DC Real Estate 101: Tips for Starting a House Hunt in Washington, DC

As you may have seen on Insta or in this post, we recently bought a condo on Capitol Hill! So naturally, I must be an expert on launching a house hunt in Washington, DC now, right?!

We closed 2 weeks ago today and, at this point, I’d like to consider myself an expert on navigating a house hunt in Washington, DC. We looked at probably 100 open houses throughout our search and went through so many different phases of what we thought we wanted. Today, I’m going to share with you a bit about how we organized our thoughts at the very beginning of the process.

TIPS FOR STARTING YOUR HOUSE HUNT IN WASHINGTON, DC

No surprise here, I’m a tiny bit picky when it comes to our home. I have a vision and know exactly what I want—which meant that our house hunting process lasted almost (over?) 2 years. Adam and I started looking when we first discussed moving in together. He’s someone who believes in buying over renting, so we were hoping to find something by July 2017 when my lease was up.* Clearly, that didn’t happen. We rented a place that we actually loved for 2 years (if you’re looking in the H Street area for an apartment, check out Station House!), and, on a whim this spring, just as we’d accepted that we might rent for a few more years, we found a place that ticked off most of our boxes.

My biggest tip for a launching house hunt in Washington, DC? Be flexible and fast. Property moves quickly and, unless you have an unlimited budget, you’re probably not going to find your dream home. Now, let’s get into some of the first things we did when we started looking…

*Adding a note here because I’ve advised a few people recently that renting for a year or two, particularly if you’ve never lived with the person you’re buying with, is a MUST. You have no idea what you really need or don’t need when it comes to living with someone until you’ve, duh, lived with them.

 

house hunt in washington, dc - capitol hill real estate

SET A BUDGET FOR YOUR HOUSE HUNT IN WASHINGTON, DC

I’m going to do a few posts on the home-buying process and most of the un-sexy things like finding a realtor, getting a pre-approval letter, and everything else that’s necessary before you even put in an offer will be covered in my next post. However, regardless of whether you’re getting into the nitty-gritty logistics at this point, it’s still important to set a budget. Without a budget, you’ll have no idea where to begin. And, unless you’re on a home and garden tour, there’s really no point in looking at 4-story townhouses in the heart of Georgetown if your budget is 500K.

In setting a budget, you’ll want to think about both the down payment that you’re comfortable with and the monthly payment that works with your lifestyle. Plan on at least 20% for the down payment, and, when it comes to your monthly mortgage payment, the general thinking is that your housing should be no more than 30% of your gross income. For us, dedicating 30% of our monthly expenses to housing seemed really high, particularly because we prefer to have our money go towards savings or travel. So, we decided to set our cap at 20%.

With those numbers in mind, we were able to inform the neighborhoods that were available to us and the size of home that we could realistically afford.

NARROW DOWN YOUR LIST OF NEIGHBORHOODS

Assuming you’ve been in the area for a while, you probably have a neighborhood that you know and love, but this could be the time to expand your horizons a bit! Before I moved into our H Street apartment, I had always lived in NW DC. Adam, on the other hand, had always lived in NE DC. It took some convincing, but Adam got me on board with looking on the east side of town. While we could have found a place within budget in NW DC, the property values are a bit more consistent over there, and Adam wanted to find something that would have the room to appreciate quickly.*

I wanted a neighborhood that felt safe, that was super walkable, metro-accessible, and, perhaps most of all, had some personality and charm. I was 100% willing to sacrifice square footage for location. We looked at a few neighborhoods in NE DC, Eckington and Brookland in particular, that were cute, had wonderful homes, but just felt so, so quiet. For me, if I’m going to be in the city, I want to feel like I’m in the city—I want people and noise!

Other neighborhoods we looked at included Trinidad and Navy Yard. If you’re looking for a gorgeous, newly renovated home for a reasonable price, you’ll probably find one in Trinidad. It was a little less walkable than I wanted, but it is super close to Union Market and H Street, both areas that are blowing up right now. The homes around Navy Yard are cozy and super close to the metro, Whole Foods, tons of restaurants—I just didn’t vibe with the overall feel of the neighborhood.

We actually have a rental property in Hill East that Adam bought before we met and I would 100% recommend that area if you’re looking for space, a yard, and something that will rapidly increase its value. There are tons of young families and Hill staffers moving into that neighborhood. However, it wasn’t for me because I do think you need a car to live there and I do not want to get a car.

So, that left us with the H Street/Atlas District area and Capitol Hill as our focus. If you want a fixer-upper, you’ll find it around H  Street and the Atlas District neighborhood. There are a lot of great bones that just need some love—many of the houses that come on the market are being sold by longtime homeowners and need a few updates. The coolest house we looked at was one that needed to be gutted a block off H between 8th and 9th. We put an offer on it, but it ended up going almost 100K over list.

Unlike the hip H Street area, Capitol Hill is super charming and established, the schools are good, and there’s definitely a community feel. When looking at the difference between these two neighboring areas, it’s best summed up in terms of food: H Street is your trendy vegan meal and Capitol Hill is your classic hamburger spot.

*I should probably note that while we did end up in SE DC, the place we found is two blocks from Eastern Market, so we are in an established area where property values are solid and likely aren’t going to bring us a huge return when we sell in 5 or so years.

MAKE A LIST OF YOUR MUST-HAVES AND NICE-TO-HAVES

Once you have your desired neighborhoods in place, make a list of your must-haves and your nice-to-haves when it comes to the actual property. For Adam, he wanted an en-suite master bathroom and at least 1,200 square feet. For me, it was all about a really nice kitchen and closet space. Neither of us is into the DIY life, so we knew it needed to be either fully renovated or in need of a total (contractor-led) gut job. We’re not going to be ripping out kitchen cabinets ourselves.

When we first made this list, it definitely included a lot of cosmetic nice-to-have aspects that would later go out the window. Outdoor space, exposed brick, white kitchen cabinets, subway tile bathroom, crown molding, hardwood floors, etc. We did end up with a fair amount of these wish list items, but there are definitely those that we had to leave behind. For example, it just occurred to me as I’m writing this that we definitely didn’t get our fireplace.

Other important must-have items to include: central air (this was a non-negotiable for my sometimes-sweaty husband), washer/dryer, dishwasher, newish HVAC systems, solid exterior. These are all the boring items that can add up if you don’t have them or need to replace them shortly after moving in.

SPEND A DAY CHECKING OUT OPEN HOUSES

Next up, spend a day, hopefully in the spring when the market is busy, checking out as many open houses as possible. See what’s actually out there and what your budget can actually get you. We found out pretty quickly that our original list of must-haves and nice-to-haves needed to be overhauled. That en-suite master bathroom that Adam wanted? Probably wasn’t going to happen (spoiler alert: in the end, it did!).

We thought we’d have no trouble finding a 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath house. Then, the reality set in that these neighborhoods don’t even have houses that big. Almost everything is a 3 bedroom (in reality, 2 + den) with 1…maybe 1.5 bathrooms. We looked at so many houses that were 650-800 square feet—split between 2 floors! It’s crazy how small the houses in DC are, so we had to adjust our expectations on square footage as well.

It didn’t take long to understand the condition of homes that we were going to find in our budget and in the areas that we wanted, which leads me to the next topic…

REVISIT YOUR LIST OF MUST-HAVES AND NICE-TO-HAVES

With a good grip on the reality of the market in your preferred neighborhoods, revisit your list of must-haves and nice-to-haves. Maybe it’s more important to you to have a fully renovated space, even if it’s a bit smaller than you initially wanted. Maybe you don’t need that guest bedroom. Or, maybe, you’re willing to redo the bathrooms at a later date to get your dream kitchen.

For me, the most important things were still renovated kitchen and 2 bathrooms, along with location, walkability, and just a bit of outdoor space. Square footage wasn’t a priority and I knew that even if the decor wasn’t 100% our style, I could work with it.

While I’ll obviously share more in the weeks and months to come, we ended up with a condo over on Capitol Hill. Adam wasn’t crazy about the condo idea, but it’s in a circa 1880 rowhouse, so it feels homey, and he agreed that we would definitely not find a better location. It’s fully renovated, though a bit little sleeker than our personal style, but we’re working (with design ideas from this book!) to warm it up and make it feel a bit more us. We got 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and a postage-stamp sized patio, so we’re happy.

Have other questions about looking for a home in Washington, DC? I’m happy to answer questions about my experience or even put you in touch with our realtor. Shoot me an email and we’ll chat!

 

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