How We Bought A House In Washington DC

I recently received an email from a reader asking for tips on how to buy a house in an expensive area like DC.

It was my first time receiving a direct message from one of you. I was so excited I told Mr. FAF right away and read him the nice email.

(If you’re reading this post, I want to thank you for taking the time to write to me. You made my day that day.)

As I was typing a response, I figured that I could write a more detailed post that can be useful to many other people as well.

While I’d love to have a post titled “How to buy a house in an expensive city,” I realized I have only bought one house in DC and can’t generalize my experience to other expensive places in the US.

Housing prices vary widely across cities and states in America. In 2017, the median home value is $559,200 in DC, $1,167,200 in California, and $650,000 in New York City, according to Zillow. Those prices far exceed the median home value across America of $196,500.

Yet, Mr. FAF and I bought a house in one of those high-cost cities: Washington DC. How did we do that?

I have written about the housing market in the DC metro area and our lessons learned from the first realtor. In this post, I will go into more detail about the steps that we took to buy a house well under the median value home of $559,200 in DC.

1. Prepare the down payment

When we decided to buy a house, Mr. FAF was (and still is) a graduate student with a small stipend enough to support only himself. I had just started a new job after graduating from grad school.

I wasn’t ready to buy a house yet. But Mr. FAF’s parents were more than ready and eager to help. My in-laws are not wealthy, but they have been saving all their lives partly for this purchase. They consider it one of their their main responsibilities to help us buy our first home.

Having parents to help out with a house purchase, especially if you’re a man, may not be the norm in America. But in China and Vietnam, if a couple has a son, they know that they’re expected to provide their son with a house for him to get married.

If the parents can’t afford to buy a house for their son or don’t own a home to leave it to him after they pass, he is considered to be less marriage-material by many women and the women’ parents. It might seem sad and absurd, I know, but that’s how society works in China and Vietnam.

Our down payment: My in-laws helped us with the down payment. You might think we’re lucky, and that there’s nothing else worth reading beyond this point. But I assure you that there is.

I took out a huge mortgage under my name. Mr. FAF was in school and wasn’t qualified for a loan. It is Mr. FAF and I, not our parents, who are responsible for paying that mortgage off.

If you don’t have parents to help out financially, you have two main options:

(1) Try to save for the 20% down payment aggressively for a couple of years to avoid private mortgage insurance (PMI)

(2) Put down less than 20% for house and pay the PMI until the principal paid on the house exceeds 20%.

2. Find a real estate agent

When Mr. FAF and I got more serious about buying a house, we decided to work with a realtor who could guide us through the process.

We didn’t want to tell our friends just yet since we felt a bit embarrassed about relying on our parents to buy a house. Also, we didn’t want our friends to think that we had rich parents and had pretended to be poor and frugal all this time.

I filled out a form on Dave Ramsey’s Endorsed Local Providers network and got an immediate response from an agent in the area.

Although the realtor was nice, we later realized that she wasn’t the right fit for us. She referred us to her colleague, who was licensed in the area we later wanted to move to. Our second realtor turned out to be outstanding. Let’s call her “Sara.”

Sara set up an email system where new postings of houses that met our criteria were automatically sent to us. Whenever we went to see a new house, Sara would walk around with us, examining every nook and cranny to give us a quick analysis of the pros and cons of the house.

She had been at various house inspections and could tell us on the spot what major problems a house seemed to have. She had also done renovations on her own houses and could even give us an estimate of how much it’d cost to fix something.

She also gave us references for the great contractors she had worked with. After we bought the house, Sara continued to answer our questions and address our concerns in a timely manner.

Sara has set a high standard for a realtor we want to work with in the future.

Our real estate agent: A referral from a realtor we found on Dave Ramsey’s Endorsed Local Providers network. In hindsight, we should have asked our friends for advice since they later told us about their wonderful realtors, who we could have worked with.

3. Find a mortgage lender

I read everywhere that we should shop for a mortgage lender with a low interest rate, no hidden fees, and no gimmicks. Being presented with a variety of options, we decided to ask Sara, our realtor, for recommendations.

After we got a quote from the mortgage firm and confirmed that there were no hidden fees, I went online to look at the mortgage rates at different banks and got a couple of quotes, all of which were almost the same or higher than the one from Sara’s referred lender.

I contacted the mortgage rep who explained to me that the mortgage rates fluctuated on each business day as they were determined by the movements in the US Bond Market (as mortgages are essentially fixed rate bonds).

The rate they gave me was for that particular day. The actual interest rate that we would get for our loan would be determined the day we negotiated an agreement with the seller (aka a “ratified contract”).

The firm rep said that many lenders can quote a very “low ball” rate to get you to think that they are so much lower than all the other lenders in the market.

When you do get the ratified contract, however, they decide to tell you the real rate and blame it on the sudden increased rates on the market. It’s a “bait and switch” tactic commonly used by many dishonest lenders.

I asked for evidence, and they directed us to the Freddie Mac website. At this point, Mr. FAF and I were convinced and decided to work with the firm.

Our mortgage lender: A mortgage firm referred to us by our realtor. We asked about the basis (evidence) of their quote and also researched other lenders.

4. Finding our home

Since our first realtor wasn’t so active in sending us postings, Mr. FAF and I set out to search our dream home by ourselves. Knowing that downtown DC is expensive, we looked at surrounding neighborhoods in Maryland and Virginia where we could get more bang for our buck.

We used four websites primarily:

Zillow

Pros: The website looks modern and is user-friendly with great pictures and a nice layout.

Cons: The status of a house (i.e. a house under contract, sales completed) is not as updated as on Redfin. This can be a major drawback when you’re interested in a house but not sure if it’s under contract to put in an offer.  Also, Zillow rarely has information about the HOA fee for condos and townhouses.

Redfin

Pros: Redfin has updated info about the status of a house.

Cons: I don’t really like the photos and layout on Redfin. It doesn’t look as modern and clean as Zillow.

Movoto

Pros: This site presents points of interest (i.e. restaurants, public transit, grocery stores) within two miles of the property.

Cons: The font is hard too read, and the layout seems confusing.

Live Near Metro

Pros: Mr. FAF and I wanted to buy a house near a Metro station. While Mr. FAF was excellent at navigating houses on the map, I had a hard time using Redfin and Zillow to find a house near the Metro. The site lists houses for sale and for rent within one mile of each train station in DC.

Cons: Though convenient, this site does not list all the houses on sale within the 1 mile distance from the Metro. At one point, we saw our house available on the website, but it was later removed although no one had put in an offer yet. It also doesn’t offer as much detail as Zillow and Redfin.

Our houses of interest: We actively searched for them on Zillow, Redfin, Movoto and LiveNearMetro.

5. Put in an offer

1st offer

The very first house we fell in love with was a 3bd/2bth townhouse within a 10 minute walk from the Metro, had a finished basement with a half bath, and was lower than $400,000. We went to check the house at 8 PM since I had to work that day.

We had already liked it just from looking at the pictures on Zillow. Our realtor called the buyer’s agent and told us someone had already put in an offer at the full price. If we didn’t want to top that by 10 AM the next day, then we didn’t need to write an offer. Mr. FAF and I went back and forth for two hours.

It seemed like the perfect house for us. However, we felt like it might have been just a tactic by the seller’s agent to make us pay a higher price. Not willing to be tricked, we decided to wait until the next day.

The house went under contract that morning. When we got the news, I was heart-broken. I felt like I just had a breakup. It took me weeks to get over that first rejection. I just loved the house so much.

2nd offer

Our second dream house showed up about 2 months later. Mr. FAF and I loved the house and put in an offer for it. This time, we decided to be aggressive.

After consulting with our realtor, we put in a reasonable offer and were willing to go way above that. We had another competing offer on the table. The seller counter-offered with a price we were comfortable with.

I don’t know if it’s because the seller came back so fast, we felt like we could have gotten more out of the deal. We negotiated $1,000 less than the counteroffer here and there.

We never heard from the seller’s agent until much later when we were told the seller had accepted the other offer. We were devastated.

While waiting for the seller to respond to our counteroffer, we had mentally moved into the house, picturing what we would be doing at our new home.

I was heart-broken once again. I literally broke down into years and sobbed for half an hour. I felt like someone had broken up with me again, and I had to find out about it through someone else.

3rd offer

When we found the 3rd house we wanted to purchase, we learned from our past mistakes and acted fast. We thought about the big picture and didn’t bargain for $1,000 here and there before our contract was ratified.

We asked for $10,000 below the asking price and half of the closing cost. The seller said yes to half of the closing cost but only would accept only $5,000 below the asking price. We accepted and signed the contract.

After the inspection, our realtor took a contractor to the house to assess the major repairs the house needed, which came down to $9,000. We asked for a $4,500 subsidy from the seller.

Our realtor suggested only $2,000, but I wanted to be aggressive with the negotiation since it was the last day of the inspection period. In other words, if the seller rejected our $4,500, the ratified contract would be nullified.

It was a risk for us as well. But since our offer was the first after the house had been sitting on the market for 2 months, we figured the seller wouldn’t want to wait for a couple more months just to avoid getting $4,500 less.

We bought our house in the winter, so the competition wasn’t stiff. The housing market is usually fiercely competitive in the spring and summer when family moves before school starts.

Our strategy worked. We closed on the house a month after.

Our offer: We learned not to negotiate too aggressively before the contract was ratified. There’s room to negotiate down the road, especially after the inspection and appraisal.

Conclusion

The first day we moved into our new house, we still thought it wasn’t real. The whole experience took half a year.

It was an emotional roller-coaster for me, seeing our dream houses “snatched” by someone we hadn’t even met and finally being able to own our first home.

If we ever move to another expensive city, I’ll learn from our first purchase. Not everything will be the same, but at least now we know what it takes to buy a home.

We will still need a realtor to guide us through the process and will listen to their advice. But at the end of the day, we will need to decide what’s the right choice for us, accept the result of whatever decision we make, learn from it, and move on.

What about you? Did you go through a roller-coaster of emotions with your first home purchase?



15 thoughts on “How We Bought A House In Washington DC”

    • I know what you mean. Whether it is an expensive area or not, a house is a big purchase that we need to consider carefully. I’m glad you drew valuable lessons from the experience. Best of luck with your next house! 🙂

  • Thank you for this. I will use this as a guide during my house search especially about putting up an offer for one. It’s probably not good to get emotionally attached to a home you are bidding for because another buyer may take it away from you. May have to worry more about the best way to close in on one and hope the seller takes your offer.

    • Hi Kris, you’re totally on point about not getting emotionally attached to a house! I made that mistake early on, and it really pained me to see my “dream house” go. Emotions can definitely cloud our analysis and decision. Wish you all the best with your house search and purchase! 🙂

  • My first home purchase was a brand new home so I worked with the builder. So I’ve never really toured houses until recently to get a feel for things. Definitely a whole different ball game and something that I definitely have no experience with. Glad to hear that you found your dream house after two other tries!!!

    • I’ve also thought about a brand new home before. But most of them are not within walking distance from the Metro in DC. But if we had a chance one day, we’d definitely consider that option. The only brand-new homes I’ve ever toured are model homes that are way above our budget. -_-

  • Thanks for this recap! I love the idea of LiveNearMetro. My wife and I rent in the DC area and would only want to live near a metro stop. But if I want to live on, say, the yellow line, I would need to actually search around each stop on most sites rather than just searching the line. Disappointing to hear that it is not comprehensive, but hopefully it’ll be better by the time we’d like to buy!

    • Hi Matt, I didn’t know you and your wife live in DC too. For LiveNearMetro, you still need to search stop by stop, but there aren’t that many to begin with, so it won’t take too long. Plus, I know that the closer a place is to DC proper, the more expensive it is, so it helps me narrow down my search too 🙂

  • Ugh I don’t know why I do this to myself. I hate the home buying process in a competitive market (the only market people in metro areas have). It’s all pins and needles and I just went through that again reading this!!! I’m very glad for the happy ending.

    My strategy is to just pick ugly houses that’s been sitting around too long. Like a depressed Marge Simpson says, “aim low kids, aim so low no one will care if you fail.” LOL.

    • lol I hate competition too. We bought our house in the winter, so the competition wasn’t too stiff. It’s a totally different story in our neighborhood now. Even if we could afford another house, I’d feel a bit intimidated by all the other aggressive buyers out there!

      Picking an ugly house sounds like a good strategy too! However, neither Mr. FAF and I are handymen, so I’m a little scared of fixing things myself @_@. I’ve relied a lot on Youtube to repair things around the house, but there are definitely big ticket items I can’t handle alone. It’s great if it works out for you. Let me know if you’ve written a post about it. I’ve love to read it! 🙂

  • I actually really like Redfin’s layout and like its search but do use the other sites as different sites sometimes have different information. However, I like that Redfin agent’s give you a rebate if you used them and I strongly considered using them but my aunt is a real estate agent so I kinda felt obligated to use her. Did you consider using a Redfin agent?

    • I know what it’s like to feel obligated to work with family members. You feel like you have other options, but at the same time you don’t want to make them upset.

      I didn’t know about Redfin rebates until recently. I wrote a post about their 1% seller commission and will definitely consider them in the future. 🙂

  • Great tips on buying a house! We are in the market to rent a house and have been using Zillow; I wasn’t aware of Redfin and the others, but I’ll have to try them out! I didn’t know parents in China and Vietnam are expected to help their son with a house. I wonder what other cultural financial differences there are?

    • Hi Cheryl, Zillow is definitely a good place to look up rentals. A lot of people are surprised when I told them about that expectation too. Other cultural financial differences include:
      – The son and his wife need to take care of the son’s parents when they’re old.
      – The son’s parents are expected to take care of their grandchildren in return.
      Basically, if a couple has a daughter, they’re not expected to do a lot beyond raising the daughter well. I will write a separate post about this topic soon. 🙂

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