Tag Archives: gift ideas

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.

Holiday Gifts for the New Landlord

Do you have a new landlord in your life? Is there someone you know who recently made the plunge into investment property? Or maybe you did, and you're looking to drop some subtle hints to your loved ones about your holiday wish list? Here are some ideas for gifts both large and small that any starting landlord would probably welcome.

General note - these are suggestions for friends and family of landlords. If you're a tenant, it's probably best to just stick with giving your landlord a nice greeting card. Maybe a fruit basket.

Top Shelf

Key Cutting Machine. A decent DIY key cutting machine plus a box of blank keys will run anywhere from $400-1300. However, if you figure that every time an apartment turns over you're spending $10 plus gas money to copy key sets, not to mention keys for contractors, Realtors and maintenance staff, you're looking at an investment that could pay for itself within 3 years for a 6-flat apartment building full of two-bedroom apartments.

Paint Sprayer. These run $100-250 for a basic unit to handle interior jobs, although Cadillac models can obviously be far more expensive. This is another one that will pay for itself rapidly. The first time you (or your landlord friend) don't have to throw your back out roller-painting an apartment - or spend a full day painting - you will be so very grateful.

Salt Spreader. Any landlord worth his salt (pun intended) will own a snow blower in Chicago, but few will splurge on a salt spreader. It's a worthwhile investment. Even though they run $200-600, it's a one time purchase that will last for years if treated correctly. A preventative salting of the walks can save a lot of angry phone calls, not to mention personal injury lawsuits. This is another one that may save you a thrown out back, this time from shoveling heavy, iced-over snow. And really, would you rather stop by the evening before a storm to salt nice, dry, clean walks, or go out at 4am to break up ice the morning after?

All three of these top shelf items are available at your local hardware store. I'm not going to link to Amazon here - this is a nice big purchase that you can bring to a family-owned, mom & pop shop. Support your local business!

Show some love for the Crafty Beaver this holiday season.Hey, I almost typed that whole caption without giggling! Go me!

Medium Cost

Professional-Grade Drain Auger/Snake. These run $30 to $150 at a hardware store. Tenants don't pay very close attention to what's going down the drain. It's inevitable that you'll be called out to rod out the drains of accumulated gunk at least once a year. If the tenant has long hair or super fluffy pets that frequency goes up exponentially. Rodding out the drain yourself is far kinder than chemical agents like "Liquid Plumr," and definitely more cost effective than calling a plumber every time. Avoid the cheap plastic versions - this is something you definitely don't want going pear-shaped on you in the heat of the moment. Read the reviews and get something sturdy.

Landlord Locks. These are a specialty item found only at landlordlocks.com. They run about $25-42 each for the locks, $10-12 for replacement cylinders, $3 for a backup master. That's about twice the cost of a standard deadbolt, but they make it up in cost per use, as they're completely reusable. They're designed so that you can pop out the tumbler and swap it for a replacement using a master key. Chicago now mandates that locks be changed between tenants. A system like this will allow the landlord to easily swap cylinders without drilling or damaging the door.

Label Printer. It's amazing how many times you need to label stuff when you own an apartment building. Mailboxes. Buzzers. Circuit Breakers. Laundry Machines. Tools. Keys. A label maker is the kind of gift you never realize you needed until you have one. $25-40 at any office supply store.

I recommend you get a spare roll of label tape. The first day of owning a label printer may involve cutting labels off of dog after a downward spiral into printy, sticky compulsion.

Workplace Spanish for Real Estate. This has a considerable amount of language for landlords and leasing agents as well. The book is available used on Amazon for an exorbitant amount, but you can pick up a copy of the book & CD new from Workplace Spanish for about $30.

Stocking Stuffers

Dust masks. These are $10-20 for a multi-pack. The number of times you need these when working with investment property is astronomically high. Walking through damp basements. Scraping and painting apartments. Sanding down floors. Replacing moldy drywall. Not glamorous at all, but definitely useful and a way to show that you care.

Keychains. Prices vary for these. You can go all out crazy and get a logo printed on them, you can get a box of disposable cardboard keytags, or you can assemble a personalized collection of them in a variety of sizes and styles. They will be used. Oh yes they will.

Sonic Measuring Tool. This is my personal favorite. at $16-30 each plus the cost of a battery, I have one in every purse. Set the butt of it against one wall and it will bounce a sonic wave off of the opposite wall. I can take measurements of an entire apartment alone in about 5 minutes with mine. Most will automatically calculate square footage and volume, making them useful for contractors as well.

The sonic measuring tool is not to be confused with a sonic screwdriver.

Light Bulbs. It's a curse of living in the modern, eco-friendly age that tenants now tend to take their expensive CFL light bulbs with them when they move out. A pack of soft white CFLs may not be romantic but it will definitely be appreciated.

Not Recommended

Credit Card Processor for the Cell Phone. You might think it would make life easier for the landlord to be able to collect rent via credit card. However, the processing companies take a percentage of the payment, and there are online rent payment companies that handle that kind of thing for far less. It really should be a matter of the landlord's personal choice if he/she wants to spend that kind of money on processing fees.

Property Management Software. This is another one that really requires the input of the individual landlord and a lot of testing. Everyone has a different level of comfort when it comes to accounting and data entry.

Landlord Books. Unless you're a landlord yourself with a lot of experience reading how-to manuals, I don't recommend purchasing them for other landlords in your life. It's very tough for someone outside the industry to figure out which books are telling the truth and which are completely useless, especially with the wide variety of regionally-specific laws. You don't want your gift to be the reason why your buddy winds up getting sued by a tenant. Besides, the risk of accidentally insulting your friend is pretty high if you give him "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Being a Landlord." Get a bookstore gift certificate if you must give literature.

Due to the high potential for spam on this article I've preemptively disable comments. If you would like to add a suggestion to this list, please use the general blog's contact form. I'll be back on Monday with a companion list of gifts for the renters in your life.