How to Remodel an Apartment in Chicago

From Chicago’s 2-flats or 3-flats to lofts and townhouses, here’s an overview to get started on an apartment remodel

how to remodel an apartment in chicago

Chicagoans from Rogers Park to Woodlawn are actively updating and remodeling their apartments. As the third largest city in the US, Chicago issues about 3,000 permits every month. Here‘s our primer on how to remodel an apartment in Chicago with advice for a successful project.

Apartment types in Chicago

Two-flat and three-flat apartments

Chicago is famous for its two-flat and three-flat apartments, which include separate units on separate floors. Investing in a Chicago multi-flat can be a financial advantage thanks to its practicality. You can reside in one apartment while renting out the others to generate supplementary income.

Remodeling multi-unit structures can be a bit more involved than standalone houses since you have close neighbors to consider. A note about electrical and plumbing in two-flat and three-flats: plumbing pipes are often shared in a Chicago flat, so contact the Department of Buildings Water Plan Desk before starting any non-emergency repairs. 

Your apartment may also share main electrical service with a neighbor, so contact the Electrical Bureau of Chicago to schedule an inspection before removing any wiring.

Condos

For the average first-time home buyer, purchasing a condo is often a more affordable choice than a single-family home. In Chicago, potential homeowners can consider condos as a way to enter the market without overspending.

Remodeling your condo can be a great investment. For a Sweeten homeowner in Bucktown, renovating her two bathrooms in a 1,500-square-foot condo would increase the resale value. She planned to sell so the tub/shower was converted to a walk-in shower in the primary bathroom, while the second bathroom was a direct rip-and-replace (the layout remained exactly the same).

Chicago condos usually have a standardized process within the homeowner’s agreement addressing repairs and remodeling. Most condo associations charge a yearly fee for exterior repairs and maintenance, partly in an effort to maintain a consistent curb appeal.

As a result, any remodeling you do will likely be limited to the interior or the rear of the home. Contact the chairperson of your homeowner’s association for more information and plan approval. Be careful changing any landscaping as well, as you could accidentally cause a drainage issue that affects your neighbor.

One Sweeten couple, however, did have a say in the front door design of their condo. We helped them find the perfect contractor to renovate their full-floor unit in a three-flat historic greystone building in Lakeview East. By rearranging the positions of several doors, they gained larger rooms and a brand new entrance. Their two bathrooms and living room also received a refresh.

Industrial lofts

Chicago is full of industrial warehouses, many converted from industrial to living spaces. Sweeten homeowners, Leah and Brian wanted a refresh of their 1900s warehouse loft in Logan Square. A modernized kitchen and refinished wood floors gave the home the update they wanted. Their existing shower/tub combination was redesigned to become an enlarged walk-in shower. Further, radiant heat was installed under the bathroom floor tiles. “Just taking a shower every day, it’s an oh-wow for me,” said Leah.

Remodeling a loft in Chicago rewards you with the hippest place around, but educate yourself on the local zoning before starting a remodel.

Developers will apply for rezoning as needed when converting a building from industrial space to living space. However, if you will be addressing the change of use yourself be advised you might need a zoning variance from the Metropolitan Planning Council.

Everything from traffic to noise can affect how an area is zoned, so make sure your improvements fit the zoning in effect for your lot. A visit to the new color-coded City of Chicago Zoning Map can help you.

Hurdles to know when remodeling in the Chicago area

Chicago has unique challenges when it comes to remodeling apartments. Therefore, it’s important to work with a contractor who has experience working in your area and can navigate the challenges effectively.

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Accessibility

If the apartment is located in a high-rise building, accessibility can be an issue. Large items, such as appliances or seamless slab countertop materials, may need to be hoisted up through windows. This adds to the cost and complexity of the project.

Permitting process

The permitting process in Chicago can take several weeks or even months depending on the complexity of the scope. In Chicago, the Department of Water Management approves plumbing permits and the Department of Buildings issues electrical permits. Buildings that are designated as historical landmarks may require a landmark permit for certain types of apartment remodeling projects. Some examples include modifying load-bearing walls, adding or removing plumbing or electrical, and changes made to the HVAC system. 

Building age

Many buildings in Chicago are older and may not be up to current building code in their infrastructure (plumbing/electrical/HVAC system). This is usually discovered after a contractor begins demolition and has the opportunity to see behind the apartment’s walls.

Weather

Chicago weather can delay an apartment remodel in several ways. In the winter, heavy snow and ice can make it difficult to access the job site or to transport materials and equipment. Cold temperatures can also slow down the drying and curing time of materials, such as paint or concrete, which can lengthen the overall timeline of the project.

In the summer, high humidity and heat can also affect the curing time of certain materials. Additionally, severe thunderstorms and high winds can cause delays. It’s important factor in potential weather delays for the duration of the renovation with your contractor.

Should I replace the pipes behind the walls?

Some older Chicago apartments may still contain original water supply and drain pipes from decades ago. Although you may not be required to replace the pipes if they are still functioning, it is best practice to avoid issues down the road.

Is kitchen and bathroom ventilation important?

Proper ventilation is required in kitchens and bathrooms to help dissipate humidity. Make sure your bathroom or kitchen remodel includes the appropriate ventilation, like an openable window or exhaust fan. For information on sizing your ventilation, the Department of Buildings offers an easy-to-use guide.

Preparing for your remodeling project

Who applies for the remodeling permit?

If you apply for the permit as the homeowner, you will take responsibility for the completion of the project, adherence to building codes, and be responsible for workplace safety. If you hire a general contractor, they will be responsible so they will apply for the permit on your behalf.

Building permits are issued by the Chicago Department Of Buildings. First, you will submit information about the scope of your apartment remodel, and then the CBO will issue the appropriate permit.

For major remodels, hiring a general contractor is in your best interest. Most homeowners hire a general contractor for their expertise, knowledge of local code, and workforce. We can help connect you with a select group of top Sweeten contractors in your Chicago neighborhood.  

Easy Permit Program

Many remodeling projects are simple rip-and-replace projects, so the CBO now has an Easy Permit Program. The program limits the amount of work that can be performed, but allows you to skip the plans approval process.

Regular building permit

If your apartment remodel involves new square footage, mechanical systems, or more than 1,000 sq. ft. of drywall you will need a regular permit. Before you apply, gather a few documents like your deed and a plat map of your neighborhood. You’ll save time and effort in the long run and avoid paperwork mistakes by having the documents handy.

Cost factors

Common cost factors that affect a Chicago apartment remodel include the scope, size, and finish level of your project.

In most instances, any services you need for your remodel will be calculated using the square footage of the project. Size can also impact your budget if your project will require extensive demolition or repair. 

Additionally, the level of finish you opt for, whether budget-friendly or high-end, will have a significant impact on the final cost. If you choose to upgrade using existing plumbing, additional changes may not be necessary. However, for more extensive projects, such as those that involve opening walls or submitting permits, you may require the services of electricians and plumbers.

Who do I hire for my remodel?

You will find several options for building your remodel. Depending on the scope, size, and complexity of your project you may need an architect or designer in addition to a contractor

The architect/designer/general contractor model involves an architect providing drawings for permits or board approval as well as more detailed working drawings. The contractor executes the plans. Design-build firms provide the same services as an architect and contractor, except both services are provided by the same company. If there are no significant changes to the layout, demolishing walls, or altering gas/electrical/plumbing systems that require DOB approval, hiring a contractor would be the best option.

The first step to hiring your general contractor in Chicago is to connect with a few local firms for site visits and to receive estimates. When you post your remodeling project on Sweeten, you’ll receive a select group of highly-qualified contractors who are licensed and insured. They will also be familiar with working in your area and have experience in your specific scope of work check. 

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog, Sweeten Stories, for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation with Sweeten.

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