- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2001

The American dream of finding and buying the perfect home is clashing with the reality of the Washington-area real estate market.

In the closer suburbs surrounding Washington, most real estate agents say it is virtually impossible to find a single-family home priced below $200,000. In some neighborhoods, that price is even higher.

But often the home a couple dreams about the one with three bedrooms, a front porch and fenced-in back yard turns into the reality of a three-level town home with a postage-stamp yard.

It is a dream deferred. Today's market has virtually eliminated the traditional single-family, stand-alone starter home within an hour's drive of Washington.

For months, some say several years, the real estate market in the Washington area has been a seller's market, pricing single-family homes out of reach for many first-time buyers.

"But I firmly believe it's better to buy than rent," says Linda Welch, an agent with RE/MAX Elite Properties in Northern Virginia. "It is a strong investment that you can turn into your dreams later."

The reality is, if a family wants to buy a home, few choices exist out there. A seller's market means inventory does not meet demand especially for stand-alone, single-family homes so first-time home buyers are turning to condominiums or town homes, or finding homes in the hinterlands.

"A buyer can buy a single-family home if he is willing to put up with a long commute," Miss Welch says. "And some are willing to do that in order to avoid living in a town home community."

On average, a prospective buyer is looking at moving anywhere from 30 miles to 60 miles away from the District to find a single-family home under $200,000 that is not a fixer-upper.

Town homes, however, can be found in a number of price ranges from the low $100,000s to the $500,000s depending on amenities, location and size.

"Most of the new construction in our area are big homes homes people buy on their second or third round of homeownership," Miss Welch says. "There aren't a lot of new 'starter' homes out there."

Even though the urge to live in a single-family home is strong, most first-time homeowners have trouble qualifying for a loan big enough to buy one. There are a few stellar buys out there that could land some first-timers in single-family homes, but observers say the odds of finding them are small. These days, they don't stay on the market long.

"Qualification is a big issue," Miss Welch says. "People come in with high hopes of single-family ownership, but soon realize that they are going to have to opt for a town home as a starter house, then build up from there."

The building industry has capitalized on this trend. In many suburban areas, town home communities are going up as fast as local construction companies can build them.

Larry Warren, a contractor with Arundel Custom Homes in Annandale, says building town homes is more lucrative for developers than building single-family homes.

"Town homes are generally not built for a customer," Mr. Warren says. "They are built, then sold to the consumer. Their customization is minimum."

And a developer gets more bang for his buck by putting four homes in the space that could hold one custom home.

Mr. Warren says most people who want single-family homes want a house of at least 4,000 square feet. A newly built home is going for about $100 a square foot.

"Newly built homes are just out of the price range for quite a few homeowners," he says. "Most people, who are buying their second, third or even fourth home finally have the money to purchase a new home."

Single-family homes are attractive with their larger yards, open spaces and privacy. But those pursuing the traditional American dream often fail to consider some aspects that go along with living in a stand-alone home yard responsibilities, home maintenance and general upkeep.

These add further expenses and often some unexpected headaches for new homeowners.

"Town home living is a matter of convenience for some people," Miss Welch says. "People don't want the hassle of having to mow the yard or trim trees. They would rather their homeowner's association take care of it."

So, Miss Welch says, in some respects, town homes are the perfect starter homes.

"And they come in so many styles and designs now, that you really can find one that suits your personality and your family's needs," she says.

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