Two decades after coming here from El Salvador, Blanca Mejia de Vasquez badly wanted to own a house not too far from her Northwest Washington neighborhood, but the prices were too high for her income as a cosmetologist.
Her solution was first to team up with her mother, a restaurant worker, to qualify for a mortgage and then to agree, reluctantly, to broaden her home search into other areas of the city.
Today, she and her mother own a house with a backyard and three parking spaces in Northeast. They moved in, along with her three teenage sons, in March.
"I have to drive every day [to work], but it's okay," she said. "I pay something [to] me, not to somebody else. In the future, I can sell the house and it's my money."
Vasquez, 39, is among a steady trickle of Hispanics who are moving into the city's traditionally black neighborhoods, breaking longstanding unofficial barriers. She also is among a growing number of people -- U.S. and foreign-born, service workers and professionals -- who have transformed the Washington area into one of the nation's hottest markets for Hispanic home buyers.
Despite the region's reputation for unaffordability, a recent study said Hispanic residents increased their homeownership at a faster rate in the Baltimore-Washington area than in most other metropolitan locales during the 1990s, a trend that experts say has likely not slowed since then. Hispanics are younger and poorer on average than non-Hispanic whites and less likely to own homes, but their homeownership rate is rising faster.
Although the region's Hispanic homeownership still lags the national average of all ethnic and racial groups, half of them in their mid-thirties to mid-forties -- the key home-buying years -- were homeowners as of the 2000 Census. That compared with 44 percent in 1990 -- a growth rate that ranked ninth among the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas, according to the study by University of Southern California researchers published in Housing Policy Debate.
But the rapid rise in homeownership among low-income Hispanics worries some advocates and housing counselors, who fear that many are being taken advantage of because they lack financial sophistication.
Sophistication, however, is one factor driving up the ownership rate in the Washington area. A large number of affluent Hispanics, either born in the United States or in other countries and drawn here by international organizations, universities and private industry, are buyers. Gus Pilarte, 40, a business manager for an information-technology company, recently moved with his wife, baby, dog and Volvo station wagon to a house in Ashburn, a Loudoun County development he jokingly describes as "Wisteria Lane to a T," referring to the television series "Desperate Housewives." They had outgrown the Sterling condominium he bought five years ago.
Born in the Dominican Republic and a U.S. resident since college, Pilarte moves easily in a mainly non-Hispanic middle-class world. He had no need of a Spanish-speaking real estate agent and did not seek one. "Back in my idealistic days, I would have," he said. This time, "I went with the best provider."
But not only established Hispanics are buying. So are some relatively recent immigrants, although they are less likely to own than longer-term residents. Zhou Yu, a co-author of the USC housing study, said that Hispanic ownership rose in the Washington area because it was broadly based, with U.S.-born Hispanics, established immigrants and new immigrants all participating.
Ana Franco-Lopez, 31, who arrived in Northern Virginia from Peru five years ago speaking no English, bought her first home in December. Franco-Lopez, who had been a law student in her country, said she studied carefully before she bought, searching the Internet, reading books and seeking advice from the Hispanic Committee of Virginia. She scrimped to come up with the money she needed by "only doing what I had to do to survive."
She said she had learned that to avoid being cheated, it pays to be well informed. "If you don't read English . . . sometimes they don't explain [things] to you very well," she said.
The home she bought in Lincolnia Hills, a middle-class neighborhood near Landmark Mall in Alexandria, enabled her to expand her child-care business, which brings in more income to pay the mortgage. She rents rooms to friends to make ends meet.
"In my country, I lived in the same house all my life," she said. "The idea of moving from place to place was driving me crazy. I love the stability."
Real estate agents and housing counselors say, however, that a growing number of Hispanics, including low-paid service workers, are buying property not to have a home of their own or for other sentimental reasons. Like many others, they see it as an investment.
"They want to be in the game," said Jesus Moreno, a housing counselor with the Hispanic Committee of Virginia. "They are really eager to make money and move on."
Census figures show that the number of Hispanic homeowners rose in every jurisdiction in the Washington area in the 1990s and that the percentage of Hispanic ownership increased in most. Most Hispanics in the region's suburbs owned their own homes in 2000, with the exception of in the city of Alexandria and in Arlington and Prince George's counties. Census figures show Hispanic homeownership soaring in communities including Aspen Hill, College Park, Rockville, Wheaton, Centreville, Herndon, Hybla Valley, Leesburg, Manassas and Oakton.
Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing major ethnic or racial group, are being courted aggressively by real estate agents, mortgage brokers and programs for first-time buyers that offer help with closing costs. Ads proclaim: "Sin verificacion de ingresos! Sin verificacion de documento!" -- which loosely translates as, "Income tax forms are not required, nor are immigration papers."
Many first-time buyers are making it work the way Vasquez did, by signing on other family members or friends as co-buyers. Some rent every spare room they have to make the mortgage. Others have taken on risky interest-only mortgages to be able to afford a dwelling. Housing counselors worry that unsophisticated immigrants are being lured into bad deals or shoddy housing.
"You turn on the Spanish channels and every time there's a commercial, you see Spanish lenders and real estate agents popping up and saying: 'Buy me! Use me!' " said Oscar Bermudez, who runs first-time buyer classes in Alexandria for Housing Counseling Services. "To pick one you are confident with, that's the hard thing. You have a lot of people out there -- even [some] Latino lenders and agents -- that will commit fraud."
It is much easier to qualify for a mortgage now, but Moreno has had clients who ended up paying far more in upfront costs than is considered reasonable -- seven points, for example.
"We have soap-opera cases here," he said.