Four years ago, just as my husband and I were getting ready to leave for vacation, the yellow “land use action” sign went up in front of our next-door neighbors’ one-story bungalow. Panicked, we rushed downtown to the land use department and checked out the plans: The house was slated for demolition, the 10,000-square-foot lot would be divided in half, and two three-level houses of 4,000-plus square feet each would consume most of the land (and obliterate our cherished view of Mount Rainier). The owners of the bungalow would live in one house and sell the other to finance the first.

But then things got weird. After two years of inspections and appeals for permits to build on a slide-prone slope, the owners threw up their hands and sold the whole project, pending permits and all, to a builder. For close to another year and a half now, we’ve been seeing the new houses take shape. First, a noisy Caterpillar ripped mature trees out of the ground to clear the lot. Then came excavators and concrete trucks pouring the foundation and blocking our driveway. And then framing: the mountain view gone and in its place the broad side of a house.

The story of giant new houses going up in established Seattle neighborhoods is hardly new, and the ups and (mostly) downs of home values make news daily. No matter what block we’re on or in what neighborhood, whether we bought at the peak of the market or have lived in the same place for decades, whether we rent or own, whether we’re moving or staying put, the state of real estate is causing us all to experience some psychic upheaval.

So let’s be smart about it. For this year’s installment of our annual real estate issue, Matthew Halverson goes straight to the heart of our topsy-turvy market with answers to questions that a year ago we wouldn’t have even thought to ask. In the new realty reality, there are short sales, lease-to-buy arrangements, and homes under water (no, we don’t mean in flood plains). But there are also great bargains for first-time buyers, desirable refinancing rates, and surprising opportunities all around.

I have no plans to move—yet. But you can bet I’m watching those refi rates.

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