Photograph: Courtesy of Mimi Noyes Burke with Re/Max of Barrington
If you've been waiting to invest your money in a larger house, the message is clear: "Go shopping now," says Zillow chief economist Stan Humphries. Now through this summer—when the largest number of properties hits the market—looks like the optimal time to buy.
If you've weathered the housing downturn and are sitting on a property that has held its value, then you already know how to make a strong investment in real estate. So now you're ready to upgrade. Where should you shop?
LOOK FOR: A house in the burbs—either in northern or northwestern Cook County or in DuPage County. Prices of houses that are large enough for you, your spouse, and a few kids—with decent outdoor space to boot—have fallen more significantly outside the city than inside it.
Want to spend no more than $350,000? Lincolnwood, Park Ridge, and Skokie are all excellent buys now (though the places you’ll find for that price won’t necessarily be palatial).
Got a bigger budget but still want to maximize your chances of appreciation? Skip the tony North Shore towns; prices on homes there are still too high for them to be bargains. You can live like a king (but for much less money) in Barrington, Clarendon Hills, or Wayne. All six of these towns have good public schools, and most offer public transportation into Chicago. Here are a few examples of what you can get:
Photograph: Courtesy of Ralph Milito with Century 21 Realty
Median house price: $286,000 (down 44 percent from the peak)
In this village located just north of Chicago, you can shop along Lincoln Avenue—or hop on your bike and pedal up to Evanston on the path along the North Shore Channel. North of Touhy Avenue, four-bedroom ranches, some in need of updating, sell for about $285,000 and are served by the excellent Lincolnwood School District 74. It costs more to get into the picturesque blocks near the Bryn Mawr Country Club on Lincolnwood’s southern boundary.
Median house price: $335,000 (down 38 percent from the peak)
Hillary Clinton’s hometown is a charmer, from its art deco Pickwick Theatre to the pretty houses in all sizes, vintages, and prices that line its streets. Forest preserves, with trails and picnic groves along the Des Plaines River, line the western edge of town, and the public elementary and middle schools are first-rate. “You can go into any part of town and find something in the [$335,000 price range],” says Jelena Zande, a real-estate agent with Century 21 Elm. But in-town locations, near the Metra station, are generally a little more expensive; right now, it’s better to look in the northwestern part of town, where split-levels from the 1950s and ’60s are selling for about $345,000.
Median house price: $225,000 (down 44 percent from the peak)
Getting to the Loop from here is a breeze: Hop on the CTA’s Yellow Line at the new station at Oakton Street and Skokie Boulevard. Nearby is a pretty park, the public library, Oakton Community College, and a vibrant collection of restaurants and shops—as well as many residential blocks, where $225,000 buys a nice midcentury bungalow, a more stately Georgian, or, last winter, a handsome four-bedroom brick Cape Cod with a finished basement.
$350,000 and Up
Photograph: Courtesy of the Rodgers Group
Median house price: $368,000 (down 36 percent from the peak)
Centered around a Metra station, the core of this village in northwestern Cook County remains small and refreshingly old-fashioned. Here’s where you will find the best deals: Victorians and bungalows dating to the days before the country-house crowd discovered Barrington in the 1920s. Don’t stop there, however. A good agent can help you find bargains among the contemporary houses in the subdivisions off Northwest Highway and Hillside Avenue. In February, a four-bedroom home there was on the market for $370,000—marked down from $400,000.
Median house price: $430,000 (down 35 percent from the peak)
This DuPage County town abuts pricier Hinsdale, where good restaurants and boutiques abound. (Clarendon Hills’ exceptional grade schools are part of various Hinsdale school districts; they feed into well-regarded Hinsdale Central High.) During the boom, developers replaced some older houses here with lavish new residences. Stay away from those overpriced offerings. Fortunately, most of the town’s older stock of houses remains intact and surprisingly affordable. At presstime, the sellers of a four-bedroom Cape Cod within walking distance of the Metra station and 23-acre Prospect Park were asking $405,000.
Median house price: $435,000 (down 40 percent from the peak)
If your taste leans more toward rural seclusion—think widely scattered houses and equestrian trails—head for this small village nestled in the tree-covered hills near the Fox River, about 40 miles west of Chicago. (You can go into nearby St. Charles and Geneva for shopping, dining, and entertainment—and to catch the train into Chicago.) For about $450,000, you can find big houses—such as a four-bedroom colonial adjacent to a forest preserve—on one or two acres. Some residents use part of that space to stable a horse.
3.75%: This historically low mortgage rate, paired with discounted house prices, may help compensate buyers for any losses associated with selling their current homes, says the University of Illinois economist Geoffrey Hewings.