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Higher Prices, Tougher Choices

Smaller Houses, Farther Out Are Frequent Compromises

By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page H01

Sharon and Edward Virag had a clear vision of the house they wanted to buy when they moved here from Phoenix.

They dreamed of an older red-brick Colonial with black shutters. They didn't want to live too far out -- Fairfax Station was as far from the District as they planned to go. And they wanted at least a half-acre of land.

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To get that, they were willing to pay from $650,000 to $800,000.

As it turned out, they got none of the above. They paid $900,000 for a newer, more modern-style house on less than a third of an acre farther out, in Chantilly. They bought the house after seeing it only once, at night.

And they're ecstatic.

The Virags aren't that unusual. With house prices soaring throughout the Washington area, finding a new place to live often involves a series of difficult choices. Many would-be homeowners venture into the market with well-considered wish lists, only to find themselves crossing off one desire after another.

Buying a home has always involved some compromises. The reality of what's for sale at any time has always forced buyers to accept, in order to get. But in today's frenzied atmosphere, the pressure to compromise may have reached new levels. Buyers must adjust their expectations quickly -- on price, location, condition, style, size and a host of other seeming must-haves -- or forget it.

"It got pretty comical at the end," Sharon Virag said. "You compromise and compromise and compromise and then you see a house that has none of the things you wanted. But it's nice, it's still standing, and it has the number of bedrooms you want, so you go for it. But then you get outbid. It wasn't even the house you wanted and you couldn't have it."

And lower-income or middle-income families aren't the only ones facing this situation, real estate agents say. Although having more money obviously means having more options, it doesn't necessarily mean getting everything you want.

"The hardest job a real estate broker in Washington has today is showing buyers what they're not going to get," said Jean Smith, an agent for Re/Max Allegiance in Georgetown. "And it's true in every price range. There's not much there and there's not much good there. Nobody gets what they want, even in the multimillion-dollar range."

Robyn Burdett of the Re/Max Allegiance office in Fairfax, said: "Every single person out there is having to figure out something they're willing to give up."

Price is the most difficult compromise, and at the same time, the one that probably comes up most often.

"The key factor you can't deviate from is what you can afford," said Peggy Parker, an agent with Keller Williams Realty in Arlington. "If you can't afford it, you can't afford it. So we always start with price range. Here's what you can get in your price range is the first thing to show a buyer."

But buyers routinely stretch to pay more than they originally planned to satisfy other desires. Bryan Sims and his family, who are moving to the Washington area from North Carolina this summer, pushed their budget about half a million dollars to get the location they wanted.

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