Despite the storm clouds that have appeared over parts of the Washington area economy, eight out of 10 local residents believe they will hold their own or be better off financially in the year ahead, according to a poll by The Washington Post.
While six out of 10 residents said this is a good time to buy a home in the area, half acknowledged that housing prices have risen to the point that they could no longer afford to buy the house they live in, a measure of the anxiety that seems to coexist with the optimism about the region's prospects. Some of those who favor buying a home now are worried that delaying will only confront them with higher prices.
A decline in the region's new-home market has worried economists, along with threats of defense sector cutbacks, pressures on banks and manufacturers and an overabundance of office and commercial space.
To measure attitudes toward the local economy, The Post recently asked 1,232 residents of the District, Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs a series of questions developed by the University of Michigan for its monthly survey of national consumer confidence.
The results of The Post poll and the most recent University of Michigan survey, to be released today, provide an incomplete but telling look at the way local economic conditions compare with those throughout the country. The margin of sampling error for the overall results was plus or minus three percentage points for The Post poll and five percentage points for the University of Michigan survey.
According to the polls:
Half of all Washington area residents questioned said they are better off now than they were a year ago. Nationally, slightly more than four out of 10 people interviewed in May by the university reported being better off now than they were 12 months ago.
Four out of 10 area residents said they expected to be better off in a year than they are now, about the same percentage who expressed optimism in the national survey.
Local residents were far less likely than those questioned in the national survey to say this was a good time to make major purchases, a leading indicator of future spending plans. Of those interviewed here, nearly six out of 10 -- 58 percent -- said now is a good time to buy major household items. But three out of four respondents in the nationwide poll said it is a good time to make a major purchase.
Slightly more than a third of all respondents -- 37 percent -- said they expect the local economy to remain healthy in the next 12 months. Another 29 percent predicted bad times coming, while the remainder expect no change or were unsure. Nationally, nearly half -- 47 percent -- predicted the economy to continue to be good in the coming year, while 37 percent said bad times are coming.
Looking ahead five years, 40 percent of those questioned said they expect generally good times to continue while 25 percent predicted the economy would at least temporarily worsen. Nationally, the mood was decidedly more downbeat: Nearly half expect bad economic times sometime during the next five years and only a third expect continued economic prosperity.
Overall, a majority of those area residents questioned expressed a mixed view of the local economy. Fewer than one out of five responded positively to at least four of the five questions measuring consumer confidence, while just one out of 10 gave consistently pessimistic views.
The survey found surprisingly few significant differences in the attitudes toward the local economy as expressed by blacks and whites, men and women, rich and poor, or by where in the Washington area the respondent lived.
The one disturbing exception: D.C. residents were less likely than their suburban counterparts to predict that business conditions in their area will improve during the next year.
According to the poll, one out of four District residents questioned predicted good times ahead in the local area, compared with more than a third of all residents in northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs.
But in virtually every other way, the attitudes of District residents mirrored closely those in the large suburban counties.
For example, half of the D.C. residents said things have gotten better for them during the past 12 months, almost exactly the same proportion of Fairfax, Prince George's and Montgomery county residents who expressed that view.
And there's little disagreement throughout the region about the local housing market, with area residents reporting that the runaway housing market of the late 1980s was a mixed blessing.
Half of all local homeowners, including many who have lived in their present homes for only a few years, say they could not afford to buy their own house for what it would sell for today.
And local residents expect housing prices to rise even higher: Nearly six out of 10 area residents questioned said they expect the price of a house to increase in the next year, though most predicted that housing prices will increase only modestly during the next 12 months.
Many of those questioned happily watched the value of their houses increase dramatically in recent years. At the same time, many say those prices have spiraled upward faster than salaries have increased, leaving many homeowners unable to move up today to a better house -- and pricing many first-time home buyers completely out of the local housing market.
"I don't know what's going to happen to the younger generation," said Kenneth Binns, 51, a printer, who said his town house in Olney has increased in value from $65,000 to more than $100,000 in less than three years. "I don't complain; it's been good for me. But my kids, they're lost."
"I couldn't buy this house to save my soul," said Walter J. Bailey, 79, a retired electrician who lives near Capitol Hill. "I bought this place in 1947 for $12,000. I've been offered $100,000 for it, but I can't afford to move anywhere else. House prices go up, but incomes aren't going up that fast. It's like trying to get 10 out of six."
The Post survey found that seven out of 10 homeowners who have lived in their current home for 20 years or more say they couldn't afford to buy it at today's prices.
But longtime area homeowners such as Bailey aren't the only ones who have been effected. More than four out of 10 homeowners who bought homes in the past four years said they, too, are living in a house they could no longer afford to buy.
"Prices here have gone up tremendously in the past couple of years," said Mary O'Connor, 47, a customs worker for British Aerospace at Dulles International Airport. "We paid $159,900 for this place three years ago and a house just down the road exactly like ours went for $190,000 a few months ago."
O'Connor, her husband and two children moved from Long Island to a four-bedroom home in Chantilly in western Fairfax County. But their children will be moving out of the family home soon, and O'Connor acknowledges that the house will be too big. But they have no plans to move.
"Can't afford to," she said. "Unless we move to West Virginia."