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.

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.


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!

Gold Leaf Paint Options

My IKEA VITTSJO nesting table hack gave me the luxury of some scrap metal pieces on which to test a few gold leafing paint options.  I did a Google image search when I was considering what sort of paint to use, looking for some clear examples of the different types of finishes. I didn’t have much luck and thought I could contribute to the jpg pool here.

Gold Finishes

From left to right:

Plaid Liquid Leaf in Brass

Amaco Rub ‘n Buff in Gold Leaf

Krylon 18 KT. Gold Leafing Pen

Liquid Leaf Brass

Liquid Leaf was my favorite by far.  It looks rich, kind of marbleized/iridescent, and thick – like it was an actual brass cap on the table leg.  It is liquidy, though, so is more likely to run under any painters tape you might use (Scotch Blue worked great for me; FrogTape less so).  You can see additional pictures of this product at Pencil Shavings Studio and Yellow Brick Home.

Rub n Buff Gold Leaf

Rub ‘n Buff creates an interesting, antiqued finish.  As a wax, it seems like a good option if you want something closer to an original finish than an overlaid paint.  I found pictures of this product applied to VITTSJO shelves at Home to Three Duncan Boys.

Gold Leafing Pen

The Gold Leafing pen seemed great for detail jobs, but ineffective for broad coverage. It was difficult to apply without streaks.  See Little Green Notebook for additional pictures.

A note to Chicagoans: I was unable to find Rub ‘n Buff at my usual Elston Ave. haunts (Home Depot and Jo-Ann) and Jo-Ann had only a few Liquid Leaf color options.  I ventured outside my comfort zone to the Michaels in Lakeview, which had a big selection of these products.  Definitely worth the trip even though it puts you dangerously close to Wrigleyville, which, I’m sure we all can agree, is an abomination.

In closing, I leave you with an entirely unnecessary cat photo. Have a good weekend!

Cat Nest

Preach!: The ReBuilding Exchange

A few weeks ago Groupon offered a deal for the ReBuilding Exchange, which was new to me.  I don’t know how I had never come across it before now.  In addition to an awesome salvaged goods shop, they offer workshops and job training, all with the goal of keeping usable materials out of landfills.

Chicago folks: It’s located at 2160 N. Ashland.  The entrance is on Webster – drive through the gate to the back of the building, where there is a parking lot.  The shop’s inventory is great and reasonably priced.  I took a few pictures to give you an idea of what’s in store; you can also check out their Flickr photostream.

Furniture made from reclaimed wood:

Wine crates.



Hundreds of doors and windows.

Giant popcorn machine!

Vintage furniture.

Dozens of sinks.

Not pictured: lots of wood, leather, cabinets, chalkboards, radiators, fireplace mantels, hardware, light fixtures, mirrors and more.

The Groupon was for the Make-It/Take-It workshop series, which “gives beginning students a hands-on approach to building. The goal of the workshop series is to share simple building techniques that produce functional furniture.”  I signed up the Rustic Mirror workshop, taught by Blake Sloane.  I had previously taken a Woodworking 101 course through Woodsmyths Woodworking (not recommended: an instructive but hostile class experience), so I’m not quite a beginner, yet I found the class informative and fun.  I hadn’t used a chop saw for mitered corners before and I learned some new terms like “rabbit.”  It was very laid back – we were able to move at own pace.  We were their first Groupon group and the staff seemed excited to have us there, which was a nice change from using Groupons in restaurants and feeling loathed.

The wood used for the project was salvaged from a south side public school tear-down – it was a gym floor.

The ReBuilding Exchange sold no fewer than one million Groupons, so I assume the one-day workshops are booked full for a while, but I recommend taking one if you’re looking for an introductory experience.  They also offer multi-week courses and even some free classes.  I’ll be taking a Demystifying Wood Finishing Techniques course in February, after which I will tackle our dining table.