Moving to DC - How/When/Where?
May 8, 2012 12:58 PM   Subscribe

How to find housing in the Washington, DC area? Specific concerns about neighborhoods and timing with school/employment inside.

We are an early-30s couple moving to the Washington, DC area this summer.

About us and our finances:
  • She is planning on starting a full-time Master's program at the University of Maryland-College Park. She has a part-time assistantship and is taking out some student loans. Her program starts mid-August.
  • I am looking for work in the education field, ideally something entry-level in higher education administration. Realistically, I'll probably find a job that pays between 30-50k. I’ve just completed a Master’s degree of my own and don’t have a job lined up now, either in our current location short-term or in the DC area long-term.
  • Between the 2 of us, we have a little bit saved up to cover moving expenses, but not much. We both have good credit and no credit card debt.
  • I’m concerned that it's going to be difficult for me to find work without living in the city and difficult to find a place to live without having already secured employment. How to get an apartment in DC-area without a job? / How to get a job without an apartment? Certainly people must figure out this chicken-and-egg situation all the time, but how?
  • Around $1000/month seems ideal for rent - not sure how realistic that is.
  • We are tentatively planning on moving August 1st. The absolutely deadline is August 17, when she starts her research assistantship.
  • Our living expenses are currently low, so for cash flow, it might make more sense to wait until August.
  • She currently earns a good amount and is planning on leaving her current job in August. It could be hard for her to leave before then - her employers are expecting her to be available on-site through the end of July.
  • However, I’m wondering if we should move much sooner so I can more effectively start my job hunting process.
  • Given these factors - How should we time our move?
Location / Living preferences:
  • Ideally we'd like to be close to the metro or public transportation with easy access to the University of Maryland and DC. We are planning on bringing 1 car (mine).
  • We are coming from the Amherst/Northampton area of western Massachusetts, are used to a small-town/college-town vibe, and neither of us has ever lived in an urban area.
  • Huge pros for us would be walkability to restaurants and other nice things, close to public transport and parking, sense of community, safety, affordability, etc.
  • From what we've read, Takoma Park has sparked our interest because of the small-town-earthy-crunchy thing and the proximity to College Park. What neighborhoods should we consider? We like the "Berkeley of the East" reputation of Takoma Park - what else should we be looking at?
  • If we were to broaden our search beyond Takoma Park, we are not sure where to look. Silver Spring seems too strip-malled and College Park seems too overrun with 20-somethings-playing-beer-pong, both things we'd very much like to avoid. What about living closer to the center of DC and making the commute out to CP?
  • We don’t want housemates, and are open to studio/1 bedroom / 2 bedrooms as realistic, given our other preferences.
We are planning to visit for a few days in two weeks to get a better idea of what the area looks like. We are emailing as many people as we can from craigslist, but have yet to set up any appointments.
  • How can we make best use of this time? What should we expect to accomplish?
  • What towns/neighborhoods should we visit?
  • Should we be working with a realtor? If so, specific recommendations?
  • Should we be making appointments with some of the big apartment buildings? If so, specific recommendations?
Thank you, hive mind! We have never done this before and it is very scary!
posted by TurkishGolds to Work & Money (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My DC info is probably too out of date to be useful, but I will say this: higher education hiring tends to move very slowly. You should start applying for jobs now or soon, but there is no need to move early. Most universities are set up for online job listings and applications. It is very common to be contacted for an interview months after submitting an application (and another month or more between interview and start date is also quite possible). If they want to interview you before your move, it will almost certainly be fine to do it over Skype.
posted by unsub at 1:25 PM on May 8, 2012

The short answers here are that your only options are craigslist and contacting the leasing offices of apartment buildings directly. There is very little, if any, stuff like real estate agents who will show you a bunch of rental units. UMCP may have an off-campus housing office that could help with some of that, though.

Paying $1000/month is NOT realistic unless you're willing to live in a more distant apartment complex. I'm also going to have to sadly break the news to you that the "walkable northeast urban lifestyle" is generally not as easily available in the greater DC area as it is where you're used to. I know downtown Silver Spring seems horrible to you, but that is pretty much within the "upper tier" of what you get in DC when it comes to walkable access to public transit and local commercial amenities.

Prince George's County has metro stations, but they are not really the sort of "walkable urban" metro stations that you are interesting in living near... they are more along the lines of commuter stations surrounded by large parking lots.

With only 1 car, your best bet is probably to live in College Park, allowing your wife to walk to school while you commute to wherever you find a job. I say this because while Takoma Park is a great option, it is not easy to find a place within talking distance of the Takoma Park metro station, nor is it cheap, and safety on certain parts of the 1/2 mile radius around the metro station you'll be looking at will be a concern.

How can we make best use of this time? What should we expect to accomplish?

Be in constant contact with craigslist. Constantly update and search the listings with the important keywords, which in your case are "College Park", "Takoma", and "metro".

There was a previous AskMe where someone on his way to attend UCMP got advice about living in Columbia Heights and Petworth while commuting by metro to the University. I can't find that old AskMe, but certainly MeFites have experience with that, and it's worked out for them.
posted by deanc at 1:26 PM on May 8, 2012

$1000 for the two of you is quite low for the DC area unless you're sharing with others.

You're looking for higher ed admin jobs requiring master's degrees in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, right?
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 1:34 PM on May 8, 2012

I moved to Maryland 7 years ago to attend grad school at the University of Maryland. I'm not sure if this is the case, but when I went I got some sort of letter as part of my admissions package that stated that the University had a special arrangement with Southern Management corporation that manages a bunch of generally large apartment buildings or "communities" in the DC metro area. Provided that they had space n the desired building, they would accept any UMD grad student without a credit check and in many, if not all of their properties, without a security deposit. I also had a $30 per month rent reduction. Their properties don't have a ton of charm, but they are generally safe and well-managed. It's something to consider as a fall back. Worst case scenario, if you hate it, you can always move next year when you've got a job.

I live in Silver Spring. I understand and am in no way insulted by your description of it as "strip-mally", but it's also got some great independent restaurants, the AFI Silver theater, a great farmers market and is uber convenient. If you live in the downtown area (where Southern Management has 3 properies), you will not only be close to the metro but there is also a free UMD shuttle bus. You're also less then 2 miles form the old town section of Takoma Park. I sometimes walk there. It's neither DC nor a New England college town, but I've grown to like it.

I concur that you do not want to live in College Park. And I sympathize with the moving form Western Mass thing. I'm originally from MA and spent two years living in Amherst. I almost cried when I first visited College Park and realized I'd be spending the next two years there. The campus isn't horrible (or at least you get used to it), but the surrounding area is grim, with few conveniences and none of the college town charm that you have come to expect living in Amherst.

Feel free to memail me if you have any questions about Silver Spring.
posted by kaybdc at 1:35 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

A word about College Park:

I graduated from there back in the day. It is not a "college town" or any kind of town in a meaningful sense. Back then it was three bars and a couple of pizza places on one strip, and I don't think much has changed. It was big news a few years back when they got a Starbucks.

Because they didn't have any other coffee shop. In a "college town." Ponder that.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:36 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

regarding the UMD/Southern Management thing, I meant to say "I don't know if this is still the case."

Also, since you expressed interest in Takoma Park, be forewarned that only part of it fits in with what you've heard. Basically the part of Takoma Park nearest the metro is nice, the rest of it, not so much. And while it is liberal, it definitely skewers middle aged and older, which may not matter a bit, but I thought it was worth mentioning.
posted by kaybdc at 1:46 PM on May 8, 2012

$1000/month will be tough anywhere that's reasonably safe and within walking distance to the metro, unfortunately.

I'm probably one of the previous commenters that suggested Petworth/Columbia Heights for a UMD student, but you will have to stretch your budget farther than $1000, and crime is an issue. However, both are pretty walkable, although Columbia Heights is getting Silver Spring-ified. If you can manage to find something in Mt Pleasant, that could be a good option for you - it has more of a "village" feeling with lots of little shops and restaurants, just a 10 minute walk from the green line. But it's a very in-demand neighborhood, and parking is tough.

I don't really know the MD suburbs very well, so I can't really comment on them, but I'll agree with what others have said about Takoma Park - it is a very Northampton-ish community, but the nice parts are far from the metro.

As for jobs, you might also want to look into some of the higher-ed-oriented organizations that have offices in DC for lobbying purposes. For instance, the UC system has an office in DC. Even if you're not interested in lobbying, these organizations will have other staff at these offices as well.
posted by lunasol at 1:59 PM on May 8, 2012

And while it is liberal, it definitely skewers middle aged and older, which may not matter a bit, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

Yes, I meant to say this! I've lived in DC twice, and have a gazillion friends in DC, many of whom are progressive and on the crunchy side. I've only ever known one person under the age of 40 who lived in Takoma Park. It's definitely a family-oriented suburb, albeit a hippie-flavored one.
posted by lunasol at 2:02 PM on May 8, 2012

I grew up in PG County, lived in and around College Park forever, and currently reside in DC. Here are some thoughts and what I would recommend:

-On $1000, forget living in the city unless you want roommates. The odds are so remote you'd just be wasting your time even looking. Stick to the suburbs. I would also suggest being open to basement apartments, so you would technically be sharing a house with others but you'd probably not have to see them ever.

-I think Mt Rainier might suit you pretty well. It's a little town on the edge of the city, not super close to metro but get yourself a bike and learn the bus system and I think you'll do alright. It has a hippie-ish vibe (there's a vegan co-op and other things)

-Takoma Park is lovely, but you want to aim more for the Takoma side (that's the bit that's actually in DC). Basically, if you see big pretty houses and lots of trees: yes. If you see lots of little houses with crappy chain link fence and that weird fake grass carpet on the stairs: NO. Generally, don't bother with apartment complexes in TP, the only affordable ones are in shitty areas.

-I loathe College Park. I really do. However, squished up next to CP there is a smallish neighborhood/town/whatever called University Park that is gorgeous, it's where a lot of professors live. If you can find a little basement apartment or something there, go for it.

-There are also nice parts of Hyattsville, they've been revamping the so-called "arts district" and there are some really nice old houses around there, and Adelphi can be okay as well.

Basically: start surfing Craigslist now, read apartment reviews for complexes that fit your budget (this is absolutely essential, although do take them with a grain of salt), check out Google street view just to peek at the surrounding area of apartments that seem okay.

Good luck!
posted by krakenattack at 2:31 PM on May 8, 2012

I agree that you should probably be looking at jobs now, and at least getting materials together and different resumes polished, if not outright applying for positions. Do you have any alumnae connections in the area? See if your alma mater(s) have networking events or LinkedIn groups; the DC-based alums in my groups are very active and generally come from fields that would be of interest to you, so they may be a great start for seeing open positions and qualifications.

I also think Silver Spring would be a better bet for you than College Park itself, and probably better than Tacoma. I know there are two bedrooms in the 1900-2300 range, so you may be able to work out either a shared lease or a smaller apartment that would suit you. It's actually more personable than it used to be, and it remains more walkable and transportation-friendly than many of the concrete suburban communities. I do not think Mt. Pleasant would be a great fit-- I think the leases here are much higher, in greater demand, and the walk at night to the Green Line is sometimes a little dicey. Also, there is on-street parking, but you have to fight for it, and apartments that have parking spaces are often at a premium. Columbia Heights might work, but again I think $1000 is a low-ball estimate in most of the newer/renovated areas. Do keep an eye out for basement apartments and signs of flooding; DC and MD do occasionally get severe bursts of weather from hurricanes and large thunderstorms and not all refitted basements have great drainage here...Hyattsville might work, and the prices would definitely be closer to what you're looking at, though the transportation might be a little off.

Are there any higher-ed positions or departments you're looking at in particular? Would you consider non-profit education groups at all, or secondary schools? Writing or research at an education think tank position? The ISL in DC has some pretty big private schools, which have large administrative/development/alumni/admissions departments, so you may want to at least look at the available options for secondary schools too.
posted by jetlagaddict at 2:40 PM on May 8, 2012

I've been living in DC for the last 4 years, my partner for 10. I LOVE visiting Takoma Park and have friends there who live in a group house. There are many younger people there, but the fight for affordable living spaces in the good part of Takoma is FIERCE.

I agree with the others - $1000 for two people total will only happen if you are in a small room in a shared house, or a very far out apartment (Think Greenbelt or further). I'd strongly advocate for getting roommates, or getting a room or basement apartment in an already established house in Takoma Park, Silver Spring, or basically anywhere else. Those things you're looking for that you listed under Location / Living preferences? Yeah, EVERYONE is looking for those too. However, you have a car and the bus system is a wide reaching net; those are bonuses. Aim to be about 1-2 miles away minimum from a metro stop and you'll be alright. Also, maybe you can deal with some roommates for a year while you get a feel for the area?

I'd love to second the Mt. Rainer suggestion! It's basically the cheaper version of Takoma Park. However, having working right in the center of it for a year, I'd try to stay on the north side of the main road that divides the little city called Rhode Island Ave. A little bit less crime and the houses are slightly farther apart. Here's a good example of an excellent house for rent in Mt. Rainier.

I'd also like to suggest another neighborhood for you to look into: Brookland. A large organic market, a few restaurants, and a hardware store and CVS all within walking distance to the metro station. There is also a large university nearby (Catholic University of America) so the housing does turn over quickly and you might find something more affordable. Again, however, same rules apply when talking about Rhode Island Ave - basically it's a main thoroughfare of the city and crime populates it. I wouldn't live within 6 blocks of it, but I am a small white female.

Hope some of that helps!
posted by Kindlekat at 2:51 PM on May 8, 2012

I know someone who paid 1000 a month for a studio in a nice building in Downtown Silver spring. Add a few k and you'll get a door on the bedroom, add a roommate and it goes back down again.

Silver Spring is a great option in my opinion--it is a bit strip mally but there are plenty of cool things within walking distance of the Metro.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:02 PM on May 8, 2012

Takoma Park is your best bet for sure, but since your primary concern is finding an apartment I wouldn't rule out Silver Spring and College Park quite yet. Is your wife getting an student loans? When I was a student, I qualified for an apartment just on the basis of my student loans.

About ten years ago, my ex boyfriend got a nice two bedroom apartment with a back yard in Silver Spring for $750, so $1000 a month is not completely impossible but might be a stretch. I don't think you'll find anything walking distance to the metro in that price range though.
posted by bananafish at 3:21 PM on May 8, 2012

What about student family housing?
posted by k8t at 3:24 PM on May 8, 2012

regarding the UMD/Southern Management thing, I meant to say "I don't know if this is still the case."

I actually live there right now and it is still the case. I live right across the street from UMD.

To OP, you could get a 1 or 2 bedroom for under $1500 - since your wife is a student there are special rates - I think a 1 bedroom is a little over $1000 and it includes internet and utilities. You're not going to be living in luxury but it's not bad and I've found it to be pretty quiet as well. It's a couple miles from the Prince George's Plaza metro station and it is within walking distance from campus.

You can also find some other apartments that are rent controlled in DC. Since your wife has a part-time assistant ship you at least have a source of income. I didn't have to show any kind of income statement with the apts affiliated with UMD, just had to show that I was a grad student.

I'm not a student anymore and recently started working in Arlington, but parking at PG plaza and taking the metro hasn't been too bad.

Anyway, you could live in one of these apartments while getting established and then move in a year or so after you've figured everything out. After the year is up it's month-to-month.
posted by fromageball at 4:43 PM on May 8, 2012

fromageball, I assumed that the UMD/Southern Management still held true for what is basically the grad student complex near the university (University Gardens?) but I was wondering if it still held true for their other properties like Silver Spring Towers among others.

I am neither a SS booster nor affiliated with Southern Management, but I know that SS is convenient to both the Metro and UMD (via the free shuttle) and the studios in SS Towers are now renting for $1050. It would be a tight fit for two people, but if they didn't have a lot of stuff, it would be doable, if not ideal. The one bedrooms jump up significantly; I think that they start at $1300. A lot of other UMD students who had significant others lived at Summit Gardens (another SM property in Silver Spring). They have more one bedrooms, but I don't know what they are going for now. The other convenient thing about their properties is that they tend to be large and have a decent amount of turnover as people cycle in and out of the area, so you can usually count on their being vacancies, which takes away some of the anxiety of "OMG, I need a place for August," and you don't live in the area or have a lot of time and money to throw at a housing search.
posted by kaybdc at 5:43 PM on May 8, 2012

I live in Takoma Park. There are people under 40, but they do not make up the bulk of the populace. (I was chagrined to realize that I no longer fit the description, although I did when I moved here.)

I think Mt. Ranier and Hyattsville both skew younger than TP, and are significantly more affordable. They are less walkable than old town Takoma, however. Both are convenient to DC and to UMD. Were I just moving to the city, without kids to put in school, that is where I would look to find anything that approaches your price range.

I will echo what everyone else has said: your price range precludes you from getting an apartment somewhere with more amenities.
posted by OmieWise at 6:29 AM on May 9, 2012

This article from Lifehacker might help you get a feel for all the different neighborhoods:
posted by Kindlekat at 10:49 AM on May 10, 2012

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