Where should I live in the DC area?
January 6, 2016 1:52 PM   Subscribe

Have an interview for a DC-area job, want to start thinking about whether this would be a good move or not. Help me think about this.

Currently we own a 4-bedroom, 2400SF house on a good-sized lot in a walkable neighborhood -- but in a bad school district.

I want to figure out if we could get something comparable, but in a GOOD school district, in the DC metro area (we have a child who will be in kindergarten next year).

Also, with a decent commute (30 min or less) to Metro Station / Gallery Place/Chinatown Station area (we own cars, but I'd like to not have to drive all the time if I can help it).

Starting salary is about $110K. Assume spouse's income is way less than that -- $40K tops.

When I'm there for the interview, where should I look for potential places to live? I'm thinking we would rent for the first year, to be sure it sticks and to get a good idea of where we'd like to buy, but I would eventually like to buy if possible.
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Takoma Park.
posted by babelfish at 2:39 PM on January 6, 2016

Depends on your definition of good- for many that just means Fairfax County schools, where basically no 30 minute/walkable neighborhoods exist.

Arlington area (Washington and Lee-- which as a good, diverse high school is in the district) would hit your commute, but doubtful affordable for 4-br 2400 sqft (you may need to drop to 3 bedroom/flex. Mostly 7 figures for anything that size near metro...
posted by sandmanwv at 3:25 PM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

You're going to have a hard time keeping the same size house and be in a good school district and having that short of a commute in the DC area on that salary if you want to own. A half hour metro trip into DC requires living walking distance or a short drive to a good metro station and those locations are premium priced. Many of the metro stops have extremely limited parking and having to take a bus to one can add 15-30 minutes of transit, on top of a halfish hour into DC from many livable areas. Houses in those areas can easily be $600K+.

Cheverly MD is another relatively easy trip into DC area that's somewhat affordable but I don't know if you'd consider any of the schools to be good and it's relatively high crime.
posted by Candleman at 3:33 PM on January 6, 2016

Was just typing that I have some friends who chose Cheverly based on similar math. Their kid is quite young, and they're betting the high schools will be decent by the time he's old enough. They are ready, though, to accept moving way further out if that ends up not being the case.

You'll probably want to start looking at real estate prices to get an idea of what the price level is: It's remarkably high. Also, a 30-minute commute is almost impossible from outside the city; by the time you get out to where the schools are outstanding and the real estate is even reasonable, you're looking at perhaps an hour-plus (and few "walkable" neighborhoods). There are a few great schools in DC, but houses in-zone for them fetch well over a million dollars.

Another potentially reasonable compromise may be Rockville (or maaaaybe Bethesda if you're lucky) or far out in Alexandria, which are just over your commute limit, but have decent schools and are more reasonably priced.
posted by General Malaise at 3:44 PM on January 6, 2016

In your price range based on your income, 30 minute commute, good schools: pick 2. Seriously.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 3:56 PM on January 6, 2016 [10 favorites]

Cheverly, Takoma, and/or a MUCH smaller house.
posted by foodmapper at 5:36 PM on January 6, 2016

This just doesn't sound feasible. Everyone I know with a house in this area paid over $300,000 -- NOT within walking distance of a Metro station. Most people's commutes here are around an hour. Close suburbs will mean *very small*.
posted by mkuhnell at 6:12 PM on January 6, 2016

I am in the part of Arlington that is probably a 15-20 minute drive to Chinatown in non-rush-hour time slots. To get there on public transportation would require a direct bus to metro and probably a change on the metro. I haven't done that route in a while, but I'd be really surprised if I could do it in under 40 minutes. I'm about a 10 minute drive to several metro stations, give or take 5 minutes for managing parking.
posted by instamatic at 7:20 PM on January 6, 2016

Oh wow, I missed "2400 square feet." Yeah, you can't have that.
posted by babelfish at 7:53 PM on January 6, 2016

Honestly the options I see colleagues with sort of similar income ranges (civil servants, so I have an idea generally) and concerns (school district) taking, often, is: 1) longer driving commute living in fairfax county and a smaller house, 2) WAY longer driving commute as in 60+ minutes one way and leaving the house at 6:30 a.m. and living much further out in Virginia or as far away as Annapolis, MD, to have a bigger house and/or walkable community, 3) Arlington, smaller house, leaving at 7:00 a.m. to drive or bike commute (still probably takes 40 minutes), 4) Northeast DC (Fort Totten area generally), smaller house, charter schools, 5) Cheverly area, smaller house.

It's really expensive here and the traffic is REALLY bad.

I like the DC area but I don't have kids and have a short commute... my friends who have kids and own their house around here also probably have combined income closer to $200K to work with and they don't have large houses either (like 2 bedroom, don't know about square footage).

If you're considering an area try plugging it into Google Maps, hit "directions" to Chinatown or Metro Center DC, set the time for morning rush hour, and see how long it takes. For example, I tried Lorton, Virginia to DC which is only 19 miles on the map, but driving that at 8 a.m. takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour and 40 minutes. Obviously if you take metro in, it's not as bad, but metro from much of the suburbs to downtown is still going to take you 45+ minutes.
posted by citron at 8:07 PM on January 6, 2016

I am in very much the same situation as you, though our income is a smudge higher. When we moved here, we wanted good school district, reasonable commute, and to buy a decent-sized house (we have 2 kids).

Unfortunately, it's really hard to do all three in this area unless you're a millionaire. I live in the Alexandria part of Fairfax County (as opposed to Alexandria City -- keeps us in a good school district, but not a walkable neighborhood). I am a 5-minute drive from the Huntington metro, but my door-to-door commute to Foggy Bottom is still an hour, and I come in on the early side. Our house is 2000 square feet but abuts a major road and is a cookie-cutter 50s tract house. And I was ashamed at how much we paid for it (I come from the Midwest, where the same money would have bought us a grand old Victorian manse).

Unless you're making 300k+ in DC, you either settle for a longer commute, a smaller house, or a crappy school district. You'll have to pick one. It's nearly impossible to come out on top on all three counts unless you bought 35 years ago.

We rented for the first year and I'm glad we did. The different areas in MD and VA can be quite distinct, and I think it pays to take your time looking for a place and figuring out the tradeoffs you're willing to make in order to be happy.
posted by GorgeousPorridge at 5:13 AM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

There are neighborhoods in DC that meet your criteria, more or less. We're in Petworth (neighborhood of the year!), where you could afford a rowhouse (1600 square feet, 2400 with basement) on that salary, but where the neighborhood high school is still … not one of the better schools (but there's a popular elementary school that feeds into it, so maybe in a few years it'll be fine?). If you wanted to get into the "best" high school in Northwest Washington (Wilson) you'd pay a premium to live in one of its feeder neighborhoods (the most affordable of which just barely stayed with Wilson in the last redistricting). My in-laws live in Mt Pleasant and the kids have been really happy at Bancroft (which is one of the schools whose students help Michelle Obama with the White House garden) but renovated rowhouses there go for over $1M now.

But if you want a fully detached house of that size with a yard, in DC itself you're looking at something like Crestwood or Spring Valley, where you're going to pay both in actual dollars and in commuting inconvenience. There are some detached houses in, say, Sixteenth Street Heights but there are also a bunch of rowhouses and it both won't feel as suburban as you're used to and might not have great schools (yet) either. The school thing is weird, and hard. DC's population has grown and while there's still a degree of flight to the suburbs when the kids hit school age, it seems more parents are choosing to stick around. I'm not sure how long it takes to turn around a neighborhood school when, say, 10% fewer families move out, or 20%, or whatever, but there is certainly change visible already. And there are private schools and public charter schools and all that, so you'd have plenty of options within reasonable commuting range.

And if it's not clear from the links, in general I like Urban Turf's neighborhood profiles. The one for Petworth is a bit out of date though (median price is higher, the streetcar line isn't happening, and there's a whole damn bunch of new restaurants and bars on Upshur St, and yes I love my neighborhood, why).

We can hook you up with our realtor if you do move here and choose to buy.
posted by fedward at 5:36 PM on January 7, 2016

So, depending on your long-term outlook, it's worth noting that DC's elementary schools are no longer the horror that they once were.

If you're in this for the long-haul, though, you're going to want to be in the suburbs or one of the neighborhoods that feeds into Wilson (and, yuck, I feel icky for saying that, given that this mentality is exactly what perpetuates class divisions in DC, but you've gotta do what's best for your kids, so....)

Fairfax has arguably some of the best public schools anywhere. Montgomery County (Rockville & Silver Spring) really varies by school/neighborhood.

I don't know a whole lot about the Maryland Suburbs or Takoma (but I have coworkers who bike into downtown from Takoma!). If you're willing to commute by bike, there are a few neighborhoods that suddenly become a lot "closer" to downtown (particularly in South Arlington). (FWIW, I've been doing a year-round bicycle commute since 2010.)

Apart from Metro, there are a handful of neighborhoods that have better-than-you'd-expect bus connections to Metro, particularly around Shirlington, and the parts of Alexandria that Metroway serves.

DC housing prices have been in an out-of-control spiral for the past few years. I have no clue how long they'll be able to keep up this pace, but the house-flippers are doing a great job of destroying the last few affordable places. My financial situation has greatly improved in the past few years, and the absurdly inflated market somehow always seems to manage to say two steps ahead of me.
posted by schmod at 12:07 PM on January 15, 2016

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