If you think the Washington-area rental market is a challenge, imagine trying to navigate it from more than 6,500 miles away.
That was the reality Niyara Alakhunova, 29, a graduate student at George Washington University, faced. She began her D.C. apartment search from her native Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. An American friend told her about a site called Craigslist, which she perused from abroad. (In Kyrgyzstan, renters rely instead on real-estate agents or calling ads in newspapers to find apartments.)
When Alakhunova saw apartments she liked online, she called a different friend in D.C., who checked out the units and sent back photographs and reports. But when she arrived and saw one for herself, Alakhunova was disappointed.
“The room was so tiny,” she says.
Alakhunova’s rental struggle is familiar to the thousands of foreign nationals who need to find a place to live in Washington each year. The mix of top universities, embassies, nonprofits and NGOs draws people from all over the world to D.C. But when it comes to looking for apartments, international renters face more challenges than locals.
When Holta Trandafili’s organization transferred her from Albania to Washington in 2010, her employer paid her relocation costs, including expenses incurred from staying in hotels while apartment hunting. But when it came to finding a rental, Trandafili, 34, a senior research specialist, was essentially on her own.
When she asked her American friends for advice, they told her about neighborhoods and directed her to websites, “which for my culture is not how you help a friend,” Trandafili says. Eventually, two friends from work helped her find an apartment through word-of-mouth, which is similar to how she’d find one in Albania.
The Credit Crunch
Finding a place isn’t always the hard part. Many foreign nationals have trouble meeting prerequisites that are easier for U.S. citizens, says Jean Poitevien, supervising property manager with Long & Foster Property Management, which has many foreign clients, including diplomats and people who work for international organizations.
For example, if a landlord asks for a credit report, many international renters can’t provide one. Apartment-hunters who aren’t American citizens often don’t have a Social Security number or a long credit history in the U.S. That can make landlords uncertain about whether they’re good for the rent.
There are ways for international renters to show they can cover the rent without a credit check. Showing proof of employment and a pay stub is a good one. Some renters offer to pay multiple months of rent in advance. Alternately, sometimes embassies are willing to sign leases for diplomats, Poitevien says.
Ultimately, it is up to the property owner to decide whether to accept an application without being able to verify credit, Poitevien says.
In lieu of U.S. credit, Alakhunova’s landlord asked for either two references (from a previous employer and a previous landlord) or an extra $1,000. Alakhunova chose to provide the references.
In leasing her first apartment, Trandafili was asked to provide references and to divulge how much rent she paid in her hometown of Tirana, Albania, as well as to provide a pay stub and proof that she had a bank account.
To start establishing credit in the U.S., Trandafili applied for a Social Security number. Once she had one, she got a credit card.
Trandafili and Alakhunova also had to overcome some basic cultural differences about the way people rent in America.
Alakhunova was surprised that few apartments in D.C. were furnished, which is the norm in Kyrgyzstan, and that people live in English basement apartments. “No one lives in my country in the basement; it’s like living in a cave,” she says.
Although Trandafili now realizes the studio with a patio she found for $1,285 — utilities included — was a good deal, she says she cried when she first saw it. Studios don’t exist in Albania. “There is always a bedroom,” she says.
And then there were the prices. In Tirana, Trandafili shared a nicely furnished one-bedroom apartment with her sister and cousin, for which they paid $300 total — $100 per person.
“So that was a big shock, coming and paying $1,285,” she says. “I could rent 12 apartments in Albania with this!”
Trandafili still lives in the same rent-controlled apartment building in Dupont Circle, though she has since upgraded to a one-bedroom, for $1,485 a month, utilities included. Trandafili says she considers herself lucky to have found the building.
Alakhunova settled on a one-bedroom apartment in Foggy Bottom. She and a roommate split the $2,700 rent.
Although Alakhunova owned her three-bedroom apartment in Bishkek, which she bought for $60,000, she says rent for a furnished one-bedroom apartment there is $400 to $500 a month.
But, Poitevien with Long & Foster says sticker shock also depends on where the renter hails from — meaning housing in D.C. might be considered a bargain compared with rent in, let’s say, London.
“If they’re coming from the EU, then no, they don’t find it surprising. They’re looking for properties in the $5,000-a-month range,” Poitevien says of D.C. rental prices. “It all depends.”