Moving to the DC Area With Family
Job orders arrived and you’re moving to the Nation’s Capital! Hooray! Except you just looked at those kiddos of yours and thought, “Oh no, what will life be like for them?’
First, take a deep breath. I’ve raised my kids here. We actually live in DC in a residential area, and it’s not all downtown city living here.
Second, if city life isn’t for you, I have great news. Maryland and Virginia both have suburbs that are close to the city that offer a range of lifestyles from urban and city vibes to more suburban and even rural areas. And bonus, much of Northern Virgina and to a lesser extent, Maryland, have several employment areas so you may not even need to commute to downtown DC.
Let’s start with DC proper. Yes, people actually do live in the city. DC offers everything from city living where it’s densely populated with condos and a few houses (we call them rowhomes) scattered around to more residential neighborhoods. Kids can play in streets or alleys without fear of being run down by cars and buses in many of these neighborhoods.
Having mentioned rowhomes, it’s worth describing what a rowhome is. It’s basically a townhome built before the Homeowner’s Association came to life. This is what homes were called when they were built in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in DC. You will find rowhomes in the neighborhoods closer to downtown and they work well for families. They don’t have a monthly fee like you might see in a townhome community. Everyone is responsible for maintaining their own yards and the sidewalk and strip of grass in front of their home should there be one.
Rowhomes are usually 3 or 4 levels and can have as much as 4000 sf, though that is not the norm. You will see these larger homes in areas like Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, and Woodley Park. I live in Glover Park and we have more moderate style rowhomes here which have between 1400 to 2200 square feet.
Neighborhoods like AU Park and Brookland have more single family homes. They are further from downtown and as such have larger lots. You can get a driveway, garage or large backyard in these neighborhoods.
If you don’t want or can’t get a home with a yard, don’t worry. There are tons of neighborhood parks and schools where your kids can play on the weekend.
Because this is a city, there are a multitude of school options. There is a school lottery. If you want to go to your in-boundary school for Kindergarten through 12th grade, you don’t need to do the lottery. If you want to go to a charter school, a school outside your boundary area, or attend or Pre-K, you must enter the lottery. Pre-K is free in DC. Some schools offer starting at 3rd grade, some at 4th.
Some neighborhoods in DC have excellent public elementary schools and as a result have a high percentage of in-boundary kids. Others do not. We can dive deeper into the why and how in a conversation more tailored to your individual situation, but just know that there are options.
All the demographic and in/out of boundary info is also on DCPS’s website. Some schools only have 30% of their students in-boundary, and some have 88-90% in boundary. Why is this important? Because house value can be tied to the schools. In the suburbs we will see that it definitely is. There isn’t as strong a correlation of value and school boundary in DC since we do have a lottery and there are always choices.
Maybe you want more space or a single-family house that isn’t attached to the neighbors. If that’s the case, then you may wonder how Virginia fares for family life.
There are the very close areas of the DC Suburbs in Virginia such as Arlington, the City of Alexandria and the eastern parts of Fairfax like McLean and Falls Church. Then there is the rest of Fairfax County as well as Prince William and Loudoun counties. People also live farther than this if they only commute to DC once a week or less and if they want a horse farm or larger property.
Arlington and Alexandria offer a more urban style of living. They aren’t quite the city, but it’s not all residential suburbs either. The northern part of Arlington is also much different than the southern part and the housing options are so varied. You can get a larger single-family home with lots of space and land on which to spread out, or you can live in a more densely populated part of Arlington like Clarendon where retail and restaurants are just outside your door.
People are drawn to Arlington because of the proximity to DC and the Northern Virginia business areas like Tyson’s. The schools have historically been great and score well but the school district did lose a lot of students to private schools during and post-pandemic. There are also reports that children with learning disabilities don’t receive the support they should, but I hear that it takes a lot of advocating to get services in most districts.
Alexandria is also comprised of different neighborhoods with different vibes. The City of Alexandria has not had as highly ranked schools so often the families I work with either have kids who are home-schooled and they don’t need to utilize the public schools or their kids are finished with high school. There’s been a lot of change in the city schools and a new Superintendent is in place but whether change comes and how swiftly it does is still a work in progress.
If you want to live in Fairfax, you will be greeted with towns and neighborhoods with all personalities. Fairfax is mostly your residential suburb, there’s very little here that has a city-feel unless you’re in Tyson’s and very few places that one would call rural or agricultural.
The school district is one that families target because Fairfax County has one of the top school districts in the country. Different areas of the county have different school scores. Most of Fairfax County schools have pretty robust sports programs at the high school level as well as a variety of academics such as Honors, AP and IB offerings. They have Blue Ribbon Schools in the County, but there are only about seven of them in Fairfax County. Blue Ribbon is a designation for schools with high academic excellence or who have closed learning gaps in subgroups of students.
There is a relatively new Superintendent for Fairfax County who began in 2022. There are some concerns about her ability as a leader that mostly seem to affect staff relations, and there has been a bit of an exodus of staff to surrounding school districts. The School Board is up for election this fall, so stay tuned here.
The downsides in Fairfax, like in some other school districts in the area, is that there has been inadequate support for special education. Parents have sued over Fairfax County failing to provide students with IEP’s and 504’s the support they need, so something to keep in mind here as well. And you may recall the news from Spring, 2023, when winners of the National Merit Award were never notified. This information would have been critical for those college applications, and this resulted in a lawsuit as well.
I’m mostly going to focus on Montgomery County for this conversation. Bethesda is an urban/suburban area and Silver Spring has a downtown which feels more like a city at times than parts of DC. Once you pass Bethesda heading north, it becomes suburban right away, and then in northern Montgomery County it can even feel rural in some places.
You will be able to find any type of living situation here that you could want. Generally people move to Montgomery County to get more space, and more affordable housing when compared to Virginia. Maryland has less employment centers and more regulation on growth and density. These are your true bedroom communities here.
When families leave DC to move to Montgomery County, they do so for schools and sports opportunities. Montgomery County spends almost half its budget on schools and it’s well-deserved as over 86% of the teachers have a master’s degree or beyond. The district has 39 Blue Ribbon Schools.
There are consortia where high schools are grouped together and if you live in that boundary you have a choice of high school to attend. Some schools are more career and tech focused, others are more academic with AP and IB programs.
The county is large and spread out, and there are opportunities for students to attend other schools in the county that may serve their needs as well. Montgomery County Schools are considered as highly regarded as Fairfax on the Virginia side and have many of the top ranked High Schools in Maryland are in Montgomery County.
The type of lifestyle you are looking for combined with the price point and commute are the relevant pieces of information needed to zone in on which area makes the most sense. There are options on both side of the Potomac as well as in DC that serve almost all families well. Once we have a conversation about your specific needs and wants, and learn more about anything specific that the kiddos need, it will make it much easier to put a plan together of where to focus the search and find your home.