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Posted at 12:56 PM ET, 01/17/2012

The apartment hunt: Navigating the ‘open house’

This is the first installment in a multi-part series about one reporter’s search for a rental in the District.

The Occupy D.C. protestors set up tents in McPherson Square as an act of defiance, but I’m about ready to join them out of desperation. And it’s not because I identify as “the 99 percent.”

I am one of the 5.5 million.

That’s the number of young workers living at home to save money as a result of the still-feeble economy, according to Delta Associates. The real estate research firm projects that this group will bring a wave of renters to apartment complexes nationwide in the coming years.

After a year and a half among these fine folks, I’m ready to make the move. Only my efforts have been pinned down by another nagging statistic: Stabilized vacancy rates in the Washington region are the third lowest in the nation, behind New York and Philadelphia. That means there are limited options and landlords have incentive to let rental rates climb.

That leads to my current predicament: I began my apartment hunt in November with plans to celebrate the New Year in a new abode.

Well, the confetti hath fallen and I’m about where I started. Despite numerous apartment tours, group house interviews and open houses — or as I have dubbed them, cattle calls — the search continues.

My focus was narrow at first: I wanted to live in a group house in U Street or Woodley Park. But I began expanding to other neighborhoods in Northwest to increase my options. I added Columbia Heights, then Adams Morgan, then Cleveland Park, then Van Ness.

When group house interviews and open houses (more on those in a minute) didn’t prove fruitful, I added studio apartments to the mix. When those were expensive or dilapidated or both, I started looking at apartments with roommates.

All along my price point has fluctuated in tandem with my level of frustration — the more annoyed I become, the more cash I’m willing to blow. I’ve seen bedrooms that rent for $520 a month and studios that go for $1,480. A sensible rent that still allows me to save money each month should fall somewhere in between.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned in the process is just how many factors need to align before a lease gets signed. There’s no greater example of this than the dreaded open house.

Similar to when one buys a home, the property owner or current tenant essentially opens their door for a block of time to anyone interested in renting the available space. In a competitive real estate market, that can often be dozens of people.

That was the case one Sunday afternoon when I ventured to a four-person home in Columbia Heights for an open house that, for me, lasted all of 10 minutes. I got a quick tour of the place and held a brief conversation with two current tenants before they had to move on to another prospective renter. If I liked what I saw, they said, shoot them an e-mail. There’s no way they’d remember me from the next guy.

So when faced with the prospect of another open house the following weekend, I decided to bend the truth a bit — hey, sometimes you have to play dirty. I told the current tenants, via e-mail, that I’d be out of town for the open house but could definitely swing for an interview. They took the bait and I got some face time.

This process has taught me to be nothing if not savvy.

I’ve seen $1,250 studios with mini-fridges the size of a filing cabinet drawer. I’ve toured buildings where earthquake damage left holes in the walls. I’ve been hit with more phishing scams then I care to think about. I’ve even come across Craigslist ads for “clothing optional” living situations.

D.C. real estate is a tough market to navigate — that’s just the naked truth.

Next week on Apartment Hunt: Navigating Craigslist and lessons learned.

Related: Buy vs. rent calculator

Related: Young professionals contemplate buy vs. rent debate

Do you have a house hunt story to share? E-mail us at realestate@washpost.com . We’re looking for more stories from people who are trying to find the right home.

By  |  12:56 PM ET, 01/17/2012

 
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