What You Should Know About Moving to Chicago
Chicago can be a great place to live if you can handle the cold winter and cost of living and embrace public transit.
From sports to job opportunities to world-class attractions, the Windy City has a lot to offer.(Getty Images)
Chicago is calling. It may be for work or because you like the idea of living in a major city that’s not far from your Midwestern hometown. Or maybe you’ve been a lifelong Chicago sports fan – through good times and bad – and you love the idea of being a season ticket holder for the Cubs or the Blackhawks.
But if you’re unfamiliar with Chicago, adjusting to life in the the third-largest city in the U.S. by population may take more time than you think. Get ready for cold winters, a high cost of living compared to the rest of the region and plenty of attractions to fill your time.
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Should You Move to Chicago?
Chicago is known for its diverse job market, ranging from industrial manufacturing and shipping to finance, the arts and retail. But in an age where many companies are offering work-from-home options, your choice to live in Chicago should factor in everything else the metro area offers.
One major benefit is Chicago's relative affordability compared to other major cities, although it’s considered pricey for the Midwest. If your choice is between Chicago and cities like New York, San Francisco or Seattle, homeownership is likely to be achievable fastest in the Windy City.
“Somebody that’s just starting out … could buy and still be paying less than they would in rent,” says Todd Szwajkowski, a real estate broker and president of SwakeGroup at Dream Town Realty in Chicago, as well as president of the firm’s LGBT client services division.
Chicago is the place to be if you like four seasons, can handle the cold and are hoping to take advantage of world-class attractions that draw tourists from far and wide, but don’t necessarily get as crowded as spots in New York City or Washington, D.C.
How to Move to Chicago
If you have the ability to visit Chicago before you sign a lease or make an offer on a home, you can make a more informed decision about the ideal home for you and exactly where you want to live. Even if you can’t visit, working with a local real estate agent who has experience with people relocating to the area can be a big help.
A move to the Windy City is possible on any time frame, but in a situation where you have no deadline, take your time, says Maurice Hampton, president of the Chicago Association of Realtors and owner and managing broker of Centered International Realty Corp. in Chicago. “I would create a six- to 18-month timeline for myself to do some research on Chicago and maybe visit a few times,” he says.
Before putting down roots and taking on a mortgage, consider renting for six months or a year when you first arrive. “If you want to test the Chicago market, I highly suggest renting. Our rental market is very robust right now … (and) it may give you an opportunity to explore and get a feel for where you actually want to live,” Hampton says.
Here’s what you should know before moving to Chicago:
- Summer is short and winter is especially cold.
- The cost of living is all about perspective.
- There’s a neighborhood that will suit everyone.
- Don’t expect safety to be a problem.
- Take the CTA instead of keeping a car.
Summer Is Short and Winter Is Especially Cold
Summer in Chicago has a reputation for being warm and sunny without too many hot days. Chicago’s location on Lake Michigan also means you have waterfront attractions at Navy Pier, public beaches and fresh water as far as the eye can see.
However, summer weather averages about 100 days every year, and the winters are known to be cold. The average high temperature in January is a mere 32 degrees Fahrenheit, with average lows in December, January and February below 30 degrees, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Winter in Chicago is cold, and wind coming off Lake Michigan can make it feel colder, but investing in a warm coat will help make any time spent outside more comfortable. Hampton says there are some people who may decide Chicago isn’t the right fit because of cold winters, but it’s not hard to get by and enjoy the more temperate weather during the rest of the year.
The Cost of Living Is All About Perspective
How you view the cost of living and home prices in the Chicago area depends on where you’re moving from and where you want to live. If you’re moving from a major city like Miami or New York, Chicago will feel like you're getting the benefits of a major urban center at a discount.
If you’re coming from a smaller town or city known for its affordability, you may experience some sticker shock if you’re looking at townhouses and condos in the heart of downtown. The average rent in Chicago is $1,943, and the average apartment in Chicago is 749 square feet as of February, according to rental listing information site RentCafe.com. Norada Real Estate Investments reports the median home price in the Chicago metro area thus far in 2020 is $247,000.
Still, homeownership is achievable for Chicago-area residents at a variety of prices, and you don’t have to have a six-figure income to afford to buy. Szwajkowski recalls a charming one-bedroom condo in Rogers Park, a neighborhood in the northern part of the city, that recently went on the market for $99,900.
“There are some really low price points in some really nice neighborhoods – they’re just a little bit further out,” Szwajkowski says.
There’s a Neighborhood That Will Suit Everyone
Like many major cities, you have the choice to live in the heart of the city or seek more room in the suburbs. But Chicago’s sprawling city limits provide plenty of options, including neighborhoods with lots of single-family houses and a suburban feeling in an urban setting in addition to the high rises and upscale dining options of other parts of the city.
Check out the restaurants, businesses and local attractions that can make one neighborhood feel more like home than another. Szwajkowski says he often narrows down neighborhood choices, after factoring in budget and job location, by showing housing styles. “Pretend it’s a Rorschach test. Just respond, ‘Oh that’s cool,’ or, ‘I hate that,’” he says.
Even if you prefer a more rural setting, Chicago can still work for you. Hampton notes that he lives in the city of Chicago and is just a 40-minute drive from Beecher, Illinois, a small farming community with a quaint downtown and fewer than 5,000 residents.
“If that’s something that you want and you have an opportunity in Chicago, you don’t have to sacrifice the kind of life you want,” Hampton says.
Don’t Expect Safety to Be a Problem
For people who don’t live in Chicago or know many people who reside there, the only time they may hear about it on the news is after a violent crime has occurred. But Chicago is not any more dangerous than other major cities, and there’s no reason for you to have an elevated concern about crime in Chicago than you would anywhere else.
“I’m sure you’ll find that it’s not just Chicago, it’s not just New York and LA, it’s not just the U.S. If you watch global news, the world is in flux right now, from Belarus to London,” Hampton says.
Take the CTA Instead of Keeping a Car
Chicago has a robust public transit system of buses and trains run by the Chicago Transit Authority, or CTA. Chicago’s characteristic trains are referred to as the “L,” an abbreviation referring to the elevated platforms of the above-ground rail line.
Even if you live in a neighborhood well outside of the city center, L access is considered a reliable form of transportation, and you can get around town fairly easily without a car. Plus, you'll save on the cost of vehicle upkeep, insurance and parking if you stick to public transportation options, bicycling or walking.
Even as employers examine more permanent remote work options for employees, making a daily commute a less immediate factor in where to live, Szwajkowski says access to the L remains important for many homebuyers.