Under the leadership of Planek brothers Bob and Bill, Oak Park Apartments has been fixing up vintage buildings and renting them out for over 30 years. The company recently set its sights on two vintage apartment buildings at Washington and Taylor in Oak Park and with a thorough rehab, turned an eyesore into an asset.
Bob Planek says that before Oak Park Apartments (OPA) purchased the buildings in 2018, they had been vacant for a couple of winters.
“Once you go through a winter with no heat, things start to deteriorate,” he said.
The Washington building suffered from a damaged third-floor skylight, plaster was peeling off the walls, and snow puddled on the floor.
While taking care of the big systems, like roofs, HVAC, electrical and plumbing, which were a key part of the rehabilitation work, the company turned to their tenants to inform many of the choices they made to turn the 1920s era buildings into places people would want to live almost 100 years after they were first constructed.
Talking to tenants
Bob Planek said OPA conducts exit interviews with tenants when they move out to get their feedback on what works and what doesn’t in buildings. Bob’s wife Wendy, who works in social media outreach for the company says, “We also solicit feedback on social media. We want to make sure what we’re doing going forward jibes with what they want.”
Not so long ago, vintage apartments were long on charm and often short on the amenities that new construction could offer. According to Bob Planek, tenants were quite vocal about wanting certain amenities in their older apartments.
“In older apartments inevitably, there was no dishwasher,” he said. “We knew we had to add them, and now they’re just standard issue.”
Another topic that kept coming up? In-unit laundry. Turns out, tenants weren’t too keen on schlepping their laundry baskets down to a communal laundry room in a basement. In response, OPA incorporated in-unit laundry in the apartments in both 101-103 Washington and 409-411 Taylor.
Forced-air heating and air conditioning are other perks renters seek out, and OPA added this to the buildings as well. Bob Planek said that not only saves tenants the hassle of having to install window units, but it tends to make the units warmer in winter, too, as many tenants tended to leave in window units year-round, leading to drafty rooms during the colder months of the year.
He says that in rehabbing vintage buildings, adding new kitchens is always a no-brainer. In the Taylor and Washington buildings, they opted for quartz countertops and classic finishes like subway tile.
While more expensive than laminate counters, hard-surface counters offer advantages in the long run.
“Laminate might last for two tenant turnovers, but quartz lasts a lot longer,” Wendy Planek said. “The company tries to be more environmentally conscious with materials like this and windows, insulation, appliances and lightbulbs.”
Beyond the basic comforts, Wendy Planek said OPA also keeps up a running dialogue with tenants about other aspects of the units. In vintage buildings like these, there are plenty of older features, and she asked tenants what they would like to see retained.
“A fireplace is a no-brainer, even if it’s not working,” she said.
Some of the Taylor Avenue units had original built-in cabinets, which they also kept, along with original doors and hardware whenever possible. Some of the Washington units retained their original niches for telephones.
While few tenants today use a rotary-dial land line, Wendy says they decided to keep the niches.
“We added a modern-day flip to it and made it a place to drop their keys and cell phones,” she said.
While tenants all like and request open floor plans, Bob Planek says that there’s a fine line between erasing all of the vintage charm and making the apartments more livable by today’s standards. While they do open up rooms to provide better flow, he says they stop short of gutting the buildings entirely.
“The choice you have as a landlord is to take everything out and go wall to wall,” Bob Planek said. “That costs a lot, and you lose all of the charm. You end up throwing a lot out. It can be a compromise between getting all of the amenities people want and keeping some of the character.”
The Taylor Avenue building is made up of two-bedroom units, while the Washington Boulevard building has units with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Bob Planek says that the three-bedroom, two-bath unit is “really like a unicorn in Oak Park,” noting that these units are ideal for families.
While there has been plenty of new apartment construction in the village, Bob Planek says OPA’s rehabbed vintage apartments are still in demand. Five of the six Taylor units were rented within days of going on the market. As finishing touches wrap up on the Washington building, as of press time, two of the seven units were already rented.
He admits that his buildings don’t command the sky-high rents of the new downtown Oak Park high-rises but says that rehabbing with intention does have a higher rate of return.
“We can actually come up with a formula for most of the additions,” he said. “Adding forced-air conditioning and heat might add a certain amount of value per month, updated kitchens and baths another amount, and in-unit laundry another. With these amenities, we might be able to get $300-350 a month more, for example.”
Wendy adds, “And, these units rent faster and people tend to stay. We see a much higher renewal rate among current tenants when the apartments look nice and have the desired amenities.”
Bob Planek said that Oak Park Apartments operates in a different rental space than the new high-rises.
“With the towers, they need to get on average $1,000 more in rent per month,” he said.
Beyond being a more affordable option, he says that a lot of people seek out Oak Park because they want the charm and character of living in an historic building.
“We don’t have to push Oak Park on people,” Bob Planek said. “They’re here because they want to be. We just have to give them what they want.”