When we purchased our home in June, it was a residential two-flat – or in other words, it was a building with two apartments. However, there were three families that lived here, one on each of the two floors and in the basement. The basement, otherwise known as our home’s garden unit, was a fully liveable, inhabitable space; a space with two large bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and the building’s only washer and dryer. Regardless, it wasn’t recognized as a third unit by the city, and with our minds so set on just diving into the first and second floors three cheers for a single family home! – we put the basement on the back burner, giving it little to no thought as we sledged our way through every room in the house.

But by mid-July, we thought, wait a minute. It was time to revisit that basement.

The thought had crossed our minds before, so we say again, this house has a garden unit! While we toyed with the idea of renting the garden (it was a discussion we had many times, not only to supplement our mortgage, but also to help fund the restoration of our 120-year-old-house), we knew it would need some work to make it feel warm and inviting. It has a tile floor (which isn’t our first choice), but the rooms were large (by city standards), and the ceiling height, windows, entrance and exit (both separate from “our” part of the house) were all up to city code.

At that time, the issue wasn’t so much the work to be done, rather, it was a matter of could we? We were told by our attorney at the closing table that our new home is zoned for no more than 2 residential units, and although we would eventually – technically – only have two units, a great place to confirm our suspicions would be a meeting with our alderman. (And yes, this means that the garden unit was formerly rented under the table, something that is not uncommon in Chicago.) This was music to ears for a couple of reasons, mainly because our alderman is awesome. He attends Tour de Fat every year (our favorite summer festival!) and has been a huge proponent of making our neighborhood an exciting place to live. But for this purpose, we know that he also holds an open floor for his ward every Monday night. Those that live in his ward (aka: us) can personally meet with him, ask questions, receive advice and have a sense of what to do next.

In our case, we told him that our hope was to reside within the first and second floor units as a duplex-up and maintain the garden unit as a rental apartment. (And as luck would have it, our alderman had parked his bicycle in his office, so there was no shortage of bike talk thrown in for good measure!) In addition, our ultimate goal was to restore the original character in our older home – a dream we’ve had for too many years to count. He not only enthusiastically supported our idea, but he proceeded to tell us, here’s what you do now:

ONE) Write a letter to the city zoning department, explaining our current situation and intent. Our alderman would provide an additional letter of support if needed (luckily, it wasn’t). TWO) After receiving their response, follow through with whatever is necessary – if anything – to complete the zoning requirements. THREE) Rent the garden unit.

But the actual breakdown went a little something like this:

ONE) Write a letter. TWO) Wait 30 days, then call the city and say to their answering service, we wrote you a letter; what’s next? THREE) Shriek with happiness when the city calls you back… and then asks you for floor plans. FOUR) Send them floor plans. Wait. FIVE) Call them again after another 30 days and say to their answering service, we sent you the requested plans; what’s next? SIX) Feel deflated when the city requests more information, misunderstanding your intent. SEVEN + EIGHT) Mail each other several more letters, re-explaining your intent – back and forth, back and forth. NINE) Hear the good news you’ve been waiting for: As long as you aren’t increasing the floor area of the building and maintaining no more than two residential units, your zoning is in good standing.

TEN) Scream with joy! Celebrate with a glass of wine.

The entire process took several months (and cost us $50), but we’re glad that we approached the situation through the proper channels and finally (finally!) received the news we’d been crossing our fingers (and toes, arms and legs) for. Some have told us that we were crazy to be overly thorough, but for peace of mind, it was absolutely worth it. (The alternative would have been to rent the unit without permission, then maybe get slapped with a hefty fine.)

Since receiving the good news, the last couple of weeks have been a garden-unit-cleaning-frenzy – and as you can imagine, it has seen its ups and downs. The renovation-and-clean-up related road bumps are to be expected (as with every stone we’ve turned over in this house), but our goal is not to fix things fast, but to do them right. Nights and weekends are spent in our demo clothes (it’s been disheartening to know that our estimation of how much work the basement needed was skewed), and while it’s hard to tell during times of frustration, we have come a long way.

And so, slowly – in-between the upstairs construction and every day life – we’re inching our way towards not only turning our house into a place we love, but hopefully creating an apartment for someone else to enjoy, too.

  • bella - October 18, 2013 - 7:01 AM

    wow. That’s a great basement apartment compared to some I’ve seen. Now, here’s to hoping for a great tenant.

    BTW, is that exterior light in the last picture upside down or what? ha.ReplyCancel

  • Kim - October 18, 2013 - 7:28 AM

    Thanks, Bella – and yes, it totally is. It was the only way to make them fit with the way the junction boxes were installed by the previous owner! Another groaner. We’ll be replacing them though!ReplyCancel

  • Sarah @ 702 Park Project - October 18, 2013 - 8:36 AM

    Don’t you just hate dealing with the local city/state government?! I always feel like we get the run around. We have applied for historic preservation tax credits for our home restoration, and there has been so much back and forth. It took us over 3 months just to get them to accept our application! In the end, it will all be worth it though!ReplyCancel

  • Kim - October 18, 2013 - 9:06 AM

    Sarah, ugh! Yup, we know the feeling. But you’re absolutely right – it was worth all of it for the peace of mind.ReplyCancel

  • Julia @ Cuckoo4Design - October 18, 2013 - 9:12 AM

    What an awesome basement apartment!
    I can’t believe how much work you guys have.ReplyCancel

  • Kim - October 18, 2013 - 9:13 AM

    Julia, that made me laugh. :DReplyCancel

  • Jodi - October 18, 2013 - 9:16 AM

    hooray!! maybe the mckees will relocate to chicago soon and rent out that fancy garden unit of yours. ;)ReplyCancel

  • Kim - October 18, 2013 - 9:23 AM

    Jodi, love it! (Fancy though? Haha!)ReplyCancel

  • carrie @ brick city love - October 18, 2013 - 9:36 AM

    I LOVE having a garden unit to rent out. It makes things so much easier every month (financially speaking) and it’s nice to know that the space isn’t just sitting there wasted & unused. Congrats!!ReplyCancel

  • Rachel - October 18, 2013 - 10:07 AM

    Love your home and am so excited to see all the work you keep doing. You are making such awesome progress and your garden unit will definitely make some person a very lucky tenant (perhaps you can invite A&E and Mr B and Ms M over so all my favorite pups would be in one spot haha).ReplyCancel

    • Kim - October 18, 2013 - 10:25 AM

      Rachel, that’s definitely on the agenda! I was just talking with A this week about a doggie play date! Jack LOVES him some Mr B, although Mr B would rather be playing with E.ReplyCancel

  • Emily @ Adventures of a Dog Mom - October 18, 2013 - 11:03 AM

    Dealing with city government can be a real pain and it sounds like it was for you but I’m really glad it all ended well for you. I bet the place is going to look amazing when you’re done with it and I hope you get some awesome tenants!ReplyCancel

  • Laura @ Rather Square - October 18, 2013 - 11:10 AM

    Good luck with the basement reno! How long until you think you’ll be able to rent it out?ReplyCancel

  • Heather {A Fire Pole in the Dining Room} - October 18, 2013 - 11:23 AM

    Dealing with municipalities can be SO frustrating! I’m so glad it worked out! What’s the ETA on renting it out?ReplyCancel

  • Kim - October 18, 2013 - 12:34 PM

    Laura and Heather, our hope was for mid October, but we ran into a few issues that we want to correct before we’ll feel ready (a foundation crack among other things), plus, our contractors have ripped up some drywall to plumb the upstairs laundry unit, so a lot needs to get repaired!

    Maybe… mid-November? Definitely December. (Famous last words?)ReplyCancel

  • Emma - October 18, 2013 - 12:45 PM

    Congratulations on that good zoney luck of yours. I think your garden unit looks great! Plus I bet you are super cool landlords. Best wishes with the rental process. (Tip – find an animal-loving tenant and maybe s/he can pet sit for you while you’re away!)ReplyCancel

  • Melissa - October 18, 2013 - 4:22 PM

    Wow, I wish the garden apartment in Chicago that my husband and I had inhabited looked like that (and had that much ROOM)! Ours was tiny (maybe 450sq ft?), didn’t have a lot of natural light, and the plumbing and heating were hanging from our (already low) ceiling. And we own three animals! But hey, it was our first apartment together, so we still loved it.

    We’re in the midst of looking for a new place ourselves. Good luck renting it out soon!ReplyCancel

  • amber - October 21, 2013 - 12:43 AM

    I just moved to chicago and started renting a garden condo unit, I think this space is pretty great and I wish we could have found something similar in your neighborhood when we moved!ReplyCancel

  • Kim - October 21, 2013 - 7:48 AM

    Thank you, everyone!

    Amber, welcome to the best city ever :)ReplyCancel

  • ashley @ sunnysideshlee.com - October 21, 2013 - 1:08 PM

    Have you checked it for any flooding issues? I had a garden unit condo in the city and when it rained badly, the sewers backed up and flooded my unit – TWICE!

    Yours is already so bright which is awesome because garden units can sometimes be pretty dark!

    What are you guys planning for the washer/dryer? Sharing or moving another unit to your level?ReplyCancel

  • Kim - October 21, 2013 - 1:45 PM

    Ashley, we HAVE had some minor flooding issues, likely due to foundation cracks. (Just some small puddles after a heavy rain.) We have someone coming to remedy that this week – we definitely don’t want that to be a problem for any future tenant!

    Yes, we’re lucky that the basement is halfway above ground, so it does get a fair amount of light. This was a huge factor for us when we were considering purchasing this home!

    As for the washer/dryer, it will stay down there. We’re in the process of building ours out, so everyone wins! (More on that tomorrow!)ReplyCancel

  • Heather {A Fire Pole in the Dining Room} - October 28, 2013 - 4:11 PM

    Good luck! I’m so excited for you guys :)ReplyCancel

  • Jill - October 30, 2013 - 2:04 PM

    I didn’t know you wanted to make the basement an apt. ;) Makes sense! And seriously, I can’t even read these posts any more; they’re beyond my level of comprehension. hahaReplyCancel


Water is a crazy thing. It’s simultaneously destructive, life-sustaining, and expensive. A week or so after moving into our new house, we were greeted by our friendly mail-lady who handed over to us a stack of grocery store flyers, junk mail from the previous tenants and a ginormous water bill. Like, $600 ginormous. The good news, however, was that the bill was only an estimate based off of the amount of floors, units, and prior tenants in our building – phew.

We immediately researched our options, wanting only to pay for the water that we actually use, and we signed up for the Chicago MeterSave program. In addition to saving money on our water bill (and even guaranteeing savings for seven years!), in Chicago, they’ll actually incentivize you to sign up by giving you a free rain barrel for participating. Score!

Along with the barrel itself (already drilled with spigots and bungs), the kit came with a short length of hose (that we didn’t end up using) and a flex-pipe to place at the end of our downspout for easy water direction.

While Kim tied up a few loose ends around our ghetto mansion, I ducked out to Home Depot and picked up a couple of retaining wall blocks to elevate the barrel off of the ground. We had to smash off the lip at the back of each block to get them to lay flat, but a few seconds with a claw hammer is all I needed.

The blocks were arranged into a circular pattern to support the barrel and lift it off of the ground for better water flow.

Upon digging around in a random mystery box in the garage, I found a short length of garden hose and this cool brass elbow fitting that help alleviate some pressure from the hose connections. This junction at the top of the barrel will act as an overflow valve, allowing excess water to be directed away from the foundation of the house, and eventually into a planter or flower bed.

In making some recent gutter repairs, I had intentionally re-routed a section of downspout toward the base of the back deck, knowing that the rain barrel would be arriving soon. My plan worked out, and the downspout was at a perfect length and height for the intake of the barrel. I attached the flexible extension with self-tapping sheet metal screws to give us a bit of adjustability in the flow.

While I was at it, I got ambitious and re-routed a second downspout into the barrel as well. This sucker will be full in no time! Here’s hoping that the garden hose will be enough to handle the overflow in a heavy downpour. (Update: We had a steady day of drizzle yesterday, and I’m happy to report that the barrel is completely full, and the hose did its job just fine! That didn’t take long.)

While I admit that this is not the most attractive project we’ve ever completed, it should be nice and functional when spring rolls around and we actually have some plants to water! We like things to look nice around here, but this is one of those occasions where function will (temporarily) beat form. (Although, the instructions did include a few tips on painting the big black blob in case we’d like to add a touch of color, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.)

As rain-barrel virgins, we’re open to some handy tips and tricks to keep this thing working. Anybody a seasoned rain-hoarder? Fill us in!

  • Annalena - October 16, 2013 - 7:18 AM

    That is awesome you got a rain barrel! I had one in Syracuse, where they also give them away to help with stormwater issues. We stacked more concrete blocks under it so we could easily fill our watering can. The awkward part was when we didn’t need water in the spring, the barrel was full, and of course in the drier months, when we needed it, it was often empty. You can set up a few rain barrels together to help with that.

    Also, I hate to say this after you have it all set up and filled! but you should unhook it for the winter. You don’t want water freezing and thawing in there.

    As for the look of it, we spray painted ours tan. Was easy and made it blend in more. Or you can get fancy :) I’ve seen all sorts of fun rain barrels.ReplyCancel

  • Hannah K. - October 16, 2013 - 7:26 AM

    I hope you get some great suggestions. This is one thing we’d love to do next Spring. A compost is on our list first!!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - October 16, 2013 - 8:33 AM

      Annalena, since everything in our yard is still so ugly, our black rain barrel is fine for now, but we can’t wait to paint it! Also, thanks for the winter tip – we knew you guys would fill us in.ReplyCancel

  • ashley - October 16, 2013 - 9:28 AM

    What a neat idea!ReplyCancel

  • Whitney - October 16, 2013 - 11:50 AM

    Wait…was the bill for an estimated $600 a MONTH? Or a year? We pay about $25 a month for water on our 1600 sq ft place in San Francisco (granted, it’s just two adults and a dog/cat, but still! $600/mo would be a small army of people showering!).ReplyCancel

  • Kim - October 16, 2013 - 1:08 PM

    Oh! Whitney, it was $600/qtr. Still insane!ReplyCancel

  • Robbi Ortrman - October 16, 2013 - 1:10 PM

    looks like you better get another tank !! that one filled w/ just a little rain? its a great idea :) love watching your progress!ReplyCancel

  • Dave - October 16, 2013 - 1:52 PM

    At $600 a quarter, they should probably call Steve about a well.ReplyCancel

  • ryan - October 17, 2013 - 10:07 AM

    The Chicago water bill is my least favorite piece of mail of all time. I’m bookmarking this post for the spring!ReplyCancel

  • Monika - October 28, 2013 - 12:17 PM

    Unfortunately, rain barrels are for the most part,illegal in Colorado (I know, go figure!). The main issue however, is water rights. As a homeowner, you don’t have the right to use water run-off from your roof unless there is a well on your property. Being the state that championed xeriscaping, it is a paradox. There are other reasons as well but I have seen them around my neighborhood nonetheless. Thanks for posting the in’s and out’s of installation. Your post is inspiring me to give it a shot, in an inconspicuous location of course (wouldn’t want to run afoul of the water police) :)ReplyCancel

  • Kim - October 28, 2013 - 12:48 PM

    Monika, that’s really interesting! Our friends in Colorado told us it was illegal as well, and we had no idea why!ReplyCancel


As we ride this wave of living under construction, by no means would we say hey, this isn’t so bad! (Truth be told, I could barely type those words without cringing.) Working from home throughout this process has been a challenge for me, and while I haven’t always been the most spirited half of this team lately (we go through phases where I’m up and Scott’s down and vice versa; we’re rarely on the same page), we’ve been mindful to mix in some fun with the not-so-fun. (Basement work tonight, salvage shops tomorrow, we say!) There’s not one clean surface in our entire home – at this point in the renovation game, it’s not a possibility – but as the contractors have been working on rebuilding our demolition (and taking on a little more demo themselves – among other things), it has been really (really, really!) exciting to watch the changes unfold.

Let’s break it down.

THE LIVING ROOM. You know that the ultimate goal is to turn our city two-flat into a single family home, and as a result, the first floor has seen some of the biggest changes – walls moving, doors vanishing… you know. Before we moved in, we were dealing with a sagging ceiling, a sort-of room partition without a proper support beam and a teensy bedroom (below, on the left) that seemed like more of an afterthought:

After we ripped out the ceiling, uncovered the room partition and the contractors installed an appropriate support beam (lifting our second floor more than 2″), they’ve since widened the doorway to the bedroom-turned-nook, eliminated the chimney, and have begun adding can lights (8 total) throughout the living/dining room. There’s still not an actual ceiling, but can you see it? (Squinting helps.)

THE NOOK. Speaking of that former-bedroom-turned-nook, the door and frame have been pulled out, and the opening has not only been widened to almost 4′, but it also got a 4″ added height boost! As reader Helena pointed out in this post, this will surely be the room where the kitties sleep, sun bathe and come out for their tuna dinners… and we’re okay with that.

But if you’re wondering about the actual intent, we imagine this room with a cozy chair, a cushy rug and our record collection – all of which I’m sure the girls will have no problem with. We’ll also be adding a door (we’re thinking of a barn door, although not necessarily rustic in design), which will sit on rails inside the nook room. The opening was widened with this in mind, although admittedly, it may be a little while before anything is installed.

THE ENTRYWAY. As it stands, you can still see right into the nook room from the entryway; this is the view when you first walk in. Now that our Great Door Hunt has been completed (hallelujah!), the contractors were able to frame out our coat closet to the appropriate height/width. We’ve since picked up our vintage door hardware, so soon enough, they’ll be able to notch out the space for the lock.

And if you look up and to the left, the remainder of our second floor coat closet has been ripped out, giving us at least 10″ of extra head room when walking up and down the steps. No amount of photos could show how huge of a difference that has made, but trust! Our foyer light has also been re-centered on the ceiling (since taking down all the walls and doors left it oddly misplaced), and in general, new switches and outlets are being added – at the proper height. Prior to this, our switches were literally in the middle of the wall, at eye level. (What?)

THE SECOND FLOOR LANDING. Up the stairs, we now have a framed out knee wall! We’re ridiculously excited about this, not only for the amount of light the hallway window brings into the studio, but the immense feeling of space we’ve gained. First, here’s how it looked two months ago:

Today, we’re ready for drywall! The light fixture in the first photo (below) will also get centered, but aside from our day of demolition and an hour for the contractors to install the framework, this landing is good to go. The half-wall comes in at 3′ tall, as a staircase banister is typically 36″ from the ground; we’ll add that in once drywall has been completed (and once we figure out what we actually want – starting from scratch is exciting and absolutely confusing all at once).

THE LAUNDRY ROOM. As mentioned in this post, we will officially be adding the laundry room off of our master bedroomhooray! Originally we weren’t sure it was in the budget, but the contractor waiting game turned out to be more of a blessing in disguise. After pinching our pennies for an extra month, we decided to add it to the plans – and oh my goodness, I can’t tell you how weirdly thrilled we are! A whole room. For laundry! (Maybe we’ll actually do it now?) It’s simply a bare-studded wall, but pipes have been hooked up and plumbing is being run throughout… Ooh, it is on.

THE FRONT DOOR. It’s in! The insulation and siding is in waiting (obviously), but the door and handle have been in full swing (punny!) for several days. I’m itching to give it the royal blue treatment, but as the weather cools down, we’re just happy to have a drafty-free entryway. And – fingers crossed! – our transom window is on the delivery truck today. (Eee!)

Also? We’ve fest-ed up the patio with our pumpkins. Priorities, people. (Although as Scott would say, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.)

As much as I try to tune out the bustle around me (headphones? Check!), there were rumblings of recreating the lost arch in our foyer opening this week (!). But if I hear the word drywall, I might lose it – coming soon? We’re hopeful. (There’s that spirited side!)

  • Rachael - October 14, 2013 - 2:33 PM

    I hadn’t heard of a knee wall before, but holy cow, what a difference it makes in the 2nd floor landing! Lots of good stuff going on over there…ReplyCancel

  • misie - October 14, 2013 - 10:59 PM

    You guys are amazing- everything is looking just awesome. The progress is encouraging – what an adventure!ReplyCancel

  • Julia @ Cuckoo4Design - October 15, 2013 - 6:25 AM

    I love looking at all the progress. The second floor landing looks great.ReplyCancel

  • Kim - October 15, 2013 - 8:01 AM

    Thank you! An adventure for sure. Eeep!ReplyCancel

  • Kimberly @ Turning It Home - October 15, 2013 - 9:15 AM

    In my neighborhood, most of the homes have the same layout inside (I blame the 1950s housing boom). Our home has a knee wall looking into the kitchen from the living room (or vice versa) and a neighbors home has the original full wall where our knee wall so I can vouch with you for what a difference it makes. It makes me think of “I can see clearly now the wall is gone!” ha!ReplyCancel

  • Kim - October 15, 2013 - 9:26 AM

    Kimberly, oh boy, now I have a new song to annoy Scott with!ReplyCancel

  • Amanda @ Our Humble Abode - October 15, 2013 - 10:20 AM

    The progress is amazing. I mean, I know this isn’t the truly exciting part, but it’s the foundation for the fun/pretty stuff. So that’s what really matters. :) Great call on knocking down the stair wall. Bottom line, it’s all going to look fabulous when you work your magic.ReplyCancel

  • ashley - October 15, 2013 - 10:28 AM

    All of your hard work is so going to pay off in the end! You can already see such a transformation!!ReplyCancel

  • Julia at Home on 129 Acres - October 15, 2013 - 11:53 AM

    This will be a great post to look back on when it’s all done. You’ve made amazing progress already! Hang in there with the living in a construction zone thing. I know the novelty wears off, but the result is worth it.ReplyCancel

  • Kati from so happy home - October 15, 2013 - 12:45 PM

    Hang in there, you two, er, five! Short term torture for long-term joy. I’ve lived it, I know it suuuuuucks. But then it’s over, and you feel tremendously satisfied, and all the horrid things you suffer through bond you forever more with your team, and your husband. Looking great so far! Chin up! xoxoReplyCancel

  • Kim - October 15, 2013 - 4:46 PM

    Thank you guys! It has definitely been rough, so your encouragement is very welcome!ReplyCancel

  • Kelly G. - October 18, 2013 - 6:49 AM

    I’ve been reading your blog since before the house reno, and MY GOODNESS. I can’t even imagine how you’re doing it! I’ve been without a kitchen floor for a week (ONE WEEK!), and it’s driving me nuts! Hang in there! It’s going to look fantastic when it’s complete!ReplyCancel

  • Kim - October 18, 2013 - 7:31 AM

    Kelly, no, I totally get it – I hope you don’t have to be without a kitchen floor for much longer! And thank you :)ReplyCancel