The median home price in the US is $220k. Don’t expect to find anything near that in the Arlington area.
If you have a lot of cash on hand, minimal debt, and a great income flow, you can acquire a lovely home in the Washington region with significantly little stress. If you're like my fiancée and me, with good jobs and “professional” graduate degrees but attendant student loan debt and slightly delayed careers due to school and the recession, you probably can't even buy into the “starter” segment of the market without significant savings or a sudden gift or inheritance.
However, we did manage to buy a home in Arlington for $425,000. Here's how we did it.
When we originally moved to the area, we left a larger-than-we-needed house in Tennessee on a forested parcel with no sidewalks or public transportation. We brought along two cats and a large dog who doesn't like other dogs. This combination of animals works a wonderful combinatory magic when perusing craigslist: many places disappear.
In terms of commute, the consulting job I found near Fairfax High School was deceptively far from my fiancée's daily activities at American University. Running out of time, we jumped on a Craigslist posting for a townhouse near the Braddock Road Metro stop on the edge of Old Town, Alexandria.
But earlier this year, we started thinking about buying a home. My fiancée was in the homestretch of her Masters thesis and had lined up at least a year of work in the region following her graduation. Our combined income at that point would make our rent of the previous two years technically affordable. Of course technically-affordable rent doesn’t lead into a down payment, but we also had a bit of money coming from the sale of the house in Tennessee.
The situation had a pleasantly circular, but sad logic to it. A portion of her family’s homestead, hand-built by relatives she barely remembered, was going to allow us to set down roots somewhere else—our personal thread in the national tapestry of young professionals relocating to urban economic opportunity. With this gift, I realized that we could hit the 5% down payment to get a conventional mortgage, and ultimately have monthly payments lower than our current rent if the home price was less than ~$435,000.
However, every story about the local housing market spelled doom. More and more people want to live here, constricting the already-sparse pool of housing.
Here's what we wanted in our home
Early on we made a few lists to help organize our thoughts.
First, here are the things we absolutely wanted and were unwilling to compromise on:
- 2+ bedrooms
- Only one shared wall
- Some green space
- Walkable groceries
There were also a few things that didn't really matter to us:
- Schools (kids are not in the cards for us)
- Single-family home (duplexes and townhomes are fine)
- Completely updated (we had no issues putting in some sweat equity)
Here's where we decided to look
We never seriously looked at homes in Maryland. The prices in Prince George's were alluring but commutes were onerous, requiring either an end-to-end Orange Line trip (plus a bus or two), or participation in the collective nightmare that is rush hour traffic leading into the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. That would be a lengthier driving commute than one I already abandoned. I have a coworker with that commute, and he typically leaves home around 4 am.
As for DC, the parts of the city that would have been workable didn't surface a single home in our price range during the entire time we were looking. The same can be said for anything both north of Highway 50 and east of the Beltway in Virginia, although I did frequently see a hilarious ad for studios in McLean “starting at only $1.6M.”
I was already commuting for nearly three hours a day in maxi-modal style, mixing running, biking, buses, and rail (typically all in the same day). While I do manage to integrate exercise as well as some reading and writing time into my commute, 80-90 minutes each way is definitely my upper limit. As a side bonus to the transit commute, I was able to set more consistent work-life balance boundaries at work once my schedule was set by the bus and not my own car.
In comparison, I drove the first 13 months after moving to the area. In that time I took the most direct exit off of the Beltway into Old Town less than five times because the congestion was so bad that it almost always made sense to get off the road earlier, either north to Eisenhower or south into Huntington. The predictably terrible but still inconsistent traffic made me deeply unhappy.
My fiancée is more likely to drive, works in Old Town, and has a lower tolerance for transit. We ended up focusing on a crescent along the Virginia side of the Potomac and into DC. We contemplated going along the Orange or Silver Line outside the Beltway, but didn’t notice any appreciable drop off in prices to live further away from the things we enjoyed about the area. We’re also a single-car household and had to price in the cost of another car if we both ended up driving.
More than 500,000 people live in the shaded area of the map below which (roughly, it’s constructed from zip codes) matches our ideal area. The red circles are our office locations, numbers are home offers, stars are other homes we saw that were too expensive, too long of a commute, decrepit, or all three.
Here was our process
Most days, no homes within our price range were added to MLS, despite our entire search taking place during the busy season. Each week we might see one or two homes in our price range, and upon a showing, they tended to have major issues.
The value of land in the area seems to be so high that the actual houses available to us were worth very little. We saw a somewhat decrepit townhome with questionable water damage for $405,000, a well-maintained and updated duplex for $420,000, a 1,000 square-foot wood-shingled house in Falls Church that seemed to be rotting from the inside out (it sold in 72 hours for $415,000, $10k over the listed price), and a place in Huntington with a weird concrete pit of a backyard (pictured below) directly above the stairs leading into the basement.
Get ready to have an idea of the cost for things like roofs, AC, and basic remodels if you want to seriously consider these places as you see them for the first time, which you will probably need to do. Every home we put an offer on was the same day as our showing, and four out of the five were the same day the house went on the market. All of these houses closed in less than five days, and most closed in less than 72 hours. These timings weren't strictly business hours either; several took place entirely over a weekend, so having pre-approval for a mortgage and a responsive realtor and lender were key.
We starting a cursory search shortly after the new year, and then put in offers on five homes over a roughly five-month period stretching from early spring through late summer. Every offer we put in ended up with us inspecting the house for informational purposes only. We could back out, but there would be no negotiation over small details to repairs. There was no haggling in our favor, no deal-making in this market segment. The possibilities were sparse, and everyone knew it.
We looked at condos, but the monthly fees in communities we could afford upfront pushed our calculated monthly payments past the houses, duplexes, and townhomes that started out $50-60k more expensive. We’re also handy and enjoy DIY renovations and yard work, things condos typically don’t allow.
We made five offers
1. South Arlington: 936 sqft+unfinished basement, List: $425,000, Sale: $474,500
Early in our home search, when it still felt more tentative than real, I was suckered in by staging. With an immaculate setup throughout and a beautifully lit kitchen, I suddenly saw myself as a homeowner. I even convinced myself that the unfinished basement was kind of a plus. In the interim we could foster animals, and eventually turn it into anything we wanted.
Many other people also saw themselves in that space. It accumulated nearly 20 offers in 48 hours, and had a pending offer for ~$70k over asking less than five days after listing (selling for $50k over list at final closing). The emails from the listing agent in response to our offer felt derisive, as if he could not believe we only offered near list. This house had a single bathroom and less than 850 square feet above grade.
2. Arlington Mill: 1300 sqft, List: $424,500, Sale: $424,500
Just off of Columbia Pike, this duplex had a sizable expansion on the back, which added several hundred square feet. As a result it had less of a yard, but it did still have a yard. There were a few weird spaces inside due to the mixed construction (cinderblock original home, non-cinderblock addition), but it was within our price range and was first house we’d seen in a month.
We put in an offer and went $5k over. The home had previously been on the market, but the sale had fallen through. We were outside of the initial spring rush now, and hoped no one else saw it. Someone else did, with a realtor from the same agency that listed it. They got it.
3. Nauck: 850 sqft+finished basement, List: $415,000, Sale: $432,500
The house in Nauck was when I discovered it wasn’t just possible, but quite feasible to bike home from work. We first saw this house on a Thursday. It’s right off of the eastern end of the W&OD trail, a hike up the hills of Nauck, near the neighborhood’s peak. This home was a three-level space set on a corner. The outgoing owners had an eye for conservation and sustainability: new wiring, an electric car charger, brand new windows, high efficiency everything, and solar panels on the shed.
We put an offer in that evening, and within a day found out there had been many offers. We were asked for our “best.” We gave it and made the final cut—it was down to us and one other buyer. At this point, the offers were about $20k over the initial list, and the sellers were asking if there was anything else we might put on the table. We frantically did math at a wedding that Saturday, eventually offered to cover the first $5k of an appraisal/sale price difference. Our competitors waived appraisal entirely.
4. Arlandria: 1000 sqft, List: $360,000, Sale: $365,000
This is an end unit townhome just north of Del Ray and south of Four Mile Run. It's adjacent to new parks and trails in a rapidly gentrifying area and within biking distance of the forthcoming Potomac Yard Metro stop. It seemed be inhabited by at least a dozen people, and the owner had seriously neglected maintenance. The kitchen needed to be gutted, but otherwise a thorough cleaning would go a long way. We saw it twice, trying to peer through its lived-in state. It seemed to be up for sale—and it also seemed to be completely occupied.
I did some math, and for the $360k list it seemed almost impossible to not make our money back with a few renovations. We decided to be wary and offer slightly under. An unknown number of flippers offered cash, at and above the list price. We spent a weekend excitedly looking up DIY home renovation techniques (concrete countertops!), before our realtor called to let us know we weren’t even close.
At this point we began considering renting again somewhere cheaper and giving up for another year. Our lease was nearly up, and while it would go month-to-month we didn’t want to live with that uncertainty, particularly when we saw a few cheaper places nearby. As we began to look at rentals, we got a text late one night from our realtor letting us know about a listing that had gone up that evening—our eventual home.
5. Arlington Mill: 1100 sqft, List: $419,000, Sale: $425,000
We saw our house for the first time in a typically rainy 2018 day. It had cinder blocks on the outside, and the interior had been mostly remodeled or at least refinished. The kitchen and wood floors had been updated, but a back room had a suspect floor and terribly musty carpet. Like many homes in the area, it had been a longtime rental before being sold several years ago.
The walkthrough went well, and we told our realtor we’d let him know within an hour. The location was better than we had come to expect. With a short ride down some hills, you’re on the W&OD trail. Even better, it was nearly equidistant between our offices, and within a minute’s walk of both Metro and ART bus stops, making for a relatively easy trip either up Columbia Pike or to Ballston. When we had to drive we could, but otherwise a mix of bikes, buses, and rail was more than adequate for us to get around.
Less than 12 hours after it went on the market, we made an offer at list. Less than a day after that, at 10:30 in the evening, the seller told us that if we went to $425k the open house would be canceled and it would be ours. Had we missed that text or equivocated at all, it's very possible we would have missed our current home as well.
Finding a home was hard, and Amazon will make it even harder
Our final offer initially felt a bit like settling since it wasn’t our favorite home, but the location has proved to be excellent. Long Branch nature center is cool, and the food on Leesburg pike is solid. More strikingly, we haven’t seen a similarly priced home go up for sale in the intervening months.
In fact, I checked home sales <$450,000 with at least two bedrooms within the last 90 days for the entire shaded area in the map above. In total, there were 48 sales. All of those were either apartments or condominiums; there wasn’t a single duplex, townhome, or single-family home.
While some of the condominiums are duplex or townhouse arrangements, the fees in many of these older neighborhoods can be prohibitive. One area we saw several homes in, near Shirlington, had several options around $400k, but monthly fees around $400. Mid-century condo maintenance costs are non-negligible, and that’s a significant piece of the available housing stock in Northern Virginia near DC.
It’s possible we got in at the absolute tail end of a constricted but feasible market. With the recent Amazon announcement, it’s hard to imagine it getting any better in the foreseeable future. Our regional housing situation is a highly constrained system, and even modest changes to the inflow rate could have an outsize impact without active leadership and considered policy.
I'm not saying that Amazon opening a regional headquarters and slowly rolling in employees over 10 years will ruin a housing market serving millions of people. Rather, the area already has an astounding lack of housing even at the income level of young, educated professionals. Any increase in that demographic without commensurate increases in housing are going to restrict the options even further, and those with fewer financial resources than us will have even more difficulty finding homes.