Downtown Walla Walla, Washington has been described by the New York Times as a place that closes up by 10 p.m. on any given night. It was also hailed for its extraordinary grapes and fine wines in the same article. So why is it that the rental market produces great results in this sleepy little city of 30,000 residents in southeastern Washington?
First and foremost, tourism provides a substantial base for the housing and rental markets. Wine enthusiasts from around the world flock to the area to sip fine wines from grapes grown in the Walla Walla Valley appellation at 46 degrees North latitude—the same as Bordeaux, France. Tourism Walla Walla reports there more than 875 hotel rooms in Walla Walla County. In addition, guesthouses and bed & breakfasts offer a cozy retreat—and a substantial income for many local owners. There are approximately 16 bed & breakfasts and another 50 guesthouses registered with the Tourism office. While they range a great deal in price, quality and style, the numbers are growing each year.
Visitors are drawn to Walla Walla for a number of reasons. In addition to its famous wines and sweet onions, the town has a variety of cultural offerings. The Walla Walla Symphony, for example, was founded in 1907. The area is also home to three colleges; nationally ranked Whitman College and Walla Walla Community College are both in town, and Walla Walla University is just 10 miles away, in College Place.
Returning visitors often experience great difficulty finding accommodations on popular wine and event weekends. Many find it worthwhile to purchase a second home in the Walla Walla Valley, also referred to as Walla Walla Wine Country. Second homeowners oftentimes opt to move to the area full time upon retirement. In fact, the trend is so predominant that, in 2006, Money Magazine named Walla Walla as one of the top 10 places to retire. With its small-town feel and convenient amenities, Walla Walla charms many visitors into staying long-term.
The overall housing market is supported by both stable and growing industries: education, agriculture and healthcare. Three colleges, one growing state penitentiary and thousands of acres of farmland in the Walla Walla Valley add up to a vibrant market. The average sale price of a home in June of this year was around $230,000 and the median sale price around $197,000, according to the Williams Team agents at Windermere Real Estate—relatively low numbers that are attractive to young families and retirees alike. The accessibly-priced town is served by Walla Walla Regional Airport, which provides connections to other destinations in the Northwest; flights to Seattle take about an hour.
Jennifer Northam moved to Walla Walla to attend Whitman College in the ’90s. After graduation, she married her college sweetheart and the couple purchased a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house located close to the quaint downtown area and parks. Following minor renovations and a few upgrades, they now rent out their former residence. “With skyrocketing property taxes and some large problems, such as a tree that was knocked down during a windstorm, causing cosmetic damage to the house, and then the expense of getting rid of the tree, we have broken even this year,” said Northam.
In seven years, they will own the house outright. Their budget-conscious decisions to incorporate low-maintenance landscaping and basic appliances creates enough time for them to work on their current residence, one that is close to Whitman College. Keeping in mind their future renters will most likely be college students, they wisely chose a five-bedroom, two-bathroom house and are adding features such as high-tech wiring while keeping the upgrades to a minimum. Paying attention to their expenses now will help keep rent attractive later.
Buying affordable houses and doing a majority of the labor themselves allows the Northam family, like many others in the area, an opportunity to work their way into the rental market. Most play it safe around Walla Walla and are willing to wait a few years for a return on their investments.
The Walla Walla real estate market has a solid foundation thanks to stable economic industries and substantial tourism. The ideal location—at the base of the Blue Mountains surrounded by agricultural fields a few hours’ drive from Seattle, Portland and Boise—mixed with a combination of historic homes on tree-lined streets and new construction overlooking the vineyards makes Walla Walla, Washington a great bet for real estate now and in the years to come.