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I moved to Washington DC almost four years ago for grad school and have been living in the area since.
Before moving to the city, I had done some research on the cost of living in DC and worked like crazy to save up.
But I was still shocked at how expensive everything was, especially rent.
The median rental price for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,000.
A 2017 study conducted by London-based real estate firm Nested finds that DC boasts one of the world’s most expensive rental markets.
A large portion of my monthly $1,000 stipend back then was allocated to housing. However, there are definitely ways to save on rent.
Renting in DC
I moved to DC from a big city in the South where I paid $590 for my own bedroom with a private bath in a 3bd/3bth luxury apartment.
There was a free shuttle that took the residents from the apartment complex to a university campus every day. It was a 10-minute ride. But I’d often hear people complain about the traffic and how slow the shuttle was.
When I came to DC, I’d be lucky to pay $1,400 for a place like like that. I saw two or even three people share a $2,000 one-bedroom apartment to live closer to campus (2 sharing the bedroom and 1 staying in the living room).
Below is an example of an average apartment complex near the university I went to:
Studio: $1,499 – $1,599
1bd/1bth: $1,799 – $2,030
2bd/2bth: $2,675 – $3,350
Source: Zumper.com (2015)
I first rented a room with a family for $590 (everything included). I rode the train to go to school, and it was a 50-minute commute one way. I’d pay about $150/month for the metro.
When I told my friends, who were not living in DC, about my commute, they were in shock and asked me why I didn’t live closer to campus.
The answer was that I didn’t have the money. I was living on a meager monthly stipend of $1,000 provided by my school, so that was out of the question.
I couldn’t work off campus for more than 20 hours on-campus because I was an international student. I never asked my family for money during that time. I didn’t want to be a financial burden to them.
Later on, I moved to a $450 private bedroom in a shared house closer to the metro station and to campus. It was a less well-off area of town. Oftentimes I’d see sketchy-looking people walking around the neighborhood.
When the house was broken into three times in less than two weeks, I knew it was time to move out. That was one of the scariest experiences of my life.
How to save
Instead of renting in downtown DC, you might want to:
1) Live farther out where rent is much cheaper.
If you don’t have a car and want to live close to the metro, the housing near the metro stations at the end of each line is generally cheaper (i.e. Glenmont and Wheaton – red line). Rent in the Southeast and Northeast areas of DC is much cheaper than the Southwest and Northwest.
— If you live too far from the city or where you work/study, you might end up paying $250 or more for public transit each month. There’s no discount for students in DC except for those at American University.
— The Southeast and Northeast areas of DC are generally less safe than the Southwest and Northwest. I know a lot of people find cheaper rent in Colombia Heights (yellow line), but there’re a lot of concerns about safety in this area.
You need to pick the area carefully to avoid trouble (i.e. crimes). You can also use SpotCrime.com to see the area you want to rent has a high crime rate.
2) Share a space with one or two other people.
— Instead of paying $1,800 – $2,100 for a one-bedroom, you can share it with two other people and pay only $600 – $700/month.
— Inconvenience and roommate problems are probably the first thing people think of when it comes to sharing a tiny space sometimes with no partition walls (i.e. studios).
— A lot of property managers turn a blind eye to 2-3 people sharing one room. But some apartment complexes may restrict the number of tenants sharing a rented space.
Besides asking the management, you can also ask the current renters about this rule. You definitely don’t want to sign a lease and then find out you can’t share it with other people.
Where to find housing
— Craigslist.com is the place to go if you just want to find a room instead of signing a lease for a whole house/apartment or having to find roommates to start a lease.
— Housing resources on the school’s website: You can try Googling your school’s name + housing. Universities generally provide their students with housing info. I didn’t find this to be helpful since all the housing listed was super expensive.
— Your school’s listserve: You can contact the admin at your department and ask them to add you to the mailing list of all the students in that department. You can then send out an email telling the students a bit about yourself and that you’re looking for housing. If a student’s looking for a roommate, they will reach out to you. You know they go to the same school, so you don’t need to worry too much about their background and such.
— Apartments.com lists all the apartments available for rent. You can filter by location, rent, number of beds and baths, etc. This is perfect if you already have a friend or a group of people you want to share an apartment with.
— Facebook Housing Group: Get on Facebook and search “your school’s name + housing.” There’s usually a group of people from your school looking for and offering housing. Even if you don’t go to a particular school, you can also join the group. What people care about the most is whether you can afford the rent and if you can make a good roommate.
Some examples include Washington D.C. Housing, Rooms, Apartments, Sublets, Housing, Georgetown Summer Sublet, and International Student House, Washington, DC.
If you choose to go to school or live in DC, the cost of living might weigh on you. But don’t be discouraged. With frugality and hard work, you can pursue your dream and not let money stop you from doing what you love.
Good luck! 🙂