Washington, DC is a very transient place. Many people come here for work, stay a year or two, and then leave. Tourists visit for even shorter periods of time, overcrowding our mass transit system with their excessive luggage and unbelievably loud voices for only days at a time. Due to this status as either a hotel or a short-term rental destination, many do not fully comprehend Washington’s housing situation. However, having moved five times in less than two years, I feel that I have reluctantly established myself as a DC housing expert.
When I first moved here in early 2013, I had a paid internship locked down but was still applying non-stop for something more permanent and with benefits. Within three weeks, I managed to somehow secure a government contractor job with a salary that was 50% more than I had requested. Despite this sudden increase in my income, I decided to still look for a conservatively priced room in a group house, where I could meet other young professionals and save at least part of my paycheck.
I quickly realized that getting a job in DC might be ridiculously easier than being accepted to a group house here. With a median age of 34, DC is swamped with young, accomplished people who have come to the capital city determined to make a difference and/or pad their resumes. This unique demographic is incredibly driven and will seemingly do anything to outdo their peers and secure a spot in a DC rowhouse or apartment. Further adding to this competition, DC regulations limit the height of buildings, which creates a very high cost of living and forcing much of the metro area to sprawl out into nearby Virginia and Maryland.
After responding to countless Craigslist ads and visiting more than a dozen places, I finally found a recently renovated rowhouse in the Northwest neighborhood of Petworth, which was just then beginning to gentrify. A hot topic in the DC housing field, gentrification has its supporters and its critics. Moving into this house might imply that I support it, but I really just wanted an affordable place to live. Because I had no say in deciding who else would live in the house, I had to make due with certain qualities that I find undesirable in roommates. Some didn’t clean. One had the heaviest footsteps I have ever heard. Another threw a tantrum, complete with door-slamming and screaming phone conversations at 11:00 p.m. when his boyfriend broke up with him. This is on top of the mouse problem and the ceiling that leaked every time someone took a shower. It seemed that the landlord was a little too eager to flip the property and had overlooked a few details. When I finished up my seven-month lease, I decided to try not living with complete strangers and find a place with my best friend from college and her friend, who were both Georgetown Law students.
I originally agreed to this living arrangement thinking that the three of us would search for a place together over the summer. However, they both accepted internships abroad, leaving me with the task of hunting down a three-bedroom living space on my own. If finding one bedroom in a DC group house is difficult, then finding a place for three people to live starting in September is the work of the devil himself. Because of DC’s large student population, much of the housing cycle revolves around the academic year. Demand is high in the fall right before classes start and also in May when students flock to DC for summer internships and recent grads move here for their first real world jobs. Despite months of devoting my free time to finding the perfect place, nothing really struck my fancy. But, I was confident that something would appear closer to our move-in date. In DC, you can answer a Craigslist ad one day and be fully moved in the next. The one week I was out of town at the end of that summer, the third roommate decided on a place, signed the lease, and paid her part of the deposit. A quick tour of the apartment, which was overpriced, a block away from a homeless shelter, and had uneven floors, made me decide that maybe this situation wasn’t going to work for me.
After some tears, the two girls moved in together and I, once again, was on the search for a single room in a group house, this time with a deadline of one week. By some higher power, I found a spacious house with two roommates and a cat in Bloomingdale. An even less gentrified neighborhood than Petworth, Bloomingdale straddles North Capitol Street, the barrier between Washington’s Northwest and Northeast quadrants. With a much lower rent, this new place was significantly further from a metro station than my Petworth house was and hadn’t been renovated as recently. I thought its flaws gave the place character and was sad when my landlord sold it to a young couple forcing me to relocate after nine months.
At this point, I had reached a crossroads in my DC life. I was bored of being underworked and (I thought) overpaid for my government job and was hoping to find something less mundane and more fulfilling. Despite making some good friends, I was also tired of my futile attempts to enter DC’s dating scene, and I openly applied to jobs located elsewhere, thinking that my soul mate must be in another city. Because I was uncertain of where a new job would take me and when, I accepted a summer sublet a block north of U Street, a popular spot for trendy bars and restaurants. The location and having my own bathroom made the rent at this place significantly higher, but I thought the three-month commitment was doable. It was also awesome to be able to walk home in five minutes after a night out.
When September rolled around, I had a new job lined up and decided that in order to stay sane in DC, I had to live alone. I no longer wanted to do other people’s dishes or be required to wear pants in common areas. Most of my options for living alone were either studio apartments or basements, but I lucked into a great one-bedroom apartment in Columbia Heights, a neighborhood gentrified to the max with its own Target, Giant, and Chipotle. It also lies in the Northwest quadrant and bridges my previous stomping grounds of Petworth and U Street. The rent is the highest I have paid yet in DC and almost twice as much as some of the places I lived before. I have to drag my laundry to the basement and pay for every load with quarters. But, I am overwhelmingly happy with where I’m at and have no plans to move any time soon.
The DC housing search was one of the most soul-crushing and frustrating tasks I have undertaken. Yet, I somehow overcame the odds and found four livable places, all with positives and negatives. My advice for amateur DC housing hunters would be:
- Cast a wide net when looking for places to live. Craigslist and Padmapper are great starting points and often people are who they say they are. Using the map and pricing range features can also make you realize that you don’t want to live where you originally thought you did.
- It’s ok to be choosy about who you live with. It’s ok to not want to live with your best friend. Maybe it’s better to move in with strangers or try it solo.
- Don’t fall for scams. If a place has been listed for more than a week, something’s likely wrong with it. If someone says he moved to Africa and will mail you the key to the apartment via FedEx, it’s probably a scam.
- Accept gentrification. It’s a part of capital city living.
- Don’t be afraid of commitment. Many places require a yearlong lease, which can seem pretty daunting to the stereotypical young achiever who might not be looking to settle down just yet. But, I have heard numerous stories of people subletting or finding someone to takeover the remainder of their lease. This isn’t guaranteed, but people know how transient DC is.