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Flood of singles makes rentals hard to find

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(File photo)

Twenty-two-year-old Lisa Qing, a recent college grad, had two months to find an apartment in D.C. before her new job started.

"I had to be patrolling Craigslist all the time," Qing said. "I would hit refresh every couple minutes -- it was always in the background of whatever I was doing -- because [apartments] would go up and disappear really quickly."

With a budget of between $700 and $900, Qing decided to live with a roommate to save money. Half of the places she saw in her price range were unlivable. And the competition was cutthroat.

Average rent in the Washington region
Year 1-bedroom 2-bedroom 3-bedroom 4-bedroom
2012 $1,328 $1,506 $1,943 $2,542
2009 $1,131 $1,288 $1,647 $2,157
2006 $1,080 $1,225 $1,580 $2,058
Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

"I went to a bunch of open houses and ran into that inherently awkward situation where you show up with five other people who are looking at the same room," she said.

Qing is one of hundreds of renters entering the D.C. market at the very moment that the cost of leasing an apartment has hit a record high.

Rental prices in the Washington area soared by 22 percent over the last six years, from an average $1,225 per month for a two-bedroom unit to $1,506, according to federal estimates. Prices are highest within the District, where two-bedroom units are going for roughly $3,137, according to the rental tracking firm rentbits.

The D.C. region's rental prices are higher than most metro areas because it has so many single-person households, some of the nation's highest salaries and very low vacancy rates. The area also has a high turnover of residents who come and go with their government jobs.

"A lot of people have decided to rent because they haven't been too sure about the security of their jobs," said Bonnie Casper, president of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors.

Compounding all these factors has been a gradual shift away from owning toward renting, starting in 2005, when the housing bubble burst, real estate expert Gregory Leisch said.

As more people ditched their mortgages for leases, developers couldn't keep up with the demand. The 2008 credit crunch made matters worse.

"Developers couldn't get enough money to build large housing units," said Leisch, founder and CEO of Delta Associates, a real-estate research firm in Alexandria. "Housing is a commodity, and when you don't have enough of it, prices rise."

The inventory of houses for sale has also been dropping, making rentals a cheaper option than buying, Casper said.

But prospective renters shouldn't despair: More apartments are slated to open soon, so prices will begin leveling off in late 2012 and early 2013, according to Delta.

A backlog of nearly 12,500 new units is expected to hit the market this year, followed by another 11,000 units in 2013, Delta reported.

The area's low vacancy rate has already started inching up as a result. At the same time, the shift toward renting that defined the last seven years is slowing as people again start buying homes, Leisch said.

But D.C. tenants won't notice much of a difference when the monthly bill comes.

"A 1 or 2 percent decline on an average $1,800 month rent is just not a lot of dollars," Leisch said.