Q: Having just arrived in Washington, we were astounded by the high cost of housing. We are scheduled to stay here two or three years, but have no definite plans afterwords. Shall we rent an apartment or buy a condominium?

A: It's hard enough to give legal advice, but since you asked, let me venture an economic forecast. I am firmly convinced that the Washington area is a good growth area, and if you can afford the down payment and the high interest rates, you should buy now.

Prices have risen at least 10 percent annually here in recent years. Add this inflationary spiral to the tax benefits of homeownership and you can understand why I think it's better to buy.

Of course, there are times when renting makes more sense. For example, if you are in retirement on a fixed income, you may find that rising property taxes and utility costs may be too much for your budget.

Additionally, if your income is such that you do not benefit by the additional tax deductions, you should do your own arithmetic on the question of renting or buying. After all, if you can find an apartment at a reasonable rental, you can invest your "down payment" in a long-term certificate of deposit or other higher-interest savings program, and end up just as well.

But keep in mind that rents are rising quickly and that buildings are often converted into condominums.

You suggest that you may be leaving the area in a couple of years. This should not affect your decision to buy, however. Let's suppose you purchase a $90,000 condominium today. In three years, it should be worth at least $120,000. If you move to another city, why not consider renting out your condominium?

Let's look at the benefits of renting your condo:

First, you will be keeping a very good investment. Remember, values should be rising steadily in this area for some time.

Second, in addition to the usual tax deduction for real estate taxes and mortgage interest, as a landlord you also can depreciate your property. You will be surprised at the tax savings this produces.

Third, since your property is going up in value, you should consider refinancing periodically. You can pull out enough money to enable you to buy another house, remodel or refurbish your present house, or just bank the money for another day. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, interest rates will come down to a more comfortable level to; permit refinancing.

Finally, with interest rates so high, rentals in this area are rapidly escalating.

Thus, I strongly recommend that you consider buying a condominium during your stay in Washington.

A few years ago the Department of Labor published a pamphlet entitled "Rent or Buy: Evaluating Alternatives in the Shelter Market." This publication will assist you in doing the necessary arithmetic to determine the finances of renting or buying.

But, mathematics alone should not be the determining factor. There's a Washington fever that hits many of us, and you may find that your three-year term will stretch out indefinitely. Since we are now in a buyers' market, can thered be any question of buying or renting?