Northern Virginia Real Estate Blog

The definitive blog, on Northern Virginia Real Estate.

Nov. 14, 2017

Historic Neighborhood in NoVA: Old Town Alexandria

Northern Virginia, being rich in history, is filled with quaint and beautiful historic towns. These small hamlets represent not just remnants of critical moments in our nation’s history, but the encapsulation of “small town America” that people love. One Northern Virginia neighborhood with historical flair and prettiness in abundance is Old(e) Town, Alexandria.

Old Town is minutes away from the nation’s Capital, situated on the opposite bank of the Potomac from Washington, D.C. It dates back to 1749, before the Revolutionary War even took place. One notable resident of this part of Alexandria was none other than George Washington, who built Mount Vernon nine miles away.

Today, Old Town is a vibrant community with over 200 boutiques and restaurants, as well as a slew of historical museums and attractions. Visitors can buy a Key To the City pass, which gives them access to eight of the neighborhood’s fascinating museums. The hub of Old Town life is the bustling waterfront, where citywide events tend to take place. Lined with picture-perfect cobblestone streets and red brick sidewalks, Old Town attract pet walkers, parents with strollers, and casual walkers drinking in the sights. At the heart of Old Town is its main thoroughfare, King Street, which is recognized as one of America’s great Main Streets. To explore its length, visitors can hop aboard the free King Street Trolley.

Some of Old Town’s historic buildings include Carlyle House, a tremendously lovely merchant’s house dating back to 1753. It features an immaculate city garden and gorgeous interior carvings, and the Athenaeum - recognizable for its pink color and neoclassical-style. Built in 1851, the building once held a bank but now holds an arts center. 

Old Town is home to the oldest farmer’s market in the country! On Saturday mornings you can join the crowds that gather there to buy fresh produce, flowers, and handmade goodies. Enjoy breakfast or lunch like the locals do! If you want a sense for how old the market is, just imagine the fact that George Washington sold crops from his farm there. 

Beer lovers can’t visit without downing a pint of Port City Beer, made fresh locally at Old Town’s award-winning brewery. Named the Best Small Brewery in the U.S. in 2015, Port City is the oldest craft brewery in the D.C. region. 

Like previously said, Northern Virginia is full of history. One place to start exploring it is Old Town Alexandria, which is as scenic as it is relevant to our country’s past.

(CC photo by AgnosticPreachersKid)

Posted in Fairfax County
Nov. 9, 2017

Alexandria Acknowledged for Outstanding LGBT Inclusivity

You already knew that Alexandria was a great place to live. Beautiful homes, great schools, and outstanding public parks make this Northern Virginia city a standout. But Alexandria is making news for more than just its standard level of excellence. The Human Rights Campaign recently awarded Alexandria the designation as the second-place best city in America for LGBT equality. This is particularly special because the state of Virginia still trails behind more progressive parts of America in not having a statewide LGBT non-discrimination law on the books. 

The Human Rights Campaign examined and gave points to 506 United States municipalities based on 44 criteria, which included local nondiscrimination laws, providing transgender-inclusive health benefits for city employees and offering LGBTQ-inclusive city services. Of a possible 100 points, Alexandria scored 86. It lost out only to a Northern Virginia neighbor, Arlington, which earned 93 points and the designation as the most LGBT-friendly city in America. The HRC called Alexandria an "All Star" city for "advancing LGBTQ equality without relying on state law” and referred to both Alexandria and Arlington as “beacons of hope” in Virginia, a state that scores below the national average on overall LGBT-friendliness. Virginia cities averaged only 49 points, which is below the national mean of 53.

Of special note in Alexandria is the much-loved Del Ray neighborhood, which was recognized by the Washington Blade as one of five places nominated for "Best Gayborhood" in the DC area. Del Ray prides itself on its cozy, quaint small town feel, and bears the motto of “the place where Main Street still exists.” It may be a traditional neighborhood in many ways, but it is stunningly progressive in the area of LGBT equality. 

After the 2016 election, Del Ray passed a statement of inclusivity that covered all individuals regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. Many of its restaurants fly a rainbow flag in the window, indicating LGBT friendliness. The city weathered a storm recently when racist flyers appeared on doorsteps. The community rallied to reject the hateful message and affirm its inclusivity, a show of strength that could serve as an example to many other neighborhoods around the country. The other Virginia nominees for Best Gayborhood are Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, Logan Circle and Shaw.

Washington Blade's "Best of Gay DC" awards also acknowledged Del Ray for Best Local Brewery, Best Caterer, Best Chef, Best Ice Cream/ Gelato, Best Pizza, and Best LGBT Event for NOVA Pride. 

Posted in Fairfax County
Nov. 3, 2017

Unorthodox, Exceptional Principal Takes Over Struggling Woodbridge Middle School

With his tattoos, youth, and skateboard, New Zealand native Hamish Brewer does not look the part of a traditional public school principal. And, in many ways, he’s not - he’s better than the traditional prototype. Brewer, who gathered district and national awards during his five years at the helm of Occoquan Elementary, is taking over the reins at Fred M. Lynn Middle School.

Lynn Middle is challenged at the moment. Forty percent of the school’s students speak something other than English as their first language and are still learning. Eighty percent live in households that fall below the poverty line. And the school failed to meet state math and science standards, and so is not currently accredited. A Prince William County assistant superintendent was quoted in the press as saying that the school faces the largest challenges in the entire county. Brewer has a big task on his hands. 

There’s no doubt that he’s the strongest leader for the job. In April, the principal was recognized as Virginia’s 2017 National Distinguished Principal by the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals. His school, Occoquan was also named a National Title I Distinguished School, singled out for its achievements in teaching students from low-income families. One might imagine that Brewer was recruited for the principal gig at Lynn. Instead, he sought the job out. 

He says that he loved his job at the elementary school, but he was seeking new challenges. Additionally, some of his former students from Occoquan would be promoted to Lynn. He says that he has no issues dealing with a diverse student body and is on a mission to prove that even economically-disadvantaged students can excel in school when given the right tools. 

A handful of teachers who taught under Brewer at Occoquan are jumping ship to take jobs with him at Lynn Middle, proving that he’s as great a boss as he is an administrator. 

Brewer has already made noticeable changes at Lynn Middle. He’s updated the lighting, had artists in to paint murals, and has structured a “tribe” system he implemented at Occoquan, which is based on the “house” system of the Harry Potter universe, where students earn points for their assigned group. He has also rejected the previous principal’s office and instead commandeered a meeting room off a main hallway that keeps him close and accessible to the student body so they can get to know him better and him, them. 

Oct. 30, 2017

Staging Your Home Festively and Effectively During the Holidays

Halloween is around the corner, which means that Thanksgiving is mere weeks away and Christmas and New Year’s are around the corner. Any real estate pro will tell you that the holidays are not the ideal time to be selling your home. Basically, buyers are distracted by the holidays - they’d rather be shopping and planning their Christmas parties than attending open houses and crunching numbers.

Also, nobody (buyers or sellers) likes the prospect of moving in the winter, much less during the holidays. There’s a reason that the real estate “high season” in much of the country is the balmy, holiday-free expanse of summer. But sometimes you have to work with what you’ve got, and you find yourself with your home for sale during the holidays. Maybe it was an autumn listing that didn’t move right away, or a random job opportunity came up, or maybe you’re trying to calculate moving the kids’ schools during the break between semesters. No matter what the reason, you can make the best of a holiday home sale by staging your home festively. 

It’s the holidays, so no matter what you celebrate, you probably want to have decorations up. That shouldn’t change just because your home is on the market. In fact, walking into a tastefully decorated home can give some potential buyers the “homey” feeling that every seller strives to put on display. They’ll see your decorations, and imagine trimming their own tree in that same living room next year. But there are some tips that you should keep in mind when decking your halls.

First of all, keep any and all decorations religiously neutral. Stick to nutcrackers and snowflakes instead of manger scenes and menorahs. Not everyone shares your faith, and overt leaning towards one religion can make buyers uncomfortable. Nobody, on the other hand, is offended by Santa Claus. 

If you have a heaping box full of miscellaneous Christmas tree decorations cobbled together from beloved relatives who have passed and adorable handmade ornaments from the kids’ school projects, leave it in the garage this year. Stick with a color-coordinated theme that compliments the decor already in your living room or wherever you have the tree. Don’t go with garish red balls and tinsel if your walls are a lovely and calming blue, in other words.

And, about the tree - make sure it doesn’t dominate the whole room. If you have a large tree, make sure you have a large space for it. Otherwise, pick up an inexpensive, smaller and skinnier tree that will make your space look larger and more spacious. 

Outside, keep the lights display to a tasteful minimum. A few strands look lovely; too many and you risk looking like something out of a Chevy Chase movie! 

With these few simple tips, staging your home during the holidays can turn an innate disadvantage (the time of year) into a chance to show off your home at its most festive and family-friendly appearance! 

Oct. 28, 2017

As Winter Looms, Northern Virginia Home Sales are Still Brisk

Summer is over, which marks the end of the busiest time of year in the real estate market all around the country. In the hottest housing markets of Northern Virginia, however, nothing is slowing down. Inventory is still in hot demand, prices are staying high, and new construction continues at an unbelievable pace.

“Buyers in the DMV [District, Maryland and Virginia] are really savvy and ready to buy,” says Nela Richardson, chief economist of Redfin brokerage in Washington was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. “There’s no learning curve required. But, especially in the fall, they’ve got plenty of time to wait for the right house.” While some buyers who work in the Capital may be leery of buying while they wait out the results of policy decisions, buyers on the upper end of the market are what Richardson calls “less jaded” and more likely to take the plunge when they find a home that suits them.

While it’s still clearly a seller’s market, buyers are getting a little more aggressive with their demands, says the Post. They are less likely to engage in bidding wars over homes, and more content to wait for the next good one to come along. They are willing to pay the listing price on a home that they like, according to Redfin, but they are more likely to be picky and demand that sellers fix every small item noted on an inspection report. 

This trend hasn’t so far affected the burning-hot trend of home sales in Northern Virginia that stretched over the first nine months of 2017. Most homes on the market sell within one to ten days. This is so common, in fact, that the number of homes selling in ten days or less is ten times the amount of the next-closest time bracket. Inventory is moving fast. 

As per the Post: “The price range with the most listings of single-family (detached) homes in Northern Virginia is $600,000 to $800,000. For townhouses, buyers will find the highest number of listings priced between $300,000 and $400,000; for condos, the highest number of listings is between $200,000 and $300,000.” Northern Virginia has about a 2.5 month inventory of homes on the market. Experts say that a “balanced” housing market has a five or six month inventory. 

The takeaway here? The temperature may be dropping, but real estate in Northern Virginia is hot, hot, hot. 

Oct. 26, 2017

5 Considerations to Buy a Home That's Right For You AND Your Pets

There’s a lot of advice on the internet about selling a house when you own a pet. Vacuum up the fur, make sure the litter box is out of sight (and that you can’t smell it), and wrangle your furbabies to another location while potential buyers are viewing the house. But what if you own one or more pets and you are trying to buy a house that will be comfortable for both the two- and four-legged members of your family? For simplicity’s sake we will focus on cats and dogs, since your pet fish, hampsters, snakes, lizards, or spiders likely don’t have many special needs. 

Local Laws

First of all, especially if you are moving to a new area, look into any local laws pertaining to what pets you can own. Beyond that, if you are thinking of moving into a home with a HOA, what do the bylaws say about pets? The problem you are most likely to run into are breed restrictions related to dogs. Pit bulls, Rotties, German Shepherds, and other breeds may be restricted. This is not the place to get into whether these rules are fair or not; simply to bring them up. An HOA covenant may additionally limit how many pets you may have, and of what size. 

Fencing

This brings up the next topic, which is fencing. If you have a dog, you’ll undoubtedly want a fenced yard where it can run and play. But the county or HOA may have restrictions on what kind of fence you can build, or if you can build one at all. Some areas don’t allow pets to roam free under any circumstances, so these are all things worth looking into.

Nearby Parks

Does the house you are considering have a park or green space nearby where your doggie can run, play, and relieve itself? In urban areas, these can be hard to come by. Think about the fact that you will have to walk your pet several times a day. Is there a convenient place to do so? If you have an outdoor cat, think the opposite about green spaces: is there a chance that there are coyotes or other predators that could hurt your kitty? Homes on busy roads should also be considered carefully, because what happens if your pet runs unexpectedly out the front door? 

Flooring

Within the house, think about pet-friendly flooring. Carpet is not ideal if you have pets. It holds onto odors, and it stains easily. Your resale value is also not going to be as high with carpet. Are you willing to replace it? Hardwood floors are good since they can be refinished with relative ease if they get scratched up. Other durable flooring materials are good bets as well.

Floorplan

Lastly, think about the house’s floorplan. Does the home have stairs? Will your pet, as it gets older, have trouble navigating them? Is there enough room, especially if you have one or more large dogs? Even a small kitty needs room for a scratching post and small bed. Just as you consider if there will be enough room for the human members of your family, think about the furry ones as well. 

Posted in Buying a Home
Oct. 14, 2017

Buying a House With Bad Credit: Can it Be Done?

One of the things they (the ubiquitous, authoritative “they”) always tell you when you are thinking about buying a home is that you should make sure your credit is in great shape before you even try to prequalify. As a general rule, you need good credit to buy a home. The better credit you have, the quicker you will be approved for a mortgage and the better interest rate you will get on your loan. What if, however, you want to buy NOW and you have less-than-stellar credit? Maybe you have made some good choices in your life and have the financial means to own, but your FICO score hasn’t caught up with your income due to bad decisions or unfortunate circumstances in the past. Can you buy a home with bad credit? The answer is more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no.” 

First of all, how “bad” is your credit exactly? FICO scores go up to a “perfect” score of 850, but only 0.5% of consumers will attain that magical humber. A score above 750 is considered to be great credit, and is really the number you want to shoot for when applying for a loan. That’s not to say that other options aren’t available. If you have a credit score of at least 680, which is considered to be fair credit, you will still find conventional lenders looking to give you a loan. You will just pay more for it. You’ll have to look harder for a loan at 620, and it will be expensive, but it can still be done. Then there’s an FHA loan, which is issued through the federal government. The lowest score for one of these mortgages is 580, with a 3.5% down payment. That’s the bare minimum. A credit score of 580 is not considered high by any means, so yes, you can still get a mortgage with sub-prime credit.

If you have low credit and want to buy a house, the best thing you can do is take steps to rehabilitate your score. Get a copy of your credit report from each of the three major bureaus and check it over thoroughly for mistakes. If you see any entries that you know don’t belong to you, take steps to get them removed. If you have outstanding debts, look into paying them off. A big issue for a lot of American families is credit card debt. If you are in over your head with the plastic, consider looking into credit counseling to find ways to better manage your finances. Keep in mind that this is not the same as debt management, which usually costs a lot of money and involves taking steps to consolidate some of your debt.

While it is possible to buy a house with subpar credit, it is an expensive and difficult proposition. If you can, the best thing to do is work on your credit and wait until you are in a better place financially before you take the major step of applying for a mortgage.

Posted in Buying a Home
Oct. 5, 2017

How Do You Know the Home You're Buying Is a Good Investment?

Buying a home is a way of investing in your future. For most people, the purchase of their home is the single biggest purchase they will ever make, and it represents one of your biggest assets. That’s why it’s important to go into a home sale with the right among of gravity. This is a major deal, and it deserves your maximum effort and energy.

How do you know that the house you are choosing is a good investment? Financial guru Dave Ramsay has a checklist of criteria that your home should hit so that you know you are making a solid choice.

First off: you can compromise on a lot of things when you buy a house. Maybe you wanted a pool, but you fall in love with a house that doesn’t have one. You can always put one in later. Maybe the landscaping leaves something to be desired. That, too, can be fixed. Two things that you should never compromise on when buying a house are location and layout, since these can’t be fixed. A house in a lousy school district is unlikely to improve, for instance.

In choosing where to live, it’s best to choose the most affordable house in the neighborhood where you want to live, since the value will only go up. It’s better to buy the $200,000 house in a $300,000 neighborhood than to buy the $300,000 house in a $200,000 neighborhood, because your likelihood of recouping the investment goes down. A house that needs some work in a good neighborhood can only go up in value. If price is an issue when you are buying, this is something to consider.

Speaking of school districts - this is something to consider even if you don’t have kids. Again, you always have to think about the resale value of your house. You may not have children, but your home’s next occupants might. Houses in a good district go for more money. It’s just a fact. Per Ramsay’s web site: “A Brookings Institute study evaluated the top 100 metro markets in the U.S. and found that home values are an average of $205,000 higher in neighborhoods with high-scoring schools compared to low-scoring schools.”

Buying the right house is about so much more than just falling in love with four walls. You have to approach buying a house sensibly, as it is a matter of serious consequence. Look at home buying the right way, and you’ll make an investment that will work in your favor for years to come. 

Posted in Buying a Home
Sept. 28, 2017

How to Hold An Estate Sale in 5 Easy Steps

An estate sale is more than just your average garage or yard sale. An estate sale takes place when the entire contents of a house - or most of them - are being sold, usually because the owner(s) moved somewhere far away or died. It is also a great way to draw attention to a home that’s for sale, since a lot of bodies will be walking through it. Holding an estate sale before selling a home for one of these reasons is a big undertaking. If done right, you can make yourself (or the beneficiary of the estate) a lot of money; if not you will waste time and energy and get a poor return. Here’s a guide to holding a successful estate sale.

Create an Action Plan

First of all, decide whether you want to hold the estate sale yourself or have an outside company come in and take care of business for you. It’s important to weigh the pros and cons. On one hand, professional estate sale dealers will not only take care of the (extensive) dirty work of prepping for, running, and cleaning up after an estate sale, but their professional staging of the items and knowledge of specific items’ value will often garner you higher profits. On the other, the pros will generally collect a percentage of the estate sale take, a figure around thirty-five percent. If you are choosing to have your estate professionally liquidated, read no further.

Assess the Items

Before you can open the doors of a home for an estate sale, you need to take stock of your inventory. If the house is not your own and/or it has not been updated and organized in many years (think of your grandparents’ house), this can be a HUGE undertaking. Items have to be organized, cleaned or dusted, and priced. This, in and of itself, can take days or even weeks ahead of the event. If the house contains antiques, collectibles, or other special items, you may need to consult with experts to get a good idea of what you should price the items at. As people generally come to estate sales looking for a great bargain, you might find it advantageous to remove any truly special items and sell them privately for greater profits.

Prepare the House

Next, get the house ready. Take up any valuable carpets so that they don’t get dirty, and also so you can display them for sale. Place welcome mats at all entrances and exits, if they aren’t there already, to collect dirt. Consider consolidating items for sale in as few rooms as possible, so you have fewer areas to monitor, and also because having more items for sale in one place looks more attractive than just a few tchotckes straggling about in a big empty room. Shut (and preferably lock) doors to rooms that are off-limits, and hang signs saying “no entry” or something similar. Decide in advance whether you will allow customers to use the restroom.

Market the Estate Sale

Once you have prepared for your estate sale, it’s time to advertise. Craigslist and Nextdoor are great, free ways to advertise for your sale. Start with a well-edited ad several days before your sale, and repost it daily until the day of the event. Mention the address (obviously), the starting and ending times, and a brief listingof the contents. Make sure to mention those antiques or collectibles, or any big pieces of furniture, as these tend to attract more buyers. If you are selling clothing or shoes, be sure to say what kind and list the size range. Take well-lit, high-quality pictures of some of the “highlight” items, and post them. You should also consider posting ads in your local newspaper and any community newsletters as well.

Run the Event

On the day of your estate sale, try to have as many friends and family members as possible on hand to help you out. The size of the house you are dealing with will determine how many people you need. Realistically, you want to situate one person in every room, or at least in every major area of the house to answer questions, direct traffic, and keep an eye out for theft. Of course, one person should be designated to deal exclusively with the money. Before the sale, make sure that you have plenty of change and small bills in case your customers bring big bills. Keep an eye on the money at all times! At estate sales, you are usually dealing with big-ticket items, and your proceeds will be greater than at a normal yard sale. One inattentive moment, and your money could disappear… a truly devastating thought. 

With a little work and planning, you can run a successful estate sale! 

Posted in Selling Your Home
Sept. 25, 2017

Your Guide to Buying a Home In Another State

Buying a home is difficult enough when you know the general area where you want to live. Even if you are local, knowing the exact lines where school districts begin and end, what is an incorporated or unincorporated part of the city, and the character of individual neighborhoods (down to a street-by-street level) is a matter of hyperlocal knowledge that you might not get from even the most knowledgeable real estate agent. Imagine buying a home in another state, maybe even one that you haven’t visited before! This situation can arise from a number of circumstances; maybe you or your spouse are in the military, or have accepted a promising job offer somewhere else in the country. How do you go about buying a home in another state? It’s important to take the right steps.

First of all, you need to have a timeline in place. When are you planning to move? How long do you need to sell your current house, and how long will you need to close on a new one? In a perfect world, these two time periods overlap, but that rarely happens. Most importantly, do you have time to schedule a trip out to look at houses and get to know your new prospective neighborhood a little bit before making an offer? It’s certainly possible to buy a home sight unseen, but it is drastically preferable to at least gain a shallow sense of where you’ll be living.

Secondly, as is the case in any home purchase, you will want to secure financing for your mortgage. It’s always a good rule of thumb to go into a home purchase pre-approved for a loan, but this is especially important when buying a home out of state. There may be different laws or steps of the approval process governing out-of-state buyers. 

Next up is a very important step: doing your research. Your best-case scenario is one where you have friends or family in the area that can run some reconnaissance for you on neighborhoods where you might want to live, but if not, you will have to turn to the internet. Websites like CityData.com will give you information on the population, demographics, crime rate, and average home price of an area where you are thinking about living. If you have narrowed down your search to a particular neighborhood or subdivision, see if they have a Facebook page or website where you can find out information about the little things that matter, such as HOA rules, nearby parks and rec centers, the quality of schools, and even what thoroughfares experience a lot of traffic.

Once you think you have narrowed down the area where you want to live, you will want to enlist the help of a savvy buyer’s agent to help you find the perfect home. Your agent will be armed with your list of criteria and will work in your interest to find the right nest for your family. They may send you listings that you can view online, so that you can work on a shortlist of homes that you want to visit if you have the luxury of making a trip over to tour prospective homes. 

In short, buying a home in another state can be a stressful process. If you are willing to work hard and do your research, however, you can still end up in exactly the right place for your family!