'Chasing affordability' in southeast Seattle

Stroll the grounds of the Jefferson Park Lawn Bowling Club and look north beyond the surreal view of skyscrapers and harbor to Magnolia.

Beacon Hill and Magnolia are almost mirror images of each other, affording splendid isolation, proximity to downtown and generous views of the city and its surroundings.

But that's where the similarity ends.

The two communities have very different histories, and the real estate market reflects it.

In 2004, the median selling price for a home (excluding condos) on Magnolia, according to Northwest Multiple Listing Service, was $455,000. Beacon Hill south of South Charleston Street came in with a $239,925 median selling price and the Rainier Valley's 98118 zip code, which includes Seward Park, registered a $269,000 median selling price.

Contrast these southeast Seattle prices with parts of Ballard and the Green Lake-Phinney Ridge area, where the median selling price ranged between $355,000-$385,000 and you have the current Seattle definition of affordable housing.

Peter Bush of Best Real Estate Services on Beacon Hill has been in the real estate business since 1978. Last month Bell sold a 3,000 square feet, Fred Anhalt designed house on Beacon Hill, near the freeway, for $550,000. That's a record for Beacon Hill home sales, Bush said.

"Anywhere else it would have been over $1 million," Bell noted. The buyer, Bell said, is a Medina resident.

Home: It's a magical word in our language, taken from the ancient word ham, which meant a triangle at the confluence of two rivers, complete with a short wall which could be defended.

Nowadays it means a refuge from landlords, pride of ownership, putting down roots and the power of investment. It also means that in order to achieve the American home-ownership dream, economics, if not true love, make it increasingly necessary for couples to pool their incomes.

Houses in Seattle are fetching prices that are mind boggling to the Depression-era generation and even their Baby Boomer offspring. Seattle topped the Forbes list for 2004's "most overpriced cities" with a median home price of $282,500, according to the National Association of Realtors, while the national average registered $170,000. Forbes looked at other factors, too, like earning expectations.

In 2003, according to the association, 40 percent of homebuyers nationwide were first-time purchasers. Their average age was 32, and half of the newbies fell between ages 25 and 34.

In Seattle, there are approximately 20,000 more Gen-Xers than Baby Boomers, and some of those who can are moving to southeast Seattle "chasing affordability," as Darryl Smith of Windermere Real Estate/Mount Baker Inc, puts it.

And the chase sometimes leads to sellers fetching more than their listed price.

"We had a nice Craftsman home listed for $350,000," Smith said. "It sold for $25,000 over the asking price. There were multiple offers."

This was in Lakewood, which, like Columbia City, Seward Park and Mount Baker - and any place with a coveted view - is hot.

Smith notes location matters a great deal.

"The (Rainier) Valley is a little different," he said. "It depends on which block you're on."

The price swings, depending on location, are indeed dramatic. In 2004, in the Valley's 98118 zip code, the most expense home sold for $1,495,000 while the cheapest went for $123,500. Meanwhile, on Beacon Hill at the low end, a home sold for $60,800. The most expensive was had for $475,000.

Still, Smith said, $265,000 will get you into a decent, two-bedroom, one-bath house somewhere in the neighborhood.

Smith ticks off a number of neighborhood intangibles that buoy the housing market: the Columbia City revival, including the cinema and Farmers Market, parks and open space and a community spirit of getting involved. He has also noticed a gay and lesbian migration from Capitol Hill and other part of the city to the neighborhood.

"I am seeing people attracted to southeast Seattle because of the diversity," Smith said.

Kimberley Tso of Western Homes Realty says she too is seeing multiple offers on homes, including pending sales on two homes going for $359,000 each.

Tso agrees with Smith: The mid-$200,000 range can still get you something decent on Beacon Hill or in the Valley.

"I worry about the kids," Tso said, referring to the next generation setting out on the home-buyer's quest.

Interestingly, the percentage of home ownership in the United States is at its highest level ever. The fourth quarter of 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, showed a home ownership rate of 68.6 percent, compared to 64.1 percent in 1990.

Pat Crandall of M&T Mortgage in Seattle has been in the business for 22 years. He's seen some changes on the financing side.

"There's not the formula like there used to be," Crandall said, referring to the traditional model of monthly debt not exceeding one-third of household monthly income. The past half-dozen years, with low interest rates, have seen more flexibility on that front, he added..

"We see situations where it's not uncommon to see 50 percent or more," Crandall said of the debt-service-to-income ratio.

Despite the increased financing flexibility, Crandall said the classic three Cs still apply: cash, credit, character.

The fourth element in the home-buying mix, the affordability factor, is drawing people to southeast Seattle.

Darryl Smith has advice for anyone looking to buy a new home in the neighborhood: "Be prepared to adjust your parameters. Be open to being happily surprised."

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