Living here has been fun, but it’s time to go.
The decision didn’t come easily. I’ve lived in the District for most
of my life. When I was in elementary school, my family lived in a
one-bedroom apartment in Palisades. During college, I shared a
Georgetown rowhouse with four students and two dogs. Later, I rented
rooms in Columbia Heights and Petworth. I’ve learned how the streets
are set up and where the Metro runs and can identify most of the
city’s neighborhoods. I have friends and favorite hangouts here. And
for the past four years, I’ve owned a two-bedroom cottage in
Buying my first house at age 24 was both terrifying and empowering. It
remains the most grown-up thing I’ve ever done. As I signed the papers
for the 30-year loan, I couldn’t help thinking the bankers were
suckers for expecting me to live that long. I was at once worried
about termites and inspections and elated by the idea of putting up
whatever posters I damn well wanted in the living room.
But four years later, the house is still a fixer-upper. The bathroom
is missing some tiles. My bedroom walls are dotted with spackle. The
insulated music room in the basement features exposed fiberglass
between the studs. Water seeps in during periods of heavy rain. One of
the front gutters sticks out at a funny angle. You get the idea.
About six months ago, I saw a poster at the Farragut North Metro
station comparing a window box to a huge lawn to illustrate the vast
difference between real estate prices in Washington and Baltimore. I
visited the Web site www.livebaltimore.com and couldn’t believe what I
saw. The average price of houses sold in Baltimore City last year was
$131,000. Baltimore County ran a little higher at $233,000. In D.C.,
the Web site said, the average was a whopping $450,000.
I’ve never lived there, but I visit Baltimore frequently to attend and
play punk shows. There seems to be a greater availability of live
rock-and-roll there, and the price of beer at the bars is always a few
bucks cheaper. If I could find a nicer house there, I thought, I
wouldn’t be missing too much in D.C. other than the convenience of a
While researching Baltimore neighborhoods (which is incredibly easy to
do online, thanks to data provided by the Baltimore Neighborhood
Indicators Alliance at www.bnia.org), I still didn’t fully appreciate
how much I could afford there because I didn’t know what my D.C. house
was worth. I bought it for $119,000 in 2001 and refinanced in 2003 for
$150,000. It might have jumped a little since then, I thought, so I
asked a neighbor, who is a real estate agent. She guessed she could
sell it “as is” for $250,000. After just one weekend on the market, I
accepted an offer for $271,000.
The man I’m selling to is about my age. He is fortunate to be able to
afford something in this city’s tough real estate market. If I had
waited to buy, I wouldn’t have been able to afford any livable house
in this city. Certainly not my house.
The District is not as friendly an environment for low-income and
young adult home buyers as it was when I purchased. Although
government loans are still available to help cover closing costs and
down payments, getting a mortgage on a D.C. house has become nearly
impossible on entry- and lower-level salaries.
But just 50 miles up Route 1, $200,000 will get you at least four
bedrooms in a comparable neighborhood. No repairs needed. By putting
most of my proceeds into a down payment, I’ll end up with twice the
house for the same mortgage. I’ll also rent out bedrooms, which means
in theory I could make more in rent than I spend on the mortgage.
Who could resist that?
Tomorrow I settle on a four-bedroom Colonial in Overlea with a
wrap-around porch and a waterproof basement.
Goodbye, D.C., and thanks for the memories.
Carrie Donovan is an editorial aide at The Washington Post and sings
for the Revelevens. She has been a District resident for about 20
years. Previously published in the Washington Post.