Chicago apartment market gets competitive

A writer is thrown into the rental shark tank

Illustration: Blair Kelly

Finding an apartment in this city isn’t usually a competitive sport. That cutthroat stuff is for New York, where apartment seekers have been scrambling for a few hundred square feet in Manhattan for years, in many cases engaging in bidding wars with rival renters. But lately, Chicagoans like myself are seeing would-be neighbor turn against would-be neighbor in pursuit of nice rental digs.

The increasingly dog-eat-dog market is no surprise to real estate experts. Eric Enloe, managing director of Chicago-based Integra Realty Resources—the largest valuation and consulting firm in North America; it conducts feasibility studies on residential and commercial real estate—says this is happening as foreclosures push people into a market already saturated by those who would be buyers in a better market. “People just aren’t buying right now, and the number of apartments hasn’t grown with the renter pool,” Enloe says. “People are uneasy about what’s going on in the world. With our U.S. debt credit rating downgrade, even some who could buy are taking a wait-and-see attitude.”

In August, I was tossed into the rental-market shark tank Enloe describes after my landlord decided he wanted to lease my apartment to a friend of his family. (For a year, I had gambled, living without a lease.) My roommate and I found ourselves with a tough task: Find a two-bedroom place with enough space for a home office—and stay under our $1,300-per-month budget—in September, one of the busiest times of the year to move.

A leasing agent for the Apartment People, Tim Grimes, offered to help. Armed with Chicago’s largest apartment-locator database, we eventually found a place in Edgewater that fit the criteria. The apartment on Victoria Avenue seemed too good to be true: two large bedrooms and an office, along with a sizable living and dining room—with heat included. It was listed at $1,075. Grimes advised to overbid on the asking price, so I upped it to $1,100 and walked away confident the apartment was mine. That’s when it happened: I was counterbid by a couple. Determined to snatch up the place—did I mention the free heat?—I bid again, but eventually lost the apartment to what was apparently an offer the landlord couldn’t refuse.

In an attempt to cheer me up, a friend connected me with Doug Stachowiak, a broker associate at Best Chicago Properties. In a market where the bidding wars I had experienced are becoming more common, Stachowiak told me, renters must appropriately prepare for battle: Pull your credit report and have it on hand; use a cashier’s check so it cashes quicker than a traditional one; even write a personal essay to humanize your bid and credit score. The little things can make all the difference, Stachowiak said, especially if you and a rival bidder have equally good credit and make an offer on a place at the same time.

And pound the pavement long enough, you might just get lucky. After looking at more than 30 apartments, my roommate and I were tipped off to a beautiful, unlisted large two-bedroom with a fireplace in Lincoln Square. Or, as I now call it, home.