Apartment Life Live

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Sara Gebhardt
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, October 26, 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 Apartment Life column.

The transcript follows.

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Sara Gebhardt: Hello everyone. Hope the bed bugs have let up and that you've all been busy reading your leases. If not, well, come on and talk to me.

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Washington, D.C.: I've heard that apartment-dwellers in NYC and Boston have been battling a resurgence in bed bug infestation. Is there any evidence that such a problem exists in D.C.? If so, what kind of protection do D.C. renters have under the renters' rights law?

Sara Gebhardt: Yes, there is lots of evidence that bed bugs abound in D.C., as my previous post alluded. Many apartment dwellers have had problems, and the protection offered is essentially the standard landlord obligation to keep units safe and clean. With vigilant extermination, many landlords/buildings have eradicated the problem, and seem to be very attentive to the problem, which is also affecting area hotels.

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Anonymous: I live in Illinois, but have read your column that covers the Washington area. Will you ever discuss other cities or just stay focused on Washington? I think everyone needs to know about affordable housing, and if apartment rates are all similar around the country.

Sara Gebhardt: Yes, I hope to discuss other areas, and in my questions I often attempt to talk generally about rental laws nationwide. Many local jurisdictions have different laws, but in reality, the basics of apartment life are the same. It is not true, however, that apartment rates are similar around the country, which might make a good future column. Thanks for reading!

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Arlington, Va.: My roommates and I signed a lease for our townhouse one year ago. It has now expired and presumably turned into a month-to-month. We don't want to remind our landlord, who is a complete flake, to renew the lease because we think she will raise our rent. Should we be concerned that we haven't signed a new lease? If she cashes our rent checks, then our old lease is still active, right? Does she have to give us 30 days notice if she wants new tenants, or can she kick us out at any time?

Sara Gebhardt: Once your lease termination ends, you automatically go month-to-month. Whatever lease provision you have, which is generally a 30-day notice, remains the same. So your landlord would have to give you this notice regardless of the official "end" of your original lease before telling you to go.

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Lorton, Va.: Help! I can't deal with my new neighbors. We live in one bedroom apartments where two apartments share a stoop that leads to two separate entrance doors. My new next door neighbors (a young couple) have people (I've seen as many as 12 crammed onto the stoop) outside all hours of the day and night, drinking, yelling and being LOUD. It's to the point where I'm afraid to wade through 11 men (with beer cans) to get to my door. Short of calling the police, what do I do? I'm afraid if I go to the apartment office they might find out, I'm kinda afraid of having my tires slashed, or worse. Moving isn't an option either, I've lived here for years and this is my home.

Sara Gebhardt: Why exactly are you assuming these men will slash your tires? I'd first like to put in a pitch for not giving in to common stereotypes, and then say that you should definitely talk to your management office. If they're disturbing you, chances are, these people are disturbing others. You might ask some of the other neighbors if they've been disturbed by the noise, and that way you can make a joint complaint. Either way, living in fear without trying to deal with the situation in some way -- by talking to the actual noisemakers, the management office, the police -- is not the option you should take.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: I live in an apartment with a vaulted ceiling. The upper third of the wall is shared with a neighbor who is doing something (nightly) to cause my entire apartment to vibrate (for hours). When this first began in June, I reported it to the rental office. Maintenance investigated but nothing was done.

Not only does it wake me up (and keep me up) every night, the vibrations have over time apparently caused structural damage since my apartment now vibrates even when people in neighboring apartments are just walking. I am concerned that when I move out, the damages will be billed to me. I am considering hiring a civil engineering firm in order to have a third party collect data and identify the source. Has anyone ever encountered anything like this? Should I get an attorney? Should I contact the county building inspector?

Sara Gebhardt: I'm not sure what the cause of the "vibration" is, but has maintenance concluded that there is structural damage? And if they haven't, how would they find out about it when you move out? I think contacting various sources to get the problem documented is a good idea, but probably you should involve your landlord in this so that you don't incur costs and so that you can try to fix the problem so that you can enjoy a non-vibrating apartment before moving out. Remember to put in writing and save your correspondence with your landlord and maintenance team.

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RE: Bedbugs: Landlords can try mightily, but no bedbug infestation is going to go away without the help of the tenant. The bed itself needs to be treated as well, and you might even want to get a new mattress and box spring entirely. One covered by plastic, if you want to be even more sure.

Sara Gebhardt: Well, yes, a tenant needs to help out in the infestation, but from what I've heard nobody is really equipped to get rid of these infestations without professional -- i.e. exterminators -- help. Unless, of course, you're a friend of mine who tried a home remedy in Guatemala recently (which involved a two hour hike up a mountain to a sauna with all of her clothes and bed sheets). She swore it worked, but I'd still go the exterminator route.

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RE: Automatic month-to-month: Most landlords have a higher month to month monthly rate than year-lease monthly rate, so signing a year lease may be the cheaper per month option. Watch your bills, because if you are paying under monthly rent for the temporary stay arrangement, they may have grounds to evict you.

Sara Gebhardt: Well, a landlord must also give notice for raising the rent, even if the lease goes month-to-month. Eviction cannot happen, at least in your example, if a person is paying the rent the landlord has set. A landlord cannot have a secret, post-12 month rate.

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Maryland: If your neighbor's friends are being loud, you might wish to have a quiet chat with your neighbor at some point. But there is a difference between saying, "I'm sorry if I'm inconveniencing you by asking this, but when there are that many people out on the stoop I have a hard time getting to and from the apartment and it does get a little rowdy. I'm wondering if you might ask them to visit inside your place and to be conscious of the noise. I'd really appreciate it!," and telling them to "Get the H*LL OFF THE STEPS and SHUT UP!"

Sara Gebhardt: Thanks for the advice. I would leave out the last sentence. You won't get cooperation by hostile requests.

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Charlotte, N.C.: I currently live in Charlotte, N.C., but I am looking to relocate. I am considering moving to D.C. and finding a job once I get there. Is there a particular area you would suggest that is fairly affordable and safe?

Sara Gebhardt: Well, you should come visit and talk to friends to find out what kind of neighborhood you are looking for and what level of safety you require. I stray from giving an opinion about neighborhoods, mostly because there are so many great places to live in and out of the city, and everyone has different tastes

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Alexandria, Va.: I have a new job lined up for February that will require moving. My current lease expires in August. What steps I can take to avoid being penalized on this?

Sara Gebhardt: Talk to your landlords and offer to help find a replacement tenant. It's early enough that you may be able to negotiate a way out of a lease termination penalty.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: To the Fredericksburg poster with the vibration problem. I know the community. Get a lawyer ASAP!!!

Sara Gebhardt: I'm not sure what this means about Fredericksburg, but here you go.

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Washington, D.C.: If I am renting an apartment (not in my house), can I legally rent only to non-smokers? I think it is unfair to my other tenants to have a smoker in the building.

Sara Gebhardt: Yes, you can only rent to non-smokers. This is not considered discrimination.

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Worried in D.C. : We don't know what to do about our new neighbors, who have terrifying, screaming fights several times a week. The woman denies that she and her husband even argue! Their fights don't last long enough for the police to get here while they're going on. Is there anything we can do? Does it have to be physical to qualify as "domestic violence?"

Sara Gebhardt: I'm not an expert on domestic violence, thankfully I suppose, but I imagine that verbal assaults are considered abuse. If you are friends with the neighbor, you might mention this. If she denies that these fights are happening, then find a way to alert your landlord so that someone besides you might intervene, hopefully on the basis of general noise-making. People do not respond well to comments on judgments about the inner worlds of their personal relationships.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I'm getting sick of living out in the suburbs. Would like to move closer in. However, I don't think I can go back to not having a washer/dryer and dishwasher in my apartment. Do rentals exist in D.C. with W/D in the unit? I haven't seen any while searching online.

Sara Gebhardt: Yes, they do. There are plenty of buildings that offer this service. Try to look at newly-renovated or newer buildings in the city, or even into privately-owned condos or coops. Ask around to people you know who live in the city, and if you're stuck to Internet research, join into chat rooms and ask around.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Sara,

I've just put a deposit down on an apartment in a great building, where I've been waiting for an apartment to open up; great area. The only thing is the landlord won't let me see the unit, since the tenant is still living there (moving Oct.31). How do I know I'm not getting a place that has damage? Is there some way to find out?

Thanks!

Sara Gebhardt: This seems suspicious. The landlord should show you the unit before you move in. If you decide you do not like the place once you look at it, you will be able to get the deposit back. In the meantime, ask your landlord again if you may see the unit, or at least pictures of it, to make sure it is what you are expecting. Until you see the place and sign a lease, you will not be forced to move into it.

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Quantico, Va.: The Fredericksburg apartments with the vibrations is a pre-fab complex built around 1998 or so. Lots of well-known construction problems with them. My family had the same experience. Not worth money to hire a civil engineer firm. Almost all the apartments in the phase one section "vibrate." A high density foam mattress may help in getting a good night's rest.

Sara Gebhardt: Thanks for the advice. Sorry to hear how well known this community's "vibrations" are.

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For Charlotte ... : Also, people's ideas of "affordable" vary widely. The poster should definitely come up and look around. Paying rent while not working is no fun and can become infeasible for some quickly.

Sara Gebhardt: Thanks for the tip.

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Washington, D.C.: The teenager who lives above my unit walks very loudly. The constant thumping on my head drives me crazy, many times I will either come home late or leave to avoid it. I have complained to the parents and the management office and although it would ease up it never stops completely. They do have carpet but this does not seem to serve as a good enough noise blocker/barrier. I don't want to move, the rent and location is great. Is there anything else I can do? Are there any noise ordinance laws that can help me with this heavy footed teenager.

Sara Gebhardt: Noise ordinance laws do not usually cover heavy-walking, unless it's so loud that it disturbs an entire building. Hearing footsteps of people, many of whom are not heavy on their feet, is a common problem in the realm of apartment-dwelling. Construction of many apartment buildings transmits such sounds easily, and in some cases, there's really nothing you can do barring suggesting a carpet for the upstairs or padding your own apartment with big furniture so that your "stuff" absorbs some of the noise.

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Sara Gebhardt: Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion. There were a lot of good questions I did not get to during the hour, and I will try to answer them in future columns, which you can read online or in Saturday's paper. In the meantime, you may also email me with any questions/comments at aptlife@gmail.com. I'll be back next month to tackle more questions, so 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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