I admit I am powerless over my real estate habit. Every weekend is like Christmas to me, but I do work hard for my bounty. I make myself read the whole Sunday newspaper before I turn to the classified pages for the “open house” listings. There are certain neighborhoods I scrutinize especially carefully, including my own. I'm looking for my dream house—already beautifully designed or redesigned by an architect, in tip-top condition, and affordable on a middle-class salary. Of course I will never find this Holy Grail in the red-hot economy of the Nation's Capital, but I'm learning quite a lot about our particular real estate market. And what I see out there should flatter you: Decent design sells; better design sells faster; great design sells in the blink of an eye.
I live in an inner-ring suburb where the houses run the gamut of the cookie-cutter pattern book. Mine is a bungalow nicely updated by its architect-owner nearly 20 years ago, but we're growing out of its small footprint. Everyone in my town is struggling to fix the flaws of this out-of-date housing. And it's easy to tell when the owners did it themselves or hired a contractor to implement their misguided ideas. Usually, they solved one problem and created another. We long ago ran out of any land in my neighborhood and those of similar vintage and proximity to town, so we have almost no new houses in the area—just a few on teardown lots and other motley sites. And these are frequently builder-driven speculative deals.
We're pretty much stuck tweaking our problem houses. Or we have to resort to the whole-house remodel. This is a lucrative business for Washington's architects. I know many of the best ones and can recognize their work even from a microscopic black-and-white photo in the classifieds. In the six years I've been obsessing about local real estate, I've noticed only two of their houses come available on the resale market. One was a tiny row house on Capitol Hill, lived in and updated years ago by Robert Gurney, FAIA. Whoever lived there surely grew out of it. The other cropped up just recently: a lovely top-to-bottom remodel by Mark McInturff, FAIA. A wonderful house with a great floor plan, it's as fresh looking today as when it was completed 10 years ago. The reason the owners put it up for sale? They bought another, larger McInturff house just up the block that, unless I missed the listing, never appeared on the open market. Priced at $1,750,000, the house I saw was at the slow-moving, upper end of the food chain. Nonetheless, just as I was fantasizing about how I could put my hands on that amount of money while remaining out of jail—poof, it was gone. It sold in four days.
Alas, I'm back to my classifieds, waiting for that beautiful, effortless house to appear. And I'm beginning to realize that the search is a waste of my precious time off. Yes, we have plenty of lovely architect-redesigned houses in Washington—at nearly every price point—but they just don't churn like the lesser houses do. They are someone else's dream house made real. Great design would sell in the blink of an eye here, if only anyone would let it go.