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The Chicago renters’ guide

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Everything you need to know about renting in Chicago

Carmen Troesser

So you’re taking the plunge and moving to Chicago. Congrats, the biggest decision is out of the way. But there is still plenty to consider when it comes to finding an apartment. Since a large portion of your income is going to rent, it’s important to make an informed decision and end up with an apartment you love.

From narrowing down your search to specific neighborhoods to what it takes to sign on the dotted line, here’s a step-by-step guide for finding the Chicago apartment of your dreams.

Set a Budget

Setting a budget is an important first step in finding an apartment that makes sense for you. While Chicago may be cheap by Manhattan or San Francisco standards, the city still ranks among the top five most expensive markets in the country, according to RentCafe.

An average Chicago one-bedroom apartment rents for an average of $1,812 per month while a two-bedroom fetches $2,310, based on the most recent data from Rent Jungle.

For an estimate of what you can afford, check out Domu’s handy rent budget calculator. Remember to also factor in utility costs and whether your landlord is charging you a security deposit or move-in fee (more on that in a bit).

Pick a neighborhood

Chicago is home to 77 community recognized areas, and picking one that’s right for you will play a big role in your quality of life. Thanks to the city’s robust transit network, you have flexibility when it comes to where you can comfortably rent. If you’re not sure which area suits your needs or personality, check our guide for picking a Chicago neighborhood.

It’s equally important to understand what you should expect to pay in each neighborhood and how that works with your budget. The differences between areas can be extreme. For instance, the average monthly rent for a 765-square-foot apartment in the West Side neighborhood of Austin is $542 versus a staggering $2,598 for the same size place in downtown’s pricey River North. Check out the complete neighborhood average rent rundown on RentCafe.

Be on the lookout for deals

Apartment hunting in Chicago is not as cutthroat as New York, but you might find the market to be tight, especially on the less expensive end of the spectrum. Chicago is following the nationwide trend of rising rents, and the percentage of apartments considered affordable is dwindling.

According to the latest DePaul Institute for Housing Studies report, the neighborhoods that have seen the biggest decline in affordable rental units are on the city’s Northwest Side in places such as Portage Park, Jefferson Park, Logan Square, and Avondale.

While landlords may have the upper hand when it comes to lower-to-medium cost rentals, the opposite holds true for the newer high-end apartments that sprouted up around downtown as a result of the current construction boom. Many newer luxury rental buildings are trying to entice renters by offering incentives like reduced rates or even one month’s free rent.

Search online and on foot

In Chicago, it’s not unheard of for a “for rent” sign to lead you to your new apartment. But if you’re short on time or looking downtown, use online resources instead. There are a number of websites to help you in your quest: Try Domu, Hotpads, Hotpads, Zumper, Chicago Apartment Finders, and—if you’re feeling lucky—Craigslist.

You don’t need to enlist a professional agent or apartment finder to track down a place, but such a service can be a big help if you need to rent in a hurry or not sure where to start. Plus, in Chicago, renters don’t pay brokers’ fees—the landlords pay them.

See the place in person

Visit every rental property you are considering. Touring each site will allow you to meet the property owner, on-site manager, or a management company and ensure that you are getting what the online photos promise.

Be on the lookout for signs of water damage, which can be a problem in Chicago. It might be the reason that charming Gold Coast garden unit is going for only $800 a month. If a broker or landlord agrees to repairs like replacing carpet or painting walls, make sure you get it in writing.

When you’re there, take a few minutes to stand outside and observe the surroundings. Can you see yourself living in the area? What do you see and hear? Do you feel safe? You’ll be surprised how much you can pick up in a moment or two.

Have your documents ready

While it’s not unusual to see some apartments rented in as little as one to two days, you shouldn’t feel pressured by a landlord to sign a lease if you have any questions or reservations. But if everything looks great, be prepared to move fast: There’s a good chance you aren’t the only person interested in the property.

Being prepared means having the necessary documents on hand, like a photo identification card, recent pay stubs, references’ names and phone numbers, and a check or money order to cover any application fees, background or credit checks, and deposits.

Note: Move-in fees are becoming increasingly popular among Chicago landlords. They are usually several hundred dollars but can be as much as a half-month’s rent and, unlike security deposits, you don’t get them back when you move out.

Know your rights as a tenant

If you encounter a problem with your new apartment, like a lack of hot water or a nightmarish bedbug infestation, report any issues to your landlord as soon as possible. Even if communicated verbally, experts suggest keeping a paper trail of the problem in email, text, or even certified letter, if necessary. Your landlord can’t increase your rent, shut off utilities, or threaten eviction if you ask for repairs or complain about a building code violation.

All of your rights are in the Chicago’s Residential Landlords and Tenants Ordinance (RTLO)—city law requires you get a copy of the document when you sign your lease (and if you don’t, you can terminate the agreement). Happy hunting!