We know how to find an apartment in Chicago, save you thousands of dollars, avoid costly mistakes, and possibly 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 the best way to find an apartment in Chicago.

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

Let’s face it, finding your perfect apartment is a long and stressful process. An incredible amount of information (good and bad) and endless sources of advice convolute the process.

The average renter only searches for an apartment once every year and a half, not often enough to gain any real expertise. Even after you move in, it can take months to know if you’re (un)lucky. Plus, you might wonder whether you could have done better.

At AptAmigo, we strongly believe in the power of neighborhood guides, detailed reviews, accurate floor plans, and high quality data. These core tools lead to successful outcomes, but the first step to finding your perfect place is understanding what’s important to you. Then, reach out to AptAmigo and connect with a professional apartment locator with access to the tools you need.

We help thousands of renters find their perfect apartment each year, and through this experience we discovered loads of good information. So, we compiled the top tips for the best way to find an apartment in Chicago, and we wanted to share them so that you can save time and money in addition to getting it right every time you choose to move.

Before I started this company, I had no idea that experts never use sites like Zillow, Apartments.com, PadMapper, or Craigslist to find their own apartments. Nor did I know to ask whether a building has a 2-pipe or 4-pipe system (keep reading), or that I could pay for a flight to Cabo by signing a lease on a Tuesday instead of a Saturday.

Now, let’s take a look at some tips on the best way to find an apartment in Chicago.

10 Tips to Find Your Next Apartment

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 don’t always make a great fit. We also see a lot of people end up in slightly smaller units than they wanted just because the floorplan was laid out less efficiently. Let’s check out a quick example from The Grand in Denver:

The square footage is relatively similar in these two floor plans, but because the first one has a long hallway, the kitchen area isn’t as prominent. If you eat out a lot and prefer a larger closet, the first floor plan would suit you best. But, if you like to host and cook every weekend, the second one will give you much more living space.

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.

Heat in the Summer, AC in the Winter

The majority of older buildings contain a “2-pipe” heating and cooling system. For practical purposes, this means the entire building runs either on 100% heat or 100% AC. In other words, you can’t control when to switch from hot to cold.

When a sudden heatwave in March hits (which happens all the time!), you’re stuck pumping heat into your unit until the entire building switches over to AC. If it gets cold in April, the week after the building finally switches off the heat, now you’re stuck on AC.

Some of the newer buildings in town use 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!

One of the best ways to find an apartment in Chicago is to ask whether the building contains a “2-pipe” or a “4-pipe” heating and cooling system to ensure the apartment you’re about to lease is up to your standards year-round.

Takeaway: If full control over your thermostat is a priority, 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).

Want a flight to Cabo? Tour on a Tuesday.

Developers across the United States have been constructing large rental apartment buildings at a rapid pace over the last few years, and it’s not slowing down. The latest estimate is that 283,000+ apartment units hit the market across the U.S. in 2018.

As a greater percentage of housing becomes apartment buildings, a few interesting trends are emerging. For example, these larger buildings adopted pricing systems similar to what we see from airlines. Basically, the price for the same apartment changes (sometimes wildly) every day.

We’re not algorithm experts, but we know this system takes into account people’s preference to tour apartments on weekends. This pattern 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!

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

If you want to know the best way to find an apartment in Chicago, pay close attention to this extremely important tip: apartment searches happen seasonally. The vast majority of people move from April to September. There are a few reasons for this, but the primary ones include:

  1. New college grads starting jobs
  2. Students moving to/within major cities
  3. Good weather.

Due to these factors, apartment pricing drops anywhere between 15 to 20% from July through January. Thus, a $2,100/month unit in July might cost $1,800 in January. You would save $3,600 on a 12-month lease.

Don’t believe me? Check this out: A 2 bed at AMLI River North, which sits right above Studio Paris (where Drake parties after playing at 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: The typical 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.

Why Does Price Vary by Lease Term?


Let’s 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 go up for lease renewal in December. Why? First, nobody wants to move in the cold winter months. 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 scenario leads to money lost everyday the apartment sits vacant. The more availability they have of the same 1 bedroom, the less they can charge in rent. It comes down to supply and demand.

This situation becomes an even bigger issue if renters find out about all of the empty units. Think about how it feels to walk into an empty vs. crowded restaurant. Renters interpret empty units (or a restaurant) as a negative sign.

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. If they can say, “This is the only unit we have left and it will rent fast,” it sounds much different than, “Which of the 30, 1 bedrooms would you like?”

Therefore, buildings try to encourage renters to vary their lease term so that:

  1. they don’t have too many units with the same floor plan expiring at the same time, and
  2. they have more units up for renewal during the summer when more renters look for housing.

As a result, 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. Check that the lease term makes the most sense for you personally and then, all things equal, try to set your lease to expire in November through March when rents drop.

Check The Area For Construction

The average apartment tour lasts about 45 minutes, but we live in our apartments for thousands of hours every year. That makes the odds that we will gain a full understanding of nearby noise during an apartment tour extremely low.

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

As we mentioned earlier, most cities are building like crazy, so the chances that a new building will go up right next door are pretty high. Construction can start at 8am, and the noise continues throughout the workday. It’s really important to consider what’s happening near (not just inside) a building before you choose it.

Takeaway: Check out the surrounding area for new construction, traffic noise, and the CTA train lines. If you notice any of these potential issues, seek a unit as far away from the noise as possible.

Pro-Tip: When gazing out of the floor-to-ceiling windows at the gorgeous lake view from your prospective apartment, take a second to look down instead. You might see some new construction breaking ground. And, if views are a priority for you, check out our guide to The Best Apartment Views in Chicago.

Are Utilities Included? Which Ones?

One of the first questions renters ask about a unit is “how much are utilities?” Unfortunately, the answer to this question can vary widely by building.

Some buildings include everything except electricity (Cable, internet, heat, AC) for a fee of $60-$100 per month. Others include nothing, which can mean you will pay hundreds of dollars beyond the cost of rent.

This variable means that not all $1,900/month, 1 beds are created equal. One apartment might end up costing you less than $2,000, including electric, 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 because it can disqualify a building that the renter never should have seen in the first place.

Takeaway: Ask us about utilities before scheduling your apartment tours so that you don’t waste time at a building that’s actually outside of your budget.

Where’s the Nearest Grocery Store?

In cities like Chicago, a 15-minute walk to Whole Foods in July on a pleasant summer day transforms into a $30 GrubHub order on a much less pleasant day in December. Before scheduling a tour, pull up Google Maps and look for the nearest grocery and convenience stores.

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.

Do You Really Need a Car?

Cars can make life incredibly convenient. Owning one makes quick trips to the grocery store, Home Depot, or Ikea a breeze, not to mention those longer commutes to the suburbs.

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

Furthermore, some cities actually rely on revenue from parking spots and parking tickets, which is not good news for consumers. (Chicago, for example, sold their parking rights to Morgan Stanley for billions less than they’re worth. Thus, meter maids constantly look for ways to ticket and tow your vehicle because it’s the only way the city can make money from parked cars.)

On the positive side, a lot of newcomers to major cities quickly learn two lessons about getting around: public transportation is 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 without your car. There’s nothing worse than an impound lot. Trust us.

Why Don’t the Experts Use Zillow, Trulia, or Apartments.com to Find Apartments in Chicago?

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

“Hey John Doe,

Thanks for reaching out about unit 1234. Unfortunately, that unit just rented, but if you send me your budget, move date, preferred neighborhoods, and whether you own any pets or need parking, I can send you some options that might work.”

These emails almost always come from a broker, looking to help you with your apartment search in order to make a little money. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this practice. As with any profession, a lot of very good (and very bad) brokers work in the industry, but we believe that knowing a bit more about this industry might help renters understand how to navigate it better.

In particular, renters should know that over 50% of the listings on websites like Zillow, Craigslist, Apartments.com, or HotPads are posted by brokers looking to send you the above email, NOT by 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?

Brokers collect the first month’s rent from a rental apartment building and 1/2 a month’s rent from a condo owner when their client signs a lease. This system means that their services are completely free to a renter, and that there’s a strong incentive for them to get in touch with you by any means necessary. Thus, you might get emails or phone calls from 5 different brokers after sending dozens of inquiries. It’s hard to stand out when a service 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 know of four main reasons:

  1. Craigslist is the dominant player in the apartment search landscape. We estimate that they’re responsible for at least 60% of all leases (maybe up to 80%) because 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.).
  2. All renters want to feel like they left no stone unturned when shopping for apartments online. If Apartments.com offers 5,000 listings in a given city, but Craigslist provides 20,000 listings, renters won’t feel satisfied only searching on Apartments.com. The reality is that the number of “real” listings on both sites is approximately the same, but the appearance of a larger number makes renters more likely to spend time on that site and send more inquiries through it.
  3. Because the “real” number of available listings might hover 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 happily oblige and collectively earn ~$50M in commissions per year by selling these leads back to condo owners and buildings.
  4. Lastly, due to these dynamics, most apartment search websites make money every time you send an inquiry about an apartment. Usually, this amount varies between $2 – $10 per inquiry. So, even though you only need one lease, when these websites show 20,000 listings instead of 5,000, you’re 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! For this reason, real estate experts almost NEVER use websites like Zillow, Trulia, HotPads, PadMapper, or Craigslist to find their own apartments.

The Best Way to Find an Apartment in Chicago

Now you know the best way to find an apartment in Chicago. And, AptAmigo is always here to help you find your dream apartment. All you need to do is reach out to us and let us know your lifestyle and preferences. We will schedule a day of tours to your favorites and even provide the Uber/Lyfts to each building. We know the best way to find an apartment in Chicago and will put these tips to good use when you put your apartment hunt in our hands.

Best,
Dan Willenborg
Co-founder & CEO, AptAmigo

Get in touch with your own personal apartment expert today! Click below to get started.

Further Reading

Best Studio Apartments Chicago Has to Offer

What Are Rent Concessions?

The Best Neighborhoods in Chicago

5 Things to Consider When Renting in Chicago

Tour The Best Chicago Penthouses With AptAmigo

Best Dog Parks in Chicago

Dan Willenborg

Dan is the CEO and Co-founder of AptAmigo. You can find him spending time with his newborn, staying on top of rent trends, and exploring all Chicago has to offer.