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Tips and insights for DC area renters, landlords, and real estate watchers.

Landlord Interview: Matt Blocher of JBG

Posted on April 24th, 2012

Matt Blocher is Senior Vice President at The JBG Companies, an active investor, owner and developer in the DC area real estate market.  Prior to joining JBG in 2003, Matt was Director of Marketing at Archstone-Smith.  Urban Igloo has been proud to work with Matt and JBG since our early days, and we were thrilled to sit down and chat with him recently.

The last 3 years have been tumultuous ones for the DC real estate market.  What are the biggest changes you’ve seen over this period in marketing condos and rentals?

Although challenging, the last few years have really provided a great opportunity for those of us in the multi-family industry.  Prospects, whether those looking to purchase or rent, are very savvy and know what they are looking for in their search for a new home.  The challenge, or said differently, the opportunity, for us has been to ensure that our communities stand-out from the intense competition and to show the consumer the value that they are getting for their money.

Matt BlocherHow long do renters typically stay in your properties?

It is hard to generalize, but given the transient nature of the DC market, we typically see approximately 50% of the residences turn each year.  It is also common to have a number of residents that stay in their apartment for many years.

How does marketing condos differ from marketing apartments?

In the Washington, DC area, there is very little difference between marketing a for-sale residence versus marketing an apartment residence.  The finishes and amenities of apartment and condo communities in the area are very comparable, so the product is very similar as well.  As we have done in the past with our condo projects,  we market our apartment communities as an excellent long-term choice for our customers.

What’s the top benefit you get from working with Urban Igloo?

We consistently see great traffic numbers from the Urban Igloo team.  It is safe to say that we view the Urban Igloo team as a strategic partner when it comes to leasing and marketing our residential projects.

What’s your favorite sushi restaurant?

Not a fair question to ask me to pick only one.  Given the fact that it is next door to my office in Chevy Chase, I would say that Meiwah is a great option.

Thanks Matt!

Urban Igloo Expands to Philadelphia

Posted on February 16th, 2012

We recently spoke to Urban Igloo CEO Rick Gersten to learn more about the company’s exciting expansion to Philadelphia.

Why is Urban Igloo expanding?

Our customers tell us that our service is valuable and so we want to expand that service to other markets. Based on what we’ve learned, we have a game plan to replicate this in other cities.

Why Philly?

As Washington is renowned for government, Philly is known for being a growing market of “meds and eds,” meaning it’s a hot spot for the medical and educational industries. These growing sectors offer a wealth of jobs, and thus a great need for housing.

Also, Philadelphia has the second lowest stabilized vacancy rate in the nation for Class A and B properties combined, just behind New York (#1)  and above DC (#3).

Oh, and I love cheesesteaks!

What’s the biggest lesson learned from DC that’s helping you hit the ground in Philadelphia?

This is a business of connecting people and our agents are a critical component to that equation. We’ve learned the importance of hiring people with a passion for real estate and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Where’s your Philly office?

Right now, we are located in Center City in temporary space. As soon as we can find the perfect storefront location, we will make a move!

In what neighborhoods are you seeing the most activity?

I equate Rittenhouse Square to Dupont Circle; everything concentric to it is extremely popular. We’ve also seen a lot of action in the up and coming Northern Liberties area.

What’s your favorite cheesesteak spot? (Be careful!)

Jim’s Steaks, without a doubt.

What’s next for Urban Igloo?

We are going to keep doing what we’re doing and try to do it better.

Landlord Interview: Will Fitzgerald of Equity Residential

Posted on February 12th, 2012

Will Fitzgerald is a Leasing Manager for Equity Residential, where he oversees a luxury building in the Gallery Place/Mt. Vernon Triangle area along Mass Ave.

How long have you been working with Urban Igloo to find renters?

Approximately one year.

The apartment vacancy rate in DC is relatively low and your building is in a highly desirable spot.  Why do you need the help of an apartment finder service?

The vacancy rate is relatively low but that goes hand in hand with the transience of this city. There is constant turnover and always something available or on notice. Like many other buildings in DC, we do have to market through a multitude of mediums. While the internet (ILS’s, Craigslist, property website) is still our largest provider of traffic, getting those extra few leases each month from Urban Igloo clients makes a huge difference – particularly in a smaller building where a couple of move ins can dramatically increase your occupancy! Urban Igloo has also marketed us on the internet and posted videos of our floor plans on youtube.com – which has been incredibly helpful.

Tell us how the process works from your perspective?  What happens when an Urban Igloo renter is interested in your property?

Once an Urban Igloo agent knows their client is interested in our community, the agent will contact me with a detailed description of what their client is looking for. I compare their needs and wants with my availability and let the Urban Igloo agent know what we can do for their client. While we do send Urban Igloo weekly updates on availability, pricing, and any specials, I still appreciate them contacting me before they come in given that anything can change over the course of a couple days.

The Urban Igloo agent will then set an appointment with us for their client, and typically the agent will meet their client here for the tour. I’ve even noticed that the agents will sometimes drive their clients around from property to property as well, showing them the neighborhoods, local shopping, dining, and so forth.

If a client chooses to rent at our community I generally take over from there.

What are the top 3 reasons you continue to partner with Urban Igloo?

They bring in qualified traffic.

Their clients usually already know a good amount about the community before they get here which makes my job much easier.

They are the best locator service in DC.

What else have you found to be effective in attracting renters in this market?

Craigslist and a truly effective property website are important. We also do outreach marketing to local businesses; it’s amazing how effective even a simple phone call can be.

Cleveland Park Listserv’s Bill Adler and Peggy Robin: A DC Neighborhood Expert Interview

Posted on September 13th, 2011

Since 1999, Bill Adler and Peggy Robin have run the Cleveland Park listserv.  With over 11,000 members and hundreds of messages each month, it’s now the largest neighborhood email list in the U.S.  In recent years, Bill and Peggy have launched a companion blog, All Life Is Local.

Thanks for joining us, Bill and Peggy.  Briefly describe Cleveland Park to someone moving to DC who’s looking for the right neighborhood fit.

Cleveland Park is the neighborhood with something for everyone. It’s best known for the large Victorian houses that line the sidestreets of the Cleveland Park Historic District, mainly occupied by families, but there’s also a tremendous variety of apartment buildings – from highrise to garden apartments, in all sizes and price ranges – along our two major avenues, Connecticut and Wisconsin – and all less than 10 minutes from downtown DC on the Metro.

Bill Adler and Peggy Robin

To achieve such a vibrant online community, clearly you two have done a masterful job moderating the listserv.  But the neighborhood must play a role as well.  What is it about Cleveland Park that encourages such passion about local affairs?

Cleveland Park has been a cohesive, activist neighborhood at least since the early 60s, when residents came together to fight a plan to put an interstate highway right through the middle of the neighborhood (about where Reno Road is now). In the late 60s and early 70s neighbors fought off a plan to build a “mini-city” of high rise office buildings in place of an older, charming development of garden apartments (McLean Gardens) and in the 80s the Cleveland Park Historical Society was formed and the Cleveland Park Historic District was created to preserve the turn-of-the-century houses and the 1920s Art Deco storefronts on Connecticut Avenue. When we started the Cleveland Park Listserv in 1999, we drew on some of the existing community groups for our initials members, but almost immediately the listserv started growing by word-of-mouth, and by the end of the first year we had about 1,000 members. Now we have over 11,000 members and we’re growing by 30 to 50 new members a week.

One of the hottest debates on your listserv over the years has been whether to modernize the Giant Food at Wisconsin and Newark – and add retail and residential development around it.  Your last report said it’s moving forward.  What’s the latest?

We learned the latest just the other day that Giant is still searching for a financial partner and that groundbreaking (which was supposed to have started this fall) is now put off until at least the beginning of 2012. We just posted an update on All Life Is Local.

Speaking of local businesses … a couple years ago the Post reported that on Cleveland Park’s main strip 11 of 64 storefronts were vacant.  Why have many restaurants and shops struggled in CP?  Is the business environment improving?

Yes, most if not all of those vacant storefronts are now occupied, but the underlying problem remains: The Cleveland Park commercial strip is hampered by a zoning cap of 25 percent of street frontage by restaurants. This restriction was put into place in the early 90s when it seemed that there was a danger of loss of variety of stores, and that by capping the number of restaurants, it would force landlords to rent to other types of neighborhood-serving businesses. We think in practice it’s been a big flop. The space just sits empty, which isn’t good for anyone. If a restaurant wants to move in badly enough, they have to jump through a lot of hoops to get a variance from the zoning cap. In most cases, they’ve received it, but it does mean a much longer period of vacancy while the hearings drag on and people wait for agencies to hand down decisions.

Over the years what have been the most noteworthy changes or causes that were sparked by the listserv?

There have been a number of causes that got organized on the listserv but the main one has been the neighborhood group in support of the Giant. It got its start when the Cleveland Park Citizens Association came out unexpectedly in opposition to the new Giant. That controversy is still ongoing and continues to make sparks fly on the listserv.  Other issues always good for rousing debate are school expansions, speed bumps, and door-to-door magazine solicitors.

What changes would you like to see in Cleveland Park?

We would very much like to see the 25 percent cap on restaurants taken off the commercial strip on Connecticut Avenue. We can see that it has not worked to increase the variety of businesses in the neighborhood, but has had the opposite effect, of discouraging all kinds of businesses, by giving Cleveland Park a reputation of being a tough place to set up shop. We also would like to see a restoration of the wide sidewalk on the east side of the commercial strip on Connecticut Avenue, which would make the block much more pedestrian-friendly, and allow room for sidewalk cafes. Right now it’s a “service lane” – but mainly a parking strip for short-term shoppers. It’s the only part of Connecticut Avenue with this feature. It’s not needed in other neighborhoods, and we think the block would be so much more walkable without it.

Would the neighborhood need another parking lot if they removed the service lane?

Some of the people who have been looking at the parking question have proposed some creative solutions to get back at least some of the spaces that would be lost, by reconfiguring the spaces that would be left, or making more spaces available in the alley behind the shops, but there is no room for a parking lot. Others have noted that during most times of the day, except for the rush hours and Friday and Saturday nights, parking isn’t difficult at the Park’n’Shop lot, and the metered spaces directly on Connecticut Avenue are usually available. There’s also the argument that the other commercial zones on Connecticut Avenue do well without a service lane; this lane was installed in the 1950s when people were encouraged to drive everywhere. We have a different mindset now, especially when we have the Metro right on the corner.

Please share some of your neighborhood favorites:

Favorite place to get a drink or coffee: Nanny O’Brien’s
Favorite upscale restaurant: Palena
Favorite cheap restaurant or carryout: Vace’s deli
Favorite area to walk around: Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park
Favorite neighborhood hidden gem: Tregaron (the old estate that now houses the Washington International School at 3100 Macomb Street)
Favorite (other) DC blog: DCist

Thanks Bill and Peggy! See you around on the CP listserv and All Life Is Local.

DC Blogger Interview: DCist’s Aaron Morrissey

Posted on July 12th, 2011

Thanks for joining us Aaron!  You wrote for DCist for 3 years before becoming editor-in-chief a year ago.  What topics did you cover?  What were your favorites?

I covered pretty much everything in the years I wrote for DCist before becoming editor, which was perfect preparation for being editor. Plus, that’s one of the best things about the blog — we have so many bright contributors who are versatile and can hop on most any story. As for me, I started out doing some food and music reviews here and there, and then moved on to do the transportation beat for about a year. I also took over editing all our sports coverage and covered D.C. United, and became one of our weekend editors in 2009, which I did until I was promoted. As you can see, there really wasn’t a whole lot I was missing.

Aaron Morrissey of DCist

What story are you most proud of?

Oh, geez, that’s kind of an impossible question. Since I took over as editor, I’ve been most proud of the work that our contributors have done that I’ve been able to lend a helping hand with. I will say that there are definitely moments — off the top of my head, covering Stephen Strasburg’s debut, working on the Obama Inauguration, big news stories like the hostage situation at the Discovery building in Silver Spring or the whole Tea Party thing — that I remember the most, but I think I’m mostly just proud of the consistency, that everyday we’re producing something that people want to read.

You know DC’s hyper-local happenings and trends as well as anyone.  What changes do you see or foresee that would be most interesting to residential renters and landlords?

I think that there are more neighborhoods in the District that people who aren’t necessarily thinking about staying here for the long term are now willing to look at as viable locations to live. And obviously, there’s a trickle-down effect with that: neighborhoods like Historic Anacostia or Brookland or Trinidad, or a corridor like Bladensburg Road NE north of H Street, are seeing a real rejuvenation in the amount of small businesses opening up. Of course, as more people expand their housing horizons, places like 14th Street are only getting more and more popular, as well. D.C. has really been an up-and-coming place now for a few years, and I think that we’re really starting to see some of that growth begin to materialize in very visible ways. Take the streetscape work on H Street, for example.

What are your favorite things about DC?

Personally, I find the District an incredibly manageable place to live. It’s a small city, which is a good thing for me. I know the people, the geography, the business owners, the politics. It’s just familiar. There’s also a magnetism to D.C. — people either seem to fall in love with the place or hate it, and the people that love it stick around, which makes it a great place to be if you’re one of those people. Also: this is, bar none, one of the best cities to run a blog in. It’s so plugged in, people are engaged, residents are so aware of what’s going on at such a hyper-local level that they really keep you on your toes, the city’s embraced Twitter, and so on. It’s just a fantastic city to work in the field I’m in.

What would make you like DC even more?

In terms of infrastructure, I think I want more of the things that have proven to be crowd-pleasers: more Bikeshare, more walkable neighborhoods, more small businesses who truly want to be a part of their neighborhood. On a more conceptual level, I’ve always thought that people in D.C. just need to laugh more, you know? I don’t know, I’ve always felt like locals constantly bemoan Washington’s reputation as a very uptight city, but there’s definitely some truth to that, especially when it comes to topics like development.

Oh, right, and some kind of governmental autonomy from Congress would be great, too, but hey, one thing at a time.

Your Gentrification Bingo post a couple months got a lot of attention.  What was the idea behind that?

I’m a pretty serious guy about our work, but I like to have fun when I can in my writing. The Gentrification Bingo post was just a knee-jerk reaction to a critical mass of, you know, serious talk about the topic. Not everything is life and death — sometimes it’s okay to laugh about things. Otherwise, you just go crazy, buried under the gravity of it all.

Speaking of which … what are the next hot neighborhoods for DC’s youth?

Well, I think that there are far more great neighborhoods in the District than bad ones. But a lot of them are getting progressively too expensive for young people that are coming here, trying to pay off loans or land their first job. I always tell people I know that Columbia Heights is a good starting point for younger people making their first foray into the District — it’s centralized, there’s bars and food, you’ve got DCUSA and lots of transportation options, there’s affordable housing with group houses and there’s a good community vibe there.

Thanks for your insights Aaron!  See you around on DCist.

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Want more DC area blogger interviews?  See last newsletter’s interview with Arlington blogger Scott Brodbeck of ARLnow.

Inside the Igloo: Alexis Rollert

Posted on July 12th, 2011

This is a recent rapid-fire chat with Urban Igloo leasing agent Alexis Rollert.

Where did you grow up?
Chicago, IL and Grand Rapids, MI

Favorite activities when you’re not helping people find apartments?
Travel, the DC Junior League, and volleyball — I played 4 years in college and still play.

Alexis Rollert - rental agent

Favorite sports teams?
Chicago Bears, Redskins, Capitals, and any college basketball!

Favorite books?
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, A Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth GIlbert.

Favorite movies?
Shawshank Redemption, Back to the Future, Steel Magnolias, Dirty Dancing, and Driving Miss Daisy.

Interesting fact that most people don’t know about you?
I got my graduate degree from the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Interesting fact that most people DO know about you?
Half my childhood was spent on a farm and the other half in a major city.

Any pets?
A fabulous little dog named Pepper

Neighborhoods you’ve lived in DC?
Chinatown, Brookland, Cleveland Park, and just moved to Arlington.

Favorite thing about DC?
There is always something new at one of the Smithsonian Museums.

Where would you like to live if you weren’t in DC?
Overseas trying out new countries.

—–

Interested in becoming an Urban Igloo leasing agent?  We’re hiring!

May/June Rent Check Is Out

Posted on May 18th, 2011

Check out the latest issue of Rent Check, our bi-monthly newsletter.  It features our interviews with Scott of ARLnow and agent Evan Housel as well as hot properties in Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom.  Enjoy!

ARLnow’s Scott Brodbeck on Arlington

Posted on May 13th, 2011

Thanks for joining us Scott.  You launched ARLnow less than a year and a half ago, and it’s already one of DC’s most popular blogs.  What motivated you to start blogging about Arlington?

When I started out, there was no other site like this devoted to Arlington. Nobody was offering broad, up-to-the-minute coverage focused just on the Arlington County. I wanted to fill that void.


A lot of our readers are renters who are about to move to DC.  How would you briefly summarize the geography and neighborhoods of Arlington to an outsider?

Courthouse and Clarendon have the most nightlife. In Rosslyn, Crystal City and Ballston, your neighbors across the street will probably be office buildings. The Columbia Pike area is a developing neighborhood where cheap rents can still be had, but you’ll have to take the bus to the nearest Metro stop.  Pentagon City is almost as pricey as Courthouse and Clarendon — it has a mall and a fun strip of retail, but isn’t nearly as much of a nightlife hub.  East Falls Church is quiet and residential.

What part of Arlington do you live in?

Columbia Pike

What are the best things about living there?

It’s cheap, convenient by car, I like watching it develop.

Scott Brodbeck

What hot topics on your blog these days would be of most interest to residential renters and landlords?

Rising rents and pedestrian safety issues.

Please share some of your local favorites:

Favorite bar: Fire Works in Courthouse. Great beer selection!

Favorite restaurant if someone else is paying: Either Liberty Tavern or Eventide

Favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant: Thai Square on Columbia Pike

Favorite part of Arlington to walk around: Clarendon on a warm summer night

Favorite Arlington hidden gem: Lower Arlington Bar and Grill

Favorite (other) DC area blog: Prince of Petworth, DCist and We Love DC

March/April Rent Check

Posted on March 14th, 2011

Check out the latest issue of our bi-monthly newsletter, Rent Check.  It features our recent interview with Andrew Howard on renter’s insurance, as well as properties in Mt. Vernon Triangle and Ballston/Virginia Square.  Enjoy!

Expert Interview: Andrew Howard on Renter’s Insurance

Posted on March 10th, 2011

Thanks joining us, Andrew.  Why should renters get renter’s insurance?

The two main reasons that tenants should obtain renter’s insurance are to protect their personal possessions (property insurance) and to protect themselves against property damage or bodily injury that they may cause to others (personal liability insurance). Furniture, clothing, electronics, and other valuables are assets that most tenants cannot afford to replace if they are damaged or stolen.

Similarly, many tenants are unaware of the financial risk they face if they are found liable for causing damage to their neighbors’ property. We recently managed a claim for a tenant who accidentally left their water running and flooded their own apartment as well as two of their neighbors below. Thankfully, the tenant carried personal property insurance to replace their own damaged belongings, as well as personal liability insurance to pay for the $98,000 in damage they caused.

What is typically covered?

Typical renter’s insurance policies will provide between $25,000-$75,000 worth of personal property, and $500,000 of personal liability coverage. The most common causes of loss to personal property are fire, theft, and water damage. As a renter, personal liability insurance is needed mainly for the risk of damage to other tenants’ property and/or damage to the building itself. As with all insurance policies, coverages are customized for the needs of each particular client.

Do renters need insurance it their landlord already has it?

All renters need to understand that any insurance carried by the landlord most likely will not protect the possessions of tenants. In rare circumstances, the nature of a loss to the building may hold the landlord financially responsible for replacing tenants’ damaged property. Otherwise, per the terms of most lease agreements, tenants are completely on their own if anything happens to their belongings, or if they cause damage to others.

Can a renter share the insurance with their roommates?

Tenants should never assume that their insurance policy can be shared. A typical renter’s insurance policy defines who is covered as the named insured (the tenant name on the policy), and relatives of the named insured. As such, the policy language does not accommodate unrelated roommates. For example, renter’s insurance policies have one limit for personal property- if there is a fire and multiple roommates are attempting to divide up this coverage amount, the claim can become very messy (which is one reason why many insurance companies do not allow policies to be shared by roommates).

I would recommend that tenants check with their insurance company for any flexibility on this point before making improper assumptions. Thankfully, renter’s insurance policies are extremely inexpensive, so risking a coverage denial would not be worth the minimal savings that may be found by trying to “split” a policy.

Do you recommend landlords make renter’s insurance a requirement of the lease?

Absolutely- we strongly encourage all of our landlord clients to not only require their tenants to procure renter’s insurance, but also to increase their ability to enforce this requirement since it is in everyone’s best interest. Renter’s insurance is a typical requirement of most tenant leases today. We explain to landlords that they are just as likely to have damage to their building by “regular” perils such as fire, lightning, storm, etc. as they are to suffer a large loss due to the negligence of a tenant. Today there are many easy-to-use programs for landlords to provide renter’s insurance policies to their new and existing tenants (and track compliance throughout the building).

What key factors should renters pay attention to so they get the right amount of coverage without overpaying?

The main cost driver for renters insurance is the amount of personal property insurance that a tenant selects. For this reason, we urge tenants to take a mental walk around their unit and add up their major belongings, clothes, electronics, etc. and arrive at a sufficient dollar amount of insurance to protect themselves. Again, because the cost is minimal to increase this limit, it is never worth being underinsured.

For personal liability insurance, we never recommend anything less than a $500,000 limit (as obtaining this increased limit equates to only a few dollars per month). Tenants should also tell their insurance company about any specialty items such as jewelry, fine arts, or other collectibles (as most policies often limit or exclude these items from the regular personal property coverage limit).
We highly recommend that each tenant consults with a licensed agent in order to determine their coverage needs, and ensure they understand the value of the policy they are purchasing.

Andrew Howard is Vice President of Howard Insurance Agency, a third-generation property and casualty insurance agency serving companies, families and individuals located in the Washington, DC region and abroad for over sixty years.

Read last newsletter’s interview on DC real estate in 2011 with Grant Montgomery of Delta Associates.