Spring house-buying season starting as single-family home inventory rises

March 28

As the temperature warms and home buyers come out of hibernation, they’ll be looking hard for a home to buy.

The spring buying season, traditionally the busiest time of the year for real estate transactions, was particularly frenzied in 2013 because of the lack of inventory. Real estate agents and buyers are hoping that this year they’ll find more homes available for sale.

“While January and February’s inclement weather exerted downward pressure on new listings and property sales, we’re starting to see the effects of pent-up demand caused by too much D.C. metro area ‘cabin fever,’ ” says Jonathan Hill, president of RealEstate Business Intelligence (RBI), a subsidiary of the Rockville-based multiple listing service MRIS.

February’s inventory showed an improvement compared with last year, according to RBI. Still, single-family listings are rising much more slowly than condo and townhouse inventory. According to RBI, single-family home listings in February rose by just 6.7 percent, compared with townhouse listings, which surged 25.7 percent, and condo listings, which soared 28.9 percent.

“We’re seeing competing contracts at all price ranges, and I think we’ll see more of it this spring,” says Dale Repshas, a realty agent with Long & Foster in Reston. “Today, there are only 30 active listings in Reston, but a loan officer told me that he’s getting one or two requests for loan preapprovals every day, and that’s just one lender.”

Buyers have different priorities depending on the price range in which they’re looking for a home, but Repshas says most prefer to purchase a move-in-ready home rather than a fixer-upper no matter how much they can afford to spend.

Single-family homes under $500,000

Kimberly Rosenfield, a buyer working with agents Susan Berger and Ellen Sandler with Evers & Co., says she’s interested in finding a home in an up-and-coming area of the District that’s close to bus transportation or Metro.

“I’ve been renting for six years and want to find a place with more space in a neighborhood near restaurants, cafes and night life,” Rosenfield says. “I live in Petworth now, and I’ve been looking in Brentwood, Trinidad and Brookland.”

Like many young buyers in their 20s and 30s, Rosenfield is looking for a single-family home with two or three bedrooms and a basement that could potentially be a rental unit.

“I like the idea of owning a place that has the flexibility to rent to a family or as a group house in the future,” Rosenfield says. “I’m finding that homes on the lower end of my price range, in the $300,000s, need a lot of work, and I’m in the process of figuring out where to compromise to get the right home.”

Sandler says that young buyers in the city are looking for a small house with parking in the back, two or three bedrooms and an open kitchen. She says many of them are willing to make an investment in renovations in order to live in a neighborhood convenient to transportation and city amenities.

“You can find single-family homes under $500,000 in neighborhoods like Park View, Manor Park, Eckington, Brentwood and Trinidad,” Berger says. “Sometimes there are homes in the price range in Brookland or Pleasant Plains, but the prices have gone up in those areas and in Petworth and Bloomingdale and Columbia Heights.”

Diane Schline, an agent with Century 21 Redwood Realty in Arlington, says most buyers in Northern Virginia looking for a single-family home priced under $500,000 are first-time buyers who are focused on their need for a particular-size home such as a three-bedroom one for their kids.

“There are fewer options for single-family homes in this price range,” Schline says.

Repshas says some smaller, older single-family homes in Reston that need work are priced under $500,000, but that first-time buyers can find more homes in that price range in Loudoun County.

In Prince George’s County, buyers will find a wider choice of single-family homes priced under $500,000.

“We’re seeing younger buyers in this price range, especially single female buyers, followed by newlywed couples,” says Frank Godfrey, an agent with Keller Williams Preferred Properties in Upper Marlboro. “Some downsizing empty-nesters are selling more expensive homes and moving down into a $350,000 smaller single-family home.”

Godfrey says buyers can find entry-level new homes priced in the $450,000s and resale homes built in the 1970s and 1980s priced under $300,000. Buyers can find single-family homes with one-fourth to one-half acre of land for under $500,000, he says.

“One trend we’re seeing is that buyers who live and work in Northern Virginia are coming across the Wilson Bridge to Fort Washington, where they can find more affordable homes within commuting distance of the Pentagon,” Godfrey says.

Single-family homes priced from $500,000 to $750,000

Berger says that buyers in the city looking in this price range are often young singles, couples and families who want a similar home to buyers in the under-$500,000 range but want to be in Columbia Heights, Park View, 16th Street Heights or Brightwood. She says homes in Shaw and Bloomingdale can be found in this price range. Berger says these buyers pay close attention to each area’s WalkScore — which rates a community’s accessibility to shopping and other services by foot — because they want to be in a convenient area.

“Young buyers in the city aren’t really focused on schools because they plan on moving once they have a family,” Sandler says.

Linda and David Black, clients of Repshas, are empty-nesters who opted to sell their 6,000-square-foot home in Alexandria to move into a 2,500-square-foot home in Reston with a smaller yard.

“We like our wooded lot, and the location is great for my husband’s commute to McLean,” Linda Black says. “Mostly, though, we like the split-level layout because it has fewer stairs.”

The Blacks, who are nearing retirement, sold their home for more than $1 million and paid cash for their purchase so that they could eliminate a mortgage payment.

Schline says most buyers in this price range of move-up buyers who are selling a condo or townhouse are focused on changing their lifestyle.

“Often the move is driven by the need for more space for kids and a yard, but these buyers also sometimes move for a shorter commute,” Schline says. “Entertaining is a huge factor, so they want space to grill, and they’re ready to take on a little more responsibility for a larger place.”

In Prince George’s County, buyers in the $500,000 to $750,000 price range can do very well, says Emerick Peace, an agent with Keller Williams Preferred Properties.

“These are move-up buyers who want a house with luxury features, a place where they can entertain and one that has an open floor plan,” Peace says. “You can get a half-acre or sometimes even two acres of land depending on the location, and you can also find newer homes in this price range.”

The traffic in Prince George’s County is also much lighter than in Northern Virginia, in part because drivers have multiple routes into the city and to Baltimore, Peace says.

Single-family homes priced above $750,000

Schline, the Century 21 agent in Arlington, is a move-up buyer in the upper price range, having recently sold a townhouse in Reston and purchased a single-family home in Arlington for nearly $800,000.

“Our house is actually probably about the same size as the townhouse and needs more updates, but the two most important things to my husband and me are that we have a shorter commute and we have a yard for our 2-year-old,” Schline says. “Those are the priorities most of my clients have in this price range, too.”

Schline says buyers who are upgrading are looking for a quality-of-life choice such as a newer or nicer home or a location with the lifestyle they want. Repshas says buyers in this price range include families and some empty-nesters who want a bigger place where their family can gather.

“Most move-up buyers in this price range are making a lifestyle choice to be near a particular school or to have a view of a golf course or lake,” Repshas says. “If they’re looking around the $750,000 range, they’re usually focused on lifestyle. If they’re looking at $1 million and above, they also want more amenities inside the house.”

In the city, Berger says young families looking for a little more space are choosing to move to neighborhoods near the Maryland border if they have $750,000 or $1 million to spend, such as A.U. Park, Chevy Chase, Palisades, Kent and North Cleveland Park.

Living downtown works great for young people and couples with babies, but at some point when the children are a little bigger, many families opt to move farther from downtown to a more “kid-centric” neighborhood, Sandler says.

“The priorities for young couples looking in Bethesda and Potomac at homes priced at $750,000 and up are to move out of the urban environment into something with more space and good schools,” says Erin Deric, an agent with Real Living at Home in Chevy Chase. “They want an open floor plan with a kitchen open to the family room and a big master bedroom closet.”

Deric says that young couples she works with are leaving Capitol Hill to go to Bethesda or the Kentlands. If they want more land, they’re likely to look in Potomac, she says.

“These buyers check to see which school district every home is in because that, plus the need for a yard or extra space, is what drives them to move,” Deric says.

Since the recession, buyers of homes above $750,000 disappeared for a while in Prince George’s County, but now this market is making a comeback, says Mark Ellington, an agent with Keller Williams Preferred Properties.

“Buyers in this price range have attained certain financial goals, and they’re ready for more land, more luxury and more home features,” Ellington says. “We’re seeing more custom homes built in this price range, and buyers can find luxury homes in places like Woodmore and Woodmore North. In Bethesda, $1.4 million would get you a renovated older home on a small lot, but in Upper Marlboro that buys you a luxurious newer home with land in a gated community less than 25 minutes from downtown D.C.”

Location drives a lot of real estate decisions in the D.C. area for single-family buyers, along with the price, amenities and lifestyle of the community.

Michele Lerner is a freelance writer.

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