You Call This a Bargain?

You Call This a Bargain?

You Call This a Bargain?

Our family's search for a house
March 9 2009 11:52 AM

You Call This a Bargain?

Thank you for all of the diligent research you did last week, Michael. Unfortunately, the picture you paint is a not a very optimistic one: We shouldn't buy a house we can't afford (of course!), and the landscape of what we can afford (barring an unexpected windfall) won't be changing anytime soon. Add to that the thin inventory of houses in our price range and, well, I'm not feeling terribly hopeful.

Michael: Break out the violins! What's the name of that song ?

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Nora: Then along comes an intriguing listing: a five-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bath house not far from our current apartment that has been reduced by $800,000. This is more than the asking price of every house we've looked at.

I know what you're thinking, Michael: Wait is this house free? Well, not exactly . But its price has dropped more than $800,000 since it was first listed almost a year ago.

Of course we can't afford this house. But why not take a look anyway? If nothing else, it will give us a sense of what makes a house worth (a little more than) three times one in our price range.

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Michael: I had two questions in mind. 1) Is this house really three times better/nicer/more valuable than this house ? It is not even yellow. 2) Why do rich people get all the discounts? If houses in our price range start selling for 31 percent off, we could get this house for $662,000.

Nora: I felt a little awkward about going to this open house, knowing full well that we weren't going to buy the place. Should we pretend we're very serious, dress the part? (What do people who buy such houses look like, anyway? Do they even go to open houses?) I decided, no, we'd just be ourselves. I didn't even shower, and Joe was wearing his best $3 "Thomas the Tank Engine" T-shirt.

Michael: Can you believe she was actually worrying about what to wear to an open house? Unfortunately, as my tux was at the tailor, I had to wear my running stuff. My sneakers are relatively new.

Nora: From the front, this house looks like an average 1920s colonial. Very nice, yes, but not $2-million nice. Some of that value, no doubt, comes from the simple fact of its neighborhood, which is among the priciest in the city . Nearby houses have sold recently for more than $7 million. It's lovely over here: close to a Metro stop, near Rock Creek Park, in a good school district. These things cost money lots of it!

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Michael: I note here for the record that Joe's T-shirt got a compliment from the agent.

Nora: Once we stepped inside, it was clear that this was no ordinary 1920s colonial. The footprint of that house was there, yes, but it was barely recognizable. Everything had been opened up and gussied up with the finest of finishes. The kitchen had custom-made cabinets, two dishwashers, two sinks, and a fabulous window seat overlooking the main selling point of this house: an enormous landscaped backyard, complete with trampoline and swing set. Joe parked himself right there and began sucking his thumb with glee. (And I must mention, here, too, the powder room, where the toilet and sink were embellished with hand-painted leopards.)

Michael: I found that bathroom (note to Nora: We're not the kind of people who have "powder rooms") creepy. I do not want leopards, or anything else with eyes, painted on my toilet.

Nora: All of this was part of a huge renovation that was done about 20 years ago. It continued on the second floor, where the master bedroom featured a fireplace and large deck, and the master bath, decked out in marble, included a picture window and Jacuzzi tub that Joe thought was hilarious. (How come he doesn't get so excited when we turn on the bath at home?)

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Michael: Joe clearly liked this place better than either of us did. It met almost all his requirements: Stairs? Check. Easily opened kitchen cabinets? Check. Jacuzzi faucets? Check. Private playground for intimate, catered play dates? Check. On a bus line? Uh ... sorry, buddy. But we can have the agent call Metro and see about rerouting the L1, 2, or 4 . Anything to make a sale!

Nora: Walking through the rest of the second floor, I was reminded that this was once a small, plain house. The other bedrooms and an office were tiny compared with the lavish addition in back and looked a lot more like those in the $600,000 houses we're used to looking at. There was also a large finished basement with its own kitchen, I assume to help with the cooking for a knockout party, since this was clearly not meant to be a mother-in-law apartment.

Michael: It did feel like we saw two separate houses. The bottom two floors fit together better than the top one. It's a question of taste and finances, I suppose: When you add on to a house, how much do you want people (including those who live there) to notice the difference between old and new? I guess Nora and I fall closer to the not-noticing end of the spectrum.

Nora: No question: This is a very nice house. Is it $1.9-million nice? I guess so. (In 2008, its improvement assessment was $1.5 million.) But if we picked up this house and its yard, including the trampoline and swing set and moved it, to say, Pittsburgh , or even five miles out in Takoma Park, what would its value be then?

Michael: That's a brilliant idea, Nora! Maybe we could move this house and find out.