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Sara Gebhardt
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 17, 2006; 2:00 PM

Welcome to Apartment Life, an online discussion of the Washington area rental market, featuring Post columnist Sara Gebhardt.

In her monthly exchanges with the audience, Gebhardt discusses rental issues and lifestyle matters.

Check out our special feature: Think Smart: Apartment Hunting Made Easy .

Read Sara's latest Read Sara's latestApartment Life column.

The transcript follows.

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Sara Gebhardt: Hello, everyone. Thanks for joining me on a special day to talk about apartment hunting and any other renting-related issues you may have.

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washingtonpost.com:

Looking for new digs? Check out Think Smart: Apartment Hunting Made Easy located in the Rentals section at washingtonpost.com. It's full of tips and advice for apartment hunters.

Sara Gebhardt: Also, thank you to those who sent in submissions for the story.

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Washington, D.C.: All the advice is good, but come on, the real problem in D.C. is money. There are a lot of nonprofit organizations in this town and those of us who work at them would like to be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment in the city and can't. Yes, we can get roommates, but that gets a little old when you are in your mid-thirties. A friend of mine owned her home in Miami and sold it for a tidy profit when she left for D.C. last year, and now finds she can neither afford to buy here, nor to rent a one-bedroom in the city in a neighborhood with basic amenities. Understandably, in my opinion, she is not willing to be an urban pioneer and live in a neighborhood that is considered unsafe (according to D.C. police stats -- not stereotypes). Any thoughts?

Sara Gebhardt: Sure, I have plenty of thoughts on this, many of which have nothing to do with renting and everything to do with the professions our society sometimes unfairly devalues. Living in the metro area is indeed very expensive and difficult to manage on certain kinds of salaries, which in turn influence people's career and/or location choices. I still contend, however, that people can find "deals" (which doesn't mean "cheap") with a lot of hard work. There are programs, such as in Montgomery County, that gives incentives to people below a certain salary bracket. I have heard of at least one apartment communities that lowers rent prices for teachers. And there are private landlords with whom negotiating is possible. Obviously, there is also skilled budgeting, which will allow you to live larger in this city if you make some other sacrifices.

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Rockville, Md.: I really like my apartment, but the lease is running out in August. What is the best way to continue: another lease or month to month. I expect to stay and don't want the rent to go up all that much. Is there a way to manage this? Would it be another lease? Or do most people go month-to-month?

Sara Gebhardt: It really depends on your landlord. Some will want you to sign on for another month and others would rather have you on a month-to-month lease. More likely although not necessarily, negotiating to sign a lease for twelve months will help you keep your rent from going up too much. On a month-to-month, your landlords will have more opportunity to raise your rent. On a twelve month, he or she could decide to increase it a lot or not and would be stuck with that price for the long haul. Besides rent price, a twelve month lease does allow for much more stability.

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Washington, D.C.: If someone pays their rent late (after the fifth or tenth every now and then), will this prevent them from renting from other property management companies in the future?

Sara Gebhardt: It depends on whether your landlord now mentions this to your next landlord. If you've established a pattern, it's safe to say it will not go unnoticed.

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Northwest D.C.: Sara, four years ago, my two roommates and I found an apartment building that we liked but it didn't have any available three bedroom units. The manager mentioned that we could "build a wall" between the den and dining room (turning it into a third bedroom) and told us that their contractors would build it if we paid $2,500. She assured us that because their contractors were building it, it would become their problem when we moved as it would be part of the unit at that point. We gladly forked over the money and love the setup. Since then, it's become more common and a significant number of units in our building have taken this route since the building is so expensive.

However, we just found out that the building has since determined that tenants would have to find their own contractors and then the wall would have to be the tenants responsibility upon vacating the apartment (i.e., the tenant would have to pay to take it down, etc.). Well, four building managers later, we are thinking of moving out next year and have no "proof" of this oral agreement with the original manager that we don't have to worry about the wall or any proof that their contractors built it. Is there anything we can do? It seems pretty clear if you look at our units compared to others that it was an inside job, but we're really worried as the current property manager doesn't seem to believe us. Thanks for your advice.

Sara Gebhardt: And now we have yet another example of the dangers of oral agreements. What you should do is gather other residents and photograph or inventory other apartments who have done this and begin a group effort to convince your property manager of the former management's policies. If you can contact that management company and contractors as well and get somebody to vouch for you, its word will go a long way. Do what you can to gather enough evidence, present it to your management both verbally and in writing, and if that fails, you may need to seek legal advice. Or you can learn the art of demolition or just surrender your security deposit. If you do get management to concede, make sure you have that in writing as well.

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Arlington, Va.: I have researched the rent in Maryland (Prince George's County) for some time now. Seems safe enough at this point the rent is more reasonable than any of the surrounding areas.

Rent is so expensive where I'm at now. Have you heard any more about the decrease in crime? What do you think? Is it safe yet?

Sara Gebhardt: Is what "safe yet"? No need to disparage Prince George's County... there are plenty of "nice" neighborhoods in the area and there have been for a long time. I've used quotations only to alert you that there are good and bad areas in every county and region, and the designation is subjective. Only you know what you consider unsafe, and the best way to figure out whether an area meets your standards for safety is to look at crime statistics, spend time there both during the day and at night to gauge your comfort level, and find out as much as you can about communities you're interested in.

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: FYI: Apartmentratings.com is a good resource. Some of the posters may be a little bonkers, but I used the ratings and reviews with a grain of salt as part of my overall apartment search when I moved here three years ago. It was helpful to read what actual residents of the buildings had to say.

Sara Gebhardt: Thanks for the tip!

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Washington, D.C.: Hello chatters. I just moved to Georgetown last fall (granted I don't have as much money as those old blue hairs with their Federal townhomes and stuffy cocktail parties, etc.). I try to dress appropriately despite my relative penury, but the fact is I have been known to wear sweat pants, although only to get the newspaper or let out the dog. For this, however, my neighbors constantly scoff at me, sometimes openly mock my clothes even when I am not wearing sweat pants but the area's signature clam diggers. I have in fact become something of a pariah within our row of townhouses. Do you think this is based on a legitimate gripe, or are they only trying to give me the heave-ho?

Sara Gebhardt: Do you think those old Blue hairs might be making the same kind of assumptions you're making about them? Are you sure it's your sweat pants that have made you a pariah? I suggest at the very least having a big "dress down" bash for your neighbors at your house, so you can forge bonds and find out if something else is going on.

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Maryland: Whether ones agrees or not, the cost of rent is not driven by what one does for a living, but what one does for a living is often driven by the cost of rent. To think otherwise will ensure yourself of a constant source of frustration.

It's not just not-for-profits folks, either. Police officers, firefighters, teachers, etc., -- all noble professions, but most people in them won't get rich doing it.

Sara Gebhardt: Thanks for the comment. I'd put journalists on that list too.

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D.C.: I live in a big building in Adams Morgan and have been plagued by mice for the past two weeks -- middle of the night scurrying and everything. Landlord has set glue traps but mice keep returning. I am fairly clean. Any ideas? Should I move?

Sara Gebhardt: Read my most recent column, from this past Saturday. It gives tips on how to ward off mice on your own. You don't have to move, you just have to be aggressive.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm new to D.C. and want to move to another apartment by August. I've been told by D.C. veterans that one shouldn't start looking until one month in advance of the move-in date. Is this accurate?

Sara Gebhardt: You can start looking as early as you want, but generally you don't need more than two months to really find a place in the area. The best thing to do before you have to commit to one place is to begin figuring out where you would like to live and what's generally available.

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Washington, D.C.: A question for the chatters and Sara: I'm a landlord to a tenant who's great in all ways except one -- paying on time. I have a fee in the lease for paying after the fifth of the month, and recently added a larger one (in addition to the first one) for payment after the 15th. I'd set-up the larger fee in hopes that it would be a deterrent to paying late, but it hasn't stopped our tenant. Now, on one hand, I feel guilty that I may be exacerbating our tenant's financial woes, but on the other hand, this is a business and we're not being paid fairly.

My thought is that it's time for a conversation about whether she can really afford my rent anymore (it's only increased three percent per year in three years, outside of these fees). Is this awkward? We don't want to lose an otherwise-good tenant, but we're being taken advantage of. Thoughts?

Sara Gebhardt: Here's proof that late rent payment may not put you in the category of "bad renter." If late rent payments are negatively impacting the way you run your business, then you should talk to the renter. Discussions about money are almost always awkward for landlords and tenants, but it's the only way that will help you resolve this dilemma.

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Montgomery County, Md.: My parents have an awful tenant renting a single family home. Awful as in he not only consistently pays rent late, but takes it upon himself to unilaterally deduct money from the rent for repairs (in the nearly two years he and his family have lived in the house, he has paid full rent less than 10 times, sometimes sending checks for less than half the amount of the rent), despite my parents repeated requests -- orally and in writing -- that he contact them first if he needs any repair work done so that they can arrange it. Furthermore, he seldom provides receipts for this so-called repair work, but takes violent offense when my parents ask for the same. Short of going through the process of actually evicting the tenant, or seeking other legal remedy (my parents wish to remain on good terms, especially as this tenant has a five-year lease thanks to a pushy realtor, and they are afraid he might damage the property if they try to take action), is there anything at all they can do?

Sara Gebhardt: I'm getting a lot of landlord questions today. Ask yourself why your parents should put up with this kind of tenant for another 2+ years and then take the most logical action you can think of. Deciding not to evict because you fear retaliation may not be the best strategy, but I am not a lawyer.

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Virginia: Have you ever heard of a place in D.C. that would allow you to pay rent with credit card? I like earning points with everything I pay for.

Sara Gebhardt: I believe the big companies are starting to do this, possibly Archstone-Smith.

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Alexandria, Va.: My landlord owns my three-bedroom place that I share with one person (and looking to fill the third room) but he doesn't have us sign leases (he used to live in the unit). He's had two different tenants in the third room in the last six months, and hasn't found a new one yet. I'm worried he's going to sell the place, and I really don't want to move for the third time in two years. Any advice on how I can stay put?

Sara Gebhardt: Have you asked him if he's going to sell the place? That is your first move so that you save yourself the speculative worry.

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RE: Lease up: About three months prior to my lease being up, my complex sent me a letter saying I could renew by a specific date (one and a half months prior to renewal) and keep the same rent. If I chose not to sign, I would pay "full price" or month-to-month.

Sara Gebhardt: Different landlords have different strategies and incentives to keep their current tenants. Thanks for sharing.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm moving into a condo and the condo imposes a hefty moving fee. Is my landlord responsible for paying it or am I?

Sara Gebhardt: It depends on what your lease says.

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D.C.: I have to concur with the postings regarding the outrageous rents being charged in this area. I recently moved here from Chicago and I am frustrated not only by the high cost of living but the lack of housing options for renters in D.C. I think the real problem is a lack of supply. For all the talk of a construction boom in D.C. I see plenty of empty lots that are sitting there undeveloped. I think if there was more attention to the supply side there would be some relief for renters in this area.

Sara Gebhardt: Thanks for contributing to our discussion.

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Adams Morgan mice ... again: OK, so I've read your article -- very helpful information, by the way. My landlord says they couldn't find any holes where mice could come in. Is there no recourse a tenant should have. I just really wish there was more they were willing to do. Yes I keep it clean, but it's not my fault if the building is infested.

This is giving me the heebie-jeebies.

Sara Gebhardt: Ask your landlord to check for holes again (as the article states, around plumbing and electrical piping especially). Mice are very small, so most apartments will have spaces that fit these creatures. Also, try to trap them yourself for a while.

In reality, a landlord has to keep your place sanitary, so you do have recourse if the infestation continues. Wait to see their response, and if it's not adequate, then you can attempt to break the lease.

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Bethesda, Md.: Be very careful, readers, about who/what you let into your house. I didn't screen properly enough and I got an individual who not only trashed my house but punched a hole in the wall (house belongs to owner, I'm the only one on lease and only one who stands to lose deposit for damages).

Went to court and the jerk stated that he didn't make the injury to the house. Judge didn't find photo evidence to be strong enough.

This individual had the nerve to say that I did it myself.

Woe be to you if don't check and double-check references! (Or at least it was to me.) I've had to waste time in court, and Maryland laws are liberal.

Thanks for the listen. Any advice would be appreciated, but I've studied the law, gone to Montgomery County housing authority. Now all that's left is to hire (an expensive) attorney.

Sara Gebhardt: I'm not really sure what this is about, but everybody needs to vent sometime. Obviously, don't let people into your homes or apartments if you don't know them well. As a renter, you will be liable for your guests' damages.

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Maryland - Rent Withholding: Chances are the tenant isn't following proper procedure for this. In every state I'm aware of, it's a very tricky business and cannot be done unilaterally without prior written notice to the landlord (and even when it is allowed, it's usually a very small amount per year).

http://www.marypirg.org/renter/six.html

The poster's parents really need to address lease termination and should talk with a local real estate attorney.

Sara Gebhardt: Yes, thanks for this advice. I can't vouch for it, but I'll post it.

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RE: Three-bedroom: "Have you asked if he's going to sell the place?"

Well, he hinted he was thinking about it if he couldn't fill the room. I think he'd be more likely to find a reliable tenant if he offered lease terms. Hopefully if I mention that to him he'll agree, and I can sign one too and stay put!

Sara Gebhardt: Yes, be proactive. Finding a tenant and selling a condo are very different affairs. While you talk to him about offering lease terms, offer to help find a tenant too if you really want to stay.

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Washington, D.C.: Are landlords faced with the same requirements of keeping units sanitary when it comes to roach control? Thank you!

Sara Gebhardt: Yes, roaches--i.e. serious infestations--also are a danger to your health and thus landlords must do something to keep them away.

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Sara Gebhardt: Well, my time is up for the day, folks. Thanks for joining in. As usual, please keep comments and questions coming to aptlife@gmail.com. I'll be back to my regular chat time next month, the first Thursday of May. See you then!

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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. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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