oak park

My Favorite OPRF Season of the Year

Who doesn’t love summer in OPRF!?!?  The pools… the farmer’s market donuts… the green parks… AND who doesn’t love spring?!?!!  The flowering trees… the farmer’s market donuts… the anticipation of summer… AND! ... but for the lack of donuts, who doesn’t even have a love for winter in OPRF?!?!?  The holiday lights… the snowy nights…

 

But really… my favorite season of the year in OPRF is… Marching Band Season!!  Yes!  Ever since I was a kid!  I was very young when my family lived at 324 N. Elmwood Ave in Oak Park.  To this day one of my most earliest of all memories is running to the front screen door on a warm (can’t remember if it was fall or spring) afternoon because I could hear them!!  They were coming!!!  See… back in those days (early ‘70’s) the Oak Park & River Forest High School Marching Band would actually practice and march down the streets of the village around the high school.  It was like my own little parade a couple afternoons a week! It was awesome!!

 

I don’t think you will see the same parading down the streets from today’s OPRFHS Marching Huskies but if you are ever able to get to a home football game or even just a late afternoon rehearsal… you can see and hear for yourself the awesomeness that is this marching band.  As Ken Trainor of the Wednesday Journal so unbelievably asked himself in his October 2017 article, “An Audience of One in the Late Afternoon” (link), you will ask yourself the same… “These are high-school kids?”

 

Disclaimer – I am biased toward the OPRFHS Marching Huskies because I currently have a junior alto sax and a freshman front-line marching in this band and my oldest was a trumpet marching all 4 years before graduating in 2017.  I have had the privilege of being one of this bands photographers since 2013. You can see the band rehearse most Mondays and Wednesday-Fridays after school at the practice field near the tennis courts at Linden and Erie.  August – mid-October.  This isn’t just a football game playing band… this is a serious competition marching band traveling the state performing their show. GO Marching Huskies!!

When Pipes Freeze - Part Deux

So, this is Part Deux (Jean Claude van Damme...anyone?) Honestly, there is nothing French about this post other than the laissez-faire manner in which you're going to let me share with you our homeowner's nightmare, and the grace you find in the integrity of an honest man's work.

So go grab yourself a coffee and croissant, and if you have not read Part One, you need to do so in order to appreciate the gravity of the situation that befell us just after the New Year!!

 Disclaimer: Really, in the grand scheme of life, this is by far no tragedy… it is an annoyance. But in the moment of the situation, when water is gushing out of the side of the wall as the temperature outside is hovering at a cool -3F, and you have no heat… you are "First-World" FREAKING OUT!!!)

The continued story…

With the discovery of the burst elbow heat pipe now made, and the realization that I can control the amount of water emptying into my basement (a little), it is time to start thinking of “How is this going to get fixed and fast!” I had yet to make any calls. Naturally, options start to come to mind even though I already know who I’m calling first. But what are the options here?

 Option #1

Local large HVAC company. The Oak Park area has a few great HVAC contractors. I have worked with a number of them in my real estate dealings. Most are quite knowledgeable when it comes to hot water pumped boiler heat. Unfortunately, I got burned once (pun?) and it has haunted me ever since.

 Option #2

Call the one man that knows my house about as well as I do. The man that has installed 3 separate air conditioning (full steel vents, not space pac) systems in our house, one boiler floor radiated heat system in an office, moved countless radiators throughout the years, has shown up at all hours of the day to service the huge Burnham main boiler...and that is just this current house!

This man also installed one of the coolest (not like cold, but clearly geeky cool) hot water heated, forced air system in our first Oak Park home on a 2nd level. Hot water heated forced air avoids having a gas-burning furnace on the bedroom level; something that was important to me. So how did I meet this HVAC contractor who would ultimately become an extension of the family, Wayne Borkowski of Alpine Heating and Air

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*Wayne Borkowski of Alpine Heating and Air cleans the flame tubes inside the huge Burnham boiler. Each tube (there are about 15) gets removed individually to vacuum and clean the insides. The gas we burn is not a pure substance. Particulates gather and can create yellow flame instead of blue decreasing the efficiency of the burn. See: The Blue Flame Project

It was 1996 and Julie and I had begun a renovation of our first Oak Park home at 923 N. Marion. We had a classic heating system known as a “dual-shot” vapor system. Very common in larger vintage Chicago apartment buildings, but very rare in a single family home. View it as a form of steam heat but more efficient and more of a vapor than a heavy steam. The gas-fired boiler burns up a smaller pot of water that sends vapor to the radiators through one pipe. When the vapor cools, it starts to return through another pipe system creating a vacuum at the same time. That vacuum then pulls more vapor off the top of the boiler pot and sends more heat to the radiators. Two shots (dual shot) of vapor for every burn of gas to heat the boiler!

Well, the thing stopped working in the middle of the night. We had just started working with the HVAC guy recommended to me by my brother who was living over on the 900 block of north Euclid at the time - Wayne of Alpine Heating and Air. But I didn’t have Wayne’s cell at the time, or not thinking clearly at 12am, I opened the phone book and called the first local company that advertised emergency 24-hour service.

So… they came to the house. Very thankful for the late night service call. Bummed that he turned my sophisticated vapor system into an all-night knocking full water gravity heat system. The technician was not at all familiar with the system and filled it with hot water. But we had heat! The next day, I had to call Wayne to completely restore the system and replace a few parts. It was this experience that I realized Wayne was far more than an HVAC contractor. We often do not really get to know the many men and women who come in our homes on a regular basis and repair our appliances… patch our roofs… clean our sewer lines… Due to my line of work I actually spend a better part of my time with many contractors. It has proven to be one of the most rewarding parts of my career and the lessons learned and the friendships. 

I have referred Wayne to many friends, family and clients and at times we all often refer to Wayne as “the genius”. Wayne has not just learned his trade by basic training and trial and error. If Wayne were to put together all of his formal training, additional specialty classes, and seminars, I am sure there would be enough there for a Masters of Heating Ventilation and Cooling. Since I have known Wayne, he is always going to specialty sheet metal seminars and continuing educations on coolants, air balancing and a host of other learning sources that make me ask, “Where were you?!?! How do you even spell the title of that class?!?!?” I really do consider myself an HVAC geek and I am fortunate to be able to say that all I have learned about hot water boilers, steam and vapor, heat exchangers and pumps… I have learned from Wayne. The mechanics are fascinating and to be able to understand exactly what I am looking at when going into houses with clients has been priceless. The heating and cooling system is one of the major systems of a home that is the heart of the home.

Back to Part Deux! Obviously I called Wayne that -3F January day. I NEVER call Wayne on his cell. I call Wayne the old-fashioned way. Call the office landline… listen to his wife, Maureen’s, voice announce that nobody is able to take the call at Alpine Heating & Air, leave message knowing full well that Maureen is going to call or page (yes… page) Wayne and he will call me back in about 30min or less. Well, on this day, I was calling his cell. And when he answered, I remember as if it were yesterday because I could hear the surprise in his voice that I was actually calling him on his cell. He stated he would be at the house in less than 2 hours.

By the time Wayne arrived I had done even more investigative work including going out to the hardware store to get a number of tape type wraps claiming to stop leaks of all kinds! To an extent, they worked and would have worked even better if the elbow that burst was not buried deep in the wall cavity. Immediately, Wayne gives me the best plan of attack, but never the worst case scenario. Why even go there when it is time to get concentrating on getting this fixed now?!? And to do that… we needed to get that elbow out of the wall cavity. A task NOT for the faint of heart or muscle… or balance… or fear of falling 50lb pipe wrenches.

So this is where it became a family affair. If able, I am always wanting to be at home when Wayne is working on anything in the house. But today I knew I had to be home. This was going to be a big job. Not big as in complication or size but this is an almost 80 year old heating system set into a 130 year old home. These pipes are black iron going into cast iron radiators. This isn’t thin copper and solder. These are threaded steel pipes. They have not been turned, unscrewed, touched, moved… in 80 years since they were installed. Getting these pipes apart at their threaded joints and “unions” had Wayne and I each with a pipe wrench the size of a small person and Wayne saying… “OK… you push that way! I’ll pull this way!” Well, after an hour or so of that going absolutely nowhere… it was time to bring in the serious muscle...my wife. And Julie doesn’t fool around or hesitate a bit. It was getting colder in the house by the minute. “Let’s go!", she said.

So now Wayne is up on the ladder as the pipe is up to the ceiling. Julie is backing up Wayne's power at the end of their wrench and I have my own going the other direction. This is where we really needed to be careful. It only took one falling 50lbs wrench and all of us yelling “WATCH IT!!” to be alert and coordinate precisely. Is was after another hour of nothing but brute force from the 3 of us to realize we were headed to the worst case scenario. It was time to cut the pipe. The union was completely seized.

*Wayne uses an almost 50-year-old machine to add threads to the cut black pipe. 

But first… dinner time! Why is it that when things go wrong in your house, they are almost always at night… or weekends…? Well if dinner is served and Wayne is still there, he is getting dinner. I’ll tell you now I know his favorite in our house… Pesto Pasta with Door County Potato Sausage.

After we were all fed and happy, we embarked on a job both weighty yet simple, straightforward yet demanding in its endeavor. First, we cut the basement horizontal pipe and installed a shut-off valve which allowed us to get the heat on. What needed to be completed the next day was going to be just as daunting as the past hours had been. End of Day One and it was 9pm at night. Wayne had been with us for 7 hours.

With the elbow inset in the wall cavity there is no way to access it to disconnect the thing, but to try and unscrew the two pipes that go into it. This is why getting the basement horizontal to free up was so crucial. After that failed attempt, cutting the pipe was the only choice left. What about the other pipe that makes up the feed? The pipe that rises to the 2nd floor master bedroom where the huge radiator is located? This vertical pipe is called the “riser”. If this thing doesn’t have more success in coming free and turning out of the elbow in the basement… disaster. We go from a two-day job to who knows because the whole line of pipes would need to be removed, and they go through the floor structure up to the 2nd floor. Sometimes, you walk into an old Victorian and see exposed painted pipes running vertical in the corner of the room and wonder, what is that? That is a radiant form of heat that was installed after the house was built.

Day Two starts and we head to the 1st floor living room where the riser is located. Time to take a wrench to that thing. With me on the wrench and Julie and Wayne in the basement at the wall cavity by the elbow and connected by cell phone for communication (the floors in this house are at least 16 inches thick), we slowly coach each other to the end goal of getting the riser disconnected from the elbow below. Success! Finally.

While Wayne prepares the new elbow for install, I head back outside to crawl under the front porch to continue insulating and filling the gaps and holes in the foundation. (See? You gotta read Part 1).

 *Here you can see how the heat pipes were retrofitted into the home in the 30’s or 40’s. Yes… that is straight into the top block portion of the foundation.

In the end, Day Two was an additional 4-5 hours worth of work for all three of us. We would NOT have had the problem fixed any other way.

Life is a journey and along the way you meet the interesting characters that make up the larger story of that journey. When you step back from life and look, you almost see it as a book laid out in front of you. Our friend Wayne will always be a great character in our book of life. “Until the next emergency, Wayne!” Or… hopefully how about just a general servicing and cleaning of the central AC condenser? Mid-June sound good? Hey! … gotta make sure I save a package of Potato Sausage…

...wait, I think Jean-Claude might actually be Belgian. 🤔

*This closer look shows the elbow finally fixed and the heat flowing once again.

When Pipes Freeze - Part 1

Really, this post should be titled… “Is A Smart Home Always Better?!" Or something that hints to the betrayals of new technology. But in reality, we all know there is no such thing. New technology didn’t betray or fail me. I let new technology take over a simple function of “switching on and off” and what ensued was a big FAIL on my part. Get ready to geek out on HVAC knowledge.

Our Home and How I Love My Boiler

Let me provide some background and context - we own an 1894 Grand Victorian in the heart of central Oak Park. The home was originally built with a gravity heating system. Simply put… a coal fired furnace in the basement heated a pot of air that would then rise through large ducts to various rooms in this 2 story home thus heating the space. Then… in the mid-1940’s, the home owner had the funds to remove or convert this furnace to hot-water boiler heat; an oil burning boiler would heat water to about 150F and a pump would circulate the water throughout an open pipe system (one large circulating system with no zone shut-offs anywhere) of “supply” (the pipe that brought the water to the radiator) and “return” (the pipe that brought the cooler water back for more heating).

I love this type of heat. It is quiet, even, and less dry than a forced air system. Since day one of owning this home (almost 18 years) the system has been flawless with minor part replacements on a Burnham boiler that was installed in 1999. At the beginning of every annual heating season I need to take a couple hours and fire up the system… make sure the boiler’s water pressure is just below 12lbs per square inch and go to each of the 2nd floor radiators and using a special key open the vents to release the pocket of air from the tops of the radiators so that each radiator is full of hot water. Most people that have this system of heat (very popular in this area) don’t realize water actually evaporates from the system. This creates air pockets in the radiators thus a less efficient heating unit if only half the radiator heats. In the early morning hours of Wednesday the 3rd of January 2018 the outside temperature reached a low -9F.

Happy New Year to ME!

At approximately 10:30am after returning home from visiting my doctor for a nasty hacking cough, my wife, Julie, announced to me that one of the radiators in our master on the 2nd floor was… cold. (It is from this moment forward that I will now know that a “cold” radiator in the dead of winter can only mean one thing… inevitable catastrophe.)

I immediately went to the basement. I am an HVAC nerd and pretty much pride myself on the fact that when I open a boiler’s cover panel… I know what I’m looking at. I removed the panel and checked the water pressure gauge. Zero pressure. “Hmmm… that’s not good”, I thought.

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Because water needs to occasionally be put in the system, all boilers have a fresh water-fill supply coming into the system usually close to the boiler. Most systems have a pressure control valve. This is a flying saucer-looking thing attached to the fresh water fill pipe that automatically senses the water pressure. When the pressure reaches a certain point, it will shut off the water for you, constantly monitoring the pressure and always keeping it at the right level. I NEVER LET THIS AUTO PRESSURE VALVE BE THE ONE TO AUTOMATICALLY MONITOR MY WATER PRESSURE IN THE SYSTEM!!!!

There are just too many chances for failure here. They don’t always work and if it fails when you are not around it can overfill your system and cause the boiler to blow its pressure relief valve all over the floor thus releasing the pressure in the system. BUT then what does the auto pressure relief valve do?!?!? It keeps filling!!!! So, in the fresh water line just before the pressure refill valve I have a hard shut-off ball valve that I always keep in the off position unless I am filling the system and standing right there.

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Holy Calamity 

So… I see ZERO pressure on the gauge and I instinctively reach up to the ball valve and turn on the water feed. At that instant, about 12ft away, water starts POURING down the inside foundation wall directly under the living room. In the photo below you can see the magnetite (boiler heat sludge) stained limestone and brick foundation where the water poured out of the burst 90 degree cast iron elbow.

Panic sets in!!! I shut off the water feed. The sludge continues to pour down the wall, but to my relief, eventually subsides. Even with the system being open and no zones to isolate the leak, the system is still able to heat for another couple hours until I fear there is too little water in the system and the cycling on and off may do more damage. Julie and I shut down the heat.

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Launching an HVAC Investigation

So what happened? In all of our almost 18 years of ownership we have never had a broken or burst heat or water pipe. Why now? Why not during the Polar Vortex of 2014 when it regularly got below -5F for weeks?

 Technology.

A few years ago I updated the system’s thermostat to a new Wi-Fi based NEST thermostat. Wi-Fi___33 meaning you can control the thermostat from an app on your computer or phone. I got it so that when out of town I could see how the system was performing and basically make sure it was running. About 2 weeks before this holiday season something changed. The NEST asked us a question.

 “NEST and your gas service provider have partnered to help you save on your energy bill. Turn on “Auto-Scheduling” to start.”

 Basically, the NEST was ready to start learning our habits or our at-home, away and/or sleep… schedule. So we turned on the auto-schedule and the NEST notified us that over the next two weeks it would be learning our ways.

The schedule seemed to be working fine… nothing earth shattering changed. We did start to notice that it would get chillier in the middle of the night. The NEST was noting when we retired to bed and would drop the heat from about 67F to 64F for a few hours, gradually bringing the heat back up to our wake-up time. Sounds like a good energy saving idea! Ah technology, what would we do without you? Maybe get back 3 days of my life that was dedicated to fixing this issue!!!

 I digress. So with this auto scheduling came the perfect storm of the following factors on the night of January 2nd into the 3rd.

  1. When the hot water heat system was installed in the 40’s they busted through the top brick portion of the foundation to get into the outside wall cavities to run the vertical supply and return pipes (risers) to the radiators on above level floors. In the above photo you can see the dark hole where the pipes enter the basement wall.

  2. The home was built with a front porch that rotted and fell off in the 30's. This porch had support beams and these beams had the foundation built around them where they entered the house for anchoring purposes. When our contractor in the early 2000s tore off the asphalt siding he uncovered these open holes in the foundation. At that same time he rebuilt a new porch to be just like original. But that only covered the holes from site as the new porch used a sill board to tie into the house. The other holes remained and they opened right into the first outer wall cavity.

  3. The home was not built with any insulation in the exterior walls. Julie and I had a company blow in insulation in the early 2000s. This insulation could not reach everywhere and the lower cavities where the heat pipes entered the walls had fire blocking boards just above where they entered so the initial 1 sq ft cavity above the foundation was not insulated.

  4. The boiler’s pump that circulates the hot water to the radiators and back has a temperature switch. Once the water in the outgoing pipe hits 90F, the switch turns the pump on and circulation begins. If the temp in that pipe falls below 90F, the system knows there is no need for heat and the pump does not circulate thus saving electricity.

Finally, it all came together.

  • The temperature outside dropped to -9F, the wind howled through the still open holes from the original porch super cooling the 1 sq ft cavity in the outer wall where the cast iron heat pipe had a 90degree piece to run heat up the wall.

  • Then, the NEST sensed I went to bed at midnight… the temp at that time was 67F in the house. The NEST dropped the heat to 62F! Basically shutting off the system for more than 3 hours. In that 3 hours of no heat and the water in the system sitting idle (no pump on to circulate), the elbow piece froze and the force of the water expansion blew the cast iron sidewall of the elbow completely off. Catastrophe…

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More to This Story...

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this New Year saga when I have to make the decision as to who am I going to call to repair the burst pipe and get the heat going again before the whole house freezes and we have a real problem. In Part 2, one of the most intelligent contractors I have ever had the privilege of working with comes to the rescue and the repair becomes a family affair.

As Snow Builds, Start Your Digging!!!

For those of us in the Midwest, one of the many forms of “a perfect storm” for basement flooding is setting up right now. Yes, after the snow… comes the rain.

We will be coming off days of sub-zero temps and snow will begin to accumulate. If there's at least a foot of snow on the ground as temperatures rise… the snow will begin slowly melting. Before you know it, the rain eventually starts. What is the problem?… Our gutter downspouts, sump pump tubing and sump pump bubblers are covered in snow. In addition, although the temperature is rising the many inches of top soil are frozen.

The snow on our roofs will begin to melt and melt fast. The rain water that falls will have no soil to soak into. The snow that melts will have nowhere to go. All this water will take the path of least resistance and history tells us that path is to your basement.

 Aid the flow of water away from your home by digging out your gutter downspouts. Even if your downspouts run into the municipal sewer system, clear these areas where the downspout goes into the ground. If you have a really fancy system, it is possible your downspouts go into the ground but the tubing leads to a “bubbler” somewhere out in your lawn. The bubbler looks like a large (usually green) oversized golf course sprinkler head. When water flows out to the bubbler, the top cap floats up and releases the water spreading it out over your lawn. These bubblers should be located and snow/ice cleared with as large a diameter you can.

For those of us with sump pumps we need to dig out the ejector tubing if the tubing exits the house and dumps onto the property. It is possible that there is frozen water already in the tubing. By digging out now and clearing the snow and ice away from the tubing you might be able to facilitate thawing as the air temperatures rise. Many of you also have your sump dumping outside into tubing that terminates in a bubbler in your lawn. Clear these.

 Do you have an outside exit from your basement? Is there a drain at the bottom of the exterior basement stairs? Dig out this stair well and keep an eye on that drain. Ice damming is a freak and fact of nature. It is for the most part unavoidable but watch for the water stains on ceilings. I personally do NOT suggest heat wire in your gutter system. Sharp ice and squirrels can cut the wires that could eventually spark and cause a fire. Shovel the slush out of your garage. Melting of this can wet the base of the structure and lead to wood-rot. As the ground table water rises your sump well will fill with water. Test to make sure the sump pump is operational by briefly lifting float. Sump system wells are an extreme drowning hazard if not properly covered. Make sure to replace covers securely!!!

 In any event… do NOT be a passive homeowner despite your desire to hide blissfully inside your warm home. Just like during a deep freeze, you check frequently that your furnace is running, the house is heated, and you may have even occasionally checked for leaking or bursting pipes. I know many of you unfortunately found those leaks. Now we need to be a different kind of diligent. Do yourself a favor and dig a path for water to flow away from your home!

Downsizing “from” Oak Park & River Forest “to” Oak Park & River Forest!


There are many reasons you may be thinking of down-sizing from one home to another. And to do so you don’t need to leave the beautiful area of Oak Park/River Forest! Now… some may say, “You don’t get it, Steve, it is time for us to get out of here!” OK… well for you snowbirds, that may be a different story. But, I meet many people over the course of the year that want to talk to me about down-sizing from their current large home, townhouse or condo to move into something smaller, less expensive and maybe even more maintenance free… right here in the village.

Here, I am going to share with you some of the questions or issues that arise in these conversations. This is just an outline of factors. There is a whole discussion that goes beyond what you read here. But if my article can help spark the dialogue … then here you go.

  1. “I want to downsize but still need a good amount of space. Can I get that here in OPRF?” – You may be getting ready to move out of your 3200 sq. ft. center entrance colonial in the NW corner of Oak Park and want smaller but not too small. Sure you can get the space. Our area has a good number of condo buildings with larger units in them. However, instead of a 2 bedroom condo, look for condos that offer 3 bedrooms! That 3rd bedroom doubles as a spare room for guests and as an office or a TV room. If stairs are not an issue at this point, we have many townhouse complexes with the space you need. A number of the townhouse complexes are 3-4 stories tall and that bonus space is all the way at the top – the penthouse, if you will. Spacious Oak Park condos or townhouses come in all price ranges from the upper $200k to the luxurious mid-$600k range.

  2. “Can I find attached units (condos, townhouses, etc.) with outdoor space?”- You certainly can! But how much space are you expecting? Full yard? Not likely, but you were probably looking for less maintenance anyway. A place for a small 4x5 ft garden patch is possible and delightfully manageable. For instance, take a look when driving around town. See these newer townhouse complexes built in the last 10-15 years? Most of the units have a little pad or patch of space right at the front door entrance.  

    Take 101 N. Euclid – “the Euclid Terraces” - as an example. Many of these residents have actually finished their small front patches of land into nice patios large enough to enjoy morning coffee for two to four people around a small table. For the townhomes that are in a row… does the end unit have a semblance of a yard? Many of these yards may look to be common space but they could actually belong to a specific unit. Often, the end unit has the right of use or may even own the land. Case in point, the 413 Wisconsin unit D currently on the market has a typical front deck area. Additionally, it has a 1st level concrete pad off the garage entry just for a grill. The pad even has an awning over it to protect you from the elements!

  3. “I need a building with an elevator and I really don’t feel like there are many options here in OPRF. Is this true?” - Well, we have basically three types of condo building in the area. 1) Vintage - I can count on one hand the number of vintage buildings that have elevators in them. The 333 S. Oak Park Ave and that portion of the Decker Building that is on Pleasant are the only two that immediately come to mind. 2) 50’s or 60’s or 70’s era buildings. They may not be the prettiest buildings in town but they have elevators… many have laundry facilities on the same floor as the unit (i.e. 221 N. Kenilworth) and many have parking spaces most of them “covered” but not a garage. And finally, 3) newer construction… these most definitely have elevators, and there are plenty of new construction condos being developed in Oak Park, especially within walking distance of downtown restaurants, shops, and transportation.

  4. “I’m not staying here! Taxes and assessments are too high!” I understand the frustration, but take some time to research and compare. Many empty nesters start their downsizing journey looking towards the city. You may find a beautiful 1 bedroom condo in the “Loop” in the $400k range with a view of the lake and so much more!! (i.e. 360 E. Randolph) The taxes may look extremely attractive too. ONLY $4900 a year! But what are the assessments? Ah…. now we see. Assessments are over $750 a month! Compare that to a similar 2 bedroom condo in newer construction or a renovated building here in OPRF. The overall “cost savings” end up being negligible and you are likely to gain so much more in space and convenience in Oak Park.

This next step in your life is dictated largely by how you plan to spend your leisure time. Think about the uses you anticipate for the spaces in your future home. Think about the things you can live with and the things you can’t live without. I guarantee you, there is a place for you to call home again in Oak Park & River Forest.