When Eric Seiler started looking to buy a house near Spanaway at the height of this year’s coronavirus lockdowns, he thought he might find a buyers’ market.

Instead, Seiler and his fiancée started on a home search that involved making at least 15 offers on homes, only to be beat out by other buyers. 

“There were a couple where we offered $15,000 over asking price and our offer was beat by $20,000 or $30,000,” Seiler said. “Just ridiculous shifts in cost versus asking price.”

Eventually, the couple found a three-bedroom house with a yard for their dog, Luna. They paid $375,500, about $20,000 over the listing price. 

“It was a far more competitive market than I thought it would be,” Seiler said.

As home shoppers jostle for few houses at high prices in Seattle and Tacoma, some are looking farther south instead.

Spanaway, an unincorporated area just east of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, was the most competitive place in the country to buy a home this year, according to the online brokerage Redfin. Of Redfin’s 10 most competitive cities this year, six are in Washington state. The company calculates its “Compete Score” based on measures that include how the final sale price compares to the list price and how long homes are on the market.

1. Spanaway

2. (tied): Lacey; Tacoma; Wyoming, Michigan

3. (tied): Eastmont; Frederickson; Graham; Pleasant Hill, California; San Leandro, California; South Portland, Maine

Compared with 2019, more homes sold in Spanaway this year for higher prices and after spending far less time on the market, according to Redfin data.

The number of homes sold in Spanaway through Dec. 8 jumped 36% and the median price climbed to $388,500, up 21%. Redfin compared 2020 data through Dec. 8 to 2019 figures through the end of the year.

Buyers had to move quickly. Homes in Spanaway spent a median of five days on the market, compared with almost two weeks last year, and more than two-thirds of homes sold above the listing price, according to Redfin.

Supply is slim, with half as many active listings in November compared with a year earlier, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. At current demand, it would take about a week to sell all homes now listed on the market in Spanaway. 

The tight market extends throughout Puget Sound.

On Redfin’s 2020 list, Lacey and Tacoma tied with Wyoming, Michigan, for the second most competitive city. Median prices in both Washington cities edged closer to $400,000 as homes spent less than a week on the market.

The Washington cities on the list are all more competitive than Seattle, according to Redfin’s score, though Seattle remains far more expensive. The median sale price in the city was $820,000 in November, up 12% from a year earlier, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. 

In Spanaway, large parcels of open land have lured new development in recent years and prices have stayed lower than nearby Tacoma, said Sharon Benson, who chairs the Pierce County Planning Commission and is a Realtor. 

“For right now, what’s available is affordable,” Benson said.

Variety draws buyers, said listing agent Bobby Brown. “You can buy a condo on a lake, you can buy a million-dollar residence, you can buy a house on property or new construction,” Brown said. “There are so many different types of property you can look for in Spanaway, all relatively — not inexpensive, but more affordable than some of the outlying areas.”

Not everyone can compete. 

Some shoppers quickly realize they need to look farther south from Spanaway to areas like Eatonville or Yelm, said buyers’ agent Kim Pulido.

Price increases can bring a threat of displacement for longtime residents. If current trends continue in Spanaway, the area could be “in the early days of a story we’ve seen play out in Seattle and Tacoma,” said Anaid Yerena, assistant professor in the School of Urban Studies at the University of Washington, Tacoma.

To stave off displacement, Yerena said local governments should consider policies to incentivize community land trusts or housing built by nonprofit organizations like Habitat for Humanity.

Observers don’t expect demand in Spanaway and nearby areas to fall off anytime soon.

Zillow predicts home prices in Spanaway and nearby Parkland will rise about 12% next year, 1 percentage point higher than the company predicts for Seattle. 

When Alison Murphy sold her Tacoma condo this summer, she quickly broadened her search for a new home beyond the city to areas like Spanaway and Parkland. 

“We were able to find a lot more for our money out here,” Murphy said. 

In about a month of searching, Murphy and her partner saw homes quickly draw multiple offers and lost out on one house to a cash buyer. When they found a newly built four-bedroom home in Parkland with a fenced yard for their dogs, Big and Ziggy, they quickly offered the $450,000 listing price. 

“You have to be able to pull the trigger basically day-of,” Murphy said. “You can’t really think about it, which is terrifying.”

According to Redfin, the estimated value of the house Murphy closed on in July has already grown by $18,000.