A couple of times a year someone messages me with the same question:
“Is Chicago a safe place to live?“
Ask any Chicagoan this question and it will cue an involuntary eye roll… for good reason.
Chicago is so much more than gun violence and crime.
Disclaimer: What you’re about to read is one point-of-view, out of 2.7 million people, on living in the City of Chicago. Seek out other voices to give you a broader perspective before you form an opinion.
Eye rolls aside, I try to be gracious in my response to that question because I used to wonder the same thing. I would sit in our house in Romeoville, Illinois watching the news and reading the weekend shooting reports and wonder why anyone would want to live in a place like Chicago. Then I would look around me and wonder why anyone would want to live in a place like Romeoville. It wasn’t any better… and even worse, there wasn’t anything to do there.
When we got to the end of our lease in Romeoville (we dubbed the town a truck stop), we decided to take a chance and move to Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago. The location was better for my husband’s commute to work and my commute to school. When we told people about our move they said the same thing like clockwork: “Are you sure? The south side of Chicago is really dangerous.”
Hyde Park was a wonderful neighborhood and our gateway to city living. We found out that we really enjoyed parking our (one and only) car for the evening and doing our daily errands on foot. We walked everywhere: the grocery store, restaurants, the doctor’s office, and the lake… even in the dead of winter. We got to experience the polar vortex in Hyde Park (fun) and we watched the Blackhawks win a Stanley Cup and the Seahawks win a Super Bowl… all from the comfort of our little fourth floor apartment on East Hyde Park Boulevard.
After a couple of months of living “in the city” I quit reading weekend shooting reports.
They didn’t seem relevant to the Chicago that I was experiencing on a daily basis.
Disclaimer: Not every home search in the city is like this. This is just my experience.
We slowly began to branch out to different areas of the city and in the spring of 2014 we decided to leave the high-priced rental market behind and buy a condo. More often than not, our social schedule took us to the north side of the city, so our condo hunt took place from Lake View to Pilsen to West Town and everywhere else in between.
Our list of non-compromising features was small: L access, in-unit washer and dryer, and some sort of outdoor space. The building also had to allow dogs and be kept in good repair. Every weekend we would head out to see a couple of units (mostly garden apartments) and a few times we came close to putting in an offer on a space that was almost perfect.
Eventually we expanded our search even farther north into Edgewater; a neighborhood that we had never been to or heard of. We eventually looked at a condo right off of Bryn Mawr located in a building built in the 1930’s: it had a roof top community deck, in-unit washer and dryer, and it was a five minute walk to the Red line and the lake.
The first time we went to view the unit there was no lock-box on the outside of the building so we couldn’t get in (this happens quite frequently). The second time around, we were able to get into the building, but the key to the unit didn’t work (the doorknob was actually broken). We ended up getting creative and eventually got inside to see the unit. It wasn’t much, but it had large windows and was a workable space in need of a little TLC.
The unit was on the low end of our budget, and so we did some research on the neighborhood, mapped our commute routes, and put in an offer.
We heard the same thing from friends when we told them we were moving to Edgewater: “Are you sure? Rogers Park and Uptown are dangerous neighborhoods.”
Edgewater was another amazing neighborhood to live in. Great restaurants, close to music venues, and highly walkable. We watched the Supermoon Lunar eclipse on the community deck with our neighbors in 2015 and we watched the Cubs win the World Series from the comfort of our fifth floor condo unit. The end of Lake Shore Drive erupted into fireworks, celebrations, and one drunk stranger told me he loved me that evening. While it was a mostly positive experience, there were some downsides to the neighborhood (in our opinion): no permit parking meant highly competitive street parking AND we discovered that having shared walls wasn’t really our thing. At. All.
In the summer of 2016 we began our house hunting experience. We were pretty adamant about what neighborhoods we wanted to look in… until those neighborhoods provided us with a huge reality check. We learned pretty quickly that listing photos are almost always a lie and they tend to omit obvious problems (why wasn’t the bathroom pictured? oh, because it doesn’t exist). We also learned that in a sellers market we had to be willing make compromises and move on a property quickly.
Here are the steps we took to ensure we surrounded ourselves with a good team of people before our house hunting process even began (for the first and second time):
Find a reputable mortgage lender
We looked online (Google, Yelp reviews, personal testimonies) and found a small mortgage lender that came highly recommended through a number of different channels. We actually used them to procure financing for both our condo and our single-family home. Lenders have different requirements depending on the property you are looking to mortgage. Typically a condo needs to be in a building that can prove they have enough reserves for maintenance and other repairs, a single-family home can sometimes be easier to get a loan for, but foreclosures and short sales come with their own list of requirements and procedures. A mortgage lender gives you the hard numbers: we were able to determine a range of projected mortgage amounts, which factored in our down payment and including insurance and taxes, so we knew the mortgage range that we were most comfortable looking in. When interest rates dropped, our lender locked us in to that low rate.
Find a reputable agent or broker
Our mortgage lender actually referred us to our real estate broker, Mark Dollard (I’m linking his blog here because he hasn’t updated it since 2013, but it’s still full of good information about Chicago). We worked with Mark to find our condo and then worked with him and his associate at Jameson Sotheby’s to find our bungalow, and ultimately sell our condo. Here’s a video about Mark’s philosophy as a real estate agent and if you watch House Hunters on HGTV you may have seen him in an episode that aired the winter of 2016.
Find a good lawyer
Surrounding yourself with trustworthy people during this process is incredibly important. They can answer questions, give advice, and most importantly they have the experience and knowledge to tell you if a property or unit is going to be a bad investment. Mark recommended a lawyer to us and we used her services for both properties as well. She reviewed every piece of paperwork and came to closing to review and double-check that everything was in order. Closing on the condo was a breeze, however closing on the bungalow took over four hours due to a water bill payment discrepancy. Our lawyer was the one who made the closing agency solve the problem.
People in this business who work well together tend to get stuff done faster and the overall experience will be a lot more pleasant for the buyer and the seller. Two months after closing on our bungalow, we were able to close on the sale of our condo, thanks in large part to the work put in by the team of people we built up around us.
Expectations vs reality
Our first round of house hunting for our single-family home was disastrous. We had a good idea of budget and neighborhoods, but we had a completely unrealistic view of what was really available within our budget in those neighborhoods. Cut to me pouring over MLS listing photos like I was a detective on CSI. It became pretty clear that wood frame structures were going to be a headache (both financially and emotionally) and after our third or fourth really tilt-y, kinda sketchy, this-was-never-disclosed-on-the-listing, has-six-layers-of-shingles train wreck of a property, Mark gave us a piece of advice that should probably be cross-stitched onto a decorative pillow (Christmas gift idea): Narrow down your search by choosing the type of home or structure that speaks to you. (That’s not a direct quote.)
His example illustrated his point: do you want one story or two? Brick or wood frame? Bungalow, Tudor, or Georgian? Pick one and we’ll continue our search from there.
It was a very liberating exercise that opened my eyes to the architectural possibilities Chicago has to offer without being confined to a target neighborhood. Suddenly, getting that e-mail every morning was about peeking inside homes that held promise instead of worrying so much about making a train wreck work just because it was in our “ideal neighborhood.”
Disclaimer: Not every home search in the city is like this. This is just my experience.
Clearly, we decided a bungalow would be a good fit for our needs. Because… we here.
After our initial round of single-family house hunting, brick structures became very appealing to us, and we saw a lot of them following our awakening. We also accidentally saw some wood frame homes that were listed as brick because of their faux brick exteriors. Yep. Those exist. And no, not brick slips. Asphalt single that is “made” to look like brick.
Some must-haves we compromised heavily on, like direct access to the Blue line.
However, there were must-haves that we didn’t have to compromise on at all: a brick single-family, two bedroom home with a fenced-in yard, walls, character, and the potential to build some sweat equity, plus a bus stop a block away and a grocery store two blocks away.
The neighborhood has its own culture, and while we know we are in the minority, we appreciate that this corner of the city was built by its residents, most of whom are Polish and Latinx.
You can view the original MLS listing photos of our bungalow here.
If I had to quantify finding a Chicago neighborhood that suits your needs, I would start by asking you what your needs are. I would listen to what you say and then I would watch you contradict yourself over and over again. Because home-buying is a process that occurs side-by-side with continual personal growth.
But I’ll do my best anyway:
Set a budget
Are you willing to max-out your budget on the perfect neighborhood to be close to all the action? Or are you willing to travel a bit more and experience a new area of the city? Do you want a fixer upper, or something that’s move-in ready with only a couple of projects? Or do you need a home with high-end finishes that’s project-free?
Only you can answer these questions and gauge your level of comfort with home repairs and yard care and maintenance. And honestly, your answers can and probably will change over time.
Pinpoint a structure
What’ll it be? Honestly, I love all architecture. The fact that I bought a bungalow is a fluke. But I love it. It’s just open concept enough for me (I like walls. I like defined spaces. I like the formality of the space, the history, the details). The point is, bungalows spoke to me. When I began researching housing types in Chicago, they called out to me. It might be because I’m from the Pacific Northwest and I grew up admiring bungalows in Seattle, along the Oregon coast, and throughout California. But more realistically, it’s probably because I love historic architecture, art history, design, and the fact that this bungalow… these bungalows… are unique to Chicago. They are Chicago bungalows. And they deserve to be celebrated and honored.
Let your budget and structure dictate your neighborhood
Ok, ok. I know. That’s a very controversial statement. Neighborhoods are everything in this city. People constantly talk about which neighborhoods are good, which ones are bad, which ones are currently being gentrified (a big deal, tbh) and which ones are up-and-coming (some of them have been “up-and-coming” for decades).
It’s really good to have target areas that determine the neighborhoods that you select from; always consider your commute, your wants and needs in a property, your level of DIY and your budget for yearly property maintenance. However, if you solely rely on house-hunting in a specific neighborhood, you might miss out on being part of an amazing community. Again, you have to decide where you want to invest your time and money.
Here are some online tools to help you stay informed
Perhaps the first couple steps really narrowed your search down for you… or maybe they really blew it wide open (my budget is a trillion dollars and I could live in a studio apartment anywhere in the city… now what?!). Check the walk score of the property that you’re considering and look at the crime map of the neighborhood it’s in.
Please note: these tools do not replace common sense and your personal experience of the neighborhood.
Walk scores and crime maps only give you a benchmark to compare to. How does your prospective neighborhood compare to your current one with regards to space, amenities you’ve grown accustomed to, and crime? Better? Worse? The same? Crime tends to be higher in denser areas of the city, or close to expressways and L lines.
More importantly, what is your feeling once you’re there… in the actual neighborhood? Are you close to nuisances or eyesores? Do the neighbors keep their lawns tidy and their homes in good repair? Are people walking around or are they getting into their cars to drive a block? Are you buying a home in a food desert? Or is there a big development in the works that’s going to completely change the make-up of the area and raise your taxes? These are questions that don’t always have answers. But they’re worth asking and researching. Knowing the history, political or otherwise, of a neighborhood can help you make a more informed decision before you invest in a property.
Which brings us to safety…
How to choose a safe neighborhood in Chicago
As a white woman, my experience of living in this city is by no means a universal experience shared by all or guaranteed to anyone. That’s the reality of it. There is definitely crime here, but that can be said for any city around the world. However, Chicago* continues to make national headlines because of gun violence. Plenty of people will tell you all about “safe” neighborhoods in this city. And they’ll make lists of them that seem so official. But this isn’t that. You’ll have to find those lists for yourself.
The truth (according to me) is complicated. Yes some areas of the city are safer than others. But there’s a lot more to the story than gun violence.
This city is so rich and diverse, while at the same time being so broken and segregated. Corruption exists. Systemic racism exists. Food deserts exist. Gentrification exists and it pushes culture and life-long residents out of their neighborhoods. There are neighborhoods that don’t have working street lights, broken sidewalks, and neighborhoods that had all their public schools closed down.
Those beautiful planter boxes full of exotic flowers that you see downtown? Those are for the tourists. Highly visible neighborhoods are heavily invested in. Others are completely ignored.
This is Chicago.
Most of us are just trying to live our lives and carve out a little space for ourselves. The rest of us are fighting to meet our basic needs and the basic needs of our families.
If living in this city has taught me anything it’s that you have to have compassion for others and empathy for their experiences. Understanding and respecting the residents and culture of a neighborhood is a crucial step to becoming an active community member: register to vote, become invested in local government and politics, learn about issues in your area and work with those around you to help solve them, speak out about injustices, talk to your neighbors. Be sensitive to the existing culture.
If we had listened to all of our friends that told us the South side is dangerous, the North side is dangerous, the West side is dangerous, where would anyone live in this city? There are pockets of good and bad in cities all around the world. And there are more amazing neighborhoods in Chicago than not… out of 77 to choose from, not all of them can make that arbitrary Top 10 Neighborhoods in Chicago to Live in list.
You simply have to go looking for them.
P.S. If you made it this far and you’re considering moving to Chicago, from another city or state, I highly recommend it…
The people I’ve met here are truly what makes this city great.
*America continues to make world news headlines because of gun violence.