This Thanksgiving weekend, Donna and Brad Guske and their baby, Henry, are entertaining relatives in a three-bedroom split-level rental in Silver Spring rather than in the tiny bungalow they used to call home in Los Angeles.
The Guskes moved east in July after Brad Guske, an accountant, took a rotation offered by his California employer. Donna Guske had taught elementary school before Henry was born in May.
The new digs are almost double the 1,400-square-foot house they still own in Los Angeles, but the rent is the same as what they're charging their California tenants. And there's plenty of room for their two dogs. There's no way, though, that the yard can accommodate Donna's horse, Huckleberry, who was shipped cross-country on an 18-wheeler and is stabled in Howard County. So the Guskes' hope is to move eventually to greener, cheaper pastures farther out.
The family's planned trajectory, from California to the close-in Washington suburbs and then out to some wider-open, less expensive space beyond the metro area, is exactly the flight path others have been following, according to an analysis of Internal Revenue Service data done for The Washington Post by Moody's Economy.com.
"Migration into the D.C. area is being driven by the region's very strong job market," the best employment market in the country, said Mark Zandi, Economy.com founder and chief economist. And the movers tend to be "from other, very high-house-priced areas such as California and New York."
But housing prices here have jumped so much in the past six years, Zandi said, that a large number of people have been heading for the exit signs, primarily to the areas around Baltimore, Hagerstown, Richmond and Winchester.
The same kind of migratory pattern, from high-cost city to lower-cost city and then to even lower-cost suburb, is occurring nationally around the most expensive markets, Zandi said.
"Some of the really juiced-up markets are seeing significant outflows of people," he said at a recent housing forecast conference of the National Association of Home Builders. In coastal California, the population had been relocating for several years to nearby states, but more recently the IRS statistics show net out-migration to what had been farmland in inland California.
"In Florida, people are moving up the coast" from Miami to lower-cost areas, but as Florida prices overall have risen, retirees and second-home buyers have headed to the Gulf Coast, Zandi said.
"People are responding to the escalating prices: They're moving," Zandi said.
Nationally recognized demographer William H. Frey calls the in-and-out movement that Zandi sees in the Washington area and other expensive housing markets "the funnel effect."
"Essentially what we are seeing is metro D.C. benefiting from the even higher housing costs and stagnating economies in other coastal metros (especially New York, Boston and San Francisco), but also becoming the victim of its own rising housing costs, by heating up demand in close-by metros -- Hagerstown, Richmond and Winchester," Frey said in an e-mail.
Another aspect of the out-migration trend in the Washington area, Frey said, is the "cashing out" of young retirees, many of them baby boomers, "who are leaving for more affordable places in Florida, the Southeast and even the West. So in a way metro D.C. is like a funnel -- with new high-end and high-skilled workers splashing in at one end, and a 'middle-class' flight of younger families and retirees draining out the other."
New York has been the biggest "donor" area to Washington since at least 1989, according to the Economy.com analysis. But as the high-tech economy heated up in New York, San Francisco and Boston in the mid-1990s, their donations to the District and its environs dropped.
Since the late 1990s, as those areas felt the brunt of the tech bust and of skyrocketing housing prices, their contributions to the population of the Washington metropolitan area have jumped again. (The Washington metro area consists of the District; Arlington, Clarke, Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudoun, Prince William, Spotsylvania, Stafford and Warren counties, and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Fredericksburg, Manassas and Manassas Park in Virginia; Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, including Bethesda, Frederick and Gaithersburg in Maryland; and Jefferson County in West Virginia.)
Elizabeth Shreve moved from Manhattan this summer to work for Discovery Communications Inc. in Silver Spring because she and husband, Russell Greiff, knew their housing and schooling options in New York were destined to be super-expensive.
"We're a classic example of what happens when you get to the second kid in New York" and the apartment that had been squeezed, but is still tolerable with one child, is suddenly intolerable, Shreve said. "We had to make a decision about whether we were ever going to commit to that market."
Until their second child was born in the spring, the deal they got by renting from a relative had been unbeatable, Shreve said. They paid about $2,100 a month for a one-bedroom apartment with another "half-bedroom, probably what would have been a maid's room," she said. The going rate for the apartment was about $3,000 a month. The half-bedroom was "perfect for a baby," she said.
But with two babies younger than 2, the tight fit and the tight market pinched too much.
Staying in New York meant that "we would have had to compromise majorly on space or that we would have had to move to a transitional part of Brooklyn" to find housing for the amount they could handle, about $800,000, she said.
Since Shreve had family in the District, a job opportunity in Silver Spring and the expectation that prices would be more reasonable here, the family chose instead to head south.
The house they're renting in Chevy Chase, D.C., costs more than their Manhattan unit did, but they have three bedrooms, an office, a living room and a dining room. "It's four floors and a little yard," Shreve said. "Central Park was our yard before."
The family has been seriously considering buying in the District for about a month but has decided to wait "a while longer because the market has softened a bit" and could fall more, Shreve said. She'd really like to buy in the city within walking distance of Metro because "I'm still trying to replace what I loved about Manhattan," but Shreve said she was not sure "what our trade-offs will be" to stay within their budget.
The "relative low cost" of the Washington area housing makes the region a big draw for those from New York, Boston and the West Coast, said Gregory H. Leisch, chief executive of Delta Associates, the research unit of Transwestern Commercial Services.
According to an analysis of June housing data that Delta did this month with Economy.com and the National Association of Realtors, "the cost of housing relative to median income is not very much above the national average here in Washington," and only a bit higher than in Baltimore, Leisch said.
The national ratio of housing to income was 4.3, meaning an average cost of $4.30 for housing for every dollar of income. The Washington ratio was $5.10. Los Angeles, for example, is about 85 percent more expensive than Washington, and San Francisco and New York are close behind.
Veterans of pricier markets appreciate Washington's relative values, said Albert "Sonny" Small Jr., president of the mid-Atlantic Division of WCI Communities Inc., a luxury home builder. "Clearly when somebody comes from a Boston or New York or San Francisco they're not suffering sticker shock like someone from, say, Baton Rouge would be."
Jobs provide the major impetus to move long distances, said Stephen S. Fuller, professor of public policy at the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. "And Washington was the only metro area adding jobs in '01 and '02."
The journey appeals most to the most educated and higher paid workers because "the more educated they are, the more able they are to take the risk," Fuller said. But it pays off, according to his research. "The further you moved, the higher the income gain was." The IRS data, which track taxpayers' filing addresses from year to year, "reinforce that . . . in the late '90s and early 2000s, if you wanted to get a good job, you had to come to Washington," Fuller said. "But when you get here, there isn't enough housing."
Fuller has calculated that the region added about 64,400 jobs in 2004 and added a little more than 80,400 through September 2005. To house that many new employees, Fuller calculates, the region needed about 40,000 new housing units in 2004 and will need about 53,000 by the end of 2005 but was only producing around 28,000 to 30,000 new homes a year.
Because of regulations on building in many close-in jurisdictions, "to find a house, people have to go to Hagerstown or Winchester," he said. And "the Baltimore market has felt the heat too. They've been seeing double-digit price increases in the past couple of years" because of out-migration from those working in the Washington area.
Beth Bodnar, 28, and Steve Salvadore, 30, were able to trade their one-bedroom condominium in Dupont Circle in February for a three-bedroom, 1 1/2-bath house in Baltimore's historic Homeland community because prices had shot up so much since they bought four years earlier.
"When we bought the condo in 2001 we paid $180,000. When we sold in 2005, we had 20 offers" and sold for $384,000, or $74,000 above the listing price, Bodnar said. "It was unbelievably insane to us." The Baltimore property cost $379,000.
Bodnar, a graduate student finishing up work at American University, said the couple looked at Baltimore because the prices were right and because she grew up there. Her husband commutes to his Washington office at CNN.
"The issue for us was we wanted to start a family, and there was no way that we could afford anything larger than we were living in if we stayed in Washington," Bodnar said. She is now expecting their first child.
Marty Robinson, a Verizon manager in Northern Virginia, moved his wife, Karen Robinson, and their two elementary-school-age children west instead, to Hagerstown.
They left a neighborhood near George Mason University in March, also taking advantage of the double-digit appreciation of recent years. Marty was born in Hagerstown but hadn't lived there for 22 years, after his parents moved the family to North Carolina and then Fairfax.
But returning to Hagerstown, about 75 miles away, made sense, Robinson said, since he could transfer to a Verizon office in Washington County without "losing my Northern Virginia income," and could buy a much bigger house than they'd had. The house, which sits across the street from the local country club, cost about $130,000 less than he got for his Fairfax home.
Though "we had worried about leaving friends and our church, we saw that other people were leaving all the time," Robinson said. "So we decided to rip the Band-Aid off and start a new life." Robinson said that for years he'd thought that Frederick was the outer boundary for those willing to commute to the Washington area, that "the Appalachian Mountains would always be a buffer . . . but [Hagerstown] is a suburb now."
Cynthia Moler, the Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage agent who helped him find his house, said: "People down where you are may think Hagerstown is too far, but when I tell them the price, they're interested. And then I say, 'Why don't you come up and have lunch with me?' and they see it's not that far."
The best part, said Robinson, is "I sold a 2,100-square-foot home and bought a 4,000-square-foot house. I got double everything -- double the lot, double the house square footage and, you might say, double the smile because I paid so much less than what I had sold for."
Jamie Stafford, one of Robinson's co-workers in Reston, got more than double when he and his wife, Michelle, and their two children left Gainesville in summer 2004 for the Charlottesville-Richmond area.
The Staffords traded a Colonial four-bedroom on a third of an acre in Prince William County for a custom house of the same size on 21 acres.
Stafford said the move was motivated by several things, including the fact that his wife's family is from the Charlottesville area, his ability to transfer to the Richmond Verizon office and his growing distaste for Northern Virginia's traffic and "the whole hustle and bustle." But the prices in Charlottesville played a major role in the decision-making process, he said.
"Even though we may have been able to get good money for our house in Gainesville, trying to replace it" with a bigger house or more land for the same price would have been difficult," he said.
The "one disadvantage of being in a rural area," Stafford said, is that his area doesn't yet have the wired-in technology that would let him telecommute. But the profit on his house and the savings the family has gained by having an aunt watch the children have allowed his wife to go to a four-day workweek.
His traffic nightmares have also subsided, he said, because the trip to work from his new house is a direct shot on Interstate 64. He said he doubled his commute, to 65 miles each way from 28 miles, but reduced his commuting time to about 60 minutes per trip from about 90.
Stafford is still on the road longer than he'd like, he said. But it's not as stressful. "Would you rather just drive and listen to the radio or would you rather sit there and watch people's brake lights for an hour and a half? I'd rather just sit in the car and just drive."