Moving to a new city can be daunting in so many ways. Starting a new job, potentially knowing no one, and of course–having to find housing. Having lived in Washington, DC for just over three years now (over 3.5 if you count the semester + summer I spent here in college), I finally feel like I have some good information to share on the lodging front.
I’ve also solicited some advice from some of my local blogging girlfriends…between us, we cover a sizable portion of the immediate DC-area neighborhood wise and have all had different experiences when it comes to the apartment search (hence a little contradictory advice at times). Full disclosure that I don’t really go into group houses specifically, since I’ve only lived in apartments while in the city.
This is a text-heavy post, but hopefully it’s helpful!
HOW TO FIND HOUSING IN DC TIP#1: LEARN THE NEIGHBORHOODS
It feels weird to put this above “know your budget,” but if you’re moving to a new city for the first time and don’t know the lay of the land, it’s hard to get started. DC proper is divided into four quadrants (Northwest, Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest), and each offers something different. Most people I know who live in the District live in NW, followed by some in NE and SE. Others live in Arlington or Alexandria, VA, which are both just a short metro ride away from the city (can be compared to Hoboken or Brooklyn to Manhattan).
Apartment hunting in DC can be a bit of a game of luck. Things are usually very fast moving. I have only rented directly through apartment buildings. I chose this route because when you go to preview a community, you know exactly what they’ll have available and when. You aren’t having to work through landlords or worry with scams. You also tend to get more for your money, modern conveniences and sometimes pool access. I also recommend looking in “up and coming” areas, as those tend to offer the best bang for your buck! Some of these include H Street, Shaw and the Navy Yard. – Kristyn
HOW TO FIND HOUSING IN DC TIP#2: KNOW YOUR BUDGET
After understanding the neighborhoods, determine your budget. Many recent graduates–myself included–come to DC with an internship or low paying job on the Hill that can make finding reasonably priced accommodations a nightmare. Figure out what you’ll be earning (after taxes), whether you’ll have any additional sources of income (a side job of some sort), and/or whether your parents may be willing to help out a bit. The latter isn’t always possible, but if it is, can be enormously helpful while you get on your feet. My parents graciously chipped in for rent when I first moved here, and I was able to live off my small intern salary for everything else. The city is expensive, but definitely not as pricey as NYC or San Francisco.
Like every city, group houses are almost always the least expensive route. I know people who have moved into a row house with friends and paid almost half of what I do in rent, and know some who have moved into a house with strangers; both saved hundreds compared to what they would have paid to live in an apartment with one other person. Bottom line: generally speaking, it’s going to cost the most to live on your own, followed by with one or two roommates in an apartment, followed by a group house.
For my most recent move, I scoured Craigslist. I narrowed the search by neighborhood (Dupont, Shaw, Logan). Since DC is such a hot rental market, I emailed the contact immediately if I was interested in the property and tried to schedule a viewing ASAP. Apartments and condos go SO fast so you have to be prepared to commit quickly. One thing I always considered was whether or not I liked the landlord. I prefer living in an individually owned space as compared to a space run by a management company. A good landlord can make all the difference when problems arise. Another word from the wise on using Craigslist – If it seems to good to be true, it most likely is. – Ashlee
HOW TO FIND HOUSING IN DC TIP#3: SET YOUR NON-NEGOTIABLES
We all have at least something we absolutely need in our living space. Almost all post-grads will agree that having your own room is the number one priority, but in addition to that and location, consider how important amenities like a gym, pool, 24-hour front desk, etc. are to you. Keep in mind that all those fun extras generally mean higher rent, so be willing to settle for your first year or two out while your budget may be smaller.
My current apartment was recommended to me by a friend who was living in the building. There were a ton of units open when my fiancé and I looked–it was just a matter of timing. For some reason, our building doesn’t start leases in the beginning of the month but rather sporadically throughout the month. The biggest challenge was finding a unit we liked with a move in date that didn’t overlap too much with our current living situations. My advice here is to be sure you have at least two weeks of double rent saved up in case your leases overlap.
I found my previous apartment by walking around the neighborhood I wanted to live in, identifying apartment buildings, and calling the building about possible vacancies. I started this process about two months in advance of my needed move in to give myself plenty of time to find a building. – Nicole
HOW TO FIND HOUSING IN DC TIP#4: CONSIDER YOUR COMMUTE
They say the average American commutes about 50 minutes each day to get to and from work, which can easily be more when you live in a city (thanks, #SafeTrack). I’ve been so lucky to have a <30 minute commute for every jobs/internships I’ve held, but that’s rare in a city where rent is so high and some of the best jobs are actually outside city limits. Decide what you’re open to–maybe you’re someone who’s unfazed by commuting an hour each way–and let that help inform your accommodations. I know that having a long commute would wear on me enough to where I’d rather pay more to live somewhere closer to work, but if that doesn’t bother you, it’s a great way to potentially save a few bucks per month.
“My commute had started wearing on me so I decided to casually browse for apartments closer to work but there didn’t seem to be much on the market. I mentioned I was looking to one of my friends and she said her neighbor emailed her that morning that he’d be moving out in 2 weeks. I reached out to the management after he gave them his vacancy notice and moved in later that month!” – Lauren
HOW TO FIND HOUSING IN DC TIP#5: TIME YOUR SEARCH WELL, IF POSSIBLE
Summer generally means slim pickings and higher rent, especially if you’re going through an apartment building’s leasing office. This is particularly the case in a city with so many young people–interns are coming and going, and people are moving here post-graduation. I’ve heard that January and February are some of the best months to rent (I mean, who wants to move in the dead of winter), especially if you’re looking at apartment buildings whose leasing offices are eager to fill vacancies and may be offering a better deal.
“If at all possible, find a way to wait and sign a lease in September or October. Whether that means living at your parent’s house, subletting for a few months, or couch surfing, it’s definitely worth getting out of the prime summer leasing season. Apartment buildings can cut you better deals, movers will be less in demand, and you’ll have cooler weather to lug all your stuff around.” – Katie
HOW TO FIND HOUSING IN DC TIP#6: USE THE RIGHT SITES
Padmapper and Craigslist (even if you aren’t looking for random roommates) are my two favorites. As people have mentioned above, try going through the sites of buildings that look good to you–that’s actually how I found my current place.
“I found my apartment after having a friend in the area check it out for me since I was searching from out of state. After searching for a place from another city, I had narrowed it down to a specific location and decided the only way I would know for sure what it was like would be having a friend go to the open house for me. I found the listing on HotPads.com and not more than an hour after I got the “okay” from my friend (and by “okay” I mean normal property manager, considerable closet space, and awesome views), I had applied online and luckily was accepted.” – Laura
HOW TO FIND HOUSING IN DC TIP#7: GET CREATIVE
It’s come up before, but I currently live in a converted one bedroom. My former roommate and I, with the permission of our landlord and building management, had a floor-to-ceiling wall installed when we first moved in to split the living room in half. I have the “temporary” bedroom, and this means we split the cost of a one bedroom apartment. This is fairly common practice in DC and NYC (let me know if you need a contractor reference, ours was pretty good), and is a great way to live in a pricier neighborhood on a smaller budget. More on my place in this post from the Washington Post Express article that was published a couple of years ago!
I wanted to share my experience about finding housing in DC, because I think it will assure you that finding a place at a reasonable price in an expensive neighborhood is possible with both a combination hard work and some luck.
When I moved here right after graduating in May 2013, I lived with three of my good friends from college. By about March, the four of us knew we were going to be working in DC post-grad and knew we ideally wanted to live together. That’s where we were met with problem one: four bedroom apartments in this city do not exist. 99% of the time, they literally do not. We were strongly partial to an apartment over a house (reasons being maintenance, amenities, and a front desk person) and definitely wanted our own rooms. As luck would have it, my friend S and I were in the library one day and she was scanning Craigslist, continuing to gchat me random listings as she had been doing over the previous couple of weeks. Most of them were in not so great areas (she didn’t know the geography of the city well), but randomly, one was. And it was a four bedroom apartment in one of the neighborhoods we’d been eyeing, plus was within our budgets!
I was confident it was a scam, but we decided to call the number anyway and left a message. About two hours later, a nice sounding girl called me back…she was one of the current tenants and was helping rent the place. Long story short, we had my mom’s friend in DC go check the place out during its open house a couple days later. He called us from there, we had the photos from the listing, and we said we’d take it. Note that at this point we’d all brought our parents up to speed–all of them needed to cosign because our incomes weren’t high enough; more on this below–and they’d given us permission to move forward.
Looking back, I think what really helped us get the apartment over the other people at the open house was a) sort of building a relationship with the girls who lived there and were helping rent the place–we asked them questions and just bonded a little over being young 20-somethings, b) having my mom’s friend check the place out–it showed we were serious even though we couldn’t make it there ourselves and c) we were girls. I hate saying this, but a few of the other interested parties were boys in college, and generally speaking, landlords would generally prefer to rent to four professional females. Some college boys moved in after us and the place got trashed quickly!
I’m going to be totally honest and open here in hopes that it helps give some context about the DC rental market–I am very confident you can easily live well with a roommate in DC for under $1400/month, and know many people who could say the same. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but based on my experience, people I know who don’t live alone, and a lot of apartment searching for myself and others (I find it fun to do!), really think its possible.
MISC. THINGS TO NOTE ABOUT FINDING HOUSING IN DC:
– Cosigning: Depending on your income relative to your monthly rent, you may need a consigner/guarantor (generally a parent or family member/close family friend) on your lease. I think the cutoff varies by landlord, but essentially what this means is that someone is backing you up in case you cannot pay your rent. There are different rules when it comes to roommates, too–at least in my experience, the landlord looks at the total income between all parties living in an apartment relative to the total rent, meaning having a roommate (or roommates) who also bring in salaries could make your total income high enough.
– Brokers: Unlike in NYC, brokers aren’t really a thing for renting in DC. While the market does move fast, you’re generally on your own. The biggest plus is that this saves lots of $!
– Consider utilities: It’s not the biggest expense, but they can add up–it’s always a plus to find an apartment where utilities are included. DC summers get hot and winters are cold, so it’s kind of nice not to have to stress about a fluctuating electric bill. Also, not having to pay for water is a dream!
– Other resources: If you’re looking for info on apartment searching in NYC, read Krista’s posts (this one and this one)–they also have some great non-NYC specific tips. And if you’re moving soon, give Kristyn’s moving tips post a read–it’s a great checklist of sorts!
If you have any more tips to add, comment below…also feel free to email (firstname.lastname@example.org)/comment/tweet me any questions!