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Any tips on finding a house in Chicago?
April 15, 2010

Dear Cecil:

I'm moving to Chicago. The mother-in-law, in a random, charitable act, is giving the wife and me $250,000 to buy a house in Chicago. This strange turn of affairs came about with no prior notice or discussion. My wife used to live in Chicago, but we have lived in Bloomington, Indiana for the last five years. A week ago, seemingly on a whim, my mother-in-law told us that she would buy us a house. The only condition she has attached to the money, and to which my wife too readily agreed, is that it has to be a single-family or multiple-family home and not a condo. I'm opposed to that condition, but I want the money, so I'm going to shut up and concentrate on signing up and studying for the Illinois bar exam in July (I unfortunately haven't practiced law long enough to get admitted via reciprocity).

We've started looking online, using trulia.com and zillow.com, which are helpful. We're planning a scouting trip for next weekend. I was hoping for some recommendations for other sources, websites, or anything that would help us find a good house. How did other Chicagoites find their houses? What are good neighborhoods where we could afford a single-family house in our price range? The wife lived in Lakeview and Rogers Park when she lived there; we're priced out of Lakeview and anything affordable in Rogers Park will probably be in the "bad" part of Rogers Park.

— Albrecht Durer, via the Straight Dope Message Board

Cecil replies:

Glad to have you with us, Albrecht. For far too long the roster of Renaissance painters residing in Chicago has been depressingly small. And good luck with the bar exam. In a world that tragically undercompensates genius (hey, look at me), one needs a backup career. A generous mother-in-law also helps, although if her plan is to move in next door or come for extended visits, you might want to give this some more thought.

But enough of this small talk. If you're looking for house-hunting resources, you've come to the right place. Not because I'm going to give you a list of the Next Hot (or Currently Great) Neighborhoods, although I have my favorites. Rather, I'm going to impart some nuggets of wisdom that, as a new guy in town, you really need to know.

1. We don't say Chicagoites.

Talk about fingernails on a blackboard. Never say this word. It doesn't exist. At least it doesn't exist now. It might exist one day, when somebody at Fermilab bombards an Italian beef with neutrinos and creates a new radioactive element, Chicagoite, which appears immediately below Kryptonite on the periodic table and has adverse effects only on ignorant hicks misinformed visitors who suffer horribly and … sorry.  The correct term is Chicagoan.

2. Don't knock Rogers Park.

I've discussed Rogers Park in considerable detail in this column. Rogers Park doesn't have bad parts. It has parts that have yet to reach their potential. It has a little more crime than your Lake View/Lincoln Park-type neighborhoods, but — I say this only partly in jest — that has the salutary effect of discouraging the yuppies who would otherwise needlessly inflate the property values. Rogers Park has a lakefront location, good transportation, and solid housing at reasonable prices. Plus (a) it's two blocks from Metropolis Coffee, about which no more need be said (although you might be interested to see what I've said already), and (b) it's a mile or so from Andersonville, a wonderful if slightly pricier neighborhood that has moved beyond its history of midnight bombings to become home to such establishments as In Fine Spirits, a first-rate wine bar and shop. (No, they're not paying me to shill for them; when mildly inebriated I gush spontaneously.) You also get, let's be honest, an assortment of hookers and drug dealers, who aren't going to make the best impression on your mother-in-law should she decide to stroll down Howard Street on Saturday night. I'm just saying I wouldn't write Rogers Park off.

3. Make sure you've got a handle on the local crime situation.

This is true no matter what the neighborhood. Fortunately, plenty of info is available, another topic I've abundantly elucidated. I particularly recommend the Chicago police department's CLEARMap system — punch in any location in town, and it'll pop up a map of all the crime in the vicinity for any two-week period in the last three months. Also cool is EveryBlock Chicago, which, for any given city location, will tell you everything recently published about it online, ranging from crime reports to blogs. Bear in mind, however, that sites with names such as  morsehellhole.blogspot.com may not give you an entirely balanced point of view. 

4. Accept that, in Chicago, $250,000 isn't going to buy you a lot of house.

Now we get to the heart of the matter. Your mother-in-law undoubtedly means well, but with the sure instinct many mothers-in-law seem to have, she's precisely calibrated her offer of cash-with-conditions to get you in the maximum amount of trouble. In Chicago you can (a) get a nice house, (b) live in a great neighborhood, and (c) spend $250,000 or less. You just can't do them all at the same time. The question you're going to have to decide is which two of the three you want most.

Let me illustrate with a little story. This past weekend I went to look at a house my friend Maggie was thinking of buying. Here are the salient details about this place: one, it was in Logan Square, a delightful (for the most part) up-and-coming neighborhood in Chicago; and two, it was listed for $200,000. In light of these facts, and what I told you in the previous paragraph, what can we predict about this house? Exactly. There are basically two kinds of housing for sale in Logan Square:

  • Beautifully restored homes, ranging from condos to two-flats to mansions, typically of masonry construction and, setting aside condos, available starting at, oh, $350,000 and heading into the millions; and

  • Crummy hunks of junk.

Don't get me wrong. There are houses in Chicago listed at $200,000 where you walk in, take one look, and back out slow. The house Maggie was considering wasn't that bad. On the contrary, the amiable young couple that lived there (they were tenants; the owner was a clueless suburbanite) had done a commendable job of making the place livable over the year they'd been there. Nothing smelled. All the holes had been adequately patched. The repulsive crud left by previous occupants had mostly been hauled away. You could, in short, move in without first having to bring in fumigators, contractors, and guys with whips and guns.

Nonetheless — this was what I told Maggie — the place was a teardown, as they say in real estate circles. It was small and ugly, which you can fix, but also poorly constructed, which you can't — at least not for the amount of money a sane person would spend. The house sagged in the middle, possibly because the joists in the front (the joists are the boards that hold up the floor) didn't line up with those in the back, and many had been notched a third of the way through by some birdbrain putting in pipes. Whoever installed the heating system had apparently never seen one before. The roof needed replacing — and I don't mean replacing sometime in the next year, I mean before the next rain. There was a lot more I won't bore you with; let's just say this house wasn't some hidden treasure. Not too much further down the road, someone would rip it down and build new.

Despite that — and I told Maggie this as well — I didn't think buying the house was completely crazy. The owner was desperate. She'd bought at the height of the market, paying a price that was nutty even by bubble standards. The value had subsequently dropped like a brick, something that happened to a lot of houses in Logan Square bought by speculators. Now the place was on offer as a short sale, meaning it was worth less than the mortgage, and the bank was looking to cut its losses and get out.

Therein lay an opportunity. Other than a roof, the house needed no immediate major repairs. The electrical system was tolerable. (Well, the front air conditioner tended to pop the breaker, but other than that.) The kitchen and bathroom were OK except for the steam shower, and who really needs a steam shower? The heating system warmed the house unevenly, but it worked. Factor in the cost of the roof, make a lowball bid, and you could wind up with a house in stable condition for half its previous sale price. 

The main thing was, the house was in Logan Square, and that was worth something. We visited on a beautiful spring day. The trees on Logan Boulevard were in bloom; the outdoor tables at the local coffee shop were full. New restaurants were opening on Fullerton Avenue; across the alley from Maggie's little s-box, someone had built a million-dollar house.  If she got the place at the right price, she could probably sell at a nice profit to a developer in a few years, and meanwhile she'd be living in a vibrant city neighborhood. I don't know if she'll buy, but she's thinking about it.

 That's the kind of calculation you're going to have to make, Albrecht. I'm not suggesting ramshackle houses are your only choice. For $250,000 you could find a tw0-flat or bungalow in fine shape in an outlying part of town — Portage Park, for example — although you might find the neighborhood dull. (You could certainly find a house for that price in a distant suburb, but then why leave Indiana?) 

The problem is, you don't know Chicago well enough now to make an informed choice. So my advice would be to rent for a year and find out if urban living is really for you — who knows, you might run screaming back to Bloomington. But I bet you won't, provided you find an apartment in a neighborhood that gives you a real taste of the big city. We've published guides to Ravenswood, Rogers Park, Ukrainian Village, South Loop, and Uptown, and that's far from an exhaustive list of areas worth checking out. But you know what? Start with Logan Square.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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