“I’ve Never Seen It So Frenetic”: One Chicago Luxury Realtor Predicts the Future of a Bullish Market

An inside-the-boom look at where people are looking, and what they’re looking for

June 11, 2021 2:27 pm
“I’ve Never Seen It So Frenetic”: One Chicago Luxury Realtor Predicts the Future of a Bullish Market
Austin Neill

For a moment there, when the pandemic prompted shutdowns in March 2020, the Chicago real estate market, like everything else, looked grim. But the moment didn’t last. 

Propelled by pandemic-linked lifestyle shifts and low interest rates, Chicago home sales seriously took off in late 2020 and early 2021, with closed property sales in the city in March 2021 up 35 percent over March 2020, according to data compiled by the Illinois Realtors trade association. Demand is outpacing supply. Buyers are snapping things up at lightning speed. Prices have hit all-time highs.

Emily Sachs Wong — a luxury real estate broker with @properties specializing in neighborhoods including Lincoln Park, Gold Coast, River North, Lakeview and Bucktown/Wicker Park, who has been in the business for 23 years and, with her group, exceeds $180 million in sales annually — has spent the last year in the belly of the boom.

We checked in to get her perspective.

InsideHook: What’s your take on the Chicago real estate market right now?

Emily Sachs Wong: It’s very busy — better than pre-pandemic. I’ve never seen it so frenetic. People just can’t get into a place fast enough.

How much did it sag in the worst of the pandemic?

On March 13, when Chicago locked down, I thought, “Oh my God, I might never sell another piece of real estate.” I started showings again on April 1. Then I was so busy I resented having to water my peace lily.

What kinds of trends are you seeing?

My number-one trend for the past year is grass, which is hard to find in Chicago. People want yards — their own plot of ground to say, “OK, I don’t have to go out to walk the dog” or “My kids can play here.”

The second is space. So many people were in smaller condos, even with shared common spaces, and that’s not so hip coming out of a time we all had to spend a lot of time inside.

Did those trends emerge immediately post-pandemic? Do you think they’ll continue?

By April 1, people already wanted out of their boxes — their condos. As we rolled through the year, we saw protests and things that made people uncomfortable with different areas of Chicago. 

People still want to live in Chicago. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, mass exodus.” Well, for those able to work online for the rest of their careers, of course the cost of living is less in a lot of other places, and it’s greener, with fresher air. But for those of us who have to work in person and want to be in an exciting city, this is one. The food scene is coming back, and we’re going to be able to go out and do the things we’ve loved about Chicago. So those of us that are here are super happy to be here, and there has been no issue with people buying real estate. In fact, there’s a shortage in Lincoln Park and some other areas.

Lincoln Park
Lincoln Park
Njeri kairo

Why those areas?

Lincoln Park is as close as you can get to downtown and still be close to the lake and get a single-family house. Whereas the Gold Coast, the cost of single family houses is more and most of them are not new. 

“New” is the other key word for this past year. No one wants to do any work: You didn’t know if you would get locked down or who was sick coming into your home. Now, with so many people doing home improvements, you can hardly get your hands on not only materials but also someone to do it.

Are people moving to different areas than they were pre-pandemic?

The areas that were hip and getting a good commercial infrastructure are still really hip. Logan Square — it’s pandemonium there. People want to live close to restaurants and shopping. So it’s not only happening close in.

You didn’t see an exodus from Chicago?

I had clients in April, May, June of ’20 who said, “I don’t need to work here. I’m going to Montana.” It felt like a lot of people, but I could probably count them on one hand. And those houses didn’t sit. There were people to pick them up immediately — and not at depressed prices.

Are people moving in from the suburbs?

A lot of people from the suburbs are coming in. Empty nesters are saying, “Gosh, if we’re ever going to go, we may as well go now, when there’s such a demand for our place.”

What challenges are you seeing for prospective buyers?

In Lincoln Park, Bucktown, and neighborhoods really in demand, there’s pressure to pay a price that’s head and shoulders above what a comparable price might have been because the rates are so low and there are so many buyers.

Wicker Park
Wicker Park
yns plt

Do you think the market is overheated?

I think Chicago is the most undervalued major city in our country. So I don’t want to say it’s overheated. But ’17 was the high point in our post-recession market, and in ’18 and ’19, we were no longer just climbing up. While rates were low and people were buying, people weren’t necessarily making profits. 

We came to a screeching halt with covid. Then all of a sudden it got very busy, with multiple offers making prices go up, although if any one of the pieces to the puzzle were to change, I don’t know that that would be the case.

You’re seeing multiple bids over asking within days?

Yes, assuming the house is perfect. It’s got to look Instagrammable now. That’s what people want.

Is there more staging?

No question. We are keeping staging companies very busy. The painters are at it full force. People have caught up with the trend of clearing it out, making it perfect. I always say it has to look like a hotel room before you bring your bags in, not when you’re leaving.

Coming out of a depressed environment, people are also tired of gray. They want it white and fresh, and we’ll start to see more colors and happy patterns.

What other amenities are people looking for? 

People no longer want a desk in the bedroom — that was an occasional place to work. Now people need a full-time place to work. They want two offices plus an exercise room.

Interestingly, I don’t hear anyone saying I don’t want a movie theater room. You would think that would be a trend, but no.

Are you seeing the open plan receding? Do people want doors that close to retreat from their kids?

For the first time, this year, I had three showings with people not wanting an open kitchen — wanting their kitchen closed off so when they entertain, no one can see it. I thought, “Wow, is that going to come back?” Because that’s been gone for a while. 

What’s your best advice for someone looking to enter the Chicago real estate market?

I am a fan of not having to get the absolute best deal for your primary residence. If this is where you’re going to live for 10-plus years, just get the place you want, even if you have to pay a couple dollars more. With rates low, there’s no reason to go to a different location just because you believe you might be paying slightly over. 

Don’t regret you didn’t get the place you want. Sometimes people are like, “Ugh, the last sale was $5,000 less and I don’t want to pay that.” Well, then you won’t get it.

Live where you want to live and get the place you want.

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