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How to Find an Apartment in Chicago

This is an in-depth guide on how to find an apartment in Chicago.

Here's the quick answer: First step, establish what neighborhoods you're interested in. Next, determine your "must haves" and your "would-be-nice-to haves." Then, plan to start your search about 45 days before your lease. And finally, make sure you have all your application materials prepared before you look for apartments.

That's the 30-second version. Read on to get the full details about setting yourself up from a high-success, low-stress apartment search.

I've seen too many blog posts and articles that barely scrape the surface of how to actually go about looking for an apartment in Chicago. I wrote this guide specifically for people who are moving to Chicago for the first time and really need some help sorting everything out. With that said...

Here are the questions we'll answer in this guide:

If that all sounds helpful to you, then read on!

Hint: these people are not looking for apartments correctly...

how to find an apartment in chicago

Source: SBNation

Before you read on, have you decided where you might want to live?

Speaking from a lot of experience helping renters find apartments, I strongly recommend narrowing down your search to a couple of neighborhoods (if possible) before you start looking for apartments. I've seen too many renters dive headfirst into listings, only to spend a lot of time setting up showings in areas they don't even like. Then it's back to the drawing board.

Get started with our Chicago Neighborhoods explorer.

We put together a data-packed, interactive map of Chicago's neighborhoods to help people unfamiliar with the area determine which neighborhoods make the most sense them. It shows you everything from commute times to neighborhood attractions (like gyms, parks and bars) and a bunch of other stuff too.

Simply click the screenshot below to give it a try!

how to find an apartment in chicago

We also put together an article on some of the best neighborhoods in Chicago to help you narrow down your search!

how to find an apartment in chicago

Now that you've got a huge leg up on other renters since you know exactly where you want to live...

Let's help you get to know rent prices in and around Chicago, too.

This tool will help you get a feel for Chicago rents by neighborhood, number of bedrooms and median price per bedroom. The data is from Zumper – their big sample size of listings makes for an accurate look at median rents. (for more info check out our post - Average Rent in Chicago)

 

Now, here's an "insider" perspective on how to find an apartment in Chicago.

how to find an apartment in chicago

Determine your "must haves" and your "would-be-nice-to haves."

Before you even start looking for apartments in Chicago, I recommend determining what you know are absolutely necessities for your apartment. Here are some steps you can take:

After doing this exercise, you'll have developed a ranked order of apartment amenities. This ranking will be a big asset in narrowing down your search. Naturally, from this list you'll be able to identify your "must haves" and "would-like-to haves." When it's down to the wire between two apartments, or even just assessing one, this list will be incredibly helpful.

how to find an apartment in chicago

Image source: hightoweradvisors.com

Timing is critical. Many renters start their search far too early (or even worse, too late).

The best time to start looking for an apartment in Chicago is around 45 days before your desired lease date. For instance, if you're looking for an apartment with a March 1st lease date, start checking resources around January 15th. Here's why!

Most tenants give their "notice of non-renewal" to their landlords about 60 days before their lease is up — after that most apartment brokerages will receive the news about a week later. Some apartments come on the market months early, and some come on way late. Essentially, everything averages out to where starting your search 45 days before the lease date makes the most sense.

how to find an apartment in chicago

Image source: mashable.com

Nothing beats a good agent, but rental agents (called "locators" in Chicago) can be terrible.

As with any service industry, some agents are terrific (responsive, helpful, professional) and some are tragic (rude, incompetent, greedy). The key to a really positive apartment search experience is finding an agent you like, who's smart and who you trust. Reviews can go a long way towards helping with this, but using services that strictly work with top-notch agents is a smart bet too.

Working with an agent highlights the importance of the "must haves" vs. "nice-to-haves" list. That list will help your agent only set up showings for places you're going to like.

However, if you'd like to walk around and look at "for rent" signs, that can work too — it just takes a lot longer and there's no guarantee of finding a good match. Heck, if it's summer in Chicago, why not? It's gorgeous!

find apartments on foot

It's okay to decide on one of the first few places you see.

If you're coming from a smaller city or town, you may be accustomed to looking at 10 different places before selecting which apartment to apply for. In Chicago, the story is different, because there are so many people looking for apartments. Unfortunately, there's a serious shortage of apartments available for the volume of renters out there.

In Chicago, it can be a real risk to see a place, take a few days to see other places and decide, and then try to apply for the original apartment — chances are it will already be taken.

As such, if you find a solid match early on, try to resist FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out). Your instinct may tell you to see other options, but if you know you'll be happy in an apartment, then go for it!

how to find an apartment in chicago

Image source: ciphercloud.com

Be ready to apply if you like the place!

It's not (usually) a pressure tactic when a rental agent recommends that you apply for an apartment quickly. Some agents are shady and don't care what you rent, but the vast majority of agents are just genuinely concerned about another renter getting the apartment before you.

Pro-tip: Have your checkbook with you. You'll want to be ready to write a check, and have the all the necessary funds available for the 1st month's rent, application fees, and the security deposit. I've seen people get places rented from underneath them in the hour it took them to run home and back to the office to grab their checkbook.

A good agent will make sure that on day one when you connect with them that you're informed about what you'll need to apply. We've also included it at the bottom of this article!

If the landlord can review your application first, you're more likely to get the lease — most landlords will work on a first-come, first-serve basis (assuming everything in your application checks out!).

how to find an apartment in chicago

Image source: mednautix.com

Is there any reason I should or shouldn't use a locator?

At the end of the day, working with an agent is just free, expert help with your apartment search.

In some rare cases, some landlords will privately try and rent an apartment for $X/month, but also offer it to brokerages for $X +$100/month (just to see if the broker can land them a tenant who'd be willing to pay more). The majority of property owners know what their rental units are worth and will price it accordingly.

It's also worth noting that some landlords rely solely on brokerages (i.e. they don't even advertise their own apartments). So, you may be limiting your options if you pass on using an agent.

Personal requests from a leasing agent...

how to find an apartment in chicago

Image source: miraclesarebrewing.com

Next, here are some helpful truths about looking for apartments in Chicago.

The goal here is to help you get in the right mindset about what it's like to look for apartments in Chicago.

how to find an apartment in boston

1. You’re not going to find the “perfect” apartment.

Lots of people are disappointed when they don’t find their dream apartment. DON’T BE!

It’s not the product of bad luck or running out of time. Most of the time, a renter’s dream apartment simply doesn’t exist. 

To avoid desperation and going crazy, you need to be flexible and willing to make concessions on price, roommates or commute time. It’s just a healthier mindset.

And just because you won’t find your perfect apartment, it doesn’t mean you won’t find an apartment you really like!

2. Below average budget = roommates or longer commute.

how to find an apartment in boston

Know exactly how many roommates you'll want/need.

I'd definitely suggest lining up roommates before jumping into your apartment search. Landlords will almost always require that every occupant submit an application and be on the lease. The market here moves really quickly, so if you found a place you really liked but didn't have roommates yet, the apartment would likely get rented before you could find them. That can be a really frustrating experience — but if you have roommates lined up and ready to go, you'll be able to act quickly on a place you like and hopefully lock it up. Boom! We also put together some tips to help you do just that : How to find a roommate in Chicago 

3. Craigslist is still #1 for apartment listings.

There are a LOT of internet listings services (ILS) to choose from — Zillow, Trulia, Apartment List, Zumper, Lovely (just to name a few). Basically, an ILS collects apartment listings (i.e. ads) from different sources like rental brokerages, landlords and other ILS.

The Chicago Reader does not cover the same amount as Craigslist but nonetheless has a ton of listings to look through. They post new listings every Tuesday. 

Domu.com, specific to Chicago is a great site that brings together landlords and renters. 

PadMapper.com tries to regroup listings from Oodle, Apartments.com and Craiglist in an organized maps fashion. 

However, no matter how hard these sites try, Craigslist is still the leader for listings. In fact, 87.5% of renters start their search on Craigslist and they typically end there as well.

One of the biggest qualms I have with ILS is that they won't show you the lease date of an apartment so you are forced to "check availability" by sending an email to the agent who posted the listing.

Here is the list of some common abbreviations to help decode some of the advertisements out there:

1BR/2BR/3BR

One, two or three bedrooms

Ww cp

Wall to wall carpet

Hdwd Flrs

Hardwood floors

Nr L

Near El Near elevated train/subway train

Nr trans

Near transportation

DR

Dining room

Bath

Bathroom

Ht

Heat

Elec

Electricity

1BA/2BA

One bathroom/two bathrooms

Frpl/wbfp

Fireplace/woodburning fireplace

Balc

Balcony

Cking gas

cooking gas

Appls

Appliances

Bsmt

Basement

Refs req

References required

Kit

Kitchen

Lndry

Laundry

Gdn apt

Garden apartments

Inc

Included

Sec dep

Security deposit

W/D

Washer/dryer

Pkg

Parking

Avail

Available

4. Visiting apartments is FAR better than browsing listings.

To elaborate further — everyone knows Craigslist has serious issues (fake ads, different brokers advertising the same apartment, etc.).

But even the best listing sites have problems. Redfin did a study in 2012 of Zillow and Trulia (the two biggest apartment listing websites) and found that “about 36 percent of the listings shown as active...were no longer [available].

Bottom line, browsing listings takes a lot of time for very uncertain results.

If/when you connect with a broker, urge them to show you at least a few units instead of just doing a one-off showing. If you do a one-off and don’t like the place, you’ll have to start all over again with listings.

5. Talking with the current tenants makes a big difference.

Which of these is not like the other? Landlord, broker, current tenant.

Bingo! The current tenant has no vested interest in you renting the apartment, so they don’t gain or lose anything if you pass it up. They’ll give you the full scoop on the apartment, the building and the neighborhood.

Be sure to ask your broker or the landlord if you could have an opportunity to talk with the current tenant.

6. Check out these tips from an industry expert.

Ask for the rental agent's license. Don't use Craigslist. And DON'T give any money upfront (i.e. before you're applying for an apartment).

OK, so how exactly should you look for an apartment in Chicago?

You've got a number of options.

1. Get a "referral" from someone you know.

This is the Holy Grail of apartment renting — having someone you know recommend an apartment that you end up renting.

Why is a referral so good? Essentially, a referral lets you bypass the 20-30 hours that renters spend looking at listings online, not to mention the hassle of going on multiple showings. You can take a quick look at one unit and be done with it.

2. Use a rental brokerage or apartment locator.

You can try going directly to an apartment brokerage and working with an agent, as well.

What do brokerages do? Brokerages get access to available apartment units from landlords in the market — then they advertise apartments, take people on showings and process rental applications.

Who gets to be a broker? Anyone can be a broker, but Illinois has some of the most stringent requirements of any state on what it takes to get licensed.

According to the Chicago Tribune, In late 2009, state lawmakers upgraded the requirements necessary to work as a real estate agent or broker in Illinois in a bid to better protect consumers and raise the industry's professional standards, putting them more in line with other states.

The state eliminated the entry-level license category of "salesperson" that required 45 hours of education and instead made it a "broker," which requires 120 hours. Brokers also have to complete 12 hours of continuing education every two years.

3. Check Reddit

Reddit is awesome. It’s basically an online forum for specific communities (called “subreddits”) to post relevant/interesting/helpful content. Sometimes it delves into the ridiculous as well.

If you’re looking for an apartment in Chicago, there’s a “chicagohousing” subreddit where people post about available apartments, roommates and sublets. It’s actually really consistently populated with legitimate posts — the moderators do a great job.

Best Practices

1. Visit the “chicagohousing” subreddit.

2. Browse the recent posts for anything that looks good. Older posts (beyond 4-5 days) will probably already be tapped out, meaning someone’s taken the apartment or sublet.

How to find an apartment in Chicago

If you don’t see anything that looks good:

3. Submit a new text post. Tell the community what you’re looking for. You never know when a landlord might reach out to you with an apartment that’s just opening up, but hasn’t been put on the market yet.

4. Walk the neighborhood

A lot of landlords and property owners still place signs in their windows that indicate there are units available. They’ll either provide some contact information, or if the building has a leasing office on-site, you can just walk in and ask.

Best Practices

This one’s pretty simple — after deciding which neighborhood is right for you, take a cruise around the neighborhood and look at buildings you could see yourself living in.

Check for signs that indicate there are available units and get in touch about going on some showings.

5. Sigh...use Craigslist.

I hate having to write it, but at least while Jumpshell is growing, Craigslist offers a solid shot at finding a place. It'll just take hours and hours of browsing fake and duplicate ads, dealing with unscrupulous agents and probably going on a bunch of showings of places you don't like.

Now, what do you need to apply for an apartment?

moving to chicago

Image source: moveline.com

First thing's first — you should gather all your rental application information before you start looking at any apartments. 

When you’re interested in an apartment, the landlord or property manager will ask for some information about you in the form of a “rental application” — typically revolving around your history as a renter and/or your ability to pay rent.

We've listed the information you should expect to provide in your application below — as well as a couple great tools for easily getting that information in one place and sending it to landlords.

References

What references do I need? You will need to provide at least two references along with your application. Typically, landlords and property managers will require references from:

Note for recent college graduates: references from resident advisors can be acceptable, but additional employer or personal references may be preferred. Avoid using family and friends and make sure you notify your references that you are applying for an apartment.

Credit Score

What is a credit score? In a nutshell, your credit score reflects how much money you’ve borrowed in the past and how good you were at repaying it. The higher your score, the more “proof” you have you can pay off your debts — in your case, the rent.

boston rental application

Source: financialservicesfees.com

What does a credit score look like?

→ How Do I Get My Credit Score

The following table was created by Doorsteps.com — a homebuying information resource that provides future homebuyers with 100% unbiased information, written by industry experts and insiders. They’ve made an incredibly clear and powerful resource on how to obtain your credit score, which we’ve included below — it’s the same process for renters!

 

 

Method

Description Fine Print

Guess it yourself.

Use a free credit score estimator.
There’s nothing wrong with guessing at this point. Online quizzes can be surprisingly effective at predicting your score.

Free, but not entirely accurate.

Download your credit report.

Download your Annual Credit Report, and then pay for your credit score separately.
The report and score are pulled from all three nationwide credit reporting companies: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.The problem is, once you’ve put in your credit card info for that score, it’s quite a hassle to “undo” your subscription from the monthly plan you’re automatically enrolled in.

So while this is still a decent option, if you don’t want to be charged every month for the rest of time, you’ll likely need to make several phone calls and write several emails to get the on-going charges dropped. (At least we did, when we all tried this route).

Free for the credit report.

Then pay roughly $20 for your annual credit score.

Then pay $20 – $40 per month because you’re automatically enrolled in a plan that can be a hassle to undo.

Pay for your FICO score.

Access your free FICO credit score.

MyFICO is a branded credit score, developed and administered by a company called FICO, formerly Fair Isaac. It’s the Kleenex of credit score companies.

MyFico pulls from two of the three nationwide credit reporting companies: Equifax and TransUnion, so the result is essentially as accurate as any other option. Besides, 90% of lenders use the FICO score themselves, so you can’t really go wrong here.

It comes with some well designed tools to help you understand your score, and helps you see exactly what it is about your credit history that may be hurting it.

Free credit score.

If you get your score and it’s high enough (say, above 750), then you can simply cancel your subscription immediately and you’ve lost nothing.

If it is lower than you want, you will pay roughly $15 – $20 per month to use their tools and services to find ways to improve it, which we feel is worth it. (And by the way, we are not being paid for this — or any — endorsement. This is based on carefully researching and testing all available options ourselves.)

Source: Doorsteps

What if I don’t have a credit score? 

You’ll probably need a guarantor. What’s a guarantor? Basically someone with income and a credit history that vouches for you as a renter.

Who needs a guarantor? If you don’t have a significant source of income or a credit history — often the case for students — landlords and property managers will require that someone who does have acceptable income and credit signs a form guaranteeing that rent will be paid.

This guarantor form states that while the lease is between the renter and the landlord, the guarantor is liable for the rent should the renter be unable to pay it. Essentially, the landlord/property manager can collect the rent from the guarantor should the renter be unable to pay rent.

Be ready to prepare your guarantor — often a family member — in advance as landlords and property managers need to verify their credit and the guarantor form will need to be notarized.

You can use this resource to help your guarantor find a notary public nearby or you can check out Notarize, an iOS app launched in early 2016 that let's you get any document notarized remotely. What a game changer!

how to find an apartment in boston

Stipend Confirmation

Some graduate programs offer stipends to their students who pursue advanced degrees (for example, Northwestern's Research Assistant Scholarship).

If you are receiving a stipend from your school, make sure to bring confirmation to present to the landlord. It’s essentially your proof that you’ll be able to pay the rent, which makes you a much more attractive tenant than someone who doesn’t have the proof with them.

Pay Stub (or Pay Check)

Simple enough — showing a pay stub from your employer proves that you’re making an income. This proof helps make you an even more attractive applicant to landlords.

That's about it (I think!).

Did we miss anything? Any other questions? Definitely let us know by reaching out to contact@jumpshell.com!

Doing some more research on moving to Chicago? We've got a few resources that can help you out!

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