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How to Survive Relocating to the D.C. Metro Area

Updated on January 23, 2016

The White House


If I Had Known Then What I Know Now....

My husband and I relocated to northern Virginia in the Spring of 2007 when he was assigned here with the military. In addition to being newcomers we were also newlyweds. To say it was a huge culture shock would be an understatement! I am a Southern girl, born and raised in north central Alabama, where life is slow, the people are friendly, and the weather hot and humid. My husband, on the other hand, was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY so adjustment to this area was not as difficult for him. I had no idea prior to coming here what I was really in for. I was too busy with the details of the wedding, the honeymoon, and the upcoming move to consider just how different life would be in a large, congested, urban area.

Several years after coming here, other individuals and couples we knew were transferred to this area, also. All of them had questions about the very issues I am writing about in this lens. I found myself saying to quite a few other newcomers, "If I known about this when we came here..." So I was inspired to share some of the survival tips I gained through my experience of moving to a large metropolitan area for the first time. My hope is the knowledge and information you will find in this lens will make for a smoother relocation process to northern Virginia, or other similar location.

What Are They Talking About? - Learning the Local Lingo

A major hurdle to overcome once arriving here is figuring out the shorthand lingo everyone uses to refer to the numerous highways and neighborhoods. For this purpose I am providing a list of these terms and their meanings to make it easier to understand and to use.

Although some of the terms I listed are pretty easy to figure out, others were a mystery to us for awhile. I cannot tell you how much easier it was for us to "get" what people were talking about once we learned what these terms meant. For example, comprehending the local traffic reports was, by far, much easier once I understood the lingo.

Because I mentioned interstates and roadways in my list of terms, I should take this opportunity to recommend that you purchase a GPS, or download a navigation app to your smartphone, iPad, or tablet. It was suggested to us by several people to consider purchasing a GPS prior to moving, but we did not listen. That was a huge mistake. The fact is, you will get lost often, especially in the beginning. Having one of these available to us would have made our transition much smoother and less stressful. Trying to drive here is challenging enough; you do not need the added stress of attempting to read directions or a map when you are in an unfamiliar place. We still use our navigation apps on a regular basis when traveling to unfamiliar places, and we have been here for several years!

  • The DMV: includes the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia and is used frequently by those in the media to refer to the entire metro area.
  • The Beltway: refers to interstate 495 which encircles the DMV and is heavily traveled by commuters daily. All interstate highways with 3-digit numbers that begin with an even number are loops around cities.
  • The Spur: references interstate 395 which is a straight shot into Washington D.C. from the Virginia side and is also jammed with commuters everyday. All interstate highways with 3-digit numbers that begin with an odd number are spurs into and out of a city.
  • Hot Lanes: Special lanes of traffic on the beltway, similar to HOV lanes, but you are charged a toll if you use them.
  • The District: another way of saying Washingtion D.C.
  • The NCR: stands for the National Capital Region; fancy way of saying DMV.
  • The Hill: refers to Capitol Hill, and you will hear many people use this when speaking about that area.
  • Slugging: carpooling with people you do not know.
  • The Post: refers to the Washington Post, which is one of the two main newspapers in D.C.
  • Metro: refers to the transit system.

Fall in Northern Virginia


Deciding Where to Live

Should You Rent or Buy? Suburbs or Urban?

At the top of most to do lists when relocating is finding a new place to live. The decision to rent or buy can depend greatly on how long you expect to be here. If you are here on a temporary basis, as many of those in the military and government service are, then you may opt to rent. If you plan move here permanently or have a family, then purchasing a home might be a better choice. As always, the next biggest variable influencing this decision is cost. It is no secret that housing costs are exorbitant in the DMV; and the closer to the district you want to live, the more you will pay. If you prefer a bustling urban location, then expect higher prices for smaller homes, condominiums, town homes, and apartments. If you prefer a suburban setting, the towns and communities farther outside the beltway will most likely be to your liking. The farther you are from the District, the more house you will get for your money, because the cost decreases while square footage increases.

On the flip side, another consideration is length of your commute. If you work in or close to D.C., as many people do, then you will most likely spend a large amount of your day and budget on your commute. I knew there would be more traffic before moving here, but I was not prepared for the gridlock I would have to navigate through each day. The traffic problems of our region are well known to most of the nation and must be taken into account when deciding on where to live. Many people commute by car one to two hours and more to and from work each day. Others drive part way and then take the subway to their workplaces. If you live closer to your workplace, you may be able to walk or bike to work, or take the bus or the subway, therefore cutting the cost of the commute. The good news is the DMV is extraordinarily pedestrian, bike, scooter, and Segway friendly! You can even rent bikes right on the street via the Capital Bikeshare Program. On the downside, parking in and around the District is hard to come by, and extremely expensive, so most people opt to use the Metro transit system.

I recommend anyone planning to relocate anywhere in DC, Maryland, or Virginia, research the communities you are most interested in online well in advance of your anticipated move. Then, if possible, make a trip to these particular areas in order to scout them out for yourself. By doing some reconnaissance, you will be able to view the neighborhoods firsthand and evaluate whether the location will work for you or not. Finally, you have to weigh all the following factors, location, cost, and commute time before you make this decision. Everyone has differing priorities and preferences when it comes to choosing a new place to call home, and what works for some will not work for others. Thankfully, there are many great communities to choose from and new apartments, condos, and homes are being built all the time. It comes down to how much you want to pay, and how far you are willing to commute to and from home everyday.

You can checkout Capital Bikeshare by clicking here:

When relocating to a new city is it normal to go through a period of adjustment?

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Do you prefer the big city or love the country life?

Big city

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  • Tracy Arizmendi 3 years ago from Northern Virginia

    @MariaMontgomery: I understand and thanks for commenting. Luckily for us here in NOVA (Northern VA) we have lots of nature trails great for biking and walking and there are quiet a few parks. Also, it is not that far to Great Falls Park which is said to be beautiful. We are only about 2-4 hours from the Blue Ridge Mtns as well. Thanks for coming by my lens!!!

  • MariaMontgomery 3 years ago from Central Florida, USA

    I enjoy the convenience of being close to coffee shops, restaurants, etc., but I love being close to nature. I guess that's why I'll always be stuck in the 'burbs.

  • Colonel2013 3 years ago

    I love the energy of a larger city as well as the many things to do.

Love the country

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The U.S. Capitol


Get Out and Learn About Your New Hometown

Explore the area

One of the best ways to learn your way around any new place is to simply get out and explore. In short, get lost on a day when you have time to wander about neighborhoods. My husband and I found some of our favorite restaurants and shops in this manner. By getting out and examining your surroundings, you become more and more comfortable with street names, locations of landmarks, and neighborhoods. This will help you have a reference point for places in the future when you need to drive there or while in conversation with others.

There are great places like Old Town Alexandria which are perfect for exploring by walking or biking. Once, while in Old Town, we became disoriented and could not remember on what street we had parked. In the midst of trying to regain our bearings, we stumbled across an entire street of cool shops, art galleries, and restaurants we never would have come across otherwise. We did eventually find our way back to our car, by the way! There are many, many more neighborhoods just like this around the DMV. Here are a few: Georgetown, Shrilington, Pentagon Row, U Street, Chinatown, and the National Harbor. So, pick a particular location you want to learn more about, and make a day of it! Who knows, you just might happen up on your new "favorite place" like we did!

Winter in Northern Virginia


Expect to Experience a Period of Adjustment

Embrace the differences

Moving to a new city and leaving the comfort of all you are familiar with is difficult for everyone. I will freely admit that, in the beginning, I really did not like it here very much at all. So many things were so drastically different and I found it all overwhelming: the weather, the traffic, the noise of the city, the dense population, and the frantic pace, just to name a few. I recall thinking, "Will I ever feel at home here?" It took about a year before I truly felt like this was home. As time went by, I learned the majority of individuals living here were also "transplants" like us, and were assigned here because of their careers. Because this is so common, it has led to a largely transient population which, coupled with the fast pace of life, causes folks to seem cool and impersonal. This was very much unlike what I was accustomed to back home, where everyone is friendly and quick to strike up a conversation even with a virtual stranger. I later learned this could not be further from the truth, and discovered there are very warm and genuine people here. It just takes much longer to get to know them because everyone is so busy!

Over time I adjusted to these changes and accepted this new way of life. So if you have moved or are planning to, expect to go to through a period of adjustment which could last as long as a year. It is all completely normal and within reason. After several years here, one day I found myself rushing about, trying to get from one place to another in an attempt to accomplish too much in a short period of time. I was so very annoyed because someone was taking too long in the checkout line in front of me, and I was thinking, "For goodness sake, just hurry up!". Like a bolt of lighting, I realized I had become caught up in the frantic pace of life here. I remember thinking to myself, "Oh no! I have become one of those people!" From that moment on, I decided that, when those moments happened, I would make a concerted effort to slow down, take a breath, smile, decompress, and to "stop and smell the roses".

As I have previously stated, I noticed right away the many differences between my new home and my former home. However, the longer I was here, the more I began to embrace these differences and all they offered, such as the wonderfully diverse population. This diversity is one of the great things about living here, and because of it we have a plethora, of authentic restaurants, shops, and other businesses available just around the corner. For instance, we live in a predominantly Asian neighborhood and are within walking distance of one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in the DMV. We also have several Asian markets only blocks away all of which serve traditional cuisine. Being lovers of Asian cuisine, both my husband I were ecstatic when we saw these places in the neighborhood!

I can truly say this place is home to us now, and we both have come to appreciate all it has to offer, and to tolerate those aspects we do not like. There are so many things to do, places to see, and festivals going on all the time we try to make time to take advantage of the opportunities every chance we get. One day, when we must leave for our next destination we know we will deeply miss this crazy busy place!

Thanks for stopping by my lens! Please share your comments and thoughts with me here!

Have you relocated to a large metro area? What was your experience like?

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      Tracy Arizmendi 3 years ago from Northern Virginia

      @Skipsmom: Thank you for dropping by my lens! I am pleased you enjoyed the lens. Many thanks for the comment and squid like.

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      Skipsmom 3 years ago

      Great article not only for people relocating but also for visitors to the DC area!! Answered a lot of questions people wouldn't have thought about!!

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      Tracy Arizmendi 3 years ago from Northern Virginia

      @paulahite: Hi! Many thanks for the squid like and comment!!! I am thrilled to learn how much you liked the lens. I must start off by telling you up front I am also a tumblr newbie. I just started my blog yesterday, but I will definitely help you out. I was playing around with my dashboard on tumblr and clicked on the option for photo and up came this blank square. You click to add an existing photo from your computer. It has the link sign in the top right hand corner once your pic loads. Click the link sign (looks like the infinity symbol) and then insert the url for your lens. You can add text at the bottom if you want to and then click post. There are options to schedule posts for a later time or save as a draft I think. I hope this helped. I am trying to figure out how to post my lenses to the squidoo page. Do you have any tips on that?

    • paulahite profile image

      Paula Hite 3 years ago from Virginia

      Hi Tracy! I'm just learning how to set up our new Tumblr page, and I saw your post for this lens. (Brilliant lens BTW). I wondered if you could explain to me how you add your photo and have it link directly back to your lens. I've been using the photo module and the photo URL from whatever lens I"m working with, and then adding text that links back to the lens. Any insight would be so appreciated! Thanks!

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      Tracy Arizmendi 3 years ago from Northern Virginia

      Thanks for commenting and for the Squidlike! So pleased the you found the article informative!

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      Colonel2013 3 years ago

      You have some really useful information here!