Newcomer's Handbook Seattle

Finding A Place To Live

Once upon a time, finding a place to live in Seattle was easy. Today, it will take persistence and some luck to find what you want. Situated between two bodies of water, with only narrow bridges and ferries to connect it to surrounding communities, Seattle faces the challenges of a growing population—over 600,000 in 2010—and substantial geographical constraints. Although Seattle was once a city primarily of single-family homes, the creation of duplexes and triplexes from older homes is now common. City planners want to encourage urban density, and condominiums and apartment buildings account for a large portion of current building projects, as do townhouses and multi-family houses. Beginning in the mid 1990s, housing prices in Seattle began to rise, accounting for Seattle’s listing by the National Association of Realtors and the Washington Center for Real Estate Research as being among the country’s most expensive places to buy residential real estate. Though the national and regional economies slowed after 2000, home prices in King County continued to climb. As a result, during the first decade of the new millennium, most of the growth in the Puget Sound region occurred beyond the city limits, in communities that lie to the east, north, and south.

In the wake of the 2008–2009 financial crisis, the Seattle housing bubble burst, and homes in the city began steadily losing value, with many properties returning to their pre-2007 price levels. According to Zillow.com, as of April 2011, the median sale price for a single-family home in Seattle was $379,100, down from $501,000 in September 2007. What that means for a newcomer to the city is that, for the first time in more than two decades, housing prices in Seattle may be within reach of the average homebuyer. However, the average homebuyer has been hit hard by economic woes, and likely may not be in a financial position to take advantage of this opportunity, especially since most lenders have become more cautious.

In fact, many prospective buyers have been hesitant to purchase a home or a condo, for fear that its value will continue to tank. Rental units, especially houses, are more in demand, meaning they are harder to find, and landlords offer fewer incentives to new renters. A landlord-hosted open house often attracts numerous applicants, and the event takes on the air of a job interview, with well-dressed renters vying for the landlord’s attention. To get an edge over the competition, bring a prepared rental application with you, along with a list of references, and be ready to write a check for first and last month’s rent and a damage deposit. If you are moving from out of state, you may be required to get a cashier’s check or money order. In the spring of 2011, the average cost of renting a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in Seattle was $1,913. Dupre + Scott Apartment Advisors forecast that rents in the city will continue to rise, with a projected increase of 4.6% in 2012 and 5.1% in 2013. (More about Seattle’s cost of living can be found at BestPlaces.net, a non–ad-driven site with information and statistics for 3,000 U.S. cities and towns.)

Apartment Hunting

Direct Action

To find an apartment in Seattle on your own, consider a strategy using several methods. Searching the local classifieds, either online or in print, is the best way to begin. An early edition of the Sunday Seattle Times arrives in stores on Friday night, allowing you to call landlords first thing Saturday morning. The listings should give you a good sense of prices in various neighborhoods. Since many local landlords don’t run advertisements in the paper it’s also a good idea to drive through the neighborhoods you’re interested in, looking for posted rental notices. Many rentals offered by owners can also be found on seattle.craigslist.com, where you can filter your search by apartment size, neighborhood, price, furnished vs. unfurnished rentals, and other factors. You might also consider posting your own ad on craigslist, since many landlords search for tenants on this site. Always exercise caution and common sense when you meet up with prospective landlords or roommates, however.

If you’d like to be near a local university or college, late spring is the best time to look for vacancies. These neighborhoods include Fremont, Wallingford, or North Queen Anne near Seattle Pacific University; the University District, Green Lake and Ravenna near the University of Washington; or Capitol Hill and the Central Area, which border the Seattle University campus.

Wherever you set your sights, check out seattlerentals.com, which lists vacancies in Seattle and surrounding communities. The site also includes neighborhood descriptions, pictures, and maps, as well as moving resources. You can find listings for apartments, condos, and houses offered through landlords and property management firms, and use tools to save your favorites and get e-mail listing updates.

Also, don’t forget word of mouth. Some of the best apartments are found through the grapevine. Even if you are new to the area and haven’t yet established such connections, you can still put the word out. Check college/university, coffee shop, and grocery bulletin boards (see below). When you call about vacancies, ask about any others that may be opening up in the neighborhood. Chances are, even if the apartment you are calling about has been taken, someone knows someone up the street who is moving on. In addition, the neighborhood profiles include a list of neighborhood organizations, which may be a good resource for finding out about available apartments, as well as area safety and neighborhood events.

Classified Advertisements

In Seattle, check out these news sources for the best selection of classified ads:

  • Seattle Classifieds; this online portal consolidates classified ads from thirteen different Seattle neighborhoods at seattleclassifieds.com
  • The Seattle Times; get the Sunday edition, which has the most comprehensive rental and real estate listings for Seattle and surrounding communities. Rentals and home sales are posted in the “NW Homes” section, and can be filtered by location, type of housing, price, etc. Houses for sale are listed in the “NW Homes” section, too, also organized by location. The newspaper’s online classifieds section can be accessed at nwsource.kaango.com. New listings appear daily in both the print and online versions.
  • Seattle Weekly; a free newspaper, the Weekly is distributed on Wednesdays and is available in newspaper vending boxes, cafés, bars, and convenience and grocery stores. The paper often lists rental opportunities not found in the larger publications. To view ads online, visit seattleweekly.backpage.com. New ads are posted to the website every day.
  • The Stranger; a free weekly newspaper that can be found in restaurants and bars throughout Seattle. The Stranger is distributed on Thursdays, and contains rental and real estate classifieds. Online ads, which are updated daily, can be found at thestranger.com.

Community newspapers are excellent avenues for finding an apartment; many run local classifieds that will give you first crack at vacancies that may not appear in the citywide papers. These papers are usually available free of charge at neighborhood businesses and cafés.

To find housing in Seattle’s surrounding communities, check out the classified ads in these major newspapers:

Some of the newspapers listed above have “roommate wanted” or “room available” sections, worth a look if you’re on a limited budget. Shared houses are common in some areas of Seattle, particularly in the University District and the southeast side of Capitol Hill. These can be a good option if you plan to move again in several months, as many do not require a long-term lease.

Other Rental Publications

Several companies publish free rental guides. Most list newer apartment complexes or apartments that are maintained by large property management companies. You can pick up rental guides at most grocery or convenience stores.

Bulletin Boards

Check out bulletin boards on college campuses, or in laundromats, coffee shops, and convenience stores in the neighborhoods that interest you.

  • Bellevue College: housing opportunities are posted in the college cafeteria.
  • North Seattle Community College: housing information can be found on campus at Baxter Center.
  • Seattle Central Community College: two community bulletin boards are available in the Broadway Edison Building.
  • Seattle Pacific University: bulletin boards can be found on campus at Weter Hall and in the Student Union Building. You can also search online at http://spu.uloop.com/housing.
  • Seattle University: a classifieds ads bulletin board is located on the second floor of the Student Union Building. The university housing office also recommends you visit Places4Students.com.
  • South Seattle Community College: a student bulletin board is located in the Jerry Brockey Center (or JMB).
  • University of Washington: off-campus housing information is available in Room 218 Condon Hall, 206-543-8997. You can also visit online listings for off-campus housing at http://housing.asuw.org.

Online Resources

These local and national apartment-listing and roommate referral sites may be worth a look. Each lists vacancies in the Seattle area.

Apartment Search Firms

One way to find an apartment, particularly if your time is limited, is to use an apartment search firm. These can be especially helpful if you want to set up your rental before arriving in town, as most agents will do a lot of the legwork for you. When speaking to an apartment search firm agent, be specific about your needs and budget. The following firms offer free search services.

Checking It Out

You’re on your way to the day’s first rental appointment, you haven’t had breakfast, the old college friends you’re staying with are getting restless, your back is aching from a bad night’s sleep on their sofa-bed, and twenty other people are waiting outside the prospective apartment when you drive up. You panic, take a quick glance around, like what you see, and grab an application. Three months later you’re wondering how you landed in such a dump.

To avoid this scenario, tour each apartment with a clear idea of what you want. Beyond personal likes and dislikes, there are some specific things to check for as you look:

  • Is the apartment on the first floor? If so, does it have burglar bars? First floor apartments are easy targets for burglary.
  • Are the appliances clean and in good working order? Test all of the stove’s burners. Does the kitchen sink have one or two basins? Is there sufficient counter space? Is the freezer compartment of the refrigerator a frost-free variety?
  • Check the windows to make sure they open, close, and lock. Do the windows, especially the bedroom windows, open onto a busy street or alley? Alleys are especially notorious for late-night car horns and loud early morning trash removal.
  • Are there enough closets? Are the closets big enough to accommodate your belongings?
  • Is there private storage space in a secure area?
  • Is there adequate water pressure for the shower, the sink, and the toilet? Turn them on and check.
  • Flush all toilets and check for leaks or unusual noises.
  • Check the number of electrical outlets. In older buildings it is common to have one or two outlets per room. Are there enough outlets for all your plug-in appliances?
  • Are there laundry facilities in the building? Is there a laundromat within walking distance?
  • How close is the building to public transportation and grocery stores?
  • If you are looking at a basement apartment, check to see if there are any water stains along the walls. They’re a sure sign of flooding.
  • Does it smell funny? They may have sprayed the apartment for bugs. You should think twice before taking it.
  • Is there a smoke and/or carbon monoxide detector in the apartment?

Ed Sacks’ Savvy Renter’s Kit contains a thorough renter’s checklist for those interested in augmenting theirs.

If it all passes muster, be prepared to stake your claim without delay!

Staking a Claim

When you view a unit, come prepared. Bring your checkbook and a picture ID. If you are moving from out of state, you may be required to provide a cashier’s check or money order instead of a personal check. Have cash on hand in case you cannot get to the bank and need to purchase a money order from a convenience store or check-cashing outlet. Also bring money for a non-refundable screening fee ($25 to $55) and a copy of your credit report for the building manager. Prepare a renter’s resume with addresses of your last three residences, including the names, phone numbers, fax numbers, and e-mail addresses of your previous landlords, building managers, and roommates. Better yet, before you come to the Seattle area, bring letters of recommendation from the aforementioned that vouch for your sterling qualities. Employment information may also be helpful. If you have secured a job, ask your employer to write a letter on company stationery that verifies your start date and salary.

It won’t hurt to mention casually that you don’t have a dog, cat or monkey, and that you don’t smoke or play the drums. Feel free to rave about the unit and how great it feels (after all, a landlord is human, too). If there is a garden, mention that you love gardening and have a very green thumb. If you do have a pet, ask former landlords to write letters praising its good behavior. If your dog is well behaved, you may want to bring him with you to show how well trained he is (if, of course, he actually is well trained).

When applying for a place, consider that landlords will want your monthly earnings to be equal to at least three times the monthly rent. They can request only non-smokers, they can prohibit pets other than a working dog, and they can bar you from having overnight guests for more than a certain number of nights per year. (If you think you’ll have lots of visitors, watch out for a lease containing such a clause, as this may not bode well for your tenant/landlord relationship.)

In Seattle’s competitive job market, it isn’t just the early bird that gets the worm, it can also be the polite worm, the well-dressed worm, and the worm with the highest bid. Treat the open house or appointment like a job interview. If competition is particularly stiff, you may want to offer to sign a lease for longer than the required time period.

According to The Tenants Union (see below), the renter’s most powerful moment is right before the rental agreement is signed. Once you sign an agreement, you will be bound by its terms, except for provisions that are illegal under the Landlord-Tenant Act. The union says these issues should be discussed before you agree to move in:

  • How much is the rent, and when is it to be paid?
  • Are there any rate charges for delinquent payments?
  • Who will pay for the utilities?
  • Is the tenancy for a fixed period, like one year, or is it for an indefinite period?
  • What are the rules on guests, pets, parking, etc.?
  • What repairs or cleaning has your landlord agreed to complete before you move in? (Get all promises in writing.)
  • Is there a deposit? If so, how much, and when will it be refunded? (A non-refundable fee may not be called a deposit.

Tenant/Landlord Relations

Leases/Rental Agreements and Security Deposits

Most landlords in Seattle require your first month’s rent, a security or “damage” deposit, and a signed lease agreement prior to moving in. Many also require the last month’s rent to be paid either prior to renting or within the first three months of tenancy. Make sure that you read your lease agreement before signing, and before paying anything. Check to see how and when the rent can be increased and by how much; don’t assume that it can’t be increased during the initial term of your lease. Such details should be negotiated before you sign the lease.

In Washington, the type of your tenancy (month-to-month or fixed period) will determine your rights and duties under the Landlord-Tenant Act, according to The Tenants Union. If you have an agreement with your landlord to stay for a fixed period at the same rent, you have a lease. To be valid, it must be in writing. If it is to be in effect for more than one year, it must not only be in writing, but it must also be signed by the landlord before a notary public. Rent cannot be increased during the fixed period, and the tenancy rules cannot be changed, unless both you and your landlord agree about it. At that time, says The Tenants Union, you must initial any changes that are made.

In the city of Seattle, month-to-month rental agreements are legal but a minimum stay requirement or penalties for not fulfilling a minimum stay on a month-to-month agreement are illegal. (These agreements usually state that if the tenant does not stay for a minimum number of months, usually six, he/she forfeits the deposit.) If a tenant loses a deposit because of such illegal provisions, the tenant is entitled to collect from the landlord double the deposit, plus actual damages incurred and attorney’s fees and costs. Before a tenant sues in small claims court, he/she must request that the landlord return the deposit. For more information, contact The Tenants Union at 206-723-0500 or visit tenantsunion.org.

If a landlord charges a deposit, the lease or rental agreement must be in writing, and must include the terms under which any of the deposit will be returned. A deposit cannot be withheld for normal wear and tear, according to the Washington State Bar Association. If a tenant pays a deposit, the landlord must provide a written document describing the condition of the rental unit, and keep the deposit in a trust account. The landlord has 14 days after a tenant moves out to return a deposit, or give a written explanation why it was not refunded.

Rent and Eviction Control

There is no rent control in Washington State. In fact, a state law prohibits cities and counties from passing any kind of rent control measure. According to The Tenants Union, a tenant’s only protection against a rent increase is a lease. In a month-to-month agreement, a landlord can raise the rent as often as he/she pleases, but must give 30 days’ written notice. Landlords are prohibited from raising rent as a means of either discrimination or retaliation.

In Seattle, landlords are required to give tenants a minimum of 60 days’ written notice when rent is to be increased by 10% or more during a 12-month period. The same rule applies to other housing costs like water or sewage. The notice must coincide with the beginning of the rental period, usually the first day of the month.

The landlord-tenant rules in Washington tend to favor landlords. A landlord can issue a three-day notice to pay rent or vacate to a tenant who is only one day late with the rent. If the tenant pays rent after the three days given on the notice, the landlord is not obliged to accept payment. Landlords are also not obligated to accept partial payments. Many landlords will accept rent within five days of the date it is due, but may charge a late fee. Emergencies that prevent a tenant from paying rent on time should be discussed with the landlord, who may agree to accept partial payment or to set up a payment plan. If alternate terms are agreed upon, tenants should be sure to get them in writing, and ask the landlord to sign and date them. If additional assistance is necessary, contact The Tenants Union.

In 1996, Seattle passed a Just Cause Eviction Ordinance that prohibits landlords from evicting tenants without a court order. For the full text of the law, visit The Tenants Union website at tenantsunion.org.

Landlord/Tenant Rights and Responsibilities

Washington landlords have a list of obligations that they must fulfill, including being accessible to their tenants and obeying the rules of the rental agreement. In addition, they must keep the rental property up to code, maintain the roof, walls, and structural components of the building, keep common areas safe and clean, provide a pest-control program, and provide the facilities necessary to supply heat, electricity, and hot and cold water. They must also provide adequate locks and maintain the appliances that come with the rental unit.

Contrary to what some believe, a landlord may not enter your apartment whenever he/she wishes. A landlord must have tenant consent to inspect the premises, make repairs, supply necessary services, or show the unit to a prospective renter. The time of entry must be reasonable, and he/she must notify you two days in advance. Of course, in an emergency, your landlord can enter your apartment without notice or permission.

A tenant must also meet a series of legal responsibilities. He/she must pay rent, keep his/her dwelling clean and sanitary, dispose of garbage, and properly use fixtures and appliances. He/she must not damage or permit damage to the property, and property must be restored to its original condition, except for normal wear and tear, before moving out. He/she must also comply with the rental agreement.

The Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 makes it illegal for a landlord to discriminate based on a person’s race, sex, national origin or religion. In addition, various local laws forbid discrimination against unmarried persons, children, gays, and disabled persons.

If you have any problems with your landlord while you’re renting, or if you feel that you were discriminated against while you were hunting for an apartment or house, the resources listed below may help:

  • City of Seattle Office for Civil Rights, 206-684-4500, 206-684-4503 (TTY), seattle.gov/civilrights
  • City of Seattle Office of Housing, 206-684-0721, seattle.gov/housing
  • The Tenants Union, 206-723-0500, tenantsunion.org
  • Washington State Attorney General’s Office, 206-464-6684, 800-551-4636, atg.wa.gov
  • Washington State Bar Association, 206-443-WSBA (-9722), 800-945-WSBA, wsba.org

Renter’s/Homeowner’s Insurance

You’ve moved into your new apartment, and the last boxes have been cleared away. Take a look around and ask yourself, “How much would it cost to start over if everything I own was destroyed by fire?” Probably more than you might think. Imagine having to replace your clothing, television, stereo, furniture, computer and other accumulations of a lifetime. No small bill.

Typically, with renter’s insurance you are protected against fire, hail, lightning, explosion, aircraft, smoke, vandalism, theft, building collapse, frozen plumbing, defective appliances, and sudden electrical damage. Renter’s insurance also may cover personal liability as well as damage done (by you) to the property of others.

By now you should be convinced that renter’s insurance is a good idea, especially because your belongings would not be insured under your landlord’s policy. The good news about renter’s insurance is that it is not a huge expense. For $20,000 in coverage your annual rate may run between $150 to $200 if you live in an apartment, and $200 to $250 if you live in a house.

When shopping for renter’s insurance, be sure to ask whether the insurance company pays as soon as the claim is filed and whether it pays cash-value or replacement value. If you have a cash-value policy, you will only be paid what your five-year-old television is worth, not what it costs to replace it. Some big-ticket items, such as computers or jewelry, are insured only to a certain amount. Find out what these limits are. A higher deductible usually gives you a lower premium. You can purchase renter’s insurance through almost any insurance agency.

Websites worth investigating as you search for renter’s insurance are Insure.com, insure.com, which offers instant quotes from more than 300 insurance companies; Insweb, insweb.com, which is good for finding competitive insurance rates online; and InsureMe, insureme.com, which offers online quotes from several companies for you to choose from.

Whether you get renter’s insurance or not, it’s a good idea to keep an inventory of all items of value and record their serial numbers. You may also want to take photographs of your belongings, or walk through your apartment with a video camera and record them on tape. Make a copy of these records and keep one at a friend’s house or in a safe deposit box.

Below is a list of some of the major insurers in the Seattle area:

Buying

Many people come to Seattle intending to buy a house in the city, but find that the cost of a home is just too high. Newcomers can avoid sticker shock by thoroughly researching home prices and neighborhoods before they arrive, and by keeping an open mind about the types of housing and the locations they are willing to consider. For instance, you will get more bang for your buck in Renton or Snoqualmie, but your commute to the city will be longer. Or, maybe you had your heart set on living in Queen Anne or Magnolia, but you find a really wonderful Craftsman home in Madrona that’s in your price range. It’s important to determine your priorities ahead of time, but to be flexible when possible.

Most streets in Seattle are lined with single-family homes on roomy lots. After a period of steady growth that mirrored the economic growth of the region, the Seattle housing market exploded in the late 1990s. Homes were on the market for just days before selling, and bidding wars were common. Affordable housing became increasingly rare, and even million-dollar (and upward) homes were snapped up quickly. The Seattle real estate bubble burst in 2008, as it did in most other parts of the country, as a result of the U.S. recession. Between 2008 and 2011, housing prices in Seattle declined steadily. When this guide went to press, a single-family home in Seattle was worth 13.5% less than it was in 2007.

While Seattle property values have declined, unfortunately property taxes have not. In some areas of the city they have actually increased. In 2011, a total of 44 tax ballot measures, the majority of which were school district levies, were approved by voters. Washington State has a “budget-based” tax system that allows cities and other taxing districts to boost tax collections without voter approval by 1% a year plus tax on the value of new construction. As a result, that year property taxes went up in 17 out of 20 King County school districts. The King County Department of Assessments is responsible for collecting property taxes in Seattle and most surrounding communities. You can estimate your annual property taxes if you know the assessed value of your property and your tax levy rate. Divide the value of your home by 1,000 and multiply by the tax levy rate. In Seattle in 2011, the tax levy rate was $9.65. Thus, for a home valued at $300,000, property taxes would be about $2,895. The tax levy rate varies by city; to find the rate in the city of your choice, visit the Department of Assessments website at kingcounty.gov/Assessor.

Before buying a house, it’s a good idea to hire an independent building inspector or engineer to examine the foundation and overall structure, heating and plumbing systems, and the roof. Also request that the inspector check for mold, particularly if the roof has been replaced recently or if there are signs of water damage in the basement. Your lender will appraise the house, but only to determine if its value will safely secure the loan. If possible, you should include language in your purchase offer that allows you to take back the offer if your inspection uncovers a serious problem. At the very least, your real estate agent should be willing to negotiate with the seller on any major flaws turned up during the inspection. For more see below under Purchase Agreements.

How should you go about finding a home to buy in Seattle? Any good real estate agent will tell you there are three things to consider when purchasing a house: location, location, location. The Neighborhoods chapter of this book will give you a good overview of the neighborhoods in Seattle, as well as profiles of many of the city’s suburbs. On Fridays, the Seattle Times publishes a “Neighborhood of the Week” feature in its Real Estate section that profiles different parts of the city and its surrounding communities. You’ll find these archived on their website at seattletimes.nwsource.com. From there, visit the neighborhood(s) you’re considering. Get a general feel for the area; visit the schools and parks; drive to or from the neighborhood during rush hour to evaluate traffic flow and freeway noise. Attend a few open houses to find a realtor that knows the area. The Seattle Times Sunday edition has a Real Estate section that lists many of the open houses in Seattle and surrounding communities. The paper is available on Friday evenings, so you can get a drive-by preview. On Saturdays the Times also features a New Homes section, showcasing new construction around the region, and a NW Homes section. Or, visit the classifieds’ website at marketplace.nwsource.com/realestate; new open house announcements are added daily. Additional newspaper sites are listed previously in this chapter under Classified Advertisements. Seattle Met (www.seattlemet.com), the website for Seattle Metropolitan magazine, is another useful online resource for local real estate information. The site includes a “Neighborhoods by the Numbers” section that compares data—such as median home prices, number of markets, crime rates, miles of bike lanes, average commute time, median age of residents, and many other factors—from different neighborhoods in Seattle and its surrounding communities.

The Washington State Housing Finance Commission offers free home ownership programs and homebuyer education seminars (see below under Additional Resources). For more information, visit the agency’s website at wshfc.org or call 206-464-7139 (in Seattle) or 800-767-4663. You can also find information on buying or selling a home at the National Association of Realtors website, realtor.com.

Condominiums, Co-Ops, and Co-Housing

Buying a home in Seattle doesn’t necessarily mean buying a traditional single-family house. Condominiums, co-ops, and co-housing projects are all options, depending on your needs. All three are usually less expensive than traditional houses, and may be a good first step for first-time homeowners. Condominiums in particular have become a popular housing choice in places like Downtown and Ballard, where many new buildings are going up, and units are often sold before construction is complete.

A condominium is a type of joint ownership. Each housing unit is individually owned and residents collectively own the common areas—grounds, lobbies, elevators, hallways, surrounding property, and recreational facilities. You own the apartment outright, so you can usually make improvements to it, rent it out, or resell it as you see fit. However, some restrictions apply to condo ownership. Generally, a condo association oversees the rules of the complex, making decisions about building repairs, external improvements, and landscaping. Some condo associations impose rules on subletting. Be sure to review, with your real estate lawyer, the association rules and regulations, and the current operating budget. Consider any major improvements or repairs that will be required in the next few years, and see if the budget will be able to cover most of the cost.

If your building has jointly owned amenities, such as a hot tub, rooftop deck, or pool, the association coordinates maintenance on those facilities as well. All of these services come at a cost; expect to pay anywhere between $100 to several hundred dollars (or more) in monthly association dues, as well as a one-time fee for capital improvements or emergency repairs, such as a new roof. While these dues may add up over time to little more than the maintenance on your own house, you’ll need to factor them in when evaluating your monthly house payments. Condo associations can foreclose on your unit if you fall behind on payments, so be sure to include these fees in your housing budget.

A co-op (cooperative apartment) is another option for home ownership in Seattle. When you buy a co-op, you are buying shares in the ownership of a building. Co-ops tend to be much less expensive than comparable condominiums, but there are some important trade-offs. Co-ops are tightly controlled by the shareholders in the building—in other words by all of the co-op owners. This can make it difficult to buy a cooperative apartment, since the co-op board will interview you, consider both your financial status and neighborly qualities, and may require several letters of reference. You may not have the option to remodel your unit, rent it out, or even sell it quickly, should you need to (as the co-op board must approve prospective buyers). If you’re short on cash, buying into a co-op can be challenging because many lenders will not approve mortgages for them. Unfortunately, many co-ops do not accept anything but a full cash payment at the time of purchase. Co-ops are most common in the Capitol Hill and Queen Anne neighborhoods.

Those thinking about buying a condominium or co-op should seriously consider that owning a condo or co-op obligates you socially a bit more than does a freestanding house. While your co-op or condo neighbors could turn out to be great friends and neighbors, the opposite could also be true.

Co-housing projects are catching on in Seattle as residents seek to recapture the aura of a close-knit neighborhood in a rapidly growing city. Also called “intentional communities,” co-housing projects offer communal living with affordable condo-style ownership opportunities. Each household owns its own unit, but shares communal space such as a “common house.” Co-housing residents often prepare and eat meals together, share gardening responsibilities, and promote environmental initiatives like recycling and composting. For more information on co-housing, visit The Co-housing Association of the United States at cohousing.org, or contact one of the co-housing communities listed here:

Working with Realtors

If you are unfamiliar with the city, it may be helpful to find a real estate agent or broker to help you with your search. Friends or co-workers may be able to recommend someone, or consider the agents who host open houses in your neighborhood of choice. The agent should be someone you trust, who listens to you, knows the city and the neighborhoods you like, and understands the market. A good realtor will not expect you to pay more than you can afford, although you may find that the house you can afford and the house you want are very different things.

Generally, homebuyers in Seattle do not use a real estate lawyer. Often the only lawyer involved is an employee of the escrow company. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to have the name of a real estate attorney available just in case. Ask friends or co-workers for recommendations, or ask your agent to suggest a reputable attorney.

The major national and regional real estate companies offer online lists of agents. To begin your search you may want to visit one of those national or regional realtor websites, or go to HomeGain (www.homegain.com), a company that offers free tools for estimating the value of a home; finding a real estate agent or a home; and getting a mortgage.

Purchase Agreements, Credit, Mortgages, Insurance

The purchase agreement is a legally binding document signed by the buyer and seller that states the price and all the terms of the sale. It is the most negotiable, variable, and important document produced in the home-buying process. The purchase agreement is the document to which a buyer may attach contingencies. Such contingencies can protect you, the buyer, from being legally bound by the purchase agreement if, for example, you cannot sell the house you live in now, the house you are buying does not pass mechanical and structural inspection, the seller is not able to give you possession by a certain date, or you cannot qualify for a loan.

Washington does not regulate purchase agreements, but it does require Form 22J, the disclosure of lead-based paint. If a seller does not give a buyer this form, the buyer can rescind the sale up until the closing date. The state also requires the seller to deliver to the buyer a property disclosure statement (Form 17). The statement provides the buyer with information about the condition of the property, and may outline known or potential problems, like a leaky roof or drainage problems.

It’s a good idea to get pre-approved for a loan before looking for houses in earnest. Most sellers will not seriously consider an offer from a buyer who is not pre-approved. The pre-approval process should not commit you to a particular lender or interest rate. It is simply a document that indicates to the seller that when you formally apply for a loan, you will most likely qualify to purchase the home. Most banks or mortgage brokers will process a pre-approval application without a fee. In addition to making your offer more attractive to the seller, the pre-approval process gives you, the buyer, an accurate idea of how much you can spend on a house.

A key factor when seeking a loan is your credit history. Check your credit report to make sure it is accurate before meeting with a loan officer. You can check your credit report with all three national credit bureaus listed here. You will need to provide your name, address, previous address, and Social Security number with your request. Check with each company for specific instructions. Reports are free if you have been denied credit based on your credit report within the last 30 days; otherwise, expect to pay a fee. You can also request a free credit report from each of the three national credit bureaus once every year at annualcreditreport.com. The national credit bureaus are:

  • Equifax, P.O. Box740241, Atlanta, GA 30347, 800-685-1111, equifax.com
  • Experian, P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75002-2104, 888-397-3742, experian.com
  • TransUnion Corporation, 2 Baldwin Pl, P.O. Box 1000, Chester, PA 19022, 800-493-2392, transunion.com

When contemplating buying a house, you’ll want to evaluate your personal finances. How much can you afford to pay up front, and how much will you then be able to pay per month? Generally, you will be able to qualify for a loan of about three or four times your yearly income, depending on your credit record and other debts. The loan won’t cover your down payment and closing costs, however. In most cases closing costs, which are in addition to the down payment, run 3% to 7% of the purchase price. These can include loan origination fees, attorney’s fees, title search, title insurance, inspections, and tax and insurance premiums held in escrow. As a buyer you will probably not be expected to pay the broker’s fees, which are commonly paid by the seller. Expect your down payment to be from 5% to 20% of the price of the home. Additional fees, such as mortgage insurance or higher loan origination fees, are often required if the down payment is less than 20%.

Finally, a few words about getting a loan: it may be most convenient to get your pre-approval from a local bank, but shop around before you sign for your loan. While many banks offer competitive interest rates, mortgage brokers can often match or beat their best offers. Make sure you ask about loan origination fees (points) when requesting interest rate quotes. Usually the lowest interest rate includes a hefty one-time fee, one that may not be mentioned until you’re ready to sign the papers. The Bankrate website (www.bankrate.com) provides mortgage and interest rate data on over 4,800 lending institutions.

Major banks and mortgage-lending institutions usually have websites, and most now allow you to get pre-approved online. See Mortgages below for a list.

Once your loan is approved, your lender will require you to buy homeowner’s insurance to protect their investment (your home). Be sure the policy you choose covers the house, its contents, and any outbuildings. Seattle is located in the Cascadia region, which is vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. Standard homeowner’s policies in Washington State do not cover earthquake damage; coverage must be purchased as a separate endorsement. Depending on where your new home is located, you may want to explore the option of flood insurance as well. You’ll also want to protect yourself in case of liability. Policies vary, so check restrictions and exclusions carefully to make sure you have the coverage you need. A basic homeowner’s policy includes liability insurance to protect you if someone is injured on your property; property protection, which insures your house and personal belongings against damage or loss; and living expense coverage that will pay for you to live elsewhere while repairs are being made.

You may also need mortgage insurance, which is required by many lenders as well as the FHA to cover them if you default on your loan, and title insurance, which protects the lender in case the legal title to the property isn’t clear. It doesn’t protect you though, so, in addition, you may want to buy an owner’s title insurance policy, or get an attorney’s opinion on your title. If the seller has purchased title insurance in recent years, you may be able to get the same title company to issue you a new policy at a lower cost, so be sure to ask for a re-issue credit. See Renter’s Insurance above for a list of insurance companies.

Online Resources—House Hunting

You can start your search on the Internet before you arrive in Seattle. Surfing the Web will give you a good idea about what’s on the market, where you should look once you get here, and about how much you can expect to pay. Not every site lists every home in the Seattle area, but most homes will be listed on at least one site. Also, don’t forget the newspaper classifieds (see above under Apartment Hunting).

House hunting has gone high tech. Today’s smart phones and PDAs often come with real estate apps that are a real boon to homebuyers. You can download mobile apps (many are free) that enable you to search for nearby properties for sale whenever you find yourself in a neighborhood that appeals to you. Online real estate giants Zillow, Trulia, and Realtor.com offer apps that let you view color pictures of homes by street view or satellite, and filter your results by the features you’re looking for in a home. If you see a property you like, you can e-mail your agent about it on the spot.

For Sale By Owner

If you prefer to buy or sell a home without an agent, check out the sites below; they specialize in home listings by owners:

Mortgages

The following sites might be useful:

  • CitiMortgage, citimortgage.com; CitiMortgage’s site lets visitors pre-qualify for loans, shop and compare rates, and apply for loans online.
  • E-Loan, eloan.com; find loans with low rates and low origination fees.
  • Freddie Mac, freddiemac.com; offers information on current mortgage averages.
  • Home Finance of America, bestrateloans.com; offers competitive home financing rates.
  • Interest.com, interest.com; includes suggestions on how to find a lender close to home, and mortgage rate comparisons.
  • Mortgage 101, mortgage101.com; offers a lender directory, mortgage calculators, and mortgage “snapshots” for different states.
  • Mortgage-calc.com, mortgage-calc.com; find several simple, free online calculators for mortgages, amortization, refinancing and more.
  • Quicken Loans, quickenloans.com; includes information for first-time homebuyers, plus easy-to-use calculators that help expedite and clarify the finance process.

Additional Resources

If you want to buy a house, especially if you are a first-time homebuyer, consider taking a real estate class, often available at area colleges. The Washington State Housing Finance Commission offers free home ownership programs and homebuyer education seminars. For more information, visit the agency’s website at wshfc.org or call 206-464-7139 (in Seattle) or 800-767-HOME. Another good resource for classes is the Washington Homeownership Resource Center, at homeownership-wa.org, or call 206-542-1243. If you don’t have the time or inclination for a class, but are willing to conduct your own research, look for a book on homebuying how-tos. An invaluable resource is the Washington Center for Real Estate Research (WCRER), 800-835-9683 or wcrer.wsu.edu. The WCRER, a division of the Washington State University College of Business, provides research and education materials to consumers.

The following resources may be of interest for those in the market for a new home:

  • 100 Questions Every First-Time Homebuyer Should Ask by Ilyce R. Glink
  • Environmental Protection Agency, epa.gov/epahome; the EPA maintains a website that lets you search your environment by zip code if you are concerned about toxic waste issues or chemical releases in or near your prospective neighborhood.
  • How to Buy Your Own Home, a pamphlet published by the Fannie Mae Foundation for first-time homebuyers, can be accessed at literacyworks.org/fmfhome/index.html.
  • Rain City Guide, raincityguide.com, a Seattle real estate blog with helpful, relevant and constantly updated information on the local real estate market.
  • Seattle Office of Housing, seattle.gov/housing/buying/resources.htm; in addition to links to resources, this city government website contains information about affordable housing and down payment assistance.
  • The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers an online tutorial on the homebuying process at hud.gov/buying.
  • Your New House: The Alert Consumer’s Guide to Buying and Building a Quality New Home; in its fourth edition, a very helpful resource, especially for those building a new home. While the book is unfortunately out of print, you can find both new and used copies at Amazon.com and other online booksellers’ sites, or check out a copy from the library.
  • Zillow.com, zillow.com, offers estimates of what your home is worth, as well as comparisons with comparable homes in your neighborhood. Search for any address, for free, and get aerial maps, home info, charts, graphs and more.
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