Finding your first home

200 North Dearborn

At first blush, the Chicago housing market doesn’t seem like the ideal environment for first-time buyers who are hunting for new-construction homes and conversions.

The average sales price of a downtown or North Side home in the first few months of 2008 was more than $500,000, according to Midwest Real Estate Data. Even in the city’s Northwest Side, hardly the seat of new residential construction, homes were selling at an average price of $315,000 earlier this year.

Those kinds of numbers at first can seem disheartening to buyers whose budgets can’t accommodate a half-million-dollar mortgage. What some buyers fail to realize (or renters who have never considered the prospect of purchasing a home, for that matter) is that the Chicago market is filled with new-construction and rehabilitated condominiums priced at or below $250,000.

That amount isn’t enough land a spacious mansion or a penthouse with horizon-to-horizon views, but it’s enough to get a home in any of the six city areas defined in the New Home Notebook: Loop/downtown, and the North, Far North, Northwest, West/Southwest and South sides.

Young professionals drawn to Michigan Avenue’s stores and massive lakeside parks can find a place to live in downtown Chicago, although the few starter-priced condos found inside the Loop itself may be better suited for pieds-a-terre than full-time homes.

American Invsco’s conversion at 200 N Dearborn St has studio condominiums priced in the $230s, but each of those units has less than 600 square feet of living space. The studios may not be roomy compared with similarly priced condos outside the Loop, but residents do have the benefit of living around the corner from Chicago’s many theaters and just blocks from Millennium Park and the Michigan Avenue shopping district. Living in a high-rise has its benefits, too: 200 North Dearborn’s on-site amenities include a fitness center, indoor swimming pool, sun deck, party room, laundry facilities and White Hen convenience store.

VetroFor larger homes, buyers should look in two of downtown’s most popular residential neighborhoods: The South Loop and the West Loop. In those areas, buyers can find one-bedroom, new-construction condominiums in the high $100s and low to mid-$200s at developments such as Vetro at 611 S Wells St, Astoria Tower at 8 E Ninth St, Glashaus at 1327 S Wabash Ave, and Terrazio at 1935 S Wabash Ave. All of those homes have features common to most new condominiums, such as hardwood floors, granite kitchen countertops, stainless-steel appliances, and wiring for Internet and surround sound, as well as access to building amenities like fitness rooms and rooftop decks.

First-time buyers may be surprised to learn that they have fewer choices in the North Side than in the city’s downtown area (or any other area of Chicago, for that matter). After all, most of the city’s high-profile luxury projects are confined to downtown neighborhoods like the Gold Coast and Streeterville, not in North Side neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, only 13 of the 131 North Side developments listed in the New Home Notebook have homes priced at or below $250,000. With the exception of Senco Properties’ new development, the EcoLogic Lofts in Bucktown, all of those projects are conversions of existing apartment towers and courtyard buildings, and all of their starter homes are limited to studios and one-bedroom condominiums.

Sprawling Lincoln Park is one of the North Side’s greatest neighborhood amenities, and two of Kroupa Development’s conversions – the Sheridan Tower at 2930 N Sheridan Road, and 3033 North Sheridan, one block north – are both within walking distance of the park and the shore of Lake Michigan. Newly finished one-bedrooms at Sheridan Tower start in the $230s, while unimproved two-bedrooms at 3033 North Sheridan start in the $220s.

Other starter home options include the Polo Tower conversion, located in Uptown, where improved one-bedrooms are priced in the $160s to the $220s; the Sheffield Condo Living conversion, a block north of Wrigley Field, with one-bedroom rehabs starting in the $210s; and Axis, a conversion with “as-is” one-bedrooms priced in the $220s and $230s.

For buyers with a green streak, the aforementioned EcoLogic Lofts may be one of the only LEED-certified developments in Chicago with one-bedroom homes priced in the low $200s. The Fitzgerald Architects Associates-designed building will feature power-generating wind turbines, a green roof, water-efficient fixtures and bamboo floors.

Starter-home options expand dramatically as buyers expand their searches into Chicago’s Far North Side. More than 40 percent of all the new projects located north of Irving Park Road and east of Western Avenue have condos priced below $250,000, according to the New Home Notebook. Many of those projects are courtyard conversions and lofts in the Rogers Park neighborhood, several of which have one-bedroom and two-bedroom homes priced from the mid-$100s to mid-$200s.

For example, two-bedroom/one-bath condos with 750 square feet at the Grove at Greenleaf at 1358 – 1336 W Greenleaf Ave are listed in the $180s. The project also has two-bedroom/two-bath homes with approximately 1,200 square feet that are listed in the $230s.

Firebird Development has several conversions in Rogers Park, including the Columbia Gardens and Columbia Parc developments in the 1600 block of West Greenleaf Avenue, where two-bedrooms are selling from the $170s to the $220s. One block west at Firebird’s Greenleaf Crossing courtyard building, a buyer can pay less than $230,000 for a ground-floor, two-bedroom unit and receive the garden unit directly below at no additional charge, although additional expenses are required to connect the two units with a stairway.

Several neighborhoods in Chicago’s Northwest Side – especially those adjacent to the Kennedy Expressway and the CTA’s Blue Line – have seen waves of new construction and conversions in recent years, but they rarely see the kinds of high-priced condominiums and single-family homes that are increasingly common on the other side of the area’s western border, in North Side neighborhoods like Bucktown and Wicker Park.

In fact, for every Northwest Side development that has homes starting at $250,000 or higher, there seems to be a development where units start in the $150s. For example, the two- to four-bedroom townhouses at Cornelia Court, River Park North and Fletcher Row routinely fetch $500,000 or more, but buyers looking around the Avondale, Irving Park and North Center are also likely to come across rehabs like the Terraces at Talman at 2900 N Talman Ave, 3016 West Belle Plaine, The Bellvue at 3754 N Bernard St, and Whipple Court at 4226 N Whipple St, all of which have two-bedrooms priced in the $240s or lower.

Most of the projects in the Albany Park and Lincoln Square neighborhoods are rehabs with units priced as low as the $150s, according to the New Home Notebook. Likewise, most of the conversions in Logan Square have two-bedroom units priced in the low $200s, as well as some one-bedrooms listed below that.

Most of the starter homes in Chicago’s West, Southwest and South Side markets can be placed into one of two categories: gut-rehabs in the neighborhoods of Hyde Park and Kenwood, and the smaller condominiums found in large mixed-income community developments in places like Bronzeville and East Garfield Park.

The former category includes rehabs like the Silver Cloud Condominiums, a rehabilitated 13-story apartment building at 5346 S Cornell Ave in Hyde Park, where two-bedrooms start in the $210s.

Buyers can even find three-bedroom condos for less than $250,000 in the South Side. The Indiana Grand rehab at 5443 S Indiana Ave in Washington Park has three-bedroom / two-bath units with hardwood floors, stainless-steel appliances and other new finishes starting in the $200s.

The latter group includes Oakwood Shores, a mixed-income project in Bronzeville where new-construction one-bedroom condos begin in the $170s. Fitzgerald Associates Architects won a 2008 Charter Award from the Congress for the New Urbanism earlier this year for its Oakwood Shores designs. Once complete, the development will comprise more than 3,000 homes.

In East Garfield Park, a handful of three-bedroom condos with private garages are available for less than $230 at New West Realty’s Heritage Homes of West Village project. The homes have a mix of carpet and ceramic-tile flooring, decks or balconies per plan, central air and washer/dryer hookups.

One of the South Side’s biggest single-building developments, the McKinley Park Lofts at 2323 W Pershing Road in McKinley Park, has 1,190 square-foot lofts starting in the $230s, as well as one-bedroom/one-bath homes priced from the $170s to $240s. Residents have access to the building’s private fitness center and can cross the street to McKinley Park, which features an outdoor pool, ice rink and running paths.

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