An Open Letter to House Guests in Chicago Apartments

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Two years ago we ran an article for renters called “Is Your Apartment Suitable for Hosting Guests?” which uses the same artwork as this one because it’s my birthday this weekend and I didn’t feel like drawing anything new. But there are two sides to a host/guest situation. This is for the other half of the equation.

Before we begin, take this grain of salt and hold it in your hand for the duration. Got it? Good. Let’s go.

Dear House Guests,

So you will be spending a few days living in someone else’s apartment. Maybe you’re visiting family for the holidays. Maybe you’re a tourist staying in an AirBNB. Either way, you are visiting the very small home of someone else who may or may not be present and you have never been in a similar environment before. Your host might be too polite to comment when you’re doing something cringy. Or they might get so annoyed that you never get a second invitation to visit them. So from all of us who live in high density buildings year-round to all of you who do not, here are some pointers to bear in mind so that your host does not earn the wrath of their neighbors and/or landlord.

Noise

It doesn’t matter how quietly you behave. If the apartment where you’re staying shares walls, floor or ceiling with another apartment, the noises you make will carry into that apartment. These noises may or may not be limited to footsteps, dropped items, conversation, rolling over in your sleep, typing on a computer keyboard, ringing phones, beeping microwaves and smoke detectors. If you are visiting with a renter who lives alone the neighbors may not be accustomed to increased noise coming from your apartment. If you are staying in a home share then the neighbors have probably been living with elevated noise from prior visitors in your current apartment and are already circulating petitions to permanently ban home sharing in the building.

Take your shoes off at all times. Walk gently. Constrain noisy activities to normal waking hours and keep them in rooms that are entirely contained within the apartment and the outdoors. If your host has installed carpet or carpet runners, stay on those carpets. If you are going to play music or watch TV make sure that the device you are using is not set on the ground. Want to do some exercising? Go outside.

Noise isn’t the only thing that travels. Odors do as well. If you are going to be cooking something smelly such as fish or popcorn, do so during mealtime hours. If you are going to smoke, do it outside.

Bathrooms

When you’re staying in an apartment you will find that much like hotel rooms there is one bathroom. Extra bathrooms increase rents at an equal or higher rate than extra bedrooms. But if the host is present that means you must share the single bathroom with the host, their family and everyone who came with you. Wars have started over lesser causes. Be patient and strong of bladder.

If you are staying in an older apartment building you will be pleased to find that the hot water is nearly endless. If you are staying in Chicago, water is included in the rent. But the trade off is that water pressure will probably be terrible, especially first thing in the morning when everyone is showering and sometimes later in the evening when people are cooking. Spread out your bathroom usage throughout the day. Bathe in shifts and avoid doing so first thing in the morning.

You might even find that the only bathroom in the apartment is inside your host’s bedroom. Make note of this before you go to bed and meter out your fluid consumption accordingly as you might not be able to use the bathroom during the hours when your host is asleep.

You will probably find that the bathroom does not have an exhaust fan. If this is the case please open up the window as you are showering or immediately after you’re done. Yes, this means people can see in the window. But it also prevents the bathroom from growing colonies of mold and patches of bubbling paint that make daily rituals a menace.

I should also make a remark here about our water, which is sourced from the lake and harder than that icy sidewalk you just faceplanted into. It is slightly yellow from the chlorine. This is normal. Your hair will be crunchy and it will tangle with even the slightest movement of your head. Men who shave with straight razors will find it hard to get a good lather on their soap. Also all normal.

If it is winter the cold tap water will be about one degree away from coming out in cubes. If your sinks are along the outer wall of the apartment they may freeze if you don’t leave the cabinet doors open to get some of the warm apartment air around the pipes.

Closets

If you are a normal tourist you will probably bring clothes with you in a suitcase. You might want to store these items in a closet rather than in your suitcase so that they don’t get wrinkled. You will probably be very disappointed in the available closet space, especially if you are staying in an older building. Chicago’s vintage buildings were constructed before clothes hangers came into vogue and well before washing machines so the ones that exist in these century-old buildings were intended to have rows of coat hooks instead. Even newer buildings are severely lacking in closet space, as Chicagoans are expected to store their off-season clothing in storage lockers, only keeping in their apartments a selection of seasonally appropriate garments.

You may find that you need to store your belongings in closets outside of your bedroom. This may mean that you have to plan and set out what you’re going to wear the next day before you go to bed, lest you wind up running about your host’s apartment in your pajamas.

If you are sleeping on someone’s couch you may find that your room has no closet at all, forcing you to keep your belongings in your host’s bedroom or draped over furniture.

Coming and Going

If you are staying in an apartment in an elevator building expect that at least half of the elevators will be out of service at any given time. You may wind up using a freight elevator down some random back hallway to get up and down. You might find that elevators are draped with padding and plastic to prevent damage. This is all quite normal and does not indicate that the elevator doubles as a padded cell, although it might.

If you are going a long way up, move to the back of the elevator. Make note of the maximum capacity of the elevator and if the number of people inside is approaching half of that, wait for the next one. If your apartment is anywhere between the first and fourth floors you are expected to take the stairs. You will get glared at by others in the car with you if you are caught getting out on floor three.

But if you’re staying with an average renter in Chicago you will be staying in a walk-up building. You may even be staying on the top floor of a walk-up building. If you do any shopping while living in a building like this, make sure to distribute the weight of your purchases across multiple bags with straps that can fit over your shoulders. It is much easier to carry a load of groceries spread out across 4 bags than it is to carry it all in a single bag. Remember that what comes in must also go out, and usually down exterior back stairs. Our back porches are typically the route to the trash, and they are usually not shoveled after snowstorms. Watch the weather and plan your trips to the dumpsters accordingly.

You may find that the dumpster is directly below the windows of your apartment. Resist the temptation to throw your trash bags straight down. (See “Noise” section above. Also, it is surprisingly easy to miss and nobody wants to clean up the shattered remains of your kitchen waste. Also, dumpster lids are supposed to remain closed in Chicago as we are the rat capital of the nation, so your trash will probably just bounce.)

Pests

It is very easy for pests to spread from apartment to apartment. Bedbugs in particular are a horrible plague in Chicago as they have become resistant to many pesticides. You may be present when property management makes a regularly scheduled sweep of the apartment for bedbugs with trained sniffer dogs. If your visit to this apartment is one location on a multi-stop tour you may have spent some time in hotels before you arrive. If this describes you, do not bring any belongings that entered that hotel into the apartment with you. Hotels are also notorious breeding grounds for bedbugs and most of the apartment building infestations pop up from people who carried them in following hotel stays.

Besides the bedbugs and rats, in Chicago we have an assortment of other pests as well. Of particular note are the pigeons. You may notice that we have a lot of them. You may find yourself cornered in a back alley by a particularly aggressive one that may or may not be carrying a pigeon-sized firearm. They are vicious. Do not feed them. Do not talk to them.

You may find that your host’s apartment building has a colony of insects or mice. You may find that the host has set out pest control devices to keep them under control. This is normal and does not reflect badly on the sanitary practices of your host. Every apartment building is home to a selection of pests. Landlords have varying levels of success in removing them because there are simply too many entry points to seal off. Renter hosts that make an effort to keep the place clean should be encouraged rather than condemned.

Trash

I spoke a little about trash above but it deserves its own entire section. In Chicago most apartments have dumpsters. They also have recycling bins with varying levels of effectiveness. Large apartment buildings must pay for private trash hauling and recycling. This means that each building has its own recycling policies which may or may not sync up with the citywide policies. Pay attention to the signs. Failing to follow them can result in the trash haulers refusing to pick up the entire bin.

Apartment buildings almost invariably have too few dumpsters for the number of people living inside. During busy holidays when lots of guests are visiting and gifts are being unboxed you may find that the dumpsters are full to the point of overflowing. If you see that a dumpster is too full to close fully, don’t put anything else in it. Hang on to that trash until the dumpster is emptied. If a dumpster overflows some poor employee is going to be called away from their holiday time with their family so that they can climb in there and pack it down. (If you are holding on to trash for a few days do not store it outside. The pigeons will get to it. See “Pests” above.)

Trash dumpsters are usually stored in the alleyway where they can only be smelled and not seen. This makes alleyways very narrow. If you are driving around in a rented car and are unaccustomed to Chicago alleys, make sure to nose your way around alley corners very cautiously. Lurking dumpsters and fire hydrants have caused more damage to cars in Chicago than any fender benders. It should also be noted that our alleys are usually not plowed in the wintertime. If you are not used to driving in snow, avoid alleys. Heck, avoid driving in Chicago. We’ve got a lovely public transit system.

Repairs

Visitors put additional strain on apartment buildings that they’re not supposed to be enduring. Things will break, especially if the visitors are small children or fond of drinking a bit too much. But visitors tend to be present during holidays when maintenance workers are on vacation or charging overtime.

Unlike hotels where hospitality is their main line of business, apartment managers don’t really care if you have a good time or not. They have two weeks to repair most broken things with the exception of life-essential services like heat and running water. Even for those they get three days. This means that if you break something while you’re visiting it probably will not get fixed before you leave.

Very few Chicago apartment buildings still have on-site supers living in the building who can come slap some duct tape on a broken faucet to tide you over until Monday. But renters are not expected to make repairs themselves, nor should they. You would not want to see some of the stopgap fixes that have been made to keep apartments presentable on the surface. Many a DIY-inclined renter has cut away supposed drywall to find that the entire wall was made up of spackle.

The apartment where you’re staying probably has one or two circuit breakers to cover the whole place. Go gently on the electronics. Run one at a time, especially if your appliance generates heat. (Hair dryer, curling iron, toaster oven, etc.) Ask your host where the breakers are, just in case. Expect any fixtures to be attached to the wall in a somewhat apathetic and completely non load bearing way. Don’t lean back too far on the toilet or the seat might break. Don’t slam the water taps open or closed. Don’t expect that every window is still able to open.

Temperature

Your host probably has minimal control over the temperature in the apartment. If you’re visiting in summer, expect that your apartment will have one window air conditioner in a bedroom. If it does, keep that door closed at all times and only run the air conditioner at night. If you’re staying in a steam heated apartment in the winter or in a high rise with heat “blowers”, expect to be offensively hot or freezing cold. I often see people advising tourists heading to wintertime Chicago to pack heavy coats, sweaters and boots. This is all well and good, but if you’re staying in a vintage apartment you should also bring shorts or possibly a bathing suit.

Those staying in vintage apartments may be alarmed at first at the amount of noise the heaters make. Eventually you will come to realize that steam radiators are regular conversationalists with the temperament of rabbits in an open field. They thump. They tick. They hiss and occasionally make a massive bang. (Note: I have never actually seen a rabbit make a massive bang. A vigorous humping perhaps but not a bang.)

If you are lucky enough to be staying in an apartment that does have a thermostat, you must remember that your host is the one paying for that heating and cooling out of their own pockets. Be accepting of the temperatures set by your host. Dress in layers. If you’re cold, move to a sunny side of the room. If you’re too hot during the summer, suggest taking an outing to an air conditioned shop, theater, or even a trip on the El.


House guests of Chicago, your presence and tourist dollars are 100% welcome here in our lovely city. We like your cheerful demeanor and charming ability to get lost in our orderly grid of consistently numbered streets. We hope that you leave generous tips for the aspiring improv artists who serve you dinner, pick you up in their Uber, pat you down in the TSA line at the airport, analyze your stock portfolio or remove your burst appendix. We promise that we won’t shoot you provided you stay out of certain gang-infested neighborhoods. But we acknowledge that our apartments have their quirks. We’ve learned to accept them. We hope that while you are staying with us you will also come to love the weirdness of our high density housing.

With love,
Chicago Renters

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Published by

Kay Cleaves

Founder and owner of RentConfident. She's the primary developer of the website and research engine code. She's spent over 10 years working in the Chicago rental industry and has assisted with over 1200 leases.