CHICAGO — Your home is working overtime during the pandemic. For many, what was once just a dwelling has become classroom, office, restaurant, gym, movie theater and more. COVID-19 has not only kept most of us confined to our quarters for the past six months — it has also altered the very definition of home.
As homebuyers increasingly seek out pandemic-friendly features like home offices and expansive outdoor space, Chicago-area real estate developers, designers and agents are helping them find the features they need to live in this new normal.
In a survey of 1,000 respondents who have bought a home during the COVID-19 pandemic, or plan to by the end of 2020, 40% said the pandemic changed what features they look for in a new house, according to the home listing site Homes.com. One in four say they want a home with larger square footage or an enclosed backyard, while 15% no longer find an open floor plan desirable, according to the survey results published July 29.
As the remote workforce becomes a more permanent fixture in Chicago, one-third of those surveyed said they want a home office. That’s a big change from pre-coronavirus priorities, said Kate Marengo, founder of design firm Interior Chicago.
“Home offices are something that has never been a huge part of (what clients want) in the past,” Marengo said. “I have people contacting me saying, ‘My office is going to be closed through summer next year, and I can’t work at my kitchen counter. What can we do to make the space work so I’m not totally cramped in my apartment?’”
Briana Cox bought and moved into a condo in Lakeview during the early days of the pandemic in April. Though her relocation wasn’t directly due to COVID-19, it did factor into her home search. Like many pandemic home hunters, Cox’s top priority in her new place was having adequate space to work from home.
“I really wanted to find a space that had a lot of light, and then had a space for me to set up something close to a home office, a place that I could sit and do work,” she said. “I was definitely coming in and assessing whether or not I could put some extra tools in there — can I fit a desk and a chair?”
If she had known before April how much time she would be spending in her condo this year, Cox said she would have picked a place with central air conditioning, bigger windows and more lighting.
“It was a tough decision to really decide if this place was where I want to spend 24 hours a day,” she said.
The lockdown complicated the process further, putting all home renovations — from painting to fixing the leaky faucet — on hold. That’s something many homeowners are going through, Marengo said.
“I’ve had some big projects put on hold while people are determining whether they want to leave the city or not,” she said, adding that many are moving away because they would like to spend less on housing, or because of the recent unrest in the city. “They’re like, ‘If I’m going to be putting this place on the market and leaving, I’m just going to do the bare minimum.’”
The pandemic has also changed where home is for many people. Whether or not the national trend of an exodus to the suburbs is playing out in Chicago, 22% of Americans have either relocated or know someone who has due to COVID-19, according to a Pew Research Center study.
For those staying in Chicago, upgrading outdoor space is a top request, Marengo said. One of her clients, for example, needed a deck expansion to give the client and her toddler more space to play as they spend more time at home.
In apartment complexes, the trend in outdoor space is sliding away from private balconies, said Ann Thompson, senior vice president of architecture and design at Related Midwest, the company behind developments like One Bennett Park, The 78, Lathrop and the Taylor Street Apartments and Library.
Instead, people are looking for expansive, outdoor common spaces with accommodations like grilling cabanas, outdoor pools, lounge furniture and fire pits, she said.
“I think it’s that variety of experiences and the size of these spaces that have been so helpful during COVID,” Thompson said. “It’s not just a place where you can put a chair and have a little grill. These are places that are truly extensions of your living space, but even better than your backyard at a single-family home, because they have specific activity accommodations.”
Renters, she said, don’t have to choose what activities to devote limited space to. Instead, their homes can encompass shared spaces such as swimming pools, outdoor dining, dog runs and vast green space. Thompson herself moved from a single-family home to an apartment during the pandemic and said the move simplified her life.
“The Chicago renter is starting to be more sophisticated, and they understand how important these peripheral spaces are to their lifestyle,” Thompson said. “Because you’re not just renting an apartment; you’re choosing a lifestyle.”
Still, even residences with ample amenities aren’t typically equipped to handle all aspects of living. People still want to shop for groceries, dine out or get their nails done. But some apartment complexes are working to foster an all-inclusive lifestyle where residents would, theoretically, never have to leave the building.
In Streeterville, Optima Signature provides a host of resident amenities, from rentable business suites to a two-floor health and fitness center. Services include an on-site chef, a restaurant, a nail salon and a veterinarian.
Mark Segal, senior vice president of Optima, said the Glencoe-based real estate developer wants to make life easier for residents — particularly during as stressful a time as a global pandemic.
“Time has become one of the more precious commodities, and things that focus on delivering convenience and the quality of life … are the focus for so many folks,” he said.
Optima Signature also has an indoor connection to an adjacent Whole Foods Market. “It offers the convenience of being able to do grocery shopping and limit what your interactions with other folks will be,” Segal said.
Renters are looking for COVID-19 safety measures in their new homes — like the electrostatic disinfecting of Optima’s common areas, Segal said. Some of those pandemic safety features also add convenience, like in-home package delivery.
“Everyone is dealing with today’s circumstances differently,” Segal said. “Everyone is having their own experience today, so it really is a wide range of things that people are looking for in terms of how to manage their own lives at this time.”
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