For this year's real-estate guide, senior writer Harry Kollatz Jr. sought out Richmonders at various points along the home-ownership scale, from a first-time buyer to a former Realtor facing foreclosure, to get a feel for the state of today's market. We also have real-estate professionals weighing in, we've got advice on renegotiating and refinancing a mortgage, and our chart featuring pricing for 130 neighborhoods stretching back to 2000 has returned.
Buying for the First Time
Mai-Giang Dieu bought her first home in August in a neighborhood between Staples Mill and Parham roads, in the general vicinity of where she grew up. Her family came to this country from the town of Song Be, north of Saigon, Vietnam, when Dieu was 12. They all lived together in a rented two-bedroom apartment, where she shared a room with two younger siblings.
"I have always wanted to buy a house," she says. "Because my apartment was very crowded, my sister moved out, so there was still my younger brother and five or six of us in a two-bedroom place."
Dieu graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in May 2007 as a finance major and works as a physicians' claim representative with the Social Security Administration office here.
Her full-time job allowed Dieu to consider getting a house, with plenty of room for the extended family.
"Thinking long-term, too, it's good for my little brother, Brian, who is 12," she says. "We've shared rooms since he was little."
Dieu looked at six or seven places before settling on the 2,300-square-foot, three-bedroom dwelling she finally purchased, the basement of which her carpenter father then divided into three more bedrooms.
She bought the house with her older brother, using a Federal Housing Administration loan. "We had no down payment at all," Dieu explains. "I found a seller willing to make the down payment and closing cost, and the lady who owned the house gave us $7,000 for everything." The house sold for $214,000.
One attraction was a spacious yard, big enough to play soccer or have a barbecue. Between improvements, work and winter, Dieu says she hasn't really had the opportunity to make the most of the space.
Her housemates include her parents, her older brother, her youngest sister and the sister's boyfriend, her younger brother, and a 4-year-old nephew.
Dieu's thinking about attending medical school or nursing school, and she may eventually apply to both to see which program accepts her. In the meantime, in a home with seven people, there's always plenty to do.
"We're very excited about having a house where we can live together," she says. "But now I come to the realization that I have a house. I want to go back to school, but with a house comes a lot of responsibility. I'm going to have to a wait a little while."
Downsizing in Search of a Simpler Life
Cliff Cutchins and his wife, Jane , moved from a 6,500-square-foot residence off West Cary Street to a 3,500-square-foot condominium at the recently completed Monument Square community this past November. Their previous house still hasn't sold after several months on the market.
"The whole idea was to start downsizing," Cutchins says. "We have two grown girls, and we thought life would be simplified giving up the yard work and the extensive maintenance."
An attorney with offices downtown, he left behind just under an acre with gardens and landscaping. "I said goodbye, but I'm still maintaining it until somebody buys it," and, he adds wearily, "That grass doesn't know I'm gone."
The Cutchinses wanted to stay close to the Westhampton neighborhood where they'd lived for more than two decades.
Sometimes leaving a longtime home can be stressful, but for the Cutchinses it didn't turn out quite that way. They went through their share of this-one's-too-soft and this-one's-too-hard during their home search, but Monument Square came along at just the right time. "We thought it would be anxiety-provoking," Cutchins says, "but, to be honest, within five minutes of being in the new place, all of that evaporated. We love it here."
There were, however, a few issues with … all of their stuff.
Cutchins laughs about it now. "We gave things away to the kids, relatives, the Hall Tree and many charities throughout the region."
Now they can walk to Willow Lawn, which, Cutchins points out, is going through another revamp, and also nearby restaurants. "I think I have a special membership at Panera Bread," he jokes.
And the view of Monument Avenue from their upper balcony is wonderful. "They have a high-quality product here," Cutchins says, "and we couldn't be happier." He likes the classic Virginia-style construction, as well as the final touches. "The lobby of our building is hand-painted with murals, with birds and so forth. You don't see that everywhere."
Making Improvements While Staying Put
Will Hulcher and his wife, Sarah , moved from Boston to Stratford Hills in the summer of 2005. At the time, they considered their more-than-2,000-square-foot house a good deal for the money, in a nice neighborhood with a short commute downtown, where Will, a native Richmonder, practices law.
"We were already married and expecting, so that was one reason we moved back," Hulcher says.
Their older daughter will be 4 in the fall, and the couple is starting to think about school districts. But moving now isn't as important as it could become: "We were planning to do it sooner rather than later," he says. "Then everything happened."
That "everything" is what dominates newspaper headlines and the nightly news. And it meant the Hulchers were not likely going anywhere.
He summarizes what has become a familiar plight.
"We'd like to move now, but we just can't rely on being able to get enough out of our house to have anything for a down payment, let alone bringing money to closing."
Lending is tighter. A buyer might be able to meet the monthly mortgage payment, but the down payment is a challenge. It's difficult putting a house on the market without knowing where one is going, real-estate-wise. Plus, there's no way of predicting how long the current house will sit on the market.
Hulcher says, "We hope things will get better. Meanwhile, we'll get a little more equity out of the house."
This past spring, the Hulchers upgraded their kitchen, rather than completely renovating it, leaving, for example, the original 1950s cabinetry and replacing the countertops. About $8,000 went into the project.
"We did the kitchen with an eye toward getting the most bang out of the buck," Hulcher says. "Redoing the whole kitchen would've required bumping out the house, and that just wasn't practical."
A heat pump was installed, because the air conditioning needed replacing; that was about $7,000. In the yard, some bushes were removed, trees trimmed and grass planted for about $1,200. The previous owners put in elaborate landscaping, and the Hulchers wanted lower-maintenance greenery that didn't obscure the house.
"And [it's] easier to keep looking good for when we put the house on the market," he says.
Still Waiting for Foreclosure
Vicki Honeycutt sold real estate for a dozen years and was good at her job. She'd lived for about five years with her three daughters in a 1,900-square-foot, four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath Colonial revival located in Midlothian's Walton Park.
She'd gotten into the business of rehabilitating houses and reselling them. "I took a hit on a couple of deals and pulled myself out of the market, but my income went from 150 grand a year to zero, almost immediately, about 18 months ago. But I figured, with real estate, anything could turn around at any moment."
This didn't prove quite true in Honeycutt's case. She missed a couple of mortgage payments. The first of several notices that her house would be auctioned off within 10 days arrived in February 2008.
Honeycutt at first tried to renegotiate, but the mortgage company demanded an additional $25,000 for the arrangement. "I was already upside-down in the house," Honeycutt says, meaning that she would get less from selling the home than she'd put into it. "They didn't ever offer the opportunity to make the payments I was late on. It was: ‘You give us $25,000 extra or nothing.' "
By then, foreclosures were becoming a national issue. In May 2008, Honeycutt's lender told her she could have a short sale of her house.
Honeycutt says she had five separate contracts on the home, but the mortgage company couldn't get its act together to accept one of them. "They were so overwhelmed and unorganized," she explains. "I could fax the contracts 10 times, and they would swear up and down they never got them."
At the outset, Honeycutt's house was worth $265,000, but then real-estate values plummeted, and the house was worth only $230,000 — and falling. She couldn't sell in that position. And the impending-auction notes kept coming.
In November 2008, Honeycutt started a part-time job as a limousine chauffeur. In December, she moved into a nearby rented townhouse. At this point, her former home exists in a kind of real-estate limbo — she has moved out of the house and has stopped paying the mortgage, but her lender still hasn't foreclosed on the property.
Honeycutt still receives auction warnings. She ignores them. "I'm like, ‘Please, take the house, be on your merry way and let me live my life.' "
Honeycutt has moved on professionally to become a spiritual counselor and life coach and has even self-published a memoir, A Diary of Questionable Journeys.
In the end, she feels like the situation freed her, and not just from a $1,800 monthly mortgage payment. "I can do something I love," she says. "I don't have to make $150,000 a year. It's very liberating."
Renting Out While Waiting Out the Market
Jane and David Harlan lived in a 2,700-square-foot Traylor Estates tri-level on almost a half-acre of land for about seven years. Last spring, they decided that the upkeep of the house and grounds had become too much.
"We had planted it with azaleas and flowers," Jane says. "It was constant work to keep rabbits and deer from eating things up."
Their former house on Richmond's South Side went on the market in June, and the Harlans got an offer the first day. But, explains Jane, the buyers wanted "the sun and the moon and the stars" and had not yet sold their own house.
The Harlans' place is close to the river, with Trinity Episcopal School at the back door. "We had put a lot into the house, and I wasn't going to give it away," Jane says.
They spoke to Realtors about the strategies of selling or renting. They didn't want to sell at a giveaway price, making renting the only other option. In the meantime, they found a one-floor residence at The Bluffs. They could pay both mortgages, at least for a while.
They moved out on Nov. 10, but they couldn't fully relax or enjoy their new place because the old one needed attention, too.
Jane recalls how, at their old property: "On New Year's Eve, the winds were blowing so high, one of the pine trees came down and the ball came out of the ground. So we had to go over there and clean up."
The cost of heating an empty house surprised the Harlans. Following the lead of friends who own vacation homes on the Outer Banks, they kept the thermostat of the Traylor Estates house at 50 degrees. "Even at that, I was getting tremendous gas bills," Jane says. She learned that having a house with carpets, furniture and people in it helps warm a place.
"I was running back and forth to double-check to make sure things were all right," Jane says, "that pipes weren't frozen and water wasn't running."
Empty places get dusty, too, and a second thorough cleaning was needed. Then in February, a tenant arrived and signed a year lease.
"It would be very nice in a year's time to sell," Jane says. "Maybe the market will have come up so we can get an acceptable price."
Sarah Walor photos