Kristin and Jon Holmes play with Sophie, their rescue Doberman, in the back yard of their home in Alexandria, which they recently purchased to provide more space for their pets. (Dayna Smith/for The Washington Post)

When Kristin and Jon Holmes bought their 85-year-old rowhouse in the District’s Petworth neighborhood 21 / 2 years ago, it seemed big enough for the two of them.

That was before they began bringing in pets through their animal-rescue work. The lack of outdoor space for the pets to run free made it clear to them that they would need to look around for a new place.

“Finding a home with a bigger yard was a driving factor in our move,” says Kristin Holmes of their impending relocation to Alexandria. “We have a rescued Doberman and two cats, and we’re also thinking of starting a family.”

The Holmeses — who weren’t expecting the heavy competition they faced in Alexandria — know they’re lucky. Prospective home buyers have had a tough year in the Washington area market, forced into bidding wars for a limited number of homes available for sale.

But for move-up buyers who must sell one home before buying the next, the process of juggling simultaneous transactions can be especially frenzied and daunting. If all the pieces don’t fall into place, in a worse-case scenario, they can wind up losing their dream home and their earnest money.

“The important thing is to decide if you would rather take the chance that you have to pay two mortgages, which can happen if you buy a place before selling your home, or to move twice, which you could be forced to do if you sell first,” says Megan Buckley Fass, a real estate agent with in Northern Virginia.

Lenders are sometimes lenient when homeowners have the income and assets to qualify for two mortgages. But in many cases, they require homeowners to sell their home first or make an offer contingent on its sale. Fass says some of her clients opt to sell and move in with family or into other temporary housing to allow themselves more time to find a home to buy.

For prospective buyers who prefer not to move twice, the process can be particularly frustrating. Very few homeowners in a seller’s market are willing to accept an offer contingent on the sale of the buyers’ home when they can easily choose an offer without any contingencies. Yet realty agents have found some creative ways to pull off a move-up transaction.

Move-up buyers have more control on the other end: selling their current home.

They can make the sale of their home contingent on finding a home to buy and on a rent-back agreement that allows them to remain in the old home while they prepare to move, says Diane Schline, a real estate agent with Century 21 Redwood Realty in Arlington.“This can get you as much as four months to find a new home and to settle on it,” Schline says. “Many buyers would be willing to accept this if your home is in great condition and priced appropriately.”

In some circumstances, sellers may want to request a quick settlement so they have cash in hand for a purchase offer, says Sue Goodhart, an agent with McEnearney Associates in Alexandria. “They can then negotiate a 60-day rent-back during which time they would need to find a home, make an offer, settle on their next home and move,” she says.

Lenders limit a rent-back agreement to a maximum of 60 days, says Jessica Evans, an agent with Real Living/At Home in Washington. Any longer and the financing must be arranged as if the home is an investment property.

“It’s important to pick the most flexible buyer you can find,” says Frank Llosa, broker-owner of in Northern Virginia. “You want someone willing to close quickly and to pre-negotiate home inspection items so you won’t be spending your time fixing every light bulb. You should even negotiate an appraisal waiver to lower the risk of your home sale failing to go through. Ultimately, you want to have closed on your sale before you buy your next home.”

Although the selling part of the move-up process is easier, real estate agents do have recommendations on the buying side, too.

Ron Sitrin, an agent with Long & Foster Real Estate in Washington, says move-up buyers should look for homes that have been on the market for 20 days or more.

“While that might not seem that long in a normal market, it will feel like a long time to the seller,” he says. “As a move-up buyer who wants to make an offer contingent on the sale of your home, you need to convince the seller that your home will sell faster than they can sell their home to a non-contingent buyer.”

Sitrin also suggests that buyers who want to trade up to a home costing more than $1 million may have more success if they are selling a property valued at less than that price point.

“There are more homes under contract [to be sold] than listed for sale under $1 million, so your home is likely to sell in less than 10 days,” Sitrin says. “There are more homes listed for sale than are under contract in the over-$1 million price range. Buyers who want to trade-up need to convince sellers that they’re better off accepting their contingent offer than waiting for another buyer to come along.”

Sitrin warns, though, that sellers can choose to keep their home on the market with a “kick-out” clause if the deal is contingent on the sale of the buyers’ home. With a kick-out clause, if there is another acceptable offer, the buyer has to move ahead on purchasing the home. Otherwise, the seller can accept the other offer.

Sitrin says buyers can negotiate a seven-day or longer kick-out agreement, which means the contract cannot be voided if they sell their old home within that timeframe.

Dina Paxenos, a real estate agent with Evers & Co. Real Estate in Washington, says staying flexible as a buyer can make the transition less challenging. Paxenos, who was both the listing agent and the buyers’ agent for the Holmeses’ move from Petworth to Alexandria, says they initially wanted to buy in the Del Ray neighborhood but found that homes there were going under contract almost as soon as they came on the market.

“Dina suggested we look in Seminary Hills, an area about two miles from Del Ray, and we found a home that was in better shape than the ones we had seen before and less costly,” says Kristin Holmes. “It wasn’t an initial ‘we have to have this house’ experience. But this house checks all the boxes of what we wanted in terms of our needs, and it was under our budget so we can add a larger master suite after we settle on it.”

The Holmeses made a full-price offer with a 30-day home-sale contingency and then increased the amount by $5,000 when the seller didn’t immediately accept the offer. They also offered the seller a rent-back deal.

Paxenos says the Holmeses’ strategy helped them make the transition from one home to the next without moving twice, which they were particularly concerned about because of their dog and cats.

“Their home in Petworth already looked great, and then they cleaned it and decluttered so it didn’t even look like they lived there,” Paxenos says. “It sold on the first weekend with multiple offers.”

It’s important for move-up buyers to be extremely well prepared so they can move quickly, Goodhart says.

“To make the transition work, your home needs to be ready to sell, and you need to have done all your preliminary home searching so you know what you want, where you want to live and your price range,” Evans says. “Buyers need to look at listings every day, be ready to see a new listing as soon as possible and submit an offer as soon as they want a place. Don’t wait for the offer deadline, because some sellers will accept the first offer they get if it’s above list price.”

Melissa Macs McGovern and Steven McGovern, move-up buyers who relocated from South Arlington to North Arlington with the help of Fass, began prepping their house for sale while looking for their next place. But they found the house they wanted faster than anticipated.

“Megan found us a house that was listed on a Friday night, and we were able to see it on Saturday morning before the scheduled Sunday open house,” Steven McGovern says. “We made an offer on it that was accepted before any competing offers could be made.”

The McGoverns’ offer was not contingent on the sale of their home, but they offered an additional $10,000 to the seller to delay settlement for two months so that they could be sure their home would be sold first.

“We have two dogs and the seller has dogs, so she liked the idea that she didn’t have to keep showing her house,” Melissa McGovern says. “I moved to North Carolina with the dogs while Steven worked with Megan and some contractors to get our home sold. It was pretty stressful for all of us, but we were successful in the end.”

In every move-up buyer transaction, real estate agents recommend having a backup plan, such as identifying a temporary place to live, in case the high-wire act of coordinating settlements fails. In many cases, however, with flexibility and plenty of preparation, move-up buyers can make the seamless transition from one home to the next.

Michele Lerner is a freelance writer.