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Choosing the right lease length can save you hassle — and cash

Sienna Girgenti, 27, found that a two-year lease in D.C. not only saved her from a rent increase, but it opened the door to a longer stay. (Jason Hornick/For Express)

When Sienna Girgenti, 27, and her former roommate were looking for a place to rent, and found the right place — a basement apartment of a Columbia Heights rowhouse — they decided they wanted to stick around for awhile.

They signed a two-year lease, and it “was a big benefit for us for a lot of reasons,” says Girgenti, an assistant director at a global nonprofit. “The rental market in D.C. is expensive and crazy.” By getting a set rate for two years, she says, they didnít have to stress about finding a new place in a yearís time.

It can feel like a Goldilocks situation when hunting for that perfect apartment lease — something that’s not too long, not too short, but just right. Long-term can mean a cheaper rate in the long run and delay future apartment-hunting stress, but short-term can offer flexibility and deals, too.

Brian Kalish, 27, was on the hunt for a new apartment after his one-year lease at his former apartment in Arlington was up. Renewing there would have cost him about $150 more per month.

He decided to move to Liberty Tower Apartments (818 N. Quincy St., Arlington), which offered him a two-year lease for $45 more per month than he was previously paying. While a one-year lease would have cost the same rate at Liberty Tower, Kalish says, he wanted to have the security of the same rate for two years.

“It made more sense financially,” Kalish, a reporter, says. “Knowing for two years what I’d be paying, I can budget better.”

For Kalish, a lengthier lease made sense in the long run, too: He knows D.C. is where he wants to stay for now. “You feel part of a community,” Kalish says. “Moving is such a hassle.”

If you’re dealing with an individual landlord, a longer lease can mean more perks — including a rapport with your landlord and potentially deeper savings, as Girgenti discovered.

After her roommate moved out in May, Girgenti says her landlord considered phasing out tenants. “But because she felt she had such a good relationship with me, she was willing to offer me the place to stay at a much discounted rate,” Girgenti says. She’s in her fifth year of renting there.

Short-term leases, on the other hand, tend to be pricier, says Lindsay Dreyer, owner of City Chic Real Estate (1625 K St. NW, Suite 775; 202-499-4284).

That doesn’t mean deals aren’t to be had. Christine Heim, 28, and her husband were looking for apartments on Craigslist from Chicago before they moved to D.C. in July. They ended up taking over the last six months of a one-year lease in Logan Circle — and that included the deal the original tenant got, with a month’s rent free.

“We got lucky,” says Heim, a fundraiser at the American Red Cross. “It was a great way to transition into a city that we were not familiar with.”

The flexibility was a big draw, she says. Still, a short lease may not feel quite as homey since it’s not a permanent residence.

“I didn’t hang picture frames, or really truly move into the space, because it felt so temporary,” Heim says.

Short-term leases can be harder to come by, since they’re often offered by tenants who are looking to leave quickly. Try searching Craigslist or work your social and professional networks, Dreyer says. Even Airbnb or VRBO, aka Vacation Rentals By Owner, can be options — and they are furnished, so you can save on those expenses, she says.

Even then, a lease of any length isn’t a guarantee for a good deal. “If the rentals go up and you have a low rate locked in, that’s awesome, but if rentals go down, then you’re stuck with a higher rent,” she says.

Finding the right lease really comes down to a tenant’s needs, Dreyer says. “It doesn’t hurt to ask for what you would prefer,” she says. “The [landlord] could always say no, but it’s not always the case.”

When to bargain

For people looking at rental units, particularly those in rowhouses with private landlords, it’s possible to negotiate a desired lease length.

Doing so can minimize turnover and hassle for private landlords if tenants request a lease longer than a year,  says Lindsay Dreyer, owner of City Chic Real Estate in D.C.

Dreyer, who’s also a landlord, says she encourages tenants to sign long-term leases. “Every time they leave I have to get the place cleaned, and I have to find a new tenant, and it all costs money,” she says.

Unfortunately, this isn’t typically the case for larger apartment buildings. Dreyer says these complexes like one-year leases because it causes turnover, giving them a renegotiation point and allowing them to adjust rents to the market rate.

But there is a D.C. law that benefits tenants: After a one-year lease is up and a tenant wants to stay, rentals convert to a month-to-month lease unless the tenant chooses to sign on for another specific term, she says.

Sorry, Virginians and Marylanders: This isn’t the case for you. Apartment complexes can require new leases each year in those states, Dreyer says.