Washington D.C. is one of our nation’s three “big ego” cities, up there with New York and L.A. The town’s main industry is legislation (tourism is a close second), which means that an entire cluster of service industries exist to help the people with the largest egos feel like they’re still the biggest. The District is a city populated by people who have no real representation in Congress (!) and whose city budget is legislated by the Federal Government’s budget (which is chosen by out-of-towners!). All of the congressmen, lobbyists, and lawyers believe that the city exists to serve them, and by and large, they’re right. The District itself is mostly poor neighborhoods; just outside its borders are some of the wealthiest white-flight suburbs in the country. Homes of any appreciable size in nice neighborhoods are unaffordable by all but the very wealthy. You’ll almost certainly be renting, and you won’t get nearly the square footage you’d expect.
The ego effect comes out in people’s public manner: the higher up people think they are on the food chain, the less likely they are to deign to talk to you. It comes out in the driving: your car is just an obstacle between them and their very important job. D.C. drivers do not understand that following distance can eliminate gridlock. In the same way that Americans in rural areas with confusing and non-orthogonal roads tend to talk about the best route somewhere, DC natives tend to talk about how to avoid traffic. It’s the communal headache.
Try to pick your location so that your commute is either (a) on the Metro or (b) “against” the flow of traffic. That means learning The Beltway. The Beltway is a loop of interstate, and a horribly inefficient way to bypass the city. Since I-495 East eventually turns South and then West, it makes more sense to call the Beltway’s two directions the “Inner Loop” and “Outer Loop.” Traffic flows from major highways into the city in the mornings (I-66, I-95, I-270, I-295) and tends to flow asymmetrically. For example, from I-95 until just past I-270, the Outer Loop is a mess in the mornings (and the Inner Loop at night). So if your job is down around the southwest side of the Beltway, then you want to live further south of it. If you attend College Park, look for housing that doesn’t require you to take the Outer Loop to classes. If you are at Georgetown or GWU, avoid the George Washington Parkway. And so on.
Alright, some notes on housing: I rent a two-bedroom, 1100 sq. ft. apartment in a nice neighborhood for about $1200/mo. I remember the sticker shock well, because in Dayton, I got the same thing for $600/mo. including utilities, in an upscale neighborhood, with a view of a golf course. My new place is less than a mile from two major commuter routes, right next to a Metrobus stop, and cozy. I consider it a nice neighborhood, but apparently the fact that it’s not a “white” neighborhood scared a lot of “desirable renters” (that’s code for white folk) away and knocked down the demand and the price. If you don’t mind your neighbors speaking Senegalese, French, Cuban Spanish, or Laotian (and also don’t mind the occasionally pungent smells of various spicy dishes cooked on Weber grills) you can find pretty good housing for a pretty good deal. Expect to pay extra for pets, as much as $200/mo., because the owners know you won’t get rid of the cats, and they know you need a roof.
It’s not as bad as I make it sound, but I don’t want you to be horrified when you settle in. Plan ahead, and be careful about not choosing a miserable commute, and you should be fine.