4 lessons I learned as a plumber’s apprentice

My father’s ‘gift of grit’ taught me the value of hard work, teamwork,  humility and purpose 

 As seen on InMan.com




I was 12 years old when my father, Danny Michael, got into the real estate business. His office was in the Chicago women’s clothing store, known as the “Shmatte,” on Lawrence Avenue — his first major toehold in the entrepreneurial world 

I was growing out of the mischievous kid who would play hide-and-seek inside my dad’s shop and was coming into my own as a curious teen. 

A few years later is when my dad began teaching me the “gift of grit.” This was also my first hard-core introduction to the “family business” — property investment, maintenance and management. 

One of my first clues that I was about to embark on this lesson was the sound of a honking car horn waking me up one early June morning, days after I had finished my sophomore year of high school in 1987. My dad said, “Oh, that’s for you. That’s my friend, Raffi. He’s a plumber. You’ve got a job with him. You’re his apprentice for the summer. Go get a shirt and shorts on and get in his van. Make it fast.” 

Over the next few months, five days a week, that horn marked the start of my work day. I would trudge outside and climb into his van – which reeked of plumber’s silicone grease and had no air conditioning – and be taken to work at dozens of buildings in and around Chicago. 

Among the many jobs we did, I worked in the bowels of The Chicago Theatre, learning construction from Raffi. He set me up to work with other trades, so I learned about carpentry, plaster repair, painting, a little electric, plumbing and more. 

Of all those lessons I gained that summer, the most valuable ones guide me to this day: 

  1. Appreciation of manual labor

I gained a true appreciation for those doing the actual hard work and manual labor; I learned how to work with my hands and not be afraid of getting dirty. 

Now, I am often on-site during all phases of construction on our buildings. While I obviously don’t do the work myself, I understand what’s being done and can play a meaningful role in managing it. 

I think we have better relationships with our plumbers, electricians, tile guys and other trades partners because I understand what goes into performing each task. Likewise, because I have a broker’s license and have leased apartments before, I’m also comfortable giving advice to the leasing agents with whom we work. I have been in the trenches, literally and figuratively. 

Real estate agents gain immense credibility with their clients when they can speak with an above-average knowledge about construction. Buyers and sellers really appreciate an agent discussing and knowing what a property may require, the possible costs, potential pitfalls, if it’s worth doing (to prepare for sale), when a seller has gone the extra mile with their home, etc. A quality property is much more than the eye candy — recessed lights, crown moldings, stainless-steel appliances, soft-close doors and drawers, etc. — that attracts most buyers. 

Agents should spend time with contractors to up their game. Imagine pointing out poor work to a buyer and helping them negotiate a better price with the first offer or avoid a property entirely. Or, conversely, pointing out excellent work that was very expensive and the value it adds to a property (wood, replacement windows vs. vinyl; a deck made of cedar; quality cabinetry vs. the cheap but nice-looking stuff; energy efficient HVAC equipment and more). Knowing these things also helps an agent sell their listings better. 

  1. Be open about what you don’t know

I learned to follow instructions and accept that there is no shame in knowing what you don’t know. 

I’m extremely comfortable seeking out and taking advice from others whose expertise is stronger than mine in a wide variety of areas. I regularly consult my father about ideas, challenges and acquisitions. I discuss all our business and financial decisions with our controller, and I’m quite involved with the broader real estate community. Many of these other professionals are great sources of advice and insights. And, of course, I consult with our contractors to know what kind of budget we’ll need to make an older building into the kind of property we’re proud to rent. 

  1. Teamwork

I learned how to be part of a team. Horizon has grown only because of the hard work and dedication of many talented people. I make a point to remember this every day: Horizon is not me or my dad; it’s the team we belong to and support. 

No man is an island, and in this business, that’s doubly true. Everyone plays a key role in making our business function like a well-oiled machine. Granted, we’ve had our share of hiccups and bumps, but we’ve always gotten re-aligned through the collective effort of our team members. 

  1. Have an honorable purpose

I learned that the many tasks had a common goal, and a strong purpose – to make these buildings better for the benefit and pleasure of those who lived and worked in them. 

Having a strong, viable portfolio in this business is entirely dependent on two things: keeping your properties in great condition and ensuring they are rented to good tenants. Creating a nice place to live at a fair price is in Horizon’s best interests too — doing so keeps our buildings occupied, our portfolio valued on the higher end and our tenants happy, which is hugely valuable in its own right. 

Consistent with this focus, we keep our construction crews busy and active by renovating units within our portfolio. A month does not go by where we are not renovating at least a handful of units at a time. 

My father, a self-taught individual who came to the U.S. from Israel in the early 1960s with only an eighth-grade education, could have shielded me from these in-the-trenches experiences. But he knew that entrepreneurial spirit, strong work ethic and the ability to see opportunities and take risks don’t automatically get passed on to the next generation. 

Final thoughts 

Would I say that I enjoyed my summer? Not at all. It wasn’t camp. That experience was something much more valuable and important — it was growing up. And it was transformative. 

Over three decades later, the “Shmatte” store that started my father’s business is now the headquarters for Horizon Realty Group, which owns one of the most admired privately held apartment portfolios on Chicago’s North Side. My appreciation for that summer job – and the lifelong lessons that came with it – grows stronger everyday. 

Jeffrey Michael is chief operating officer at Horizon Realty Group in Chicago, Illinois. Connect with him on LinkedIn. 

Article image credited to Kamira / Shutterstock.com 

What to Expect when Renting an Apartment in Chicago

Finding a home in a large city like Chicago is not easy. There are a lot of questions that need to be factored in before committing to a whole year of living in a building. In this guide, we will factor what to expect and look for when searching for a new apartment home. When done correctly, you’ll be happy with your apartment home for years to come!


Factor location and move-in date

It doesn’t matter if you are looking for a new apartment with a broker or on your own via Craigslist, you will need to determine key aspects in your apartment search such as location, price and move-in date. The move-in date is especially important to brokers because this will determine which apartments they can show you. If your move-in date is June 1, they will not be able to show you an apartment that’s available for May 1 as it will probably be rented before you can move in.

Another reason why this date is so important is because Brokers will need to give tenants a heads-up on when their apartment is shown. If you’re interested in seeing an apartment that is currently occupied, the tenant typically needs a 24-hour notice before you can arrive.

Will you want a shorter or longer commute to work? Or is living near a grocery store more important? Knowing your values will enhance your probability of enjoying your new apartment.


Know your price

Finding a specific price-point will make your search a lot easier. To be approved for an apartment you typically will need to show a few pay stubs proving that you make 3x the amount of monthly rent for the unit. So, if your dream apartment costs $1,000 a month, your monthly income should be at least $3,000.

If you do not make 3x the amount of your monthly rent, you might be able to get a guarantor who can sign off for you.


Preparing for your move

So you’ve found your perfect apartment and landed a great price. Your move-in date is in two weeks and you cannot wait to get in and decorate!

Not so fast… In order to prepare for a smooth move and a happy one, a few things need to be accomplished.

About two weeks before your move, you should receive an email from the property manager who will inform you on what to expect in your building. For example, if Internet is provided, they will most likely send you a link to do so online.

The property manager will also be in touch to schedule your move-in time. In a larger building, many times there are a few different move-ins in one day. Organizing a time to use the elevator and pick up your keys will be helpful for everyone.


Moving Tips

First, we recommend you get some boxes. Moving boxes can be ordered from U-Haul or Amazon as well as a variety of other buildings. It makes a huge difference when you’re organized for your move!

Second, establish if you need a moving company or will go the DIY route. If you have more than a couch and a couple of boxes, we recommend hiring a moving company to do the heavy lifting. Many options are available in Chicago such as Windy City Movers, In & Out moving or The Professional Moving Specialists.

Third, know where to park. Every building is different when it comes to moving in. Will you be using the back of the door to move in or the main entrance? Is there a specific elevator? Answering these questions can possibly save you from a ticket or tow.


Move-in Follow Up

Within the first week of your move you will be asked to fill out an apartment walkthrough sheet. Here you can note any damages or issues you find with the apartment. Be sure to be precise as this is the same sheet you will be handed during your move-out walkthrough. Any major damages found after your move-out walkthrough will be applied to your move-in fee. Depending on how much the damages are when you move out, you might be charged more. Below is what you can be charged for when you move out:

  • Extra cleaning to kitchen
  • Carpet stains
  • Broken shades or blinds
  • Damages to walls


Have any other questions about moving in Chicago? Let us know in the comments below!

5 Tips to Block Out a Noisy Neighbor

Ah, the noisy neighbor. Having neighbors in close proximity is one of the joys of urban apartment dwelling. Sitcoms have been based on this exact situation for decades. Friends, Seinfeld, The Jeffersons, The Big Bang Theory. The list could go on and on. While there are many benefits to having neighbors, like, having someone close by to leave a spare set of keys with, someone to feed your cat or walk your dog or just someone to make you not feel alone in the big old city. There can be some bummer aspects as well; Loud music seeping through the floorboards, a lonely pet waiting for their owner to get home whining, a loud party you were not invited to.

As long as these are not constant problems, these quick tips should help you make it through the night without starting a war.

  1. White Noise – There is always the good old-fashioned fan to drown out the noise. And…Of course there is an app for that! Check out Simply Noise. The website states, “White noise is the most effective at blocking distractions because it covers the largest spectrum range. It’s great for reading, writing, studying, and anything else that requires focus.”
  2. Block it out – Curtains and carpets are great ways to soak up some sounds. Not only will area rugs help block some sound from surrounding apartments, you will seem quieter to your neighbors as well. Seal all openings you can. This will help with city noise in general.
  3. Move your furniture – This might be the same as “Block it out”, but if your bed is against the offending wall, move it. You can also add a heavy curtain to the wall to help soak up the sound before it gets to you.
  4. Earplugs – If you live in the city and ever go to see a band play, you should have these anyway. Here is a pretty extensive list of earplugs and links to purchase.
  5. Talk it out – It can’t hurt! A simple note under the door or a quick conversation can work wonders. They may have no idea they are keeping you up. If you do that and the problem persists, call your property manager.


Do you have other noisy neighbor blocking tips? Share in the comments.