Rentals big in potential

January 10

Rebecca Sauls and her husband moved to a 1,400-square-foot Alexandria town house — 200 more square feet than their apartment, for $15 a month more in rent. (Teddy Wolff/For Express)

Whitney Holmstrom’s apartment in a Clarendon high-rise came with concierge service, a swimming pool and a fitness center. But the 27-year-old realized that even after splitting the $3,045 rent with a roommate, the cost was “outrageous.”

“After a year of being broke in Clarendon, I decided I might want to live on my own,” she says. “[The high-rise] was a very stale environment. I didn’t know any of my neighbors.”

Her solution? Look for a town house. The Lockheed Martin analyst now lives happily in one in Old Town Alexandria.

The narrow, multi-story houses are a popular option for young families or people who just want more space than an apartment building can offer, real estate agents say. They also can be more cost-effective, though that depends on size, location and whether renters split the cost with roommates.

For renters looking to escape cramped apartments, town houses can offer more space, urban environments and the right price.

Government contractor Rebecca Sauls, 33, and her freelance-musician husband wanted more room to spread out. “We didn’t want to be quite so much on top of each other,” she says.

They ditched a 1,200-square-foot apartment in Alexandria for a 1,400-square-foot town house a mile from the Van Dorn Metro stop. Sauls says she now pays $2,000 in rent — just $15 more than she paid for the apartment building.

Town houses can offer even more savings if renters are willing to live with roommates.

Chad Hall, 29, rented a town house in Falls Church for the two years he worked as a Hill staffer. He split his $1,900 per month rent with two other guys, for a total personal bill of $633.

“That’s the reason I didn’t move,” he says.

Holmstrom is also saving on rent. Though her town house is split into four units that are on the small side at 600 square feet, she’s paying $1,250 per month for rent and utilities, versus the $1,522 she paid to share her 1,000-square-foot Clarendon apartment. Holmstrom says she loves being able to step outside right away and sit on her patio. And she now knows her neighbors.

That’s part of the charm of town houses — they result in great community, says Tim Burr of Yarmouth Management.

“People here on Capitol Hill know their neighbors because they see them out in their yard all the time. People are out walking around, rather than driving,” he says.

Some town houses, including Sauls’ in Alexandria, have neighborhood associations, which often band together to pay for things like landscaping and repairs to a shared roof or foundation.

But those are a mostly found the suburbs, Burr says, which rents homes on Capitol Hill. Neighborhood associations are rare within D.C., he says, since they are often started by developers trying to market and sell many homes at once.

But even if you get more room and more bang-for-your-buck than in a high-rise, many town houses, come with tradeoffs. Though some in the D.C. area are newly renovated, many town houses were built decades ago and have the quirks and foibles of older homes.

For example, cold drafts this winter have led Holmstrom to put plastic on her windows and run a space heater to keep her bedroom warm.

Outdated appliances can also give town-house renters something to complain about. Hall’s Falls Church town house was built in 1997, he says, but it had older appliances.

“The stove and microwave were attached to each other,” he says. “My mom and dad came up and every time they said, ‘I feel like your stove is from 1973.’ ”

Pests are also a possibility in town houses, whereas living on the sixth or 14th floor of a well-kept building will improve your odds of a rodent-and-bug-free existence.

Town houses also offer fewer safety features than fortresslike high-rises. Before living in Clarendon, Holmstrom lived in a Capitol Hill rowhouse with friends. Four days after she moved in, thieves broke in and stole her laptop, an heirloom violin and her roommates’ jewelry. Two weeks later, her car was broken into.

That didn’t happen in Clarendon, she notes, where her concierge greeted any strangers entering the building, and her car was parked in a garage — though the added security cost her $200 per month.

For some Washingtonians, town houses are a middle step between renting a small apartment and taking the plunge into owning a larger home.

When Jay Hamm, a 33-year-old technology salesman, and girlfriend Laura Burlingham wanted to move in together, they decided to rent a Falls Church town home. Neither’s apartments was big enough to share, and they weren’t ready to buy on their own in a volatile market.

“We didn’t want to commit ourselves to a big house that could be in the high six or seven figures,” Hamm says.

Now, Hamm says, they have about 1,800 square feet; three stories; room for an at-home office; a backyard and space for their dog.

And at $2,650 per month, their rental is spacious — and sensible. LIZ ESSLEY WHYTE (FOR EXPRESS)

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