By Courtney Pomeroy

WASHINGTON — It’s no surprise, the District and its immediate suburbs regularly rank in the top 5 on lists of the most expensive places to live in the country.

A recent study from the Tax Foundation, which factored in cost of living to find out what $100 is truly worth in each state, says Washingtonians fare the worst of anyone in the entire nation. Here, $100 equates to just $84.96.

Some are thinking outside the box when it comes to stretching those dollars, particularly when it comes to their homes and commutes.

The super-commuter

For some people, it’s a hard pill to swallow that $500,000 will only buy a 900-square-foot condo in Northwest D.C. while those dollars could easily stretch to a 4-bedroom home with a yard just a few counties away.

Stephanie Pleasants Turman, who has worked at the AFL-CIO Investment Trust in D.C. for 35 years, is one of those people.

When she first started working, she commuted from Centreville, Va. — about 30 miles each way.

In 1988, she met her husband, got married and “we basically drove until we hit our price range for a single family house,” she says.

“We did not want a condo or a town house. My husband loves to garden and things like that so we wanted a yard. And that is how we ended up in Spotsylvania County.”

That upped her commute to 60 miles one way.

“I have driven, I have ridden a van, I have driven a van, I’ve ridden a bus — two or three different bus services — I’ve driven up and ridden Metro in, I’ve done Amtrak, I’ve done VRE. So basically I’ve commuted every way that you possibly can. And with the driving, I’ve been both a slug and a driver of slugs.”

Unsurprisingly, she says, the commute has gotten more time consuming over the years as the population density has increased.

“I love my job, I love where I live and so the bottom line for me is that the commute is just the price.”

A few years ago, Turman and her husband moved into a larger house on a larger piece of land, increasing her commute again to about 70 miles each way. The drive takes an average of two hours each way, but the trip can be as long as three hours, depending on the day.

But for that five-acre property, they paid “probably what a condo costs in D.C.,” she says.

She enjoys the extra space, but she does say this: she’s planning to retire next year, and she wouldn’t be if it weren’t for the drive.

“If my office just happened to be, you know, next door to my house, I wouldn’t even quit working because… basically the reason to retire is because I’m tired of going up and down the road.”

The “tiny house” dwellers

The median price of a home sold in the U.S. in May was $228,700, according to the National Association of Realtors. Meanwhile, the median price of a home sold in the D.C. area rose to $435,000 in May, according to the MRIS subsidiary RealEstate Business Intelligence.

Prefabricated tiny houses (which are typically smaller than 300 square feet) can cost less than $60,000. Some build their own tiny homes for less.

Lee Pera and Jay Austin are co-founders of Boneyard Studios, a tiny house community in D.C.

Austin, who works for the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, lives in a 140-square-foot home on wheels called “The Matchbox.”

The Matchbox. (Photo credit: Jay Austin)

The Matchbox. (Photo credit: Jay Austin)

Pera, a geographer for the Environmental Protection Agency, lives in a 145-square-foot house called “Pera House.”

To compare, in 2013, the average size of homes built in the U.S. hit (an all-time high of) 2,600 square feet, according to the Census Bureau.

Pera and Austin say economic reasons are the primary impetus of the tiny house lifestyle.

However, “it’s a lot of upfront cost,” Pera says.

Austin says he hasn’t broken even yet after three years — he spent between $40,000 and $45,000 to build The Matchbox and predicts he would have spent just $36,000 on rent during that time. But it won’t take too much longer for the house to pay for itself.

Pera agrees that tiny houses, despite the generous upfront investment often required to build or buy one, are a good housing option in today’s society, and are most certainly not just a fad.

“I’m in my mid to late 30s, I’m 37, and like all of my friends who are in that age range who have good government jobs, you know, something making six figures, and have bought houses in the area cannot afford to buy a house on their own,” Pera says.

“They have to have multiple roommates or Airbnb it a significant amount of the time.”

Which brings us to…

The Airbnb-er

For those who are willing to open up their homes to strangers, tourists can provide the cash flow normally associated with roommates without the pesky permanence.

David and his partner James live in Takoma, just a short walk from the Red Line.

David quit his job two years ago so he could go back to school and get his Master’s degree in social work. He first learned about Airbnb while taking a road trip with a friend last year.

Airbnb, founded in 2008, is an online platform that allows people to rent out their rooms to travelers. The site has helped people facilitate rentals in more than 34,000 cities and 190 countries.

They went to North Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia and “he booked all these places on Airbnb,” David says.

“Really, since then, anytime we travel we look to see if there, you know, is a better Airbnb option than staying in a hotel.”

When David had to quit his part time job earlier this year after the demands of school and student government got to be too much, “we were brainstorming… things were starting to get a little tight financially.”

Luckily, David and James happen to have a private suite upstairs with a bedroom, bathroom and sitting room.

They have decked out the space with a Keurig machine and complimentary K-cups, a 32-inch LED HDTV, a mini fridge and travel books.

Since they started renting out the space for $65 per night ($75 per night for two people), they’ve had more than a dozen guests.

“It’s been a great side income for me,” David says. “Unfortunately we didn’t think about this until like a year-and-a-half in. I wish we had known about it, like, as soon as I went back to school because it would’ve been a nice way to make some money.”

The takeaway

Obviously the dream of a single-family, roomate-less home in the immediate Metro area isn’t possible (or worth it) for everyone.

But people find workarounds, and those workarounds may start becoming the new normal. In some ways, they already have.


Super-commuter Turman says she knows lots of people who have similarly lengthy commutes into the District.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data released in 2013, the average travel time to work in the United States is 25.5 minutes. In D.C., that average is 9 minutes longer — about 34.5 minutes.

That bump could be due to the fact that more than a quarter (27.4 percent) of workers in D.C. spend an hour or longer traveling to the office.

“The reason 95 is such a mess is because there are so many of us that, you know, come from that far out,” Turman says.

But despite the hours she spends commuting, “it has always been worth it to me,” she says. “I have never contemplated moving in closer.”

Tiny houses

Remember when Lee Pera said many of her friends can’t afford homes in this area without roommates or renting rooms out to Airbnb?

“To me, that’s sad,” she says. “But it’s also an opportunity for more creative ways of investing in real estate.”

She explains that some people thought the original Boneyard Studios, a small plot of land she and Austin once shared** with one other tiny-house owner in the Stronghold neighborhood of D.C., was unrealistic. But the way future generations think about homes and property may be a lot different, she says.

“There was an article that came out in the New York Times like a year or two ago that was about, you know, friends getting together and buying a unit or a house or an apartment together, like two couples,” she says. “And…I mean there’s a lot of people who are like, ‘Well you’re naive to think you can do some sort of cooperative land ownership or some sort of cooperative community’ and I don’t think it’s naive, I think it’s necessary.”

“So much of our society has changed rapidly… I think it’s naive to think that we can still exist where we buy single-family homes that we are expected to live in for 30 years. I think that’s kind of a naive proposition these days.”

And, for the record, Pera and Austin say they don’t really feel like they’re missing out, even though their houses are about 18 times smaller than the average new home built in the U.S.

Since they both designed their own homes, they included the things that were most important to them.

For Austin, it was big windows to let in lots of natural light and a functional kitchen space. He says there’s actually more counter space in Matchbox than his old apartment had.

For Pera, it was an airy, spacious loft and, like Austin, a fully decked-out kitchen. As far as guests go, she has a small deck and the yard she’s currently parking in even has a fire pit. “We don’t have to be inside a small structure if we don’t want to.”

(**Pera and Austin no longer live at the original Boneyard site. They are both parking their tiny houses in friends’ yards for now, but are working on finding a new a space for a tiny house community in D.C.)


According to the D.C. real estate website, Airbnb listings in D.C. increased 60 percent in 2013.

David and James’s suite is one of more than 1,000 spaces for rent in the area.

While they initially had concerns about strangers being in the house, “it’s been really easy,” he says.

“Most folks just go up there and close both doors and they are just kind of in their private area.”

And, unlike with a permanent or semi-permanent roommate, they are still able to use the guest space for family members and friends when they’re visiting. They simply block off those nights on their Airbnb account calendar so renters can’t book them.

“You can still do your own stuff,” he says. “You just have to, you have to plan a little far in advance…They’ve really made this as user-friendly as possible.”

And, since there are about 1.2 million Airbnb rentals listed worldwide, we’re guessing a lot of other people feel the same way.

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