American Dreams, Realized

By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 11, 2006

When Lorena and Jose Teos came to Fairfax County from El Salvador in 1988, they were looking for work and political stability, not real estate.

It was enough to have a roof over their heads, even in a three-bedroom house shared by 15 people. Lorena found a minimum-wage job at Pizza Hut. Jose worked long hours assisting a carpet layer, who paid him $30 day. Since then, they have learned English, found better jobs and have become legal residents. They have also become successful real estate investors.

One recent evening, Lorena and Jose sat at the glass-topped kitchen table in their spacious five-bedroom house in a quiet Sterling neighborhood of $800,000 brick Colonials. It is the latest of five properties that the Teoses have bought in Northern Virginia, selling for profit along the way.

The Teoses and many other immigrants see their homes as the physical manifestation of the hope that they carried with them upon arrival in the United States. Home equity accounts for two-thirds of the average net worth of Hispanic households, studies show. According to 2000 Cenus data, 41.2 percent of Latin American immigrants own homes and other real estate, up from 38 percent in 1997.

In the Washington area, Latin immigrants have become active real estate investors with rental properties and well-thought-out strategies, said Jose Luis Semidey, president of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals in Northern Virginia and of the Vienna real estate firm ERA Semidey & Associates. Last year, Semidey's company sold 900 homes; 90 percent of his clients were Latino.

"Our community has been changing, but people have not been realizing that. We are very entrepreneurial, with a lot of expendable income," Semidey said. "We are here. We are here to stay. We want to progress and to be successful."

Trading Up

Lorena Teos has a two-story house, with plush carpeting, bay windows and a two-car garage, but she likes to reminisce about her family's thread-bare beginnings in Virginia.

"I had never lived with so many people in one room," Lorena said in Spanish. "We moved ahead little by little."

A list of the homes the family has owned is a record of the progress they have made. After a year of living with Jose's cousin in the cramped three-bedroom house, the couple moved into an apartment and then a house in Fairfax County. They shared those residences with Jose's four siblings. By 1992, Lorena and Jose had children and had saved enough money to buy their own place. They chose an $80,000 three-bedroom condominium in Falls Church.

As immigrants and first-time home buyers, their credit history consisted of a car they had bought for Lorena and a work van they had bought for Jose's burgeoning carpet-installing business. When the condo owner agreed to finance their loan, they gladly accepted her terms. She required a $10,000 down payment and charged them 9 percent interest.

But a fire in the laundry room soon rendered the unit unlivable. Unsure of the insurance coverage and wary of returning to the condo, the family turned the property over to the former owner two years later.

Their credit scarred, the couple began renting again. They sent money regularly to family in El Salvador and even bought two small apartments there for about $50,000 each. Relatives live in those homes.

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