You just have to watch the quick clip at which Zillow listings flip from new to pending to see that the Seattle housing market is wild. Properties sell for six figures over asking these days, sometimes in cash. Recent homebuyers—and would-be buyers—see this manifest in bidding wars and escalating offers, and the numbers support the anecdotal tales.

The median sale price for a King County home was $745,000 in September 2021, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. That’s up from $698,230 that same month in 2020.

It’s not just about owning property, though. Renters make up more than half of the city’s population and move more than their mortgage-saddled counterparts. While rents took a tumble in the early days of Covid, they’re back up. In October, the median price of a two-bedroom unit in Seattle hit $2,170, up 12 percent from this time last year.

Navigating such a volatile market to emerge victorious with keys in hand requires compromise, resilience, and, as the following stories show, strokes of luck. Fortunately, these ones all have happy endings.

Elsa Sjunneson’s apartment search took more than a month.

Image: Kyle Johnson

Seeking Accessibility

When author Elsa Sjunneson, who is Deafblind, planned to move back to Seattle in 2019 after a decade on the East Coast, she figured she’d rent in the Central District. She grew up there and thought navigating the familiar territory would be easier.

“I went back to what I thought was going to be a neighborhood that I would know really well, and it turned out I didn’t,” Sjunneson says. She found it less walkable than she remembered and more dangerous to navigate.

“That’s where I started: Where am I going to end up being safe?” she explains. “I also wanted it to be in a neighborhood where I knew people.”

Those two criteria led her to Queen Anne. It’s where her partner and his two kids lived, and the neighborhood had plenty of the amenities she needed: public transit, shops, places to grab lunch that are easy to walk to, and a multitude of grocery stores.

Additional safety requirements narrowed the pool of potential rentals. Sjunneson needed a place without many steps and an easy-to-learn layout, plus a well-lit, easily recognizable entrance. “These are all things that maybe don’t seem intuitive for a blind person living in a neighborhood, but having a visually recognizable building is actually really helpful because not all blind people are completely blind.”

Add onto that other must-haves, like a separate workspace to fit her “weird adaptive tech,” and the search became frustratingly difficult. “They would say it’s an accessible space, and then you’d go show up and it’s like 16 steps up to a townhouse,” Sjunneson says. “Or they say it’s an accessible listing except that the ramp has cracks in it.”

One place on the north end of Queen Anne had no sidewalks—and once she got there, she couldn’t even find the apartment for the showing. Another potential home was in a good location but had no lighting between the street and the front door.

After over a month of searching, Sjunneson finally found a place that “literally looked like it was out of Narnia,” with 1920s stained glass and an original clawfoot tub. The kind landlords had lived in the neighborhood for decades. The apartment, Sjunneson says, “felt like a place that would want me.”

Even happy endings have compromises: The rental has more stairs at the front entrance than she’d like (“a really charming, very obvious candelabra” makes them more navigable). The smoke detector is too high to easily silence, which can be a challenge with her hearing aids.

Still, Sjunneson considers herself lucky to find a place that meets her needs. There isn’t “a whole lot of luxury to be picky” considering the speed and cost of Seattle’s rental market. “I do work freelance and I do have some uncertainties, but they’re a lot less than some other freelancers and a lot of other disabled people.”

An 11th-hour listing turned Sunny Hong from renter to homeowner.

Image: Kyle Johnson

The New Unicorn

Sunny Hong had happily rented for eight years before she considered buying a place of her own. The nonprofit program administrator was living in a “unicorn apartment” on Lower Queen Anne—a three-bed, two-bath home with a view. A breakup left her paying the rent on her own, something she was prepared to keep doing when her lease came up for renewal, but she decided to take a peek at the market, just in case.

“I really went into it thinking that there was just no way I’d find anything that I liked within my price range that wouldn’t drastically change my lifestyle,” Hong says.

Still, to know her options, she met with a mortgage advisor, got in touch with a real estate agent friend, and looked at 20 or 30 homes in about three weeks. Hong figured if there was something she really thought she could live in, she’d make an offer. “The worst that can happen is they don’t accept, and you stay in your dream apartment,” she says of her mentality at the time.

The search didn’t go well. Places that got close to stacking up to her existing apartment were no-gos: They either got scooped up too quickly for above asking or had serious problems like pending litigation. After a few weeks, she was ready to throw in the towel.

“I went to bed Saturday night thinking, I’m just going to sign my lease for another year or more,” Hong recalls. Then she saw a listing for a two-bedroom, two-bath on the nexus of Pioneer Square, the Chinatown–International District, and downtown. She had worked in the area before, and the prospect of living there was exciting, but it was far outside her budget.

During a tour, Hong found a vibrant setting, a secure garage, a well-maintained home, and lots of closet space. It also had one major feature she wasn’t ready to give up from her apartment: a view. With convenient access to transit and tons of food options, it checked all her boxes. “The library is only a couple blocks away,” Hong adds, her face lighting up. “Seattle Public Library is my favorite library.”

Hong’s still coming to terms with leaving her apartment (at press time, she had just finished moving into her condo), but she’s ready for homeownership: “I can make as many holes in the walls as I like, paint as often as I want, and I don’t have to ask anybody if I can have another cat.”

Spencer Olson (left) and Marshall Ling lived in their vacation cabin during the pandemic.

Image: Kyle Johnson

Return to the City

Spencer Olson and Marshall Ling started their home search in 2015, but quickly realized they weren’t going to be able to buy a property in Seattle’s explosive real estate world. So they started exploring options farther out, shifting their sights toward a less competitive market: a rural cabin.

After looking in Kittitas County, they closed in January 2016 on a midcentury fixer with a crystal-clear view of Cle Elum Lake, 10 miles north of Roslyn. They’d fix it up and turn it into a part-time vacation property or rental, while still renting in Seattle.

“Our plan was, I’ll cover the rent in Seattle, you’ll cover the mortgage at this cabin, we’ll make it work,” Olson says. But after years of DIY remodels, “it was harder and harder to imagine renting it.”

By August 2019, paying for a mortgage and rent wasn’t an option anymore. Olson, a nonprofit communications director, worked remotely, and Ling, an architectural designer, wanted to leave his job. So when their lease in Seattle ended, they made a new plan: Move into the cabin for six months, get the renovations done, and rent it by the spring so the project could sustain itself.

Then Covid happened. They extended their stay at the cabin, well past those initial six months. Gradually, it became their permanent home.

When the world slowly started opening back up, and Ling started a job that needed him to work in-person in Seattle a couple of days a week, they set their sights on Seattle real estate once again—this time with money saved from cabin life and different expectations. They wanted something near Capitol Hill and downtown for proximity to work, food, and friends, but didn’t need a lot of space.

A Capitol Hill pied-à-terre met the couple’s second-home desires.

Image: Kyle Johnson

While Seattle real estate prices skyrocketed and homebuyers outgrew their homes, Olson and Ling found themselves once again looking to a less competitive market—an itty-bitty studio condo. One day, they toured a unit that was especially undesirable: The power was off, there was water damage in the hallway, and the sinks were leaking. Before, this might have been a deal-breaker, but not anymore.

“I think having bought a place before, having gone through a renovation of it, we felt confident like, ‘Oh, we can do this,’” Olson explains. “We knew what was major and would be a deal breaker and what was just work we had to fix.”

The other places they had been touring, on the other hand, had unfixable problems, like location and layout. “We were excited that it doesn’t face a brick wall or it’s not in the basement,” Olson says. “For our budget, this was the only one we actually saw in the market that you could see blue sky.”

Olson and Ling did what many Seattleites opted to do during the pandemic, trading city life for rural quiet.

Image: Kyle Johnson

They put in an offer and got it. Now they split time between two very different lifestyles: One where they can walk to the grocery store, and another where they sometimes have to snowshoe.

“It feels like a luxury to take my recycling to a bin,” Olson says. “I don’t have to sort it and haul it in my car and drive a 40-minute round trip to do that. Those types of things just really stand out.”

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