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Millennials, the much-maligned but largest living generation, have had a rough go of it. From graduating into a depressed job market to a crippling student loan burden to astronomical housing prices in high-demand cities like DC, there are many factors that combine to make homeownership a difficult proposition for the (roughly) 22-to-38 demographic. It’s no wonder that the high cost of real estate is often cited as pushing Millennials out of the area altogether.

Of course, high prices and limited supply affect those of any age. But Millennials, many of whom are trying to figure out how to stay in an expensive metro area and raise a family, were the focus of a recent home-buying panel organized by Greater Greater Washington in conjunction with the DC Association of Realtors. The event was sponsored by Chanin Wisler of First Washington Mortgage. (You can attend events like this for free as a member of the GGWash Neighborhood.)

Dream the impossible dream

All hope is not yet lost, at least according to the panel convened by GGWash. Moderated by Editorial Board member and real estate agent Dan Reed, the panel consisted of recent buyers, real estate agents, and a lending expert, who agreed that housing opportunity still exists in DC – if you can be patient, open-minded, and a little bit lucky.

There are a lot of things to think about when considering a real estate purchase, and all panelists agreed on the importance of due diligence – knowing your household finances and lending limit as precisely as possible, working with a good real estate agent who understands your needs, and finding a lender who can walk you through all of your options.

The number one piece of advice? “Don’t wait to buy real estate,” said agent Harrison Beacher of Keller Williams Realty. “Buy real estate and wait.” While you’re holding off to save up for that dream home, you could be building equity in something more modest.

OK, makes sense – if you can afford it. But where to start?

Know your limits

First, shopping around for different lenders is encouraged. While many Millennial clients are understandably hesitant to lock themselves into a contract too quickly, “you’re not committing to anything” by getting pre-approved for a loan, says Beacher.

When you settle on a good fit, your lender can help you determine exactly what you can (and can’t) afford. Many audience members were relieved to hear that needing a large down payment is a “misconception,” according to loan officer Chanin Wisler. Through various programs, down payments as low as 3% are possible.

Recent first-time buyer Nicole McEntee spoke for many Millennials when she noted that while such financing options are useful, we all know of friends or acquaintances who have lost out to big cash offers. That isn’t going to happen every time, but you still need to be prepared for a potentially long search.

Keep an open mind

It came as no surprise to hear that knowing what you can afford may also mean sacrificing some of your preconceptions of a dream house. Whether it means a smaller unit, a different neighborhood, or (gasp) non-granite countertops, both Beacher and Suzanne DesMarais of Compass said that managing expectations is a key part of the process. Beacher cautioned that many of his clients have a hard time coming to terms with the idea that the “cool” neighborhood they currently rent in may well be out of reach when it comes to buying.

Still, DesMarais said, even as currently-trendy neighborhoods climb out of reach, attention tends to turn to other neighborhoods that haven’t been as saturated; staying ahead of trends can open up opportunities for a relative bargain. Beacher noted the buzz around Amazon’s HQ2 – while the Crystal City / National Landing areas are obvious targets for real estate speculation, it’s likely a smarter move to look at places farther away that also have access to the Blue and Yellow Metrorail lines.

Be ready to pounce

Beacher and DesMarais cautioned that in a market with tight supply constraints, their clients face “short decision windows” on good properties.Sound scary? It doesn’t have to be.

Panelists noted that a good realtor will negotiate for buyer protections to keep their clients from, say, blowing their life savings on a ticking time bomb of repairs. While you can only ask the seller to accommodate so much, there will be inspection periods included in the contract that provide an opportunity to back out if needed.

Odds and ends

Like an old, creaky house, there are many more nooks and crannies to explore that go beyond the scope of a brief write-up. Here are a few more tidbits to keep in mind for any prospective buyers:

  • Don’t worry about “sweat equity.” While a popular concept for many years (the “HGTV effect”), in today’s economy, the market is going to build more than enough equity for you. By all means, DIY if it sparks joy for you, but don’t expect your selling price to change that much.
  • Explore non-traditional options. Both of the Millennial homebuyers on the panel purchased their properties in somewhat unusual ways. McEntee and her husband bought through a co-op, a process which she described as challenging but rewarding. Meanwhile, Daryl Thomas bought a fixer-upper home that already had tenants living in it – a factor that resulted in a closing period that lasted about a year from his first offer. (Both panelists noted that they were fortunate enough to have plenty of flexibility in their buying timeframe.)
  • Don’t push your limits. Both buyers left themselves plenty of breathing room when it came to financing, as they foresaw significant expenses (repairs for Daryl, child care for Nicole) that they needed to plan for in their monthly budgets for years to come.

Are DC’s doors still open?

Overall, the panel was optimistic for the prospects of Millennial buyers looking to stay in the District, and I for one did find some comfort in the myriad programs and opportunities that are out there.

Still, I appreciated Dan Reed noting the understandable frustration of many in the “priced out” generation who simply can’t afford to buy no matter how many sacrifices they’re willing to make – as well as the seeming unfairness of older homeowners in highly-desirable, transit-rich neighborhoods telling their younger brethren to suck it up and put up with less they did.

Finally, there’s the elephant in the room: inequality. As a relatively fortunate Millennial, I was keenly aware that many of the opportunities identified by the panelists simply aren’t available to those with high debt burdens, stagnant wages, and other all-too-real issues that keep us from building up our savings.

Yes, Virginia, you can buy a home in the District. But it might take a lot more sweat before you get to the equity.

Will we see you at our next panel events?

GGWash is creating opportunities to bring conversations about urbanism into real life. Members of the GGWash Neighborhood attend for free! Please join today (for as little as $5/month) and we'll see you soon.

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Ben Lockshin works in public affairs by day, does theater and improv by night, and is a nerd about transit, housing, and urban development at all times. His play CAVEAT, a comedy about four young adults searching for affordable housing in DC, ran at the 2017 Capital Fringe Festival. He lives car-free on Capitol Hill.