Building Battle: Which One is Better?

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It’s building vs. building in the battle of the century! Well, maybe not the century. Maybe not even the week. But we are putting similar apartment buildings up against each other today seeking those tiny details that can tell us which one might offer the better renting experience.

Google Street View is a great tool for apartment hunters who can’t get to their new town for in-person showings and those with limited time to explore a new potential neighborhood. It allows you to get a sense of the area around a building without leaving your home. But to the discerning eye it can also show flaws in a landlord’s maintenance routines.

Chicago has many clusters of nearly identical buildings, all constructed at the same time with the same or similar materials but owned by different people over time. These identical or fraternal twin buildings when observed using Street View can highlight various methods that renters can use to figure out from the outside which landlords are good and which are lacking in care for their investments. These methods can also be used when you’re on the ground in a neighborhood for a showing, but of course, this is a blog so we’ll be using Street View today.

I’ve captured street view images of three pairs of similar buildings from across the city. To protect the privacy of the current owners I’m only going to mention their neighborhoods rather than their addresses. They might be apartment buildings or condos but I’m going to assume for this article that they’re apartments. I’ll review each photo to figure out the winners in this Street View apartment building battle. I’m not going to research the owners to find out out about their mortgage payments, taxes or code violations. I’m going entirely on what I see in the pictures.

You can click on any of the images to view them at a larger size.

Battle #1: Greystones

Battle Greystone, courtesy of Google Maps

We begin our journey on the West Side in the Hermosa neighborhood. Our contestants are two greystone 3-flats sitting side by side on a north/south side street facing east. At first glance they don’t look like twins: one has siding, the other has bare stone. But it’s clear that if you remove the siding from the one on the right that they are very similar in shape and size. Investors tend to be leery of “frame” houses, preferring brick construction for its durability. While the siding makes the one on the right appear to be a frame house, I suspect that underneath that siding is stone similar to the one on the left.

The first thing I see is dirt. The grey building has several dirty patches on the second floor and the balcony over the front steps. The yellow building has some discolored siding on its porch cover and just under the roof, but to me this appears to be newer replaced sections rather than dirt.

The windows on the yellow building look new and shiny because of their bright white frames, but a closer inspection of the windows themselves reveals them to be an older style. Only the 2nd floor has an obvious screen in one window, which looks to have been left in place following the removal of a window air conditioner. The grey building has older windows as well except for the ones in the basement, which are newer. The replacement of only these ground level windows could have been for any number of reasons including security, insulation or that being the owner’s own living quarters.

The condition of the front steps is not really fantastic for either building, but to my eye the yellow building has the advantage because of the hand rail. If you picture both of those stairwells covered in ice it’s clear that the yellow building has the safety advantage. However the owner of the grey building has taken steps to seal cracks in their front steps while the owner of the yellow building has clearly been neglecting the paint on his steps for quite some time.

The parkway grass for each building is nicely kept but the grass in the yard of the grey building is patchy and dead while the yard of the yellow building is lush and green without being overgrown. The sidewalks are in comparable condition. The yellow building has a taller fence but the grey building has the newer fence.

Overall I would say that while the grey building might have more curb appeal, the better landlord owns the winner of this battle, the yellow building.

Battle #2: 4-Flats

Battle 4-flat, courtesy of Google Maps

We now move on to two vintage four flats in the Old Irving Park area on the northwest side. These contestants sit side by side on a east-west arterial street and face north. These are much more obviously twin buildings at first glance than the two we reviewed in battle #1.

Once again, dirt is the first thing I notice. The left hand building is absolutely filthy while right hand one is practically sparkling. While the left building probably accumulated some of that dirt from the tree that hangs over the right porches, the tree has little to do with the dirt on the left porches. But give the identical construction I suspect that the red building was either recently tuckpointed or powerwashed. The bright white mortar on the bricks of the front two pillars puts proof to this idea. If you look at the sections that stick out towards the center of the image, you can see that both buildings were originally the same color. It is only the right hand building’s facade that is bright red.

The grill and flower boxes on the porches of the red building and the satellite dish on the roof of the brown building tell me that both landlords are equally laid back about how their tenants treat the building.

It’s tough to tell from this distance if the windows are new or old, which means that even if they are old they’re probably in decent condition. I see an equal number of screens in the windows of each.

The lawns are in distinctly different condition. The brown building has a nice green yard with smooth grass coverage while the red building’s yard is looking a little threadbare. The red building’s yard also has a noticeable divot near the center of the picture. The sidewalks of the red building are markedly dirtier than those in front of the brown building.

Of course the most obvious difference besides the color is the wooden roof over the upper porches of the red building, which is absent at the brown one. This is clearly an aftermarket addition to the property, and must be maintained regularly given the short lifespan of wooden roofing. The cover adds considerable utility to those upper porches as the occupants can use them in less pleasant weather.

Given the choice between tending the yard and tending the building, I prefer to see a landlord who tends to the building. This means that the winner of Battle 4-flat is the red building on the right.

Battle #3: 2-Flats

Battle 2-flat, courtesy of Google Maps

Closing out today’s building battle we have very cute twin two-flats from the south side Gage Park neighborhood. These two are on a quiet section of a relatively busy residential east-west street facing south. There’s no denying that these two contestants are very well maintained and charming from top to bottom.

The first thing I notice is the screens, or lack thereof. The red building on the left has screens in the first floor windows but only one screen in the second floor. I am again suspecting that the first floor may be owner-occupied. The orange building on the right appears to have no screens at all.

The next obvious difference is the tiny imitation fire hydrant in the yard of the red building. There’s no doubt about it, the owner of this building is a dog lover. Because of this I’m going to let the brown patch of grass slide. Also in that yard is the ADT home security sign, which means that even though their building may not have central AC they’re certainly concerned for the well being of their renters.

Everything seems to be coming up roses for the red building until you notice the slight discoloration in the brick between the first and second floor, and another discolored section running from the roof to the upper level windows towards the right hand side. The fact that the discoloration exists directly under the spacers between windows tells me that they may have some water damage inside that vertical strip.

The windows on the orange building appear to be newer than the ones on the red building. The slightly thicker frames are a sure indication of dual-pane windows.

It’s really in the sidewalks that the defining difference appears. The red building has pristine and smooth sidewalks but the orange building’s walks are rough and uneven. But this actually tips me in favor of the orange building. The uneven bit is from the roots of the parkway tree. The roughness however is undoubtedly from salting their walks in the winter. I love a landlord who salts. It may be hard on the pets and hard on the grass but it’s much better for the humans. I’d bet that tree drips constantly on that sidewalk, so salting that section is a must.

As both of these buildings face south the tree in the parkway will undoubtedly make life for the orange building’s tenants more pleasant. It will keep the living rooms cooler in the summer and provide additional privacy.

In the battle of the Gage Park 2-Flats, the winner for me is the orange building on the right.


Did you enjoy this Building Battle? If so, keep an eye out for twin buildings in your neighborhood and let me know their addresses. I do plan on revisiting this concept in the future and have another 3 pairs set aside, but can always bring it back if there’s call for it. In the meantime, as you’re driving around try and have building battles of your own. Look at every property in detail and decide which one has the more responsible owner from the condition of the exteriors. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn!

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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.