Apartment Hunting in D.C. — You’re Not in Kansas Anymore

A change is gonna come soon, and it ain’t gonna be just at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Arguably, that change will be the most important one. But we’re talking real estate here. The change in occupants at the White House will accompany D.C.’s Big Exodus of Losers and Big Influx of Winners. The Winners will have to live somewhere, and many of them will undoubtedly live in apartments previously occupied by Losers.

On any given day, thousands of apartments are available for rent in D.C. Zillow lists about 1,200, and Apartments.com lists almost 5,500, but a few are over the border in Maryland. These online tools have little markers on a map representing each available apartment, and as you use filters to increase the rent, the markers start disappearing from the south and east until there’s only a few left in the west just north of the Potomac. (The most expensive one, in Woodley Park, is $15,000 a month — no kidding!)

Although the listings are numerous, they might not be places you want to live (if you want to live long), or they might be places you’d like to live, if you had five or 10 grand a month to drop on luxury surroundings. What to do? (You may want to check out this advice from U.S. News & World Report about how to find an apartment in D.C., but it’s mostly for newbies to the area.)

NY vs. DC

We all know how hard it can be to find a decent apartment, and we know how it’s done in NYC — you read the obits, check the addresses, then make a beeline for that building, hoping to be the first in line to take over poor old Aunt Ethel’s apartment. Sadly, when you get there, you often find others have beaten you (perhaps people who knew she had been sick), depriving you of the chance to move into that spacious two-bedroom and begin the attempt to eradicate the uniquely comingled odor of Friskies Ocean Whitefish & Tuna Dinner, Bon Ami and Cream of Wheat.

Here in D.C., we do it differently. Our apartment searches are based less on actual deaths than on political deaths — those of people who have been indicted, who say they have “sinned against God” or who look like they might be (or should be) checking into rehab soon. When we turn on CNN to see a guilty-faced man in front of dozens of cameras and microphones, flanked by a professionally coiffed, long-suffering Vassar alum, we know where that’s going.

We run to our computers, we mine our contacts, trying to find out who their staffers are and where they live, ’cause they-all are going to be moving soon. In fact, some of them may have to break their leases. They may leave good furniture behind in their haste to beat it out of here, or at least a SmarTrip card with a few bucks on it. It can be a gold mine for those of us left behind.

Take an Easier Route

Still. This takes effort. You might get a better break finding an apartment in an election year. It’s true, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not in the market for the digs currently occupied by Obama’s staff — “Class A” in real estate lingo. You want to know where the good Class B’s are — the ones that are nice, but not so nice you’re forced to get a roommate — the kind who forever taints your coffee maker with ground hazelnut and says she knows you’re allergic to cats, she doesn’t have a cat in her room and that meowing must be coming from upstairs.

Step 1 should be settling on a location. Check out this map of D.C. neighborhoods and their average rents. Head over and scope out your target areas during the day, at night and on the weekend to make sure you like them and they seem safe.

Crime has an impact on vacancy levels. Violent crimes have risen and fallen over the years in D.C., but everyone knows the amount of crime you see is somewhat dependent on where you live. In the last 10 years alone, the city has gentrified H Street, U Street and the Navy Yard as well as other neighborhoods. (Of course there’s not less crime, it just moved somewhere else. Once it gets pushed over the city limits, owners are free to raise rents.)

Step 2 should be keeping an eye out for vacancies in your target areas, and attending open houses there on the weekends. But also keep your ear to the ground for inside leads, and always keep a copy of your paperwork with you, like paystubs and your credit report, just in case you come across a real find that you don’t want to risk losing.

And Step 3 is to be patient. A lot of people whose jobs evaporate don’t move away. These transplants have become addicted to high humidity, wingtips, $15 cocktails and endless debates on topics like the next SCOTUS nominee. Besides, it takes time to find the right place, and even when you think you have, it might not turn out to be what you expected.

In this city, if you like it, then you should put a ring on it before someone else does. It’s not a like a marriage, or a tour of duty, or a tattoo (yes, these are listed in order of their expected longevity). Most leases are only a year — don’t be afraid to commit!


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