This in-depth guide answers the question of how to find an apartment in Washington DC.
Here's the quick answer: First step, establish what neighborhoods you're interested in. Next, determine your "must haves" and your "would-be-nice-to haves." Then, plan to start your search about 45 days before your lease. And finally, make sure you have all your application materials prepared before you look for apartments.
That's the 30-second version. Read on to get the full details about setting yourself up from a high-success, low-stress apartment search.
Let's get started.
I've seen too many blog posts and articles that barely scrape the surface of how to actually go about looking for an apartment in Washington DC. I wrote this guide specifically for people who are moving to DC for the first time and really need some help sorting everything out. With that said...
Here are the questions we'll answer in this guide:
- Where should I look for an apartment? We'll offer some recommendations on choosing the best neighborhoods for your unique preferences.
- How do I find an apartment? Some "pro tips" from an experienced real estate agent in DC.
- How do I apply for an apartment? Since the first rule in finding a DC apartment is "be ready to apply quickly", we wanted to make sure to include in-depth info on how to do that!
If that all sounds helpful to you, then read on!
Where to look for apartments in DC.
When trying to figure out where to find apartments for rent in Washington, District of Columbia, one can become quickly discouraged. Some claim that it’s almost impossible to find affordable housing in this city, and while they’re not entirely wrong, there are some great apartment-hunting tips to keep in mind that can make your search a tad easier.
Check out these great DC-specific resources focused on helping you choose a neighborhood:
Washington DC Neighborhoods by Destination DC. An awesome resource with tons of details about neighborhoods in DC. Easy to spend a good half hour here without even realizing it!
Washington DC by Airbnb. It makes sense that Airbnb knows a thing or two about major cities and neighborhoods around the world. I have yet to find a better resource for getting great street-level, candid photographs of what a neighborhood actually looks and feels like. Definitely worth exploring!
Best Neighborhoods in Washington DC by Jumpshell. Jumpshell's very own guide to neighborhoods in DC. The goal of this article is not to tell you which neighborhoods to live in, but rather to give you a real "ground-level"/"real world" sense of different neighborhoods in DC, so you can choose which sound the most promising for your search.
And if you need to just get oriented about what and where all the neighborhoods in DC are in relation to each other, check out this barebones, plain-and-simple map.
Now time for some pro-tips on how to find an apartment in DC.
Image source: chaosofchoice.com
Pro-Tip #1: Determine your "must haves" and your "would-be-nice-to haves."
Before you start your search for an apartment, determine what you feel are necessities for your apartment; the stuff you couldn't stand to live without. One way to go about doing this is:
- Write down 10 things that are important to you — for example, your preferred monthly rent, having hardwood floors, location in relation to public transportation, etc).
- Now sort each item by importance — for example, which is the bigger priority? Being less than 15 minutes from public transportation or having hardwood floors?
Now, you'll have a ranked list of housing amenities. This list will be a huge help in determining which apartments are the real winners. If you're down to the wire on choosing between two apartments, this list will be incredibly helpful.
Image source: blog.vanillaforums.com
Pro-Tip #2: Use the "45 day rule".
Just put your self in the shoes of the current tenant in your next apartment. When would you most likely tell the landlord that you're moving?
It's best to start looking for an apartment in Washington DC is about 45 days before your target move-in date. Here's why!
The majority of tenants give their "notice of non-renewal" to their landlords about 60 days before their lease is up — after that most apartment brokerages will get the news about a week later. Some apartments come on the market months early, and some come on way late. Essentially, everything averages out to where starting your search 45 days before the lease date makes the most sense.
Pro-Tip# 3: Be ready to apply if you like the place.
Intuitively, it would make sense to do an apartment search like this: visit ~10 different apartments, weigh the pros and cons of each, then select which apartment you'd like to apply for. Unfortunately in Washington DC, time is not on your side — the demand for apartments is just too high.
As such, taking a few days to see multiple apartments and then mull over your options is really risky. The chances are that most of the first few apartments you saw will already be taken by that point.
So, how can you set yourself up for the best search possible? See as many places as possible in one or two days and have your checkbook and application materials with you. This is where having a rental agent work with you is incredible — instead of having to call dozens of apartments just to set up 10 or so showings in that span of a day or two, you can have an agent do it all for you! All you need to do is tag along and hand over all your application information and they'll prep it for you.
Much better than trying to handle it all alone. If the landlord can review your application first, you're more likely to get the lease — most landlords will work on a first-come, first-serve basis (assuming everything in your application checks out!).
Now, what do you need to apply for an apartment?
Image source: moveline.com
First thing's first — you should gather all your rental application information before you start looking at any apartments.
When you’re interested in an apartment, the landlord or property manager will ask for some information about you in the form of a “rental application” — typically revolving around your history as a renter and/or your ability to pay rent.
We've listed the information you should expect to provide in your application below — as well as a couple great tools for easily getting that information in one place and sending it to landlords.
What references do I need? You will need to provide at least two references along with your application. Typically, landlords and property managers will require references from:
- A previous landlord or property manager — here's an example of a landlord reference template (feel free to send this to a previous landlord!)
- An employer
Note for recent college graduates: references from resident advisors can be acceptable, but additional employer or personal references may be preferred. Avoid using family and friends and make sure you notify your references that you are applying for an apartment.
What is a credit score? In a nutshell, your credit score reflects how much money you’ve borrowed in the past and how good you were at repaying it. The higher your score, the more “proof” you have you can pay off your debts — in your case, the rent.
What does a credit score look like?
- Below 620: Poor
- 620 - 679: Fair
- 680 - 730: Good
- 730+: Very Good
→ How Do I Get My Credit Score
The following table was created by Doorsteps.com — a homebuying information resource that provides future homebuyers with 100% unbiased information, written by industry experts and insiders. They’ve made an incredibly clear and powerful resource on how to obtain your credit score, which we’ve included below — it’s the same process for renters!
Guess it yourself.
Use a free credit score estimator.
Free, but not entirely accurate.
Download your credit report.
Download your Annual Credit Report, and then pay for your credit score separately.
So while this is still a decent option, if you don’t want to be charged every month for the rest of time, you’ll likely need to make several phone calls and write several emails to get the on-going charges dropped. (At least we did, when we all tried this route).
Free for the credit report.
Then pay roughly $20 for your annual credit score.
Then pay $20 – $40 per month because you’re automatically enrolled in a plan that can be a hassle to undo.
Pay for your FICO score.
Access your free FICO credit score.
MyFICO is a branded credit score, developed and administered by a company called FICO, formerly Fair Isaac. It’s the Kleenex of credit score companies.
MyFico pulls from two of the three nationwide credit reporting companies: Equifax and TransUnion, so the result is essentially as accurate as any other option. Besides, 90% of lenders use the FICO score themselves, so you can’t really go wrong here.
It comes with some well designed tools to help you understand your score, and helps you see exactly what it is about your credit history that may be hurting it.
Free credit score.
If you get your score and it’s high enough (say, above 750), then you can simply cancel your subscription immediately and you’ve lost nothing.
If it is lower than you want, you will pay roughly $15 – $20 per month to use their tools and services to find ways to improve it, which we feel is worth it. (And by the way, we are not being paid for this — or any — endorsement. This is based on carefully researching and testing all available options ourselves.)
What if I don’t have a credit score?
You’ll probably need a guarantor.
What’s a guarantor? Basically someone with income and a credit history that vouches for you as a renter.
Who needs a guarantor? If you don’t have a significant source of income or a credit history — often the case for students — landlords and property managers will require that someone who does have acceptable income and credit signs a form guaranteeing that rent will be paid.
This guarantor form states that while the lease is between the renter and the landlord, the guarantor is liable for the rent should the renter be unable to pay it. Essentially, the landlord/property manager can collect the rent from the guarantor should the renter be unable to pay rent.
Be ready to prepare your guarantor — often a family member — in advance as landlords and property managers need to verify their credit and the guarantor form will need to be notarized. You can use this resource to help your guarantor find a notary public nearby or you can check out Notarize, an iOS app launched in early 2016 that let's you get any document notarized remotely. What a game changer!
Some graduate programs offer stipends to their students who pursue advanced degrees.
If you are receiving a stipend from your school, make sure to bring confirmation to present to the landlord. It’s essentially your proof that you’ll be able to pay the rent, which makes you a much more attractive tenant than someone who doesn’t have the proof with them.
Pay Stub (or Pay Check)
Simple enough — showing a pay stub from your employer proves that you’re making an income. This proof helps make you an even more attractive applicant to landlords.
Some other helpful tips on looking for apartments in DC.
Map out the public transportation system (and the parking situation).
The research step may be the most important part of how to find an apartment in Washington, DC. Be choosy about your final location. Washington, DC, is strange because some parts of the city are very connected by public transportation and other parts aren’t very connected at all. Be sure to pull out a map and familiarize yourself with the areas you’ll be renting in. Feel free to use our online neighborhood guide.
Note that apartments near metro stations can be more expensive. But also, parking is notorious in the city. There are costs and downsides of both being closer to the public transportation and being in an area where it’s difficult to park.
Watch out for online scams and use other resources.
Finding an apartment in Washington, DC, can be difficult, as parts of the area are not safe and there have been several scams on free-for-all rental sites. Always go with a friend. Wait to see the apartment before you send money or sign anything, and again, familiarize yourself with those tenant laws. Try your best to actually network within your own social group to make interpersonal connections based on real recommendations, or at the very least, get referrals.
Be aware that "class B" apartments are harder to find.
Developers have been focusing on putting up buildings for moderately wealthy twentysomethings, but the vacancy rate for "class B" apartments that are cheaper and have fewer amenities is much lower.
This is partially why it’s noticeably more difficult than in some other American cities to find apartments for rent that are within a certain price range. Luxury condos are available; small lofts at a reasonable price are very rare.
Get used to the new norms: roommates and negotiations.
Landing the deal here requires a certain amount of assertiveness. You have to have your act together and act fast. Make sure you have a roommate lined up ahead of time, which is often what you need to be able to afford many of the "class A," high-end apartments. Also note that you may be able to negotiate if you’re signing a lease for a longer amount of time.
Bring the paperwork and be ready for a long application.
There may be some "hurry up and wait" moments when you’re close to actually moving in. Locals will likely do a background and credit check, call referrals, and ask for quite a few pay stubs here. Be patient when you’re filling out paperwork. From the point of looking at your first listing to moving in, the process can take weeks to months, depending on the time of year.
Plan to shop around during the right time of year. (Summer is brutal.)
Speaking of that, one of the best apartment-hunting tips for Washington, DC, is to consider the time of year. June is when the interns start. Summer in general is a very tough time of year to find apartments here, as the job market is in flux around that time.
As discussed in this thread on r/washingtondc, winter can be a great time to look for apartments if you're looking to save. The reduced "demand" (i.e. number of people looking for apartments) causes landlords to bump down their prices. You won't get anywhere near the selection of the "busy season" (May to September), but you might be able to save $100-200/month.
Be prepared for the higher cost of living.
The capital varies a great deal in rent prices based on the neighborhood and proximity to public transportation. You should have a good idea of what you’ll expect to pay in general, as the city has an exorbitantly high cost of living. According to the Living Wage Index, you need a living wage of at least $14.78 per hour ($30.36 per hour if you’re a single parent) to afford the city. If you’re coming from another city or a rural area, save up a bit before coming here.
Click below for an in-depth look at the cost of living in Washington DC for renters.