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Design and other ephemera

A friend’s recent Facebook status update bemoaning the challenges of finding a decent, affordable rental in Washington, D.C. just reminded me of my own apartment search last year and how it came to consume my life. While this may sound unappealing to many, I actually sort of loved it. As happy as I was to finally find a place (after a leisurely 4 month search), I kind of missed the experience once it was over. Sure, some of you may regard the hunt to find an apartment that costs less than $1200 a month in a safe, urban area a fool’s mission. I preferred to regard it as a character-building challenge. Given the depth of my search and the fact that it was all I could talk about for several months, I feel uniquely qualified to share a few pieces of wisdom on the matter. The following is the first in a multi-part series on landing your dream (or at least acceptable acceptable) apartment in our fair city.

1.) Allot as much time as you possibly can to your rental search. While I realize that circumstances differ among individuals, your search will be much less traumatic if you can pace yourself and take breaks as needed. Think of it like running a marathon for the first time: While it helps to have a time-line, it’s important not to over-exert yourself, and you’ll feel way better in the end if you don’t sprint when you can instead jog. Or something. I actually hate running so  this may not be  the best analogy.

2.) Run an honest assessment of your budget in order to determine what you can afford. Common wisdom on the matter defines “affordable rent” as no more than 1/3 of your monthly income, but obviously this will be different with everyone. It will also help to map out the rest of your financial expenditures to determine what you spend money on and what can be sacrificed in the name of an apartment upgrade if that is indeed your goal. Perhaps you will decide that you don’t need to spend $100 a month on supplies for your ham radio hobby if that same amount means the difference between a studio and a one bedroom apartment.

3.) Enter the “spec” phase. In this part of the hunting process you are just looking. Check out the usual suspects such as Craig’s List; the Washington City Paper; and to get a lay of the land. This will give you an idea of what rental prices are like where and how many square feet and amenities you’re likely to squeeze out of your lease agreement.

One advantage of DC is that it’s an extremely plugged-in city, and there is a LOT renting and living-related information online. Check out Yahoo Groups to see if you can join neighborhood list-serves and start reading neighborhood-related blogs. While you might not find an actual apartment through this, you will learn a lot about individual neighborhoods.

Speaking of which, another important aspect of the spec phase is exploring potential neighborhoods in the flesh. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Before you entertain the possibility of a specific apartment, visit prospective neighborhoods ahead of time without the prospect of one particular rental hanging over your head. Walk around to get a feel for the area, what it has to offer in terms of transportation and amenities and whether or not you feel safe. Don’t feel bad if you don’t. Some neighborhoods aren’t for everyone. For instance, while I have heard all sorts of wonderful things about Petworth, my spec exploration there taught me that I’d feel safer spending a little more money to live in a less “transitional” area. To each their own. During this phase you may also see “for rent” signs outside of buildings–another good way of finding a place, as many buildings don’t even bother advertising online. Be armed with your cell phone at all times and don’t be shy about calling. That’s what the sign is there for, after all.

Also consider what you can bear in terms of a commute. If you take public transportation to work, you should use WMATA’s Metro Trip Planner to map your route using Metro and Metrobus.

Finally, if you’re worried about crime, take a look at the DC Metropolitan Police Department’s Crime Database to learn more about neighborhood incidences of robberies, stabbings, shootings and other forms of heniousness.

I think that’s enough for today. Check out the links below for additional resources and come visit me again as I delve further into the madness of the DC rental market. Questions? Shoot ’em my way in  the comments section.

A Smattering of Neighborhood-Related Blogs

14th & You
And Now, Anacostia
In Shaw
Frozen Tropics
Prince of Petworth


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