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Miss the food, not the taxes: Chicagoans explain why they left for neighboring states

By Carisa Crawford Chappell, Chicago Tribune

Many Chicagoans wouldn’t trade the city — its lakefront, skyline, energy and diversity — for the world.

Others, after sticking it out for years or decades, opt to leave for neighboring states like Indiana and Wisconsin for a variety of reasons.

A recent Tribune investigation found that the top motivation for leaving the Land of Lincoln was a new job or job transfer. But those who pack up in search of more affordable housing and cheaper property taxes are also a motivated bunch.

Real estate professionals like Tom Keefe, owner of Keefe Real Estate in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, have noticed an influx of Chicago residents moving to The Badger State for a number of reasons, but the lower tax burden seems to trump them all.

“For the same size house in Illinois, taxes are triple and quadruple what they are in Wisconsin. And a lot of people think the services here are just as good, if not better, particularly when it comes to schooling,” he said.

Illinois property taxes average 2.31% (based on the state’s median home value), surpassed only by New Jersey’s rate of 2.44%, according to the most recent analysis by finance website WalletHub. Wisconsin ranked 5th at 1.94%, Indiana ranked 29th at 0.87%.

Keefe has offices on both sides of the Wisconsin-Illinois border. His agents have noticed a gradual increase in Illinois residents moving to Wisconsin over the past five years, with interest really kicking up in the last 12 months.

Jason and Lesley Grothe recently moved from Chicago’s southwest suburbs to Lake Geneva, where they lived for a few years more than a decade ago. The couple bought a condo in the resort town five years ago, primarily for weekends and vacations, with the intention of retiring there.

After debating for some time, that permanent move came sooner than expected. The couple bought a single-family home in the gated golf club community of Geneva National and plans to sell the condo.

“We love the natural beauty of Wisconsin and definitely appreciate the lower taxes,” said Lesley Grothe, who believes her kids will benefit too.

Grothe said Wisconsin will offer much better schools and support services for their 7-year-old son with special needs, and their older daughters will have an abundance of options for activities and outdoor athletics.

“We will miss our friends and neighbors the most. Illinois will always be special to us as we both grew up in Illinois. But we are right across the border,” Lesley said.

Many, like Jason Grothe, commute from the cheese state to jobs in Illinois, which Keefe said is common and takes anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours, depending on trains and locations.

To the east, Indiana is another hotbed for Chicago transplants, including commuters.

Until recently, Huma Farook and her husband, the principal of Chatham Academy High School, both worked in Chicago, commuting from Hammond, Ind. Farook recently launched a health and wellness business out of her home and no longer commutes, but said the drive was about 20 minutes on a good day and 45 with traffic.

“It’s close enough where you’re not missing out on museums or culture. It’s not at your fingertips. You might have to seek it out a little more, but I’m OK with that,” she said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who have moved out here, who don’t want to the live in the city, for a number of reasons.”

The victim of a restructuring at Humana in Chicago in 2010, Cara Thomas short-saled her home, found a new job and moved to Fishers, Ind., a suburb of Indianapolis. She first stayed with a friend in Indiana for a “dry run,” and hasn’t looked back.

Thomas pays $1,020 for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment and said that same apartment would run about $1,300 in Chicago. She said it didn’t take long to acclimate with her daughter to their new surroundings.

“You have to miss the food when you leave Chicago, because Chicago has everything. Down here, it’s a lot of chain restaurants,” she said. “Sometimes I just want a gyro.”

But over the years, restaurants like Giordano’s, Aurelio’s Pizza and Portillo’s have opened in Fishers, which has experienced a 20.7% increase in population from 2010 to 2018.

“I really like it. My dad was a little skeptical because I was coming down here without a support system,” she said. But being just over two hours away, Thomas said she can easily get home when she wants.

Maria Najera-Zmija moved her family from the far southeast side to Portage, Ind. She works at the University of Chicago and moved for the economics and better schools, noting that she doesn’t miss the high taxes and crime.

“The cost of living in Indiana is much cheaper. You get a lot more house for your money,” she said. “It’s actually shorter than traveling in from a lot of Illinois suburbs and parts of the city.”

Peter Novak, CEO of the Greater Northwest Indiana Association of Realtors, acknowledged the growing migration of Illinois residents. “Builders can’t build homes fast enough. Our members are dealing with Illinois residents all the time,” he said.

A “Move to Indiana” campaign even targets Illinois residents — and their wallets — saying the grass is greener on the other side.

“You’d rather pay $1,546 in Indiana than a whopping $3,959 in Illinois,” it touts. “Property tax on the median Illinois home is nearly triple what it costs for a home of the same value in Indiana.”

Craig Yarbrough, a Chicago real estate investor and developer, said even the fees and fines associated with having a car in the city drive some residents out. But compared to other large metropolitan areas, he said, it’s still affordable.

“I don’t want to live anywhere except Chicago. It’s a bargain and has everything New York has, except it’s less expensive, less crowded and cleaner. I think people are crazy for not appreciating it.”

Gail Spreen, a broker at Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty and chair of the Chicago Association of Realtors’ government advocacy forum, agrees.

“It’s not like we’re New York and San Francisco. We have so many neighborhoods and so much history in each neighborhood and multiple price points throughout the city,” she said.

Chicago-area counties grow older and less white, new census data shows »

In regard to high taxes and fees, Spreen recommends that residents monitor their property assessments closely and get assistance appealing them if necessary.

“There are opportunities for people to be able to reduce their assessed values. Everybody should be taking that opportunity to lower their property taxes any way they can. If they’re not getting their homeowners exemption, they should be getting that — or their senior discounts,” she said.

Bronzeville resident Martha Madkins opted to stay in Chicago after taking a job at Lakeland University in Wisconsin, where she lived in a campus-area apartment. She recently left the position but used to drive to Sheboygan on Mondays and back to Chicago on the weekends, a 2.5-hour drive each way.

“It’s a nice town, but there’s nothing for me to do on the weekends. It was basically a lack of culture,” she said. “The whole idea of working in another state was a decision I had to make, and it worked. The commute wasn’t bad and I made it fun,” she added.

But keeping her Cook County address has drawbacks. “It’s hurting my escrow account. They just paid my taxes out of my escrow. I looked and I was in the negative and I have put extra money in,” she said.

Spreen said it’s important to not base any relocation decision on just one factor, like property taxes. She suggests residents in limbo look at the whole picture, and what the city offers year-round. “This is all part of a much bigger picture ... you really have to balance everything out."

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