Neighborly Advice

Support Indie Apartments:
Renting from condo owners in times of crisis

As you are probably painfully well aware, America’s housing market isn’t exactly doing so hot right now. Chicago is no exception; according to RealtyTrac, there’s been a 53.4 percent increase in foreclosures in the region from 2007 to 2008. But if you’re scouring the rental market, you may be able to benefit from the bad times.

Condo owners who can no longer afford their mortgage payments will often try to rent the properties to avoid losing them to foreclosure. Additionally, banks who owned foreclosed property will rent them if they get no buyers. If you look hard enough, you can find some great deals on apartments that might have been way out of your price range in a more buoyant market.

Try not to feel too bad about being an ambulance chaser–you’re helping out the condo owners and neighborhoods, too. Freddie Mac’s David Moffett says that “Keeping foreclosed properties occupied and in better repair will support local property values and promote a faster recovery in the housing market.” You’re not only helping them pay their mortgage, but you’re keeping bodies in the neighborhood and making sure properties don’t get vandalized or squatted.

But make sure you go into the deal with your eyes wide open and a lawyer at your side. Condo owners who rent usually aren’t professional landlords, so they might not know their responsibilities or the laws regarding contracts and landlord-tenant relations–or they simply might try to screw you over out of financial desperation.

Miranda Chesterfield and Amy Silverton thought they found a great deal when they found their rented condo (names have been changed to not further anger their landlady). “The apartment is really swanky,” says Amy. “Rent is not that high, and it’s a much better deal than through a management company.”

But as they paged through the lease, they found some nasty surprises. Amy says, “Our lease was frustrating because it was wildly illegal. I felt that she was taking advantage of us because we were students… Many [clauses] were in violation of the Chicago landlord-tenant ordinances. I highly recommend familiarity with them. Most landlords don’t hold them in high regard.”

And the unpleasantness didn’t stop there. When they had maintenance problems, their landlady sent, instead of contractors, “family who show up to replace a window wearing high heels and Louis Vuitton purses and are severely pissed that we exist and made us very aware of that fact,” says Amy. “She also has entered our apartment or had others do so without alerting us.” And Miranda notes that renting out their beloved condo is not the landlord’s first choice. “These places are often NOT looking for students and are renting out as a last option if they can’t sell the place,” she says. Neighbors are generally older professionals with little tolerance for college antics like loud parties.

The bottom line for renting a condo? You can find a great deal on a high-quality apartment, if you double- and triple-check the terms of your lease and make sure you’re willing to put up with possibly unprofessional landlords and neighbors who do not take kindly to the presence of college students. Check sites like craigslist.org and marketplace.uchicago.edu for listings. (Katie Buitrago)

There Goes the Neighborhood:
When Hyde Park Just Doesn’t Cut It

For some University of Chicago students, unsatisfactory housing options in Hyde Park have prompted an exodus past 51st Street. Some have traveled as far as Pilsen or the North Side to find a comfortable living space. One may have to confront a higher rent, and there is certainly the commute to consider, but a car can cut transit time in two, and many locations in Kenwood or Woodlawn have prices similar to or lower than those in Hyde Park. Living further away from the University can be an enriching experience since other communities have much to offer in terms of culture and diversity. Joining an artists’ abode in Pilsen or shacking up with people from another college downtown may be well worth the extra time it takes to get to class. (Sarah Pickering)

Surviving solo:
how to live alone without dying alone

Living by yourself can offer total independence, allowing you to keep your own schedule and space without roommates eating your food or alienating your friends. But as many an overprotective parent has argued, living alone immediately raises the specter of dying alone. You have the freedom to furnish your place with homemade pizza-box end tables, but what is that good for if the landlord comes to demand her overdue rent and instead finds your body half-eaten by your cat? For your own sake, read this quick primer on surviving by yourself.

1. No man is an island. No matter how independent you think you are, you cannot install an air conditioner by yourself. There’s a tendency to take risks doing things yourself because they need to get done, but be patient and call a friend in advance for lunch and home maintenance. Even changing a light bulb alone can be more difficult than expected if you end up trapped on the kitchen table, supporting a chandelier inches above your head and scrabbling for the screwdriver with one foot while the twenty-pound light fixture slowly rips out of the ceiling. Plan ahead, and be patient.

2. Living alone makes you a target for burglars, although it can happen to anybody. Lock your door every time and use the deadbolt if you have one. Consider buying a cheap timer to turn your radio on and off during the day when you’re not home so that it sounds like someone’s there. If you leave town, have someone collect your mail or ask the post office to hold it for you, and ask your mail-collecting friend to chill out in your apartment with the lights on in the evenings too. Landlines connect to 911 dispatchers faster than cell phones and provide more precise location information; if you just have a mobile phone, keep it on at night, and call friends and parents regularly to tell them you’re still alive.

3. Calling friends is good for your head, because living alone can be isolating. If you live in a studio, it may not seem like enough space to have people over, but think of it as a nostalgic return to your dorm days. Have people over for dinner–cooking for a group is more fun than cooking for yourself every night. It may seem anathema in a city, but get to know your neighbors if you can. If you think you’ll be lonely, get a pet. But keep your cat well-fed. (Helenmary Sheridan)

It’s Not Me, It’s You:
Roommates, friends, and why they (possibly) shouldn’t mix

It’s really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs. –J. D. Salinger
People can be hard to live with. Personalities and relationships change, and after living for a while with best friends, you may not be best friends anymore. Living with a group can be a bit like living in a social experiment; before you move in, do some soul-searching to see if that’s what you really want. OCD? Don’t live with lazy slobs. Afraid of mice? Live with someone who kills them with her bare hands. Good cook but messy might pair well with likes-to-eat and likes-to-clean, but the “opposites attract” rule, in general, does not hold. No matter how close you are with Possible Roommate A, consider their cleanliness habits, hours of operation, and so on before rooming together. Be careful about possibly-crazy people–they could be faking it, but it could be all too real. And if your future roommate owns more than two copies of “Catcher in the Rye,” reconsider. (Natalie Doss)

It’s Not You, It’s Us:
The Cooperative Living Lifestyle

If you come from a big family or love the open-door community feel of the dorm, cooperative housing might be for you. “Sharing” is the keyword of coop housing; it usually starts at the homemade dinners that are delegated depending on the day of the month and can continue into personal items like books, CDs, and movies. If you’re a social person who craves community, coop living offers plenty of perks–in the form of family meals, optional outings, and usually having someone to drink tea with you at two in the morning. But be warned: this type of living situation is not ideal for the controlling personality. The number of housemates is usually over ten, and there is a level of bureaucracy and compromise that can go into activities as mundane as cleaning the kitchen or having friends over. Visit.qumbya.com for a detail-rich example of life in one local coop. (Emilie Shumway)