I bought my house in Seattle way back when people who didn’t build software for a living were still able to afford houses. Now, as someone who is old enough to recognize a young tech worker or 12 in the local coffee shop, I spend much of my time in front of that house, yelling “Get off my lawn!”
And I daydream about where to go next in the U.S. with the riches of home equity.
GeekWire decided where I should go, at least temporarily, when the powers that be opened our own HQ2 in Pittsburgh for the month of February. So, with my week to explore and better understand why the city is on Amazon’s radar for an HQ, too, I set out to pretend I was shopping for a home in the ‘Burgh.
But rather than arrive in Pittsburgh like someone who maybe grew up there, and was returning after college or returning a little later to start a family, I thought it might be fun to drop in like a future Amazonian. If Pittsburgh ends up being selected for the tech giant’s second North American headquarters, Amazon has said 50,000 high-paying tech jobs and $5 billion in development will eventually follow.
In Seattle, the median price of a single family home is about $750,000. In Pittsburgh, the median price is $130,000. That price is the lowest among the 20 finalists for Amazon HQ2 — a list that includes cities such as Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, Denver, Atlanta and so on. Real estate website Trulia named Pittsburgh a top-three contender for HQ2 based on housing affordability data.
For the sake of this experiment, Amazon pays me well. Like any good software engineer, I’m easily making $100,000 a year or more. After years of watching my young friends get priced out of markets in San Francisco and Seattle, I’m excited about the ability to flex my Amazon HQ2 paycheck in Pittsburgh’s housing market.
With a 20-percent down payment, the desire to pay no more than $2,500 a month (which is 30 percent of gross monthly earnings on my salary), a 30-year, 4-percent fixed-rate mortgage, 0.77 percent annual property tax rate, and $800 in home insurance per year, I’ve got some quality Pittsburgh neighborhoods in which to shop.
RELATED: New vs. old Pittsburgh quickly comes into focus, and tells a story that’s familiar in Seattle
With those criteria, Zillow told me I could afford 67 percent of the single-family homes/condos in Shadyside, between 52 and 82 percent of different parts of Squirrel Hill, and around 82 percent of up and coming Lawrenceville, where GeekWire’s temporary offices are located.
I could certainly maximize the return on my fake Amazon salary, or the imagined sale of my Seattle home of 20 years by shopping for lower-priced fixer uppers. But in this scenario, newish properties and nicely maintained or remodeled ones were on the list. And, because I’m coming from Seattle where the prospect of owning has dimmed for so many people, the objective in Pittsburgh was not to rent either a house or an apartment. (For what it’s worth, the average apartment rent in 2017 in Pittsburgh was $1,075 per month, down 3 percent from 2011, according to CBRE.)
My real estate agent for this adventure was Helen Cestra, a 27-year-old Pittsburgh native who went away for undergrad and grad school and returned to live and work in the city she loves. She’s not only close to family, she has worked for them for three years at Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, the nation’s third largest brokerage which bears the name of the man who founded it in 1957, her grandfather.
Cestra is a multi-million dollar producing realtor who has been recognized on a previous list of Pittsburgh’s 50 Finest and an upcoming list of 20 in the 20s — both by Whirl magazine. She lives in the city’s Shadyside neighborhood and she’s excited about changes that are happening now, and the potential for even more change if Amazon comes to town.
“For me, and I think a lot of my friends would agree, we all want to end up living in Pittsburgh and raising our families here,” Cestra said. “So we definitely care about the future of the city, so we want to see it be the best it can be.”
To drive home the point that I wasn’t shopping for my HQ2 home in other warmer, final-20 cities such as Los Angeles or Miami or Austin, it was cold and pouring rain when Cestra picked me up in Lawrenceville on Monday. Somebody doesn’t want me to leave Seattle, I thought.
February is a not an ideal time to list or shop for a home in a lot of places, Pittsburgh included — whether for the aforementioned weather, or the low inventory. But Cestra was game to show me some available Howard Hanna listings, and some that had just recently sold, while also giving me her very informative lay of the land by cruising the streets of several neighborhoods.
In this neighborhood of row houses, we started just a few blocks down from GeekWire and the busy Butler Street, with its mix of newer shops, bars and restaurants. The contemporary townhouse was offered at $429,000 and had just sold over the weekend. As the owner of a perpetually remodeled and well-maintained 1929 home in Seattle, I profess to having a love for older homes and the charm and character they possess.
I’m not against new construction entirely, especially if it fits in well with the surrounding neighborhood. I get it. I’ve looked at Dwell magazine. I like steel and concrete.
I just prefer stuff that looks like it’s stood the test of time and still has lots of stories to tell. This property had the space an Amazonian or two might need, and it had a nice backyard and garage, which is a plus when weighted against the prospect of living in a multi-unit development up above street level.
But it was unremarkable. In fact, my favorite thing about it was the view just across the street of a solid brick structure on the corner, with black trim that looked to me like an older Pittsburgh charmer.
Back up on Butler street we checked out a unit in what was billed as the neighborhood’s “newest and hottest condominium building.” Businesses below included a tattoo removal space called Disappearing Ink. What better opportunity for a disaffected Seattleite than to live above the place where his or her bad life choices are lasered away?
This type of living definitely relies on the proximity of shops and places to eat as part of the urban charm, and was very reminiscent of what is happening across Seattle, where residences are stacked above coffee shops, banks, nail salons, gyms and everything else.
I’ve lived in apartments in older buildings, with businesses below, in the past. I always liked the high ceilings and big windows and the fact that people downstairs closed up shop at a nice time of day.
This condo’s highlight to me was the front-facing view across Butler Street to an old church. But with work beginning on a cleared part of the block in front of the church, I wondered whether the view might become obstructed by whatever rises out of that pit. More Seattle flashbacks.
This property stands out as the most unique of the six I looked at with Cestra. The huge, old mansion sitting up above the street was converted to condos in the 1970s.
The property I looked at was three stories, with two bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths. High ceilings and an ornate staircase greet visitors upon entry. But the space dedicated to showing off the front of the house definitely took away from the back, as the kitchen was very tiny.
A master bedroom upstairs was big enough for an Amazonian and 15 Amazonian friends to sleep in. And the stairs kept climbing to a third floor with another bedroom, a small office nook and a bathroom.
The house was meticulously maintained, and the current owner’s period decor gave it a luxurious, old Pittsburgh feel. I’m not sure it was for me, but it was amazing to see what $425,000 might get you in that type of setting.
In a development called Village of Shadyside, we were just blocks from Bakery Square, the mixed use office/retail/housing center that is famously home to Google and much more. In fact, as we walked up the front steps of this townhome, I could see the Google signage and the tech giant’s flag waving down the street.
While renters may be attracted to Bakery Square’s housing options, I’m here to spend my fake Amazon salary on something I own, remember? But this property wasn’t going to be it.
Even with my Seattle understanding in tow, I wasn’t too stoked about spending over $600,000 in Pittsburgh for a three-bedroom unit. There was nothing that grabbed me in the house, and the view out the kitchen over the back deck was of a busy shopping plaza and McDonald’s across the street.
The best thing about it all was Cestra’s assertion that this little townhouse village had a pool in it somewhere.
From the street, this home reminded me a lot of my home in Seattle, perched up above a driveway and retaining wall and some landscaping out front. I do wish I had a large front porch, and I’d be into this property and it’s sweeping view up and down the quiet, tree-lined street.
I also liked a lot of the older charm inside the house, including decorative radiator covers and leaded glass windows. It had a newer kitchen which looked like it might have been part of an addition to the back of the house.
A narrow hallway upstairs led to a large master bedroom with cathedral ceilings and skylights at one end and a tiny and very cute baby nursery at the other.
When do we move in?
If I had wanted this brick charmer in the heart of a desirable, walkable neighborhood, I would have had to beat out multiple bidders. The house sold as soon as it hit the market, Cestra said, thanks to its tasteful blend of old and new.
The talk of a bidding war finally made me feel like I was in Seattle. But this version was one that a lot of folks can still dream of. A home in the city for a family. And a price that reflected the hot neighborhood and the work put into the property. Granted, that price went up above $500,000, but that beats the $1 million price tags many Seattle neighborhoods are seeing now.
I loved the wide-open kitchen and hardwood floors. The tile work and double sinks in the upstairs bath were better than often less-stylistic condo fixtures.
The deck off the back and the view from the yard of other neighboring brick houses and buildings was quintessential Pittsburgh. I could only imagine how nice it must look with the trees filled in with green.
So, after riding around with Cestra and having her point out all that she appreciated about old and new Pittsburgh, I felt hopeful about what anyone moving to this city might find by way of housing. It’s certainly edging away from its highly affordable label, depending on who you talk to and what’s happening to their neighborhood. Talk of more new tech, even if it’s not Amazon, will continue to lead to changes across the city.
To be fair, in part of one day, I only saw a few neighborhoods which fit into a pre-determined criteria. We didn’t head to the North Side or the South Side or the Strip District or up to Mount Washington. We didn’t talk fixer-uppers, we didn’t talk schools, or even suburbia.
If I was a future Pittsburgh HQ2 Amazonian, as I pretended to be today, I wouldn’t look to live in a future Seattle-style high-rise apartment building right on top of wherever the company builds its potential campus.
I’d head into the leafy hills around the city, and hopefully find a pre-war gem with sturdy brick bones and smart fixes applied to it along the way. There would be a driveway that I would shovel in winter. And a backyard where I’d listen to the Pirates on the radio during the summer. From my front porch or one of the home’s many big windows, I’d keep an eye out front.
“Don’t yinz move that parking chair!”
I’d be home.