"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)
Ah, Chicago, metropolis of the Midwest! Being the third largest city in the United States, Chicago is a major nerve center for business, culture, and entertainment. Though it’s no longer just a rest stop between the east and west coasts, the Big Onion still has a whole world to offer. From urban skyscrapers and honking taxis along Lakeshore Drive, to tree-lined streets and grassy parks, there is a niche for every taste. With almost 4 million people calling the windy city their home, though, finding your own place in the chaos can seem like a daunting task.
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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?
How to Find an Apartment
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.
What to Expect From A Chicago Pad
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 and $300 per person) instead of a security deposit.
Your Renting Arsenal: Here is a list of common things that will be required for a rental application:
Photo ID for all applicants
It’s perfectly normal (especially with management companies) to require a $25 - $50 non-refundable credit/background check fee per applicant.
Expect to provide information on an application including (but not limited to) current employer information, financial information, previous landlord contact information, and personal or professional references.
Many larger management companies will require previous bank statements or pay stubs as proof of income
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. 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. Housing in the loop tends to be sparser and located more toward the perimeter. This area is bustling during the day. Living spaces are compact high-rise condominium and apartment buildings. Generally, the further your living proximity from the loop, the lower cost, 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. There are many 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: The south side covers a much larger land area. Some parts of the south side are quaint, residential communities, and some are rather old and historic.The neighborhoods here have more single-family homes and smaller buildings. Millions of Chicagoans still call it home.
West side: 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. Further out, more stand-alone houses, town homes and bungalows appear.
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.
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. Bike paths also run along large portions of the lakefront for a more leisurely commute.
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 rich in history and culture, while still being a 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!