Homecoming Heartaches
Moving to a Familiar Place Can Mean Facing Some Unwelcome Hurdles

By Dan Rafter
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 14, 2007

By the time she graduates from George Washington University Law School next year, Karen Chuang will have lived in the Washington area for eight years.

Chuang has met friends and a fiance. She has been a success in her career and pursued her passion for law. Still, Foggy Bottom isn't Chuang's real home. That's southern Florida.

"I enjoy being in the District, but sometimes you do want to go back home," she said. "Mainly, it's the weather. Most people from the colder climates think D.C. is pretty temperate. . . . I'm happier in the warmer weather. In my opinion, it's cold in D.C. nine or 10 months a year."

Chuang isn't unusual in feeling the tug of a former home town. But people who try to go home again -- whether that means moving back to the Washington area or leaving it -- face particular real estate challenges.

The biggest one for those returning to the Washington area is little surprise: Would-be homeowners are often amazed at how much home prices have risen while they've been away.

"A lot of people are saying, 'Oy vey, these prices are really going up,' " said Elaine Koehl, a real estate agent with Re/Max 100 in Frederick. "They see that the taxes are going up, too. They'll talk about how much the area has grown. But really, you can say these things about most areas. Traffic will have almost always have increased while you've been gone. Neighborhoods will have grown up and changed. That's just what happens."

Consider Jeff and Gail Sonnenberg. They moved from Frederick County to Stroudsburg, Pa., a little more than five years ago. A recent job transfer is bringing them back.

Even though they have been gone just five years, housing prices have skyrocketed.

"The pricing is going to have an impact on our ultimate decision" on exactly where to live, Jeff Sonnenberg said. "An average or medium-size home here is just as expensive as the housing in the New Jersey area is now. You usually think of New Jersey as a high-priced place to live. It has nothing on the areas around D.C."

Koehl is working with the Sonnenbergs as they try to find a home within their budget. The family's former house in Frederick County would probably sell for about $725,000, Koehl said. In 2002, the family sold it for $415,000.

Property-tax bills have also risen since the Sonnenbergs left the region. In 2002, the family paid $3,914 in property taxes on their home. Today, Koehl said, taxes on the same home are $5,554.

"That is kind of depressing," Jeff Sonnenberg said.

Chuang is looking at a different set of trade-offs. She longs for the warmer temperatures of Florida. She also looks forward to lower housing costs.

But her research has shown that salaries are lower in southern Florida than they are in Washington.

"Housing prices and the cost of living are higher in D.C., that's true," Chuang said. "But the differences in pay seem to be larger, so it negates the lower cost of living. The cost of living is lower, but not that much lower."

This pay gap was one reason Chuang entered law school. As a lawyer, she said, she will have a better opportunity to find a high-paying job when she moves back. Before entering law school, Chuang worked as a grant administrator at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. She would have struggled to find government work in Florida that pays as well as the government job here did.

People considering a move back home often let nostalgia cloud their judgment, said Rachel Valentino, a real estate agent with Long & Foster in the District. Thoughts of high school football games, favorite restaurants and beloved neighbors may push real concerns -- potential problems such as higher property taxes, struggling public schools and longer commutes -- to the background.

"People want to return closer to their families. They want to recapture their youth," Valentino said.

However, she said, "people need to understand that they might not get the same feeling or lifestyle that they had originally."

Joe Cooley realizes that. In 2003, he followed his job from Chevy Chase to Colorado. In December, he returned to the D.C. region and is now renting, also in Frederick.

"Real estate prices have gotten very high in Bethesda and Chevy Chase for what you get right now," Cooley said. "What I paid for a house in 1994 can now get me a one-bedroom condo in Bethesda."

Still, he would like to settle in Chevy Chase or Bethesda. However, he doesn't want to get burned by the real estate market. "I seem to have a knack for buying at the top of the market and then watching it tank on me," Cooley said. "I'm trying not to do that right now."

When Cooley sold his Chevy Chase house in 2003, he said, he broke even on his investment. But prices exploded after he left. He estimates that the home he sold for $700,000 is now worth more than $1 million.

So he is taking his time. "I'm blessed right now to have the security of the rental. I'd hate to have to purchase something too quickly. The prices are just too high."

Even people who know real estate markets well can be in for a shock when they move home.

Rich Davila, manager of the D.C. office of national real estate firm Zip Realty, decided on Christmas Day in 2005 that it was time to go home. He and his wife, a flight attendant, had been living in Boston. Neither of them had anything against that city, but neither had family nearby. Davila grew up in the Washington area -- Alexandria, specifically -- and his wife's family lived in the Midwest.

That Christmas, they woke up early with their young children, opened presents and had a large breakfast.

Then? They had nothing left to do all day.

No holiday parties. No family get-togethers.

"I said then that this has to stop," said Davila. "I couldn't keep living this way." He arranged to transfer to Zip's Washington office.

Initially, he wanted to move back to Alexandria. Prices there, though, had risen so much that he couldn't afford the type of home the family wanted.

Davila has also noticed significant changes in his former home town. The D.C. area has grown considerably since he left six years ago. There is so much new construction that he found himself hopelessly lost recently when taking an agent and client to a home showing in Alexandria.

"And that's where I grew up," Davila said. "I couldn't believe it. But everything looked so different."

He found a house in Prince William County and moved his family in last Christmas Eve.

This Christmas was a change: Davila's older brother, who lives two blocks away, walked over in the morning with coffee, still piping hot. The whole family then went to Davila's mother's house for a big holiday dinner.

"It was everything I wanted," Davila said, "just one year later."

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