Renters Beware: A Crash Course in DC’s Rental Market

by January 16, 2013 at 8:00 am 0

From Eliza French. Follow her on Twitter @elizaenbref; email her at eliza[AT]

"For Rent"

DC’s rental prices are among the highest in the country. (Luis Gomez Photos)

Living in Borderstan, near some of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods, often means sacrificing quality for location.

Leaky faucets, linoleum flooring and window AC units are the trade-offs for living within walking distance of barscoffeeshops, a farmer’s market and DC’s only high heel race. Renters, by nature, need temporary housing, but that doesn’t mean we should all be counting down until the day our lease is up and we have another chance to find that elusive perfect apartment.

Renting can feel like a constant struggle in this high-demand market. Amy Rose Dobson, editor of DC real estate blog Curbed D.C., explained in an email.”It is still hard to find an affordable apartment in a desirable neighborhood because there is so much competition and not enough spaces,” she says.

It might not take an expert to figure that out, but it does help to have one say that rental prices might be easing up in the not-so-distant future.”Right now there are over 2,000 apartment units under construction to deliver in 2013 so the tight rental market should see some easing by the end of this year,” Dobson added. But, be warned that she doesn’t “see a reversal in the current supply-demand trend anytime soon.”

DC real estate trends confirm Dobson’s view. An August 2012 artilce in The Washington Post promised a “renter’s respite”  as thousands of new apartments whose construction had been put on hold during the recession were to be completed by the beginning of this year. A recent post on DC Urbanturf noted: “The ever-growing supply of new apartments in the DC area seems to finally be catching up with demand. After years of increasing, rents are now dropping in many parts of the region.”

But, relief may still be a year or two away for some. The same post goes on to say, “rents did not fall everywhere, however. Capitol Riverfront (3.9 percent) and the sub-market that includes Penn Quarter, Logan Circle and Dupont Circle [a.k.a. much of Borderstan] (2.5 percent) showed rent increases.”

Since apartments are still in scarce supply, renters need to be savvy in their pursuits. After the endless hours spent scouring Craigslist and Padmapper, the countless open houses, the application forms and fees, most renters are desperate to finally move in somewhere — anywhere — before their current lease expires. We have all, wittingly or unwittingly, overlooked a fatal flaw in the apartment itself or with building management that has left us wondering how we ever thought we could live there.

The truth is, you never really know a place until you live in it. But, there are proactive steps renter’s can take to avoid some of the most common pitfalls of renting. Dobson recommends getting a copy of your credit report before the showing or open house and bringing it with you.”It shows you’re motivated to move in, speeds up the process, and slightly cuts down on the likelihood of your social security number being stolen,” she explained in an email.

Another tip from Dobson: When you first enter the unit, take notice of any overwhelming air freshener scent. It’s probably being used to mask something much more unpleasant. Once you decide you like the building, be on the lookout for unexpected fees when you talk to the landlord or leasing office. It might seem obvious to ask about parking space fees, but Dobson mentioned that less obvious costs, like bike fees and storage, often surprise tenants.

Other useful resources on renters’ legal rights include The Washington Post classifieds’ F.A.Q. page and the District of Columbia’s Office of the Tenant Advocate website. There may be no such thing as a “perfect” apartment (although I’m personally holding out hope). Still, knowing what to look for in an apartment and building management make it much easier to find a place you want to call home.

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