washingtonpost.com
Apartment Life Live

Sara Gebhardt
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, April 26, 2007 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.

Got roommate troubles? Our interactive guide is packed with tips and advice to help you make the most of a group living situation. Check it out: Lessons Learned: How to Survive Living With Roommates.

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: Good afternoon to everyone who is here to discuss and find out about rental life in Washington and beyond. As usual, questions on a variety of subjects are welcome. I recently wrote about how upcoming college graduates and others who are beginning to search for a apartment hunting can be successful, so any tips from you are welcome as well.

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Washington, D.C.: I am moving out of my apartment in about four months, and am not sure what to do about a small in my window sill from a candle that went a little out of control. Obviously it is my fault and I will pay, but I want to make sure that my landlord does not milk me for more money than repairs cost. Does he have to provide an invoice of the repair costs, or can he just take whatever he wants out of my deposit? Should I consider paying to have it fixed on my own?

Sara Gebhardt: Any time your landlord deducts money from your original security deposit, you are legally entitled an invoice. So, technically, your landlord cannot milk you out of a lot of money. However, a landlord may not care about the price of fixing the problem if it's not his money. For this reason, you might consider fixing it yourself. Or, you might bring it up to your landlord to chat about the ramifications of your candle-burning before deciding which route to take. Good luck!

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi, Sara. I don't have much hope here, but I'm crossing my fingers you can help me. We have to move for my husband's job (non-military) and need to break our lease two months before it runs out. We've been in our apartment for almost three years and through that time have had numerous complaints with the management -- from failure to fix appliances properly to numerous infestations of mice and ants. Management has raised our rent every year despite these issues and have proven themselves to be most unhelpful at every juncture. So now that we're leaving they, of course, want a whole month's rent as a lease breakage fee AND an additional amount for "pro-rated" rent for the time we won't even be there (and the time we're assuming they guess it will be unoccupied). We're having a baby in September and are trying to save as much as possible for when she comes. Subletting is forbidden according to our lease. Is there any hope for us, or are we doomed to pay over $1,000 to get out of this place?

Sara Gebhardt: Oh, there is always hope. I don't understand the part about pro-rated rent. A month's rent as a lease breakage fee may be worth it if you can get away without paying any more than that. But with two months left on the rent, it is unfortunate that your landlord won't make any concessions. It doesn't sound like they are amenable to most suggestions, but you could try to offer to help them find a tenant for the place so that it does not go unoccupied. Depending on how "hands on" your landlord is, also, you could find a subletter, especially in the summer months. Not that I'm endorsing violating the terms of your lease, but it may be an option if you can trust that person to help when the time comes for you to actually "move out."

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Ohio: I'm moving to D.C. to start a new job in mid-September. I'd like to start a lease around September 1. How soon should I start looking? I would like to rent a studio in Logan Circle or Columbia Heights. How is the rental market in those areas? Thanks!

Sara Gebhardt: The rental market in the area generally is fairly competitive. However, there is always turnover, so even a low vacancy rate (3%) will not stand in your way of finding a place. It never hurts to start looking for an apartment two months prior to when you want to move. However, you do not really need that much time if you know what you're looking for. You can act fairly quickly on apartments in the city, so perhaps you could come in town 3 weeks to a month before your scheduled move and follow up on any Internet leads you might have found beforehand. Alternatively, you could also just come to DC when you start your job and live in temporary housing while you check out what is out there in person.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello, Sara and fellow readers. I am renting a condo in the Deanwood area of the city. I signed a two-year lease with the owner of the unit(my cousin) and now she wants to sell the condo. I 've thought about buying the condo within two years, depending on the neighborhood and if it changes for the better. She has given me a notice of intent to sell the condo. She has done this in the past, have someone to move into the property and then six months later sell the property. They want to start showing the condo. She says that she is looking for buyers who want he unit for investment purposes and will honor my two-year lease. The minute that I learned that she was going to sell the unit I informed her that I wanted a years lease.My question is, what are my rights in terms of showing the property and should I start to look for a stable place to live.? I feel like I was bamboozled into moving into this unit and six months into the lease she is trying to sell and making me feel insecure about living here. Please help me! What should I do?

Sara Gebhardt: Technically, if she sells the condo with the stipulation that the new owners honor your 2-year lease (rental price, terms, and all), you will be okay. That the owner is your cousin and may have not been up front with you poses a personal problem above all. Make sure, no matter how upset you are, you work with your cousin so she can serve as your advocate with the new owners. The sale of the condo can come with whatever rental requirements you might want. You can use her decision to sell as a way to break your lease and go elsewhere, or you can just see it out and maybe come up with a new shorter-term or more flexible agreement with the new owners.

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Anonymous: What would you do if you were convinced a neighbor was a prostitute working out of an apartment next to yours?

Sara Gebhardt: Me, personally? I probably wouldn't be convinced of such a thing unless I had talked to my neighbor and collected enough solid evidence. Some people have a lot of, er, friends; others may have clients. Depending on where you stand on the issue, you can talk to management or the local police once you are almost positive you are not jumping to conclusions.

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Columbia Heights, D.C.: I recently learned that an acquaintance will be moving to the Washington area, and she's hoping to find an efficiency or one-bedroom apartment near a Metro station for $900 or less. Is that feasible? Even at some of the far-flung Metro stations, rents seem to start higher than that.

Sara Gebhardt: It is possible, depending on location. Most likely, your friend will have to limit her search to studio apartments. Remind her to be flexible. It will be easier to find a place in that price range near a bus line which runs to a Metro.

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Future D.C. Landlord: I own one condo that I am turning into a rental property (I will be moving into a second condo that I am about to purchase). I've been told by some people that I need to register for a license with the D.C. government, but I am finding their Web site ambiguous -- it says you need a basic business license for a "one family rental," but I can't find a definition of one family rental. I appreciate any help in clearing this up!

Sara Gebhardt: Yes, you will need to register to license your rental unit. Contact DCRA (dcra.dc.gov)--perhaps a phone call will help you clear up your question.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, I love my apartment and want to stay after the lease ends. Do leases automatically go month to month after the term ends or do I have to ask my landlord for a new lease?

Sara Gebhardt: Your lease will automatically go month to month after the term ends if your landlord has not given you notice. You do not have to ask for a lease but could if If you'd like more security in how long you'll be able to stay.

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Landlord Question: Hi! I had a question about renting from a person vs. renting from a management company. My husband and I are looking to rent a townhouse and the idea of just renting from an individual makes me really nervous. Are they held to the same standards as management companies? Such as, if they decide to sell the home, how much notice must they give you? Any advice on this front? Thanks!

Sara Gebhardt: I've answered a similar question in a column in the last couple of weeks, so you can find a more detailed answer there. But, the bottom line is that an individual and a management company have to follow the same laws. They have to abide by the requirements of local housing regulations and the lease, so you will not be putting yourself at any more risk by going with an individual renter. Renters will definitely tell you that there are plenty of good and bad management companies, just as there are good and bad individuals renting out units.

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Boston, Ma.: Hi Sara, I plan to stay on renting my apartment while my two other roommates are leaving the area and moving out. The landlord is significantly increasing the rent because she "believes she can get more money." I told her that's fine, but that there are a few things that need to be fixed/updated (including the hot water heater) before I'll sign the lease. She hasn't gotten back to me and I'm concerned that she's going to try and back out of the work and I'll be stuck. I guess what I need is some pointers on how to talk to her without making her defensive and without getting defensive myself.

Sara Gebhardt: Have you signed a new lease? If you have not yet agreed in writing to the rental increase, then simply to not until she makes the fixes. If you've asked her to make these fixes verbally, try writing a letter. And if you want to make sure you don't get defensive or put her on the defensive, just tell her how much you like living in her property, that you are willing to continue to be a good tenant and pay more rent as long as she is willing to make a few necessary changes. Remind her that she'll have to make these changes (if a hot water heater is broken, there's no getting around that) anyway, and that you'll help facilitate if necessary. Just don't be desperate. Sometimes moving is a better choice than harboring resentment while overpaying for rent.

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Rockville, Md.: Our apartment is a loft unit and has a major window unit at the top level. There are no curtains or any cover and I don't know how to open or close them. I was wondering how others with windows like this manage the window units. In summer we could ave a significant amount of energy by opening them and letting the heat flow out. Many years ago when I was in school, they had long rods to open high windows. But I would favor some sort of electric device. Suggestions?

Sara Gebhardt: Maybe somebody can help this chatter.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Hi Sara, I have a friend who is an artist and he is looking for space to set up his studio. However, he has a very small apartment and strict rules governing paint and such on the walls. Assuming he can return the walls back to normal at the end of his lease, can this become an issue for my artist friend? Because sometimes the landlord shows the apartments to potential leasees. Thanks.

Sara Gebhardt: Ah, artist friends. Creativity is allowed within rental units too. As long as he paints the walls back to how he found them, he should be okay. Landlords rules are usually not stricter than expecting that a tenant leaves the apartment in the condition he found it. As long as he cooperates at the end of the lease term, there should be no problem.

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washingtonpost.com: With Preparation, the Perfect Place Could Be Yours, (washingtonpost.com, April 19)

Sara Gebhardt: For those of you college grads asking about finding rental housing, check out this link.

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U Street, D.C.: Hi, Sara. My roommate and I found a perfect two-bedroom condo for rent right off of U Street for an amazing price. We're young professionals (and women) and feel completely safe in the neighborhood. There's one thing that is worrying us, and our parents. The condo is basement level (but still gets amazing light because of floor to ceiling windows) and has a balcony (it's kind of hard to describe without seeing it) The wall goes up about nine feet, and then there is about a three foot fence, a garden, grass, and then the sidewalk. The balcony door has a lock on it. But, conceivably, someone could jump down onto the balcony if they really, really wanted to. Do you think that this is a deal breaker for the apartment or do you think with the lock we will be safe enough? The block is all quiet and residential and has two new condo buildings. It is a block away from U Street. Do you have any thoughts?

Sara Gebhardt: I cannot exactly picture it, but the important question is, do you think it's a dealbreaker? Is there anyway you can ask your landlord to put more "security" on the balcony door? Or get an alarm system? If you are at all nervous, then see what you can do to convince the landlord to add some safety measures. Also, talk to people who live on the block and seek their advice.

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Atlanta, Ga.: The lease on my first apartment expires at the end of July. I love the unit, but might be moving out of state in June, in which case I wouldn't want to renew. If I do stay in town, though, I would like to stay. My landlord sent a letter in April asking me to renew by May 1, adding that they would list the unit and begin showing it if I did not renew. My plans won't finalize until June, but I would love to have the extra time to decide about a renewal. Is a two month window for renewal standard? Is there anything I can do to push the window back? My landlord is a bit, shall we say, aggressive about things like this.

Sara Gebhardt: If your lease stipulates 2-month notice, then 2 months is what you have to follow. In this case, you will have to ask your landlord for one month to figure out your plans. Your landlord does not have to grant you the extra time to decide, though. Just try to negotiate so that you can have the most options. As May 1 is next week, you better get moving.

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Sara Gebhardt: Well, folks. That's the end of today's discussion. Thanks much for participating. I may answer those questions that I did not get to in an upcoming column. In the meantime, you can always contact me at aptlife@gmail.com. Be good!

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