Hustle and hassle.
That’s what it meant to score a home around here last year.
As the pandemic dragged on, the quest for more space—and low interest rates to afford it—wrought an onslaught of demand for the slimmest listed inventory on record, both in Bethesda and across the country, and spawned soaring prices and bidding wars, to say nothing of properties that sold before ever hitting the open market. And many of those forces remain in effect in 2022.
A generational collision has compounded the underlying supply problem, according to data and market observers. Millennials grew up—the oldest among them hit 40 last year—and outgrew their digs, seeking a pandemic pearl in which to house their families and home offices. Meanwhile, with few affordable options for downsizing, baby boomers often held onto their homes.
A telling benchmark is the publicly listed inventory, which reflects the number of homes available for sale at the end of a given month. In Montgomery County, that figure dropped from 1,392 homes at the end of 2019 to 906 at the end of 2020 to just 590 in late 2021, according to Bright MLS, this region’s multiple listing service.
With homes selling in days or hours, real estate agents saw buyers pay 10% to 20% over the list price to outbid competitors and close on homes they’d never seen. Many buyers waived inspections along with financial and appraisal clauses, forfeiting their rights to back out if they couldn’t secure funding or if the home appraised for less than they bid, which would require coming up with additional funds at the last minute.
“You would also have to offer them your first-born child,” quips Andres Serafini, a Chevy Chase-based RLAH real estate agent who’s seeking a larger Bethesda home for his growing family. It’s so cutthroat that his wife jokes they may need a new agent.
In Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac, last year’s median sales prices jumped 13%, 19% and 17%, respectively, with the median price in each location topping $1 million, according to Bright MLS. In 2020, the median sale price of homes in Bethesda and surrounding areas was nearly the same as the median list price; in 2021, the median sale price topped the median list price by 3% in Chevy Chase, Rockville and Silver Spring, and by nearly 6% in Bethesda.
Median days on market fell in the area from 2020 to 2021, with the most notable drop being 11 days to seven in Potomac.
Those figures take into account most of the so-called “pocket listings,” or homes marketed privately, according to Lisa Sturtevant, chief economist for Virginia Realtors and an economist adviser for Bright MLS. She says two-thirds of these listings are eventually promoted on the MLS. In 2020, the last year for which Bright MLS has data, pocket listings comprised about 1.5% of the 290,000 home sales in the mid-Atlantic.
But the impact on the market is growing. The brokerage company Redfin, which has tracked pocket listings since 2012, uses the percentage of homes that list and go under contract on the same day as a marker of pocket sales. That figure peaked early in 2021 at 3.2% of MLS listings. Off-market sales also peaked then at nearly 24% of all home sales.
Pocket listings inherently limit access to the market and have been criticized as discriminatory. The National Association of Realtors updated its rules in 2019 to try to curb the practice.
“Getting the most eyeballs all the time on the property is the best way that the seller is going to get the most money,” says Ilyce Glink, founder and CEO of Best Money Moves, a financial wellness company, and the author of 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask. However, with so few listings on the market, “brokers are using pocket listings to give their buyers an edge,” Glink adds in an email.
While luxury sales remain frenzied, sales of mid-range properties have slowed, according to Sturtevant, citing the “affordability crunch” as many potential buyers get priced out of the region. With interest rates climbing, it’s even tougher to buy a home here on a modest income, and many are moving elsewhere. “We have all these millennials at home-buying ages, and they’re looking around and saying, ‘Man, I can’t do it,’ ” she says.
For buyers short on cash, it’s especially rough. “It puts them in an impossible situation,” says Leslie Friedson, a Bethesda-based Compass agent. Despite excellent credit and job security, someone who’s dependent on bank financing “can’t strike the appraisal contingency, which makes you not competitive,” she says.
Buyers need to be prepared—financially and mentally—to make their best offer, says Jacqueline Band-Olinger of Greystone Realty in Kensington. The problem, she says, is it’s anyone’s guess what that is.
“You don’t know what the other buyers’ positions are,” Band-Olinger says. “Are they showing $4 million in the bank? Are they giving them a 30-day rent-back for free? …You’re really negotiating against yourself.”
When Emily and Will Nelson moved here from Denver last year, it wasn’t the first time they’d bought a home sight unseen. “We are very cautious, risk-averse people, so this is not our M.O. We are both Virgos,” Emily says. But Emily, 37, and Will, 39, grew up here. The pandemic, along with their two daughters, one of whom would soon be starting kindergarten, triggered their move. “It was now or never to go back to the D.C. area, where our friends and family are,” says Emily, whose friend Koki Adasi, a Chevy Chase-based Compass agent, provided them with FaceTime tours of the Potomac home they bought. They bid $883,000, almost 8% over the $820,000 asking price.
But pre-pandemic predilections may be returning, according to Sturtevant. Mortage applications for second homes, which skyrocketed in 2020, have returned to typical levels, and condo sales are gaining momentum, she says. “While mortgage rates will rise, the underlying demand and supply fundamentally suggest that 2022 will probably be just as strong a market as 2021,” which is to say, high prices and “nothing to buy” in this area.
In its 2022 forecast, Redfin predicts some market corrections as climbing mortgage rates slow price growth, and new listings add a modicum of inventory.
Still, the millennials keep coming of age. Last year, they comprised more than half of home-purchase mortgage applications, according to real estate market analytics firm CoreLogic.
In the last two years, millennials made up 95% of home-buying clients for Joan Caton Cromwell, an agent with McEnearney Associates who’s based in the Spring Valley neighborhood of Washington.
Last year, Cromwell listed a home for $1.795 million that she couldn’t sell at $1.85 million before the pandemic. After seven offers, it sold for nearly $2.02 million—to a millennial couple. “That was my first clue that 2021 had just taken a dose of steroids, and it was like that all year long,” says Cromwell, who predicts more of the same in 2022. “I don’t think the pandemic is juicing the market as much as” millennials are.
With that in mind, Bethesda Magazine is featuring three such couples who managed to buy a home amid the 2021 housing frenzy. Read on to see how they did it, and where they landed.
Sight unseen: The Gomezes
As a student at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Rabia Gomez would drive past the palatial estates of Potomac, a few miles from her home, and imagine living there one day.
Seventeen years later, when she saw a listing for a home in Potomac that was expansive yet cozy, with the grand kitchen island she craved and a guesthouse for her in-laws and other relatives, Rabia didn’t need to see it in person. “I said: This is my dream house.”
Gomez, 35, an OB-GYN, and her husband, Julio, 38, a doctor specializing in interventional spine and musculoskeletal medicine, had been living in New Jersey. They wanted their daughters, Sofia, 3, and Norah, 1, to grow up with Rabia’s parents nearby.
First, they considered a new build in North Potomac. But it lacked a yard that was large and flat enough for the family to play—or for pickup soccer games with friends (Rabia and Julio played on teams from high school through med school).
Then their bid on a Rockville house fell through; they say the owner was using their $1.6 million offer to boost a counterproposal.
“He gave us this [BS] story about [how] he likes to feel the energy of the buyers because he’s a yoga guy,” Julio says. In any case, “we would have never been 100% happy there,” he adds, likening the grounds to a horror scene. “It was The Walking Dead, Season 1, Episode 6.”
“Everything happens for a reason,” says their RE/MAX agent, Jessica Kreiser, who explained that in obtaining the loan for that house, the Gomezes learned that they could afford more.
So when a house in Potomac came on the market in October 2021 for $2,199,900, the couple leaped at the chance to see it—virtually. Kreiser had gotten used to virtual tours and considered them a good substitute, giving buyers more detail than pictures posted online. “It can make or break how things are seen,” she says. She gave the Gomezes a FaceTime tour of the 2001 home. They made a deal the next day for $2.215 million.
“There’s everything we ever wanted in this home,” Julio says of the 2-acre property, which boasts an 8,480-square-foot, six-bedroom main house with five bathrooms, two half-baths and a three-car garage, along with a pool, hot tub and one-bedroom, two-bath guesthouse atop a two-car garage.
And yet, it doesn’t feel imposing, Julio says while admiring a bucolic backyard that stretches past a creek and a bridge that seems to have materialized from a Monet painting. Julio envisions sledding with his girls and teaching them to hike in a patch of neighboring woods. He’d like to be buried in that backyard.
A fan of James Bond, he has fashioned a “whiskey room” off the main floor, with leather club chairs and a display of trophies he was awarded as Capt. Julio “Speedy” Gomez for his service as a flight surgeon aboard Air Force jets while based in Florida. He’s now a major.
Only days before Christmas, the home was already unpacked, immaculate and outfitted with stockings on the fireplace and a seasonal welcome mat bearing the family’s name.
“If the military can build a hospital in the desert in three days, then you can unpack your house” in that amount of time, he says.
The girls have already fallen for their new digs, trailing behind their dad as he proudly plays tour guide, pointing out the Beauty and the Beast powder room, which previous owners had decorated with ruby damask wallpaper, a gilded mirror and crystal candelabras.
It all seems to add a touch of fairy tale to their happily-ever-after home.
A long search: The Ilies
By August 2020, Nicki and Alex Ilie were desperate. They’d been house hunting for nearly two years, ever since they learned that Nicki was pregnant with their first child.
The search began after they listed their one-bedroom condo in downtown Bethesda—and it sold in a day. Then they rented a two-bedroom and started looking on weekends. The breaking point came during that first summer of the pandemic: With a baby girl at home and another on the way—and loud neighbors upstairs—the couple constantly combed the market, their phones cued to Zillow and Redfin. “It was so exhausting,” says Nicki, who sells filler for a biotech company that makes aesthetic and therapeutic products.
Nicki, 36, and Alex, 39, saw hundreds of homes virtually and in person, and lost a dozen to cash offers and waived contingencies. “We just looked everywhere, and we were constantly getting outbid,” she says.
“We had gotten to a point…If we wanted to live in Bethesda, we [needed] to do a full-ask offer or even over.”
Then, on a cold November evening, Alex and Nicki arrived at her sister and brother-in-law’s home in East Bethesda for their usual Wednesday dinner with the extended family. They’d just settled in when Alex got an email notification. A home they’d seen in the Wyngate neighborhood, close to where Alex grew up, had come back on the market—and the price had dropped $114,000 to $1.435 million.
Alex was soon on the phone with Andres Serafini, his real estate agent and also a friend since their days at Walter Johnson High School.
An hour later they met at a seven-bedroom Craftsman built in 2008 with an upper-level loft and an expansive basement. The financing for the previous would-be buyer had fallen through, and the sellers wanted the deal done, Serafini says. Since Alex works for a home remodeling company, he did his own rough inspection, using a high-powered flashlight to size up the roof and foundation of the nearly 6,000-square-foot structure. Alex FaceTimed Nicki for one last look, and they offered the full asking price, no contingencies. “We drafted the paperwork, literally, at the doorstep,” Serafini says. The next morning, it was theirs.
After some work to update the home—giving the wooden front door a statement coat of black paint and covering the yellow-tinged interior walls in light gray; sanding the cherrywood floors and staining them a lovely pale blond—the family moved in, two weeks before their daughter Landon was born in March 2021.
Looking back, it was a “roller coaster,” Alex says of first loving and then losing houses where they had envisioned their future. And still, there are regrets—like the newer, bigger, cheaper one in Kensington they passed up before the pandemic. “We kick ourselves for that one,” he says. “But it is what it is.”
After shipping delays made for sparse furnishings for months, Nicki and Alex are at last making this one theirs. With a mix of cozy, coastal and traditional touches, Nicki is going for a scaled-back Serena & Lily style, she explains one evening in her dining room, where a round rattan mirror pops against a wallpapered backdrop of large-scale flowers. She’s been working with her friend, designer Kristin Harrison of Bungalow10 Design in Arlington, Virginia. The couple also designed built-ins around a modern new fireplace and knocked down two pairs of pillars to open the first-floor layout. This year they plan to remodel the master bathroom and gut the cream-colored kitchen where, for now, big sister Kennedy flits around joyfully and baby Landon seems content in her Exersaucer.
“We wanted room to grow in,” Nicki says.
Now that they have it, the Ilies host the Wednesday night family dinner.
Appraisal panic: The Ajinkya/Rosners
Monica Ajinkya, 32, and Sam Rosner, 30, grew tired of sinking money into rent that they could be putting toward a mortgage, but beyond that, they were yearning for some marker of adulthood.
The prospect of children had been delayed by the long slog of medical residencies, and then by the risks and career demands delivered by the pandemic. Buying a house “was a milestone that seemed more attainable right now,” Ajinkya says.
So last summer, after five years of living in spots midway between Georgetown and Baltimore, they set their sights on buying a home in Silver Spring. They chose the Forest Estates neighborhood in large part for its diversity.
“We want our future children to grow up with people who look different than them,” says Ajinkya, a doctor specializing in family medicine at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital who identifies as Asian. Rosner, a hematology and oncology fellow with Johns Hopkins Medicine who is white, wants their children to appreciate the area’s Hispanic and African American communities.
In this market, where houses often list on Thursday and sell by the weekend, they’d book an inspection for Friday morning—even before they knew which house to assess—and paid for three or four inspections at $550 each. “[The inspectors] gave us a discount at some point because they felt so bad for us,” Rosner says.
One Friday morning in late July 2021, the couple was touring a four-bedroom, three-bath colonial with 1,544 freshly renovated square feet when they learned that the seller, who was also the listing agent, had a strong offer. They had until 1 p.m. to bid on the home, priced at $650,000. They offered $701,000 with no appraisal contingency and won it two hours later.
It was their second offer in a month of seeing roughly 20 houses.
However, the appraisal came in at $660,000—that was all their mortgage lender would offer, and the couple would be required to find $41,000 in additional cash to settle. They tried to appeal the appraisal but failed.
“There was a little bit of panic,” Rosner says. “The magnitude of buying a house and all the financial responsibility that comes with it…figuring out that you have to recalculate some of it was pretty scary.”
“I think we all kind of had like a holy cow moment,” says their real estate agent, Joan Caton Cromwell of McEnearney Associates. “I take no pleasure in saying that $700,000 is entry level,” but “you’re going to have to give up stuff when you’re at that kind of entry-level price, and they waived everything,” as far as contingencies, she says. “They knew that was a risk, and they had a plan of how they were going to mitigate it.”
Before they started house hunting, the couple had obtained a doctor loan, which lets physicians buy a home with no down payment. They were able to make up the difference with help from their parents.
“It was humbling,” Rosner says.
In the end, they feel grateful for their home. Ajinkya adores the kitchen, with its new appliances and an open layout that allows her to cook while she chats up guests in the family room. Rosner relishes the backyard, where he can let loose their Bernedoodle puppy, Lola.
However, “I don’t like mowing the lawn,” he says. “That was a task that I didn’t realize you would have to do so frequently.”
As for the neighborhood? It’s just right. “The homes are gorgeous. It’s quaint,” Rosner says. “There’s no mansions here, but it’s just really lovely.”
Rachel Pomerance Berl is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Bethesda. She’s currently working on a collection of essays about motherhood.