Chicago Life and Style.

Your Home. Your Life. Your Style

Can you raise a child in the city? Part deux.

I wrote my first post addressing this question almost 7 years ago. I can hardly believe the time has flown by so quickly!  My daughter is now almost 9 years old.  The last week of school she attended a program at Loyola University.  Her school counselor–at her CPS school–nominated her to participate in the National Youth Leadership Forum: Pathways to STEM. I hear concerns over schools more often than any other concern when families are looking for a new home–whether they are relocating from outside the city or just considering a new neighborhood.  I could not be more pleased with the education that Sophia is getting at her CPS magnet school.  That is not to say that the process of getting her into a school was not painstaking and terrifying–because it was! But, having a few years under our belt and meeting lots of other parents both at our school and others, I’ve learned a few things.

  1. The way CPS is organized and the process for finding and enrolling in a school is NOT user friendly.
  2. By and large, your kids are going to get a perfectly good education and be safe and happy.
  3. Of course there are exceptions to #2!
  4. How stressful the process is in direct relation to how convinced you are there is only ONE good option.
  5. Sending your child to one of the “good” schools in the “good” neighborhoods does not necessarily mean that they will get a better education, have better friends, be safer, love all their teachers/staff or that they will not feel the sting of social exclusion at times.
  6. You MUST know yourself and the type of parent you want to be to your student–more on this below.

When Sophia was in pre-school she attended a parochial school because I needed full day coverage so that I could work. It was a lovely experience and I enjoyed the small classes and the openness that encouraged parents to come to the school and visit any time, volunteer in the classroom etc.  For kindergarten, she started at CPS at her current school, LaSalle II.  In pre-school I was used to walking Sophia into her class, saying hello to everyone, helping her take her coat off etc. Not at CPS, at CPS parents drop off their kiddos to a teacher outside and may not go into the building. I FREAKED OUT. And I continued to freak out all day, thinking–“she doesn’t know where her class is, she is going to get lost, she doesn’t know anyone”. You get the idea. Guess what–she was fine. Better than fine actually. Sophia’s birthday is in late July so she is always one of the youngest in her class but it turns out our kids are more capable than most of us give them credit for!

It did take me a while to adjust to the new process–no longer could you just drop by for a visit, you had to schedule with the teacher and school and make a plan. Again, it worked out great and I have continued to help out in the classroom and go on field trips ever since. Now that I am more relaxed about it, I really appreciate the formal organization of these things. I also really appreciate our school community–never have I met or heard of a more energetic, committed bunch of parents!  Until I talk to a parent at another school and realize that they have just as energetic and committed bunch of parents! It’s really impressive and inspiring and I stand in awe–and gratitude–to these amazing and friendly people that seem to be in such abundance that all the local schools I know of seem to have plenty of them to go around.IMG_1887

I have to say, my favorite part of living in the city, of living in my neighborhood, and of Sophia’s school, is the diversity all around us. LaSalle is a language academy and so focuses on other cultures as a critical part of the curriculum. Sophia is on her fourth year of taking Mandarin Chinese 4 days a week. In addition to the curriculum, the school community itself is diverse and honors diversity. I took this picture at a school dance a couple of years ago–have you ever seen such a beautiful rainbow of children? And they don’t just have different skin colors, they come from every kind of family you could imagine and they are friends and they love each other.

With the challenges our beloved city is facing including wide spread violence, I am also happy and grateful to report that we have been untouched by anything of concern. I continue to walk my dog late at night and have not had any issue, we also walk about a half mile back and forth to our friends house, oftentimes coming home after dark, and no problems.  I am not so naive that I don’t realize something COULD happen, but that is true anywhere. I maintain that I feel safer here in my Chicago than I ever did in my other resident cities of Cleveland, OH, Raleigh, NC, Dover DE, Wichita Falls & San Antonio, TX.

Bottom line is, I love living in the city, my daughter is thriving and I couldn’t imagine wanting anything different for my family! If you are considering a move and want to chat more about my experiences or I can help you with your transition, give me a call or drop me a line.

New construction-awesome! Or…meh.

There are a lot of people drawn to the idea of buying new construction and living in a home that has never belonged to anyone else. The general feel is that new construction is clean and fresh and since it’s new, it’s in great shape and there won’t be any problems. I like to make the analogy to a puppy. Sure, a puppy is new and cute and hasn’t picked up any bad habits and will love you and only you. The flip side is that you have no idea what it will look like when it’s fully grown and it has yet to develop it’s mature personality–which might not turn out to be what you were hoping for.

As great as it is that the real estate market is healthy and new homes are once again being delivered quickly and in good supply–think twice before jumping into that brand new sparkling home.  When you purchase new construction you are usually given a home warranty and you use the developer’s contract instead of the standard Association of Realtors contract. They home warranty makes you feel good, as it should. But, like those you can get from a seller on not new construction–they aren’t really as effective as we would like to think.  The reality is, unless there is a gross defect in a basic system, it won’t cover the problems you are likely to see.

Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with new construction, it’s just really important to do your homework. There are plenty of things you and your broker can do to help mitigate some of the unknown risks in a brand new house.

  • Find out how long it took to build the house–quicker is NOT always better
  • Find out when the foundation was poured–by when I mean, what month. Check the weather and see if it had sufficient time to cure based on weather conditions.
  • INVEST IN A MOLD TEST – water intrusion is the #1 problem we see and even though it may take a while for actual mold to show up, it’s worth paying to do a test to look for moisture
  • Look at some of the developer’s other projects–then have your agent research their sales history–if you see that many people leave houses built by your developer after a year or two–RUN AWAY!

The other really important factor is getting a really, really good inspection. The kind of inspection that has 150 items listed and is super scary. Trust me, it’s worth being scared and then either deciding you can get over it, or walking away. Some of the things that a good inspection will catch but aren’t caught by everyone:

  • electrical outlets that are in the wall but aren’t working
  • make sure that your sump pump is working and on a battery back up
  • run all the appliances through a full cycle, including washer/dryer

I bought a gut rehab many years ago before I was in the business and relied on my agent at the time to suggest an inspector and it was a disaster. I had outlets not working, a toilet that didn’t work, furnace that was barely functional it was so dirty from construction dust, among other things. I discovered these things AFTER I moved in. I have a neighbor across the way from me that basically had to rebuild their brand new single family after tearing it down and remediating the mold. The best (or worst) was another neighbor in the ‘hood that invested in 8 ft decals and posted on their front windows about how horrible their new construction house was and to beware the developer. Unfortunately, the bad developers usually just file bankruptcy and then operate under a different company name so its very unusual to be able to get them to fix the problems or compensate the new owners for repairs.

Last but not least–remember that new construction does NOT come with window treatments as do re-sales.  It seems like a small thing until you realize that depending on the treatments you want, you could be looking at another $40k for a full house, especially if you have specialty windows. To bring it back to our puppy analogy, houses have personalities too, and any new home–new construction or otherwise–is going to have “growing pains” as it gets used to its new owners.  Expect some issues to pop up and don’t be discouraged, most of the time the issues are small and fixable and pass as quickly as the puppy teething phase.

It’s that time of year again…Halloween! Where are the best costumes?

Now I realize that not everyone gets as excited as I do about this holiday–some may even argue its NOT a holiday. However, I don’t care if anyone else is excited because I AM!  Just to throw in a little history so I can say it’s official, here is some of the background behind today’s celebration.

Evolving from the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain, modern Halloween has become less about literal ghosts and ghouls and more about costumes and candy. The Celts used the day to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, and also believed that this transition between the seasons was a bridge to the world of the dead.  Over the millennia the holiday transitioned from a somber pagan ritual to a day of merriment, costumes, parades and sweet treats for children and adults.

The fact that it is yet another celebration of the change of seasons and new beginning seems quite timely to me.  We recently celebrated the Jewish New Year with some of our family, part of which is a tradition of leaving behind the troubles of the year before and welcoming the new year. That celebration is almost identical to the pagan ritual I also celebrate every year for the Winter Solstice. But, even I don’t pretend that Halloween is somber–it’s just FUN!

Since my daughter has been old enough to color we decorate our entire dining room windows with Halloween pictures, cut outs, bats, ghosts etc.  I think every person we know has participated in our tradition at some point over the years, it makes us very happy to look forward to it. This year we have an even bigger window to fill so we are even more excited!

And now on to the costumes because how fun is it to dress up?!?!  I am all for homemade costumes, my daughter has sported homemade dresses and this year is going in a non-traditional costume as Victoria from the movie RED. But, there are times when you just don;t have the time and energy to come up with something original. For those times, and if you feel like going all out, I highly recommend Chasing Fireflies for kids and matching grown up outfits too. Here are just a few of my favorites–Lionfish are my favorite fish and I can’t believe I actually recognized it before I read the description!

Evil Jester

Evil Jester

Lionfish

Lionfish

Squiggly Piggy

Squiggly Piggy

 

 

If you are looking for more “adult” options that are not cheap but pretty intense, check out this Museum Repli

Spider Ponchocas site. The Pyramid Collection also has some fun options, some of which can double as regular wear if you don’t want to buy a single use costume. I wear thier Spider Poncho way more often that just Halloween and always get a ton of compliments–it takes a while to notice is actually a spider web.  And if you don’t want to order online, make sure you check out Marshall’s and TJ Maxx for the kids (much higher quality stuff ) and just for fun for grownups, stop by Beatnix on Halsted at Roscoe for the absolute best accessories!!

Have a wonderfully fun and safe Halloween!

To fence, or not to fence? That is the question.

When I visited Chicago as a child I remember being struck by the fact that EVERY house had its own fence. It seemed a luxury to me at the time (our sprawling suburban house in Shaker Heights didn’t have a fence).  Instead of making the neighborhoods seem unwelcome, it felt cozy to me.  I have no idea how the tradition started but it really is an amazing and effective way to create a defined space in a dense urban environment. And of course, the ornamental wrought iron only adds character.

Honestly, since most houses already have fences, it would look a little silly NOT to fence, a case of “one of these things is not like the other”. That was a Sesame Street reference in case you missed it. But what KIND of fence is another question entirely.  There are the purely ornamental, short fences that one could step over if necessary and the all the way to the full height, over your head fences, and those silly fences that people put up around the parkways, ostensibly to keep the grass and landscaping pristine. The most popular seems to be the medium,  shoulder height fencing.  Wrought iron painted black–although some go white, or even festive–is the most common and creates an almost uniform look as you walk down a street. For back yards you’ll see wood but most of our street facing fences are open and that’s what creates the defined space while still being welcoming.  Unless of course there is a dog whose parents haven’t taught it not  to go berserk living there–then, not so welcoming.

But occasionally, I run into a house that is well and truly enclosed.  Not just fenced–cloistered even.  There is a house like this around the corner from me and I LOVE it.  I walk by it with my dog almost every day and I can’t stop myself from coming up with fantastical stories about what is going on behind those high, solid walls.  It’s so exciting. Sort of like reading a mystery novel except you can make it up every day.  I am dying to get inside and see how it feels on the inside- totally visually cut off from the outside. I just so happen to have gotten a peak at the courtyard from the roof deck of a home across the way. It’s beautifully landscaped complete with accent lighting but I got no glimpse of the inhabitants so my imagination is free to run wild.

I can appreciate both sides of the fence on this one (pun intended).  I certainly do enjoy the daily intrigue this unusually fortified fence provides me and I can imagine that it provides significantly more privacy than one usually gets in a Chicago city home. Somehow though, it just doesn’t represent the welcoming feeling I associate with our lovely open fenced fronts that I remember from childhood. For me, I think I’ll stick with the traditional wrought iron–it’s more fun to decorate at the holidays anyway.

Dogs, dogs and more dogs

It’s dog show season again and I’m getting excited! I love dogs. I think dogs are the best thing ever. I really, really, really love them. I used to be an adoption counselor for a local dog rescue here in Chicago and I loved helping people find new family members and helping them learn how to acclimate to each other. As I write this, I’m struck by the similarity to what I did in the dog rescue and what I do helping people find their next home, a recurring theme about what makes life satisfying for me.

My specialty in the rescue was the tough to place, big and/or scary dogs. I might not be Cesar Milan but I’m pretty darn good. I remember one of my pups looking for a home, a Tosa Inu, a Japanese Mastiff. He was so freakin’ handsome I kept threatening to put him in a suit and take him to dinner. So, yes, I am a crazy dog person. BUT, I am also a super responsible and reasonable dog person.  I expect excellent behavior, respect and manners from all the living things in my life- children, dogs, adults, whatever.Both my kids piled in my lap, all 230lbs of them. This is the dog that’s scared to let strangers touch him. 🙂

My current rescue, a 180lb English Mastiff grew up pretty isolated in the country without much socialization and was terrified of absolutely everything when he came to live with me in the city. He has come a really long way but is still very hesitant to let strangers touch him.  His family he can’t get close enough to, he just has some pretty strong boundaries when it comes to strangers. He won’t act out if people don’t respect his boundaries, but he might try and climb into my arms to escape—which, at 180lbs, presents a bit of a problem as you can imagine.  Respecting boundaries is extremely important to me and while I can’t teach every person I see how to be better with dogs (or people) it is worth a moment of everyone’s time to learn enough to be safe—and teach our children how to be safe around strange dogs.  Here is a super easy to digest, lighthearted diagram of what to do and not to do when meeting dogs.

For anyone who shares me love of dogs or is curious about them, there are a ton of good resources out there. My favorite is www.dogbreedinfo.com which does a nice job giving you the details about breeds and characteristics which will help you decide if a particular pup is a good fit for your family. Obviously, I want everyone to rescue instead of go to a breeder, but even mixed mutts display the characteristics of their different breed combos.  Take your time to do the research and you’ll be happier with your pup. Of course, computer research isn’t nearly as satisfying as going out and meeting the pups!  And you are in luck.  The International Kennel Club of Chicago will be at McCormick Place February 24-26th. It’s a fun, inexpensive way to spend a day and there ARE rescues as well as breeders there.  If you prefer to learn about the breeds from your couch—or just want to look, the Westminster Kennel Club dog show kicks off Monday and welcomes 6 newly admitted breeds—American English coonhound, Cesky Terrier, Entlebucher mountain dog, Norwegian lundehund, Finnish lapphund and the Xoloitzcuintli (formerly and commonly known as the Mexican hairless).