"Maybe we can show government how to operate better as a result of better architecture. Eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful great city left in the world." (Frank Lloyd Wright) Read Guide >
Basic Tips on Chicago Living
Everyone knows you don’t put ketchup on a Chicago-style hot dog, and everyone knows that trying to travel through Wrigleyville during a Cubs game will be a mob scene. Here are a few other bits of city-specific advice for fledgling Chicagoans. Though renting stand-alone houses is definitely not unheard of here, the most common living arrangements are apartments and condominiums, the latter of which are sometimes rented out privately by their owners. The range of styles, ages and quality amongst them, however, varies depending on where you’re looking and how much you’re willing to spend. Knowing this, how on earth do you even get started?
It’s always best to know what you want in an apartment first. What’s important to you? What’s your price range? Are you willing to sacrifice size for location? Do you want a vintage flat, a hole-in-the-wall studio, or an updated 40th floor pad with a panoramic view of Lake Michigan? One great thing about apartment hunting in Chicago is that there are multiple services that will take down all your criteria, and then drive you around the city to see multiple options, free of charge. Of course, there are always Internet listings, newspaper ads, and for many areas, a simple walk through the neighborhood to glimpse “for rent” signs will suffice.
Chicago really has no defined “rental season”. Apartments are available year-round, though if anything, there are more options and they tend to go quicker and rent higher in the spring and fall. During these seasons, you’re more likely to lose a good dwelling to another contender if you don’t act fast. Renting a place out in the middle of January may give you a price or time advantage, but moving a couch up to the fourth floor of a walk-up building when the back staircase is covered in ice may also cause you to think twice.
Quality and Style: As previously stated, Chicago has every type of dwelling imaginable, though different neighborhoods and price ranges will yield different results. Multi-unit high-rise buildings usually have amenities included, such as a concierge/doorman, a communal rooftop deck, a pool, or a fitness center. These types of buildings will also have more restrictions or fees for moving in and out. Older buildings with radiator heat will often have gas and heat included in the rent, which is a huge advantage in the winter months when heating prices can break $150 - $200 or more a month. Also, you’d be hard-pressed to find an apartment in the city of Chicago that requires you to pay your own water bill.
Common Logistics: A 12-month lease is standard, though occasionally a larger company will throw in financial perks for signing a longer lease. Short-term or month-to-month leases are hard to come by unless you’re subletting or renting from a private landlord. As far as security deposits go, the standard is equivalent to one month’s rent. More and more often, though, management companies are requiring a non-refundable move-in fee (usually between $150 - $300 per person) instead of a security deposit. For pets, cats are welcome in most buildings, sometimes with a refundable or non-refundable pet deposit. Chicago is generally a dog-friendly city, but not all apartments allow dogs, and some have weight or size restrictions, so always make sure to ask about a building’s pet policy.
Your Renting Arsenal: Here is a list of common things that will be required for a rental application:
Within the city of Chicago, there are over 200 unique neighborhoods that are fluid and socially constructed, each with their own quirks and day-to-day life. On a much larger (and more general) scale, the city can be broken up into four massive sections. Consider this a “jumping off” point in finding your ‘hood. Once you decide which side of the city is best for you, look into doing some research on that area’s neighborhoods to find the best fit. Looking up crime statistics for any place you’re interested in is always a must. A semi-official map of Chicago’s neighborhoods can be found here.
The Loop: The central hub of Chicago, dubbed “the loop” due to the circular path that the elevated trains take around it, is mainly considered a commercial area. It boasts the quintessential Chicago landmarks, including skyscrapers, museums, Grant and Millennium Parks, a theatre district, and a large shopping district. Since it’s mostly business-oriented, housing in the loop tends to be sparser and located more toward the perimeter. This area is bustling during the day, but many things close early, and there isn’t much of a “community” feel. Living spaces are compact high-rise condominium and apartment buildings, and rent is some of the highest in the city. Generally, the further your living proximity from the loop, the cheaper, more spacious, and more “residential” your apartment will tend to be.
North side: Closer to the loop and Michigan Avenue’s “Magnificent Mile” shopping district, rent can get exorbitant and apartments luxurious. There are many fancy town houses around these neighborhoods, too. As you continue north, rent drops a little and the streets become tree-lined, yet population rises considerably. The north side, as a whole, is the most densely populated section of the city, especially along the lakefront. This area has a lot of neighborhood amenities, parks, and nightlife. It boasts a pretty even number of two and three-flat buildings, vintage courtyard buildings, and high-rises of all different types, with pockets of single-family homes woven in.
South side: While not always true, the common stereotype is that the south and southwest sides are the most dangerous areas of Chicago. Speaking statistically, the south side does have a higher rate of crime and poverty. Some of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods are here, but it also covers a much larger land area, and contains a wider socioeconomic spectrum. Some parts of the south side are quaint, residential communities, some are rather affluent, many old and historic, but in a few blocks they can go downhill pretty quickly. The neighborhoods here have more single-family homes and smaller buildings, and rent can get considerably cheaper for a nicer place due to location. The south side can sometimes be more volatile as far as safety goes, but millions of Chicagoans still call it home.
West side: The west side is one of the most diverse areas of Chicago, with many well-known immigrant neighborhoods. Its demographics and crime rates vary a lot from area to area. Just west of the loop has historically been an industrial zone; the famous Chicago Union Stockyards were once located here. Closer to downtown, you’ll find loft-style condominiums and old warehouses converted into restaurants and galleries, as well as one of the largest medical districts in the United States. The northwest and southwest are a gentrifying blend of working class Hispanic communities, hipsters and artist’s lofts. Further out, more stand-alone houses, town homes and bungalows appear, but farther out on the west side it can get very unsafe, so proceed with caution.
If this city had a heartbeat, its veins would be rich with commuters. The question is really not whether you’ll be able to get around the city, but how you will get around the city. As with any metropolis, Chicago is easily walk-able, but some distances are just too far for tootsies.
Public Transit: Chicago has the second largest public transportation system in the United States. Eight train lines (both elevated and underground) and over 140 bus routes operate daily all over the city; some run 24/7, others only at peak hours. For commuting further from the city limits, the regional transit authority operates 11 Metra rail lines and suburban buses that service over 200 stations in cities ranging as far as southern Wisconsin and northern Indiana.
Biking: Chicago is a big city for biking (surprisingly) year-round. Bike lanes can be spotted along many major streets, with vivacious velos darting in and out of gridlocked rush hour traffic. Bike paths also run along large portions of the lakefront for a more leisurely commute. Cyclists beware, though; investing in a heavy-duty lock may save you from a heartbreaking bout of bike theft or decapitation.
Driving: Generally one of the least desirable forms of transportation in Chicago, yet a lot of people still do it. Finding an apartment with a designated parking spot can be difficult and pricey in many areas of the city (think an extra $150 - $200 a month for a spot in a parking garage or outdoor lot), and street parking is a cutthroat battle. Don’t even get me started on driving through the city at rush hour. If you need to have a car in Chicago, be forewarned that it will probably become very expensive and frustrating very quickly.
Chicago is truly a melting pot for the masses. It’s rich in history and culture, while still being a progressive and modern city. With this much variety, you’ll be able to find the right place for your lifestyle or budget, all within an exciting urban setting. Hopefully this guide has given you a more concrete idea of what to expect and how to get started on your search. Happy hunting!
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