Many people who would have bought a house a few years ago are now looking to rent. As a result, in the second quarter of 2011, the vacancy rate in rental housing in the United States dropped to its lowest point in almost a decade. So are there good suburban houses available for rent around Chicago?
To find out, we did some comparison shopping in three suburbs, with the help of local real-estate agents. In two of the towns, the agents used software from Midwest Real Estate Data to calculate a monthly mortgage, tax, and insurance payment. The numbers revealed that the cost of renting generally turned out to be a little more than the cost of buying. But for those people with spoiled credit, no down payment (not part of our calculations), or a need for a mortgage-free flexibility—for example, to be able to immediately accept a job out of town—that additional dollar amount may not be significant.
Here are some examples of what was out there late in the summer, though by now some of these properties may have found renters.
A very urban suburb on Chicago’s western border, Oak Park has always had lots of rental properties, most of them condos and other attached housing. Coldwell Banker’s Zak Knebel found 17 single-family homes for rent and 202 houses for sale. The monthly rents were between $1,350 and $5,500, and Knebel found that the buy-rent equation did not always favor buying.
In the town most closely associated with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, renters could land a home from early in his career . The five-bedroom house—which included a two-story rear addition with a modern kitchen and a master bedroom suite—rented for $5,000 a month and was for sale at $999,000, down from its 2009 asking price of $1.295 million. With a lesser pedigree, but stocked with art glass and antique finishes, a three-bedroom house with two and a half baths was listed for rent at $3,500 a month and for sale at $749,000—down from an early-2011 asking price of $799,000.
In the past, rental stock in this northwest suburb generally consisted of condos and townhouses. But with the downturn in house sales, that’s changed, says Jolita Vilimiene, a Re/Max Experts agent who has sold homes in Buffalo Grove.
When we shopped, there were 16 houses available for rent and 179 for sale. In each case, according to Vilimiene’s calculations, renting was a slightly more expensive proposition. At the upper end of the spectrum, an 11-room house  on a large lot in the Lake County section of town (where the schools are better) had a two-story great room, a large well-equipped kitchen, and five bedrooms; it was on the market at $644,900 but available for rent at $3,300 a month. In the Cook County part of town, an extensively remodeled three-bedroom ranch house from the 1950s—a typical starter home—was priced at $199,000 but available for rent at $1,550 a month.
Houses for rent were scarcer in Tinley Park than in the other two suburbs. When we looked, we found about a dozen rental houses available and 245 houses for sale. MaryEllen Pickering, a Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage agent, suggested that local sellers are reluctant to take their properties off the market temporarily—though some sellers might accept a short-term lease that wouldn’t preclude selling.
Pickering did not do specific calculations but said that, in her experience, it is still cheaper to buy than to rent in Tinley Park. At the low end, she found a three-bedroom house with a newly remodeled bathroom; the monthly rent was $1,400 (the house was not for sale). At the upper end, she found a two-story attached home in the Odyssey Country Club with three bedrooms and four baths. The home was priced at $329,900, and it was available for rent at $3,000 a month.
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Photography: (1) Todd Urban; (2) Dennis Rodkin