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July 21, 2005 4:13 PM   Subscribe

Apartment hunting in Chicago: what resources should I be utilizing, and what questions should I be asking?

My girlfriend and I have chosen not to extend our lease, and we need to find a new place in Chicago for September 1st. The problem is neither of us have ever found an apartment before by ourselves, and our more savvy friends are not available to hold our hands through the process.

1. What online resources should we be using? I've looked through housingmaps.com (craigslist) and apartments.com so far. And, other than Apartment People, are there offline resources that will be helpful?

2. Beyond the usual suspects, what are the questions that I should make sure to ask when I see an apartment (e.g., "will the credit check fee be applied to the first month's rent")? Additionally, how should we document existing damage (should we ask that it be written into the lease)?

3. What sort of documentation will potential landlords want to see? Some of the apartment hunting guides I've found through Google suggest pretty much anything and everything, including a resume. That seems a bit unreasonable. If we have a co-signer or if we list our current landlord/management company as a reference (and he/they verifies that we've never been late with rent), can we expect a less invasive interrogation?

4. At what point should we expect an influx of apartments on the market that are available for September 1 (or has that time already passed)? Will we be competing with returning students to find space if we wait much longer?

5. Incidentally, these are our hopes for the new place: hardwood floors, within 3 blocks of the red or brown line and below ~4000 N. (she commutes to the far southside four days a week), 500-ish sq. ft, a quiet building, and preferably under $700. Should we snatch up the first place that comes remotely close to meeting these ideals, or do we still have the luxury of being picky?

Sorry for being long-winded, and thank you for any help you may offer.
posted by aiko to Shopping (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The first place to check is the Chicago Reader apartment listings; when my girlfriend and I were looking for a place a couple years back we had a very positive experience with the North Clybourn Group despite eventually renting with someone else.

And I'd start looking ASAP, nothing is worse than it being August 31 and still not having a place to live September 1...
posted by jtron at 4:21 PM on July 21, 2005

I second the Reader. I don't think that I ever used anything else when I lived there.
posted by FlamingBore at 4:59 PM on July 21, 2005

The listings on Craigslist are actually better than the ones in the reader now, mostly because they're updated more often.

I tend to stay away from apartment-finding services because I've had bad luck with them in the past (mostly with the old bait-and-switch). It's usually worth the effort to do the legwork on your own to find what you want.

I have lots of experience finding apartments in Chicago. Feel free to email me if you want any tips.
posted by smich at 5:08 PM on July 21, 2005

Pay a visit to the off-campus housing office of your local university. Most prepare booklets full of answers to questions like yours. Often they'll also have a list of current vacancies (though note that landlords that are especially eager to rent to students may not to have the greatest accommodations).

Questions to ask depends a lot on personal need. Many people have been burned one thing or another, so have learned to clear up those issues right away. If no questions come to mind, try asking the landlord what questions other prospects ask.

DON'T get so caught up in trying to impress the landlord that you shortchange yourself. In a good job interview, both parties are sizing each other up for mutual fit. Same thing here. Pay attention to cues about how well each landlord, and each home, fits with your needs and lifestyle. They're getting somewhere around 1/3 of your income--so they'd better darned well prove themselves in some way to you too, right?

Basically, have a chat. Try to establish a rapport. You can learn a lot by just letting the conversation flow, without having to tote along a whole a checklist of questions.

If possible, try to visit the apt during a time when you'd typically be home. Most buildings have a very different vibe at noon on a weekday than evenings or weekends.

Look for signs that the place is being kept up. When your toilet backs up at 6pm Friday, you want to know that someone cares enough to not leave it 'til next week.

It's customary to record really obvious signs of damage/wear on the lease. But this should not be the final word. Normally a lot of problems don't becomes obvious until you move in, ESPECIALLY if you're seeing it while the previous tenant still has their stuff in there. On move-in day, you and the landlord should do a "walk through" together. Nolo Press has a sample form if you need one. The purpose is to document CONDITION, not just damage. If only damage is documented, then if there's a dispute later it could be argued that everything else must have been in perfect condition. You and the landlord each keep a signed copy of the condition report. If possible, snap photos to keep with your copy of that report. Then whenever you notice other problems, report it to the landlord promptly, and keep a copy of the letter or else a notation of the call time/subject.

Just because something showed up after you moved in does not automatically make it your fault; a good landlord knows that, and appreciates being informed about problems while they're small enough to fix with a $5 dohickey from Home Depot rather than wait until it's the double-overtime emergency call to the contractor.

A resume?? I haven't heard of that, but wouldn't be surprised. There's a huge number of mom and pop landlords that feel free to be as invasive as they like. (If any request makes you uncomfortable, you can run it by a local landlord-tenant advisory service or legal aid office for their opinion.) For example, in California, we rarely need more than an application and maybe a pay stub or two. Running the credit report and calling the references establishes the relevant info for most applicants.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 6:14 PM on July 21, 2005

I'd avoid the apartment people and similar services - I used them once and was disappointed with the apartments I was shown and felt pressured to sign a lease that same day.

I'm of the mind that the best apartments, and often the best deals, don't have to advertise. Do a bit of research into the neighborhooods you might like to live in and then walk through the residential areas of those neighborhoods. Look for signs in windows or near walkways and call the number listed while your standing there. In many cases, you'll end up conversing with a local property owner rather than a mega-landlord.
posted by aladfar at 7:55 PM on July 21, 2005

Start with finding a few neighborhoods you'd like to live in...preferably by walking around them. In the process, you'll see plenty of "For Rent" signs for apartments that aren't even listed anywhere. Then, go to Craigslist and the Reader, as suggested above, for more opportunities.

One big thing to ask about is whether heat is included, and if not, whether it is gas or electric. Gas prices have been spiking in the winter, so heat-included can save you a lot.

As for timing, some places will be offering a free month, so you might be able to rent something August 1 for the same money. Apartments are always available here, but it might be a little tough around then.

Also, your price range will be a little tight. Don't expect anything newer than 5-10 years old, in a 50 year old building. Also, your best bet is the 2500-4000 North range. I personally recommend avoiding the Addison red line station as your primary point, because the Cubs traffic is a killer during baseball season.

Good luck. It's a great city. That being said, I just moved to the suburbs.
posted by MrZero at 8:08 PM on July 21, 2005

One more vote for Craigslist and the Reader, and walking around areas you like (although every place I've ended up signing a lease at was found through a Reader ad). Start looking now, about a month and a half before lease start seems to be when the landlords have found out who's not renewing.

Your budget seems pretty tight for the North side south of Irving, especially near the Red line. As for Brown Line neighborhoods, don't forget there's going to be some major station closings for construction (PDF on durations here, quickie project description here).

You shouldn't have a problem finding something in your range in Bridgeport, though if you have a north side lifestyle it might be a bit isolated.
posted by jaut at 9:25 PM on July 21, 2005

When I lived in Chicago five years ago, I had little luck with either apartment services or ads. I found both of my apartments by driving around in neighborhoods I liked, and looking for "for rent" signs. A lot of lower-cost apartments are not advertised at all.
posted by clarissajoy at 7:22 AM on July 22, 2005

We found our <$600/mo one bedroom (literally two rooms + bath) apartment one block from LSD+Addison just by walking neighborhoods we wanted to live in—a tactic that has always worked well for us in NYC, Chicago, and places much smaller. Even then, they raised the rent to $720/mo within two years though. I mention this because I can't imagine getting much of anything larger than a studio at <$700 if you are looking near the el in Lincoln Park/Lakeview/Wrigleyville.
posted by Fezboy! at 7:44 AM on July 22, 2005

Apartment People are high-pressure sales guys working on commission. Avoid!

I have always used Space Finder on the Reader's website.
posted by Mid at 9:42 AM on July 22, 2005

Based on your suggestions, we've decided to research neighborhoods a bit more and then hit the pavement ourselves. Also, thanks to all who pointed out the Reader as an additional resource; we'll start watching that as well.

To smich: thank you for your offer, we may quite possibly take you up on it.

To nakedcodemonkey: your answer is wonderful; thank you.

To jaut, Mid, and aladfar: thanks for your warnings.

And to everyone: thank you for taking the time to respond; each of your answers is thoughtful, helpful, and much appreciated.
posted by aiko at 3:07 PM on July 22, 2005

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