With Preparation, the Perfect Place Could Be Yours

By Sara Gebhardt
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 19, 2007 10:49 AM

Finding affordable housing can be difficult for recent grads searching for places to live in the Washington area, especially those new to the rental experience.

The good news, however, is that each year -- usually at the beginning and end of summer, when scores of Washington rental units change hands -- many manage to acquire housing that fits their needs.

If you are preparing for an apartment hunt, it may take some time and effort to maneuver the area's landscape of high rents and low vacancy rates. In this article, I'll share some tips that will hopefully make your search go more smoothly.

What's Available?

Average apartment vacancy rates are currently around three percent in the Washington, D.C.- area, according to Alexandria, Va.-based real estate research firm Delta Associates. That's low nationally, though in the range of the country's more desirable cities. The average price per square foot for a garden-style or high-rise apartment, meanwhile, are $1.43 and $2.12, respectively.

In practical terms, this means if you were to rent a 600-square foot studio in a 12-story building, you could expect to spend around $1,272. Or $1,430 for a two-bedroom, 1,000-square foot garden-style apartment. (Of course, rates vary by location, apartment size and condition and community amenities.)

To keep things within your price range, pay close attention to any "hidden" financial aspects of renting during your search: Always ask how much utilities, cable, phone, Internet service and transportation typically cost so you can factor that in to your monthly expenses.

Although Washington-area renters often scoff at this guideline, financial advisors recommend spending no more than one-third of your monthly after-tax income on rent. To do this on a moderate salary or with student loans and other debt, your best bets are to share housing, look for basement apartments or search locations further from downtown.

Group living can help recent grads ease into the "real world," both financially and socially -- and sometimes it's the only practical option.

"Sometimes they come to the realization that they're going to have to share," says Margie Bryant, associate vice president for auxiliary services at Georgetown University in D.C., where she assists graduate students looking for housing and oversees the school's off-campus housing resource services.

Where to Look

Graduates may hit the market with a certain property in mind, says Bryant, and then rethink things once they actually see what's available and their financial means. And actually seeing what exists in the rental market is the key to finding affordable housing options.

In most cases, you won't find a good deal if you take the first apartment you look at or conduct a search solely online. Instead, sharpen your multi-tasking skills by tapping into different avenues for potential properties. Start your search look online, then follow-up by phone and with in-person visits.

Most landlords will advertise in newspapers and on Web sites including washingtonpost.com, washingtoncitypaper.com and craigslist.org.

Local university Web sites may also provide leads. Community members can often visit them as guests and search listings from property managers accustomed to renting to students and young professionals. In the Washington area, American University, Georgetown University, George Mason University and Howard University are among the schools offering such services online.

As you are researching your options, you should also let family, friends and co-workers know that you are looking for housing. Doing so may present unexpected opportunities.

So may the simple act of walking around a desired neighborhood and looking for "For Rent" signs. Because Washington's market is so competitive, many unit owners do not advertise online or in print. Instead, they rely on references and passersby. And since apartments in the area turn over constantly, you are likely to find a place with relative ease.

If you are new to the area and the rental scene, however, it's wise to give yourself about two months to research options. The more time you can afford to spend determining exactly what you want and how much you can afford, the better chance you have of finding the right place and the right roommates. Nothing is more stressful than making a hasty decision on a rental unit and being stuck in a 12-month lease for a place you don't want.

Those in search of a more "adult" living environment than a group home, meanwhile, may benefit from local housing programs geared toward people with moderate incomes. "It's a way to rent an apartment in the community at a lower cost," says Susan Krimer, assistant director of the office of legislative and public affairs for Montgomery County's Housing Opportunities Commission.

Montgomery County's "Below Market Rent for People With Moderate Income" program dictates that a household cannot be made up entirely of students and the income requirements for one person are a minimum of $28,400 and a maximum of $36,540. The program also requires a regular apartment application process, meaning that prospective renters must pass a credit check and supply references.

More information about Montgomery County's program is available online. The Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing has a similar mission of bringing reasonable rental prices to families and young professionals with low incomes.

A Good Chance of Success

Typically, the amount of time and effort you put into finding a place will translate into the suitability of the place you find. With a little research, a lot of patience and a willingness to compromise, it's possible to find an affordable place to call home.

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