the city of turning down the wrong block and instantly knowing that we were unwelcome. However, if you’ve paid attention to the details in the suburbs you should be more able to pinpoint exactly what contributes to an illusion of safety.

Here are a few that I wrote down on my last trip back in from the hinterlands:

  • Claustrophobia. The distance from the sidewalk to the buildings (the “setback”) gets very shallow in some parts of Chicago. This can lead to a feeling of claustrophobia that can be off-putting for newcomers. The areas of the city that tend to feel “safer” also have deeper front lawns. Do buildings in your area crowd in close to pedestrians?
  • Gates and Grates. There are entire blocks where black iron fences line the street in front of the homes, and shops are secured with accordion grating. It’s a common enough sight in Chicago that locals tend to ignore it. To a newcomer, it can imply security problems and fear of trespassers.

    This is probably not the “gated community” your prospective buyers and tenants have in mind. (Photo by therodabides on Flickr.)

    • Sounds. Listen to what’s going on, both during the day and at night. Do you hear lots of shouting? Traffic? Car alarms? How about friendly sounds, like the ice cream truck or the bus announcing streets as it drives along? Is it deathly quiet?
    • Interactions. Do the people walking past seem comfortable with your presence? Do they make eye contact or hurry past? Are there people just sitting around in their yards doing nothing? How about the local kids – what do they do after school? Are there parents and caretakers around? What about pets? Do you see a lot of people with small companion animals? Are there lots of strays? Do you see a lot of dogs that could be mistaken for guard dogs or fighting dogs?
    • Cars. What types of cars park near your house? Are they in good condition? Are there lots of cabs? How about old beater scrap metal trucks? Is there visible broken glass in the street left behind from break-ins? Any cars with the Denver boot, or piles of parking tickets?
    • Cameras. It isn’t tough to figure out that security cameras cameras in Chicago are a sure sign of a troubled neighborhood. Even without the obvious flashing blue lights, security cameras are a tipoff to newcomers that something has probably occurred to merit their installation.
    • Alleys. Newcomers won’t check, but Chicago residents know that our streets are like mullets – business up front, party in the back. Take a walk down your local alleys. Are they clean? Well-lit? Are the garages in good condition or are they covered in graffiti? How about the porches – are they well-maintained, or decrepit and covered in junk? Are the dumpsters tidy, or overflowing?
    • The Commute. The neighborhood around your house extends as far as the closest El station. Many newcomers will test the safety vibe of an area by making the walk from the train to their new prospective home. Alone. After dark. You should definitely do the same and make sure there’s nothing untoward to scare off a potential buyer or renter. Are the sidewalks in good condition? Are there panhandlers or large groups of loiterers hanging out anywhere along the way? Are there large stretches of empty stores or vacant lots?

    These are only a few factors that contribute to my personal sense of safety in any given section of Chicago. I’m sure there are many others. Safety is a very relative thing, and I’ve lived here for a while now, so even with trips to the suburbs to freshen up my outsider eyes I know I’ve grown pretty blasé about the things that make Chicago feel like a city.

    Assemble your own list of criteria and test it out by visiting a new section of the city. Do you feel safe there? Why? If not, why not? Which of your criteria are within your control to fix? Which ones do you just have to accept? Would you adjust your asking price accordingly because of them?

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10 Mistakes Made by First Time Landlords

Last year I did two articles about mistakes made by first time renters and first time buyers. Today we’re going to look at errors made by first time landlords.

1. Setting Arbitrary Rent Rates

The price a tenant will pay has little or no bearing on your monthly costs. They will compare what’s available and, if your price is reasonable, they will rent your unit. If your price is too high, they won’t even look at it. If it’s too low, they will wonder what’s wrong with it or take you to be a sucker.

Apple can get away with pricing higher than anything else. You cannot.

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Rent Bacon: March 2013

No Foolin’.

The Rent Bacon index number is an indicator of how a district is performing compared to the HUD Fair Market Rents. Landlords can use it to figure out how much more to charge this year. Tenants can figure out how much more it will cost to move.

New month, new Rent Bacon. Rent Bacon gauges the change in actual value of apartments in Chicago on a quarterly basis using rental data from the local MLS. The index takes into account the rent rates, market times, and ratio of rented units compared to listed units. This month we’re looking at 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartments throughout the city. For more info on how the index is calculated, check out this explanatory post.

Observation #1: Better value

Now this is not something obvious from the chart above, but it is quite clear if you compare it against last month’s results for 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartments. The index value for 2 beds is considerably higher, peaking over 300 for the smaller units. Does this mean that they’re actually a better value? Yes, absolutely. (more…)

Field Guide to Chicago Apartments: Studios

It’s been a while since we pulled out the old Field Guide for a humorous look at some of the different types of Chicago apartments. Last summer I gave you an overview of garden apartments and coach houses. Today we’re going to look at another common species of apartment with many quirks: the studio. As the economy starts to recover, many renters who have paired up with roommates through the recession will be able to move out on their own again. Studios, designed for single occupants, will be their next logical stop.

Habitat: Restricted

Unlike the previous two species we studied in the Field Guide, the studio apartment (apartmentus minisculus ecubiculus) cannot be found throughout Chicago. In fact, their territory is quite constricted. Studios can only be spotted in areas that currently attract large numbers of single residents, or in areas that attracted them in the past. They tend to flock together in high rise buildings along the lakefront and close to major transit hubs. Their slow appreciation makes them of little interest to condo developers. The ones that exist inland are usually converted from former hotels or clustered around college campuses and hospitals. (more…)

Exploring the Taboo against Prices on “For Sale” Signs

Once Upon a Time

Buyers agents as we know them in modern Illinois did not always exist. There was a time (and in some states it still exists) when agents were expected to represent both sides in home sales. “For Sale” signs with phone numbers were meant to give you access to the sellers’ agent, who would show you the property and serve as an intermediary in negotiating the purchase contract. In the days before the internet, this was one of the few ways you could find out price information, other than stopping by a real estate office or reading the Sunday paper.

If the price did not agree with you, the agent in question could take you out and show you other properties represented by their office. Before the advent of MLS systems, this was all they would show you. Back in those days when agents controlled access to all the listing information, the signs were a very important route for generating business. So, those real estate signs would never list prices. They would only list the name of the agency and a telephone number. Buyers would call in, have a chat, and get upsold. Brilliant.

This For Sale sign tells a great story, but still omits the price. What gives? (Sign by Elle Zober of Greatfamilyhome.com. Worth a read.)

Of course, nowadays we have the internet. If you see a sign in front of a property you can look it up on a smartphone, or maybe scan a QR code, and you’ll get all the info you need. However, the internet also brings its problems. Scammers can co-opt listing addresses with fake ads, so that the information you get could be legit or fraudulent. Since many scammers make their money by posting copycat listings at too-good-to-be-true prices, one would think that the best safeguard would be to simply print the price of the listing right on the “for sale” sign, or perhaps in a little brochure in a box attached to the sign. Unfortunately, taboos exist against both of these options.

Once Upon Another Time

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Different Types of Insurance

I had initially planned to discuss mortgage insurance today, but in the process I’ve encountered some folks who are confused about the different types of insurance involved in the real estate business. So I’m going to do a quick overview of the major types of insurance involved in owning a home.

Homeowner’s Insurance

This is your standard insurance against damage to the home and land. It also may cover damage or loss to your personal belongings kept on site, and medical bills for people injured on your property.

Catastrophes happen a lot. Be prepared.

If you’re buying a house with a mortgage you have to get a Homeowner’s Insurance policy, and your lender will escrow the premiums as part of your monthly payment, then pay your insurance company out of escrow. If you’re buying a condo, it’s the association that has to provide proof of a building-wide condo insurance policy.

Your lender will probably require you to name them as an “additional insured” party on your policy. This major reason behind this is that catastrophes involving your house may also kill you. If your lender is also on the policy, they will be able to approach the insurance company to recoup their losses without going through probate.

This would be the point where I say that cash buyers don’t need homeowner’s insurance. I’m going to phrase it slightly differently. Cash buyers are not legally obligated to buy homeowner’s insurance, but they still need it.

Condo and Renter’s Policies

Condo Owner’s Insurance and Renter’s Insurance only covers your belongings and the surface of your walls and floor. The policies usually cost far less. Until very recently, condo owners were not required by their lenders to have insurance policies. This has changed in recent years – if you’re buying a condo with a loan, your monthly premiums will be escrowed by your mortgage lender just as if you were buying a house. You will need to have your policy in place at closing.

More and more landlords are requiring their tenants to provide proof of renters insurance within a month of moving in. There’s no bank to escrow the payments for renters, though. They’ll have to pay the insurance company directly, just like with car insurance.

As with homeowner’s policies, landlords and condo lenders may require you to add them as additional insured parties. In the case of condos, a condo association may also want to be named on your policy.

Landlord Insurance

If you are buying property as an investment, you will need to get landlord’s insurance instead of homeowner’s insurance. If you change from living in a home to renting it year round, you will need to switch to a landlord’s policy. They cover a broader range of incidents, with bulked up liability coverage to protect you from tenants seeking the deepest pockets in the room. Some landlord policies will also be able to reimburse you for rent income that you lose due to property damage.

Unfortunately, these aren’t the deep pockets your tenants are looking to raid. (Mmmm. empanadas…)

Premiums for landlord policies can be escrowed like homeowner’s policies or paid directly to the insurance company.

Umbrella Insurance

Most owners of small homes and condos will not need an umbrella policy, but large condo developments and landlords will want to look into it. In the event of a massive incident that causes huge injuries, loss of life or large-scale damage beyond the limits of the standard policy, the umbrella policy will kick in to help with the rest of the repair costs. If you have a higher risk feature on your property like a pool, or if you use the land for crops or livestock, or if you’re planning on allowing renters to stay in your home, I recommend that you consider an umbrella policy.

Title Insurance

Title Insurance policies are available for homeowners and for their mortgage companies. The way American land rights work, there is no way to be absolutely certain that you are the only one with a claim to the title of the house you’re buying. Your lawyer will do their best to make sure that all previous owners, contractors, lenders and the government have given up any claim to the property, but the records only go back so far. In the event that someone else comes forward and claims to have a right to your house, your title insurance will protect you.

She may have won the lottery, but if the prior owner forgot to take her off the title, she could also still have claim to YOUR house.

In Illinois, title insurance is issued by the company where you have your closing. That’s why many closings happen in such odd locations – they’re held at the offices of title insurance companies. Your closing is basically the time when the title insurance policy is issued. You pay for it in one lump sum as part of your closing costs.

Mortgage Insurance

If you take out a loan for more than 80% of the cost of a home, your lender will think that you don’t have enough skin in the game. It would be too easy for you to walk away from your loan with so little invested. The risk of default on these kinds of loans is much higher. To cover some of the cost of foreclosure, lenders will require that you have mortgage insurance on your loan.

Mortgage insurance for conventional loans is called “PMI” – private mortgage insurance. These policies are covered by third party companies that specialize in this particular type of insurance. For FHA loans, mortgage insurance is called “MIP” – mortgage insurance premiums. They’re covered by Ginnie Mae.

Much like the Judean People’s Front (now known as the People’s Front of Judea) from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” PMI and MIP are the same thing with slightly rearranged acronyms.

PMI rates vary depending on how much or little you put down. They are usually less than 1% of your total loan amount per year. Once you have paid down your loan to the point where you have at least 20% equity, you can contact your bank and have them discontinue PMI. However, if you don’t request it, they won’t stop charging you for it.

MIP rates are the same for any loan regardless of down payment. If you took out an FHA loan prior to this year, your rate was 1.25% of your total loan amount per year or less, and you will be able to terminate those premium payments when you reach 22% equity. However, rates are going up for people who take out FHA loans after the end of March 2013. If you wait until the 2nd half of 2013 to take out an FHA loan you will also be required to make MIP payments for the life of the loan regardless of your equity.

MIP and PMI premiums are added to your monthly mortgage payment that you send to the bank. They count towards the maximum amount you can pay in a month, which means they can really put a crimp in your buying power. Mortgage insurance is often the most expensive policy a buyer can have. Homeowner’s insurance in Chicago is usually less than $80 per month. Condo insurance is often less than $30. But PMI on a $300k loan could be as high as $225 per month, and MIP on that same $300k loan will be $437 starting in April.


Monday we’ll be talking about various signs you should look for to determine if the market has recovered in your neighborhood. See you then!

Celebrity Tenants

Between my current career as a Realtor and my prior career as a stage manager, I’ve been lucky enough to deal with several celebrities during my time in Chicago. Like anyone else, they have to live somewhere too. As a landlord, it’s very possible in Chicago that you’ll be contacted by a celebrity (or a member of their entourage) who is interested in renting your apartment. Here are some do’s and don’ts for dealing with the celebrity renter.

Don’t get so starstruck by a famous tenant that you lose your business sense.

Do: Remember that “famous” is very relative.

It might be a professional sports player, a celebrity chef, or a movie star. It could also be a local news anchor, car dealership owner, or even your child’s school principal. Or it could be someone you’ve never heard of, like the bass player from an 80′s hair band or a voice actress from one of your kids’ favorite cartoons. It could even be the author of your favorite real estate advice blog. 😉 (more…)

Rent Bacon: February 2013

Let’s talk about 3 bedroom apartments.

The Rent Bacon index number is an indicator of how a district is performing compared to the HUD Fair Market Rents. Landlords can use it to figure out how much more to charge this year. Tenants can figure out how much more it will cost to move.

It’s March. That means it’s time to see how the Chicago rental market performed over the past three months in that fancy statistical analysis we like to call Rent Bacon. As a reminder, we changed formats last month to make this monthly feature more useful. In the process we created a rent index which can be used as a means of comparing value between neighborhoods and gauging how much rent could go up or down over the next year. If you want to read more about what the numbers mean, check this explanatory post about the new Rent Bacon.

This month we’re talking about 3 bedroom / 2 bathroom apartments, and investigating how they’ve performed over the past three months. This is the first time we’ve really looked at 3 beds, which are pretty much the top end in terms of size as Chicago apartments go. You might be able to find something larger in a single family home for rent, but they’re few and far between.

Observation #1: The Gap

In a previous installment of Rent Bacon, I remarked that I saw indicators of people flowing from very expensive Zone 1 to moderately priced Zone 2 when rents got really high downtown. However, that movement didn’t continue from Zone 2 to the even lower-priced Zone 3. My surmise was that the folks who live in Zone 3 – the outskirts of the city – are more likely to move up in size in their same area instead of moving further inwards when their situations changed.

Today in reviewing the index prices we see another potential reason – the gap between Zone 3 housing costs and the inner districts is massive, especially when it comes to apartments large enough to house a big family. Look at the chart above. Look at the gap between the bottom two lines. The average 3 bedroom apartment in Zone 3 is fully 33% cheaper than anywhere else in the city. This is not just a matter of people on the city outskirts loving their neighborhoods. The price gap may be completely insurmountable. A family would have to be earning $84k per year to meet the “affordable housing” limits in Zone 1 or 2. Unless you’ve got a white collar breadwinner or two blue collar/no collar working adults in the family, that just isn’t going to happen.

Observation #2: The winter really blows for 3 beds.

Winter is a tough time to move for the families that tend to occupy 3 beds. It means uprooting the kids from school and packing up a massive amount of stuff during the worst possible weather of the year. The rental market in Chicago generally slows way down in the winter, but for 3 beds it’s a bit more extreme than we see with smaller apartments. All three of the zones saw major drops in the 4th quarter every year going back to 2010. This year has been particularly nasty.

Zone 3′s values took a major hit, falling 11 points since the same time last year and 78 points since the 3rd quarter of 2012. Rent rates actually improved, so the change in value is largely attributable to a glut of extra units coming on the market. As I discussed in an earlier article, January is always a big month for relationships to fall apart and one bedroom rentals spike upwards accordingly. The improving economy has allowed large groups of roommates to split up, which may be resulting in more large units on the market.

Zones 1 and 2 are sitting pretty and showing growth compared to last year. However, the growth is drastically slowed. Last summer the downtown index peaked at 295.65 and the Zone 2 index at 292.99, so we’ve fallen off a bit from those lofty heights. However, when compared with last winter, an equally slow season, the inner districts actually gained 10-14 points.

Zone 1 is seeing static rents and steadily increasing market times. However, this trend should reverse itself once the spring market hits, so don’t count on it being a trend that we’ll see through the year. Meanwhile, Zone 2′s market times are stable, but the rent rates have relaxed a bit and is suffering from a slight inventory glut that’s hurting it’s rent-to-list ratios. Again, this should be remedied by the spring market when a large number of renters suddenly hit the scene all at once to snap up the leftovers from a slow winter season.

Observation #3: That Chart is Too Steep to Sustain

That’s a pretty nasty slope on that chart. Zone 3′s values at their peak last year had inflated to reach downtown’s 2010 values. That kind of growth is far too rapid for renters – traditionally the poorer members of society – to sustain on an ongoing basis. While the rents in Zone 3 have remained largely stable, the rental pace and market demand out there have made it very difficult for someone working 50+ hours a week to find anything good. Meanwhile, in Zones 1 and 2 average rents have increased by between $400-500 for a 3 bed in just 3 years. This means that the average 3 bedroom renter has to be earning between $14k and $18k more in 2013 than they were in 2010. I somehow don’t think that’s realistic.

Chicago has earned the envy of other northern US cities for a long time when it comes to our roomy apartments and comparatively low rents. When you stack downtown Chicago rents against New York ($6000 for a 3 bed) or San Francisco ($4500) prices we’re still pretty cheap. Even so, 18% growth in rents over 3 years is about twice the pace that an average renter can handle. There must be a slowdown. I see it happening within the next 2 years.

The Numbers

Table indicates values for 1 bedroom/1 bathroom rentals based on MLS data.

 Average RentAverage Market TimeUnits Rented | ListedIndex
Zone 1
Dec 2011-Feb 2012 $252359 days60 | 107261.19
Dec 2012-Feb 2013 $254748 days64 | 98271.08
Zone 2
Dec 2011-Feb 2012 $218843 days95 | 123226.78
Dec 2012-Feb 2013 $233742 days75 | 102241.59
Zone 3
Dec 2011-Feb 2012 $149553 days38 | 6760.52
Dec 2012-Feb 2013 $157460 days22 | 4749.41

The Zones

The Chicago neighborhood zones remain consistent between this version and the last.

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.)


I’ll be back on Wednesday with some advice for a renter who got a nasty surprise this month. See you then!

Dear Piggy: Does anybody shovel around here?

So did any of you have this running through your head last week? I know I did.

Yes indeed, I’m a child of the 90’s and we had snow last week here in Chicago. Quite a bit of it. And it prompted one of my regular readers to send in a question:

Dear Piggy,

How about an entry on how you can be fined if you don’t clear snow from your sidewalks, including tenants (and that you can call 311 if people AREN’T clearing)?

So that means we’re talking about shoveling today.

Who owns the sidewalk? (more…)

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