Moving to DC. How do I find a place to live?
May 12, 2010 8:09 AM   Subscribe

How does one find an apartment with a roommate in a different state? I am moving to the Wash-DC area, and I need to find a place to live. I've never been there, I don't know anyone there, and I will not be going there before my relocation. What's the best way to handle this situation?

Craigslist is one answer, but I would not feel comfortable agreeing to rent without first meeting my potential roommate or seeing the house and the area.

I've heard of, but the same applies as above.

What are other resources I can use? Is it better if I stay in a hotel for a night or two when I move up there and shop around? Any advice would be appreciated. I've never relocated before, so I'm kind of clueless.

I will probably be living in Silver Spring. My employer will not assist with relocation.
posted by alligatorman to Work & Money (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think craigslist and phone conversations is the best way to go. Otherwise, get a studio and go it alone for a year, then pick up a roommate.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:14 AM on May 12, 2010

Ask the HR department at your new employer for suggestions. Even if they don't help with the financial costs, surely someone there would be able to suggest good neighborhoods to check out or other local resources.
posted by something something at 8:16 AM on May 12, 2010

Best answer: If you're not going to be able to visit before you move, you have only a few options:

1) Rent an apartment, sight unseen, with a roommate you've never met.

2) Rent an apartment, sight unseen, without a roommate, and then either live alone or find a roommate after you have the apartment.

3) Stay in a hotel, hostel, or short-term rental for a few weeks while you look for a place to live.

I recommend #3. Virtually the entire rental market here is handled on Craigslist, and there will be scams. In addition, if you don't know this area well, you won't have a good sense for whether you're moving into a good area where you'd like to live, or a desolate wasteland with a sky-high crime rate. Finally, most decent roommate-types won't want to agree to let you live with them without meeting you, for their own protection and sanity. Come here, get a hotel room or a short term lease for a month or so, and make your decision about more permanent lodgings when you're actually here.
posted by decathecting at 8:19 AM on May 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

There are a lot of "executive" long-term hotels in the area, many near Metro. Your employer may be able to suggest one or even get you a discount.

Twice (in college) I rented places without seeing them first and they both turned out to be awful. Like, criminally awful.
posted by JoanArkham at 8:26 AM on May 12, 2010

You can certainly ask your employer for recommendations of neighborhoods, but I think the usual thing to do (and what I did) is to just go on CraigsList and start emailing people.

You probably want to plan on spending a week or so in a hotel or some other kind of temporary situation, if you can't make it to DC to check out places ahead of time. I don't think it's worth going more than a month ahead, because most people who put ads on CL want someone relatively soonish, but a weekend trip out a few weeks ahead to scout for places would be time well spent IMO. If there is absolutely no way for you to visit ahead of time, you should plan on having a lot more hassle and expense; you'll need temporary housing and someplace to move your stuff to (like a storage facility). You'll basically have to move twice. It sucks, and even if you have to get a plane ticket to visit DC ahead of time I suspect that will be cheaper.

I've never heard of anyone using; most everyone I know has used Craisglist up until they get to the point of wanting to rent a fairly expensive (entire townhouse or SFH) by themselves. At that point it becomes useful to go through a realtor or rental agency so they can sort through stuff for you, because a lot of those properties don't get listed on CL.

Alternately I suppose you could try working your social network through something like Facebook, if you would prefer a friend-of-a-friend instead of a bunch of total strangers, but honestly I could see that being more awkward down the road than just finding some random roommates that you may never see again once you move out (if you don't want to).

FWIW, I met some great people as a result of my "OMG I need to find an apartment in 3 days" Craigslist experience, when I first moved to the DC area. Stayed in some really crummy apartments, but I never had a bad roommate situation.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:29 AM on May 12, 2010

Best answer: 3) Stay in a hotel, hostel, or short-term rental for a few weeks while you look for a place to live.

Do this. You run the risk of a bad situation if you rent sight-unseen, especially if you're unfamiliar with the area and interested in having a roommate.

I moved to DC in February on a 10 day notice. Fortunately, I had friends in the District, and didn't have to shell out for a hotel while I looked for a place. If you're proactive, you can see a few places a day, and get a good feel for potential roommates. The entire rental/subletting market revolves around Craigslist.

During my search, I saw places that were both great and awful in contrast to their corresponding Craigslist ads, and met some awesome/horrific potential roommates.

Also, don't anticipate every roommate wanting to live with you. I put in 3 offers that were rejected -- one roommate simply didn't like me (and I appreciated his honesty for it!), the next got cold feet about renting his spare room and wouldn't commit to a move-in date, and the third turned out to be a sketchy slumlord.

Are you looking for one/two roommates, or a group house? Moving into a group house can involve some drama, as not all of the roommates may be receptive to your arrival (and on the flipside, make sure you meet all of the people in the house before making a commitment!)

Given that you're presumably going to be working in Silver Spring, I'd recommend looking for a place along the Red Line. Be warned that rents are generally inversely proportional to the distance to the nearest Metro station. Fortunately for you, there are a few nice metro-accessible neighborhoods in NE that are safe and affordable. Don't buy into the myth that everything outside of NW is a crime-filled wasteland!

Feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions.
posted by schmod at 8:53 AM on May 12, 2010

Also, consider what sort of roommate would be willing to rent out part of their home to a person they've never met.
posted by schmod at 8:55 AM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I lived in DC all through law school (three years), and moved from there to Arlington (right outside DC) about six months ago.

You absolutely, positively cannot find a good place to live, with a good roomate, without seeing either one. Really, you need to see both. It isn't even a matter of finding a good apartment - finding a place in a neighborhood you'll like, that's reasonably convenient both to your work and your preferred hang-out areas, is something you can only do with feet on the ground here.

I lived in a group house all through law school. I would have never, ever agreed to a housemate without meeting him or her in person first. Understand that if you're looking to move into a group house or shared apartment that's already established, whoever is living there is in a much, much stronger position than you. Finding affordable housing inside the Beltway is tricky. Finding people who need affordable housing is not.

DC isn't well-served by hostels, but there's at least one: I've never used it, but it's at least there.

How much can you spend on rent? There are a few places in Silver Spring where you could get a studio for around $1,000/month, and college park or takoma park would have more.

I strongly suggest you sit down with DC's metro website,, and start thinking about your commute. Silver Spring is on the red line, with the metro station only a couple blocks outside the "downtown" core. Anything on the Red Line east of Metro Center would be a reasonable commute for you, but you should understand that the areas around the New York Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue/Brentwood, and Brookland metro stations are somewhat dodgy. Liveable - I've got friends in Brentwood, and good apartments are cheap there - but dodgy.

Pretty much any Red Line station west of Metro Center will be a fine place to live, but your commute will be longer, if you travel by rail.

Make sure you use to look at possible bus commutes, as well as rail. Getting to Silver Spring from Columbia Heights by metro rail isn't particularly convenient, but there's a bus that runs straight from the adjacent Mt. Pleasant neighborhood to downtown Silver Spring - and that neighborhood is slightly dodgy, but also a genuinely pleasant and affordable place to live.

I know I'm throwing a lot of place names at you, and they don't mean much to you - that's *why* you need to visit the city. You also really need to make a friend in the city, or at least find someone at your work who will talk you through this thing. For that matter - have you lived in *any* large city before? It's a very different experience from living in suburban or rural areas - you should talk to someone about those differences.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 8:56 AM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the excellent replies.

Given that you're presumably going to be working in Silver Spring, I'd recommend looking for a place along the Red Line.

I will be working in DC, right near Union Station (Red), which is why I am planning on living in Silver Spring.

Are you looking for one/two roommates, or a group house?

No more than two roommates. I'd rather not live in a group house.

How much can you spend on rent? There are a few places in Silver Spring where you could get a studio for around $1,000/month, and college park or takoma park would have more.

I can probably afford to spend up to 1100 on rent, but I'd rather not, so I'm looking at a roommate situation.
posted by alligatorman at 9:18 AM on May 12, 2010

Committing a year to an apartment, roommate, even area completely sight-unseen is unwise. Find someone looking to sublet their room or apartment for a few months. In my area it's really common to find students wanting to sublet for the summer for the end of their lease. This gives you a huge leg up because you can explore the area at your leisure and really figure out where and how you want to live.
posted by 6550 at 9:22 AM on May 12, 2010

Depending on the nature of the workplace, and potentially the size, see if a group email can be sent out asking if anyone has a room to let in the short term.
posted by unlaced at 9:28 AM on May 12, 2010

You may also consider Capitol Hill. Great area, great houses. Then you can just walk to work. Memail me if you would like some more information about the area, and help looking for houses.
posted by gagoumot at 9:37 AM on May 12, 2010

When I moved to a different state, I flew out a month in advance to look for housing. I went the usual route looking for places like Craigslist before I went and then lined up a bunch of appointments for the four days I was there. This recently worked for a friend of mine who moved out of state as well.
posted by Kimberly at 9:41 AM on May 12, 2010

Wait - alligatorman, if you're going to working near Union Station, you have a *lot* more options than just Silver Spring. Union Station is sufficiently central that almost anyplace on the Red Line would be a reasonable commute, and it's also only about a ten/fifteen-minute walk from the Capitol South metro station - which means that you could also do the Orange Line (say, a place in Arlington) without much trouble.

If you don't mind my asking, why did you pick Silver Spring? It's neither the cheapest, nor the most interesting, nor the most convenient place for you to live. Heck, there are plenty of places in the city's Northwest quadrant (generally considered the most desirable quarter of the city) that are a heck of a lot closer to good nightlife/museums/parks, more central to the rest of the city, and cheaper than Silver Spring.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 9:51 AM on May 12, 2010

Also, I'd echo what gagoumot said - Capitol Hill is a fine place to live.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 9:57 AM on May 12, 2010

Response by poster: Mr. Excellent:

I was under the impression that Silver Spring would be one of the better options for someone looking to live affordably, safely and near a Red Line metro. Are you talking about Van Ness, Adams Morgan, DuPont circle? I was under the impression that those areas were all considerably more expensive than Silver Spring.

Thank you so much for your responses. They've been very helpful.
posted by alligatorman at 10:34 AM on May 12, 2010

Best answer: Alligatorman:

Silver Spring isn't a *bad* choice, but it's not all that cheap. Adams Morgan and Dupont *will* be a bit more expensive on average, but not by all that much, and Van Ness and Cleveland Park have apartments that are comparable in price to Silver Spring. So too does Tenleytown, and Friendship Heights. The advantage of living in Van Ness or Cleveland Park in particular is that you're within walking distance of the DC nightlife scene, as well as the Rock Creek park system.

Honestly, there's enough variation in apartment prices that it would make more sense for you to figure out where you'd really prefer to live, and then start stalking Craigslist obsessively to check for housing in your price range. As soon as something that isn't a scam comes up in your range, send an email that you'd like to look at the place. That's what I did when I was apartment-shopping in Arlington. It can take some time, but it works more often than not.

If I could live anywhere on the Red Line, I'd probably prefer Cleveland Park - there's a small but neat retail strip there, with a great old-school single-screen movie theater and good restaurants. And the streets right off that strip are quiet, tree-lined and quite pleasant. (One of the things I was amazed by when I moved to DC was how many thoroughly non-urban-feeling streets there were a stone's throw from major corridors). But your preferences may differ from mine - if you've got the time, it's worth it to visit the city and get a feel for these neighborhoods.

BTW, a big part of the trick to apartment-hunting inside the Beltway is to look at smaller buildings, even basement apartments. My own apartment is a basement apt in a small garden-style building, and I love it - it's far bigger than anything I could get in a tower, and as well-lit and dry as any other apartment. You might look into something like this place: (Note that this particular apartment would be a good ten-fifteen minute walk to the metro, though a nearby bus might get you to Union Station).
posted by Mr. Excellent at 11:12 AM on May 12, 2010

When my (at the time) future husband and I moved to DC, we started in a group house and I recommend. If we wanted to be alone, we could shut the door and stay in our room. If we wanted to hang out there were always people in the living room or kitchen. I loved our house - it had beautiful hardwood floors - and while we had 5 roommates (we jokingly called it The Real World - DC before there actually was a Real World - DC) we became close with a few of them. Two came to our wedding last year and we've seen almost all of them since we moved out. I really liked it because they taught us where to get the best Chinese food, pizza, burgers, and such and when the weather was lousy we could all order takeout, watch a movie and hang out.

Anyway, I realize that's not for everyone so if I was in your situation, I'd get a short-term sublet so you have a place to go that's not a hostel or living with people you don't know while you figure out what to do next. Yeah, you have to move twice but you have a better chance of getting it right.

I actually kind of like Silver Spring. If I was in a situation to buy a condo I'd really consider buying one there. I've lived in DC for (oh Lord) six years now and I love being able to walk everywhere but the taxes are miserable. We would actually save money by commuting in every day. Definitely consider how much it will cost - in time and money - to commute though. The area around Union Station is a little dodgy but at the same time, I used to live in a dodgy area. Compared to where I moved from, almost all of DC is a dodgy area. It's really not that bad. There are some lovely apartments by the Rhode Island Ave metro.
posted by kat518 at 12:02 PM on May 12, 2010

You're not going to save any money living in Silver Spring over parts of Capitol Hill.

Studios and 1BR apartments are expensive thanks to the demographics of the city. 2-3BR places are surprisingly cheap.

Fortunately for you, Capitol Hill is a nice, low-density neighborhood just east of Union Station. Although owning or renting a place outright there is on the pricey side, there are good subletting deals that pop up from time to time. This neighborhood is also great if you're willing/able to bicycle to work.

You can get from Union Station to the NY Ave Station by bicycle in under 10 minutes, which is generally less time than you'd spend taking the same trip on the metro. The streets are quiet, and very safe to bike on. Many streets in Cap Hill have dedicated bike lanes, and the city is working on extending them into the downtown city center. The ride Brentwood isn't much further, and there's a grade-separated bike path that just opened (last week), which lets you ride from the NY Ave station to the RI Ave/Brentwood station free of any traffic or intersections, and eventually will extend all the way to Silver Spring.

If Metro Accessibility isn't all that important, and you're willing to bicycle to work you can live just about anywhere in Capitol Hill, or on the Orange/Blue lines, as you won't be using metro for your daily commute. As an added perk, parking is generally easy (if you have a car, of course). You should have many, many options that fit these criteria.

@Mr. Excellent: The area east of the NY Ave Metro and south of Florida Ave is safe, and pretty cheap. Brentwood's still got some issues, although there are plans in the works to revitalize the area. I wouldn't rule anything south of Florida Ave out for safety reasons.

H St NE is one of the most "up and coming" areas in DC, and has had some of the city's best new restaurants open along it over the past year. It currently looks like a warzone, as it's almost entirely under construction. It'll be gorgeous by 2012, and will have a streetcar that runs from Union Station down its entire length, a few miles to the east. If you can see past the temporary grime, rents here are still pretty cheap, and you can take advantage of cute, low-density neighborhoods, an easy commute, and great nightlife on the weekends.

If it's important to you, and you don't have a car, also scope out locations of grocery stores. DC's food stores seem to be in the strangest and most inconvenient places.
posted by schmod at 12:22 PM on May 12, 2010

@kat518: I kind of like Silver Spring, too. Anyplace that hosts a yearly Zombie Walk has its heart in the right place. :)


I'll take your word for east of NY Ave and south of Florida Ave, as I'm not that familiar with those areas. I would say, though, that Brentwood has more than just "some issues" - my friends in the neighborhood complain about having active drug dealers for neighbors, and there've been a few shootings since they moved in. I'd agree that it's got its compensations, however - those same friends live in one of the *nicest* one-bedrooms I've ever seen, and they got it cheap.

I agree wholeheartedly, though, about Capitol Hill proper - there are plenty of good places there.

H St NE is, well - it's certainly got some great bars. But it's also the only place I've gone on a pub-crawl with friends and still been a bit unsettled by the neighborhood. We passed at least a couple guys carrying handguns that seemed to be carrying handguns tucked beneath their shirts. It can be a fun place to visit, but I would strongly recommend against living there.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 12:35 PM on May 12, 2010

There's a hostel that's very close to the Takoma metro stop, which is a Red Line stop about 10 minutes ride from Union Station and like 3 minutes from Silver Spring. (It's also a nice 20-30 minute walk to downtown Silver Spring from there.) I've never been inside the place and can't vouch for it, but it would be convenient.

Or maybe you could look into couchsurfing with someone while you're hunting for a place?
posted by EmilyClimbs at 4:50 PM on May 12, 2010

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