DC Apartment Hunting Tips

Hado Photo
Hado Photo

This will hopefully be an even more detailed post at some point (maybe with Carrie!) but since several people have asked (and the end of the month is creeping up, which means it’s prime apartment hunting time), I figured I’d share a quick roundup of tips here in terms of what helped us during our search.

A disclaimer: There were a few times where I just wasn’t sure if we’d find something we loved before October 1 (I’d already given my current building notice that I would move out by that day), but thankfully, Carrie currently lives at home, and my parents live nearby, so we both had backup options. However, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea about paying to move my stuff home only to move it back into an apartment only a few weeks later, should we have found something for November 1. I’m glad that I can skip that step (and the stress that commute would bring!), although I’m thankful that my parents let me know that I could always crash with them for a bit if needed. 😉

When searching for apartments, we realized early on that we were both drawn to older buildings with character. I don’t know about you, but I’d always kind of pictured living with a roommate to mean living in a one-level unit in a modern high rise with two bedrooms, a living room, and a small kitchen area (and maybe some amenities, like a washer and dryer). However, DC is full of charming homes–and while they may not have the little luxuries that so many people love, like a front desk, gym, or swimming pool, they make up for this in terms of design. For example, we first (back in August!) looked at a row house on the Hill that had TWO living spaces, three bedrooms upstairs (although one was really more like a closet!), and *pocket doors* (I didn’t know what these were at the time, but I learned they’re something to be coveted!). Even better, it was very affordable with two people and would’ve been a steal should we have found a third roommate. We were pumped.

However, after grabbing gigantic margaritas and spending a few hours thinking about the place, we realized that it had its share of flaws. The upstairs bedrooms were covered in thick, brown carpet and had yellow walls, one was significantly bigger than the other two, the apartment was at least a 20 minute walk from the nearest metro, and utilities would certainly be high in such a big old house. We realized that maybe it wasn’t such a steal after all, because we didn’t want to be paying $$$ for electricity each month or relying on buses/Ubers because of the inconvenience of the metro. On to the next one, we decided!

Well…we looked at several “next ones” before finding our place in Dupont, and we learned a lot along the way! I feel silly bolding the tips below because they all seem very obvious, but trust me, they all fall into the category of “easier said than done,” so I’ll include ’em anyway.

First, pictures can be deceiving–both for better or for worse. While we were pleasantly surprised in some cases (we liked our place even more than we did in the pictures, which was saying a lot, because we were pretty into it from the first glance!), we also could tell when rooms/angles had been photoshopped a bit too much. One apartment we visited was so small that we left after about 30 seconds, and it was definitely a bummer because it appeared pretty comfortable in the pictures! Keep in mind that updates (even ones that seem pretty major) can certainly be made once you sign commit or sign a lease. In our place, for example, the owner will be adding a wall and door to my room (because there currently isn’t one!) and will take care of a couple of light fixtures.

Our general motto, though, was that most places would be worth scoping out in person. Even if it seemed pretty unlikely we’d live in a particular area or fall in love with a certain place, we wanted to scope it out anyway just so that we wouldn’t have any regrets down the line.

Second, do your research on a neighborhood before falling in love with a home. This may seem obvious–and as my mom reminded me, they say “location, location, location!” for a reason–but sometimes a house just looks so darn cute that it’s easy to forget that it’s in a crime-ridden area, is super far from transportation…or in one case for us, both! Trust me, you’ll always say, “I could never live there, it’s too _____” (loud, far away, unsafe, boring…) until you find the perfect little place and think “Ok, I could make this work!” Look at actual data online but also do some ethnographic research of your own (the soc major in me is coming out…). I seriously felt like I was turning into my mother when I approached the three young guys who lived next door to one of the homes we were planning to view, but they were all super friendly and knowledgable (one even introduced us to his fiancé so that we could get a female perspective on the neighborhood!). If it’s a weekend and/or time isn’t a major issue, take public transportation from place to place or from your office directly to the apartment. It’s good to fully understand how that process will work, especially if you’re like us and plan to take the metro on a daily basis. It’s also an easy way to see a neighborhood (we took a bus from Eastern Market up to Truxton Circle, for example), and could get a better sense of what was going on in each of those areas.

Lastly (for now), choose your rental sites accordingly. If, like us, you’re also in the market for an older home, I’d recommend looking on Craigslist rather than searching on traditional websites like HotPads or Apartments.com. These generally seem to feature more modern complexes that are professionally managed, whereas oftentimes when we were touring an older building, we were meeting with the owner herself. Craigslist is constantly being updated and it can be somewhat first come, first serve, but as a whole, DC rentals move much slower than other cities, like New York. You may feel like you’ve exhausted all of your online search options, but just be patient…the perfect place may pop up at any given moment! I came across our place at 11:30 pm on a Tuesday evening (I don’t even know why I was still awake…) and saw that it had been listed for a day. I called the agent around 9 am the next morning and she left me a message while I was in a school assembly! I basically bolted out of there when it ended, discussed details, and set up a time to view the place that evening. Carrie and I went into the appointment being prepared to sign a lease (we had a good feeling it would be the “one” and even arrived a bit early), and the agent was literally turning other people away after we said, “We’ll take it!”

I’d also suggest not limiting your search to a particular budget (on the computer, that is…definitely stick to a number in real life, haha!). Sometimes places are negotiable or the price can vary depending on the number of occupants. If you fall in love with a place, it doesn’t hurt to ask! Ours, for example, was listed for much more than we could afford, but after speaking with the agent, I learned that this would be the price for three tenants, and for two, it would be significantly lower. If I had limited my Craigslist search to a certain number, I likely never would’ve discovered our home!

One last thing to keep in mind is that if you do like older homes, note that these are often better equipped for families/couples rather than two separate adults. Many of the places we viewed were listed as two bedrooms, but while they had beautiful master bedrooms, the second room was often much smaller. Of course, you and your roommate could always decide that someone would pay more for the larger room, but the other person has to be willing to fit his/her life into a small space. We lucked out with our place because it had two large, separate living areas, and we were each happy with the one we chose. However, the arrangement wouldn’t be ideal for everyone!

Happy apartment hunting, and stay tuned for lots of moving/decorating posts in the days/weeks to come!

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