Venturing out into the world of renting your first apartment, whether with someone or alone, can be unnerving. Where should you rent? How much should you pay? Are all utilities included? Can you bring your cat with you? The questions you need to ask seem limitless. As someone who has worked for a real estate broker for the last two years, I can tell you that it’s not as difficult as you may suspect, but often about anticipating what you cannot foresee. If you’re thinking about renting for the first time in Chicago, here are 5 things you need to consider.
1. Anticipate the unexpected
I know, it’s an oxymoron but I’m going somewhere with this. The most common complaint I hear from renters are the unanticipated expenses that come about in the process of moving. Hiring movers, buying things like laundry detergent and brooms, even simple condiments like ketchup and mustard. They may seem small and inconsequential but they do add up. When you leave the nest, you likely won’t be taking the hangers, curtains or rugs with you unless you bought them. You need to consider what you’ll be taking with you. The bed? The desk and dresser? How about the couch and TV? Before you move, it’s important to take into account how much you will be spending on the move itself before the rent can even be factored in. On the low end of the spectrum, for the first move you’re looking at an out-of-pocket cost of $2,000 to furnish your apartment and simply make it liveable, assuming you’re buying everything new. However, once you have your apartment picked out, it might be a good time to become a savvy bargain monkey and see what people on sites like Craigslist are selling or giving away. A couch someone no longer loves might be perfect for you and your new pad. Whatever the case, remember, it is better to overestimate how much you’ll need than underestimate.
2. Know when to move and when to search
Most people in Chicago are trying to move in the spring or summer, that’s a given. Like the season, you can start anew and you can move your stuff without having to be in a massive parka or fear of slipping in dirty winter slush with a box of your unmentionables. Although there are obvious benefits to moving in the warmer months, you might want to consider moving in the fall or winter. Here’s why: Because most people are looking to move in spring and summer, the prices are higher because apartments are more in demand. If you move during the colder months, not only will you be competing with fewer people, but you will likely be paying less for an apartment because the landlord might be in desperate need of tenants because the current renters are moving out all of a sudden, and/or because the demand is low.
3. Narrowing it down
You probably have a long list of criteria you want your dream apartment to meet, but assuming you aren’t loaded like a baked potato, here’s what you can do to narrow it down. Pick the top three things on your list of must-haves and calculate what your estimated loss would be if you did not have them. I talk about compromising in #4 of this list, but here is where you determine which compromises are worth making and which are not. So say you’re a commuter but you’ve decided you’re going to compromise by staying in an area far from public transportation because the rent is $200 cheaper. You might have to take an Uber then, a cab or even drive your car if you have one. Calculate how much money will be going into traveling to and from work, in parking fees and/or gas. The rent might be cheaper in one neighborhood but you may end up paying the same amount or more to commute because of your location. This same principle can be applied to a situation in which rent is low but none of the utilities are included versus a place that has higher rent but includes all utilities. I hate to say this because math and I aren’t friends, but do your math, people. Things aren’t always what they seem; a better deal upfront might end up burning a bigger hole in your pocket.
4. Be realistic and willing to compromise
If you’re trying to rent in Chicago, you’re going to want the best of the best—or the best of what you can afford, anyway. You’ll want an in-unit washer and dryer, be in a popular neighborhood, be able to take your pet(s) with you, guaranteed parking, be walking distance from restaurant/bars and public transportation, etc. There is nothing wrong with wanting these things, heck, who doesn’t? What you have to keep in mind is that everything comes with a price. Literally. If you want to live in a neighborhood like Logan Square or Bucktown, you’re going to be paying top dollar because it’s in high demand. With the criteria listed above, you can expect to be paying upwards of $1200 per month, not taking into account the neighborhood.
Instead, reassess the things you can live without. Maybe you can live close to your dream neighborhood. Opt for a place with plenty of free street parking so you don’t need a designated space that is adding on to your rent price. Perhaps you don’t need a washer and dryer in-unit and can do with a shared laundry room in the building, and so on. All these things can bring your rent price at or below $1000 and if you’re moving alone, those $200 or more dollars can come in handy. I’m talking ramen five days a week instead of all seven. Huge.
5. Research and ask questions
The glorious Internet allows us to research practically everyone and everything, which is why when you find an apartment, you should research the living daylights out of the neighborhood. This will help you get a feel for the place that you might be calling home. Find out the crime rates. Does the neighborhood have any organizations you can join? Is there a community garden? A gym you can go to? Researching the areas you’re looking at for amenities that matter to you is highly encouraged because you could find something that is a make-or-break factor.
Whether in the classroom or at job interview for the first time, one thing many people are not good at is asking questions. Well, Skipper, I have news for you. As you get older, “Question Master” needs to become your middle name. Be aware of everything. If you narrow it down to a couple apartments but one has an uneven floor in the bedroom or other apparent issue, don’t be shy, ask the landlord if and when these problems will be addressed. If any of the issues present are something you are willing to overlook, propose a lower rental price. Maybe you’re a college student and want to know about the noise-level in the building, ask. It never hurts to ask, whether you are renting long-term or short-term, you should know exactly what you’re signing up for.