(This post is part of series. See also: Then and Now)
When we moved from our first, temporary apartment to our more permanent home in DC it felt like moving to a different world. In the first apartment we experienced Columbia Road and Adams Morgan as a nightmarish warzone of flashing lights, sirens, drunken revellers and homeless beggars. In the second the only thing keeping us awake was the mockingbird in the garden opposite. And yet, in actual fact, we only moved five minutes down the road.
We chose our first apartment (on AirBnB when we discovered we had got the visa to come to America and R needed to turn up at work in about two weeks’ time) based on availability and proximity to downtown DC. We knew that R would be working downtown, and we had heard of Dupont Circle (from the West Wing), so we looked in that sort of area. We had heard horror stories about how DC was dangerous – how you could think you were in a nice area, turn a corner and be in that legendary, dystopian world of ‘the projects’ – so we tried to do our research. The closest affordable option that turned up was in Adams Morgan, which, when we looked it up on the internet, sounded like our kind of place – diverse population, full of restaurants and bars, walking distance from Dupont. The consensus of opinion on the internet was that it was safe.
And although our first experiences were not wholly positive, we had to agree that it seemed pretty much as safe as our area of London.
But it was noisy, and there were the beggars, and the apartment was gated, and it was a full twenty minute walk to Dupont metro (Woodley Park metro was closer, but then it took practically half an hour to get down the ridiculously long and slow escalator), and it was an hour’s walk to R’s work, and walking back was all uphill, and there was no good gym or supermarket nearby… our list of minor complaints was getting pretty long. So we decided to search for a new apartment closer to town. From talking to people, we were confident that the North West was the right place to be (it’s been safest for longest); we just wanted to be less far from the city centre.
Of course, apartment hunting in a strange city is difficult. In a foreign country it’s even harder. We were pretty experienced at finding and renting apartments in the UK – you go to Zoopla, find something in your price-range, contact the agent and give them all your details. They tell you that the property has already been let and your price-range is unrealistic. Or something like that.
In America – or at least in DC – there are similar websites (padmapper for example), but mainly people use Craigslist. This is far more reputable over here than it is in the UK. However, the form your search takes depends on what sort of apartment you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a serviced apartment with amenities like a gym and a concierge, then you can get this pretty easily, usually by contacting the apartment building/company directly. Most of these are downtown: south of Dupont Circle, on 14th Street or in the new waterfront developments in SW/SE. If, on the other hand, you like the look of the smaller apartment buildings in the nice old mansions of NW (19th street and Kalorama for example), you should look for adverts for ‘condos’ on Craigslist. (Condominiums are apartment buildings where each apartment is privately owned by different landlords; apartment buildings are owned and maintained by a single company). Areas differ in terms of what sort of apartments will be more readily available. In the Capital Hill area, for example, many of the rentals on Craigslist will be basements being let out privately by the young families living upstairs. Realtors are rarely used when you’re looking just to rent, so really there’s no-one that will give you this information – we just had to learn it from R’s colleagues and our experience. Oh and nearly every apartment in DC is let unfurnished.
This was all a lot to take in – especially during my first weeks in this country when I was still being challenged by things like grocery shopping. I spent hours on Craigslist and googlemaps, budgeting, making calls… And it always seemed to be raining as I walked down the hill to various condos, waited for agents or building managers, and tried to gauge light levels in first floor apartments. It was a high-pressure decision: we were running out of time in our temporary apartment, and our entire happiness for the next year rested on what apartment we would end up with.
And then, one sunny weekend at the end of April, we found our apartment. It wasn’t much closer to Dupont or Woodley Park metros. It was still on top of the hill. I still hadn’t found a good supermarket or gym. But that five minutes down Columbia Road made all the difference. This part of the road was behind 18th street rather than at the head of it. Rather than eating our weekend bagels on a busy road, we could take them to the park just a couple of minutes away. There were trees, and birds, and the building’s entrance was on a quiet, residential side street. It was perfect.
A year on, we have had no reason to regret our decision. The apartment building is old, but recently refurbished. It’s managed by a company, but we’re not paying over the odds for amenities we’d never use. The management fix things promptly, look after deliveries, and last summer they even hosted an ice-cream social to show their appreciation for their tenants. We also managed to find a good supermarket and a gym that has what we need.
And we’re still enjoying eating our bagels in the park.
This post is the second in a series. Read on: Friends and ‘friending’ – social networks abroad