When we moved to Chicago in 2005 we bought a condominium at 1740 N Marshfield Ave. When we told our friends about the place, many of them expressed concerns about being beholden to group rule. When we further said we were moving into an urban loft constructed in a former factory building, friends with experience at similar condo properties said we would grow to hate it.
We scoffed. They shrugged. Nearly ten years later, we realized they were right. Our experience reminded me of stories told by people who live in haunted houses. They get used to the ‘goings on.’ We did too, for a while, but eventually enough was enough. Some of the thing we learned are:
- See that lovely wood and beam ceiling that makes it a timber loft? That’s the bottom of your upstairs neighbor floor. You will hear footsteps. We had great neighbors for a few years. But when they moved the unit was sold to someone with a club foot (apparently), and when they moved out, they rented it to a group of seven young men who each had their own schedules to keep. On most nights it was difficult to sleep through the night, not because the tenants were jerks—they were just living their lives—but the noise was inescapable.
- Location matters when you pick a unit. We were near the front door. Which was convenient in many ways, and annoying in others: delivery trucks, drunk people coming home, and visitors who couldn’t figure out how to work the buzzer system pushed the first button (ours). And then there were guests (and residents) who would park out front “just for a moment” and completely block your garage in the process.
- Garbage matters. Trash dumpsters right outside your unit? Oh yeah, prepare for noisy disposal at all hours, and early morning garbage trucks once or twice a week. If you have a window that faces that direction, you’ll also find yourself making sure the dumpsters are closed because some of your neighbors will leave them open. Or worse, throw their garbage on top of the closed dumpster because they can’t be bothered to lift the lid.
- Heating and air conditioning a timber loft is hard. Very hard. The upstairs will be hot, and the downstairs will be cold. Those lovely brick walls you’re looking at inside? Yeah, those are the same bricks that you see on the outside. No insulation. If you leave for a winter vacation do not lower your thermostat or you may find that a pipe behind the cupboard and running along those bricks has frozen during a cold snap.
- Group rule. From an HOA president who doesn’t want to make anyone mad by raising fees to meet actual costs, to ignored maintenance (such as balconies rusting off the building), your hands are tied in many ways.
- Renters are the bane of any resident owner. Our declarations were written in the early 90s and didn’t set a limit on the number of units that could be rented out. When the economy crashed in 2008 many units turned from owner-occupied to rentals. All the gripes you’ve heard about renters vs owners are basically true, and once a unit is an “income property” it doesn’t often return to owner-occupied.
- Old factory conversions can be problematic. Our building was a 1920s factory, converted to residential condos just as the neighborhood was starting to gentrify. As a board member of the HOA, most of my time was taken up with problems related to poor drainage, no insulation between units, and water and electrical that required the entire building to be shutdown when work was done because the builder didn’t isolate each unit.
Hopefully this list will be helpful to you if you’re considering timber loft or condo living. You’ve probably heard it before, as we had, but it turns out there is a reason for that. It’s true. Tune in next time for “lessons learned” from the extensive kitchen, batch, and bedroom remodel we did in our unit in 2007.