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Moving to a new city is not a simple decision. You have to consider the climate, cost of living, employment options and simply whether you'd enjoy living there. By these criteria, Chicago is a polarizing place to live. It's very cold and more densely populated than anywhere else in the Midwest, so if you're used to a lot of personal space or mild weather, Chicago might not be for you. But the city is also home to a dizzying array of cultural outlets—including food, art and all the professional sports you could ask for.
And even if you're committed to a Chicago lifestyle, deciding on a neighborhood is no easy task, either. Chicago has dozens of different neighborhoods, each with its own unique set of residents and amenities. But whether you're considering luxurious urban living in the Loop or a more family-oriented area like Ravenswood, chances are you'll find one that suits you.
How Expensive Is It to Live In Chicago?
There are two ways to look at the cost of living in Chicago: It's more expensive than any other city in the Midwest, with the highest cost to buy or rent a home in the region. But it also offers the major metropolis lifestyle of Los Angeles and New York with a much smaller price tag attached, especially when it comes to housing.
The median cost to buy a new home in Chicago is $309,000, which is more expensive than average in the state of Illinois ($201,000) or in the U.S. as a whole ($238,000). But it's still far less expensive than in New York City ($582,000).
The cost to rent follows the same pattern: It's costlier to rent an apartment in Chicago (median rent $1,755) than elsewhere in Illinois ($1,600) or the U.S. overall ($1,650), but much more affordable than New York City ($2,358).
However, incomes in Chicago are also higher than average, which offsets the high cost of housing. The median Chicago household income in 2016 was $66,020. This put it ahead of the Illinois average ($60,960) and the country overall ($57,617). In fact, when you compare the cost of buying or renting a home against the median annual salary, Chicago seems increasingly affordable: The median renting household will spend 32% of its income on rent in Chicago, which is less than the national average of 34%.
The Cost of Getting Around in Chicago
Like many dense cities, it's very costly to own a car in Chicago—it's the most expensive city in Illinois to insure a car by a wide margin. And parking is notoriously cutthroat, especially after a snowstorm, when drivers call "dibs" after shoveling out their spots. However, like many dense cities, Chicago has extensive public transit options, especially if you live closer to the Loop. So if you can get around without a car, your monthly travel expenses will be very low. A monthly unlimited pass for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is $105. Another option: Chicago's flat topography makes it conducive to bicycling, so long as you can make it through the cold.
If you're a dedicated car owner or just want the flexibility of owning an automobile, you'll need to get a Chicago city vehicle sticker and pay the wheel tax. The wheel tax is added to the cost of registering your car with the Illinois Driver Services Department. You also must meet the state of Illinois' mandatory minimum insurance requirements.
Average Auto Insurance Rates
Minimum Illinois Auto Insurance Requirements:
- $25,000 bodily injury liability coverage per person
- $50,000 bodily injury liability coverage per accident
- $25,000 property damage liability coverage
- $25,000 uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage per person
- $50,000 uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage per accident
Chicago has the most expensive car insurance among cities in the state of Illinois, and the areas of Chicago with the cheapest insurance tend to be on the Near North Side, including Lincoln Park, Lakeview and Gold Coast. However, these neighborhoods do tend to be on the expensive side overall and may not be the most convenient for actually owning a car in terms of parking availability and ease of driving. Be sure to take those factors into account when you're picking the best neighborhood for you. Some neighborhoods also have parking passes, so only residents can park there; make sure to apply for a pass promptly if your neighborhood uses these.
Where Should I Live In Chicago?
Chicago has a very diverse set of options for places to live. Depending on who you ask, there are between 77 and 200+ neighborhoods in the city, and each of them has its own set of unique characteristics. Chicago has been home to immigrant communities for centuries, from Irish, German and Polish groups in the 1800s to Mexican, Chinese and Puerto Rican populations more recently.
The center of the city is known as the Loop. Generally speaking, the Loop and the surrounding area have the most expensive housing options, and as you move away, prices decrease. The Loop area is home to many of the key landmarks of Chicago, including the Sears Tower, Millennium Park, "The Bean" and Navy Pier. The Loop is also a major business center, with almost half of the city's office space existing in the area.
The North Side of Chicago has the densest residential population, along with spacious parkland like Lincoln Park. It's also the location of Wrigley Field, where the Chicago White Sox play.
Chicago's West Side is the most multicultural part of the city, with neighborhoods varying from Polish and immigrant communities to grungy hipster havens.
The South Side of Chicago has a reputation for being less safe than the other parts of the city. However, some parts of the South Side are safer than others, and crime exists in every densely populated city. The South Side is just as well-known for being the home of the Cubs and the University of Chicago.
Median Rental Prices
Median Home Purchase Prices
Climate of Chicago
Chicago is located in the upper Midwest, which means it has very cold winters and pleasant summers, although the weather can shift considerably year to year. During the winter months in a typical year, temperatures range between 15°F and 30°F, with multiple days of subzero temperatures. In the summer, highs range from 80°F to 90°F, with several days each summer reaching past 100°F.
Chicago experiences a degree of lake effect: Neighborhoods closer to Lake Michigan generally have milder temperatures than areas farther away. And enjoying one of Chicago's beaches is a fun, free way to beat the heat on a summer day.
Working in Chicago
As the third-largest city in the U.S., Chicago has an incredibly diverse set of options for jobseekers. Chicago proper has 11 Fortune 500 companies, with 23 more in the Chicago area. The biggest industries in the city are finance, health care and education, and Chicago has a thriving tech startup scene as well. There are also numerous universities and colleges in Chicago, so there are plenty of opportunities to pursue higher education in the city—and graduates tend to stick around, suggesting there are plenty of opportunities for people with college degrees.
Unfortunately, at 4.7%, Chicago has a slightly higher-than-average unemployment rate when compared to the rest of the country (4.1%), suggesting it may be a bit more difficult to find work in Chicago than elsewhere.
How to Move to Chicago
Moving to a new city is always a challenge, especially if you've never been before or you are moving from out of state. The first thing you'll need to do is secure a place to live. If you're just moving to the city, renting is generally the better option, as it gives you more flexibility to find the right area for you.
Renting an Apartment
The rental market in Chicago is fairly competitive, so you should plan on starting to look for apartments 45 to 60 days before your scheduled move-in date to give yourself enough time to find the right home. If you can't schedule a weekend in town to check out apartments before you move in, consider finding a short-term rental so you can scout out your favorite neighborhoods. Going online to sites like Padmapper, Zillow and Craigslist can help you get a sense of what's available, but you might be able to score a great deal by strolling through your favorite Chicago neighborhood and finding for a For Rent sign in a window.
Another option is to work with a broker or agent. In Chicago, broker commissions are paid by the landlord, so there's no financial downside to working with one, and a broker may have access to exclusive listings you wouldn't be able to find on your own.
Once you're ready to start looking at apartments, you should prepare your paperwork and bring it with you to each showing. If you love an apartment, you shouldn't be afraid to put in your application immediately.
Checkbook to pay the deposit
Proof of employment or pay stubs
You may not need all of these items, but competition for apartments is fierce. If you're missing a document and another applicant submits their application first, you might lose out. So it's better to come prepared.
Once you've been approved for your apartment and you move in, make sure to purchase a renters insurance policy. The cheapest renters insurance policies only cost a few dollars a month, and you'll be protected if your belongings are damaged or stolen. Some landlords even require you to buy renters insurance in order to move in.
See our overview of the best renters insurance companies in Illinois here.
Banking in Chicago
If you're moving to Chicago from another area, you may or may not need to find a new bank. Nationwide banks including Wells Fargo, Chase and Bank of America all have plenty of branches in the city. And even if your bank doesn't have much availability in Chicago, you might be able to make use of its online banking features to take care of your financial needs.
But if your current bank doesn't have a lot of branches nearby or you're considering switching anyway, Chicago has lots of options for people with different banking needs. Take a look at our review of the best banks in Chicago.