Curbed University delivers insider tips and non-boring advice on how to buy, sell, or rent a home or apartment. Additional questions welcomed to the Curbed Chicago tipline.
You don't need a real estate agent to find your dream home (although they might provide some help); all you need is a computer and a decent Internet connection. Most houses, condos and townhouses that are on the market are listed on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), a database of for-sale listings that's run by the Midwest Real Estate Data. Realtors like to act as gatekeepers of the vast store of knowledge stored in the MLS, and although they do have access to more information that you, there's nothing keeping you from accessing the MLS and conducting searches yourself. The only problem is, there is no single MLS portal for homebuyers, and many brokerage websites require you to sign up and hand over your contact info in order to search for a home. Fortunately, there are a few sites that provide MLS access without phishing for your email address. In our experience, the most reliable and user-friendly sites are Redfin, Zillow, Realtor.com, and Coldwell Banker Online.
Should I Rent or Should I Buy?
That's the eternal question, and it's one that only you can decide. In other words, don't let some over-eager Realtor nudge you into buying a condo when it's more than you can afford. Realtors will whisper familiar mantras in your ear, like "there's never been a better time to buy," or "money spent renting is money wasted." As a rule of thumb, people who don't have a steady source of income and don't have enough in the bank to cover a down payment and closing costs (or if your credit history is so bad that you can't get a loan) should of course rent. Beyond that, it gets more complicated, and every case is different. If you do have the money and are sitting on the fence, it might be a good idea to spend some time plugging your numbers into a rent-or-buy calculator. The New York Times website has a good calculator that takes variables like homeowner's insurance, utilities, renovations, and property taxes—the intangibles that many buyers don't consider when scouting a new home—into account.