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Tales From the Boom and Bust: Where to Buy Now
In a topsy-turvy market, how do you find good value? We analyzed sales data from 150 Zip codes to find the areas that are most sought after and offer the best bargains. We also looked for places with good schools and affordable homes for young families as By Mary Clare Glover, Sophie Gilbert, Katie Knorovsky, Kimberly Palmer, Jessica Sidman
Comments () | Published May 1, 2010

Where Homes Fetch Top Dollar

In Virginia: Great Falls (22066)

Few suburbs say big money and big houses like Great Falls. Situated along the Potomac River in Fairfax County, it had a median sales price of $880,000 in 2009, making it the most expensive part of the Washington region. McLean (22101) was the Northern Virginia runner-up at $794,205.

Strict zoning has kept condos and townhouse developments out of Great Falls. Most houses sit on two or more acres. During the boom, new developments of large custom houses sprang up along Georgetown Pike. It’s not uncommon to see newer homes list for $3 million or $4 million; vacant lots and tear-downs usually go for more than $600,000.

Families are drawn to the good public schools and safe streets. “We still have a Fourth of July parade and an Easter-egg hunt,” says Mike Kearney, owner of the Old Brogue, a neighborhood Irish pub.

Residents hike and kayak in Great Falls Park and ride horses through the 52-acre Turner Farm. “Everyone loves nature,” says Long & Foster agent and longtime resident Donna Uscinski. “You see a turtle crossing the road and traffic stops.”

Compared with its peak, when median prices regularly broke $1 million, Great Falls had an off year in 2009. Prices fell, sales dropped, and houses sat on the market an average of 153 days—the longest of any Zip code in Northern Virginia. “There are some terrific bargains right now,” Uscinski says. Of course, that depends on your definition of a bargain.

In Maryland: Potomac (20854)

With a median sales price of $775,000 in 2009, Potomac nudged out Chevy Chase (20815) and Bethesda (20816) as the most expensive Zip code in Maryland. (Chevy Chase came in second at $762,500, Bethesda third at $750,000.)

Known for its sprawling homes and bucolic setting, Potomac sits just outside the Beltway along the banks of the Potomac. River Road, the suburb’s main artery, winds past older neighborhoods of brick Colonials on deep lots and newer custom-home developments.

Most of Potomac feeds the well-regarded Winston Churchill High School, and lots of good private schools are nearby, including Bullis, the McLean School of Maryland, the Norwood School, and Holton-Arms. Golfers like being close to well-known courses, including TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm and Congressional and Burning Tree country clubs.

The former home of Sargent and the late Eunice Shriver in Potomac’s Bradley Farms neighborhood sold last year for $7.8 million. A newly built nine-bedroom, 14-bath manse is on the market for $12.5 million.

But Potomac hasn’t been immune to the slump. Prices have fallen every year since 2006; the steepest drop occurred between 2008 and 2009, when the median price fell by more than $125,000. Long & Foster agent Nancy Itteilag says sales are slowest above $2 million: “The sweet spot is around $1.3 million.”

In DC: Chevy Chase (20015)

In the District’s upper Northwest corner, the 20015 Zip code commands the highest prices in DC. Tucked between Montgomery County and Rock Creek Park, the area contains the neighborhoods of Chevy Chase DC, Barnaby Woods, and Hawthorne. Last year’s median sales price was $778,500—more than $50,000 higher than DC runner-up Georgetown (20007).

Lafayette Elementary—named a Blue Ribbon School by the Department of Education—is a draw for parents. The commercial corridor on Connecticut Avenue is lined with restaurants, markets, and the historic Avalon Theatre. A few blocks away, the nine-acre Lafayette Park has tennis courts and playgrounds. Residents are also within walking distance of the Friendship Heights Metro and the ritzy Wisconsin Avenue shopping district.

Despite its proximity to the bustle of city life, this area has retained a small-town charm. Old trees create canopies over residential streets. The wide variety of architectural styles includes turn-of-the-century four-squares, bungalows, and Colonials. Locals gather for a cup of coffee on the front porch of the Broad Branch Market, a throwback corner store that reopened in 2008 after a renovation. Inside, it’s part candy store and ice-cream parlor, part high-end grocery with a butcher and gourmet prepared foods.

Real-estate agent Steve Agostino says the market was sluggish during the first half of 2009 but sales picked up after Labor Day. Most homes list between $800,000 and $1.1 million. “But anything under $750,000 is going really fast,” says Agostino. “That’s where you’re seeing multiple offers.”


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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 05/01/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Articles