What is it Like Living in Washington DC?
You got a job offer and you’ve been told you have to move to Washington DC. Congratulations!
Are you wondering what life is like living in the nation’s capital? What about life in the Maryland or Northern Virginia suburbs? If you are planning to move to the Washington DC area, there are several major factors to consider with respect to the lifestyle. Location, commuting times, weather, shopping, schools, and taxes – there’s a lot to learn. We’ll review the pros and cons of living in Washington DC.
Pros and Cons of Living in DC
There is a lot to love about Washington, DC. First, to be clear, when we talk about DC, we are generally talking about the whole metro area which includes not just DC, but the surrounding areas of Maryland, and Virginia as well.
DC actually lies alongside two different rivers. The Anacostia River bisects part of DC, and the Potomac River separates DC from the rest of Virginia.
Benefits of Living in Washington DC
The weather here is a lot milder compared to say, places further north which have longer and colder winters. You still get all four seasons here, which is kind of awesome, but the winters are not bitter cold. For the most part, extremes in temperature is rare. It’s not very common to get into single-digit degrees in winter, and while there are summer days where the temperatures exceed 100 degrees, it’s not for weeks on end.
The DC area is served by three major airports. Dulles Airport is in Virginia, about an hour west of the city, and has international flights. There is Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, which is within minutes from downtown DC, just over the Potomac River. And there is also BWI, which is Baltimore International Airport. BWI is an often cheaper alternative Dulles and one to consider when planning travel as you can fly international from here.
Another great thing about life in DC is that you can actually get to the beaches in two to three hours. Many DC metro area residents will head to the Delaware and Maryland beaches like Rehoboth Beach or Ocean City. You can get to the outer banks in North Carolina in four to five hours, and if beaches and warm weather aren’t your thing, there’s plenty of skiing within a couple hours of DC. Location serves a Washington DC Lifestyle well – travel for work or play, plus several getaways within a couple hours.
Pro: Top Ranked Schools
The DC Area is home to several high-ranking school districts in the country. If you have kids, the school experience is very international and diverse which many cite as one of the top benefits of living in the DC area. While DC proper has some great schools, overall the public schools inside the city are not heralded for supreme excellence. Surrounding jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia are where you will find school districts that rank on national lists.
DC has public schools and public charter schools. There’s a complicated lottery process to gain admission. Generally speaking, with public school, your child is guaranteed a seat if you’re in-boundary for K through 12. It’s when you want a Pre-K spot, a public charter or a school that’s not in your neighborhood boundary that the lottery applies. I have a separate video & blog post on the DC School Lottery Process.
In Maryland and Virginia things are a little bit different. Living in an actual state, you are taxed by multiple jurisdictions – town/city/county. So, there are higher property taxes that are charged to each individual homeowner. Virginia and Maryland property taxes run in some cases $1.10 to $1.20 a mil. There’s a whole lot more money funneling into their systems and the schools are potentially better funded. It depends who you ask. Many would argue that the schools are more efficient and more competitive in Maryland and Virginia. Fairfax County, Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland have some of the highest ranking high schools in the country, and they’ve often been known to make top lists.
DC Property Taxes are 86 cents per mil, less a homestead deduction, and that’s the only jurisdiction you pay.
Pro: DC is a Destination
It’s important to mention the lifestyle here in DC. This is the capital of the US and all the politics involved with running our government happens here. A lot of conversations when I used to go out to restaurants and bars would be centered on what happened on “The Hill.: That’s Capitol Hill for those not up on the DC Lingo. This has not necessarily changed, but that’s not the only thing that happens in Washington DC. The city has evolved from a stuffy political town to a place people want to be.
There are a ton of good restaurants here, a lot of famous chefs who have opened restaurants in DC, and there are all kinds of ethnic foods available. My personal favorite is Ethiopian. If I ever left DC, I don’t know what I would do because I’ve eaten at all the Ethiopian restaurants, they’re all delicious.
You’re not going to be hurting for any places to shop here. DC has everything on the high end. There’s City Center in DC, which has a lot of high end stores, as well as Bethesda, and Chevy Chase in Maryland. If you’re moving from New York or from San Francisco, or LA, you’re not going to miss out on anything that you had in those cities that you would want for here.
Pro: Career Opportunities
This is the nation’s capital, and as such, a lot happens here. You may move here for one job but odds are, you’ll find another that’s an improvement over what you moved here for to begin with. There are plenty of government jobs with the associated agencies, related business for government contractors as well as tech, health care, service, hospitality industries that thrive here. As we’ll learn next when we discuss traffic, not everyone working in DC commutes to downtown. There are employment areas scattered all over the DC metro area.
Pro: Free Museums
What??? You get something for free? Sure do! Your tax dollars at work, there are many Smithsonian Museums, many centered on the National Mall which are free. Take a walk through American History, Native American History, African American History, Air and Space, see our founding documents – there’s a lot to do for zero dollars. Yes. Zero.
Disadvantages of Life in Washington DC
Life in Washington DC has a lot to offer but not everything is sunshine and rainbows.
I know! I had it on the list of pros! But there’s a downside to the weather here. If you’re a seasonal allergy sufferer, this isn’t a great city in which to live. Most people suffer from allergies here for several months because of the heavy pollen. Definitely stock up on your allergy meds when you move here.
Con: Terrible Traffic
The rumors are true. We have some pretty hellacious traffic here. If you live in Maryland and you don’t work in Maryland, your commute will not be fun. Almost all routes to DC and Virginia will be backed up with traffic from as early as 6:00 AM. Many people choose to park at one of the Metro stations and ride into the city.
Traffic patterns are similar in Virginia. Traffic coming from the south side, heading north on I-95 into the city is heavy and constant. The train (the VRE) is an option from this area south of the beltway (495.) On the west side suburbs though, there are some accessible Metros lines but a lot of people drive into the city. Heading east into DC in the morning means the sun is in your eyes the whole way. When you head west to go back home, the sun is setting and it is also in your eyes.
Employment areas are scattered all over the city. So, while many commuters head downtown, another mass of commuters head to Tyson’s corner in Virginia. Once Amazon is up and running, there will be another mass of commuters heading to Arlington. If you’re one of the lucky ones and you figured out where to live in DC, you may not experience a tough commute. But I remember when I lived in DC and I worked out in Maryland, people used to say, “Oh. That’s a reverse commute.” No. There’s no such thing. Because the problem is that they close a bunch of roads to make them all one way coming into DC in the morning to bring the traffic in.
Commuting within the city is done on foot, by bicycle, by scooter, bus or Metro.
Cons: High Cost of Living
If you’re moving to Washington DC from anywhere besides New York City or California, you will probably be shocked at the prices of, well, everything. I have covered the cost of living in Washington DC in other articles, so definitely check those out to read about the prices in more detail. Most of the statistic in those posts came from Numbeo as well as our local MLS, Bright.
Other Tips About Living in the DC Area
These tips don’t necessarily fall into the pros and cons list, but just provide more information.
Choose the Right Neighborhood
Finding the right neighborhood with your “people,” especially if you’re moving from somewhere else, is going to help you settle in much more comfortably. I have created several neighborhood guides which may assist, but determining if you’re looking for something close to work so you can avoid bad commutes, or with a great nightlife or something family-friendly is going to serve you well on your house hunt. I always suggest to visit the neighborhoods and eat lunch there, walk around and see how it feels.
Learn About the Metro Routes and Schedules
Many years ago, people needed to be right on top of a metro station. As the city has grown and neighborhoods have redeveloped, and it was reported about the consistent problems that plague the metro, home buyers would cite living near a bus station as equally important. The access to public transportation is high on the list for many house hunters.
What it is Like to Live in DC: Final Thoughts
A good friend of mine used to say, “DC is a city full of frustrated ex-class presidents.” If you live here and are immersed in the DC Political landscape, you may not mind. But if not,
Should I Move to Washington DC?
If you’re relocating to Washington DC, it can be a bit of a shock depending on what your current hometown is like. People make a great living here, but the corresponding cost of living is also high to match the salary you will make. There are lots of opportunities you can take advantage of when you’re living in DC, in many capacities – career, travel, culture. Determine your priority in what you want for your home life. Focusing your home search on quality of your family life issues is most important. Need great schools or a short commute? Make that your priority and work around the other factors.
If you need help navigating your way around the pros and cons of the Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia Real Estate markets, I’m happy to help!
Looking for help. Trying to move to the area for an early January start, but coming from AZ. Understanding traffic is miserable our initial thoughts for finding an affordable house is going towards Manassas with a commute into Tysons Corner. Let me know if we are off base. Thank you!
Hi Elliott! I just sent you an email message, I’ll be happy to help!