Living in the DC area without despair
June 21, 2016 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I currently live in Portland OR. There are many things to love here. I'm happy to be here. Why should I leave?

Yesterday, I was asked if I would be interested in applying for a job in the Washington DC area; specifically, Bethesda. I lived outside of DC many years ago as a student/postdoc so I know a little about living in the area generally and what the overall benefits and drawbacks are. What I don't know is where I would live now, given that I have a salary and could maybe afford to buy a house.

I went online to look at real estate listings and the situation looks pretty bleak. I'm not thrilled about living in a townhouse or condo but it looks like I may have to consider it. Problem is, I like to sit outside in the morning and drink my coffee, or relax on the deck with a glass of wine after work. I like my garden and I like my privacy. All the listings are for huge expensive houses, scary small houses in sketchy neighborhoods, condos, and townhouses.

What are my options? Are there any neighborhoods or outlying areas I should consider? Let's also assume I don't want to live in complete suburban hell as a single person without children but also don't need rollicking nightlife.

Although I'll probably apply for the job anyway because it's a great opportunity, I can't see how I would be happy living there. Change my mind?
posted by kneehigh to Home & Garden (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Check out Takoma Park and especially Cheverly in Maryland, and Brookland in D.C.

But don't flip out yet. If you get the job, then you can sublet for a while. But cross the bridge when you get to it.

I was in a flurry after only a phone interview about moving from Capitol Hill to Great Falls, Montana. Very unfortunately, I did not get further consideration.

You really sound like you don't want to go.
posted by jgirl at 8:46 AM on June 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

There is more to moving than just the type of housing. What do you love about Portland? What do you like to do there, what kind of neighborhood do you want to live in, etc? That will help us gauge whether anywhere in DC/Bethesda is going to be something you like.

Just off the cuff though? No, you probably won't love it. I am from the DC area and I live in Seattle/have visited Portland gobs of times. They are just very different places and depending on what you like about Portland you may find the Bethesda area to be too sterile and the DC area too gritty. About the closest I can think of for you is Takoma Park but it's been a decade since I've spent a ton of time there so I may be wrong now.
posted by joan_holloway at 8:47 AM on June 21, 2016

DC area: museums, history everywhere, culture, NYC by rail.
posted by zippy at 8:49 AM on June 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

We lived in a rowhouse with a LOVELY porch (enough space for a hammock and a bunch of chairs plus there was a tree growing through the middle of it) until just recently! It was pretty private except for the reggae-playing neighbors but that could happen anywhere. This was in Columbia Heights so definitely not a "complete suburban hell". Brookland, as suggested above, is definitely also worth considering, as is the H Street area and maybe Potomac Avenue? Don't assume that just because it's a townhouse you definitely won't have access to a porch/garden.

Also DC MeFites are great! Move here and start calling/coming to meetups! If you have experience with DC and really think you'll be unhappy absolutely trust that, and yeah it's true that housing around here can be unpleasantly nuts, but I think there are some legitimately good options.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:11 AM on June 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Lots of my house buying friends have recently found places in Silver Spring, Maryland (including several who moved there from Takoma Park). There is a variety of housing and neighborhoods in Silver Spring and some houses do have yards/privacy.
posted by gudrun at 9:19 AM on June 21, 2016

I agree with Mrs Pterodactyl that DC MeFites are good people :-) I live between Brookland and Bloomingdale, two great DC neighborhoods. My condo has a small porch for gardening or drinking wine or coffee and a large roof deck. I think Bloomingdale in particular would be a good choice for you - lots of young families and young professionals. I also think Takoma Park might be a good option. On the DC side, Brightwood and Petworth are both nice neighborhoods not too far from city stuff though they may be too up-and-coming for your taste. Mount Pleasant might also work though it might be too pricey.

That said, I love DC but it's not for everyone. Why would you buy a place here if you don't think you'll like it? Honestly, if you don't think you'll like it, I'd pass on the opportunity. Life's too short.
posted by kat518 at 9:32 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

A condo with a sunset-facing balcony might be even more pleasant that you're imagining -- especially if you factor in all the quality-of-life benefits of an enviable, blissfully short commute by living right in Bethesda. It'd be a really different feel to what you have right now, no doubt, but there ARE positive tradeoffs to be had, and as a loooongtime local I can say that the DC area is really thriving right now. And we'd love to have you! :)

The unfortunate truth is that our suburbs aren't really known for single-people-no-kids in single family homes, but if you're really prioritizing the vision of buying a place and having your own garden etc., I'd look out Rockville Pike and I-270 toward Gaithersburg and Frederick, even better if you can find something in Takoma Park (mentioned above) or Silver Spring. In DC proper, commuting to Bethesda from the NE/SE/SW quadrants of DC (Brookland, Capitol Hill, etc.) would not be my first choice, but a small townhouse in Columbia Heights or Mount Pleasant might suit you very well.

If you're willing to consider apartments/condos for this chapter of your life, I'd look on the Red Line toward (not away from) DC, particularly Cleveland Park and Woodley Park, which are leafy, super-walking-friendly neighborhoods that have many older buildings with lots of character. Those would also put you much closer to all of DC's best parks, free museums, restaurants, etc., and might be the ideal compromise on the gritty-to-sterile, reasonably-to-outrageously-priced, easy-to-painful-commute, suburban-hell-to-rollicking-nightlife vectors.

Regardless I think I'd plan to rent before buying, particularly if you're uncertain about whether the DC area is for you long-term at all. i hope it's exciting at least to consider -- it definitely seems too soon to close the door on the option until you know how good the job offer is for you in the much bigger picture. Best of luck!
posted by argonauta at 9:41 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

In addition to the other thoughts, speaking as a person who values privacy, enjoys gardening, and has a deck for morning coffee and after work wine, the rowhouse we have (which I assume you're referring to as a townhouse) meets those needs. I wouldn't write off townhouses so quickly.

I've got 300 square feet of a back yard that's been great to garden in, plus another 100 square feet in the front yard and i've adopted the treebox out front. It's not a huge yard compared to single family homes, but definitely enough for me to maintain and play around with (along with the stuff I have in pots) in terms of gardening and scratches that itch good for me.

For the most part, privacy isn't an issue - fences separate between the neighbors and I've got privacy hedges in pots between my back deck and the neighbor's. I generally don't hear anything that's going on with the neighbors because the walls are two layers of solid brick.
posted by Karaage at 9:52 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

You should probably rent / lease for a year regardless of how happy you expect to be once you get here. It'll let you figure out where you feel most comfortable in the area, and if that answer is nowhere, it makes it much easier to return to Portland, or try somewhere else.
posted by COD at 9:58 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

I really love the DC/Montgomery/PG border in general, and most of the city East of Rock Creek Park, although it took some adjusting after a decade in CA. Not a big fan of Bethesda in terms of both housing stock and yuppies, but there are nice things there too. We have a tiny bungalow in Takoma with a big-ass yard, and these are definitely still around.

How long ago were you last here? The city has changed significantly in the last decade, and a lot of neighborhoods have become radically different.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:03 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just had a discussion with my daughter who is currently living in Silver Spring and working in DC. There are strong pluses to living in Montgomery County (e.g. all the schools are good, unlike DC), so the housing options/prices are heavily driven by proximity to the metro and other commuting options. Speaking as if I were an economist, since your work would be in Bethesda and not DC,, you ought to be able to find something a little bit better for you than the hottest DC-oriented spots.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:30 AM on June 21, 2016

SemiSalt is right re: Monthomey County schools vs DC schools but if you're single, that means paying more in property taxes as a resident of MD rather than DC for something you're not planning to use. I believe Takoma Park in particular has a municipal tax in addition to county and state taxes. Just something to check out if you do decide to buy a place.
posted by kat518 at 10:39 AM on June 21, 2016

Thanks, so far, everyone. If I do come out to interview, I'll have to try to organize a meet up.
posted by kneehigh at 10:44 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Since no one else has mentioned them specifically yet, I also recommend checking out Hyattsville, Cottage City, and Mount Rainier, MD - all abut the District in Prince George's Co., are significantly cheaper than near in Montgomery Co. or much of DC west of the river these days, are are home to some beautiful houses.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:10 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Cheverly (and other areas on the east side of the area) are worth looking at, but be aware that the repairs on the subway system are causing traffic on 495 to be even worse than normal during commute times, so commuting from that side of town to Bethesda may be worse than the estimates that Google Maps etc. might give you. I know someone moving from Cheverly because their commute to Bethesda went from ~35 minutes to close to an hour each way.

I like to sit outside in the morning and drink my coffee, or relax on the deck with a glass of wine after work.

There are some nice townhouses with decks that you could put privacy trellises up on to gain an illusion of privacy. I have friends that breakfast on theirs every day that the weather is nice.

Let's also assume I don't want to live in complete suburban hell as a single person without children but also don't need rollicking nightlife.

It really comes down to how much money you're willing and able to spend on housing. There are places that have been redeveloped with a focus on walkability, but they come at a fairly steep price. At the very least, you'd want to rent for at least a year before trying to pick a place to buy, as the area's changed quite a bit since you've been there.
posted by Candleman at 11:41 AM on June 21, 2016

I'm going to be a nay-sayer. As someone who moved to DC for a job and then escaped three years later (which was as fast as I could, but I would've gladly left a year or two before I did), think pretty seriously about DC culture and lifestyle before you move, not just the job and not just the housing. DC does have a lot of pluses - great job market, museums, easy access to other interesting places, good food, smart people who tend to be friendly. But there are a lot of serious minuses: it's very expensive, crime is high, the Metro is a mess, driving commutes are awful, the weather can be awful, people work a LOT, if you are in DC proper taxation without representation AND having idiots who you didn't and can't vote for make decisions about how to run your city is really frustrating.....

I have a set of priorities that didn't match what I could get in DC, so I ended up unhappy. My priorities were stuff like affordable housing, quiet, a yard I could garden in, a low crime rate, good public schools that didn't require lotteries, less traffic, etc; they were much less career or entertainment focused. That said, I have lots of friends there who love it. (And I have a number of friends who left DC and moved to Portland and Seattle and are much happier....) I haven't lived in Portland since 1999 and have only visited a couple of times since so I don't know it super well, but even that brief knowledge tells me the cultures are SO different. If you are really happy in Portland I find it hard to believe you'd end up happy in DC unless you wanted a major change.
posted by john_snow at 11:45 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hi there. After hanging my hat in dozens of cities (and countries), I've lived in DC for nearly 3 years and I have not once regretted it.

DC has the weight of any major U.S. metropolis but is leafy, mostly walkable, and just an all-around pleasant (not to mention stunningly beautiful) place. People here are smart, dynamic, cultured, and animated by issues that matter. The political leanings are largely left-of-center. The food scene here is exploding to boot (Michelin critics are reported to be roving about as we speak)!

Keep in mind the overall vibe is the polar opposite from Portland, OR. People are not overwhelmingly style-conscious. They can be a little haughty (especially when it comes to perceived prestige of certain professions relative to yours). The city is also extremely transient. Some people complain that the nightlife can be repetitive (this has not been an issue for me personally).

No city is perfect, but I am much more at home here than I have been in a long time.
posted by lecorbeau at 11:49 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

DC isn't for everyone, but it might be for you.

I've noticed that the row houses/town houses don't really indicate the level of outdoor niceness from the front. You have to look hard - and there are some amazing garden spaces behind the zero-lot-line fronts that you see.

Bethesda is really nice, in my opinion. My wife and I like to bicycle up there from SW DC on the weekends for brunch at this outstanding Belgian place called Mussel Bar. And yes, it is expensive.

You might need to alter/change your definition of 'sketchy' - or at least get more info about neighborhoods. It took me a while when I moved here from Austin to understand that what I thought of as sketchy and what was actually sketchy were two very different things. This is definitely a city to be explored first-hand - internet listings can't really give you a complete picture.
posted by Thistledown at 12:40 PM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have lived in DC for around 15 years now. You need to really consider what your future housing and commuting situation will look like and if you are OK with that.

Housing: A lot of people in this thread are singing the praises of townhouses; which are fine and work for many people, but if you like privacy, I don't see how people would think a townhouse fits the bill. This means sharing walls with you neighbors so often the noise transfers through. Neighbors can see everything you are doing when you are outside. Reggae-playing neighbors are right through a wall, there is no buffer of space and exterior walls.

The reason why so many people chose townhouses is because they are (usually) more cost effective for the money than a SFH. Housing is EXTREMELY expensive. Even if you think you earn a good salary, it will go much less far in housing here. Keep in mind you are competing for places with couples who will have dual-income compared to you as a single person (I assume). Someone suggested Takoma Park but I doubt if the type of place you are seeking is remotely near your price range. For example, this house is cute; a decent size but definitely not a mansion; some land (.5 acre) and costs nearly 1 million dollars.

Commuting: One way that people get a 'nicer' (larger, more land, safer, newer) house is to go further out. That means your commuting time will go up. People here regularly have commutes of over 1 hr each way. Sometimes this involves multiple bus/train/metro transfers. As people have mentioned already, metro is a mess at the moment. Do your research if you are remotely considering using metro as your primary mode of transportation.

Finally, I haven't been to portland but I think the culture is significantly different. People here tend to work a lot and many people are pretty achievement and status conscious. Many people find it hard to find friends due to the transient population, but I have noticed this is usually people who are over around 35 and/or have kids.
posted by seesom at 12:47 PM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's definitely possible to have a house with a reasonable amount of privacy in the city. DC townhouses actually tend to be quite nice, and offer a good compromise of walkability and privacy.

Housing prices have continued to go crazy. Working in Bethesda might limit your options somewhat, depending on what you want your commute to be like. Some of the routes in and out of Bethesda are notoriously traffic-clogged, and the physical distance can make some transit trips lengthy. You probably won't like (or be able to afford) most of the neighborhoods around Bethesda, which compounds this further.

Most of NE/SE DC are probably outside of reasonable commuting distance (which is a shame -- they're lovely areas), because there aren't any good direct routes into Bethesda. I would normally recommend Brookland or Bloomingdale without hesitation, but would never want a daily commute to Bethesda from one of those neighborhoods.

If you're ambitious, there's a fully-separated bike path from Bethesda to Georgetown, and another one that will take you to the outskirts of Silver Spring. I know people who make this commute daily, and wouldn't have it any other way. (I also commute by bike, but my commute isn't nearly that long).

DC actually has a reasonable amount of culture, although you'll find many claiming that it doesn't, because they haven't bothered looking for it. DC's a transient city, and there is no shortage of opportunities for meeting new people or finding new hobbies.

Compared to Portland, our weather is probably worse (very hot summers; recently very cold winters), and we have fewer options for "outdoors stuff" within a reasonable driving distance. [To me, this is DC's biggest drawback.]

If I were you, I'd be on the fence. I tried finding a job in Portland 6 years ago, and had absolutely no luck. Ultimately, I ended up in DC, expecting it to be a short "stopover. " I came with very low expectations, and they were vastly exceeded. I've been here for 6 years now, and am happy (and proud) to call DC home.
posted by schmod at 12:52 PM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Addendum: Whatever you do, don't buy a house before living here for a bit.
posted by schmod at 12:53 PM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I know someone moving from Cheverly because their commute to Bethesda went from ~35 minutes to close to an hour each way.
That was a bad commute long before Metro's problems began to develop. It's literally a long (~20+ mile) commute, and even without any traffic at all, 35 minutes really seems like it would be a stretch.
There are strong pluses to living in Montgomery County (e.g. all the schools are good, unlike DC)
Actually, that depends. MoCo's schools are highly segregated, and vary considerably in quality. Unlike in DC, this is a taboo topic for discussion among residents and leaders, so you don't hear as much about it.

If you move to MoCo, you shouldn't automatically assume that the schools are good. (And, if you move to DC, you also shouldn't assume the schools are bad).

If schools are your priority, Fairfax County is the place to be.
posted by schmod at 1:06 PM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I recently moved from Takoma Park to Rockville for Reasons, and while Takoma Park is charming, I think there's a little bit more smaller/older housing stock in Rockville that's still affordable and it's a quick direct shot on Metro if that's an interest/concern (drive time, OTOH, I'd say is similar between Takoma Park vs. Rockville and Bethesda, because the TP drive is shorter but more congested). I spent 11 years in Takoma Park and am surprised how much I'm liking Rockville. Takoma Park/downtown Silver Spring is kind of on a weird borderline between too spread out to be truly walkable (like no real grocery stores in TP) but also annoyingly dense and congested to drive in.
posted by drlith at 1:13 PM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not a DC expert, never lived there, but have probably visited 3 dozen times due to friends & family there. I always hated DC until one of my best friends moved to Mt. Rainier (mentioned above), which used to be a streetcar suburb -- so it's neither suburban hell nor the center of any particular nightlife. His neighborhood is really pretty but not fancy/expensive, & very much a "sit outside on your porch" kind of place without any trace of the sterility and drabness I think is an issue with some of DC. Most of his neighbors seem to be old hippies, community-based-nonprofit-type folks, big Caribbean families, and lots of toddlers, and not so much "the guy who ran for student body president of your high school and lost" (I think Jon Stewart's quip about DC's demographic vibe).

That said, if your gut feeling says you won't like DC and you "can't see how you'd be happy living there", I'd think hard about it, as it's definitely got its downsides. I moved to a place I had major reservations about for a job, and I'll definitely look back on it as That Time I Made a Huge Mistake (or one of 'em anyways!)
posted by geneva uswazi at 2:04 PM on June 21, 2016

Also, if you "can't see how you'd be happy living there" now, a D.C. summer could well seal the deal for staying where you are.
posted by jgirl at 2:35 PM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding everything seesom said. You don't sound very enthusiastic about coming to the area, and with that as a starting point, I don't think the positives-on-paper the other commenters mentioned (and which you say you are already aware of), about either Montgomery County or the District, will outweigh your overwhelming sense of "meh." And whatever salary you're being offered, think long and hard about the astronomical cost of living anywhere in the DC metro area, especially if you're living on your own. I wouldn't move here unless you were (a) extremely excited about the job, and (b) making upper-five-figures into the six-figures range.

(Yes, many people get by on a lot less, but even "getting by" in this area costs considerably more than it would in most other parts of the country. Would the benefits of moving here outweigh the costs?)
posted by the thought-fox at 2:45 PM on June 21, 2016

I think when people think of townhouses, they assume that they're all cheaply built with thin party walls. In the District the houses we have that are butted up next to each other are called rowhouses, not townhouses. Our walls are 9" thick masonry (14" in the basement). So are our next door neighbor's walls. We don't hear them*, and they've never once said anything to us about the volume of our TV or stereo.

* Not 100% true: if you stand at our kitchen sink, you can hear muffled voices if there's an argument directly on the other side of the wall, but only in that one circumstance. I blame the people who renovated our house.

We're in Petworth. We have a tiny back yard, but even that is 500+ square feet. We have a deck. We have a covered front porch. Our neighbors' too-loud music tends to be gogo or R&B, not reggae, but that's neither here nor there. From here to Bethesda you'd drive or ride an E bus across Military Road to Friendship Heights, then go up Wisconsin by car, bus, or Metro.

I think it's definitely possible to find a house you'd like in a neighborhood you'd want to live in … but you'd have to describe more than a deck and a fenced garden to be able to narrow it down. What is it that has you worried?
posted by fedward at 4:47 PM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ha! I live in DC currently but I am trying to make my way out to Portland!

Real estate out here is nuts right now. Silver Spring is pretty cool, but I'm curious if you have strong feelings about your commute. The area near Bethesda is very suburban, and commuting can be pretty harrowing. Serious traffic if you drive and the Red Line on Metro which serves that area has been on fire a lot lately- not metaphorically on fire, on fire on fire.
posted by forkisbetter at 5:11 PM on June 21, 2016

I am worried about isolation in a place I hate. Right now when I have a bad day at work home is a haven. I'm afraid that if I discover I don't like this job I'll be trapped at work and at home. I am late mid-career, so starting over at this point is a bigger deal. If the job is really rewarding, great. If not, I'm alone in DC. I'm middle-aged and single. Let's not even talk about possibilities for dating, it's hard enough here. That's fodder for a completely different Ask.

I know I sound pretty negative about this. I have serious doubts, but circumstances make this move worth considering. It would be a difficult opportunity to turn down and it won't come again.

I just got the call yesterday. The job isn't even listed yet. I'm gathering data.
posted by kneehigh at 5:25 PM on June 21, 2016

« Older Puerto Rico. Y'know, for kids.   |   Nonprofit ticket sales for London theatre with... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.