Housing stock in Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park is quite varied. Whether its houses, condos, apartments, two-flats, these villages have it. While not as showy as a high-rise or an apartment building over Trader Joe's, coach houses have been quietly rounding out the area's housing stock. Whether they've been turned into single-family homes, retained as rental units or simply used for storage, these mini dwellings are a unique part of the local housing market.
And, as in most aspects of suburban living, the village of Oak Park has a say in what dwellings are deemed acceptable for habitation. According to Oak Park Zoning Officer Mike Bruce, the legalization of coach houses dates back to the village's first zoning laws instated in 1921.
"With the first zoning laws, existing coach houses became legal, non-conforming dwellings," he says. "Any coach houses used as rentals at that time were essentially grandfathered in and allowed to remain, but you couldn't build a new dwelling on a garage after that date. There may have been a few exceptions, and new coach houses may have been built after World War II because of the need for housing at that point, but you can't build a dwelling over a garage today."
Single-family coach style
The area has its share of coach houses that long ago were large enough to be separated from their original estates and turned into single-family homes. Jan Kerr, a broker with Better Homes and Gardens Gloor Realty in Oak Park, recently worked with a homeowner to sell just such a dwelling.
"What's nice about a coach house is that there's not a lot of outdoor space to maintain, but unlike a condominium, there is some private outdoor space," she says. "Another plus about coach houses is that most were built in homes that had some substance for people who needed space for extra staff, so most of these places are in prime locations. The former owner of 711 Superior loved the location and the fact that it had a wonderful, private garden. It was a charming space with a huge, old oak tree and brick patio."
The coach house that Kerr refers to had originally been part of a large estate and later moved to its present location. At one time or another it housed a stable, a squash court, and even a chicken coop.
The new owners recently closed on the house, and Kerr says that many of the potential buyers were intrigued by the unique nature of the home. "So many people said it made them feel like they were away from Oak Park in some magical space. It has a feeling of being in France or Belgium."
On Diana Rasche's block of Forest Avenue in central Oak Park a large number of the homes have coach houses, and she says her home's coach house was a big part of the appeal when she and her husband came to the area 20 years ago.
"We've rented our coach house since we bought our home. We wouldn't have been able to afford the home if we didn't have the extra income."
The Rasches have never had a problem renting their two-bedroom, one bath coach house. At approximately 900 square feet, the home includes an updated kitchen, a claw-foot bathtub, three closets and laundry and parking for the tenants.
"Over the years, we've had a wide range of tenants: some couples, some roommates, some single people, and some families with babies. It seems like certain people are coach house people, and this kind of place suits them."
Jack Egan who is currently seeking a tenant for his coach house on Iowa Street near Oak Park Avenue agrees with Rasche.
"Coach houses are slightly unusual, so to some people this kind of living situation might be more appealing than an apartment."
Like Rasche, when Egan purchased his home in 2000, the coach house over the garage was a selling point. "I thought it was an attractive feature. The people who sold us the home put in their ad the amount of monthly rental income they made off the coach house."
Egan's coach house offers substantial living quarters. "It's more than just a little space over the garage," he says. "It's about 1,400 square feet with two floors of living space over the shared garage."
Egan says his three-bedroom, two bath coach house has always been rented, recently by a tenant who stayed for more than five years. He advertises for tenants in local papers, on Craigslist and with Oak Park's Mom Mail.
For some families, coach houses offer much needed additional space. Rasche's neighbor, Laura Berlin, confides that her coach house is currently used as overflow space.
"We've been in our house three years, and to be honest, we haven't really decided yet what to do with it," she says. "We just use it as the need arises."
When the Berlins were house hunting, location was foremost on their minds, and they viewed the coach house in the backyard as a bonus. Although they didn't originally seek out the space, it does get plenty of use. Not only does the family use the one-bedroom, one bath space to house out-of-town guests, but Berlin's husband uses the coach house for practicing his drums.