Where to Live In D.C.
When you move to Washington, D.C. you might be surprised to learn a lot of people who list D.C. as their location in their twitter bio actually live an hour outside the city.
One of the most important questions you’ll need to answer when you move to town is how to decide where you want to live—based on the amount of space you want/need, the lifestyle you want, and how much time you’re willing to spend commuting every day.
The good news is if you make a commitment and regret the lease you sign/roommates you’ve chosen, it’s usually an easy and inexpensive problem to solve.
Here are my top tips for choosing a housing path—and yes, you can afford to live in the heart of the city.
Start With a Clean Slate
I’ve moved 7 times in 10 years—and that’s pretty common. When I first pulled into town I only had the clothes in my car and some books. That’s it. You don’t need to move a whole house worth of furniture with you to the city because the more things you have to move, the less nimble you’ll be when it comes time to schlepp it a few miles down the road to a new place. Come here with just the basics (clothes, books, your vitamix?) and add things as you really need them (and know you’re gonna be here a while).
Tip for success: Don’t panic about not being able to find or afford things you need when you get here—I’ve got you.
Don’t sign a lease before you get here!
Look, I am as Type A as they come—I LOVE to have a plan and bask in the security of knowing everything is sorted… but this is one item you do NOT want to check off your to do list before you get here. Many apartments in DC are move-in ready. Instead of signing a lease on an apartment before you look at a place in person, make sure you communicate your expectations and note that you’ll only be willing to sign after a tour when you get to town.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start looking and trying to secure a place before you arrive—make a few appointments to look at rooms in group houses or tour apartments. Be sure to tell the landlord/future roommates what your ideal move-in date is so there are no surprises on either end.
Tip for success: This is a great time to familiarize yourself with D.C. on Google maps to see how far you’ll be from your future office. You want to know the walkability score and if there is metro access near your new place. And don’t forget to factor in your gym so you can plan workouts into your schedule before or after work.
Consider a Group House
There are MANY reasons to move into a group house instead of an apartment. If you pick the right one, you’ll get a squad of experienced D.C.-ists who can help you navigate the city (and the horrendous dating scene), a built-in buddy system (for single girls this is KEY), and you can share the responsibility/cost of furnishing the place (bonus: most of the time it’ll already be furnished).
The risk? If you’re a conservative and they find out where you work they’ll probably pass you over (discrimination is apparently OK if it’s ideological), but if you can find a way in, group houses are—IMO—the best starting point for young people moving to DC. In addition to all the practical and social benefits listed above, you’ll also save a TON of money on rent and be much closer to work than any of your Virginia-dwelling coworkers.
Picture this: While they’ve been stuck on the beltway in gridlock for an hour you’ll be strolling into work with a coffee and a smile, un-rushed and always on time.
When you’re ready to move out, tell your roommates a month ahead of time and help them find a replacement so you don’t lose any money breaking a lease or leave them in a tough spot.
Tip for success: Make sure you’re a good fit with the roommates before you agree to move in. Living in a group house is a great way to keep your people skills on point: communicate well, clean up after yourself, and be respectful of others.
Consider a Studio!
Not feeling the group house vibe? The next step up on the affordable housing ladder is a studio. So many bonuses: they’re extremely easy to keep clean (just make sure you declutter often) and like group houses, studios make it possible to live in prime locations for the same cost as an apartment in Arlington.
When I lived on the Hill I was always proud to put my monthly budget up against any of my friends who commuted daily from Virginia and Maryland—whatever they thought they were “saving” in rent they were more than blowing on commuting costs (not to mention the hours of their lives stuck in traffic or waiting for trains to move).
Tip for success: Find a building with gorgeous shared spaces and a rooftop pool—and whenever you have friends over you won’t actually be hanging out in your apartment.
Consider not living in DC
Look—there ARE some practical reasons to live in Virginia and Maryland. While you will have to deal with a daily commute, the trade offs are nothing to scoff at. You’ll have much more space, crime is statistically much lower, and owning a car is much more feasible (but also totally required) in the suburbs.
While DC-adjacent locations like Clarendon and Old Town are just as expensive as living in the city, the commute is a snap and you’ll never lack nightlife options.
Drive a little further out to Annandale, Fairfax, or Shirlington and you’ll save serious cash on rent and never hurt for a place to park—just be prepared to wake up early every day to beat traffic.
Tip for success: Consider buying a house or condo—yes really. I know you might be thinking “ma’am, I am 22 and making no money – please get real” … you should still look at your options. Your mortgage will likely be less than rent on a property of the same type and you’ll have a great investment property to rent (or sell for a profit) down the road when you’re ready for a bigger house.
Date The Neighborhood Before You Commit
If you can, spend some time walking around and hanging out in neighborhoods around the city to get a feel for it during the day/week—not just on the weekends when everyone is out brunching. Are sidewalks congested/clean? Do you feel safe?
Tip for success: Do what you’d do before a first date: stalk them on Google. Neighborhood Scout gives you information you need to make an informed decision about where you’re looking to live.
If you hate it—move!
If you’re unhappy with your choice (or realize the grass is greener for you in Navy Yard than Brookland)… move.
Maybe you won’t be able to do it right away, but there’s no reason to feel stuck. Breaking a lease is the nuclear option. If you can find a tenant to honor the remainder of your lease (especially in a group house) and ensure they’re never going to miss a rent payment, landlords and roommates will stay happy.
Sometimes you do have to suck it up and stick with your commitment until your lease is up, but that’ll make you appreciate your next living situation even more.
No matter what neighborhood you choose, remember to be a kind and courteous member of that community and do what you can to improve it for everyone.
Gotta prove their stereotypes about conservatives wrong—right?