Editor’s Note: In December, the Queen Anne & Magnolia News and Madison Park Times released our Annual Manual, featuring different aspects and points of view about Seattle. Chris Sudore’s column is an extension of the Annual Manual we are proud to feature in our regular publications. Please check out a copy of this year’s Annual Manual.
As we settle into 2021, the comforts of home have new meaning. After a year filled with pandemic-related disruptions, political demonstrations and unrest, having a haven may be more important than ever before.
The good news is, there’s a wide variety of housing in the Seattle real estate market, whether you’re looking to buy or rent. The robust job market has helped insulate the area from the economic dips the rest of the country experienced ? many of the region’s workforce has been able to work remotely. Even if offices are closed or working with reduced staff, people are still making money and have it to spend. That’s all good news on the real estate front.
A look back, and forward
Usually, the Seattle real estate market is predictable. Sure, some years are hotter than others, but there’s a reliable rhythm to a year. Things start to pick up in February, then take off from March to mid-June. By the beginning of summer, people are traveling on vacation, enjoying being outside, and generally not selling or buying homes at the same rate we experience in the spring market. Then, after school starts again, there’s a burst of activity in September and October, as folks want to be in their new places by the holidays or close by the end of the year.
In 2020, COVID blew that up. We were in a typical spring market that was really heating up : We were on a pace for the busiest year in recent history. Then the lockdowns began. All that pent up activity exploded when we were once again allowed to show and sell homes in June through the normally slower summer. It was everywhere ? people moving within the city, people moving into more suburban areas to the east, and a strong second-home market on Bainbridge, Vashon Island and throughout the San Juan chain. With many working and learning remotely, those more remote locations are popular.
We’ve adjusted to the new normal, which in real estate includes restrictions on how many people can be in a home during showings or open houses. There’s more scheduling necessary. But even with that, expect a strong spring market. Some sellers opted not to enter the market at the end of last year, wanting to wait until after the elections, and will be ready to sell in spring. Those who sold at the end of the year without buying have the proceeds in cash on hand and are looking for more indoor and outdoor space.
The one thing we predict from the data is that as soon as a house hits the market in Seattle, someone’s ready to buy it.
Take a look around
If you’re a first-time buyer in the Seattle real estate market, be prepared to get scrappy. Things will move fast, and if you’re relocating from a region with a less-competitive real estate market, there are some things for which you should be prepared. In a hot Seattle market, be ready to move quickly on a purchase. We may experience bidding wars, price escalations and waived contingencies, especially for homes in the sweet spot of $1.5 million and below. You’ll be competing with buyers who sold their homes last fall, have ready cash to spend and need a place to land. If you’re financing, get all your documentation squared away.
On the rental side, there are available apartments and homes. Prices are steady, but you may find you need to make competitive bids that go above the listed lease fees.
Those high rent prices, though, are leading people to do the math and figure out they may get better value from buying a similar or better property (mortgage rates are still super-low). You’ll pay less per month for the mortgage versus renting and begin to build equity in a new home.
Finding your place
Within Seattle, our city’s neighborhoods offer different lifestyles and amenities. When looking for the right fit, ask yourself a few questions ? and share your questions and answers with your broker ? when looking at the options:
- Do you want the promise of nightlife nearby when things can fully open up again?
- A quieter area, near a particular school?
- Do you need an outdoor space of your own?
- What will your commute look like, assuming you go back to work soon?
- Are you by bus routes or the light rail?
Finding the right neighborhood means finding the right one for you. The light rail system’s expansion and Seattle’s great bus service makes using public transit simple from any neighborhood, when you’re ready.
Once the pandemic passes, for the promise of a nice walk to bars and restaurants with a lively entertainment scene, look in:
- Ballard, it was named one of the top entertainment neighborhoods in the United State.
- Capitol Hill (the CHAZ has been dismantled, and the unrest has died down), which has a metropolitan, eclectic atmosphere.
- Fremont, where you’ll find tech workers and entrepreneurs mixing with local artists.
If you’re looking for a quieter lifestyle or more family-friendly neighborhoods, look to
- Madison Park
- Queen Anne
- Some parts of north Capitol Hill. There are walkable neighborhoods that feel like villages but are a quick drive downtown.
- West Seattle feels like its own bubble, though it’s only 10 minutes by car to downtown, and has trendy bars, restaurants and retail options.
First-time buyers looking to get the most for their money should look to Seward Park through Columbia City. There are some great values there.
Let the data be your guide ? it’s what I do. If you see that one neighborhood has more properties available, you’ve got a better chance of scoring a home you love at a reasonable price. The numbers will tell you where to look. If one street or block has comparable homes for sale, and there’s only one home available a few blocks over, focus on where the volume is to end up with a better deal.
While most schools are still remote, being close to good schools is a driver for those with children, so it affects resale values even if you’re child-free. Look at the neighborhoods of Madison Park, Sand Point, Windermere and View Ridge. The elementary schools are rated from good to excellent, and the high schools are excellent. However, none of the Seattle middle schools are particularly well regarded. Many Seattle residents opt for private schools. You’ll find highly rated private schools in Madison Park, Madrona, Capitol Hill and North Seattle. The highest-rated public schools are across Lake Washington on the Eastside and on to Mercer Island.
Most mortgage lenders advise that you can afford a property that’s priced two to three times your gross income. So determine how much you’re comfortable spending each month on housing, and set a budget.
Line up your financing before you make an offer on a home. Talk to a lender and get a pre-qualification letter that states how much you’re eligible to borrow. Keep in mind that there will be added fees and taxes when you actually get to the settlement table to buy your new home, typically around 3 percent of the purchase price.
Call in a pro
Researching neighborhoods and homes online will bring up a lot of information, so much so that it can be overwhelming. You need someone you trust to help. Nothing makes a bigger difference in your home-buying experience ? from finding a home that may not be on the market yet to getting the best possible deal ? than working with the right broker.
Look for experience. Finding a seasoned broker is a little harder right now because so many people got their real estate licenses during our hot markets. In a sellers’ market, you don’t have to know a lot to sell houses. And here’s the truth ? all you have to do to have your photo and contact information next to a listing on sites like Zillow is to pay for it. That broker who appears on the right sidebar may never have even seen the home on that page or know anything about the neighborhood it is in.
Look for local knowledge. I’m a Seattle native, and I’m in the minority. Far more people move here than have grown up here. That gives my clients a real advantage. I know the city and surrounding area and can help pinpoint the right neighborhood or suburban town for my clients with a few questions. I also know what that hyper-local market is like, so we can get searching right away.
You want the brokers who’ve succeeded during tough times ? they’re the ones who know how to get things done. We’ve all heard it ? past behavior is the best predictor of future performance.
Seattle is a great place to live. Our economy, diversity and cultural vibrance combined with amazing natural resources and recreation create a quality of life that’s unique. People want to live and work here. So our housing market is strong, and this spring looks to be heating up again. It’s time to get ready to find your new place to call home.