After graduating from American University in May, I started my housing search with one of my best friends. We’d been planning our move all year and our excitement was palpable; Washington was our oyster and we were in search of our pearl.
Our dynamic duo quickly turned into a terrific trio with the hopes of maximizing our housing options and minimizing the price per bedroom. After two months of looking at dozens of places and combing Craigslist ads, I’m sad to say we decided to part ways. That’s right, my terrific trio now consists of just me, myself and I. But not to worry, it was an amicable split. Turns out pearls don’t come cheap and finding a three bedroom, two bathroom for under $3,000 per month in a convenient, walkable area just doesn’t seem to be in the stars for us.
If there is one thing that I’ve learned about D.C. real estate it’s that finding a place is like a treasure hunt a la “The Goonies.” My friends and I are the Goonies, obviously. But instead of just one old lady and her two sons competing with us to find this D.C. Treasure — the perfect group house — there are countless competitors. Not to mention, all this competition raises the stakes. Every summer, recent graduates descend upon the city with entry level positions and entry level budgets in search of a place to call home. The demand makes the prices go up, plain and simple. But there is a way around this, the preexisting lease (a.k.a. my Plan B).
A group of graduates often will lease a home together. As time progresses and their lives change, someone in the group decides to move on. This leaves an available space in the house. This, ladies and gentleman, is a golden opportunity for any budget-minded graduate who doesn’t mind making new friends.
You see, I guarantee the group locked in a rate for their home that is significantly lower than what other comparable vacant homes are renting for. Which means, taking over that spot is probably going to save you some big bucks. Now that my friends and I have decided to go our separate ways, I’m hoping the real estate gods might be a bit kinder to my new plan of action.
Now obviously, this isn’t for everyone and I can certainly understand why someone might feel uncomfortable living with total strangers. In fact, it was a bit out of my comfort zone at first. But then I thought to myself, if I can live with complete strangers in a dorm room, I certainly should be able to do it in a house or apartment. Moreover, unlike college, I actually get to meet them beforehand and see if our living styles would click, if we have mutual interests or, you know, if they think I’m a total weirdo.
I’m just starting to dip my feet in the group house pool. My first viewing took me to an open house in Columbia Heights. Let’s just say, unbeknownst to me, I was diving head first into the deep end. Seven bedrooms, seven people, three bathrooms and one aspirin for me once I left.
The space was beautiful and the price was great, $600 per month plus utilities. Everyone who lived there seemed to get along well and was in similar stages of life. The location was great, too. Columbia Heights has fun nightlife, good buses and a metro station that could get me to work in 20 minutes.
But it wasn’t all roses. I was told that I would get one shelf in the kitchen and that it might be a good idea to shower before going to bed. I also couldn’t help but think: With six other people living in one house is there really never any conflict? There isn’t one person who eats other people’s food? Or maybe someone doesn’t put their dishes away. Or the worst, someone who borrows things without asking. Am I supposed to believe that all of these people live together like one big happy family? It goes against everything MTV’s “The Real World” is built upon. At the end of the day, I decided that while a group house was my new plan, I’d be happier in a smaller group.
Shortly after, a new opportunity presented itself that just might be too good to pass up. One of the reasons I chose to come to school in Washington was because my big sister lives here. She’s nine years my senior and if my college degree and first job have made me a “real person” she’s a really real person. Two years ago, she bought a beautiful row house a block from the happening H Street corridor, which has become one of my favorite neighborhoods. Seriously, if you haven’t spent an evening out there you’re doing yourself a disservice.
The house just happens to have a basement apartment that she doesn’t use. The truth is the thought of living there never really entered my mind. That is, until my sister put it on the table. Now to be clear, we aren’t a free-ride kind of family so I would be paying rent, but it would be considerably cheaper than renting a comparable space in the area.
I must admit the prospect of saving money while living in a nice space in a convenient area is very enticing. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel like I didn’t achieve what I set out to, finding my first place. I’m torn: Is it the mature thing to take my sister up on her offer to rent her basement apartment and save a nice nest egg? Or should I continue searching for a place to call my own?
Jon Fox is a recent graduate from American University. In his occasional column, he will share his experience of looking for an apartment in Washington.