Renting an Apartment in Chicago: How to Navigate this Quirky Rental Landscape

Ah, Chicago. The Windy City. Home to the Cubs, White Sox, da Bears – and a whole lot of quirks if you’re looking to rent an apartment there. I recently sold my condo and switched back to being a renter for the first time since I moved to Chicago. The entire process was, to say the least, a rude awakening.

Thus, I sat down with my realtor, Mark Zipperer – Broker/Owner of RE/MAX Edge – to get the skinny on why the rental market here seemed to be made of nothing but fees. As an industry veteran, he gave me the scoop on what Chicago-area renters need to know to avoid surprises and negotiate the best possible deal.

Fees, Fees, Fees

“About five years ago, property management companies stopped collection traditional security deposits,” Mark shares. “Chicago has aggressive tenant protection laws and all the hoops landlord were having to jump through with refundable security deposits – separate escrow accounts, paying out interest once a year, and tenants breaking leases – meant deposits were more hassle than benefit.”

This turned Chicago into one big sinkhole for fees – great for landlords, not so great for tenants.

For the better part of the American rental market, tenants can expect to pay at least first month’s rent and a refundable security deposit to move in. It could be as high as first, last, and a deposit equal to one month’s rent. Since deposits became too much work for Chicago landlords, they’ve now adopted non-refundable move-in fees. While much less than a month’s rent, you don’t stand a chance in hell of ever getting it back. But this means a landlord is protected, at least in part, for any damage tenants cause. Not to mention it’s a lot easier to manage money you’ll never have to give back to a tenant.

Here’s a list of fees my boyfriend and I encountered during our search for our new two-bedroom rental home (as a note, the fees don’t really vary by number of bedrooms and tend to be the same for all apartment sizes):

  • Non-refundable move-in fees: $425 – $700
  • Lease processing fees: $200 – $300
  • Application fees (normal): $30 – $80 per person
  • Key fees (a non-refundable fee to get keys to your place. Wut?): $40 – $80
  • Non-refundable pet deposits (normal): From $0 for cats to $450 per pet
  • Pet rent (yep): $25 to $50 per month, per pet
  • Parking fees (for reserved space rental): $100 to $250 per month
  • Fixed utility fees (covering things like internet and water): $75 per month

As a note, the average money we were going to lose in fees for the apartments we looked at was $1100. Bye bye, nice knowing you, money we’d never see again – just to move in.

But this is normal in Chicago.

“The thing about the standardization of fees instead of deposits is that it’s universal here in Chicago,” says Mark. “Everyone here pays a non-refundable move-in-fee instead of a deposit now. When everyone’s charging it, it might be different from where you’re moving from, but it’s the way things are done in Chicago.”

What Smart Chicago Renters Need to Know

Now, Mark’s a great guy and he’s has well over a decade of experience in Chicago’s real estate market. He’s also a landlord and helped me both buy and then sell my condo. Don’t get mad at Mark because this fee-rich structure is the way of the Chicago rental market world. He’s got some great advice for Chicago renters – whether you’re planning a move to the city or are already renting here – to help save you from some serious headaches.

First, Mark says to educate yourself. “Every renter in Chicago should read up on the RLTO (Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance. This tells you everything you need to know about what’s legal and not legal when it comes to renting a property in Chicago.” While it’s a fair amount of reading, you can score an online copy right from the City of Chicago – and at no charge.

Secondly, Mark wants renters to compare their options.

And this requires time – something Mark doesn’t see renters giving themselves enough of. “Ideally, you want to give yourself 60 days to find an apartment in Chicago. As a landlord, I’m going to be leery of any tenant who shows up wanting to move in within the month,” he says. Last-minute rental searches are red flags for landlords and property managers because they wonder why you’re suddenly needing a place. If it’s a relocation, great. But short timelines can also signal potential problem tenants facing evictions, job losses, and unstable living habits that don’t make for good tenants.

My boyfriend and I made a spreadsheet of all the apartments we looked at and figured a total 12-month cost for each apartment – including all the non-refundable and monthly fees. This truly saved us in the long run because the apartment with the least expensive rent also ended up having the highest fees. Yikes, right? And yay spreadsheets!

Finally, Mark wants you to minimize your risk.

“There are a lot of people in Chicago who became accidental landlords during the real estate downturn,” he shares. “Accidental landlords are people who needed or wanted to move but were upside down on their property and turned their condos into rentals since rent rates were rising.” Beware the accidental landlord. Always meet the landlord when you can. Visit the property management office and put people with the place you’ll be sending your rent each month.

Tenants can also minimize their risk by having an attorney review anything that might seem suspect. “Chicago has a good supply of real estate attorneys since attorneys are used in our buying and selling process here,” Mark offers. “For a reasonable fee, you can have an experienced attorney look over any lease you’re considering signing and make sure you’re protected.” While this might not be necessary for all leases, especially if you’re renting from one of the bigger property management companies in town. If you find a swank condo you love and you’re dealing with an accidental or inexperienced landlord, you can gently offer revisions to your lease and potentially save both you and your new landlord any legal headaches that are easily avoided.

Now…

If you don’t live in Chicago, you might be glad. But those of us who live and rent here now have a solid base of knowledge for what to expect. Fees will vary wildly between apartments. Refundable deposits are out. Pets? They’re welcome, but it’ll run you. Chicago’s a beautiful place to call home and now – if it’s the place you already call home or you’re looking to join us in this glorious city on the lake (seriously – the beach is awesome) – you’ll know how to better navigate our rental market and find the perfect home with more panache and way less pain.

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