Rents Through the Roof

Washington-area rates have skyrocketed. Will renters get relief soon?

February 8, 2013

Ben Gelfand, left, and Jamie Hahn had sticker shock when they saw rent prices in the Washington area after moving here from Houston.

Saying goodbye to her washer-dryer. That was one of the hardest things for Jamie Hahn when she and her boyfriend, Ben Gelfand, moved from Houston to the D.C. area so Ben could attend law school at Georgetown University.

The couple had already done some research and were working with local apartment locator firm Urban Igloo (877-445-6632, Urbanigloo.com), so they knew they’d have to sacrifice such things as size and amenities to afford the D.C. area’s high rent prices.

In Houston, they’d leased a 950-square-foot one-bedroom apartment with a den and the much-loved washer-dryer for $800 a month. Here, they were aiming for a monthly rent of $1,500 and found a one-bedroom apartment just shy of that in northern Alexandria. It’s only 800 square feet and, alas, doesn’t have a washer-dryer in the unit.

“That was something that was really sad for me to let go of, but it was necessary,” says Hahn, 25, a freelance opera stage manager.

The city of D.C. and its environs have some of the highest apartment rents in the country, which can lead to some serious sticker shock for folks who move here from less-expensive areas. They soon find that they either have to pay up to get everything they want or eliminate some of their must-haves to bring the rent down to a more reasonable level.

Just how expensive is this area? According to Boston-based Property and Portfolio Research, which tracks commercial real-estate markets, the Washington region is the seventh most expensive major metropolitan area in the country in which to rent a Class A apartment, classified as a unit in a property built in the past 15 years with lots of amenities and higher-quality interior finishes.

The average rent for a one-bedroom Class A apartment in the D.C. metro area during the last quarter of 2012 was $1,919, according to PPR. Compare that to the Houston metro area, where the average rent for the same type of unit is $1,106. In the Chicago metro area, it’s $1,538.

The average apartment rent for all apartments in the D.C. metro area at the end of 2012 was $1,555, compared to $861 in Houston and $1,187 in Chicago.

Of course, a few cities are still more expensive than Washington: The average rent for all apartments in the New York metro area is $3,152, and in San Francisco, it’s $2,327.

There are a few factors driving those high prices. The D.C. area weathered the economic storm a lot better than other parts of the country. The employment market, fueled by federal government jobs, stayed fairly strong, which meant plenty of people were still moving to the area for work.

“With higher employment and a better-than-average economy, that’s going to fuel a lot of demand,” says Chris Brown, vice president of product management at Apartments.com.

And D.C.’s job market is transient. It’s dominated by the federal government and related businesses and nonprofits, which means people are constantly moving in and out of the area for jobs fueled by federal spending.

“You have a lot of contractors and folks doing internships,” says Svenja Gudell, a senior economist at Seattle-based real-estate information marketplace Zillow. “Those types of jobs more often than not require temporary housing. If someone is only going to be there for six months or a year, they’re not going to buy a house in most cases.”

Because the D.C. job market didn’t suffer as much, housing prices in the area didn’t take as much of a hit as in other metro areas. That’s kept a lot of would-be homebuyers in the rental market.

“In order to buy a house or condo, it’s still rather expensive in this area compared to the rest of the country,” says Eric Suissa, director of sales for the DC Apartment Co., an apartment locator firm (202-600-9500). “People still don’t have the necessary down payments, so they’re going to keep renting.”

A lack of apartment supply has also contributed to rising rents. As of the fourth quarter of 2012, much of the metro area had very few empty apartments. The vacancy rates in many areas were 5 percent or less, with some areas seeing vacancies of 2 percent or less, according to PPR.

Since apartments were scarce, landlords and property owners could raise rents. According to Grant Montgomery of the real-estate research firm Delta Associates, Class A rents shot up by 7.8 percent in 2010. That’s much higher than the average long-term growth of 4.5 percent.

The good news is that rents levelled off after that surge. They rose by only 1.9 percent in 2012, even less than in 2011, which saw Class A rents rise by 2.4 percent.

And more good news for renters is on the horizon: Many newly built apartments will be coming on the market in 2013, as an improving economy and loosening of credit sources has spurred many stalled apartment projects into construction. And more supply could mean lower prices.

Though renters shouldn’t expect to see significant declines in apartment prices, “it will make for a more competitive market for landowners and a little better market for renters in terms of choice,” says Grant Montgomery, a senior vice president at Delta Associates.

Since most of the new apartments will be of the Class A variety, renters might be able to get a little more for their money from landlords looking to fill up their buildings.

“The real risk is that there will be more of those shiny, new, expensive units delivered than people who can necessarily afford them,” says Erica Champion, a senior real estate economist for PPR. “That might mean a little more in the way of a bargain for renters.”

Of course, renters need to take advantage sooner rather than later: These deals will only last until the units are filled.

 

The Priciest Local ZIP Codes

Where are the most expensive places to rent in the area? These ZIP codes boast the highest average rent for a one-bedroom of any size or class:

1. 20037 (Georgetown) $3,386

2. 20004 (Penn Quarter) $2,575

3. 22209 (Rosslyn) $2,440

4. 22203 (Ballston) $2,440

5. 20815 (Chevy Chase) $2,412

(source: Property and Portfolio Research)

 

Tips for Keeping Costs Down

If you don’t want to pay nearly $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom, you’ll have to compromise on such things as location and luxury. “If somebody is determined about living in an area they like, they may have to scale back what they’re looking at,” says Nancy Simmons, president of apartment-locator service Apartment Detectives (202-362-7368). “If they initially wanted a one-bedroom, they may have to consider a studio. If they thought they could have a brand-new one-bedroom, they may have to consider an older building.”

Or they could find strength in numbers. “In the D.C. area, you can get a two-bedroom on average for about $2,200 a month,” says Chris Brown of Apartments.com. “It’s pretty easy to do the math … Get a roommate and get a two-bedroom.”

Your own space or a fatter bank account: In this area, you often can’t have both. B.L.

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Holley Simmons · February 8, 2013