How To Save on Rent in Washington DC

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.

Renting in DC, one of the 26 most expensive cities in the world, is definitely not cheap. It is because of the high housing prices in the capital city.

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.

Trade-off

— 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.

Trade-off

— 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, SubletsHousing, Georgetown Summer Sublet, and International Student House, Washington, DC.

Conclusion

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! 🙂



27 thoughts on “How To Save on Rent in Washington DC”

  • Man!! I live in the South and I knew our rent was cheap for a college town. But dang.
    We paid $300/bedroom in most places. That was just for the room, not utilities. It’s way less expensive, but the college makes up most the town. It doesn’t have the city like DC. I can’t imagine the change for you, especially financially, going from a city in the South to DC.

  • When I was attending post secondary school way back in the late 90s me and four other friends rented a two bedroom apartment to share among five guys. The upside was the cheap rent. We paid less than $200 each per month and we were all high school friends. The downside was cleanliness. We often would clean the apartment once at the start of every school term, but the apartment will get dirty within days.

    Those days were great and I learned a lot about being independent and how to live within my self imposed student budget. I would encourage all students to live on their own at some point during their college days.

    • I know what you mean! Mr. FAF used to live with 4-5 other guys, and his place was ehh. I tried to clean up a bit, but it was so overwhelming! I would def encourage my son to try living with other people to cut costs and lean how to deal with roommate issues too! 😀

  • Seventeen years ago, my sister in-law lived in Alexandria for two years while going to NOVA before she moved to Montana to finish her BS degree. She paid ~$950 for a one bedroom in an ok (not great) part of town. I used to wonder how expensive it was to actually be living im DC if it was that high just outside. Your cost of living requires a much higher level of income. Jeesh….

    • OMG it was already $950 seventeen years ago? @_@ Alexandria is a nice area with a lot of white-collar workers, so maybe that’s one factor, but WOW!

  • It’s funny how normal some of these rents seem when you live in a high cost of living area for a while. You totally acclimate and everything else seems cheap. Wish I had resources like this when I was in grad school.

    • I know, right! Now I’m kinda used to the high cost of living in DC. Mr. FAF and I have been looking at San Francisco, and I’m like “DC is not too bad!” @_@

  • Wow, that’s expensive. Portland is getting pricey, but nowhere near DC yet. How does renting compare to owning? Do you live in a condo now?

    When I was in college, I always shared a room to save. It was fine back then, but I couldn’t do it now.

    • I heard Portland has great prices too! My friend told me there’s no sale tax in Oregon (I think) and always tells me to go there to shop haha. Depending on the down payment, renting can be more expensive than owning. We bought a townhouse far outside of the downtown DC area so that we could get more bang for our buck. My commute is about 1 hour one way though >_<

  • I guess I never thought DC is that expensive. I had my apt broken into before so I don’t that’s definitely a horrifying experience for you too.

    Nowadays I always try to balance rent and the safety of the neighborhood. It’s not worth it to live in shady areas to try to save a few bucks.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • It’s definitely a great idea to balance safety and rent. Having my place broken into was TERRIFYING! I’m so sorry it happened to you too. 🙁

  • My parents lived on Q St in Shaw in the 80s…they bought their house for $40k in the early 80s. Some of their friends wouldn’t even come to visit them because they were afraid. There were prostitutes all up and down U St at that time. Nothing bad ever happened to them. They went to the 930 club and my mom walked home late at night all the time…they were friends with their neighbors and have no problem talking to anyone, at any time. If you live in a “dangerous” area, you will probably be fine if you know your neighbors and aren’t afraid of your neighborhood. Things do happen, but they happen anywhere. Here in Baltimore, where I live now…people sometimes get mugged in Station North but they get mugged just as often in Charles Village even though Charles Village is perceived as “safer”. To me, safety is all about knowing your neighbors and living somewhere with eyes on the street.

    IMO Columbia Heights is not “””””sketchy””””” or “”””dangerous”””” at this point. 10 years ago…the rent was cheaper there and it still wasn’t “”””sketchy”””” or “”””dangerous””””. I went there all the time to visit my friends…I was 16 or 17 walking around alone and in groups, day and night and nothing bad happened. Now it’s totally gentrified.

    • I totally agree with you it could be dangerous anywhere. I heard some incidents happened in Friendship Heights, which is a much nicer area of town. I have some friends who live in CH and think it’s a great place. Some express some concerns, but it could be true everywhere in DC. 🙂

  • If you can afford to purchase a house, which can be achievable if you are a first-time homebuyer, you can rent out rooms on AirBnB. Other bloggers have had nice success implementing this method (Financial Panther, Lily over at theFrugalGene, and a few others.)

    Nice write up, Ms. FAF. I caught your podcast this past week and enjoyed the thoughts you shared about your blog on the podcast.

    • Thank you so much for your nice comment! I’ve thought about AirBnB too, but I have a baby, so my hubby thinks it might be risky. We might change our minds in the future though because the rental income is great!

  • It’s really weird when you look at someone else’s map and it has the same names like captial hill and mount rainier. Which Washington stole it from which?!

    I didn’t know there were Facebook housing groups! That’s awesome!! I would trust that a lot more than Craig list…

    • Haha really? I need to look at the map of Washington state. Not sure who stole from who though lol. I trust FB more too since you can check out people’s profiles to see if they’re real or not ^.^

  • Same around here. One bedroom in an apartment next door is going for $2K a month. Which is ludicrous because our mortgage is only $1400, or something like that, for a 3 bed 2 bath. Although with property tax and HOA fees, it brings it up to probably around 2400 a month, but that’s still cheaper compared to an equivalent apartment. We’ve enjoyed quite the appreciation on our home the past 4 years too, so it was a win all around. I’d say sharing rooms was the key for me. Rented a single room out with friends for a long time; through college, and after. And also with my wife as well. Just lived in the same room for 4 years into our marriage.

  • Ah, this article came at the perfect time! I was thinking about switching jobs and one of the places I’ve considered going is D.C. You did a great job explaining something I’ve been struggling with for the past few weeks. Everything I’ve been looking at has been way out of my budget so this helps a lot. Thanks so much!!!

  • My wife and I were renting in Southwest Waterfront for pretty cheap for a while, but the Wharf project pushed prices up to the point that we had to leave. We moved just across the river into Arlington. Prices in the area are definitely nuts. And if with the super high rental costs, it is still much cheaper to rent than to buy here!

  • I got really lucky with housing in grad school. I was in a very small place in the south and got good friends to share the inexpensive housing with. Anyway, I didn’t know you were an international student too. Are you on a green card or a work visa?

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