Renting an apartment in Chicago is an experience shared among a wide variety of renters in the United States’ third-largest city. There are close to 800,000 rental homes in the Cook County area, which includes downtown Chicago plus its surrounding neighborhoods and inner ring of suburbs.
Close to 200,000 people call the downtown Chicago area home according to US Census Bureau data. Nearly half of all households in the Chicago market are rentals and that number has been steadily climbing in the days since the Great Recession and subsequent recovery period. This is a time when Chicagoans are more inclined to rent their homes instead of owning them. The available inventory of apartments and homes for rent in Chicago has helped absorb the growing preference for renting.
From 2010 until the end of 2019, Chicago added an average of 5,200 new apartments to the market each year. Demand for multifamily housing was strong in the post-recession years. Will it remain strong in Chicago? With more tech jobs arriving on the scene and companies looking to recruit talent for downtown Chicago HQs it’s a safe bet that the rental market will continue to expand in the early 2020s.
If a Landlord Asks for a Deposit to Reserve the Apartment, What Should I Do?
Renters should typically never pay any sort of deposit on an apartment in Chicago without 1) seeing it in person and 2) signing a lease agreement. A security deposit serves as an incentive for renters to maintain the rental property in a responsible manner. A security deposit due upon lease signing is a common requirement for Chicago apartments. The deposit is something that landlords may require, or they may opt for the non-refundable move-in fee, but neither should be paid unless the renter is also signing a lease agreement and getting the keys to the unit as part of the exchange. Additionally, a landlord must provide a receipt for any security deposit along with a disclosure of the city’s interest rates for security deposits. You can check with the City of Chicago for further information on the applicable interest rate on the city's official website.
Should Renters Insist on Reviewing and Signing a Lease Before Sending Funds to Landlords?
Yes. The apartment lease may end up being the renter's best friend because it spells out in clear terms the responsibilities for both the landlord and the tenant. In addition to the lease, Chicago has an entire section of the municipal code dedicated to the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants, known as the Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance (often referred to as CRLTO). Some buildings or rental properties in Chicago will be exempt from the terms of the CRLTO, but other apartments for rent in Chicago are covered by this ordinance. Tenants might want to familiarize themselves with their rights under the ordinance before they begin their apartment search, and certainly before signing a lease. You can find a summary of the CRLTO here.
What Types of Information Does a Landlord Collect When I Want to Rent an Apartment in Chicago?
Landlords may ask tenants who are interested in renting the apartment to fill out an application form that acts as a pre-qualification screen of tenants to rent the apartment. Information collected may include the renter's job title and salary, references from prior landlords, and a photograph of a driver's license or other official ID. At this pre-screening stage, a landlord may use a third-party service to conduct a credit check. Typically, this credit screening is initiated by the landlord and then the tenant receives a message via email to complete the credit screening on their own.
Landlords might also conduct a third-party criminal background check. Due to a change in the law effective January 1, 2020 under the Just Housing Amendment, all landlords in Cook County must give an initial approval (or denial) based on the pre-qualification screen, including the credit check, before looking at an applicant’s criminal history. Your initial application should not ask you to disclose any criminal history. If a landlord shows that an applicant has a criminal conviction and refuses to rent on that basis, the landlord must provide a copy of the background check, and the applicant can dispute its accuracy. For more information on the Just Housing Amendment (sometimes referred to as the JHA), check the City of Chicago’s site. Renters may want to run a background check or credit check themselves before their apartment search to double-check that information is accurate.
Payment for these credit screenings and background checks sometimes comes at the renter's expense. It's not unusual for landlords to cover this expense as part of the so-called “application fee” but if that cost is omitted from the apartment listing, don’t be surprised if the cost of providing the credit screening falls to the tenant. Application fees rarely are typically no more than $50 per renter for most Chicago apartments.
Can I Sign a Lease Without Seeing an Apartment in Person?
Proceed with caution if you cannot see the apartment in person. If scheduling an in-person showing is out of the question, then try to arrange a virtual showing or designate someone you trust as a proxy to tour the apartment. Carefully review the apartment lease before moving forward with any agreement. If you're using a proxy to tour the apartment in your place, send them a list of questions you might ask if you were seeing the apartment for yourself. These questions might include, "How close is the nearest train station or bus stop?" or "Are there many grocery stores in the neighborhood?" Renters might want to get a full download from this intermediary person before making a decision to move forward with the apartment application.