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Posted at 11:27 AM ET, 01/30/2012

The Apartment Hunt: The perpetual rat race


Steven Overly, a Washington Post reporter, chronicles his search for the right apartment. (Sara Goo)

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

It was 3:05 p.m. on a Thursday and the property manager was late.

As I stood outside a rough-around-the-edges building in Columbia Heights waiting to look at a studio apartment, a couple strolled up to view a one-bedroom in the same complex. Then came a guy on his bike. Then another prospective renter, with friend in tow.

By the time the property manager showed up a few minutes later, six people had gathered on the sidewalk to view just two apartments. The open house was supposed to last three hours, but in the first 45 minutes, people were filling out applications.

A woman viewing the one-bedroom unit that day described the apartment hunt in D.C. as a “rat race.” I couldn’t agree more.

The real estate market in the Washington region has remained stronger than most after the bubble burst and property prices began to sag. Rentals have been similarly resilient. Stabilized vacancy rates in the District are the third lowest in the country, behind New York and Philadelphia. That means there is a limited stock and many prospective renters.

The impact of that disparity on prices is not inconsequential, particularly in many of the most in-demand neighborhoods in the city’s Northwest quadrant. Newer buildings in some of the area’s revitalizing neighborhoods, such as U Street and Columbia Heights, can start well above $1,300 a month. More established places like Dupont Circle and Woodley Park often run even higher.

After touring two studio units in a building in Columbia Heights along 16th Street NW — one for $1,250 and the other $1,325 — the landlord walked me through a larger unit that he said would set me back $1,480 a month. The apartment will go fast, he warned: Just last month an identical unit rented for $1,430.

Really — in just one month, a $50 price hike?!

My experience is not unique. Katie Goffredi, a reader who was on the hunt for an apartment in Glover Park, shared a story with me about how she managed to snag a place, after losing out on others .

“I went to an open house for a great apartment that fit almost all of my criteria. I went over to ask the landlord some questions, and saw that one of the other open-house attendees was already signing a contract, with her father as a co-signer!

“I learned my lesson. The next time I went to an open house, I brought my checkbook and a pay stub with me. There were about 15 people looking at the apartment when I arrived. This was at noon on a weekday, by the way! My roommate and I did a quick sweep of the apartment, and agreed we wanted it. We quietly pulled the landlord aside and told him we are gainfully employed, can prove it, and will sign a contract on the spot if he’ll take us. He did.”

A reader after my own heart.

The Apartment Hunt: Navigating the open house.

The Apartment Hunt: Craigslist — the good, the bad, the ugly

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  |  11:27 AM ET, 01/30/2012

 
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