When Naama Gidron and her husband, Peter Wuhrl, decided to buy their first home in Providence last year, they started out by scouring the area for single-family houses.
They soon realized it would be a tough choice. The homes in their price range were away from the city amenities that attracted them to Providence in the first place.
"It just felt like there wasn't enough going on out there for me," Gidron said. "I like to be able to walk to a cafe."
Their solution was to become live-in landlords in a two-family home on the city's thriving East Side. Now, they've got two bedrooms, a small yard, a two-car garage and an attic space they can use as an office. The $1,000 rent they're paid every month for the unit downstairs helps pay their $2,400 mortgage payment, and they can walk to cafes and other shops just a few blocks away.
Real estate agents say they're seeing more first-time home buyers purchasing two-, three- or four-family buildings as a way to get their foot in the door of homeownership. Realtor groups say there is no reliable way to track numbers of two- and three-family houses nationally, but in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, those numbers have more than doubled in the past decade.
"It's more bang for the buck," said Michael Young, president of the Rhode Island Association of Realtors. Young said multi-family homes have always been popular as investments, and in the 1950s and 1960s were thought of as a way for working-class families to become homeowners. These days, increased rents and skyrocketing real estate prices have led to a modern surge in multi-family sales, he said.
Larry Yameen, a real estate agent in Lawrence, Mass., 20 miles north of Boston, recently put a two- and a three-family house on the market. Within five days, he had shown one 15 to 20 times and the other a dozen times, he said. Most of the people looking were first-time buyers, he said.
Yameen has been in the business for 30 years and said he's seen interest come nearly full-circle.
"We used to see these young couples buying the multi-family home, selling it for the single-family home. All of a sudden, these young people just seemed to want to go into the big single-family home right away," Yameen said. "With the pricing now . . . they're looking at multis a little differently."
Nick Retsinas, director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, agreed that part of the interest is fueled by the increasing prices of single-family homes.
"When people look at that price appreciation, they're looking at other options," including condos and owner-occupied multi-family homes, Retsinas said.
The trend seems to be centered in the Northeast, around cities such as Boston and Providence that have an older housing stock made up in many areas by multi-family homes, real estate experts said.
In Rhode Island, for example, the median sales price of two- to four-family homes was $280,000 in the first quarter of 2005, surpassing the $241,000 median price of single-family homes.
"That's a first," Young said. Multi-family houses had traditionally sold for less, because they were considered less desirable, but sales of multi-family houses doubled in Rhode Island to a record 2,478 in 2004 from 1,105 in 1994.
The median price rose 19 percent for the quarter from a year ago, compared with a rise of less than 3 percent for single-family homes, according to the Rhode Island Association of Realtors. The houses remain affordable because mortgage companies factor in rental income and will approve a larger mortgage with larger payments.
In Massachusetts, sales of two- to four-family homes doubled in a decade, to 9,726 in 2004 from 4,747 in 1994 according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. The median price of a multi-family home was $359,900 in the first quarter, compared with $346,800 for a single-family home.
The surge is driven in part by the rush to convert multi-family homes to condos, as well as the popularity of multi-family homes among first-time home buyers and immigrants, Realtors said.
Abby and Mike Marschke bought a two-family house on the West Side of Providence for $120,000 in May 2003. Abby, 29, an engineer, and Mike, 28, a graphic designer, knew they could afford a single-family home, but decided on a two-family because of the investment potential.
In late June, after spending $80,000 to renovate the property, they sold it for $289,000. They moved to a four-bedroom, three-bath, single-family home in suburban Ashland, Mass. Though they made the move to be closer to their workplaces, Abby Marschke said they knew when they bought the house that their next step would be a single-family home.
"Our plan was to build up home equity until we could move into a single-family," Abby Marschke said. "We knew that it was going to be a two-step process."
That kind of move is not unusual, Retsinas said.
"A lot of it is economics," Retsinas said. "It's part of a plan, as opposed to a destination."
For those who have never owned a home before, the added responsibility of a rental unit can be a challenge.
The Marschkes' tenants had trouble paying the rent, and they had to hire a lawyer and evict them, an experience Abby Marschke called awful.
Gidron and Wuhrl had a conflict this spring with their tenants, who were moving out. The couple wanted to show the rental unit to prospective tenants, but the showings became a sore spot when the couple felt the tenants were making inappropriate comments to people looking to move into the apartment.
Then, there's the repairs.
"Someone throws something down the toilet and the toilet gets plugged up," Yameen said, "You have to be prepared to deal with it."