A First-Time Buyer's Guide to Chicago

Local real estate agents offer tips to first-time buyers in the Windy City.

U.S. News & World Report

First-Time Buyer's Guide to Chicago

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Chicago is known for its diversity in neighborhoods, attractions and people that live there. While that can make the Windy City a great place to live, it can also present a challenge to first-time homebuyers. The city has a little bit of everything, making it tough to choose the right neighborhood.

"Chicago is such an awesome place for all different types of things – food, theater, festivals, recreation – the question becomes, what's the attraction," says Jennifer Ames, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker.

So if you're planning to purchase your first home in Chicago, where do you start? To help you get your bearings, we asked some of Chicago's top real estate agents to share some advice for first-time Chicago buyers.

Figure out your priorities. The best way to start the homebuying process is to identify what's important to you. Are you more concerned about your commute to work, or are you focused on being surrounded by great restaurants? Do you want to be within walking distance of the beach, or would you rather live near an L train stop?

"It all starts with getting a sense of how [buyers] will live in everyday life," says Melissa Vasic, a buyer specialist with MKT Properties. Vasic sits down with her clients before starting the home search to find out more about their lives. "It all starts with a consultation on lifestyle," she says. "This way, the agent can guide [buyers] into the right neighborhoods."

Depending on your lifestyle and family situation, settling on a neighborhood may require even more digging – particularly if you have children. Crime rates have climbed in recent years, and websites such as Neighborhoodscout.com before meeting with a real estate agent can help parents rule out areas they'd prefer to avoid in their home search. Schools can also drive decisions on where young couples move when making the trek to the city, and like crime rates, school quality varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. Websites like IllinoisReportCard.com can help buyers determine whether a specific neighborhood has quality schools.

Consider the assessments. If you’re looking to purchase a condominium, you can cut back on costs by purchasing a unit with low assessments – monthly fees that pay for things like a doorman and the upkeep of a pool or exercise facility. While condos with extra amenities may appear to be affordable at first glance, they can be a drain on the pocketbook in the long run.

"First-time condo buyers want to explore the question of, 'What's the total monthly cost?', which will take into account maintenance fees and the amount of their mortgage," says Ames.

If you want to avoid paying high assessments, focus your search further west of the lakefront, where you will find fewer luxury high-rises.

Explore your options. If that's not enough to think about, consider the final step in the process: What type of home do you want?

"The greatest thing about Chicago is that there's something for everyone," Vasic says. "If you want vintage, you can find vintage; if you want to go ultra-modern with steel and glass, you can do that."

Many people think of skyscrapers when they picture Chicago, but many of those buildings are used as offices and hotels. There's actually another Chicago staple that's even more popular: the bungalow.

The Historic Chicago Bungalow Association defines a bungalow as a single-family home built between 1910 and 1940 that is one-and-a-half stories with a low-pitched roof overhang, generous windows and a full basement. "For a family, a bungalow is ideal," says Frank Montro of Frank Montro Homes. "It’s bigger than the other styles that are more common in Chicago. The basement and attic offer significant room to expand for a growing family or assist in-laws."

Be ready to move quickly. It doesn’t take long to miss out on a good deal in Chicago. With that in mind, you should be ready to jump if you see something you like. “Well-priced, well-presented homes will go quickly,” Ames says. “You should get your ducks in a row. Talk to a lender and make sure you’re comfortable with what you’re qualified to spend.”

If a bidding war should occur, it’s best to be aware of the tools at your disposal, such as a pre-approval letter from a vendor. It also helps to be flexible on the closing date. Current renters who are looking to buy may want to consider asking their landlord to go month-to-month, which could leave more doors open during a home search and make it easier to fit a seller’s needs.

Looking for a real estate agent in Chicago? U.S. News' Find an Agent tool can match you with the person who's most qualified for the job.

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