David and DeeAnn Martin were really looking forward to their tour in Washington when he won election to Congress from New York's 30th congressional district last month.
After years as a state legislator, Martin clearly was savoring the challenge of national politics. The pay -- $60,662 a year for House members -- seemed sufficient. And both would enjoy the excitement of Washington life.
After a week of looking around here, however, the Martins have decided to forgo -- or at least postpone -- the last of these attractions. Instead, DeeAnn and their three daughters will stay in hometown Canton, N.Y., while David commutes.
The reason: Washington's already notorious house prices, combined with the soaring mortgage interest rates that have reemerged in recent weeks, have pushed the Martins out of the business market here.
Moreover, talks with several newly elected representatives -- and veteran House members of both parties who are helping them get settled here -- show that Dave and DeeAnn Martin aren't alone in their plight:
Carolyn Moore, a Rockville real eastate agent and wife of Rep. Henson Moore (R-La.), estimates that almost 80 percent of the 52 new GOP House members "either are renting or just not bringing their families at all."
Newly elected Democrats, though less numerous, are in no better shape. "The majority are finding they just can't afford to buy right now," says one key staffer who's helping new members get settled. "Prices are too high."
Experts say the shift is difficult enough for members from areas where house prices are close to those of Washington -- San Diego, for example. In those cases, it's mainly interest rates that make the burden tough.
But in most congressional districts, house values back home aren't nearly as inflated as those here -- and election victors often face prices nearly double the value of their existing homes, with far less floor-space to boot.
The Martin's situation is typical of many new congressional families: Dave worked as a state legislator and part-time lawyer, while DeeAnn stayed at home. Both are 36. Their income, by their local standards, was comfortable enough.
In Canton, the Martins live in a roomy, colonial-style house built in 1861 with more than enough bedroom space for themselves and their youngsters. When they paid $67,000 for the place four years ago, a local paper lambasted them for high living!
In Washington, the couple had hoped to buy a four-bedroom home with a moderate-sized backyard and near relatively good schools. "We weren't fussy," Martin says. "Anywhere within 20 miles" of the Capitol would do. They could pay a maximum of $125,000, they said.
Two weeks ago, the Martins spent several days with Moore and some other brokers house-hunting in Rockville and Northern Virginia. The couple went home plainly discouraged. Everything was in the $150,000s -- and then was too small.
"Sure, we'd heard about the house prices before we came down here, but you can't really be aware of it until you actually go around and see them," Martin asserted.
"My first reaction was, here I'm a congressman, with a good salary, but what does a guy do if he's in the military?" Martin was here during a Marine Corps tour in the late 1960s and had an easier time buying a house then, he recalled.
For Chris and Marie Smith -- he's 27, and congressman-elect from rural Old Bridge, N.J. -- their brush with Washington's real estate market was nothing short of "a complete shock," Smith related.
"My campaign had drained us of our reserves," he said, "and we'd hoped to find something in the $60,000 to $70,000 range. But everything turned out to cost $120,000 or more. For $120,000 in my district, you can buy a palace!"
Smith, a former sporting goods wholesaler, and his wife have decided to rent a "bargain" three-bedroom town house in McLean that will cost them $600 a month, plus utilities.
Even that, however, will mean some scrimping: The Smiths had been renting in Old Bridge, as well, but their two-bedroom apartment there cost them $323 a month, gas and electricity included. And they had no constituents to entertain.
Jeanie Weber, wife of Rep.-elect Vincent Weber (R-Minn.) had hoped to quit her job as a flight attendant when her husband won his election race in order to return to graduate school and to participate in Washington's social life.
That all changed, however, when the Webers encountered the Washington real estate market. Now, she'll have to continue flying, she said, if only to take advantage of the money-saving discounts on air fare back to the district.
The Webers did find a house they liked -- a 2 1/2-bedroom town house in Old Town Alexandria. But the cost -- $134,000, at an interest rate close to 14 percent -- means they'll have to "be eating popcorn and drinking water," Jeanie Weber said.
She said the $1,500-a-month mortgage payment "is half of Vin's take-home pay as a congressman," and the amount they bid -- about $6,000 below the seller's asking price, is "about $34,000 over what we'd actually hoped to pay."
The Martins' real estate agent, Carolyn Moore, blamed soaring mortgage interest rates and the difficulties the newcomers face in selling their old houses back in their districts for the troubles they're encountering here.