The Windy City is home to more than 2.7 million permanent residents. And as any true Chicagoan knows, selling a house in this city won’t be quite as simple as a stroll along the lake or an afternoon at the ballpark. A city with a long, rich history also has older housing stock.
According to data from governing.com, Chicago has nearly 550,00 housing units built before 1939 or earlier. Which types of homes tend to be most attractive to buyers? You guessed it— the updated ones. But not everyone has the budget for a full remodel (nor would such an investment be wise or necessary right before you sell). Then there’s the need to navigate Chicago’s intense seasonal changes to ensure the right timing for your listing.
To help you overcome these challenges, HomeLight spoke with one of the most successful real estate agents in the Chicago metro area, one of the city’s leading home appraisers, and a professional Chicago landscaper. We also researched Chicago neighborhood trends and local real estate statistics. With these insights, we put together this go-to guide for selling your house fast in Chicago with just the right amount of updating for your area.
Chicago real estate offers a wide array of neighborhoods and housing styles
As the third-largest city in the nation — trailing only New York City and Los Angeles — Chicago consists of 77 community areas, divided into four sectors: Central, North Side, West Side, and South Side. Within those areas lie hundreds of individual neighborhoods, including Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Wicker Park/Bucktown, West Loop, River North, and Gold Coast.
Chicago’s housing options include a wide diversity of architecture, styles, and sizes, including vintage condos, brand-new construction, and 7,000-square-foot homes. “It’s not a ‘cookie-cutter’ kind of city,” notes Hayley Westhoff, a top-selling local real estate agent and accredited staging professional serving the Chicago metro area and the city of Alvan.
Just as the housing stock in Chicago is incredibly diverse, so too is the pool of buyers. Westhoff’s clients run the gamut in terms of age, ranging from college students and young professionals to growing families and empty nesters.
Here’s what that means for sellers in the Chicago area:
Make key updates if you’re selling a dated home.
Updated homes tend to sell faster in Chicago, notes Westhoff. “Last year was a tough market, and the only properties that were moving were the ones that were renovated,” she says. “When the market is soft, buyers want the properties that are finished and ready to go.”
If you happen to have an older home that could use some updates, what should you focus on? While there are many factors to consider, Westhoff recommends honing in on these areas:
- Refinish wood floors if they are a dated color. This will cost $2,600 on average but you’ll fetch a 100% return on investment, according to the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. Many homes built in the early 2000s have outdated blond-colored floors, but Westhoff sees many buyers gravitating to darker finishes.
- Repaint — ”Especially if the paint is in bad shape or is not a neutral color,” says Westhoff. According to HomeLight’s Top Agent Insights Survey for Q1 2020, 98% of top agents say that buyers prefer neutral colors over bold ones. When you head to the hardware store, gravitate toward the gray tones: 79% of top agents report that buyers prefer gray over white (11%) or beige (9%).
- Refinish cabinets if they are dated. Westhoff notes that many buyers still prefer white cabinets. If it’s in your wheelhouse, you might even consider saving some money by painting them yourself.
- Swap out countertops if they are dated or in bad shape. According to Chicago-based designer and builder Sebring, quartz is still the top choice, followed by granite and marble.
- Replace bathroom vanities if needed. Sebring is seeing a surge in industrial-style sinks and vanities in Chicago bathroom renovations.
“These updates are fairly inexpensive and make a huge difference in how a home shows as well as its value,” says Westhoff.
Prepare to be more patient with a higher-end home.
In today’s market, Westhoff sees two- and three-bedroom condos selling the fastest. Single-family homes priced over the $1 million mark typically take a little longer to sell. “Chicago isn’t considered a luxury market, as there aren’t a whole lot of ultra-luxury buyers,” she explains. “Generally, the higher the price point, the longer the time on the market.”
According to local real estate data, sales of Chicago homes priced at or above $1 million fell by 6.5% in 2019 over the previous year, perhaps an effect of high property taxes, falling population, and an excess of homes after the mid-2010s construction boom.
If you’re trying to sell in the luxury market, it’s still important to focus on the high-demand areas of kitchens, bathrooms, and floors, but Westhoff also stresses the importance of staging the home to ensure that it shows well.
“Luxury buyers have very high expectations, and they want to feel in the lap of luxury as they walk through,” she says. “Given that these properties take a lot longer to sell and there aren’t nearly as many luxury buyers in Chicago, there is no room for error when you are pricing and showing a luxury property or you may be sitting on the market for a very long time.”
Chi-town curb appeal: How to charm buyers at first sight
Whether they realize it or not, buyers are swayed by their first impression of a property. It might be what’s inside that seals the deal, but it’s the outside of a home that sets the stage for what’s to come. We’ve compiled some expert ideas and tips for enhancing the exterior space of your Chicago home:
Clean up the entryway.
Even if you don’t have a lot of time or space for landscaping, a simple clean-up can go a long way toward improving your curb appeal.
At a minimum, it’s a good idea to define mulch bed lines, remove or trim any poorly-shaped or declining trees or shrubs, and apply a fresh layer of mulch, says Jason Galles, owner of Chicago-based Square Root Garden Design.
“Mulch is very important,” he says. “It helps to preserve soil moisture and to slow and prevent erosion. And when you’re using the right mulch, it can also add valuable nutrient content to soils.”
For trees and shrub-heavy garden spaces, Galles suggests using a premium triple-shredded hardwood mulch, which breaks down faster and has a better aesthetic. Try this triple-shredded hardwood mulch from Home Depot for less than $5 per 1.5-cubic-foot bag.
“Many of the colored mulches (red/black) are actually recycled lumber and sometimes even pallet wood that has been treated with dyes for appearance,” he explains. “We find this to be a big no-no for gardens, but it’s fine for paths and play spaces.”
Having your home’s exterior, porch, or walkway power-washed can also help to boost the wow factor. To save some money and do it yourself, consider renting a power-washer from a local provider like Windy City Cleaning Equipment, but be sure to follow guidelines for proper usage to prevent any unintentional damage.
Nightscape with lighting.
To help your home stand out at night (and to enhance its safety factor), Galles suggests adding LED illumination to your home’s facade to enhance evening showings, especially when days are shorter in the autumn and winter months.
Refresh your entryway.
A fresh coat of paint on a porch, railing, or terrace can rejuvenate a home’s exterior. Explore this exterior paint buying guide from Lowe’s to find the right finishes and colors for outdoor use.
To draw the eye to the home’s entrance, Galles also suggests adding a planter or two with colorful seasonal interest. Try this ceramic outdoor planter from Wayfair for a surprising splash of color, or add some rustic charm with this set of three wood barrel planters from Walmart.
Create (or enhance) an outdoor seating area.
Smaller garden spaces have been a rising trend in the Chicago area as homeowners focus more on outdoor seating and entertainment areas, says Galles. “Even if a homeowner is left with a ‘postage stamp’ in their front or back yards, it is encouraged to reimagine the traditional lawn and plant beds by replacing them with a small patio, with furnishings and accessories that complement the home’s architecture and overall style,” he notes.
- For colonial or traditional homes, consider a furniture set with a more classic, timeless style, such as this Hanover Traditional Outdoor Bistro Setfrom Overstock.
- If your home is more contemporary, a set with sleek, simple lines, like this modern aluminum furniture collection from Target, will add cutting-edge comfort to your outdoor space.
Go for low-maintenance updates.
A common request among Chicago buyers is an outdoor space that requires little to no maintenance. Galles notes that a more contemporary aesthetic with a modern form and function reduces the need for care and maintenance.
For example, a simple stone or brick patio designed with straight lines and no curves can make it easier to mow the surrounding grass, while the use of gravel as ground-cover can reduce the need for frequent mulching and weeding.
“The last thing a buyer wants is to envision themselves spending their weekends pulling weeds,” Galles points out. “After all, we have about 120 enjoyable days to be in our outdoor spaces in Chicago. Folks want to make them count.”
Blend your exterior style with the architecture of the home.
Above all, it’s important for the outdoor elements to serve as an extension of your home. As Galles points out, pulling elements from the home’s architectural style or color pallet and introducing them into the landscape will create a more cohesive look and make the space feel more inviting.
“This can be achieved stylistically through garden planting layout, flatwork materials like pavers or natural stone, or even a focal-point sculpture or natural element that draws the eye of passersby,” he says.
It’s all about the details: How to stage your Chicago home to sell fast
As an accredited staging professional, Westhoff is attuned to what Chicago buyers want to see when they step inside a property — but, as she points out, those tastes can and will shift over time.
Cater to the latest Chicago design trends.
In addition to the white cabinets, Westhoff says buyers are still gravitating toward white cabinets, marble-looking quartz countertops, neutral wall colors (Stonington Gray is one of her go-to paint shades) and darker stains on hardwood floors. Although she sees preferences leaning toward transitionalright now, she believes more buyers will soon start seeking out the modern farmhouse look.
Scout out local preferences.
One important thing for Chicago sellers to keep in mind is that décor styles are very neighborhood-dependent. For example, Westhoff explains, in Wicker Park/Bucktown, homes are typically very modern, while Lakeview and Lincoln Park tend to skew more traditional.
Further north, the style becomes a little more transitional. “If you’re going to sell a condo in North Center, which is very family-oriented, buyers probably won’t be looking for a super modern aesthetic,” she says. “But if you’re selling a high-rise downtown, younger buyers like the simple, modern look.”
Before making any décor changes, consult a real estate agent for guidance on buyer preferences in your particular area. “Just because you like a design element doesn’t mean the buyer will like it,” Westhoff warns.
Cut the clutter.
When staging your home for showings, less is more. Westhoff suggests starting with decluttering. Most Chicago buyers are drawn to minimalist, neutral properties. And cutting the clutter can have a direct correlation with a home’s sale price. Westhoff estimates that for every box you pack up and stow away, that’s $300 in your pocket.
She also advises sellers to de-personalize their homes as much as possible, which means taking down family photos and mementos. “You want the buyer to be able to imagine their family living there,” she explains.
Set the scene.
Particularly for smaller Chicago homes, another big benefit of staging is that it shows buyers possible furniture configurations that they might not be able to envision when looking at an empty room. For example, adding a bed and dresser can show that a bedroom is large enough to accommodate a family’s needs, or placing a dining room table can help the buyer imagine themselves hosting Thanksgiving dinner or just enjoying meals as a family.
How to price your Chicago home and time your listing just right
Like many cities, Westhoff says Chicago is a very seasonal housing market, fluctuating drastically throughout the year. The city’s climate ranges from the low 20s and windy during the winter months to the mid-80s and humid in the summer. Westhoff typically sees a rush of buyers in the late January to early February time period, with Super Bowl Sunday marking the unofficial kickoff of the spring market in the city.
“There’s a common misconception that it’s best to list when it gets warm out, but there are more buyers than inventory in January and February,” she points out. “It’s best to list when supply is lower than demand, as that leads to multiple offers and less time on the market.”
Price your home for a successful sale.
Westhoff prefers to set her home prices 2-3% higher than the estimated value to provide some wiggle room for negotiations and help ensure the highest possible sale price, but she is also very cognizant of internet search cutoffs. “If a property is worth $690,000, going 3 percent above that would put us over the $700,000 mark, so we would lose buyers,” she says.
One of the biggest mistakes Westhoff sees among Chicago sellers is pricing their homes too high, though, which can lead to an extended time on the market and future price reductions, ultimately resulting in a lower sales price.
Understand Chicago home values.
While there is a myriad of factors impacting Chicago home values, real estate appraiser John Tsiaousis of Chicagoland Appraisals, focuses primarily on location and zoning when appraising a property. “It might sound like a cliché, but location is the biggest factor in determining home values in Chicago,” he says. “Several markets in Chicago are experiencing a wide variety of activity, including full renovations, the teardown of existing properties, and new construction.”
To help boost the value of your home, Tsiaousis stresses the importance of understanding what is happening in the market and then following suit. “You never want to over-improve a home in an area where it’s typical to just paint and make minor updates,” he explained. “You also don’t want to remodel a home with finishes that don’t meet the current tastes of the market.”
To ensure that you get the timing and pricing right the first time, talk to your real estate agent, and also check out our calculator to pinpoint the best time to sell in Chicago.
Find the right agent to help you sell your Chicago home fast
With so many variables and details to consider when selling a property in Chicago, partnering with an expert real estate agent can help give you an edge over other sellers and reduce the length and complexity of the process. According to data from HomeLight, top-performing Chicago real estate agents sell homes within 62 days, compared to the typical rate of 120 days, and they also sell homes 57 days faster and obtain an 8% higher sales price than average agents. Not sure where to start? HomeLight can connect you with top local agents in your area who specialize in your price point and property type.
Header Image Source: (Pedro Lastra / Unsplash)
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