Rising home prices, low inventory and higher interest rates are pushing many buyers’ dream homes further and further out of reach, real estate agents say, particularly in metropolitan Washington’s more popular neighborhoods.
But while purchasing on Capitol Hill or in Cleveland Park, Bethesda or Del Ray may be less and less likely for some, finding an equally grand home in an alternative neighborhood may be within reason.
By opening their minds and expanding their search just a bit (and perhaps making a trade-off or two), buyers may be able to find the right house at the right price.
At least that’s what Eric Westphal and his girlfriend, Lauren Posey, recently discovered.
Westphal and Posey searched in Logan Circle, Columbia Heights, Arlington, Del Ray, Petworth and Takoma Park. Westphal says everything they liked was at the upper end of their price range (about $600,000) and likely to generate a bidding war. Finally their real estate agent, David Shotwell of Lindsay Reishman Real Estate, showed them Brookland in Northeast Washington.
“The next day, we made an offer with an escalation clause on a Brookland home that was listed at $429,000,” says Westphal. “To me, Brookland is almost like a Northeast version of Cleveland Park, with the restaurants and shops on 12th Street and all the new development coming into the area. We’re happy to be on the Red Line for commuting, too.”
In seeking alternative neighborhoods, Westphal and Posey were able to purchase a renovated Federal-style rowhouse with three bedrooms, two full baths, central air conditioning, an upgraded kitchen, a nice back yard, two off-street parking spaces and 1,800 square feet, and paid well below their budget. Their new home is only about one mile from their previous apartment.
“When people say they want to buy on Capitol Hill but can’t afford it, I take them to look at Petworth and Takoma Park,” says Djana Morris, a real estate agent with Long & Foster Real Estate in Washington.
“They’re not quite as expensive as Capitol Hill but still offer proximity to downtown and to Metro,” Morris says. “The problem is, alternative neighborhoods have some of the attributes people want in places like Capitol Hill, but not all of them. If you have to have Metro, then Columbia Heights and the east side of Georgia Avenue work, but if you don’t need Metro, Brightwood is another good option, although it’s mostly residential.”
Morris says other neighborhoods that can be an alternative to Capitol Hill include Trinidad, north of Florida Avenue in Northeast Washington, where homes are selling in the $400,000s and $500,000s. She says the neighborhood used to have a lot of crime but is improving, in part because you can walk from there to the H Street corridor. Morris’s other recommendations for less-known neighborhoods include Brookland, 16th Street Heights, Crestwood and Colonial Village, where buyers can find lower prices, larger homes and larger lots compared with downtown communities.
Buyers looking for a more suburban feel within the city limits can look at Shepherd Park, Fort Dupont Park and Hillcrest, which are all primarily residential with very little retail but have homes available in the $300,000s and $400,000s, Morris says. She also says buyers should look at Southwest, which has three Metro stops, shops and restaurants and is in the midst of redevelopment.
“Choosing a neighborhood has a lot to do with your lifestyle,” says Tony Hain, an associate broker with Lindsay Reishman Real Estate in the District. “If you want to be able to walk everywhere and go out to lots of different places, then that usually trumps the size and features of a home. If you want to stay home more, than you’ll be more focused on the size and amenities of the home itself.”
For many of Hain’s buyers, location near a Metro station is paramount, so they choose to live in Dupont Circle, Columbia Heights or Capitol Hill. But for those who rely less on public transportation, he says, 16th Street Heights and Brightwood are viable alternatives.
“If Dupont Circle is out of someone’s price range, we start looking east and north from Logan Circle into Shaw, the Mount Vernon Square and convention center area and into NoMa,” says Hain. “These areas aren’t Dupont Circle, but they have some of the density people want. Bloomingdale is another option, although some people are getting priced out of there, too. I also take people to see Takoma Park, although the closer you are to Metro in that area, the higher the prices. Southwest is an area that a lot of people ignore, but has access to Metro, shops and restaurants, and there are plans for more development there.”
For those who are determined to buy in a hot neighborhood, Hain suggests looking for a home that has been maintained, but perhaps hasn’t been renovated in seven years or so.
“There’s lots of demand for places in perfect condition and, on the flip side, for places that need a complete gut renovation,” says Hain. “The ones that are in between give you more leverage for negotiating.”
Kris Paolini, a real estate agent with Redfin in Rockville, says that most buyers are willing to compromise a little on the condition of a home in order to live where they want, but he says about half of his buyers switch neighborhoods. One buyer who wanted to live in the city looked at places in Bethesda and ultimately decided to buy in Glover Park, a city neighborhood that’s slightly less expensive because of the lack of access to a Metro station.
“Once people figure out that $700,000 doesn’t go that far in Georgetown or Cleveland Park or Capitol Hill, they’re willing to go outside those core neighborhoods to places like Forest Glen, where you can walk to the Red Line Metro station and get a single-family home with a small yard for what you might pay downtown for a one-bedroom condo.”
Paolini says buyers looking for an urban, walkable neighborhood can look at Silver Spring or to “new urbanism” neighborhoods such as King Farm in Rockville, Kentlands in Gaithersburg or Rockville Town Center. He says North Bethesda near the White Flint Metro station is undergoing redevelopment now and will eventually become a walkable neighborhood.
“In Kentlands, you can find single-family homes in the upper $600,000s and low $700,000s up to $1 million,” says Paolini. “King Farm single-family homes are a little more expensive, but there are really nice large town homes priced in the low $500,000s and $600,000s.”
While city buyers tend to focus their search on neighborhood amenities and access to Metro, suburban buyers combine their interest in community features with the desire to live in a particular school district and in an area with good transportation options.
“In Alexandria, a lot of buyers want to be in Del Ray and Old Town, but homes on the market there sell fast with multiple offers,” says Nicky McDonnell, a realty agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Alexandria. “Buyers either need to make concessions on their wish list for their house or explore other areas like Kingstowne, which is easily accessible to Old Town and has lots of amenities. Lorton is another option, more suburban but also more affordable. Fairlington and west Alexandria near Shirlington are other areas that aren’t as hot as Del Ray and Old Town but aren’t far from those areas.”
McDonnell says some of her buyers opt to stick with their neighborhood of choice but look for a home that needs a little work.
“I recommend that instead of pursuing a house with an escalation clause, they should take the money and spend it on fixing up a place that needs some updating,” says McDonnell.
Darcy Steeg Morris and her husband, Brent Morris, said they hoped to buy in Del Ray but wanted to avoid a bidding war. McDonnell took their wish list — to be close to Metro and within the Alexandria city school district — and suggested they look northwest of Old Town in a subdivision called Virginia Village.
“We found a place that had been on the market two weeks without an offer because it needed some minor work done, so we bought it without a bidding war,” says Steeg Morris. “Although we’re not in Del Ray, we don’t feel like we had to compromise at all because we’re in a nice big town house with three bedrooms and two and a half baths, much bigger than what we could have bought for the equivalent price in Del Ray. This community has a nice neighborhood feel and it’s only about a half-mile to Metro.”
Tom Reilly, a real estate agent with the Belt Team at Keller Williams Realty in McLean, says he worked with first-time buyers who were set on buying a home in McLean with a budget in the mid-$700,000s.
“They wanted something relatively new and there just isn’t anything like that in McLean in their price range,” says Reilly. “They ended up compromising by buying a place in Vienna, a little farther out but also close to the Dunn Loring Metro station.”
Reilly says most buyers he works with today want a completely renovated home in a specific neighborhood and must compromise by spending more money than they planned.
“The school district is a big driver of where people want to live in Northern Virginia, so families sometimes compromise and move into a town house instead of a single-family home in order to buy in the school district where they want to be,” says Reilly.
Djana Morris says that while many buyers want to be where everyone else is, that’s not always the best way to purchase a home.
“You don’t have to be a trailblazer, you just need to look for neighborhoods that offer the amenities you want yet aren’t the place where everyone has to be right now,” she says.
Michele Lerner is a freelance writer.