Wilmington, NC – Alicia Adams is turning 11 in the kitchen of her family's Forest Hills apartment.
Smiling above the cake, the little girl easily blows all her candles out. She doesn't tell anyone her wish, of course, but there is one big desire she may soon get: a room of her own.
Alicia's mother Catina has spent the last year trying to make that dream come true, wading into the Wilmington real estate market as a first-time homebuyer.
"I've got pictures and all kinds of stuff that's been packed up since we've been here and I've just been buying and buying. Bought a new table and chairs. I'm just looking forward to having my own space."
Space enough for each of her two daughters to have their own rooms, space for her son to finally get his drum kit out of storage, that's what Adams wants. But before she could chase that goal, she first had to settle up with her past.
"I'm divorced, so I've had some things that were on my credit. And I'm thinking, okay, I can't buy a house. So I decided to take longer and try to work on my credit."
It took Adams and a mortgage consultant three months of negotiating old bills and fighting off a defaulted time share before to slowly polish her bruised credit rating up to acceptability. And just in time. She was pre-approved for her loan in the months before the bottom fell out of the mortgage market.
Adams' broker, Brad Hodges, says everyone's having a much tougher time now.
"The way the market is right now, there's really not an easy loan right now for anybody. Whether you've got excellent credit or all the way down to terrible credit. Right now, the banks are really scrutinizing everything, from appraisals to income to job history. So they're really making it kind of tough right now."
That wasn't the end of Adams serendipitous timing. When she finally walked out of her mortgage office, 100% financing in hand, she was walking into into a real estate market that was already starting to slump.
Even so, finding a home to fit her $150,000 loan turned out to be far from easy.
"Once we started looking, I was really concerned that we weren't going to find anything, because what we were finding that was in the price range was someplace I didn't want to live or it was too far out."
In fact, Adams may have gotten lucky simply in snagging a realtor. Carlos Braxton says a lot of his colleagues would have ushered her out of their offices with a smile... and a referral to someone else.
"Some realtors have a tendency to not want to work affordable housing, just because it's a lot of work for a little bit of money, to be quite honest with you."
The funny thing? Adams isn't poor. She makes around $50,000 a year, which is pretty much the region's median income. But $150,000 is only about two-thirds of the area's median home price.
The disconnect, according to Braxton, is that people moving into the region are often cashing out of much more expensive markets.
"My first client was from DC. He sold his house in DC, he sold a townhouse for 330,000. Moved to Wilmington. I found him five bed, three bath, two-car garage, with a FROG (Furnished Room Over Gargage) for 159. I had showed that house to some of my Wilmington buyers who went, 'oh, this is a little pricey.' Yeah it is. From Wilmington, that was pricey. From DC, that was as steal."
Still, Braxton put in the work with Adams. Twice they made offers on houses. And twice the sales fell through before closing. Each time they'd head out again, looking at more houses, going further afield, for months.
Braxton says a lot of people would have given up on the search. But for Adams, this was always about something bigger than a house.
"I just think that, for my kids to see us go from down here and steadily move up and do better, I personally hope and think that it makes them want to continually try."
Finally, in August, Adams got lucky.
It's a story she and Braxton both tell with relish.
As Adams explains, it all started with the wrong house: "We went out to Leland, down Mt. Misery Road, to look at another house which was awful... And we just kind of walked in and ... just even the smell, the smoke, it was like, well, no, this is not it."
Braxton continues: "We're sitting here like, 'Man ' So while we were out there, we made the best of it. We drove around, looking at some other houses... and came up on a house that was a foreclosure."
Adams picks up again: "He saw the sign that said foreclosure and then he said, 'Well, let me call this guy and see,' and we went in and looked and it was beautiful."
Braxton never found out the full story of the people who lost the house, but the fact that it was a foreclosure gave him hope, even though it was listed well out of Adams' price range. "So this home was on the market at 191. In a better market, it would have sold right away. It didn't sell, it went into foreclosure and then, you know, it started out at 170-something and just came down, came down, came down, came down."
Negotiations went back and forth. Adams first offer was for $150,000 and she told Braxton she'd only go a few thousand above. It was a nail-biter "and it took them maybe, I want to say, a week and a half to almost two weeks and he called me back and said, 'Guess what? They accepted!' And I was excited because I was like 'wow!'"
Back at the apartment she hopes to soon leave, Adams scrapes unnerving gray sludge from the sink, dumping it into a plastic bag. Soon, domestic problems like this will be her headache, not a management company's. It's just one of many new responsibilities.
"Scary to think about, yes, I will have my own piece of dirt so to speak, but gee, if something happens, if our company, we have a dry spell or even if anything happens and I lose my job, how are we going to be able to make it? And all that's probably something that everybody's concerned about, but it's well worth it."
Adams only recently took her kids to see the house. She's afraid to get their hopes up when the whole deal could still fall through.
"I'm just trying to keep my fingers crossed and just waiting and waiting and waiting, and this is the closest that we've ever actually gotten to actually closing a house, so I'm still trying to be all calm and just wait."
If all goes right, this Friday morning, Adams will uncross her fingers and sign on the dotted line, becoming Brunswick County's newest homeowner.
This Welcome Home segment concludes with the voices of realtors from around the region describing how much each county's median home price buys depending on where you want to live.