We live in a transient area with a lot of options for housing at many different income levels. On the whole, it’s an expensive metropolitan region and even people who work full time can find it impossible to find housing that they can afford on a monthly basis. Although some people may disagree with suburban sprawl and what that means for commutes and quality of life, it’s given some wonderful housing and community options to residents who otherwise may have been forced out of the DC metro workforce and housing market. As someone who grew up in Alexandria and has lived in DC, Arlington, and now Reston it’s been incredible watching the development and rehabilitation of housing from DC to Warrenton over the last (nearly 4) decades.
A lot of people envision purchasing property as soon as they are able, as part of a long-held tradition and value in this country. And although I help people buy real estate for a living, in my personal experience, the “homeowner” status was initially something I plugged into rather than putting in the hard work needed to save, research, and make that decision on my own. My husband had already purchased a townhouse when we started dating. When we later married, I was able to enjoy the benefits of being a homeowner, not the least of which was ultimately being able to leverage that equity and purchase a single-family home when our family started growing.
As a Realtor, I’m always honored to work with first time home buyers. I think about my husband saving for years and then looking at lot of properties, and finally making the decision on his own to purchase his first home. Many times, first time homebuyers in this area are rooted elsewhere. I imagine the resilience and responsibility it would take to move here from another state or country after high school or college, establish a career, research neighborhoods and commutes, and then be able to purchase property in one of the most expensive areas in the country.
The question of buying vs renting arises frequently in this business. A lot of the pros and cons of each are obvious and although a Realtor can help you with either decision, it’s ultimately a decision that consumers get to make on their own, based on finances, personality, and overall comfort level with commitment.
Like any large investment, it comes with risks. Prices can rise, or fall based on neighborhood or economic dynamics outside of a homeowner’s control. Rates can rise and leave a smaller pool of buyers in the market when you decide to sell. School ratings can drop, condo or HOA dues can increase, and sometimes you can just wake up one morning and decide you want to move to another city and find yourself tethered to a large purchase. In these cases, maybe it would be safer to rent.
I’ve always liked the idea of owning homes and helping others purchase homes, for many reasons. There are a lot of studies that support my belief in home ownership. Studies have shown the improved safety of residents, the stability of neighborhoods and schools, the strength of local economies, and overall investment in local issues among home owners. Watching clients experience success in making good real estate investments and being able to walk away with a return on their investment, even within 5 years, always feels like a success. Personally, my husband and I have been able to incrementally improve each property we have owned, turned a profit, and been able to put that into an investment that’s a better fit for our current needs. In general, even as values appreciate, holding onto a property (while properly maintaining and making some improvements) for at least 5 years is the most secure use of a real estate investment. It’s hard to build equity in under 5 years.
Renting is the best option and sometimes the only option for a lot of people and that comes with it’s benefits too. It might allow a person to live in an expensive area with amenities they love (not the least of which is a dynamic work force), without having to be able to save for a down payment or take on the maintenance costs of being a homeowner. If your heating system stops working in the winter, it’s the landlord’s responsibility to fix it. It allows you to be flexible with life’s big decisions – a possible relocation to a new city, falling in love and wanting to move to a new home with your partner, or having to suddenly be a caretaker to a loved one who lives in a different state. Being a “Renter” doesn’t label you for life, nor does being a “homeowner”. In fact, many of our clients sell a property and decide to rent before making their next investment decision. There’s a time and a place for either decision.
If you have established yourself in a locale, are comfortable with your current savings and debt, and plan to be in an area for 5 or more years, then buying is a great option. In the DC Metro area, real estate is a safe investment and although the maintenance of homeownership comes with risks, the housing market is stable with steady increases in value. Talking to a professional in the lending industry or a financial advisor is a great starting point to see the cost of buying upfront and what monthly expenses would look like at different price points. Realtors can give you ideas on where to get the most bang for your buck and how to find the best balance between a complete fixer upper and a more conservative investment that may just require some small improvements to increase the market value.
If homeownership is a goal, then it’s a great idea to talk to a Realtor or lender as soon as you have the time. Like any large purchase, it makes sense to get all the information so you can develop a blueprint and plan for saving and researching so that when the right property becomes available, you are poised to maximize the moment.