Real Estate

Crazy Stories From Washington’s Pandemic-Era Real Estate Boom

“We knew we had to come in guns blazing.”

Sanket Shah and Jessica Gandhi.

The local market hasn’t been this crazy in years. Today’s house-hunters are waiving contingencies, escalating six figures over asking, and making sight-unseen offers. We asked eight recent buyers why they decided to move in the middle of a pandemic—and how they beat the competition.

Who: Jessica Gandhi, 31, a physician assistant, and Sanket Shah, 31, a health economist

The move: From a three-bedroom condo in Boston to a five-bedroom house in Gaithersburg

Jessica: “I’m originally from Virginia. Just being able to be close [to family], especially when your parents are older—that was some­thing that kind of hit us hard. I feel like a lot of it now is that the seller has all the power and you are just trying to find what works best and what that seller needs. So even though our [offer] was a little bit below the [$789,000] asking, we were able to provide them with staying in the home for two months until they were able to transition into their next home, and that was what appealed to them.”

Sanket: “To sweeten the pot of rent-back that we offered, [we gave them] one month free. We waived any requests to make repairs to the house.”

Who: Donald Finley, 26, an attorney

The move: From staying with his family in Kingman Park to a four-bedroom house in Deanwood

“The timing of it all was perfect, in terms of the interest rates and I had just graduated from [Howard] law school in May 2020. I always had the objective of purchasing a home immediately after school. A lot of saving went into the plan—I stayed with family [all during school] to save up, I had various internships, I worked for the school.

“[I started looking] at the end of December 2020. But I already had an idea of exactly what I wanted. It was really important for me to find a home that could support my future financial goals, one that could accommodate multiple units [to rent out]. It’s a big thing in terms of building generational wealth and empowerment. I’m Black, and I always promote economic empowerment in the African American community. One of the specific ways I was taught [to do that] is investing in real estate.

“I only bid on one property, the first I saw. I knew exactly what I wanted, and I knew exactly how to [make] my offer as attractive as possible. I think there may have been four other offers. The only contingency we had was the home-inspection contingency. [I paid] $538,000. It was initially listed at $575,000. The home contains two separate units, one upper-level and one lower-level. I plan to list [the lower] pretty soon. To maximize a return on my investment, I thought about getting a roommate [in the upper unit]. But given the pandemic, I’ve converted that second bedroom as an office space.”

Who: Evan Davies, 36, a software engineer, and Angela Davies, 35, a college counselor

The move: From a two-bedroom Falls Church townhouse to a three-bedroom Falls Church house

Evan: “We moved here in 2019 and were renting a townhouse. [It was] March 2020 when we looked at our first house. My wife was pregnant, and we were hoping to get three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a basement, a yard. We looked at houses in varying states of repair—that was something we were going to have to do to meet our price point. Fairfax, Falls Church, Annandale. Arlington would have been great, but it was too expensive.

“The entire time, the market was super-tight. I mean it was crazy. If we went on a Saturday, there would be people sitting outside, people going through the house, people standing in the front yard. That was every house that we looked at, especially on weekends. In person, [we looked at] 50 or more. We made five offers total. No house ever sold for list. One had 35 offers and ended up selling for close to $100,000 [over asking].

“With the house we ended up buying, we were the first people to see it. We put in an offer right away. My wife wrote [a letter to the seller saying] we were looking for a house to start our family. It didn’t have everything exactly that we were hoping for, [but we knew] we were going to have to compromise. Our offer got accepted in September. The house was listed at $499,000. We settled on $508,000. I feel like we got a pretty decent deal.”

Who: Mikayla Catani, 25, a community-development-and-planning specialist at HUD

The move: From a studio apartment in NoMa to a three-bedroom townhouse in Aspen Hill

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“I did some research and figured out that I could move forward as a first-time homebuyer with a 5-percent down payment and closing costs and could pay a little over what I was paying monthly for a studio apartment. Then Covid hit and there were all of those articles and updates about how interest rates were at an all-time low.

“This was probably the most stressful thing I have ever gone through. I knew it would be competitive. A house would pop up on the market that I loved, and it would be under contract in three days. The Metro was running less frequently, and then Ubers and Lyfts were also really overwhelmed, so it made it really difficult to go to these last-minute showings. I put a total of six offers in, and three of those offers were made days apart within a two-week period.

“Funny story about this house: I had actually never been inside it when I put in the offer. I had only done a virtual tour. My max budget was $460,000. I really felt like I had to be a little bit more risky and pursue the top end of my budget. The property was listed for $430,000, and I escalated up to $460,000 and ended up getting it for $455,000.”

Who: Alicia Contreras-Donello, 39, a Foreign Service officer; and Chris Donello, 39, a public servant

The move: From a two-bedroom Columbia Heights condo to a four-bedroom Silver Spring house

Alicia: “We had thought we could still kind of fit [in the condo] for a few more years. But then the pandemic hit. Things got really tight. When the interest rates dropped, we really started looking. On this particular house, we weren’t even here—we were in Chicago. We did a virtual tour because bids were going to be due when we were still away. We put in a bid without even physically seeing the house because we knew that it was going to be so competitive, and since we liked the house so much, we didn’t want it to slip away. We virtually saw the house on Sunday, we had a pre-inspection within 24 hours that Monday, and then we put in the bid that Tuesday.

“We knew we had to come in guns blazing. One of the things we realized is that contingencies pretty much had to be waived in order for us to be competitive in this market. We wrote a letter to the sellers explaining who we were and why we were so interested in the home. We weren’t the top bid, but because [we waived inspection and were approved for well above asking] we were able to get the house. Six hundred ninety-nine was the asking. We bid $725,000 with an escalation clause of $6,000 [increments].”

Who: Sukhi Gulati, 26, a software engineer, and Kevin Gilbert, 31, a data scientist

The move: A three-bedroom apartment with two roommates (Gulati) and a studio (Gilbert) in New York City to a two-bedroom condo in Columbia Heights

Sukhi: “Kevin and I lived in New York before all of this. We went back to my mom’s house in Frederick, like, March 14. Once we’d been in Maryland for a month or two and realized this was the long haul, we realized it wasn’t going to be sustainable for us in New York. We each had small apartments and didn’t live together yet. So we thought, ‘Why don’t we move to DC? We’ll move in together, get more space, and be closer to family.’ We felt like buying could be a smart financial decision for us.

“[Pre-pandemic,] we probably would have gotten a cheaper one-bedroom. But we wanted a second bedroom for an office, and we decided to invest in a car, so a parking space became important. It was a very competitive market. We underestimated a little bit as first-time homebuyers. We lost out on [a home] in Lanier Heights that escalated way above what we were ever going to be able to pay—like $15,000 over. We had been using Redfin and thinking we could do it on our own but realized, yeah, we’re in over our heads. So we got an agent.

“Our condo is right by the park. It was $710,000. The list price was, like, $695,000. It escalated, [but we did only] a 10-percent down payment, which helped. We ended up putting in a pretty aggressive offer. We removed every contingency, basically, especially because it was in a recently renovated building. If there wasn’t a pandemic, we would have definitely been on a much more extended timeline. We probably still would have been in New York. We kind of dove in headfirst.”

Who: Hayley Smart, 26, deputy development director for a think tank, and her sister, Jennifer Smart, 24, a video editor

The move: From a two-bedroom Logan Circle condo to a six-bedroom Petworth house

Hayley (above right): “Neither of us had room for desks [in the condo]. I was working on the couch, and my sister was working in her bedroom. Part of the reason I was keen to leave the condo was because I am in a higher risk category for Covid, and at the time, there was a pitched battle between residents who wanted to protect the more vulnerable in the building and residents who wanted unrestricted use of all the common areas.

“My mom and my grandmother offered to help with the down payment on a house with more bedrooms if they were allowed to come and stay with us intermittently, on a semi-long term basis, [and if we covered] the mortgage. We were looking for at least four bedrooms, at least one off-street parking spot, and a newly renovated home.

“We started looking in August. We were stressed out the whole search. We put an offer on a house toward North Capitol Street. It had been listed for, like, $1.6 million. It was a very inflated price. We were expecting them to come down halfway to our offer. They said, ‘Nope.’ [We finally found] a standalone house with six bedrooms, four and a half baths, with a basement unit, right on the border of Petworth and 16th Street Heights. [We paid] $1,365,000. The listing price was closer to $1,450,000.

“I don’t think we would have ended up in a house this big if we weren’t looking during the pandemic. Ultimately, the decision we made to go with the, like, biggest house that we were looking at was based on the fact that there would be at least four people living here at any given time. My sister’s boyfriend ended up moving in with us, and our friend lives in the basement.

“My parents had to take out a bridge loan to cover part of this down payment. When we sell our condo, that will go to pay back that loan. We didn’t find out until later that nobody’s buying condos. It’s been on the market since August, and we haven’t had a single offer. It’s a nightmare. I’m paying 75 percent of my income in mortgage right now.”

*This piece has been updated from the version that ran in the print magazine, with additional context about Smart’s reasons for moving into a larger home.

Who: Raymond Tellez, 50, a Department of Veterans Affairs employee, and David Payne, 39, a DC Public Schools employee

The move: A two-bedroom condo in Takoma Park to a two-bedroom condo at the Wharf

Raymond (above right): “Now that we’re home all the time, [we missed] the ability to go walk somewhere, go eat at a restaurant, take the dog out—just living in the city, where we can go out our front door and find [what] we need without having to drive. As people wanted to come back to the suburbs, we were like, well, we’ll go the other way. We listed the [Takoma Park condo] and started looking at homes downtown. It was a very, very quick process. We listed our home at the beginning of December; we closed at the end of December. We had five showings, and it sold in ten days for $265,000. That was in the right market for people looking to get out of the city or switch from rent to own.

“With all the people leaving the city, there’s a buyer’s market for condos. We had a lot of homes to choose from. We found [one] in the Wharf. We lived two blocks from here when we first moved to DC, and left this area because they were building the Wharf. We were like, ‘Now that all the hard work is done, maybe we do want to live here. It’s really nice.’ [The seller] was asking $725,000. It had been on the market awhile. We got it for $715,000. She left her furniture for us—expensive furniture, like Room & Board and Crate & Barrel. I couldn’t have afforded this home if interest rates hadn’t been so low—it allowed us to expand our horizons. We went from 1,200 square feet to 925 square feet. It’s a little bit tougher, but it’s been really nice to be walking around people and through the neighborhoods and walking to Safeway.”

 

Photographs courtesy of subjects

This article initially appeared in the April, 2021 issue of Washingtonian.

Mimi Montgomery Washingtonian
Associate Editor

Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. Her work has appeared in Outside Magazine, Washington City Paper, DCist, and PoPVille. Originally from North Carolina, she now lives in Petworth.

Daniella Byck
Assistant Editor

Daniella Byck joined Washingtonian in August 2018. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied journalism and digital culture.