D.C. newcomers searching for their dream home might get a few wake-up calls

By Luke Jerod Kummer
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 4, 2011; 11:04 AM

Anyone who has searched for a home in the District, for convenient parking - or even for a bar stool during happy hour - may have sensed what census statistics confirm: There are a lot of newcomers around town. And these newcomers - and their housing wish lists - are helping reshape the city's neighborhoods and housing stock.

From July 2008 to July 2009, a net of 6,550 people migrated to D.C., according to a Census Bureau analysis of Internal Revenue Service data. Last year, the District's population surged past 600,000 for the first time in two decades. Developers are taking notice.

"When newcomers . . . come to Washington for employment, they generally rent first," said Ann Scully, executive vice president of Mayhood, which has been developing condominiums in the District for almost 30 years. "They pick a neighborhood and they rent in that neighborhood. If they end up liking it they might look for something to buy in that area after a year or two," added Scully, who has been with Mayhood since 1984 and is involved with the Workforce Housing Committee of the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit group that advocates for increased development for moderate-income households.

In addition to favoring rentals, experts say, newcomers generally gravitate toward neighborhoods they recognize.

"Typically newcomers are looking for areas that are nationally identifiable. So we get a lot of people asking about Georgetown, Dupont Circle and downtown," said Ken Johnson, who founded DCRealEstate.com, a marketing, sales and leasing company. "For someone who is coming from outside the area for a job, they're usually not looking to pioneer. They want something they see as safe and that's in the center of things," added Johnson, who also edits the DCMud real estate blog.

Affordability shock

But newcomers soon find that prices in those neighborhoods are among the highest in the city, so many have to broaden their search.

Alefiyah Mesiwala, 30, a preventive-medicine resident at Johns Hopkins who is doing a rotation in Washington, and her husband, Aadil Ginwala, 32, a business consultant, said that after renting in Baltimore for the past few years they were ready to settle down and buy in D.C.

"Our requirements were that it would be Metro-accessible, that it would be physically convenient, that if we needed to rent the building out at some point it would be really easy, and we would be in a fun part of town," Ginwala said.

They considered Dupont Circle, Chinatown, Penn Quarter, Adams Morgan and U Street but soon discovered that their options, given what they could afford, were limited.

"Our initial goal was condos, but they were so expensive and the fees were so high," Mesiwala said. "You might be paying $2,000 or $3,000 for a mortgage and on top of that anywhere from $400 to $1,000 in maintenance."

In the end, they found an attractive two-bedroom rowhouse between U Street and Dupont Circle that had been lingering on the market. They recalled that the garden was unkempt and mold had grown on the deck.

"Really all it needed was a good power washing," said Ginwala, who suggested that the building's modest neglect helped the couple afford their neighborhood of choice.

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