Wednesday, January 18, 2017

I was frustrated by our region’s housing market. So I got my real estate license.

The housing market in the Washington region can be a pretty daunting place for young homebuyers, particularly those who want to live closer in. I knew I wanted to help. So six months ago, I got my real estate license.

Photo by the author.
My mother has been a real estate agent for over thirty years, primarily doing business in the District. I grew up going with her to look at houses, learning my way around DC and soaking up local history one sale at a time. I vividly remember touring a corner rowhouse on North Capitol Street, near Truxton Circle, that had been turned into a rooming house: ten rooms, each occupied by a single man.

Back in 1996, that house sold for about $100,000. At the time, nobody would have guessed that Truxton Circle would become one of the region's hottest neighborhoods. Through my mother, I got to see the transformation of DC's real estate market firsthand. That house on North Capitol Street was gutted, turned back into a single-family house, fully restored, and is maybe worth a million dollars today.

On the one hand, it's exciting to watch people and investment flow back into DC and close-in areas. Part of me wants to get in on that: everyone else is making money, so why can't I?

On the other hand, I'm deeply frustrated by it. Everyone else is making money, but those flipped houses and trendy restaurants are pretty expensive. I read the now-predictable news stories about the "latest" neighborhood to "revive," as if house prices are the only vital signs of a neighborhood. I listen to my family, who emigrated here from the Caribbean in the 1970s, wonder if they still have a place in a DC that is increasingly white and affluent. And I listen to my friends, white, black, or otherwise, the ones a few years out from school and working steady jobs, also wonder if they will ever have a place here.

I know so many people in the DC area who are passionate about this community, whether they moved here and fell in love with it or have grown up here like I did. Many of them, like me, want to live in close-in, urban neighborhoods where they have the option to get around without a car, and where they can be close to friends, family, and work. But there aren't a lot of those places, and the competition to live in these really desirable areas pushes house prices up and can make the process of buying (or even renting) a home very intimidating.

I wanted to help. As a trained architect and urban planner, I help to make and improve neighborhoods, but in the long term. I design things that may take years or decades to get built. Going into real estate seemed like a way to help people a lot sooner. (I am keeping my day job, though.)

But how?

The most obvious way is that I could use my experiences buying a home two years ago to help other young, first-time homebuyers. It's a complicated process, and I was a nervous wreck for most of it, despite having a good, experienced agent (my mother). Having experience as a buyer in today's market lets me relate to first-time buyers in a way I may not be able to if I were a little older.

Another thing I could do is use those planning and architecture skills to help people figure out what they want in the first place. If my client wants to bike to work, I can map out potential routes from houses they're interested in. If they can only afford a studio, I can help them design that space to get the most out of it.

I'm also curious about investing. New Urbanist and small developer R. John Anderson says if you want to help urban neighborhoods, you should become a developer. I don't need a real estate license to buy a building and fix it up, but working in the market could prepare me for that eventual goal.
Less obvious is how a real estate license might help me with those bigger-picture issues. Helping one family buy one house doesn't address regional housing affordability. And I sometimes wonder if I may be, in fact, helping gentrification simply by working in "hot" neighborhoods.

That's what I'd like to hear your thoughts on. How can real estate agents make this area a better place to live?

(And, if you're interested in talking to me more about real estate, or if there's any way I can help you, let me know! I'm affiliated with Living In Style Real Estate, a small agency based in Montgomery County with over thirty years of experience working in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. You can email me there at dan at livinginstylehomes dot com, or find us on Twitter and Instagram at @livinginstyleRE.)

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