Soaring prices. Bidding wars. Houses that sell in hours, not weeks.
Call it hot or even sizzling: The Washington area real estate market is stronger this year than it has been in a decade. In many neighborhoods, particularly in affluent parts of the District and close-in suburbs, there are simply more buyers chasing fewer houses.
Not everyone has been touched by these months of spring fever--in some areas, prices aren't budging. And no one knows how long it will last. Rising interest rates, falling stock prices or plain old summer doldrums all could slow things down.
Still, when a situation gets this far out of balance, strange and stressful things happen. Here's a sampling:
THE COLD SHOULDER
Pity the poor diplomats.
Ambassadors may live in luxurious official residences, but lower-level diplomatic personnel assigned to Washington often rent. We're not talking garden apartments outside the Capital Beltway here. Many of these people are in high-profile jobs that require major entertaining.
For that you need a house, preferably a nice one, preferably in Northwest Washington. For years diplomats have been able to rely on a regular supply of high-end rentals, homes owned by well-off ex-Washingtonians who could do better as landlords than as sellers.
No more. With the market for such houses skyrocketing, many of those owners have decided to cash in.
"The market is so good that everything is for sale and there are no rental properties," said a woman at the French Embassy who diplomatically asked to remain anonymous.
"The inventory of rental properties is pretty well zero," agreed Ruth Arnold, accommodation officer at the British embassy. "What there is is rubbish or top-dollar."
Alessandro Di Franco, a spokesman for the Italian Embassy, said: "We've got people coming now from Italy who haven't found anything to rent. It was much easier up until about a year ago. Then you could find something in a matter of days. Now we're still looking."
To deal with the shortage, the British recently increased housing allowances for their top-grade people from about $3,100 per month to as high as $4,500.
Still, Arnold said, "People are having to look for weeks to find something."
AFTER 5 LOSSES, A WIN
Dan Boston remembers when his house-hunt turned into a serious competition.
Boston and his wife, April, were "kind of looking on and off" throughout last year for a place in Alexandria or Arlington. On Super Bowl Sunday this year, at 1 p.m., they saw something they liked.
Four hours later, not long before the kickoff, they called to make an offer. "Somebody had beaten us by an hour and half," he recalled. "Arranging financing on that day was not the easiest thing in the world. To find out that someone had moved even faster was just amazing."
That was the first of six bids the Bostons made on houses this year. Finally, on the sixth, they were accepted; they settled on their new bungalow in late May.
"We feel like we scored in a big way," Boston said.
OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND
Selling a house can be hassle. You have to keep the everything spotless, even the closets, for months on end.
Or maybe not.
Agent Susan Weiss of Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.'s Bethesda/Hampden Square office says she still advises sellers to fix up the house and keep the clutter to a minimum to get the best price. But in a fast-moving market, the burden can be a lot less.
It's not crucial, for example, to take down wallpaper or refinish the floors. "Cleaning the closets is less important than making the bed," she said.
On one recent sale she volunteered to be the heavy and tell the sellers' four children that, from now on, they were going to have to make their beds every morning. They were going to have to put their toys and shoes away, or at least put them under the bed.
"I have not ever found buyers who look under beds," she said. "They all open closets."
The children complied. "Fortunately, the house sold in three days," she said.
LET THE BIDDING BEGIN--AGAIN
Ruth Zitner and her husband, Mark Finkelpearl, knew this year was time to move. They had a new baby and their landlord wanted to sell the District house they had rented for more than two years.
So earlier this year, when they saw a house they liked, they figured they were in luck. It was for sale by the owners. "We went, we saw the house, we said, 'Great, we want it,' we paid the asking price," Zitner said.
Well, at least they tried to. "It turned into a nightmare," she said.
The deal fell apart on closing day. That left the couple with a June moving deadline and not much time to find a house. "It was terribly depressing," Zitner said.
They quickly became hardened veterans of the bidding wars. "On eight bids, we came in second," she said. "Then on another eight, we didn't get anywhere."
With just about three weeks left, Zitner got the call she had given up on. Her real estate agent said there was a house in Chevy Chase-D.C. that she would just love.
She looked at the place at 6:30 on a Sunday night. The agent was right; she loved it. "I knew it was going to be a happy house. The other houses I bid on, I knew they weren't right," she said.
Even though her husband was out of town, she went ahead and wrote her bid on the hood of the car.
"There were eight bids. We put in all the money we had--and we got the house. I couldn't believe it. . . . We finally, finally did it. It felt impossible."
THE PRICE IS RIGHT--MAYBE
What's overpriced, anyway?
The $269,000 asking price on the house in Vienna that her office recently listed may have been a tad high, Lynn Hackney thought at first. Based on recent local comparable sales, it was about $20,000 over market.
"In two days, we had 12 contracts," said Hackney, managing broker at the Alexandria office of Century 21 New Millennium.
Those bids ranged up to $310,000.
In normal times, buyers protect themselves from paying too much by including an appraisal contingency in their purchase offer. The contingency generally says that if the house appraises for less than the buyer's offer price, meaning the lender won't give a mortgage based on the full price, then the buyer has the option of dropping out of the deal. The buyer can also accept a mortgage based on the appraisal price and make up the difference in cash.
In this particular deal, Hackney suspected the appraisal might come up short because it would have to be based on comparable sales, not easy to track in a rising market. To make things work, the buyers "had to be financially sound"--well off enough to come up with extra money if need be.
In reviewing the dozen bids, Hackney and her sellers particularly liked the financial qualifications of one family. At $280,000, their bid was the fourth highest.
So the sellers replied to the would-be buyers with a counter-offer: Drop the appraisal contingency, pay $310,000, and we'll sell the house to you. They accepted.
TAKE A NUMBER
The current market has turned Christine Davenport's job into a juggling act.
Davenport handles scheduling for the two home inspectors who work at J.D. Grewell & Associates Inc. in Bethesda. It used to be routine that home buyers would include a clause in their contracts giving them maybe three days to have their prospective purchase looked over by an inspector. When the contract was accepted, then they called the inspector.
Just try doing that now. On one recent day, both Grewell inspectors were fully booked two weeks in advance.
Now, Davenport encourages clients to call before they even consider writing a contract to check when there might be an inspector available and make a tentative appointment.
It's not just the heavy workload that complicates life for Davenport. Sometimes appointments to inspect new construction have to be delayed because overburdened builders fall behind on delivery schedules. Sometimes sales fall apart before the inspection because buyers get outbid at the last moment.
For example, on June 3 she was booked through June 17. But an appointment for June 7 fell through. "That deal went belly up," she said. "So I'm calling the [people scheduled for the] 17th to reschedule."
INFLEXIBILITY VS. FLEXIBILITY
Some people just aren't willing to accept the limits of the seller's market, like the couple that agent Mary Wharton of Century 21 New Millennium in Alexandria has worked with.
"They've been all over Northern Virginia looking for, 'a buy,' " she said.
As they've explained it to her, she said, "The rule of thumb always was there was some flexibility in the pricing of real estate."
That's not the case right now, however. "They're living in temporary housing because nobody will negotiate with them," she said.
SECOND TIME'S THE CHARM
After the frenzy of bidding and the elation of winning comes reality.
"A lot of these buyers are paying way above asking price because there is this competition," said Suzanne Goldstein, an agent with Long & Foster in Friendship Heights. "In the light of day, once they've won--once they've gotten the house and done the inspection--they're being very picky on repairs."
Many times, she said, that pickiness is just a manifestation of buyer's remorse. For example, on one house she handled recently, "It was obvious after the fact that the buyer wanted out and came back with an extremely unrealistic list."
"Oh, rebuilding the foundation," she said about one recent transaction. "Most sellers are not going to do that. Or replacing a whole roof that's not leaking."
The sellers balked; the buyers walked, "which is what the buyers wanted to do in the first place," Goldstein said.
It wasn't a problem for the sellers, though. "They put it back on the market, they got a couple offers, and it sold literally the next day," Goldstein said--for more than the first time around.