It's like a meat market, except the available item is genderless and unresponsive to flattery.

And, like the dating game, the result can be messy. With a few dozen contenders waiting, there is only one person who chooses the mate for this sought-after rarity: a vacant apartment in a popular District neighborhood.

"For the first time, I feel like I've got something people really want," said Lynn Skynear, a 25-year District resident who owns and leases several area properties. "I'll put an ad in the paper and by 9 in the morning I'll have 15 or 20 calls. I've never seen it like this."

And neither have others. The housing market in the District and its suburbs is ablaze, said Mark Teather, who surveys rental markets for Delta Associates, a research affiliate of Transwestern, a Texas-based commercial real estate brokerage. Vacancy rates in the District have steadily declined over the past six years, while rental rates have shot up 20 percent for garden and high-rise apartment units, reaching levels that are prompting new construction throughout the region, Teather said.

While such a market bonanza is undoubtedly great for property owners, it can be painful for those searching for a place to live, as many District apartment hunters leave disgruntled and more anxious than when they arrived. In some of the more popular neighborhoods--Adams-Morgan, Dupont Circle, Woodley Park and Capitol Hill--bidding wars have erupted, with some people offering several hundred dollars more than the advertised rent.

For Alexis Castor, a research assistant at the National Gallery of Art, such bidding wars led her to finally abandon her District-wide search and instead find a place in Alexandria, where apartments are slightly less in demand.

"It's just vicious out there, and I didn't want to be a part of it," she said.

According to those who have been a part of the mad crush, the experience goes something like this: A District apartment is advertised in one of the local daily or weekly newspapers, with the ad designating a time when the place will be shown. Hours before the "open house," dozens of potential tenants begin to gather at the site. When the property owner arrives, there is a herd of people, all of whom have internally claimed the place as their own. Only one will win, most often after a deal has been made.

"Each time I'd go to [an open house], there would already be 20 or more people waiting," Castor said. "At this one place, there were three of us who had given [the landlord] not only an application fee but a $1,000 deposit to run a credit check. When I asked him how he would make his decisions, he said he would call us and ask us if we would sign either a two-year lease or pay more for the place."

The two-bedroom Dupont Circle apartment she was looking at was advertised for $1,300 a month. When she finally walked away, "there was talk of it being over $1,500."

"After that weekend I just went out to the suburbs. I decided it wasn't worth it," she said. "Now I have a larger place for less money."

Elsewhere in the District, things seem to be calmer, Teather said. "But although it's not as tight in the Northeast and Southwest areas, it's still healthy by D.C. market standards," he said.

Castor is not alone, nor is her story an anomaly. Others have talked of such bidding wars and of such price increases, which are legal so long as the place being rented is exempt from District-wide rent-control regulations, said James Aldridge, housing administrator at the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. According to Aldridge, any residential rental property is subject to rent control unless the property qualifies for one of nine exemptions. The most common exemption is given to a landlord who owns, or holds a partial interest in, four units or fewer.

Skynear, who recently rented out three apartments, said she saw a crowd gathered on a popular street in Adams-Morgan last month and thought trouble had to be stirring. "I thought a robbery had happened, because why else would there be such a crowd?" she said. "But they were all lining up for a two-bedroom, one-bath place. So then I thought it was a fluke and only happening there, but people are telling me it's happening all over, that people are fighting for a place to live."

Skynear said she bypasses such conflicts by scheduling appointments one after another, rather than all at once.

"It's uncomfortable for everyone. You can get hundreds of calls on one place, and to have that many people show up . . . how do you choose?" she said. "They're all very qualified, they earn enough and have good rent history. It's hard to pick one. But there just isn't enough room for them all."

Skynear attributes the decline in vacancies to a healthy economy and "a wonderful renaissance of the city" where people "are no longer afraid to live here because it's getting safer.

"It could be that we have a new mayor and have his vision of the city. People who moved away want to come back," she said.

Dee Holmes, a marketing associate with Apartment Search, a free apartment locator for the Washington area, agreed. "There's a sense of urgency," she said. "There's this kind of status; here today, gone today."

William Beyer, 25, spent a recent Sunday afternoon with Sara Mauger, 23, at area open houses, hoping to find a place to live. He also was hoping not to experience what some of his friends had. Their search was unsuccessful.

"This friend of mine went to an open house for an apartment that was advertised at $850. It was $1,250 when she left. And someone was willing to cut a check for $1,500 right there," he said. "That's just ridiculous."

Holmes detailed a couple who attended an open house one evening and found more than 200 people, many of whom had been waiting since 11 a.m.

The couple "just walked away after seeing that," she said. "And all the time you'll see young people with cell phones walking from property to property to property, just trying to find a place and not having any luck at all."

To those still searching, and eager for a place in the District, Holmes suggests this: "Find a couple of roommates and get a larger place that you can all share, or just be persistent in finding a place, even if it means getting up earlier and coming in person to apartment locators. But just be patient. The right place will come along."

Vacancy Rates in the Washington Area

This is a general list of vacancy and rental rates. It does not include apartments made available in brownstones, nor those leased out from private residences.

Class A Buildings

Built in 1988 or later, these offer a clubhouse, decorated model units, two-bedroom/two-bath units and a large community amenity package.

The District

Vacancy rate: 1.6 percent in June 1999 (down from 1.7 percent last June)

Rents: Up 5.7 percent from June 1998 to June 1999

Northern Virginia

Vacancy rate: 0.8 percent in June 1999 (down from 1.2 percent last June)

Rents: Up 5.7 percent from June 1998 to June 1999

Suburban Maryland

Vacancy rate: 1.6 percent in June 1999 (down from 2.3 percent last June)

Rents: Up 4 percent from June 1998 to June 1999

Class B Buildings

Built in the 1960s and '70s, these are older but well-maintained buildings. They offer fewer amenities than newer properties.

The District

Vacancy rate: 0.7 percent in June 1999 (down from 1 percent last June)

Rents: Up 15.1 percent from June 1998 to June 1999

Northern Virginia

Vacancy rate: 0.8 percent in June 1999 (down from 1.7 percent last June)

Rents: Up 5.2 percent from June 1998 to June 1999

Suburban Maryland

Vacancy rate: 2.1 percent in June 1999 (down from 2.3 percent last June)

Rents: Up 3.8 percent from June 1998 to June 1999

SOURCE: Delta Associates