D.C. home-buying heats up Washington: Tired of long commutes and lured by signs of revival, middle-class singles and returning suburbanites drive a mini-boom.

November 11, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- If the recent breathless pace of home sales is a fair indication, the city that basically had a "kick me" sign stuck to it for years is suddenly hot again.

Forget the giant potholes, unplowed winter streets, misdirected ambulances and uncollected trash that have long made the district easy to tease.

Recently, a house on a leafy block in Northwest Washington sold for $400,000 in a day. The buyer let it be known: She could pay cash.

That sale was a stunner. But not much more so than many other deals in Washington as the city enjoys its best year of home sales in nearly a decade.

Like other cities, the district continues to lose residents to the suburbs. But even so, a new generation of residents has contributed to a 50 percent increase in home sales in the district so far this year.

"I think there's a real feeling of hope and anticipation here now," says Nancy Wilson, a real estate agent here for 18 years.

"More people want to get into the city."

Longtime Washingtonians credit the real estate boomlet to a handful of factors.

New residents are drawn by the prospect of an easy city commute to work and by improved services amid the district's financial recovery.

Meanwhile, a newly elected management-minded mayor is sealing the image of Washington as a city on the mend.

Sales here are also spurred on by the recent implementation of a $5,000 federal tax credit to new homebuyers in the district.

But the real estate surge may be about more than that.

"Potholes are getting fixed, there's a new schools superintendent who is trying to clean up the school system, the police are beginning to be more in evidence and, like other cities, the crime rate is going down," says George Grier, a statistician and demographer who specializes in the district.

"There's the MCI Center downtown, all the theaters, and there's construction all over the place -- the streets are crowded at 11 at night now. They weren't before."

In the district's wealthier areas, bidding wars are now common.

Confident of fetching big offers, owners are selling homes themselves without the help of brokers.

And brokers are telling their clients to buy before a home is actually listed on the market, mindful that once the property acquires some buzz, it will be gone within a few weeks, days, sometimes hours.

Help on the way

Mayor-elect Anthony Williams, who campaigned with the promise of balanced books and efficient government, told residents and anyone else who was listening on election night that "help is on the way."

But the district's outlook began to improve before Williams made that vow, as downtown development and a strong regional and national economy helped pave the way for a mini-boom.

Leading the charge are single people without children, who make up the largest group of prospective buyers snatching up the district's limited supply of middle-class homes.

But it's not just those "non-breeders," as one agent calls them, who are warming to city life.

Increasingly, middle-age suburbanites who had soured on the district in the 1980s are coming back -- some of them tired of dining at the strip mall, fed up with traffic or just eager for more sophisticated cultural experiences.

And, perhaps most tellingly, some young families are putting down roots.

Paying full price

Christel and Paul Morley, eager to start a family, bought their new home in Northwest Washington five days ago. They wanted the house so badly they agreed to pay the list price, fearful that any lower offer would prompt a bidding war.

"The whole thing took less than 48 hours," says Christel Morley, 29, who is four months pregnant and at the moment less worried about the troubled public school system than about the effects on her family of long suburban commuting.

"We don't want to spend a long time in the car," she says. "That wouldn't be good for a family life."

For the Morleys, deciding to buy here was easy. But making the deal in this competitive climate was anything but.

The couple had fallen in love with a cozy Cape Cod in Northwest Washington, but theirs was one of nine offers. The Morleys raised theirs twice.

But the house went $28,000 over its asking price, to a woman who proved that she could pay all $400,000 without a mortgage, if need be. For the moment, at least, the expectant Morleys and their new chocolate Labrador were left out in the cold.

More houses are selling

Agents say the 1998 rise comes after the real estate market bottomed out last year. At times, fewer homes were on the market this year than in 1997, but more were actually sold.

So far this year, 5,390 homes have been sold in the district -- far beyond the 3,606 at this same point in 1997.

"I had 19 offers on a single house this year," says Elizabeth Russell, a real estate agent who says the D.C. market is nearing the frenzy of the last boom, in 1987.

"If you don't get an offer in this market, then you know something is drastically wrong."

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