10 Insider Tips for Finding your Perfect Chicago Apartment

We know how to save you thousands of dollars, avoid costly mistakes, and/or get up to 2 months of free rent. We'll also tell you why no real estate expert uses Zillow, Trulia, Craigslist, Apartments.com, Domu, HotPads or PadMapper to find their own apartment. Read on to learn more!

Let's face it, finding your perfect apartment is a process. There's an incredible amount of information (good and bad) and endless sources of advice.

Renting an apartment is even tougher because the average renter only searches for an apartment once every year and a half. Even after we move in, it can take months to know if we're (un)lucky. There's also no way to know if we could have done better.

At AptAmigo, we strongly believe in the power of neighborhood guides, detailed reviews, accurate floor plans and high quality data, but all of these are only tools. The right first step to finding your perfect place is understanding what's important to you. Reaching out to us is the right second step.

I had no idea that experts never use sites like Zillow, Apartments.com, PadMapper or Craigslist to find their own apartments

We have been fortunate enough to help hundreds of renters find their perfect apartment, and through this process we've discovered a few interesting details. We wanted to share them so you could save time, money, and get it right every time you choose to move!

I had no idea that experts never use sites like Zillow, Apartments.com, PadMapper or Craigslist to find their own apartments, or to ask if a building has a 2-pipe or 4-pipe system (keep reading), or that I could pay for a flight to Cabo by renting my apartment on a Tuesday instead of Saturday. I do now.


1. Not All Square Footage is Created Equal

Many people (us included) approach an apartment search with a minimum amount of square footage in mind. Interestingly, this approach still lends itself to checking out apartments that aren't always a great fit. We've also seen a lot of people end up in units that were slightly smaller than they wanted, just because the floorplan was laid out more efficiently. Let's check out a quick example:

747 square feet: 715 square feet:

The first floor plan technically has more square footage, but because the entry way is a 50+ square foot hallway, it actually has less livable space than the second "smaller" floor plan.

Takeaway: Beware of hallways and other unusable square footage! All available units on AptAmigo have a detailed floor plan to make sure you avoid wasting time touring a unit that won't work.

2. Heat in the Summer, AC in the Winter. Wait, What?

Chicago gets cold. Like really cold. But it can also have dramatic swings in temperature over a short period of time. The majority of Chicago buildings have what's called a "2-pipe" heating and cooling system. For practical purposes, this means the entire building is either 100% heat or 100% AC.

If there's a sudden heatwave in March (which happens all the time!) you're stuck pumping more heat until the entire building switches over to AC. If things get cold in April the week after the building finally switched off the heat, now you're stuck on AC!

Some of the newer buildings in town have what's called a "4-pipe" system, which means you can pump the heat or AC all year round. Want to freeze your unit in December? Go for it! Need it to be a sauna in August? All you!

Takeaway: If full control over your thermostat is a priority, make sure to focus on newer buildings with a 4-pipe system. If you end up in a building with a 2-pipe system, get ready for 3-5 uncomfortable weeks a year when the building is slow to switch from heat to AC (or vice versa).

3. Want a flight to Cabo? Tour on a Tuesday.

Chicago has been building a lot of large rental apartment buildings over the last few years and it's not slowing down. The latest count is that 5,000+ apartment units are expected to be added to Chicago in 2017.

As a greater percentage of Chicago housing has become larger apartment buildings, a few interesting things are happening. One is that these larger buildings have adopted pricing systems very similar to what we're used to seeing from airlines. Basically, the price for the same apartment changes (sometimes wildly!) every day.

We're not algorithm experts, but we know this system definitely takes into account that people prefer to tour apartments on weekends. This makes sense, it's a lot easier to spend 6 hours in one day touring apartments when you don't have to work.

As a result, we've seen the price for the same unit rise by nearly $100/month on a Saturday compared to the previous Tuesday. This means touring and applying for that unit on a Tuesday would save you $1,200 on a 12-month lease!

Takeaway: We know work is important, but if you're willing to take off a few hours to go to the doctor or see the dentist, consider touring apartments on a weekday. You might be able to use all those savings to pay for a flight to Cabo in January!

4. Want a First-Class Flight to Cabo? Tour on a Tuesday in January.

Chicago apartment search is highly seasonal - the vast majority of people move from April to September. There a few reasons for this, but the primary ones are (1) new college grads starting jobs, (2) students moving to/within Chicago, and (3) good weather. Amazingly, not many people want to move to Chicago in January.

...pricing drops anywhere from 15 to 20% between July to January. This means a $2,100/month unit in July might cost $1,800 in January.

Because of this, apartment pricing drops anywhere between 15 to 20% from July to January. This means a $2,100/month unit in July might cost $1,800 in January. This would save you $3,600 on a 12 month lease.

Don't believe me? Check this out: A 2-bed at AMLI River North, which is right above Studio Paris (where Drake parties after playing the United Center), goes for ~$4,200/month in July. The same 2-bedroom apartment is now available for around $3,100/month after 1-month free. That's a savings of over $13,000 on a 12 month lease!!

Takeaway: Chicago apartment search is highly seasonal and pricing drops dramatically in winter. If there's any way you can time your move or find a temporary option over the summer, consider waiting until the winter to sign a long-term lease.

5. Why Does Price Vary by Lease Term?

Lets pretend we're in charge of a high rise apartment building and go through a quick example (if your eyes are glazing over, skip to the takeaway).

If a building has 100 1-bedroom apartments, they really don't want 50 of those units to be up for lease renewal in December. Why? First, nobody moves to Chicago in December. Second, if only 20 of those residents renew their lease, they now have 30 1-bedroom units available and empty at the same time. That's money being lost everyday the apartment sits vacant. The more availability they have of the same 1 bedroom, the less they can charge in rent. Think supply and demand.

This becomes an even bigger issue if renters know there are a ton of empty units. Just think about how you feel walking in to an empty vs. crowded restaurant. Renters interpret empty units (or a restaurant) as a very negative signal.

As a counter-example, if they only have one 1-bedroom available in December, they have a much better chance of getting a renter to sign a lease at a higher rent price. "This is the only unit we have left and it will rent fast!" is a much different message from "Which of the 30 1-bedrooms would you like?".

So buildings try to encourage renters to vary their lease term so (1) they don't have too many of the same floor plan expiring at the same time and (2) they have more units up for renewal during the summer when more renters are looking for housing.

This is why your monthly rent can fluctuate depending on when you choose to end your lease.

Takeaway: Understand that buildings change prices for different lease terms to give them more leverage to raise rent or replace you with another renter. Make sure the lease term makes the most sense for you personally and then, all things equal, try to have your lease expire in November - March when rents are lower!

6. Don't Forget to Check for Cranes!

The average apartment tour lasts about 45 minutes, but we live in our apartments for thousands of hours every year. The odds we get the full picture on nearby noise during an apartment tour are extremely low.

On a personal level, I had no idea that the CTA train 2 blocks from my building would annoy me so much until after I moved in. We want to help you avoid this!

As we mentioned earlier, Chicago is also building like crazy, so the chances that there's a building going up right next door is pretty high. Construction can start at 8am so it's really important to consider what's happening near a building before you move in.

Takeaway: Check out the surrounding area for new construction, traffic noise, and the CTA. If any of these are an issue, seek a unit as far away from noise as possible.

Pro-Tip: When gazing out of the floor-to-ceiling windows at the gorgeous lake view from your perspective apartment, take a second to look down instead. You might see some new construction breaking ground.

7. Which Utilities Are Included?

One of the first things renters ask when they're interested in a unit is "how much are utilities?". Unfortunately the answer to this question can vary widely by building.

Some buildings include everything but electricity (Cable, internet, heat, AC) for a fee of $60-$100 per month. Others including nothing, which can mean you're out hundreds of dollars more than rent.

This means not all $1,900/month 1-beds are created equal. One can end up costing you under $2,000 including electric (i.e. Grand Plaza), while another can cost over $2,200 because you pay $50 for water/sewer/trash, $150 for cable and internet, and another $100 for electricity to power the heat and AC.

We hate it when this information is revealed later in the process as it ends up disqualifying a building that the renter never should have seen in the first place.

Thankfully, we're building a database that will standardize the "total cost of renting" for every building and unit in downtown Chicago. Reach out to us at info@aptamigo.com to learn more!

Takeaway: Make sure to ask us about utilities before scheduling your apartment tours so you don't waste time at a building that's actually outside of your budget.

8. Where's the Nearest Grocery Store?

In Chicago, a 10 minute walk to Whole Foods in July is a $30 GrubHub order in December. It's going to be 5 degrees Fahrenheit tomorrow! Before scheduling a tour, pull up Google Maps and look to see where the nearest grocery and convenience stores are.

Not much of a cook? Could Grubhub pay its employees from your monthly orders alone? Type the address of your prospective apartment into your favorite takeout website and see who delivers.

Takeaway: If you value cooking in winter, you might want to consider options less than 5 minutes from a grocery store.

9. Do You Really Need a Car?

Cars can make life incredibly convenient. Having one makes quick trips to the grocery store, Home Depot, Ikea, or commuting to the suburbs a breeze.

However, the cost of keeping a car in downtown Chicago might not be worth the expense or hassle. Parking typically costs ~$250/month for an indoor, heated space (very necessary in winter) and on top of a car payment, insurance, and gas it can add hundreds more to your monthly expenses.

Further, in case you weren't aware, Chicago is going bankrupt. This means they do dumb things like sell their parking rights to Morgan Stanley for billions less than they're worth. What does that mean for the average Chicago driver? Meter maids are constantly looking for ways to ticket and tow your vehicle. It's the only way the city makes money from parked cars.

On the positive side: a lot of newcomers to Chicago quickly learn two things about getting around the city: public transportation is actually pretty easy (and extremely cheap) and Uber Pools and Lyft Lines are even faster (and cheaper).

Takeaway: Unless you need your car to commute or can't bear the thought of a train ride twice a month to see family in the suburbs, you could save thousands of dollars by leaving your car at home. There's nothing worse than a Chicago impound lot. Trust me.

10. Why don't the experts use Zillow, Trulia, or Apartments.com?

Disclaimer: skip to the Takeaway if you don't want to learn about the guts of the Chicago apartment industry.

If you've searched for an apartment before, you're probably familiar with the following email or text:

"Hey XXX,

Thanks for reaching out about unit YYYY. Unfortunately, that unit just rented, but if you send me your budget, move date, preferred neighborhoods, and if you have any pets or need parking, I can send you some options that might work!"

In Chicago, these emails are almost always from a broker, who is looking to help you with your apartment search to make a little money. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. As with any profession, there are a lot of very good (and very bad) brokers out there, but we believe knowing a bit more about the industry might help renters understand how to navigate it.

...finding an apartment is so difficult is that >50% of listings on websites like Zillow, Craiglist, Apartments.com, or HotPads are posted by brokers looking to send you the above email. NOT the actual unit owner or building.

First, one of the main reasons finding an apartment is so difficult is that >50% of listings on websites like Zillow, Craiglist, Apartments.com, or HotPads are posted by brokers looking to send you the above email. NOT the actual unit owner or building. In fact, we've never met a broker who uses any of these websites to find their own apartment! Yep, the experts who leverage these websites to get in touch with you don't use them when looking for their own place.

Why?

First, it's helpful to know that Chicago brokers collect first month's rent from a rental apartment building and 1/2 month's rent from a condo owner if they have a client who signs a lease. This means that their services are completely free to a renter, but that there's a very strong incentive for them to get in touch with you by any means necessary. This is why you might get emails or phone calls from 5 different brokers after sending dozens of inquiries. It's really hard to stand out when something is "free" and anyone can post ads on the websites we all use to search for apartments.

So why can anyone post ads on Zillow, Trulia, Craigslist, Zumper, or HotPads?! We think there are four main reasons:

  • Craigslist is the dominant player in apartment search. We estimate they're responsible for at least 60% of all leases in Chicago (maybe up to 80%). Anyone can post anything to Craigslist for free.
    • Anytime the dominant player is free, it's really hard for anyone to charge a lot of money for their service (i.e. Zillow, Apartments.com, etc.)
  • All renters want to feel like they've left no stone unturned when shopping for apartments online. If Apartments.com has 5,000 listings in Chicago, but Craigslist has 20,000 listings, renters won't be satisfied only searching on Apartments.com. The reality is the number of "real" listings on both sites are approximately the same, but a larger number makes renters more likely to spend time on that site and send more inquiries.
  • Because the "real" number of available Chicago listings might be around 5,000 at any given time, the way to get more listings is to let anyone (i.e. brokers) post an unlimited number of listings for free. Brokers are happy to oblige and make ~$50M in commissions per year selling these leads back to condo owners and buildings.
  • Last, because of these dynamics, most apartment search websites make money every time you send an inquiry (i.e. your email address / phone number) about an apartment. Usually this amount varies between $2 - $10 per inquiry. So while you only need one lease, if these websites have 20,000 listings instead of 5,000, you're much more likely to inquire about 30 listings instead of 3. More listings (even fake ones) make these sites more money and make your life more difficult!
This is why real estate experts almost NEVER use websites like Zillow, Trulia, HotPads, PadMapper, or Craigslist to find their own apartments.

Takeaway: If you're curious to learn how the experts get up to 2 months free rent and avoid using these websites entirely - reach out to us at info@aptamigo.com. We'd love to hear from you.

Best,
Dan Willenborg
Co-founder & CEO, AptAmigo