Where We Live


Diplomats Explain Thinking Behind Their Living

Everyone, it seems, has a theory about the real estate industry. Economists, realtors, lenders, sellers, buyers, political pundits — they all debate how skyrocketing foreclosures are impacting the market, when the housing slump will bounce back, whether the government should bail out those in trouble, how gas prices will affect development in suburbia, and the myriad other questions on people’s minds during these uncertain times.

But what does it all mean to a foreign diplomat who’s stationed in the city for a limited amount of time? Or for a family of five that’s rifling through hundreds of neighborhoods to decide which one is best for both the parents and children?

Rather than aggregating the data and delivering a stump story on the latest housing trends, The Washington Diplomat decided to ask a few of our readers about their thoughts on the market — or, if not on market trends, then at least on how they decided where to live.

As it turns out, diplomats in D.C. have much of the same criteria when searching for a home as any other area resident. And, it seems, they’re finding plenty of inventory out there. From a father of four boys to a husband and wife who like to entertain, these foreign residents want convenience and flexibility.

Although most diplomats are given free reign to choose where and how they spend government-provided housing allowances, the majority still opt for short commutes and walk-able communities. So while many permanent U.S. residents are buying up properties as far away as Carroll County, Va., to get more square footage and bigger backyards, their foreign counterparts tend to scoff at the idea of getting some extra space for the price of a four-hour daily commute.

Instead, many are choosing mixed-use developments and high-density neighborhoods where entertainment, schools, daily errands and, most importantly, work are all a stone’s throw — or short drive — away.

At the Embassy of Singapore, employees refer to a collection of Georgetown townhouses that the embassy bought for diplomats as their prime housing option.

“We consider them ‘choice properties’ because they’re downtown, close to the Metro and the embassy,” Mejar Gill Singh, the embassy’s administrative counselor, said of the rent-free townhouses, one of which he and his wife moved into about a year ago.

“We were in Indonesia for six years before coming to D.C., and the considerations were much different there. Security was a primary concern because of the crime level in Jakarta, but in D.C. diplomats are very well taken care of and so it’s more about how far you are to work and where you want your children to go to school.”

Now, Singh and his wife enjoy leisurely evening walks in the nature preserve behind their house and entertaining guests, both locally and from back home. Most important, Singh said, is the fact that he can get to work in less than 10 minutes. And if he feels like walking there, he can do that too.

Singh’s sentiments were echoed by Ricky Ichsan, who handles press and information affairs at the Embassy of Indonesia. “The most important thing we considered when choosing a location for an apartment was how close it was to a Metro station,” he said.

When Ichsan and his wife moved to the area at the beginning of this year, they hoped to find a place that would be big enough to host guests, close enough to Metro to make for easy commutes, developed enough to offer amenities like a swimming pool and gym, and close enough to shopping and dining to make for convenient outings.

It used to be that looking for an apartment or house in the competitive Washington market — especially for people like the Ichsans, who had to be careful not to go over a set budget — meant sacrificing a few desired amenities from the ideal wish list. But slumping prices and an oversupply of rental units means that both tenants and homebuyers have a robust supply from which to choose (Also see: Rental Revivial).

The couple eventually decided on a third-floor unit in the Residences at Congressional Village, a five-minute walk to the Twinbrook Metro station in Rockville, Md.

“The apartment complex is right beside Congressional Plaza shopping area, so my wife can just walk to get our daily needs,” Ichsan said. “At the back of the apartment there is a 7-Eleven in case I need something in the middle of the night. My apartment is on the same level as the garage with the entrance just a few feet from the unit … so it’s like having my own personal garage just [next to] our door.”

On the one hand, the housing subsidies provided to most diplomats during international assignments often mean they don’t have to worry about issues such as risky mortgage loans and falling values that are plaguing the local housing market. But they do offer a snapshot of what’s available, and what trends may be emerging.

When Ulrich Sante, head of the press, information and public diplomacy section of the German Embassy, first started looking for a place with his wife and four boys — ages 6 to 12 — they were hoping to move to Georgetown, but their hopes were short-lived.

“Kids of that age need a yard and space to roam around in the house, and since that’s hard to find in Georgetown — at least not at an affordable price — we looked for something outside [the city],” Sante told The Washington Diplomat.

So the couple joined a number of German expats living in the neighborhood of Potomac, Md., where a nearby German school makes the area especially attractive. The boys also like being close to a neighborhood swim club, Sante and his wife have easy access to nearby tennis courts and golf courses, and shopping for groceries and other necessities are less than a mile away.

The only thing Sante would change about the location, he says, is the commute. Currently, the family has to get on the road before 7 a.m. to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way to the German school that the boys attend just down the road. Then, while his wife crawls through traffic on the way home, the kids start their homework in the car, with a sandwich in one hand and a pencil in the other.

So despite the advantages of suburban living, the traffic factor may entice more people toward urban living, Sante said, although he noted such a trend might not be that bad, especially if it spurs enhancements to community life and cultural development.

“I don’t know if suburbia will be the preferred way to live tomorrow as well, with gas prices rising sharply,” he said. “For Germans, gas still costs only half of what we pay in most of Europe. For Americans, on the other hand, the rise has been dramatic. I dare to believe that part of the solution that will be forced upon us will be to return to living downtown.”

Experts are beginning to cite such predictions themselves, particularly in areas where large homes in far-flung areas are losing their appeal in the face of soaring gas prices. In its August 2008 Short-Term Energy Outlook, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said gas prices will continue to hover around a gallon through the end of 2009.

Stephen Fuller, an economist at George Mason University and an expert on the metropolitan Washington housing market, said in August that escalated gas prices will likely cause area residents to think twice about living farther out from job centers in Washington, D.C. A survey conducted by Coldwell Banker in June corroborates his prediction. The company found that 78 percent of its agents noticed a rising interest in city life spurred by high fuel costs.

And although the number of transit trips taken nationwide reached a 50-year high last year, the rising cost of public transportation also means that more people are looking for central developments built around Metro stops in Maryland and Virginia that combine residential, retail, office and entertainment space for safe, walk-able communities.

What all this means for foreign diplomats and the embassies that house them in the D.C. area is yet to be seen, but it’s clear that already many diplomats are making their own choices much like everyone else, weighing both the market trends and their own needs.

About the Author

Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.