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Apartment Life

Sara Gebhardt
Apartments Columnist
Thursday, June 26, 2003; 2:00 PM

Welcome to Apartment Life, a monthly discussion of rental issues and lifestyle. Washington Post columnist Sara Gebhardt takes your questions and comments. The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Sara Gebhardt: Hey everyone. Hope the last month of apartment living has treated everyone well. Let's get to the questions!


Falls Church, Va: Just wanted to tell you all about a Web site where people can post apartment reviews (I'm not affiliated with it in any way, just have written a couple of reviews for the site): http://apartment-ratings.com

Sara Gebhardt: Thanks for the message. I have heard from many readers that this site is useful.


Washington, DC: How can I find out about my neighbors? I am about to sign a lease and want to check to see if people in the building are considerate of one another or if anyone in the building has a criminal record.

Sara Gebhardt: You should chat with some of the residents to get a feel for the building and its inhabitants. Neighbors who have problems with noise or one another are often eager to talk about it. Also, not all landlords run background checks. And whether or not they know of their tenants criminal backgrounds, they are not legally obligated to disclose the information. (or can also call your local police department to find out if the state's laws allow them to disclose if any there are convicted sexual offenders who live in the zip code.)


Washington, DC: I've been living in my Capitol Hill english basement
for 8 months and I've been flooded three times in
the past month. My landlord states that this has
only happened once in 10 years. I worried about
all the water that came in and seeped into the
floorboards, he seems not too worried about it.
He has offered to have a cleaning lady clean the
floors, but that's not going to take care of the
problem. I'm considering moving b/c I don't want
to wait for more bugs to start crawling out of the
floorboards. Do I have any right to ask for a
decrease in rent or does he have to do anything
about the damages floors and potential future
problems? thanks

Sara Gebhardt: A landlord is obligated to make your living space habitable and clean. Probably technically, he does not have to do anything about the damaged floors beyond cleaning them and ridding the apartment of excess water. That said, its seems plausible that you could ask for a decrease in rent or negotiate something with him to alleviate the stress and potential problems resulting from the flooding. Be honest about your concerns and ask him what your options are.


Arlington, Va: I have a chance to move to an older apartment and save $250/month. Do you think I should?

Sara Gebhardt: This is a personal decision. Evaluate the pros and cons of each living space and go from there.


Silver Spring, Md.: How can I find out which buildings around town allow pets?

Sara Gebhardt: You might try these web sites: http://www.peoplewithpets.com/ and


Bethesda, Md.: Good afternoon,

All 4 of us in a rented townhouse will be moving out come the end of the lease. This is the first time this has, I believe, ever happened to the owners. The place is impeccable but I am fearful that the owners will try to retaliate in some way by coming up with "damages" or blame us for things. I would like to know if you or the peanuts have any insight, advice, as to what our rights as tenants are. Thank you!

Sara Gebhardt: My advice on this subject is to make sure to be present for the "walk-thru" after you move out. That way you are present for whatever damages they accuse you of, and you can decide if it's fair at the time. For renters who are entering into lease agreements, this is a good time to remind you to document an apartment's condition (photos and written notes, signed off by a landlord) before moving in. That way, landlords are forced to be more objective when you move out.


wet apartment: I live in a basement apartment. The past rainy weeks have created a problem. The carpet in one corner is consistently damp when it rains even with the dehumidifier running 24-7. The landlord handling that situation, but my problem is how do I get the moldy smell out? Any help will be greatly appreciated!; Because I am in the basement, there is not many windows for ventilation. Also, the carpet is off-white berber so I can't even bleach the mold for fear of ruining the carpet. Anyone else have to deal with this lately?

Sara Gebhardt: Anyone out there have advice for this poster about post-raining smells?


Which buildings take pets: Look on craigslist.org. They have lots of listings for apts that take pets. Do a search under the word, "pets."

Sara Gebhardt: Ah, yes. Craiglist is useful in this way as well.


Washington, DC: I know that demand for rental apartments in D.C. has decreased, causing rents to decrease and landlords to offer perks (e.g., free months rent deals). Has this affected retal properties in the most prime/desirable locations in the city, such as the heart of Dupont. Or is it really just in marginal areas or areas with a ton of rental high-rises.

Sara Gebhardt: Well, different buildings have different needs. But for the most part, rent specials are being offered in so-called desirable areas of the city, but perhaps not in the same way as buildings further out in communities with losts of rental high-rises. It seems that the more expensive, "luxury" buildings throughout the area are giving rent specials in order to lure renters. However, the majority of buildings are not categorized as "luxury."
So, while landlords are at the mercy of the rental market, the market trend doesn't totally translate in places like Dupont Circle where there are always people willing to shell out the cash for apartments.


Herndon, Va: I have a herd of elephants living above me. Well, not literally but it sure sounds and feels like it. Some of the crashes coming from above have caused the shelves in our place to shake. And they've never met a door they didn't slam no matter what the hour. I wrote a letter to the landlord and it got better for about 3 weeks. Now it's WWE time all over again. Should I just learn to live with it, or is there something else I should do?

Sara Gebhardt: Have you tried talking directly to the upstairs elephants... I mean, neighbors? That might help, or else talk to your landlord again. If the people tried to be quiet for 3 weeks, then they are probably fearful of a landlord's admonishment and may eventually learn to be more considerate all the time.


Maryland: I?ve experienced all the things I read about here ? I even had roommates who told management I cut the linoleum floor in the kitchen (which one roommate did do) and since I wasn?t on the lease, my belongings were put outside. I lived in an old house and when the pipes froze, couldn?t use the water for 2 weeks, until the guy on the other side of the duplex got a plumber friend to fix them. Then when the landlady didn?t want to pay (said the frozen pipes were our fault) threatened to rip out all the plumbing. That being said, my advice to all who read this column is to spend as little as possible on rent, save up everything you can and buy something. I only have a 1300 sq foot house in Wheaton, but no one parks in my ?space?, I don?t have a thumping bass next to my head and I can paint the walls whatever color I damn well please.

Sara Gebhardt: Not every rental situation is terrible. But here's what one person things about apartment living.


Fairfax County: For the person last month who didn't get any interest back on their security deposit that was held for 7 years: Was your condo owned by an individual, even though it was managed by a property management company? I lived in a house for more than 2 years in Ffx. Co. and it was managed by a property management co. I did not get any interest back, and when I complained, they said that individuals that own 4 or fewer units don't have to give the interest. I think it's pretty crappy, especially since the property management co. was the one who had my money, and you know they had more than 4 units!!

Sara Gebhardt: A comment on security deposit interest.


Centreville, Va: What should I look for within an apartment before moving in? I mean, what kind of things (i.e. water pressure) will I be kicking myself for not testing out before signing the lease?

Sara Gebhardt: Pay attention to the obvious clues. I?ve gotten comments lately from people who said they actually saw cockroaches in the unit or rat traps in the lobby and still signed a lease. It?s no wonder that they?re unhappy now. So, generally, you should look for any obvious damage, like carpet stains, shaky handrails. Look for dirt, mildew and signs of critters and living things that you would not want to keep as pets. Flush toilets and run water in the shower, check water temp and pressure. Open and close the windows and make sure door locks are sturdy.


Re: Rain smell: One idea I have heard for getting the moldy smell out is putting bowls of apple vinegar in the smelly room. Supposedly the vinegar soaks up the smell. Haven't tried it, but vinegar has so many great uses...

Sara Gebhardt: A tip for the rain smell.


Baltimore, Md: Recently new tenants moved in next to me -- they smoke and in our kitchen and living room you can smell the smoke (heavily) b/c we probably share the same exhaust fan for the stove. I'm not allergic to smoke but find it unhealthy and unpleasant. What are my options?

Sara Gebhardt: Ask your landlord to allow you to transfer apartments if the smoke bothers you a lot. Other options are asking maintenance to look at the areas where the smoke might be seeping through and give you suggestions on how to combat it. Usually, steps include closing off vents or plugs or any common area where the smoke might be seeping through.


Sterling, Va.: Here is a suggestion for the tenant with a smelly carpet problem. Call a professional carpet cleaner who guarantees results and ask what would need to be done and how much it would cost then ask the landlord to deduct this amount from the rent. I had a problem with a damp carpet in a dorm room which developed a moldy odor. The maintainance staff determined that the moldy odor indicated the presence of mold (surprise!) which was a health issue so they cleaned the floor with some solution. It may have been Clorox for all I know, the point is that they were responsible for cleaning it up since it had nothing to do with any negligence on my part. This really is the landlord's responsibility to pay for this, but don't contract out until the landlord agrees.

Sara Gebhardt: Here's another suggestion for the soggy basement resident.


Capitol Hill: For the folks with elephants for neighbors - I had the same problem with my upstairs neighbors. Wood floors + no carpeting + hard soled shoes made it seem like there were gunshots being fired above. Plus there were some all-night parties with music BLASTING. I slipped a note under their door, asking them to put down some carpeting or take off their shoes when they get in the door, and asking them to keep the music down at 4am on a Tuesday. They wrote an apologetic reply note with a cell phone number I could call if things got too loud again, and they really made an effort to keep the noise down.

I got what I wanted, and since they were willing to meet me halfway, I can put up with more of their noise.

My advice: Communicate.

Sara Gebhardt: Here's proof that neighborly behavior is not a thing of the past.


Gainesville, Fla.: I'm moving to DC, but am not ready to buy a place yet. Do you have any suggestions for neighborhoods that are good places to live for young professionals?

Sara Gebhardt: I get this question a lot, but hesitate to answer it because the answer would be different depending on who's asking. Anyone out there care to make a case for young professionals to live?


Arlington: Recently, a woman from my leasing office barged into my apartment while I was in the shower. When I got out in my towel, there she was with a complete stranger standing in my foyer. She said she knocked and had to show a prospective renter the place. (I?m moving out at the end of the month.) How much notice does a landlord have to give if they plan to enter my apartment?

Sara Gebhardt: Ooh, this is a problem many renters encounter from time to time. Just because you rent doesn't mean you're not entitled to your privacy.Typically, landlords need to give you 24 hours notice in non-emergency situations. They can enter sooner than that if the tenant gives permission. Or if the landlord thinks something serious is happening in your apartment--a fire, a murder, a medical emergency, a flooded room. Talk with your landlord about your concerns that they will continue to barge in unnanounced and cite the statute for privacy. In Virginia, it is 24 hours.


Young Professionals...: You can't go wrong in Bethesda, Friendship Heights, or Dupont Circle. Lots of young (20s-30s) working people. Just one female 24 year old young professional's opinion!;

Sara Gebhardt: Here's an answer for the Gainesville, Fl young professional.


Rockville Maryland: Sara, you always have a rational answer so here goes.
We have requested a new paint job for our apartment. We're moving in next month. The landlord has offered to give us paint to paint our apartment. Is it policy to reduce the rent if the tenants provide free labor for an apartment fix-up?

Sara Gebhardt: There isn't necessarily a "policy" about tenant's doing maintenance. Check your lease and see if there's any clause about repairs and maintenance. If not, you will have to discuss with your landlord reducing rent for your labor. Understanding landlords do negotiate in these terms, but make sure to come to an agreement before beginning to paint (and if possible, put it in writing).


Chevy Chase, Md: I recently got married and just contacted the management company for my apartment building to ask if I needed to change my name on the lease (on which I am designated as the leasee and my husband is listed as the occupant, as we have been living there together for five months). I was told that in order to write rent checks with my new name, yes, I need to change the lease. Since their policy is that only the leasee may write checks, the change is necessary, and upon asking what is involved in changing the lease I received the following response: my husband and I both need to go into the office and re-do all of the paperwork, complete with pay stubs as proof of income and my new social security card and license. We will also have to pay the $25 application fee and a $50 credit check fee. This does not seem right to me. Can you confirm that this is common practice, even if it is not a fair practice?


Sara Gebhardt: This does not seem like a common practice. Usually, the landlord and the lessee will just ammend the lease and initial the changed parts. You might want to call the Better Business Bureau and get someone to investigate the company. (An alternative, though not necessarily a good one is to play their game and get checks with your maiden name to pay the rent.)


Adams Morgan: Is there any way to get out of a lease? Even for extenuating circumstances?

Sara Gebhardt: Getting out of your lease without incurring penalties is possible, but it depends on your state's laws. Often, if your work transfers you to another city or if you're called into military service, you can get out of a lease. Some states allow people to break leases for medical emergencies or other issues that threaten one's well-being.


Fairfax, Va.: My lease is up at the end of this month. I told them the required 60 days in advance that I want to continue on with my lease for a specified number of months. They have yet to print my lease - even after a number of requests. I was wondering if there is anything they can do at this point if I change my mind about extending my lease. Advise/guidence? Thanks!

Sara Gebhardt: Technically, a written agreement superceds an oral agreement. As in, if you didn't sign anything, you could probably get away with changing your mind.


Re: Moving to DC: I think there are a lot of questions you have to ask yourself before you consider a neighborhood to move into. Like--how much can you spend on rent? Where is your office located? Do you need a car to get to work or is it metro accessible? Are you willing to give up space for security or are you willing to live in a less gentrified neighborhood if it is more afforable and you can really get what you want? Then I would ask people about neighborhoods to look into. If you work in Rockville you probably don't want to move to Alexandria because you heard it was nice (believe me, you want to avoid taking the Beltway at all costs).

Sara Gebhardt: Another tip for the young professional considering different neighborhoods.


Co-op living: Any tips for a renter moving into a co-op? We are renting directly from the owner who is the current tenant, and we were already approved by the co-op board and are moving in on Monday...anything in particular we should or shouldn't do to stay in their good graces?

Sara Gebhardt: I'd say the same rules you'd live by in an apartment apply. Follow the designated community rules and be considerate of those around you.


Atlanta, Georgia: I will be a grad. student at Georgetown. What are the best areas to look for apartments where other grad. students live? Please comment

Sara Gebhardt: Talk to someone at the university and find out if there is graduate housing first. Usually there are message boards announcing rentals for students on campus, and there is likely a way for you to track vacancies online or through a university employee. I'd guess that neighborhoods in or near Georgetown or Arlington are where many students live.


Sara Gebhardt: That wraps up this afternoon's discussion of rental life. Thanks for joining in, and if you have additional questions, feel free to contact me at gebhardts@washpost.com. I'll see you in a month, same time, same place.


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