Moving from England to Washington DC - advice?
April 10, 2011 1:58 PM   Subscribe

Moving from England to Washington DC - advice? I'm moving with my wife to Washington DC in the summer from England to start a job downtown. I'd like your thoughts on finding a place, neighbourhoods, logistics and cultural stuff.

There are already some excellent Washington DC metafilter answers from the past few years at:


I'd appreciate any more recent information and opinions on the following, asking anonymously as I'm easily identified IRL by my account:

1) I'm looking for a 2 Bed / 1-2 Bath place ideally under $3,000 / month - there seem to be 3 broad ways of doing this: a) individual lettings (e.g. Craigslist); b) agents/apartment finders (e.g. Urbanigloo); and c) property management companies (e.g. Borger management or Keener management) - any advice on the relative merits of these and other home finding options?

2) It feels like NW is the place to be if I want a 30 minute walk / 15 minute cycle to work - Dupont, Logan Circle, Thomas Circle, Kalorama Heights, Adams Morgan, and parts of Columbia Heights seem to be the order of desirability if I'm looking for something in a smart but affordable part of town. Any better ideas or issues to watch out for here?

3) What would you budget for "settling-in time"? I.e. find a place, secure tenancy, furnish it (Ikea? Craigslist?) and "get connected"? We were considering checking in to a hotel / serviced apartment for 5-10 days and assume we can get the whole job done in 14 days or so. Again, does that sound reasonable, anything to watch out for?

4) As a Brit (who's travelled a lot to the USA for short periods), is there anything I might not be expecting when it comes to living there? I'll be there on a work visa, will have taken tax advice, expect to pay for healthcare and am familiar with what a twinkie is. Just dumb stuff like is getting an internet / mobile phone / bank connection tricky, any unusual expectations/etiquette when moving into a new place, is there something like council tax on property etc...

Thanks a lot!
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
As someone who has recently done it the other way...

1. Internet is somewhat different as you will likely go the cable route rather than DSL à la UK, which means you have little choice but (uuurgh!) Comcast in DC.
2. Mobile (you know they call it cell) is generally contract. PAYG/sim far less common. And don't forget you pay to receive as well as send a call in the US.
3. Bank, as in UK, is tricky as they want address, job, etc. Do you have a credit union connection through your new employer?
4. Real estate taxes equivalent of council tax but tends to be only for bought not rental.
posted by TheRaven at 2:20 PM on April 10, 2011

re: TheRaven's #2: Not necessarily. If you get an unlimited plan, you pay a set amount each month and get, as the name implies, an unlimited amount of incoming and outgoing calls/texts.
posted by cooker girl at 2:44 PM on April 10, 2011

To be most helpful, we need more specific than downtown.

(For example, I work near Foggy Bottom and have a 40 minute train ride + walks on both ends and a 15 minute bike ride to work.)

FWIW, most folks around here prefer to live a bit further out and metro into their jobs.

- Is $3000 including utilities? Don't under estimate the cost of A/C and heat in the winter.
- House or apartment?

Sign up for Padmapper - it aggregates the rental listings onto a Google map. It also emails you when something meeting your needs pops up.
posted by k8t at 2:46 PM on April 10, 2011

Give yourself more time to "get connected."

In our cross-country move (thus we already had all of our stuff and didn't need to sign up for phone contracts, get banks, etc.), we needed a few weeks to get settled.

Feel free to memail me if you need help with stuff.
posted by k8t at 2:48 PM on April 10, 2011

5-10 days in any furnished appartment sounds very optimistic to me for any international move. Give yourself a bit more time and keep your sanity.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:33 PM on April 10, 2011

So, comcast isn't necessarily your only option for cable/internet. There is also RCN and in some areas (upper NW), Verios Fios is also an option. To answer a couple of your actual questions...

1) Under $3K a month for a 2 bedroom is totally possible for the areas that you mention. Avoid Gelman property management at all costs, I had a really awful experience with them. I currently live in an Archstone building and the management is fantastic and responsive. My last place was a craigslist rental of a privately owned condo and it was nice, but my landlord was not quick to respond (like I went a month without air conditioning in July - he gave me half of my rent back, but that sucked). I don't know anything about urbanigloo. Another idea is a condo that is privately owned but managed by a property management company. Real estate agents can often help find something like this.

2) I've lived in Logan Circle and Adams Morgan/Kalorama. Although it looks lovely, I hated living in Adams Morgan - even a few blocks away from 18th street, it was still loud and parking was impossible, and people would often park in my PRIVATE parking spot that had "you will be towed" signs all the time. I hated it. I loved logan circle. Very easy to get anywhere from there.
posted by echo0720 at 3:41 PM on April 10, 2011

I think the heat and the humidity will be a biggish change. You will be used to rain, but August in DC is akin to a sauna, minus the vodka.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:45 PM on April 10, 2011

As a Brit (who's travelled a lot to the USA for short periods), is there anything I might not be expecting when it comes to living there?
DC in summer is HOT, I think it's good to be aware of that if you don't have super hot muggy mosquito weather appropriate clothes yet.
posted by Ashley801 at 5:50 PM on April 10, 2011

- Is $3000 including utilities? Don't under estimate the cost of A/C and heat in the winter.

This. DC has this annoying tendency to always either be cold enough for heat, or hot enough to require AC. I'm always surprised by just how expensive utilities are here. Still, it's nothing compared to what you guys probably pay right now in England.

Verizon FiOS is available in a few neighborhoods near DC. If it's available, get that over the cable Internet with Comcast that the rest of us are stuck with.

As for picking a neighborhood, if you're in this for the long-run, I'd recommend picking up a 2-3 month rental or sublet so that you can explore around the city, and figure out exactly what it is that you want. DC's got a lot of very distinct neighborhoods, and even though you listed the usual suspects of upper-middle-class mostly-white neighborhoods near downtown, I suspect you won't find very much overlap between people who'd like living in Kalorama Heights and those who'd prefer Adams Morgan. If you can score a furnished place, it's even better, as it gives you time to shop around for furniture without being stuck sleeping on the floor.

Do you want a house or apartment? If you want an apartment in a big building, you'll be dealing with a management company. If you want a house, you'll be dealing with an individual landlord (ie. craigslist -- possibly through a realtor). There are exceptions here and there, but that's the general rule. $3k will get you a pretty decent house in an OK neighborhood. Management companies have some nice perks (and a few drawbacks if you get a bad one), and apartments/condos will almost always have cheaper utilities.

Do you have kids? Do you want kids in the very near future? If so, your neighborhood options are going to change considerably, and you might be better off living out in the suburbs.

Might I recommend adding Capitol Hill to the list of neighborhoods you're considering? Depending on where downtown you're going to be living, it can be as close (if not closer) than some of the options you listed. Some of the close-in suburbs like Silver Spring, Bethesda, and several parts of Arlington can be a very short commute into DC.

...which brings me to my next point: Our transit system, Metro, is a hybrid of a urban subway (ie. the London Underground) and a suburban railroad (is. the London Overground). Downtown, the stops are spaced a bit further out than a typical urban subway, and as you get into the suburbs, they are typically several miles apart (far enough for the trains to speed up to 70mph between certain stops). Also note that the map is not remotely drawn to scale.

Trains run on a 2-5 minute headway during rush hour, 5-10 minutes at off-peak hours during the day, and every 15-25 minutes from 8-midnight and on weekends. Although you can travel between any two stops in the system with no more than one transfer, it's nice to avoid having to make a transfer if you can.

Unlike London, the bus system here is largely used by the city's poorest residents. I'm a big proponent of riding the bus, but be warned that some people avoid it for this reason. For some reason, the Circulator buses have not attracted this same stigma.

If you're going to drive, we'll need to know where you're going to be working before making any specific recommendations. Traffic can get very bad during rush hour.

Although things have improved by massive leaps and bounds over the past decade, crime (including violent, fatal crimes) is still very real in DC and America. Thankfully, it's not an everyday part of life, but you do hear about murders on the news fairly often. London's rarely-fatal knife crime "epidemic" seems laughably quaint by comparison. Again, the odds of this directly affecting you (especially in the neighborhoods you've listed) are slim-to-astronomical, but this could cause a bit of culture shock.

Sidenote: My job gave me 5 days notice to move to DC, and no relocation assistance. I found an apartment in those 5 days, and still live there. It's a great place. It is indeed possible to find a place (and if you're lucky, even a good place) on very short notice, although I really wouldn't wish it on my worst enemies.
posted by schmod at 7:07 PM on April 10, 2011

For nice neighborhoods with lots of restaurants and cute shops within walking distance I would also consider Bethesda, Cleveland park, Arlington (keep in mind Va has 4.5% income tax v. 10% in DC) , mount pleasant, and Capitol hill. ah... I miss dc.
posted by bananafish at 9:10 PM on April 10, 2011

bananafish, you mean sales tax, right?
posted by trampoliningisfun at 10:18 PM on April 10, 2011

k8t is correct that it would be helpful to know what neighborhood in "downtown" you will be working in, to focus suggestions more.

In terms of acquiring furniture and other helpful info. you might find the archives of Washingtonian magazine helpful. If you want to spice up your Ikea, Craigslist, or Freecycle basics see this article and this article as examples of what I mean. Their "neighborhood guides" can sometimes be fun as well.
posted by gudrun at 10:38 PM on April 10, 2011

When you arrive from the UK, you will have no credit history. US credit institutions have no interest in your UK credit rating. No credit history is actually worse than bankrupt, if you can believe it, so you will likely have to pay deposits to get all your utilities connected (gas, electricity, water, phone, mobile phone, internet...). The only credit card you will be able to get initially will be a secured credit card.
posted by Joh at 11:11 PM on April 10, 2011

Good advice neighborhood I'd add to the mix since you're looking for 2-3 bedroom places: Southwest DC has some neat up and coming neighborhoods with whole townhouses going for relatively cheap and a few big condo buildings (near Navy Yard or Waterfront Metro). Still slightly crime-y but then again so is Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights.

I had a good experience hunting for places in SW with Urban Igloo. I also had a great experience with BeOnTheHill in Capitol Hill, though I didn't end up getting a place from either one.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:10 AM on April 11, 2011

some DC etiquette & Hints stuff:
For Metrorail:
- Escalators - Walk on Let, Stand on Right
- Illegal to eat on metro, people do, but don't comment
- During rush hour, don't be surprised if no one makes any eye contact, kinda wierd.
- During Summer: lots of tourists on metro who think it's "fun" to ride a metro, can get annoying
- During summer if you see a metro car that is empty, avoid it, the AC is probably broken and it'll smell.
- Metrorail shuts down before last call at most DC bars, keep that in mind and always keep a cabs fair on you.
- Metro is unpredictable on weekends due to track maintenance. Make sure to check before you travel.

Depending on your neighborhood, some parts of DC shut down on weekends, they are only geared towards business people.

If driving anywhere, always give yourself some buffer time, as traffic can be crazy any day and any time... has pretty good traffic reporting (103.5FM).

I live in Alexandria now, but went to school in DC, and in NOVA, and have been working in the city since 2000. If you have any questions, MEFI me...
posted by fozzie33 at 7:23 AM on April 11, 2011

walk on the left, not let
posted by fozzie33 at 7:23 AM on April 11, 2011

Above 40,000 the income tax rate in dc is 8.5% v. 4.5% in Va. The sales tax rate is 10% in dc v 4% in va (this matters most if you are buying a big ticket item like a car) for me, living in dc wasn't worth the extra taxes when Arlington was awesome and a 10 minute metro ride away.
posted by bananafish at 7:43 AM on April 11, 2011

Sales tax
The general consumer sales tax in the District of Columbia is 5.75 percent.
However, Washington, D.C., actually levies a sales tax with five different rates. This rate structure is utilized, in part, to take advantage of the district's special status as a tourist center and to increase the contribution of nonresidents working in the city. The current sales tax rates are:
5.75 percent for tangible personal property
9 percent for alcohol sold for off-premises consumption
10 percent for restaurant meals, take-out food, rental cars and telephone calling cards
12 percent for commercial parking
14.5 percent for hotel and motel rooms.
Items exempt from the District of Columbia sales tax include groceries, prescription and nonprescription medicines, and residential utility services.
posted by fozzie33 at 7:52 AM on April 11, 2011

As mentioned above, and speaking as someone who left Bristol for Portland three years ago, a lack of credit history will be a big problem. Be prepared to use a UK credit card to book rental cars, hotel rooms and etc. Renting an apartment can be a tricky. I couldn't get one place even when I offered to put 12 months rent into escrow. You live and die by your credit score here...

Apply for every single card you can, I ended up getting lucky with Capital One and they gave me one with a $500 limit. You need to start accruing a credit history as soon as possible. I had a score of zero and no-one quite knew what to do about it. I managed to get a portion of a car put onto credit, rather than buying it outright, and although the rate was extortionate, it started getting me a points. After 6 months I paid it off.

Really helpful was the fact that I had an American Express card in the UK. If you have, beg and plead and eventually they will issue a US card based on your UK history. Bingo! I instantly gained a card with a sensible limit, and the credit score has climbed steadily ever since. has a number of useful forums for general US credit advice, and was the service I used to track my score.

The other main issue was having my nationality mistaken. You may wish to consider getting a "No, I'm not Australian" printed on a T-Shirt.
posted by nicktf at 11:01 AM on April 11, 2011

The tax situation is more complicated than the previous posters have indicated, and heavily relies on your income and living situation. Here's a comparison of the various localities around DC. DC actually comes out cheapest in several realistic scenarios.

Virginia's sales/income taxes are indeed lower, although most of the close-in suburbs have a car tax, and other high local taxes that can push your total tax burden above that of DC or Maryland.

If you want to stick it to the man, and pay the bare minimum amount of taxes in the DC area, your best bet is to live in Northern Virginia, and not own a car. I happily pay higher taxes for the convenience of living in DC. The fact that my bicycle commute is essentially free more than offsets the higher taxes I pay.

It's also worth noting that income tax brackets in America are almost always marginal, meaning that DC's >40,000 bracket only applies to income above $40,000. If you take home $45,000 in taxable income, $5,000 is taxed at 8.5%, $30,000 is taxed at 6%, and $10,000 is taxed at 4%. If you make $39,999 and get a $2 raise, a huge chunk of your income does not suddenly disappear. Virginia and Maryland's systems are a bit more complicated.

Also, for tax-bracket purposes, you can subtract many of your expenses from your total income. It's not at all uncommon for your "taxable income" to be equal to 1/2 to 2/3 of your total income. There are so many deductions and loopholes that percentage-based tax figures are generally useless in the US.

One particularly notable local tax loophole is the DC homestead exemption, which lets you subtract the first $67,500 of your home's value for the purposes of computing your property taxes (this only applies if you're buying a home, but is something that's frequently overlooked when people compare the localities around DC).

And finally: Arlington in a nutshell (although, as a foreigner, you might not appreciate the irony of that video just yet).
posted by schmod at 11:17 AM on April 11, 2011

schmod, the analysis showing a lower tax burden in DC pointedly does not address the sales tax, which is shame since that's a key consideration of the overall tax burden, and it's not likely to break in DC's favor.
posted by NortonDC at 7:24 PM on April 11, 2011

OP is working in Farrgut West.
posted by k8t at 12:25 PM on April 12, 2011

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