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Two Unexpected House Hunt Game Changers

Allow me to begin with a quote from the The Hunger Games wiki:

“The Gamemakers’ job is to make the annual Hunger Games as spectacular, bloody, frightening and entertaining as possible. When the Head Gamemaker feels that the Games are becoming boring, they will introduce some new element such as a forest fire or tsunami or announce a feast to excite the audience to drive the tributes closer together and kill some of them off.”

The Head Gamemaker of our house hunt is clearly bored, and he has unleashed two muttations to raise the stakes on our heretofore stress-free search.

#1. This article was published in Crain’s Chicago Business: Can’t find a Chicago home to buy? Join the club (I used a Google search link which should get you around their paywall).

chartThe supply of single-family homes on the market in Chicago is smaller than it’s been for at least eight years. Owners simply aren’t listing their houses. This article confirmed what we’ve been experiencing and, even worse, fanned the flames. Houses are getting bid up above asking price and above fair market value.

#2. When our lease expired in March, we asked our landlords if we could go month-to-month so that we’d be able to move out easily once we do find a house. They agreed because we’ve been good tenants for several years. Here’s what we didn’t think about: while a lease is a tether for renters, it’s also protection. Our landlords decided to sell the building and it was listed this week. It’ll sell fast.

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It would have been much smarter for us to have renewed our lease. We could have easily found a tenant to take it over once we bought a house. That’s the most frustrating part: we could have avoided this, but we never had reason to think month-to-month was a risk. Learn from our mistake, dear readers!

If the buyer wants to owner-occupy, which is usually what happens with two-flats, they’d most likely want our unit because it’s on the top floor. And because we no longer have a lease, they can give us 30 days notice to move out. So, we may end up having to move to a new apartment while we continue our house hunt. That would be a major expense and hassle. Sonuvabitch.

We’re trying our hardest not to sweat it because there’s no way of knowing what will happen. Fingers crossed the inspection reveals something that’s bad enough to kill a deal but not so bad it could kill us.

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Chicago House Hunting: The One I Loved the Most

Of all the houses we’ve seen, this was the house I had the most immediate emotional response to. Originally listed at $525k, sold for $400k, in a lovely Chicago neighborhood called Peterson Woods. It caught me by surprise because I’m rarely sentimental. I’m also wary of kitsch – I like mid-century design because it’s practical and clean-lined – not because I want to live in a time capsule. This house, however, felt truly special.

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It was owned by an elderly woman who had finally reached the point where she could no longer live alone. She bought the house from the architect when it was first built (in 1954) and had lived there ever since. The seller’s agent clearly loved her, and exclaimed “She’s 80-years-old and still drives at night!” Her home was beautiful. Alas, we decided it was too far from the CTA for it to be a serious contender.

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I’m a sucker for cove ceilings and corner windows.

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Such a kitchen!

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Both of the bathrooms had amazing metallic wallpaper.

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We called this one “Kimberly’s bathroom,” after our friend who most definitely has this decor in outfit form.

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And the basement bar was the ultimate Golden Girls party room.

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What got me the most, though, was when I opened the master bedroom closet and saw these shoeboxes:

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This was exactly how my grandmother organized her shoes. I took some photos of her ranch house — which she lived in until the day she died in 2002, with her Keds on her feet and her head on her pillow. Even the multi-color plastic hangers are the same:

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No good way to end this post, so I’ll link to this Courtney Barnett song that is the perfect soundtrack for emotional house-hunting: Depreston.

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Chicago House Hunting: The One that Got Away

This is the house I’m still kicking myself over: a mid-century split-level priced at $314,900.

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For those of you who don’t live in Chicago: mid-century houses are really rare here, especially in our part of the city. This is a pre-1930s bungalow town. Per the Historic Chicago Bungalow Association: “With more than 80,000 bungalows still standing today, the housing style represents nearly one-third of the city’s single-family housing stock.” Bungalows are great, but I prefer a more modern floor plan. And vaulted ceilings? I would do unspeakable things for vaulted ceilings.

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We saw this house at the beginning of our house hunt, back when we were young and naive and stupid. It needed a lot of work — the roof, windows, and electrical all needed to be replaced immediately — and it simply seemed like too much for us to bite off with the funds we had available. We hesitated a day too long and by the time we decided to make an offer, it was too late. I felt heartbroken.

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Pristine hardwood floors under the terrible carpet!

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Glorious closet space.

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I later learned more about renovation loan options and determined that the house would have been within our means, which made me feel worse. The only consolation is that it ended up selling for $345,500. So, even if we had made an offer, we would have been scared off by the escalating bids.

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At night when I can’t sleep I still think about how I’d decorate this bar…

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House Hunting: How We Got Started

Jarrod and I started the house hunting process this past summer by biking to open houses on the weekends. The biking was great because I became more comfortable riding in the city and it gave us the opportunity to explore new streets. (The neighborhoods in which we’ll be able to afford a house aren’t neighborhoods we had previously spent much time in.) The open houses were great because we weren’t actually serious about buying at the time. It was a no-stakes way to familiarize ourselves with the market, learn about the types of houses available and — let’s be honest — creep on other people’s homes. If you don’t have a realtor already in mind, open houses are also a good way to casually meet and vet agents.

At that stage, we thought a lot about what we didn’t want in a home. Time for bullet points!

Why not a condo?

Most young(ish) buyers in the city purchase a condo, and they make a lot of sense for a lot of buyers, but we’ve ruled them out because:

  • Group decision making. After a decade of being a renter, when it’s time for us to own a property, I want to be able to choose what happens to every aspect of the interior and exterior. We toured one condo building, for example, that had a lovely antique rug runner on the communal stairs. The seller’s agent said “Don’t worry, the condo association will be replacing that soon.” Guh! Things like that, big or small, would be a drawback of a group of condo owners deciding how our homeowners association fees are spent.
  • Similarly, we want our home to feel like it’s ours. We just wouldn’t get the sense of privacy and total ownership with a condo. I’d like a yard to garden in, Jarrod would like a basement area for bike repair, and we’d both like to be loud and drop things on the floor without worrying about being jerks to our neighbors.
  • In the real estate market, condos are the first to depreciate and the last to recover. So many of the condos we saw had been purchased at the peak of the recent bubble. The condo shown below sold for $356k in 2006 and is now lingering on the market for $284k.

4428 N Malden – $284,000

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Why not a two-flat?

Another good option for first-time city real estate owners is an owner-occupied multi-unit building. You live in one of the apartments and rent the other(s) to help pay your mortgage. Many of the expenses related to the rental unit and communal areas are deductible, which helps with taxes. We have a few friends who do this and they recommend it highly. We went back and forth on the possibility of buying a two-flat, but ultimately ruled it out because:

  • Sharing our building with a renter would have the same communal feel as a condo. Even with owning the entire property, we’re afraid it wouldn’t feel fully ours.
  • We’ve lived in a really great two-flat for the past several years. We have unlimited storage in the basement, garage parking, a yard, landlords who let me decorate and improve the property, awesome downstairs neighbors, etc. So, we’ve already experienced a lot of the immediate perks of a two-flat, and the properties we’d be able to afford would likely be less appealing than our current situation.

Sorry, no pictures are available of the multi-unit property we saw, but if you’re curious, this is a good representative: 4214 N Sawyer – $345,000

So, single family occupancy or bust!

For those of you who just want to see some Chicago real estate, here’s a round-up of nearly all of the homes we’ve toured via open houses. I’ve included a few pictures and the Redfin link in case you want to see more (although these homes have sold now, so the Redfin photos won’t be available forever).

A quick word about Redfin: It’s amazing. I had been using Trulia, but Redfin is where it’s at. It’s updated with MLS listings in real-time, and their app is so great.


2223 W Greenleaf – $345,000

This house was a perfect mix of modern and vintage, and it had the best kitchen renovation we’ve seen. Middle of nowhere location, unfortunately.

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4244 N Bernard – $359,000

A month after seeing this one, we learned via Facebook that some friends bought it!

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4827 N St Louis – $325,000

This house was unremarkable but we liked the yard – it was all native plants, which we hope to do with our future yard.

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5505 N St Louis – $245,000

This house confirmed that there is a fixer-upper line we don’t want to cross. Ideally, we’ll find something that is dated but functional – something we can make clean and livable as we tackle projects over the coming years.

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5849 N Whipple – $480,000

Upstairs laundry! These people were livin’ the dream.

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6235 N Rockwell – $355,000

Very nice but much too far from a train.

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6133 N Christiana – $319,000

I’ll leave you with a really interesting one. Mid-century properties likes this are very uncommon in our part of the city – most single family homes are built before 1940. The location isn’t great (hence the low price) but we toured it out of curiosity. It’s probably the only house in Chicago where I would want fewer windows. The second floor is nearly entirely glass and every single window needed to be replaced.

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That’s all for now! Next up: details on mortgage pre-approval and working with an agent.

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What’s the Deal with Project Palermo?

Here’s the deal: we’re house hunting! Those of you who follow me on Instagram likely already know this.

booksMore apt: Remodel the House You Don’t Yet Own to Get the Home You Can’t Afford

We plan to buy a single family home in Chicago. In fact, we’re actively trying to buy a single family home in Chicago. While there is always room for improvement in an apartment, I decided to put the brakes on projects done in our rental – it’s money that is better spent on a down payment. That’s why the blog has been laying fallow.

I miss writing this blog, though, so here’s the plan: I’ve got a lot of posts in mind and I swear on a stack of bibles [This Old House magazines], that I’ll stick with it.  I hope they’re helpful for people who may be in a similar boat, or at least somewhat interesting for people who aren’t but just want to follow along. If nothing else, they’ll be really affirming for people who don’t live in a major metropolitan area – you lucky fools with your $250,000 move-in-ready houses, sub-$4,000 property taxes, and non-systemic corruption.

This is what $389k will get you in some of the neighborhoods we’re considering: 1,200 squirrel feet.

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I hereby vow to post:

  • What we’ve seen so far, and what we learned from each.
  • Then you’ll be brought up to date and, moving forward, I’ll post houses we see in real-time. If it’s a house we plan to make an offer on, however, I’ll keep that in my pocket because it’s unwise to publicize a good find.
  • Money. It may be gauche, but I’m going to be pretty transparent about this after we do finally close on a house. When we first started this process, savings, mortgages, down payments, etc. were this huge unknown. I’ll share what we saved, how much we put down, and how that will shake out with monthly payments. I’m not an expert (nowhere close) but I’m hoping our experience will at least provide some anecdotal information that may be helpful for others.

washtenaw-barThis is the one that got away. Details to come!

In the meantime, I’ve been neglecting the backend of this blog – I’ve got outdated plug-ins and widgets and server backups to see to. So, if it gets weird on the front end or I clog up your Feedly pages: sorry, sorry.

Talk to you soon!