A guide to buying a Chicago loft condo

What is a loft?

Lofts are cool, sexy, dramatic fun spaces bristling with character and rich in visual appeal – and that’s why the term is used so loosely by real estate agents. Not everything that’s called a loft is a loft.

River East Art Center, Kardas Photography

Strictly speaking, a loft is a large, open, flexible space in an older industrial, warehouse or office building that has been converted to residential use. Over time the term has been applied to smaller (often very small) spaces, and spaces in which the functional living areas are separated by walls, much like traditional apartments. Units designed in this manner are sometimes referred to as “soft lofts.”

The loft phenomenon began, most say, in Manhattan in the 1960s. Loft development in Chicago began to take hold in the 1970s and lofts proliferated in the late 80s and early 90s. Over time lofts evolved from low-budget spaces in sketchy neighborhoods to sophisticated, amenity-rich buildings and spaces. Most recent lofts have been of the soft loft variety, with well-demarcated living and sleeping spaces. Balconies and other outdoor living spaces, once rare, have become almost de rigueur in newer developments. Beginning in the mid-90s some of the larger buildings also began to offer services once unheard of in lofts: door staff, concierges, fitness rooms and more.

Not all loft buildings are adaptive reuse conversions. Developers have built new buildings that exhibit many of the features of lofts and thus merit the use of the term.

Loft building construction

Most loft buildings in Chicago are between two and seven stories tall, of either mill timber or concrete construction, with brick exteriors. Some buildings have terra cotta facades and many feature terra cotta ornamentation.

154 W Hubbard Lofts, Kardas Photography

Older loft buildings are usually overbuilt with regard to residential use. They were designed for heavy machinery, storage of weighty materials and more intensive uses.

Loft buildings vary widely in their configuration. More rectangular buildings lend themselves to more desirable floor plans, with more exterior walls and windows and less space devoted to traffic flows. Square buildings and buildings with deep floor plates are often configured to maximize the number of units per floor, resulting in what some have called “bowling alley” floor plans, i.e. long and narrow. The city of Chicago amended its light and ventilation requirements in the mid-90s to enable the adaptive reuse of these buildings.

Loft characteristics

Most true lofts share a number of features that define the loft look.

154 W Hubbard Lofts, Kardas Photography

High ceilings

Most lofts have ceilings heights of 10 feet or greater. It’s not uncommon to find spaces that soar to 20 feet or more.

Open, flexible space

Residents, rather than fixed walls, define the functional living areas. Armoires, bookshelves and entertainment units are sometimes used to separate one living space from another.

Large windows

Most loft buildings were built between the 1880s and 1940, a time when builders were sensitive to maximizing natural light, and often insensitive to energy costs.

Timber or concrete ceilings. The exposed wood and concrete ceilings in industrial buildings add warmth and texture to loft units.

Hardwood floors

Many of Chicago’s loft buildings were built with maple flooring. In most cases the flooring became damaged over time and new hardwood flooring was installed when the building was converted to residential use. The better developments have a layer of lightweight concrete over the original floors, to level them and remove unevenness, and also to help dampen sound transmission.

Exposed structural elements

Timber and concrete columns and beams are exposed rather than wrapped within walls or masked by dropped ceilings.

Exposed mechanicals

Electrical conduit, sprinkler system piping, heating and air-conditioning ducts are open to view rather than concealed.

Exposed brick walls are another element that adds warmth and texture .Brick is a poor thermal insulator, but excellent for sound insulation.

All lofts don’t exhibit all of these characteristics. The fewer you find in a unit, the less likely it is that the unit deserves to be called a loft.

Loft issues

The elements that give lofts their aesthetic appeal often give rise to issues that loft buyers need to consider.

Sound transmission between units is a problem experienced by many loft residents. Sound transmission through floors tends to be more of an issue in timber than in concrete buildings. Lateral sound transmission between units can also be an irritant. Most recent developments have taken steps to minimize noise issues, but some have largely ignored them. Make a thorough investigation before purchasing.

University Commons Lofts, Kardas Photography

Utility costs / comfort levels

High ceilings, exposed brick walls and large windows can result in high heating and cooling bills. Brick and glass have little insulating value. Exposed ductwork high above the floor may translate to low comfort levels and uneven distribution of heat. Ask your developer to provide a heating cost estimate from the utility company, or ask to see the current owner’s utility bills. Ceiling fans can be very effective at increasing perceived comfort levels, especially in the winter, and are likely to reduce overall utility costs.


The brick, timber and concrete in loft buildings are usually sandblasted or acid-washed to create a newer, cleaner look. If these surfaces haven’t been properly cleaned or sealed, dust is inevitable and can linger on for quite a while. Rubbing your fingers over the walls should give you a good idea of what to expect after you move in.

Brick, especially brick that has been sandblasted, is susceptible to spalling, i.e. flaking. Brick is porous and absorbs moisture from humidity and from condensation caused by temperature differentials between exterior and interior surfaces. If you have exposed brick walls you can almost certainly be cleaning up brick dust.


Different parking requirements apply to new and converted structures. The result is that parking is frequently scarce to non-existent with many loft developments. This may or may not be an issue for you, depending on your personal needs and the availability of parking in the immediate area.

Deferred maintenance

It’s not unusual for loft buyers to find themselves saddled with large special assessments to correct conditions that a developer bypassed The most common defects have involved roofs and facades.

In this video architect Pat FitzGerald, who’s lived in lofts and designed and built many of them, talks about avoiding the pitfalls of lofts.

Loft neighborhoods

Residential loft conversions can be found in most of Chicago’s older neighborhoods, where industrial and office uses once flourished.

The earliest loft developments were near downtown (Printers Row, South Loop, West Loop and River North) and in once-fringe now-pricey parts of established neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park, Lake View and Ravenswood.

Within the past few years loft conversions have spread far afield to neighborhoods like McKinley Park on the southwest side, Bronzeville, Pilsen, Humboldt Park, Avondale and Rogers Park.

Historic tax benefits

Some of the new loft developments are eligible for the Illinois Property Tax Assessment Freeze program, which can provide substantial tax savings to owner-occupant purchasers of certain historic properties.

River East Art Center, Kardas Photography

The program freezes property tax assessments for 8 years at the level prevailing when the renovation of the property began. After the expiration of the 8-year period, the freeze is phased out over a further 4 years.

The benefits of this program are available only to the initial purchaser of a unit and are not transferable on a resale. The developer must meet stringent requirements to qualify the property for the program, and subsequent changes to the property can result in disqualification and loss of the tax benefit.

Some developers, relying on a buyer’s focus on monthly cost-of-ownership, have priced historic renovation properties to capture much of the benefit for themselves in the form of an inflated purchase price. To ensure that you rather than the developer are receiving the economic benefit, pay close attention to the market price of properties not eligible for this benefit. Bear in mind that, to enjoy the full benefit, you’ll need to own the property for an extended period of time. Also be mindful of the fact that eligibility is no guarantee of certification: an inexperienced or financially-strapped developer may take steps that disqualify an otherwise eligible property.

Do your research

It’s easy to be distracted by the sex appeal of loft living. Don’t be. Work with a real estate agent / home inspector / attorney / lender team all of whom have experience with lofts in the area you’re considering.

Loft development has been an activity with low barriers to entry. That’s good for developers, but not good for buyers. Look for a developer with a lengthy track record in lofts and talk to residents at the developer’s previous projects. If your developer is a first-timer at lofts or has only a limited portfolio, pay attention to the architect and the contractor. Their experience can compensate, to some extent, for a developer’s inexperience.

Focus on the basics that are important to resale value for any type of property: location, neighborhood amenities, access to public transportation, the uniqueness (non-commodity aspect) of the property, and its flow and livability. If you’re in love with it, that helps – someone else will be too. And, it’s easier to love a loft than a run-of-the-mill condo.

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