Inc. At 20 Years!
Look back at the people and trends that shaped our world, 1979-1999

Microsoft--maybe you've heard of it? But perhaps you haven't heard about how Gates and company just may have reinvented an entire geographic region. Come take a tour as Seattle real estate agents tell all

So you've decided to move to Seattle. Maybe you want to see the birthplace of "grunge." Or perhaps you fantasize about bumping into Dr. Frasier Crane. (You may be disappointed to learn that Frasier is filmed in Los Angeles.) Or maybe you still love the Mariners. More likely, you've decided on this city because you've heard about the hypergrowth the Seattle area has experienced during the 1990s. Time was, folks thought of the Pacific Northwest as little more than logging towns, seaports, and some of the biggest saloon stops on the way to the Yukon Trail. But that was way, way back in 1981. Now, particularly because of the rise of Microsoft, Amazon.com, Starbucks, and Nordstrom--not to mention the profusion of Microsoft wanna-bes and spin-offs that have recently littered the Northwest landscape--Seattle is an international economic force to be reckoned with.

Heck, who wouldn't want to live there? With 2.9% local unemployment, landing a job is not a problem. Or--if you're of a more entrepreneurial stripe--there's definitely room in the bustling local economy for your incipient service business or Internet start-up.

Finding a place to live, on the other hand--that's another story. Thanks to that bustling local economy, a similarly robust national economy, low interest rates, the great buying power of all those technology staffers, and a certain Seattle trendiness, the local real estate market is just plain insane. From 1988 to 1998 the median sales price of an existing single-family home in the metropolitan Seattle area increased by 86%, compared with a national average increase of 46%.

And as for the high-end real estate market, well, most of those Microsoft millionaires you hear about may be rich only on paper, but as far as lenders are concerned, stock options make dandy collateral. "We hear so many stories about high-tech people buying these very expensive homes," says Janet Haberbush of Windermere Real Estate. "Sometimes it's even single people in their twenties or thirties spending $500,000 on a home."

Although the high-end sales prices are getting higher and higher, it's not as though there are that many buyers way up there. "When you have a listing for waterfront property at $6 million, you don't have many takers," says Carla Cross, a broker at Keller Williams Realty. "But when you get into the $600,000-to-$800,000 range, it's amazing how many people step up to the plate."

Combine a flush population with a shortage of inventory and what do you get? Bidding wars. Larry Simonson of RE/Max Northwest Realtors says it's a rare listing that doesn't elicit multiple offers. "We had a recent case where two technology people were bidding on a property on Capitol Hill," he says. "The buyer ended up paying $50,000 more than the listing price."

Of course, as is true of any boom economy, not all salaries are keeping pace with the rising prices. "Affordable housing has been quite a serious problem for us," says Philip Souza, owner of Century 21 Smith/Ring Inc. "The people who don't earn as much have a difficult time remaining close to work." To find a house in an affordable range--say, for less than $200,000--you may need to endure an hour-plus commute. One particularly hard-hit group is the elderly. "Suddenly they get caught living on very expensive property and can't pay the taxes," says Cross. "And there aren't many good places for them to go here. There isn't as much money in retirement homes as there is in housing for the instant millionaires."

Start with downtown
So where would you like to live? There are numerous downtown neighborhoods wherein the young professional might find comfort, including Queen Anne Hill and Capitol Hill. But, like pretty much every other city today, Seattle is getting gentrified, so if you're looking for urban living, you'll probably pay dearly for the privilege. With residential inventory at a record low, considerable effort is going into converting old manufacturing buildings into loft spaces and constructing residential high-rises.

To cater to an increasingly international population, a formerly sleepy downtown Seattle has transformed itself, spawning a significant number of new restaurants, upscale shops, bookstores, latte stands, and services that cater to the busy young professional. "A few years ago Seattle was not known as a restaurant town," says Carla Cross. "But now we have so many, with lots of catering and especially takeout."