Built in 1894, the Cairo — a 12-story “skyscraper” that so unnerved 19th-century Washingtonians it inspired the District’s building height limits — towers over Dupont Circle.
In October 2011, a couple of history buffs — attorney Kody Silva and his partner, Jeff Taylor — walked by the building and fell in love with its Egyptian-inspired façade, which features elaborate carvings of elephants and gargoyles.
That December, they saw an ad on Craigslist for a studio in the Cairo (1615 Q St. NW, 202-232-4020). Taylor called the property manager and then relayed this message to Silva: “If we want it, we have to get a deposit in by noon.”
They raced to the Metro, handed over a certified check at exactly 11:40 a.m. and signed a one-year lease. It wasn’t until three days later that they saw the unit for the first time.
Historic buildings and neighborhoods are so popular in the D.C. area that eager renters often run their own version of “The Amazing Race” to snag a piece of the past.
Knowing where to look and what to look for can make these properties easier to grab.
“Acting fast is important,” says Buck Waller, president of Yarmouth Management, which specializes in leasing homes in historic Capitol Hill. But don’t act too fast: “Make sure the place is maintained properly,” Waller says.
Silva, 30, and Taylor, 32, were fortunate to love their new home, but Waller warns that renters should always see the property before signing anything. They should also include agreed-upon repairs or renovations in the lease. “Everyone has selective hearing,” when it comes to repair requests, he says.
Craigslist and The Washington Post Real Estate listings are two of the most common resources for finding sublets, but historic-home hunters can also find gems by walking around neighborhoods with an eye out for For Rent signs and by talking to doormen.
Check out well-known historic districts such as Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill and Georgetown. Waller also recommends Adams Morgan and Logan Circle, as well as up-and-comers Petworth and LeDroit Park. Or look for a historic building devoted to rentals. Alban Towers (3700 Massachusetts Ave. NW, 202-298-8300), which was built in 1929, housed Frank Sinatra and Bette Davis when they were in town for John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration. The Kennedy-Warren (3133 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-234-9100), built in the 1930s, has been home to both President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
A management company such as Yarmouth can help with the search. Its website is updated daily with listings in historic buildings such as the Lenox School Condominiums (725 5th St. SE) — a converted school building from the 1800s — and the Car Barn (1400 E. Capitol St. NE) — an 1896 streetcar depot turned condo.
Jennifer Proctor, an association executive, lived in a Victorian-era English basement on Capitol Hill for three years. She and her husband then bought a Victorian home near Eastern Market and became landlords themselves. Proctor says the quality of English basements varies greatly, but you can find beautifully kept apartments with sunlight, new appliances and maybe even a patio.
“Look in the corners and closets,” she says. “Look at the appliances. If it’s not well cared for, the landlord is probably just out for the money.”
Make sure the landlord has a Certificate of Occupancy for the English basement, says Coldwell Banker Realtor Chuck Burger. A certificate means the unit has been inspected and “deemed electronically and mechanically sufficient,” he says. If a city inspector discovers you are leasing a basement without a certificate, the landlord will face penalties, and you might end up having to look for a new home.
Why are renters so eager to find historic homes? Peter Sefton, a historic preservationist, has a theory: “As a renter, you feel a little bit impermanent, and the historic home can give you a bit of permanence.”