By Kimberly Lankford
Friday, March 11, 2011; 12:19 PM
To those who haven't worn the uniform, their ways can be a mystery. But anyone trying to sell a home in the Washington metro area would be wise to learn more about the needs and habits of military officers, enlisted people and their families. It's the season for them to begin some serious house-hunting.
The D.C. area is home to more than a dozen major military bases, and thousands of service members and their families move in and out of the region every year.
Across the services, transfers frequently take effect in June or July. "Starting in March, April and early May, there's really a strong demand for military families transferring into the area," says Greg Wilson, a retired Navy officer who owns RE/MAX Riverside in Occoquan, which specializes in military relocation. "They start looking online in March and are generally here in April and May to visit the houses in person for a July move, especially the spouses. A lot of times they have less than a week to come to the area and look at homes," he says.
Military households tend to move every two to four years, often with little notice, and usually arrive in the D.C. area with sticker shock, despite access to a tax-free housing allowance and special government-guaranteed mortgages with little or no down payment required. Often they base their price range on the Department of Veterans Affairs loan limits and monthly housing allowance - important numbers for sellers to keep in mind when pricing their homes. In most of the Washington area, the VA loan limit is $818,750. (In some areas close to Fort Meade, the limit is $500,000.)
And there's an added incentive for some service members to buy this spring: The $8,000 first-time home-buyer tax credit expired for most people last year, but service members (as well as members of the Foreign Service and the intelligence community) who were stationed outside the United States for at least 90 days between Dec. 31, 2008, and May 1, 2010, have until April 30 to enter into a binding contract and until June 30 to close on a property and qualify for the credit.
Lt. Col. James Gifford, an Air Force pilot, has plenty of experience with fast and frequent moves. He was stationed in England with the 494th Fighter Squadron before being transferred to the Pentagon in 2003. "I was coming back from overseas with two little children - my daughters were 2 and 3 years old - and had just 10 days to find a new home," he says.
As he was preparing to leave England, a buddy in his fighter squadron told him about Wilson, who helped him find a townhouse in Springfield. Just two years later, in 2005, Gifford was transferred to Enid Air Force Base in Oklahoma. He sold his Springfield home for a $100,000 profit. "It was complete luck," he says. "The market was so crazy good at that point."
After five years in Oklahoma, Gifford was about to be sent to the War College in Carlisle, Pa., when his assignment was changed to the Pentagon at the last minute. He had just one month to find a home in the D.C. area before his June 2010 transfer date.
His wife, Cindy, started looking at properties on the Internet and found 30 good prospects, then narrowed the list to 10 based primarily on price range, commute and the school district for their daughters, now 10 and 12.
Cindy flew to D.C. and she and Wilson visited her top 10 homes and picked her favorites. But soon after she returned to Oklahoma, someone else put an offer on her favorite, a four-bedroom house in Woodbridge. The Giffords quickly made an offer on the house, and it was accepted - all before James had a chance to travel to Virginia to see any of the houses.
Gifford knows he will be transferred again, in July 2012, but he would like to keep the house for at least seven or eight years before selling, and he hopes to return to the D.C. area in the future. This made him conscious of the rental market when calculating how much house he could afford and how much of a down payment to make.
He based his calculations the way many military households do: He looked at the housing allowance for an Air Force lieutenant colonel with dependents ($2,880 per month), knowing that would probably be the rental budget of a similar officer moving to the area. Then he subtracted about $300 per month for utilities and management fees when calculating his target monthly payment. This way, he knew that he would be likely to get enough rental income each month to cover his mortgage payment and carrying costs.
If you'd like to attract military buyers, it's important to keep those housing-allowance numbers in mind when pricing your home. The Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) varies by rank, location and number of dependents. The amounts are available by using the Department of Defense's calculator at defensetravel.dod.mil/site/bahCalc.cfm.
A major in the Army, Air Force or Marines, or a lieutenant commander in the Navy with dependents in the D.C. area (including suburban Maryland and Virginia), receives $2,739 per month and often looks for a house with monthly payments that equal the BAH.
Showing prospective buyers that there is a strong rental market in your area is also very important. Many service members plan to rent out their homes if they are transferred after just a few years, especially if they expect to return to the D.C. area at some point. "In the Fort Meade area, we have seen a huge boom in the rental market," says Laura Roskelly, a real estate agent in Millersville who spent four years in the Army and traveled with her Navy husband for 16 years. She now specializes in military families buying properties in the Fort Meade area.
Home prices and reasonable commute times tend to be very popular with military families. "I find that many military families that are relocating to Fort Belvoir usually start their search in Lorton, which has a short commute to Fort Belvoir," says Sarah Phelps, an agent with Ron & Susan Associates with Long & Foster in Lorton.
"Most of the Quantico military transfers I help purchase are buying homes in Dumfries, Stafford and sometimes as far south as Fredericksburg," she said.
Wilson finds a lot of families interested in Burke, because it has good schools and easy access to Fort Belvoir via the Virginia Railway Express.
Roskelly says many people stationed at Fort Meade are buying or renting in Annapolis, Severn, Odenton, Gambrills, Crofton, Piney Orchard, Severna Park, Arnold, Columbia and Ellicott City.
Most military households, like home buyers in general, begin their search on the Internet. MilitaryByOwner.com tends to be popular because it makes it easy to see information about houses available for sale or rent near military bases. "It's a great place to advertise your home to military people coming into the area," Wilson says. He recently listed a client's home in Manassas for rent for $2,850 per month, "and within an hour, we had four serious inquiries." The house was rented in just three days.
Simply including the name of a nearby base in any home listing on the Internet can help attract prospective buyers. For example, Roskelly's Web site, FortMeadeHomes.com, makes it easy for buyers throughout the country to find listings in communities near the base. "Think like a relocating home buyer and what search terms they would probably use to find a home near the base," she says.
Also highlight services available at the nearby base - such as the new 120-bed Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, which will be replacing a much smaller clinic on the base and no longer requires families and retirees to travel to Walter Reed Army Medical Center at the northernmost tip of D.C. or to Bethesda for a lot of their medical care.