I grew up in the DC area before moving to the west coast from 2007-2013. When I moved back to the Virginia suburbs for grad school, I started dating someone who was paying $1300 (utilities and private bathroom not included) for a bedroom in a Brookland group house. That was the moment I realized I was returning to a very different–and very expensive–city.
When I lived in Brookland back in 2006, I couldn’t even get a cab home from U Street. Big Bear Cafe opened a few months after I moved, and apparently it transformed the neighborhood. I was scandalized, and immediately wondered if it was cheaper to own than to rent in the area.
The short answer is yes: my mortgage for a three-bedroom house in Prince George’s County is just over $1600 a month. Let me walk you through my process–and why I’m really happy I ended up buying a house in Prince George’s County.
What a girl wants
Inspired by Veronica O. Davis’s GGWash post about house-hunting, here’s what I wanted from my first home:
- Cost: Under $330,000 (total monthly cost of $1800 or less)
- Decent bike commute: I looked for properties that would let me safely bike downtown, that were within 12 miles of Metro Center
- Transit access: I wanted a daily commute that I could complete via transit in less than 40 minutes
- Walkability: I wanted to be within a (safe) 10-minute walk of a 24-hour convenience store
- Good rental income: I looked for properties that would turn a profit if I decided to maintain the property as a rental
- Good investment: I didn’t want to buy a property that was unlikely to appreciate further.
My options as a GS-9 (my pay grade as a federal employee)
There are a few ways that a mortgage can be cheaper than renting. However, I will note the sale price of smaller apartments seems to have jumped quite a bit since I was looking, and there are quite a few studios for rent in DC for about $1500/month). In my case, I had a down payment of about $20,000, and there were quite a few options when I was looking from 2015 to 2016.
I started my search in the District, considering studio apartments in condominium buildings as well as one-bedroom and studio apartments in co-op buildings.
Initially I looked at a few one-bedroom units in co-op buildings, which generally have lower prices than studios. Co-op buildings quickly came off my list because many of them had prohibitively high down-payment requirements.
Many co-ops in DC also prohibit residents from leasing their units, which paired with the strict financing requirements, means that these units can linger on the market due to the significantly smaller buyer pool. I didn’t see co-op units as ones with the kind of appreciation potential I was looking for.
At first I didn’t consider single-family homes because I was concerned about unexpected maintenance costs as a single person. I ultimately focused my search on single-family homes for a few reasons:
- The absence of condo fees meant that I could take out a bigger mortgage
- Home warranties do a reasonable job of controlling my out-of-pocket maintenance costs
- The condo market in close-in suburbs was unpredictable: Older apartments in Arlington and Silver Spring are selling for the same prices they went for 10 years ago. If any YIMBYs want proof that today’s luxury housing is tomorrow’s affordable housing, there are a lot of older condos that prove your point.
- My desire for a good investment: I thought that the single-family homes that met my criteria in Prince George’s County were undervalued, while the rest of the properties I looked at might be at the peak of their value. Part of this calculation was the presence of UMD College Park, which provides a captive renter pool. (I was also concerned about the District’s seeming hostility to landlords.)
I bought my dream house!
What better way to celebrate one year of homeownership than with a post about how much I love my neighborhood?
Ultimately I paid $290,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in a town adjacent to Hyattsville in September 2016, and I am within a 15 minute walk of the following amenities:
- The Northwest Branch Trail, which is an awesome bike route.
- A MARC station that gets me to Union Station in less than 10 minutes (my commute is faster now than it was when I rode the S bus downtown from Mt. Pleasant)
- The Hyattsville Arts District and a slew of local bars and restaurants
- A new Whole Foods that singlehandedly raised my property value by over 20k
- A delightful local bookstore called Robert Harper Books
Why don’t people consider Prince George’s? Unexamined racism is a factor
There are a lot of complaints about “affordability” in the DC area, but there seems to be a mental block around considering Prince George’s for a lot of people. I’m forced to conclude that many simply don’t want to examine their baggage around living in a “black” community, because a lot of the “reasons” given for not living here are not very reasonable.
In my experience, people will pay a premium for homes in Montgomery County “because of the schools,” but they do have options in Prince George’s.
For example, they could buy a home in University Park for half the price of comparable properties in Montgomery County. University Park is within a five-minute drive of two green line Metro stations. It also has public schools that are comparable to Montgomery County’s—and, if you really think the Prince George’s schools are that dire, you can pay to send your kids to MoCo schools for less than $15,000 a year.
The “free pre-K in DC” (a common argument for young people justifying their desire to buy in the city) doesn’t make it worth overpaying for a house there, either. In many cases, you’d be spending more on a house in DC than what you’d be saving in childcare over a 10-year period. So stop pretending it’s about the kids.
“But the taxes in Prince George’s are higher!” Sure, but my tax bill would be higher with a more expensive property in Montgomery County, even if my effective tax rate were lower. The math doesn’t work here.
I’m sick of hearing middle-income DC residents complain about the high cost of renting, when you can get a 2-bedroom apartment walking distance from the green line, in a perfectly safe and livable neighborhood, for well under $2000 a month.
For young adults, frankly it’s about dating and hooking up
Apparently living in Arlington is a big draw even if I can’t see major differences between the Hyattsville Arts District and Shirlington, or downtown College Park and Clarendon.
My experience has convinced me when most people in my income bracket complain about housing, what they mean is they can’t afford housing in majority-white neighborhoods, and/or in areas with a high “Bang Index.”
Let me explain. When I was considering a move to “the suburbs,” I was a bit concerned about adding a structural obstacle to dating. My boyfriend quickly moved in with me after seeing that I have a pretty nice setup, and he started wondering why more people in our demographic haven’t gotten on this grind.
We have a working theory that many young people have a crippling fear of living anywhere without a critical mass of pickup spots and prospects within a 15-minute bike ride of their crib. We assess said density of pickup spots and prospects according an unofficial numerical ranking we’ve dubbed “The Bang Index.” Columbia Heights has a pretty high Bang Index, while Riverdale Park is, on paper, pretty low since you cannot walk to happening pickup spots.
Nonetheless, in the few weeks between my big move and making things official with my sweetie, the Bang Index looked pretty good, judging from the number of cute graduate students who hit on me at the local bookstore. Also, College Park Tinder is lit.
For those of you who are holding off moving to the suburbs until you’re partnered, a word to the wise: there is nothing sexier than having your shit together.