Let’s Talk About the Basement.

When we purchased our home in June, it was a residential two-flat – or in other words, it was a building with two apartments. However, there were three families that lived here, one on each of the two floors and in the basement. The basement, otherwise known as our home’s garden unit, was a fully liveable, inhabitable space; a space with two large bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and the building’s only washer and dryer. Regardless, it wasn’t recognized as a third unit by the city, and with our minds so set on just diving into the first and second floors three cheers for a single family home! – we put the basement on the back burner, giving it little to no thought as we sledged our way through every room in the house.

But by mid-July, we thought, wait a minute. It was time to revisit that basement.

The thought had crossed our minds before, so we say again, this house has a garden unit! While we toyed with the idea of renting the garden (it was a discussion we had many times, not only to supplement our mortgage, but also to help fund the restoration of our 120-year-old-house), we knew it would need some work to make it feel warm and inviting. It has a tile floor (which isn’t our first choice), but the rooms were large (by city standards), and the ceiling height, windows, entrance and exit (both separate from “our” part of the house) were all up to city code.

At that time, the issue wasn’t so much the work to be done, rather, it was a matter of could we? We were told by our attorney at the closing table that our new home is zoned for no more than 2 residential units, and although we would eventually – technically – only have two units, a great place to confirm our suspicions would be a meeting with our alderman. (And yes, this means that the garden unit was formerly rented under the table, something that is not uncommon in Chicago.) This was music to ears for a couple of reasons, mainly because our alderman is awesome. He attends Tour de Fat every year (our favorite summer festival!) and has been a huge proponent of making our neighborhood an exciting place to live. But for this purpose, we know that he also holds an open floor for his ward every Monday night. Those that live in his ward (aka: us) can personally meet with him, ask questions, receive advice and have a sense of what to do next.

In our case, we told him that our hope was to reside within the first and second floor units as a duplex-up and maintain the garden unit as a rental apartment. (And as luck would have it, our alderman had parked his bicycle in his office, so there was no shortage of bike talk thrown in for good measure!) In addition, our ultimate goal was to restore the original character in our older home – a dream we’ve had for too many years to count. He not only enthusiastically supported our idea, but he proceeded to tell us, here’s what you do now:

ONE) Write a letter to the city zoning department, explaining our current situation and intent. Our alderman would provide an additional letter of support if needed (luckily, it wasn’t). TWO) After receiving their response, follow through with whatever is necessary – if anything – to complete the zoning requirements. THREE) Rent the garden unit.

But the actual breakdown went a little something like this:

ONE) Write a letter. TWO) Wait 30 days, then call the city and say to their answering service, we wrote you a letter; what’s next? THREE) Shriek with happiness when the city calls you back… and then asks you for floor plans. FOUR) Send them floor plans. Wait. FIVE) Call them again after another 30 days and say to their answering service, we sent you the requested plans; what’s next? SIX) Feel deflated when the city requests more information, misunderstanding your intent. SEVEN + EIGHT) Mail each other several more letters, re-explaining your intent – back and forth, back and forth. NINE) Hear the good news you’ve been waiting for: As long as you aren’t increasing the floor area of the building and maintaining no more than two residential units, your zoning is in good standing.

TEN) Scream with joy! Celebrate with a glass of wine.

The entire process took several months (and cost us $50), but we’re glad that we approached the situation through the proper channels and finally (finally!) received the news we’d been crossing our fingers (and toes, arms and legs) for. Some have told us that we were crazy to be overly thorough, but for peace of mind, it was absolutely worth it. (The alternative would have been to rent the unit without permission, then maybe get slapped with a hefty fine.)

Since receiving the good news, the last couple of weeks have been a garden-unit-cleaning-frenzy – and as you can imagine, it has seen its ups and downs. The renovation-and-clean-up related road bumps are to be expected (as with every stone we’ve turned over in this house), but our goal is not to fix things fast, but to do them right. Nights and weekends are spent in our demo clothes (it’s been disheartening to know that our estimation of how much work the basement needed was skewed), and while it’s hard to tell during times of frustration, we have come a long way.

And so, slowly – in-between the upstairs construction and every day life – we’re inching our way towards not only turning our house into a place we love, but hopefully creating an apartment for someone else to enjoy, too.

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  • bella10.18.13 - 7:01 AM

    wow. That’s a great basement apartment compared to some I’ve seen. Now, here’s to hoping for a great tenant.

    BTW, is that exterior light in the last picture upside down or what? ha.ReplyCancel

  • Kim10.18.13 - 7:28 AM

    Thanks, Bella – and yes, it totally is. It was the only way to make them fit with the way the junction boxes were installed by the previous owner! Another groaner. We’ll be replacing them though!ReplyCancel

  • Sarah @ 702 Park Project10.18.13 - 8:36 AM

    Don’t you just hate dealing with the local city/state government?! I always feel like we get the run around. We have applied for historic preservation tax credits for our home restoration, and there has been so much back and forth. It took us over 3 months just to get them to accept our application! In the end, it will all be worth it though!ReplyCancel

  • Kim10.18.13 - 9:06 AM

    Sarah, ugh! Yup, we know the feeling. But you’re absolutely right – it was worth all of it for the peace of mind.ReplyCancel

  • Julia @ Cuckoo4Design10.18.13 - 9:12 AM

    What an awesome basement apartment!
    I can’t believe how much work you guys have.ReplyCancel

  • Kim10.18.13 - 9:13 AM

    Julia, that made me laugh. :DReplyCancel

  • Jodi10.18.13 - 9:16 AM

    hooray!! maybe the mckees will relocate to chicago soon and rent out that fancy garden unit of yours. ;)ReplyCancel

  • Kim10.18.13 - 9:23 AM

    Jodi, love it! (Fancy though? Haha!)ReplyCancel

  • carrie @ brick city love10.18.13 - 9:36 AM

    I LOVE having a garden unit to rent out. It makes things so much easier every month (financially speaking) and it’s nice to know that the space isn’t just sitting there wasted & unused. Congrats!!ReplyCancel

  • Rachel10.18.13 - 10:07 AM

    Love your home and am so excited to see all the work you keep doing. You are making such awesome progress and your garden unit will definitely make some person a very lucky tenant (perhaps you can invite A&E and Mr B and Ms M over so all my favorite pups would be in one spot haha).ReplyCancel

    • Kim10.18.13 - 10:25 AM

      Rachel, that’s definitely on the agenda! I was just talking with A this week about a doggie play date! Jack LOVES him some Mr B, although Mr B would rather be playing with E.ReplyCancel

  • Dealing with city government can be a real pain and it sounds like it was for you but I’m really glad it all ended well for you. I bet the place is going to look amazing when you’re done with it and I hope you get some awesome tenants!ReplyCancel

  • Laura @ Rather Square10.18.13 - 11:10 AM

    Good luck with the basement reno! How long until you think you’ll be able to rent it out?ReplyCancel

  • Dealing with municipalities can be SO frustrating! I’m so glad it worked out! What’s the ETA on renting it out?ReplyCancel

  • Kim10.18.13 - 12:34 PM

    Laura and Heather, our hope was for mid October, but we ran into a few issues that we want to correct before we’ll feel ready (a foundation crack among other things), plus, our contractors have ripped up some drywall to plumb the upstairs laundry unit, so a lot needs to get repaired!

    Maybe… mid-November? Definitely December. (Famous last words?)ReplyCancel

  • Emma10.18.13 - 12:45 PM

    Congratulations on that good zoney luck of yours. I think your garden unit looks great! Plus I bet you are super cool landlords. Best wishes with the rental process. (Tip – find an animal-loving tenant and maybe s/he can pet sit for you while you’re away!)ReplyCancel

  • Melissa10.18.13 - 4:22 PM

    Wow, I wish the garden apartment in Chicago that my husband and I had inhabited looked like that (and had that much ROOM)! Ours was tiny (maybe 450sq ft?), didn’t have a lot of natural light, and the plumbing and heating were hanging from our (already low) ceiling. And we own three animals! But hey, it was our first apartment together, so we still loved it.

    We’re in the midst of looking for a new place ourselves. Good luck renting it out soon!ReplyCancel

  • amber10.21.13 - 12:43 AM

    I just moved to chicago and started renting a garden condo unit, I think this space is pretty great and I wish we could have found something similar in your neighborhood when we moved!ReplyCancel

  • Kim10.21.13 - 7:48 AM

    Thank you, everyone!

    Amber, welcome to the best city ever :)ReplyCancel

  • ashley @ sunnysideshlee.com10.21.13 - 1:08 PM

    Have you checked it for any flooding issues? I had a garden unit condo in the city and when it rained badly, the sewers backed up and flooded my unit – TWICE!

    Yours is already so bright which is awesome because garden units can sometimes be pretty dark!

    What are you guys planning for the washer/dryer? Sharing or moving another unit to your level?ReplyCancel

  • Kim10.21.13 - 1:45 PM

    Ashley, we HAVE had some minor flooding issues, likely due to foundation cracks. (Just some small puddles after a heavy rain.) We have someone coming to remedy that this week – we definitely don’t want that to be a problem for any future tenant!

    Yes, we’re lucky that the basement is halfway above ground, so it does get a fair amount of light. This was a huge factor for us when we were considering purchasing this home!

    As for the washer/dryer, it will stay down there. We’re in the process of building ours out, so everyone wins! (More on that tomorrow!)ReplyCancel

  • Good luck! I’m so excited for you guys :)ReplyCancel

  • Jill10.30.13 - 2:04 PM

    I didn’t know you wanted to make the basement an apt. ;) Makes sense! And seriously, I can’t even read these posts any more; they’re beyond my level of comprehension. hahaReplyCancel


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