“This market, in particular, is so competitive,” says Amanda, 34. “I was feeling a little disheartened.”
Still, many first-time buyers are breaking through. By planning carefully, exercising lots of patience and providing an extra cushion in their budget to better position themselves in the fierce bidding wars, the Adrians eventually found a way to make their purchase.
“This townhouse came open,” Amanda says, and recounted their thinking: “ ‘We really like this so let’s rock-and-roll. Let’s get in. Let’s do it and be done with it.’
“There were multiple bids. They liked us. It was a matter of figuring out how do you do a home inspection, a radon test? We wore masks, stayed six feet apart and minimized our contact [with everybody], keeping our family safe.”
With the onset of the coronavirus this spring, the housing market initially went into lockdown. Some sellers pulled their houses off the market while others kept their listings but banned house hunters from in-person tours.
Then in March, the Federal Reserve stepped in by purchasing mortgage-backed securities — bundled mortgages sold to investors — to provide more credit in the housing market. Since then, mortgage rates have plunged more than three-quarters of a percent to historically low levels. Those low rates should remain in place for the long term, with the Fed intending to continue its policy for the next three years.
The low rates have spurred a flurry of activity in the housing market as evidenced by several metrics: Existing-home sales were up nearly 21 percent year-over-year in September. The median existing-home sales price rose nearly 15 percent year-over-year in September. Housing starts, referring to the beginning of construction, were up 22.3 percent year-over-year in September.
And applications for new mortgages are up about 25 percent from a year ago.
Here are the stories of three families who managed to buy their first home amid the frenzy this year.
A covid-19 diagnosis
In mid-March Jon Merrill was speaking to friends and family by phone, pacing back and forth in his 560-square-foot apartment in the District’s NoMa neighborhood. “Every day it felt smaller and smaller,” he says.
Quarantined with covid-19, Merrill still had at least one other thing on his mind. He wanted to buy his first home, and kept looking online for the right place every day.
“I wasn’t too worried,” says Merrill, 32, who works for a local municipal government. “My symptoms were really mild. We had put the search on hold for a bit. Unless something looked really promising online we didn’t try to go to physically see it.”
During the first part of his search in January and February before the pandemic took hold, Merrill had seen a condo in National Harbor that he liked but it cost more than he wanted to spend. Once he recovered, he resumed his search, and, in early April, saw another place in the same area that piqued his interest.
“The first wow factor is the view,” Merrill says. “You look at the Capital Wheel, the Wilson Bridge and the Potomac. You see the pier and the Alexandria Masonic temple. If you step out onto the little Juliet balcony, you can see a panoramic view.”
This time, Merrill got lucky. “This is like the best place I’ve seen since January,” he says he was thinking at the time. “It was in the price range. I liked the area. It had that city feel that I wanted, that on-the-water feel. It was close to my work — a 20- to 25-minute drive.”
A day or two later, he made an offer — $450,000, under the $470,000 the owner was asking. The owner asked for $4,000 more, and Merrill agreed to $454,000 for the two-bedroom, two-bath unit. With 1,060 square feet, Merrill had what he wanted, providing enough space when his brother came to visit.
Yet it wasn’t instantaneous. Merrill had a goal and a plan for how to make it happen. “For me I wanted to have a place that I could call my own, that I owned,” he says. “The advantage of owning is that you’re building equity.”
Merrill says he has always known he wanted to be a homeowner. “That’s the natural progression of what you do. I always had it in my mind, even when I was growing up. You eventually own your own place — the American Dream, I guess. It was always a goal.”
During the pandemic, the market has been moving fast, often with multiple bids for a property within the first day or two of a property’s entry into the market. With the relatively low inventory, most buyers still have their wish list of features, neighborhood and price. The challenge is matching all that up with the amount mortgage lenders will be willing to offer.
“Everybody wants the moon,” says Susan Sonnesyn Brooks, an agent with Weichert Realtors, who worked with Merrill.
Typically, buyers and their agents prefer to know what they are qualified to purchase based on their income and other assets. Ideally, before browsing online or venturing out to view prospective homes, a buyer works with a loan officer from a mortgage company, a government entity or other mortgage lender.
Some agents refer buyers to mortgage lenders before they begin looking for homes to purchase. “I was talking with the mortgage lenders, and reached out to two of them,” Merrill says.
To prepare for the purchase, Merrill built up a nest egg. He opened up a second savings account at a different bank than his regular checking account to keep the funds for the home purchase separate. “I started funneling a couple hundred dollars a paycheck into it,” he says. “I built it up slowly” to $1,000 a month over 2½ years. “I put it aside and forgot about it. I kept it completely separate from daily expenses. I couldn’t see the money when I paid bills. I couldn’t be tempted by it. I was saving for this purpose.”
Though financial experts sometimes advise setting up an automatic transfer of funds from a checking account to savings or having a portion of a paycheck deposited directly into an interest-bearing savings account, Merrill had the discipline to move the money himself so that he could increase the amount when he decided he was ready. “I wanted to be able to increase it if I could do more,” he says.
He qualified for a government-issued Federal Housing Administration mortgage for first-time home buyers, and was only required to pay a minimum of 3.5 percent of the loan amount as a down payment.
He also prepared for closing costs, which run from 2 to 5 percent of the purchase price of the home. Merrill said his closing costs were 3.5 to 4 percent of the sales price. Before buying, he had rented for 7½ years, first in Woodley Park then in NoMa.
With mortgage rates at record lows, he was able to secure a 30-year mortgage at 2.9 percent.
What suggestions does Merrill have for first-time home buyers?
“Go into the process with flexibility,” he says. “You’re not going to find exactly what you want. No place is perfect. Really know what is important and what you can be flexible on in the looking.”
Second, he says, be prepared for all the costs. “It’s not just the price of the place. The closing cost is huge. Furnishing the place is a cost. You don’t want to have nothing left to furnish the place and make any necessary repairs.”
Third, be aware of any monthly fees that typically come with condominium purchases, typically known as condominium fees, and know what is included in the fee. Finally, be aware of the real estate taxes.
If you’re buying a single-family house, there may not be any fees though there can be a monthly homeowners association fee, so inquire. In a market where properties are moving quickly, be aware that a seller may select a buyer who offers an all-cash transaction or larger down payment if a property receives multiple offers.
Home closing in the car
After being outbid on the three homes, the Adrians decided to take a break. Amanda took their daughter, Olivia, 3, and their dog to her parents’ house in North Carolina in early March while her husband, 35, who is in the Air Force, continued working.
When she got back, the pandemic had just hit, and they began to wonder how it might affect purchasing a home. Later, she wondered, “Are we going to have to push back our closing?” Banks, though, turned out to be an essential business.
The Adrians had relocated to Northern Virginia from Goldsboro, N.C., last summer and were renting in Arlington, Va. They realized they were likely to be in the area longer than they first thought, so decided to look for a home in December. “It made sense to put some roots down,” Amanda says.
In deciding how much they wanted to spend, the Adrians considered their total monthly payment, including the mortgage, homeowners association fee and real estate taxes, rather than the amount their lender would approve. “I’m pretty risk-averse,” she says.
Their initial budget was $550,000 to $600,000. They wanted space for a home office that could double as a guest room, as Amanda works from home, and a backyard.
With their agent Heidi Robbins of Buck & Associates of Arlington, Va., they found a townhouse in Alexandria, Va., that had almost everything they wanted, plus friendly neighbors. “People came out and waved and said welcome to the neighborhood,” Amanda says.
Knowing there would be competing bids, the Adrians included a letter with their offer telling the owners about themselves and how much they loved the place. “It was one of those, ‘it can’t hurt — it might help’ things,” Amanda recalls. They also bid slightly higher than their original budget on their first bid. Their strategy worked.
The sellers accepted the Adrians’ offer for the four-level townhouse. With three bedrooms, one could be used for an office — and there was a backyard.
As for the buying process during the pandemic, they minimized their contact with everyone, wore masks and followed the bank’s directions at the closing.
“We were intentional about what we were doing,” Amanda says. “We did the closing in the car.”
The Adrians signed the papers in their car, then put the documents in the trunkfor the seller to retrieve so there would be no contact. “It required some creative thinking,” she says.
Willing to compromise
When empty-nesters Steven and Mary Shapiro were looking for their first home last summer, they were sometimes competing with other buyers who offered a larger down payment or were not waiting for a Veteran Affairs-approved home inspector.
“I knew I wanted to live near a Metro stop if I could and could walk to something” whether a drugstore or supermarket, says Mary.
It was the first time the Shapiros, both 56, figured they’d stay in the same home for more than a couple of years. While he served in the Army as a logistician, they moved 21 times in 35 years.
“We moved around so frequently I never bought a house,” says Steven, who retired as a major general a few months ago. He has since begun a consulting position as a logistician in Reston, Va.
While searching, the couple rented a furnished apartment across from the Pentagon beginning in July, and figured they would find a place within a month. But it didn’t work out that way.
After losing previous bids on two other properties, they were discouraged but kept looking when their agent, Robbins of Buck & Associates, told them about a house that was about to come on the market.
It took 2½ months to find the house, originally built in 1934 as a Cape Cod in the Ashton Heights neighborhood of Arlington, two blocks from the Virginia Square station on Metro’s Orange Line.
The second owner of the house had enlarged it from two bedrooms and a bath to four bedrooms and three baths. They made an offer for the house that was listed at $1.4 million, and moved in Sept. 28.
“We’re excited to have our own place,” Mary says. “I didn’t realize how competitive it was going to be. We had to be patient and be willing to make compromises,” noting that one compromise was not finding her “dream kitchen.”