Four Surprising Overlooked Tips and Tricks to Finding the Perfect Apartment

It’s July, and the midst of mad real estate season is here in Chicago. Apartment rental leases are starting and ending. Every other street block has a moving truck parked with flashing hazard lights. I'm in the same situation. My apartment lease ends in August.

With my real estate license in action at The Homestead Group coupled with my BPI building analyst and LEED background, I am always thinking about what I want in my next place. The difference is… while most people dream of stainless steel appliances, granite counters, and spiffy picturesque bathrooms, I take a more “building science” and comfort approach to my green dream home.


Uninsulated Bathroom Floor

This uninsulated bathroom floor is 50-degrees in the winter. The toilet in this bathroom freezes up when temperatures drops below zero for more than one day.

What I’ve learned is that kitchens, bathrooms, and wall color can all be changed to fit your needs and likings. Anyone can hire a contractor to spruce up your place. However, once a home is built, there is no good way to (inexpensively) address your ability to feel comfortable inside all year round.

Building science and everything behind the drywall may not be what most people consider when house shopping, but if you’re looking for a new apartment this summer, why not harness this power to ensure you have a comfortable place?

With these thoughts in mind, I’d like to offer you some tips and tricks on building science to consider when you’re walking through your potential new home. In this two-part series, I will list a few items that I often look over, ask about, and consider when I’m looking at new places, and what you can do once you’ve moved in. Questions about anything? Never hesitate to ask or tweet @EcoAchievers!


Part 1: The Building Itself


Windows: The Pros and Cons of Shading and Window Orientation
Apartment Living Room

Photo of my living room and south-facing windows in the afternoon, lots of natural light, no need for my lights to be on!

Fact 1: With shaded windows, your home won’t get quite as hot in the summer as a home with unshaded windows. Thank you large overhangs/ giant tree/building next door! You still get the natural light, but that radiant heat from the sun doesn’t warm up your house as much, keeping your cooling costs down.

Fact 2: South-facing windows receive more natural light throughout the day, all year around and therefore your lights don't need to be on as much. East facing windows let in that morning sun, west-facing windows provide great sunset Instagram photos… and afternoon light. These windows are excellent heat sources for winter.

This article may shed some light (see what I did there…) on radiant energy and the overarching concept of passive solar orientation.

Fact 3: Once you consider the exterior shading, iIllust passive solar d1nterior window treatments are your friend. East facing windows let in more morning light and radiant heat, west-facing windows will let in more afternoon light and radiant heat. South and north-facing windows bring in more light throughout the day, but less light than east and west, and less radiant heat because light doesn’t shine directly in your window. You can always block it out with blinds and curtains! For homeowners, you can even apply a heat-reflecting low-e window tint to help manage unwanted summer heat gain.


Stack Effect and Solar Heat Gain: Why I tend to stay away from top and bottom floor apartments.

Garden units: Lower cooling costs, comparatively lower heating costs.

Garden court apartments detroit miPro: Lower level units in an apartment building  tend to stay a bit cooler than your second, third, or top floor units in a building. This is because the floor is connected to the ground which has a pretty constant temperature of 55 degrees all-year round. So in the winter, your heater won’t work as hard as other units.

“What? I thought warm air rises! I’m so confused!”  If the ground is always 55-degrees, then you only have to heat about 20 degrees difference to feel comfortable. This means that someone in a middle or top floor unit, with 4 walls above the ground, has to heat up their apartment from, let's say, 10 degrees -  a 60 degree difference! Which utility bill would you like?

Pro: In summer, a lower level unit’s cooling costs are lower!

Con: Circling back to the idea that warm air rises, not only are you heating your unit, but you’re heating the upstairs neighbors as well.

Con: If your building isn’t well sealed at the top or in the lower level unit, you experience more drafts and will move more of your warm air upstairs to your friendly neighbor.


Top floor units:  On the flip side (literally)

Pro: Just the opposite of the garden or lower level units, the top-floor in a building captures all the warm air from the units below. Your heating bills are consequently lower in the winter.

Con: Depending on your building’s structure and air tightness between apartments, the top floor units will have higher cooling costs in summer months. (Trees outside your house may help with that!)

Con: You may experience more drafts if your building isn’t air tight, as well. 

The sweet spot: the middle floors in a building. You are buffered from the extremes.


Besides my utility bills, why should I care about this?

Moisture management: This is a topic for another blog, but be mindfulHappiness is being barefoot of carpeted floors and mold issues in basements. Unless a building has sub-slab insulation (and most do not), moisture issues are likely to occur in that carpet padding or carpet. This creates a significant air quality concern in the apartment.

 Going barefoot: Typically, the floors of a garden apartment are going to be 55-degrees (cold) all year around. I personally like to be barefoot at home and don’t like cold feet! Area rugs can help solve this problem for common traffic and living areas.


The apartment itself:

Bills, bills, bills: Can you pay my bills?

Questions to ask: What do your utility bills look like? What is included in your rent? Gas? Heat?  What is the average electric bill like? In Chicago, a building owner is required to disclose this. If the tenant is there at your showing, ask what the lowest and the worst utility bills were in the last year to get a better idea.

Sealing an Wall mount AC Unit

An attempt to seal up a wall mounted air conditioning unit for winter. It worked!

More questions to ask: What can a property manager do for you in a cost effective manner? Ask if you can DIY.

How about duct sealing the exposed areas? Can you seal the baseboards? Hot water pipe insulation? Weather-stripping exterior doors? These are all relatively inexpensive and easy to DIY.

Remember, you can always ask your friends at Eco Achievers for a home comfort audit and advice on how to best address your happiness in your home.

Part two of this segment offers some of this advice: How you as a tenant or homeowner can address your comfort issues.


How do you address your home comfort issues? What problems are you facing as a renter? As a homeowner? How will you harness your building science superpowers?


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