Tag Archives: stories

Weekend Links for August 11, 2012

Finding apartments as an expat is rarely simple, as this roundup of guides and personal accounts will attest.

This year has been big for working with clients who are moving to Chicago from elsewhere. I've worked with people moving from Boston, New York, DC and Los Angeles. Also in the mix have been renters from overseas. I also spent some time reading my friend's Facebook updates about her difficult apartment search as an ex-pat in Germany. So, after writing about mortgages all week it's time for me - and you guys - to take a well-earned vacation trip around the world with this installment of the Weekend Links.

Renting apartments outside the US. Of course, I cannot depart entirely from the real estate theme here, so we'll be focusing this travelogue on guides and personal accounts of renting apartments in countries other than the United States. (more…)

Square footage, room counts and other lies my agent told me

Back in 2007 I received an interesting email from a local landlord in response to one of my Craigslist ads for an apartment:

Just a word of advice, if you say it's 930 square feet no one is going to come to see it.  You're in competition with landlords who would describe this apartment as at least 1300, 1400 square feet.  Tenants' expectations of square footage are inflated because they're judging square footage by what they've seen.  Describe this place as 1300 square feet and you'll get more traffic.  They don't have to rent it if they don't like it.  Good luck.

The floorplan of the apartment in question.

The floorplan of the apartment in question.

Square footage is for engineers. Room sizes are for the rest of us.

I had measured this apartment, CAD rendered the floorplan - it was 930 usable square feet, give or take a few. I spoke with my client at the time and discussed this feedback with him. He and I agreed to continue listing the actual measured square footage. Neither of us wanted to waste our time or the time of prospective tenants who "didn't have to rent it if they didn't like it."

So let's get things straight. I've measured thousands of apartments and CAD rendered the results. Here's what I've found:

  • Standard Chicago vintage studio: 200-400 sq ft.
  • Standard Chicago vintage 1 bed w/ eat in kitchen: 400-600 sq ft.
  • Standard Chicago vintage 1 bed w/ dining room or smaller 2 bed: 550-800 sq ft.
  • Standard Chicago vintage 2 bed w/ dining room 700-900 sq ft.

Above measurements are for Pre WWII walk-up buildings. Anything larger than that and the agent is either counting walls as part of the area or just guesstimating based on how the space "feels." (more…)

Tortoise vs Hare Revisited: A parable for Chicago landlords

Title Card from 1941 Bugs Bunny short "Tortoise Beats Hare"

Any other Bugs Bunny fans out there?

We all know the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, right? The two of them race. The hare spends all of his energy at the beginning, and runs out of steam. The tortoise plods along and wins. The well-worn moral is that "slow and steady wins the race."

Now that it's all over, I'd like to tell you a story about how "slow and steady" led to a landlord losing not one but TWO very good tenants.

The weekend of April 21 was very busy for me, with four rental tours. It was the last real weekend before May 1, which is (as many of you know) the busiest moving month in the year in the Chicago apartment market. A few poor souls may be looking next weekend, but for the most part anything not rented by April 23 will sit empty until June 1.

One couple in particular notified me on the 18th that they were getting transferred to Chicago effective May 1. They had a day and a half in Chicago to find an apartment from April 21 to April 22 for themselves, their children, and their dog. They had to leave by 6p on Sunday to drive back to Michigan.

I set them up for a tour of 10 rentals. By the time we'd seen 4, they'd found 3 where they'd be perfectly happy, so we curtailed the search. Two of their local friends were touring with them to make sure I didn't put them in the ghetto - no worries there.

My clients and their local friends agreed - the top choice was a high end condo close to the lake. In fact I think it was pure altruism that kept the local friends from snagging the apartment for themselves! It was owned by the listing agent, so I called him and said my clients would be interested in taking the place immediately, as-is, for $100 under list. (It was in good shape but obviously hadn't been cleaned yet from the prior tenants.) I got his voice mail. It was 12:30pm.

I went to grab a bite to eat with my clients and given that the market is tight we started discussing backup plans. Their second choice was also a high end condo for rent close to the lake. It had one less bathroom, and was a conversion instead of new construction, but was in the same neighborhood, the same price, had better appliances, and had more amenities included. We agreed that if their top choice wouldn't negotiate we would move on and make the same offer - $100 as is for immediate move in - to the second choice apartment.

We parted ways at 1:30pm. I got back to the office at 2pm and left another message with the first choice agent explaining my clients' situation and that they had to have an answer before they left the city at 6pm.

By 3:30pm (3 hours after my initial call), I had also contacted the agent for the 2nd apartment just in case. I had made our offer. He bounced the offer off of his clients and got back to me immediately with an "all clear." He even waived his requirement of using his office's application so that we could use the paperwork I already had on file and get the process started more quickly.

I contacted my clients to let them know we had not heard from agent-landlord #1 yet. This sent us into a discussion about what would happen if this had been a situation with broken plumbing or broken heat, and the landlord didn't respond for 3 hours. It made their second choice apartment suddenly seem a lot more attractive. You guys can guess what happened next. They moved into their former second choice this past Saturday. Their first choice is still sitting on the market, unrented.

At 10:50pm the slowpoke agent-landlord finally returned my call and left me a message as I'd already turned in for the night. "Sure," he said, "turn in an application. Oh, and I also have an identical unit coming up in the same building on the 1st floor for July." If he'd only called back earlier I probably could have rented both of those units. Instead, he's created a bad first impression of himself with four people by doing nothing at all.

Landlords, even though it's your game right now, tenants still don't want to rent from shady, unresponsive lumps. The fast market stats pertain only to the good units that make a great impression. Tenants are judging not only the property but whether or not they can stand to have a year long business relationship with you. Your choice of agent says a lot about your landlording style. Regardless of who you have representing the property, make sure they are providing the same level of service that you would provide yourself. And agent-owners, if someone is showing your listing, keep your phone on, ok?

Bugs Bunny image property of Warner Brothers, courtesy of av-geek.com.


Lessons from my Mom: Turn Coupon savings into Spending Money for Kids

Image of a generic coupon with scissors.

Coupons are a world of learning in a tiny piece of paper.

About 2/3 of what I know about being thrifty came from growing up with my mother. The rest is from a particularly stingy boss. (Basically, mom taught me what to do and the boss taught me where the point of "too far" lies.) Growing up I never had an allowance. If I wanted spending money, I earned it, either through chores or actually doing work. Thanks to mom I was paying income taxes for my graphic design work by fifth grade and had the cojones to start a theatre company while I was in high school.

Mom couldn't stand grocery shopping. She always brought me along to help. We would spend the Sunday prior clipping coupons from the newspaper together and putting them in an envelope. Once we got to the Stop 'n' Shop that envelope became my mission. While she made the rounds collecting everything else, I had to go pick up everything in the coupon envelope, taking special care to follow the instructions on the coupons and choose the best of multiple options if they were available. (e.g, one 32 oz of item A for $2, or two 15 oz of item B for $2.)

At the end of the trip we would look at the receipt, particularly to see the amount we'd saved by using the coupons. 10% of the savings (which I had to calculate myself) became my paycheck for the trip.

I learned the value of coupons, I learned how to read them, I learned to calculate basic percentages. My ability to figure out 10% in my head turned rapidly into 15% and 20%, for which I am eternally grateful every time I have to leave a tip. On top of it all, mom got help with her least-favorite chore and I stayed focused even though I was a very small child in a very large and distracting place.

What cool things did your mom teach you about saving money when you were little? Share it in the comments, and maybe I'll do an article on it in the future!