Sometimes the plumbing in Jamie Grigg’s apartment acts a little funky after she’s been on vacation. “And my kitchen window is drafty, so if it’s ever really windy it tends to howl and whistle,” she says.
Despite these quirks, she loves living in her 1920s-era apartment building in the Adams Morgan-Kalorama area. “My apartment is my pride and joy,” says Grigg, 26, who runs the apartment listing site Exposed Brick DC. “There’s so much character. In a place like D.C. that’s so old and historic, why wouldn’t you rent an older place? It might be one of your last opportunities to do that.”
There are lots of new apartments going up around the D.C. area. But there are still plenty of older ones, some even boasting a historic pedigree. Whether you’re a fan of retro rentals like Grigg is, or attracted to one because of its location or price, there are a few things to consider when renting an apartment with some age to it.
When looking at an older rental, check for signs of water damage or other issues and make sure that all the appliances and utilities work. “Flush the toilets and turn on the faucets,” says Eric Suissa, director of sales for the DC Apartment Company, which matches renters with available rentals. “If the toilets are running slowly or the drains take forever to drain, it could be a sign of bad stuff.”
Be wary of peeling paint, because if it contains lead the dust could lead to poisoning. There’s a good chance lead-based paint was used in buildings constructed before the federal government banned it in 1978. Landlords are required to disclose information about lead paint in the property. “If they don’t give you a disclosure form or it’s not in the lease, ask where it is,” Suissa says.
When it comes to utilities, they’re sometimes included in your rent in older apartments. But that may mean you don’t have as much control over them. With radiators, for example, you might be able to control the output but not the temperature.
“I’m in one of those buildings where everything’s on one system,” says Grigg, who’s also an agent with DCRE Residential. “From May to September, we have air conditioning, but after that you can’t get air-conditioning again. If you’ve never rented a place with older fixtures, you need to really understand how those things work.”
If your utilities aren’t included in your rent, prepare yourself for higher costs. Older water heaters and appliances typically aren’t as energy efficient as their modern counterparts.
“While old windows can add a lot of character, they can translate into higher monthly heating and cooling costs,” says Wendy Santantonio, who’s chronicled the renovation of her 1880s-era Old Town Alexandria rowhouse on her blog Old Town Home and is a Realtor at McEnearney Associates. “People are sometimes surprised after they move into an older unit just how high those utility costs can be, especially if they’ve been living in a newer place beforehand.”
Older apartments typically don’t have all the luxe amenities of newer rentals. But even some basic features may not be what a 21st-century renter expects.
“You have to measure the doors and elevators, because they’re typically a lot smaller,” Suissa says. Then compare that to your furniture to make sure you can get it into the space.
There are upsides, though. Chances are you won’t hear your neighbors that much, thanks to building materials of days past. “Plaster walls often offer better soundproofing than poorly insulated drywall,” Santantonio says.
Your apartment might literally be unlike any other. Grigg’s building started out with just a handful of apartments on each floor, but over the years those were divided up to create more units. “All of the floor plans are different,” she says. “It’s really cool to live in an apartment and know that your layout is unique.”
And your rent will likely be lower than a high-end high-rise, especially in a more established neighborhood. “Right now the city is definitely trending toward all the new units they’re building,” says Grace Langham, vice president of property management firm Nest DC. “If you’re someone who loves that older feel, right now prices are a little more affordable.”
More on renting in D.C.