Tips to enter the D.C. housing market

These starter home candidates in the D.C. region all come with price tags of less than $500,000, according to the MRIS Homes, a local listing service. Click on the map for more information about each home, which are currently or were recently available.
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This one-bedroom, one-bath flat in the Dupont Circle area is listed for $489,000. Located at 18515 19th St. NW, this condo unit offers tall ceilings and upgraded finishes, including a gourmet kitchen with walnut cabinets. (Courtesy MRIS Homes)

This one-bedroom, one-bath Capitol Hill condo is listed at $375,000. Located at 243 10th St. SE, this unit comes with a dedicated parking space, hardwood floors, new appliances, built-in bookcases and shared laundry facilities. (Courtesy MRIS Homes)

Located at 311 6th St. SE, this two-bedroom, 1 1/2-bath condo is on the market for $465,000. This Capitol Hill condo offers custom cabinets in the kitchen to maximize space and a rear walk-out to the courtyard. (Courtesy MRIS Homes)

Located at 2611 Adams Mill Rd. NW, this one-bedroom, one-bath condo is selling for $330,000.  The home is near shops and nightlife and offers a fireplace and balcony in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. This pet-friendly unit offers 526 square feet. (Courtesy MRIS Homes)

This four-bedroom home in the Brookland neighborhood is selling for $449,900. This three-story home at 600 Allison St. NE, offers more than 2,000 square feet of space, including a basement. The home has been remodeled and comes with a fenced-in yard. (Courtesy MRIS Homes)

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This Navy Yard co-op at 1000 New Jersey Ave. SE is listed for $334,508. The unit comes with 692 square feet of space, one bedroom, a single bathroom, a walk-in closet and a gourmet kitchen. Garage parking is available to rent. (Courtesy MRIS Homes)

This Woodbridge, Virginia, town house comes with 9-foot ceilings, remodeled bathrooms and a walkout basement. The home, listed at $499,900, lies in the Belmont Center neighborhood, which is adjacent to the Woodbridge VRE station. (Courtesy MRIS Homes)

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Located at 13312 Maple Leaf Lane, in Woodbridge, this four-bedroom house is on the market for $289,900. This two-story home has a new roof and water heater. The large backyard is fenced. (Courtesy MRIS Homes)

Located at 10105 Gladstone St., in Silver Spring, this Cape Cod-style house offers three bedrooms and two full baths. The home is listed for $395,000 and features hardwood floors in the living room and bedrooms on the main level. The nearest Metro station is Forest Glen. (Courtesy MRIS Homes)

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WASHINGTON — To enter the cutthroat D.C. housing market, first-time homebuyers have to be fearless and flexible.

Veteran D.C. Realtor Brenda Small says there are starter homes available locally that will fit any budget if hunters just know where to look.

“You’ll find the house that you want if you stay in the lane that you can afford,” says Small, who is an associate broker with Keller Williams Capital Properties.

Money First

Finding an affordable home in the pricey D.C. market can seem like an impossible task. Small says would-be homebuyers need to do their homework, know what they can afford and have their financing approved before they begin.

In April, the median sale price for single-family homes in both D.C. and Montgomery County was $625,000, but $430,000 for condos and co-ops. For the suburbs of Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax, the median home sales price was $485,000.

Small works with house-seekers whose earnings range from $40,000 to up to $200,000 a year, and many of them take out a home loan to buy that first slice of the American dream.

The Basic Starter Home

“It’s very different from what you’d find in Omaha, Nebraska,” Small says of starter homes in the D.C. region.

These homes come with high asking prices, their owners often stay in them longer and they vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, county to county, she says.

In the urban core of D.C. (think Capitol Hill or Downtown), house hunters will find one-bedroom condos close to restaurants, fitness centers, parks and the Metro, Small says.

What they aren’t likely to find are two- or three-bedroom homes, which are few and far between, she says.

Eligible starter homes featured by the MRIS Homes, a local listing service, include several condos on Capitol Hill and another near Dupont Circle. They all come with asking prices of less than $500,000, but range in size from 526 square feet to 823 square feet.

Move into neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights or Petworth, and buyers will find row houses with small yards and more space than a condo downtown offers.

Travel a few minutes north on Georgia Avenue, Small says, and the Brightwood neighborhood near the old Walter Reed campus offers stand-alone houses with backyards, off-street parking and multiple bedrooms.

Spreading out

Homebuyers should consider lesser-known neighborhoods such as Brightwood — this is where the flexibility comes in, says Small.

D.C. is growing rapidly and so are home prices west of Rock Creek Park. Sky-high prices, limited inventory and intense competition (cash purchases or 50 percent down instead of the typical financing with a small deposit are common here) have pushed more and more buyers east. Neighborhoods that were once considered blighted or unsafe just a few years ago (Exhibit A: the 14th and U Street corridors) look very different today and are worth considering, Small says.

“Buyers get so afraid that they can’t afford anything that they drop out of the market,” she says. “They have to be willing to expand their search,” Small says.

Neighborhoods like Deanwood, Michigan Park and Riggs Park all offer affordable homes for willing buyers. They sit just a few minutes further out for the city’s core, but still offer Metro access.

Crossing state lines will help hunters find even more space. One couple Small worked with was willing to spend more than $700,000 on their first home. But even with their higher budget, the competition was too intense and they shifted to Silver Spring.

They ended up buying a three-bedroom house in the Montgomery County community, which offered Metro access and plenty of room for their family at a much lower price — $510,000, Small says.

Travel outside the Beltway, and shoppers can get even more for their money. The starter homes currently featured by the MRIS Homes include a Woodbridge property with four bedrooms and two baths for just $289,000.

Super Value

Buying a home is as much about value as it is about price. Value is what you get for that money — amenities, financial security — price is what you pay, Small says.

Want to be near night life? Need more space for a baby on the way? Want to be near a dog park? Need room to park multiple cars? Ready to say goodbye to rent increases?

Homebuyers need to know what they want and stick to that list of needs and desires as they search for that perfect first home, she says.

“Don’t be afraid of the search,” Small says.

Keep looking, don’t settle, she says. The right home is out there.

Starter home-buying mantras from Small:

  • Be flexible
  • Be financially prepared
  • Be preapproved in advance
  • Be ready for competition when and as needed
  • Don’t be afraid
  • Do what you can do
  • Buy what you can afford — there are locations that will offer that
  • Work with a realtor who is knowledgeable

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