Tips for First-Time Renters

Novices can benefit from the advice of others who have been in their shoes

August 17, 2012

When she went hunting for her first apartment, Elizabeth Bolton had high hopes. She ended up compromising, paying a higher rent so she could live on her own.

When Elizabeth Bolton searched for her first apartment, she had a strategy — and a spreadsheet.

She compiled a list of must-haves for her perfect apartment, as well as a list of negotiable features. As she checked out different units, she entered their vital stats into a chart to help her make her final decision.

Bolton was about to discover what all first-time renters have to learn: You can’t always get what you want. That realization is a rite of passage for novice apartment-hunters in a market where demand is outpacing supply and prices can send even the most gainfully employed of recent college grads into sticker shock.

Even with her organized operation, Bolton wound up falling short on her apartment wish list.

“I came upon the realization that there’s always going to be a trade-off, whether that’s price, location or amenities,” says Bolton, 24, who works in Virginia as a government consultant. “I was really hoping for triple-digit rent, but the only way that was going to happen would be if I had roommates or lived in a stranger’s basement.”

So Bolton opted to pay a higher rent in order to live on her own in close proximity to the Metro (a must, because she doesn’t have a car).

“There’s a huge crunch right now for apartments,” says Bonnie Casper, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Bethesda (301-718-0010) and the president of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors. When housing values took a nosedive in 2008, D.C.-area residents shied away from purchasing condos and townhouses. That “put pressure on the rental business and is keeping prices high,” Casper says.

Renters may soon get some relief. The Washington Post reported last week that 6,000 new rental units are set to open in the Washington area by the end of this year, and some experts and analysts say that could ease the rise in monthly rental payments.

But finding an affordable place will still be tough. According to Delta Associates, which provides research services to the real estate industry, rents in newer buildings in the D.C. area with lots of amenities average $1,861 a month for units of all sizes and have increased by 3 percent over the past year, while rents for properties that are older and offer fewer amenities average $1,580 per unit and have increased by 1.9 percent over the past year.

Many first-time renters set out looking for a spacious, updated, one-bedroom apartment in the heart of a happening ’hood. But the rent prices they encounter may make them reassess their priorities. “Once reality hits, renters are much more willing to compromise,” Casper says.

Where they make those compromises becomes the question.

First-time renters may have dreams of a Dupont Circle address, but it’s important to keep an open mind when it comes to location. Look beyond Penn Quarter, Adams Morgan and Clarendon to such places as NoMa, Brookland and South Arlington.

Bolton went with a studio in Crystal City, not normally a hot spot for the fresh-out-of-college set.

“I liked the fact that it was very cosmopolitan, but in the evening it wasn’t as loud,” she says. “It still has good restaurants and a lot of green space.”

If you’re just dying to live in a trendy neighborhood, you’ll get more for your money by sharing your space.

“The most impactful way of reducing the price of rent is to consider a roommate,” says Rich Lauletta, chief marketing officer of apartment-finder service the DC Apartment Company (202-600-9500). “Not everyone realizes that a two-bedroom is not twice as much as a one-bedroom.”

Benjamin Matek, a 22-year-old American University grad, recently snagged a two-bedroom Adams Morgan apartment with his roommate.

“If you want to live within the D.C. limits, and you’re not starting out with a salary of $80,000 a year, it’s definitely better to have a roommate,” says Matek, who interns at the Carbon War Room, a D.C.-based nonprofit that works with entrepreneurs to find market-driven solutions to climate change.

Another easy way to shave money off your rent is to look for an older or not-so-tricked-out building. As nice as it is to have a pool in the summer, it may be nicer to have the extra money you can save without fancy amenities.

When renters find something that meets their criteria, they need to act fast. “We walked in with our application already filled out,” Matek says. “If you see something that you like, you have jump that day or you will probably miss out on it to someone else.”

And if they don’t get that balcony they wanted or are living a mile from a Metro station, apartment amateurs can take comfort in the fact that they won’t be living in their first place forever.

“Hopefully later in life I can get those kinds of things,” Matek says. “But for now, I was just happy to get something really basic.”

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