Moving from Austin to Champaign, please help !
June 9, 2013 9:24 PM   Subscribe

Cost of living and apartment hunt advice!

I am making an internal transfer within my company from Austin, TX to Champaign, IL and am now looking for some help with the following questions (and yes, I have been warned enough about the change in weather!)

First, cost of living. How different is Champaign from Austin? The catch is, my salary is "numerically" the same, which means my take home pay will be slightly less given there are state taxes in IL. Given that info, how hard would I be finding it there? For instance, for my 782 sq feet 1-bedroom apartment I am paying $977 for rent. I really don't want to go above that .... any chance I will get a good apartment of 1/2 bed rooms for that price in Champaign?

Second, apartment. I am going to be visiting Champaign in a week or so to look for housing. My office is near the university. I am preferably looking for apartments that have a significant Indian population, but my primary priority would be a clean neighborhood without cockroaches and other pests. Any suggestions?

I can leave the other questions for later, such as activities for couples, public transportation, bicycling facilities etc ...but I want to get a good picture for the above 2 ..

posted by harisund to Travel & Transportation around Champaign, IL (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Champaign is pretty cheap. It depends what you are looking for but I lived there on a 12K salary about 7 years ago on a grad student salary and was fine. Where your office is on campus is very important because some parts of campus are VERY far away from other parts--consider there is a working farm on campus, so it's a lot of space. People in engineering tend to live near the engineering campus farther north. People majoring in agriculture tend to live south. You also don't mention if you'll be driving or not, so that will affect this.

I have never heard of anyone paying that much for rent in CU--my first apt was like 200/mo per person for a shared 2 bdrm and my last rent was like less than $700/mo for an awesome 1 br in a remodeled schoolhouse, exposed brick, downtown C. It's not a city! prices are way lower, though craigslist would clue you in.

I can't really tell if you are a prof or grad student? Most "adults" (i.e. not undergrads) who rent live:
1. Near downtown Champaign (it's walking distance to bars and restaurants and campus). I'd highly recommend this, especially if your office is on the Champaign side. People don't tend to live much north of Church.
2. On campus--there are lots of apt buildings in the middle of campus that are privately owned. Very convenient, but usually loud and full of undergrads.
3. downtown urbana--there's not as much going on in downtown urbana but there is a conveniently located grocery store and the farmer's market. a lot of people like it--depends on your taste.
4. Orchard Downs--this is where the family housing is, and I do know Indian-American students lived there. There's a lot of international students there. There's also a dorm like building on campus for grad students but it was really freshman dorm-like in there, so I don't know anyone who ever lived there.
5. Farther west in Champaign--This is a much less busy option. Prices will definitely be cheaper per sq ft. and you could rent a whole house there. This is for people who want more space, don't want to be near the university, just want a regular house. It's closer to the mall. You'd probably want a car if you lived too far west, but the CU bus service IS very good. I'd recommend looking at it when considering any location.

Let me know how else I can help!
posted by jennybento at 10:58 PM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Awesome! I'm a Champaign native and have been to Austin several times. I've never lived in Austin, but I imagine cost of living/housing is equal or slightly less -- poor grad students survive/thrive there.

I agree with jennybento's list for neighborhoods, with a few further comments. As mentioned, if you're not a student, living very close to campus might be too studenty for you. If the job is not too far from Urbana, I'd recommend living there, something around Lincoln Ave or slightly east of it, (also stay south of University for safety's sake) -- lots of students, grad students, not too rowdy, walking distance from downtown urbana (which has Black Dog which is the most important place to go anyway) in addition to campus stuff. I had a couple friends who lived here (much nicer in person than in the pics, IMO) but that's sorta what I would recommend for location. There are lots of houses around there too, you could probably afford a whole house. I think Urbana tends to have more international people too, and it has fewer parties, it's more chill/hangouty. Champaign is more frat-y.

OR, if your job is more on the Champaign side of campus, then you might like the downtown champaign area. It's got a lot of good bars and restaurants, and grad students like going there but undergrads don't venture that far out. I personally wouldn't live anywhere that's too far to walk to work -- it's just not necessary in such a small town, and plus you never know when it's just gonna be a foot of snow or something.

Best of luck, I'm always happy to help so feel free to reach out. I have over 2 decades of Chambana experience!
posted by mokudekiru at 11:20 PM on June 9, 2013

i was also told the "champaign is fratty" thing when i went there, and, without starting a Champaign v Urbana war, I'd say that's mostly true on campus.

also, people move a lot, so if you live somewhere for a semester, you can always move to the neighborhood you prefer. If you live in dntwn champaign or dntwn urbana I think you'll be happy. But the other places might fit you better depending on your lifestyle.

black dog is awesome. :)
posted by jennybento at 11:30 PM on June 9, 2013

Downtown Urbana's cobblestone streets are really nice. Downtown Champaign is a bit more happening. It'll almost certainly be cheaper than Austin. CU is a great place!
posted by professor plum with a rope at 1:46 AM on June 10, 2013

For $977 a month you will be living like a King in Champaign-Urbana.

CHAMPAIGN: Here's a breakdown of Champaign neighborhoods: east of downtown, stay south of University; west of downtown, stay south of Washington. The area just west of downtown (out to Prospect) between Washington and Kirby (N-S) is "Old Town" and is my favorite part of town (compare to much of Central Austin). There are two big old parks, Hessel and West Side, with apartments nearby; the latter is very close to downtown Champaign. West of there, and south of there, is also solid respectable middle-class residential living (compare to Brentwood/Crestview/Allandale). The apartment complexes near Mattis are full of grad students and young professionals.

Downtown Champaign: this place has reinvented itself as a nightlife destination, a la Sixth Street in Austin. Friends who have tried living in the apartments above storefronts found it too noisy, though. The city council is trying to spur growth lofts and condos here (just like in Austin) but it doesn't seem to be attracting long-term residents that way; it probably doesn't help that there's no real shopping in walking distance.

Southwest Champaign has the McMansions, Tea Partiers, and lower taxes. Some of this is technically outside the city limits so you don't get city services. (Compare to Round Rock.)

North of Interstate 74 in Champaign is where the shopping mall and all the big box stores are. Apartments here are new and pretty high quality, if you don't mind living out there. (Compare to Jollyville Road / 360.) North of I-74 in Urbana is farmland and subdivisions.

URBANA: I know you say your job is in Champaign, but it's a 5 minute drive between the two downtowns. In Texas terms, they are the same place. The best part of Urbana (for someone who is "typically Austin") is West Urbana; a good comparison is Hyde Park. Rents will be higher there, but still less than your current rent. (Look for small rental houses here, not apartments.) You're close to the Farmer's Market, the Library, the Co-Op, Carle Park, kiddies, birdies, trees, all that crap. Honestly, anywhere in Urbana west of Philo and south of Main is nice. Outside of that area it varies more; East Urbana is definitely poorer, but has plenty of people who are culturally "West Urbana" but don't want to pay to live there.

Downtown Urbana: this place is kind of a playground for hippies and mellow grad students. I don't know anyone who actually lives in downtown itself; unlike downtown Champaign it hasn't tried re-inventing itself with lofts, condos, and nightlife.

"ON CAMPUS" (or "CAMPUS TOWN"): These apartments are where the college students live. I wouldn't recommend this -- not because college students suck, but because prices are higher and housing stock is poorer since they need to live by the university and there's a "captive market." ON CAMPUS is defined by a box on the map approximately from University to Florida/Kirby (N-S), Randolph to Coler (W-E).

SAVOY: This small town adjacent to the south side of Champaign has made itself business friendly, allowing a lot of apartment complexes. Not a bad place to live, but kind of cookie-cutter. A lot of tech companies are in south Champaign (Wolfram, Intel, Motorola, etc.) so Savoy is pretty close to them. (Note: everything is close to everything in this area.)

You will notice a definite pattern here: south is good and north is not. This is the "common knowledge" around here, and is a hopeless overgeneralization, I'm sure, and probably has some racism in it. Exception: Far far far north (and south) Champaign has all new apartment-complex construction with expensive names like "The Heights At Windsor Pointe"; they sit next to fake lakes which used to be cornfields.

It's pretty common here to rent a small house instead of an apartment. This will still cost less than your current rent. The best apartments and houses are owned by "mom and pop" local landlords, not by the big companies who advertise. This will be harder to find if you can't come to town to look. Ask your future co-workers if they have any recommendations. If you have to go with a big company, avoid Gabe's Place and Campus Property Management.

C-U has one of the best bus systems in America. If you don't live too far out, you can ride the bus everywhere. Inside the map-box of Bradley-to-Windsor (N-S), Mattis-to-Philo (W-E), there's regular bus service. Southwest Champaign doesn't have any, because they rejected it.

Don't rent a basement apartment. Champaign-Urbana used to be swampland.

There are plenty of 19th-to-early-20th century big houses that have been cut up into apartments. These can be good or very bad; don't rent one "sight unseen."

Most leases are for 1 year. The year usually begins on August 1st. (If you are moving at another time, this will limit your choices, but there are tons of summer sublets for cheap cheap cheap, so that could probably tide you over.) Big apartment complexes don't have this August 1st restriction.

As for where the Indians (from India) live: not in any particular buildings, so far as I'm aware. We have a lot of Indians working at my company and they just live all over. If you really want somewhere dense with Indians, however, that would be on campus near the Engineering Quad: i.e. between University and Springfield (N-S), Fourth to Goodwin (W-E).

As you can tell, my bias is that if you are going to live in Champaign-Urbana and you have the money, Central Champaign and West Urbana (but not Campustown) are the coolest places. If you really just want the most luxury for the money and don't care that you're a long way away, try the south, north, and west edges of Champaign.

By the way, I pay $550 a month for a large 1BR beside a park, close to shopping and work. (There will be an apartment vacancy in this small building soon; send me MetaFilter Mail if you are interested and I'll give you the landlords' home phone number.)

Feel free to follow up with more neighborhood or apartment questions here and I'll try to answer. You can also use my MetaFilter Mail.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 9:31 AM on June 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, I have not seen cockroaches in any apartments once I was no longer (1) in a basement apartment, or (2) on campus.

Orchard Downs apartments is where all the foreign graduate student families live. It's owned by the university, but not really "on campus." It's adjacent to south Urbana, which is jokingly called the "professor ghetto."
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:20 AM on June 10, 2013

Finally, if you are renting an apartment in Chambana, your first stop before signing any lease should be the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union. They have full records of complaints filed on all landlords and properties in town, and you can get the helpful Tenant Handbook for renters.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:32 PM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

@Harvey, thanks for the comprehensive answer! I did begin to notice as I was searching online that it seems common to be able to rent small houses as much as apartment complexes. My question, are these about as safe as apartment complexes? Craigslist has a few "small houses" for rent provided by one "Strong Investments Inc" but I am unable to get any reviews anywhere. Any suggestion on the featured rentals listed here (Strong Investments)?

You have mentioned "mom and pop" local landlords. How exactly do I find those if not online? I will be visiting Champaign later this week so I would love some suggestions on how I can find such small houses.

Also, thanks a bunch for your info on Champaign Urbana Tenant Union. Will check it out.

And finally, yes I do work in one of the tech companies you have mentioned. I will be sure to check out Savoy !

Also, thanks for the info JennyBento and Mokudekiru :)
posted by harisund at 3:56 PM on June 10, 2013

Unfortunately this is a lousy time to be looking for places (see my remarks above about August 1). So you are seeing a very limited selection.

I think, just due to the larger number of things that have to be maintained, a house rental would always be riskier than an apartment of the same class. One thing to watch out for in house rentals is the agency which is just waiting for the house to deteriorate so they can tear it down and build apartments; this is more common on campus than out in the community.

That "Strong Investments" link looks a little dubious to me. A better one that comes to mind is Joel Ward, except they're all rented now. I'll see if I can come up with other names.

C-U is not all that great with Craigslist. The better way is to look at the classified ads in the local newspaper, the News-Gazette. They are separated into apartments, townhouses/duplexes, and full houses there. Hit up the library when you arrive. Their classified ads are also online, but they don't separate the listings into housing types, so it's hard to know what you're looking at!

If you decide to sublet to tide you over until your chosen apartment is available in August, I will now share with you my secret for cheap sublets. Go to the library and find copies of the Daily Illini (the University of Illinois student newspaper) from early May, the end of the school year. Check their classified ads for sublets. There will be a ton of ads from desperate students. Many of them never found sublessors, and are now back home in Chicago paying for Champaign apartments they aren't living in. Call them up and see if the apartments are still available -- these folks will be happy to accept any amount of money you offer.

One of the best ways to find houses for rent at this late date is just to drive around a neighborhood looking for signs. Some areas I know I've seen signs: Hessel, Grandview, and Haines Drives (between Prospect and State streets in Champaign); the area around West Side Park in Champaign (esp. Elm and Hill streets); and the "state street" area of Urbana (streets with U. S. state names, between Lincoln and Vine roads -- esp. in the range of Illinois St. down to Indiana Ave.; south of Indiana Ave. it's too fancy for rentals).

If I'm not mistaken you will work at a place on Fox Drive. Parallel to that street is the Boulware hike-and-bike trail and Mattis Park. At the north end of the trail is Hessel On The Park apartments; at the south end is Colony West. There is often a game of Cricket on the green nearby, played by your fellow-countrymen. So it may be that many of them live in Colony West, or at least work in the tech companies along Fox Drive and they're relaxing after work.

Check your MetaFilter mail for more contact information.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:15 AM on June 11, 2013

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