Where Homes Fetch Top Dollar
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.
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 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.”
Where Homes Are Selling Fast
In Shirlington, a small Arlington community just off I-395, residents are surrounded by the kind of retailers you usually find in artsy city neighborhoods. CakeLove and Busboys & Poets, a bakery and a restaurant best known for their U Street–area locations in DC, have set up shop here. And Harris Teeter, the AMC Loews movie theater, and Signature Theatre make it easy for residents to meet some of their needs without getting in the car.
That’s one reason many young, single professionals as well as older single people and couples without kids are attracted to the neighborhood’s condos and townhouses. In 2009, homes stayed on the market an average of 44 days—the lowest rate in the region. The 2009 median price was $362,000, down by almost 10 percent from 2006, making it more affordable, too.
“I found that my money went further in Virginia,” says Alex Billeb, 37, a legal recruiter who owns a two-bedroom condo in Shirlington. She can drive to her downtown DC office in about 30 minutes and walk to the Shirlington stores in three. She’s also close to a popular dog park and bike path.
The pedestrian-friendly atmosphere helps create a small-town vibe, says Ginger Harden, a real-estate agent who lives here. “Even if you don’t know a person’s name when you’re walking down the street, people smile and say hello. There’s a real sense of community.”
Zip code 20036, which encompasses a large portion of Dupont Circle as well as part of downtown, is the epitome of what Christopher Leinberger, a land-use strategist, calls a “walkable urban place.” The visiting fellow at the nearby Brookings Institution says that people increasingly want to live in areas close to downtown, filled with restaurants, and easy to walk around, and that Dupont is “ground zero” for that trend. Leinberger, who owns a townhouse on the western edge of Dupont, can walk to his office at Brookings, and his wife walks to her job at the Phillips Collection.
That convenience helps explain why homes, with a median sales prices of $312,000, spent an average of only 50 days on the market last year. They’ve also retained their value better than in other neighborhoods, with prices climbing by 8 percent over 2008 levels and increasing slightly over 2006 levels.
The neighborhood includes condos and townhouses as well as million-dollar-plus houses and is filled with single people in their twenties and thirties, couples with babies, and middle-aged and older folks.
The neighborhood benefits from Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets, an organization that helps preserve the area’s architecture, parks, and safety while fostering new small businesses. Executive director Paul Williams adds that residents live amid some of the best people-watching spots in Washington.
Families with school-age children have flocked to Rockville’s 20852 Zip code, just north of Bethesda. Last year, homes spent an average of 66 days on the market, the shortest turnaround in Maryland.
The area’s impressive schools—Richard Montgomery’s International Baccalaureate program draws students from across the county—and quiet, residential streets close to shopping on Rockville Pike make it an easy place to live. Strathmore, the nearby performance-arts center, hosts world-famous musicians and other artists, and plans are in the works to create a pedestrian-friendly town center near White Flint Mall. Downtown Bethesda’s restaurants and shops are easy to reach by car or Metro.
Some longtime residents say the area has gotten crowded. But despite extra road congestion, Chas Hausheer, a computer specialist at the State Department who moved here 26 years ago, says he’s glad to see second generations of families coming back to be near their childhood homes. It’s become a little easier to buy there as the market has softened. The median sales price, $370,000 in 2009, has dropped by almost 8 percent since 2006.
Where Prices Have Gone Up
Zip code 20016, which includes the Palisades, American University Park, and Tenleytown, has seen the highest three-year price increase in the region as families have flocked to the area, drawn by strong schools, proximity to downtown DC, and relative quiet.
In all three neighborhoods, which have lots of single-family homes, neighbors stop and chat as they walk their dogs or head to nearby shops. In Tenleytown, that includes Whole Foods on Wisconsin Avenue. In the Palisades, there’s the Belgian bistro Et Voila and Kemble Park Tavern. In American University Park, residents can eat lunch at Wagshal’s deli and pick up dinner at the HomeMade Pizza Company.
“The population of school-age kids has skyrocketed,” says mother of three and writer Lynda Cokinos, a fact she attributes to the strong reputation of Francis Scott Key Elementary School in the Palisades. Tenleytown’s Janney Elementary also is considered one of DC’s best.
Since 2006, the median home price has climbed by 29 percent to $710,800, though last year prices fell by about 5 percent. The nearby Cleveland Park Zip code 20008 has seen a similar rise—prices rose by 23 percent to $624,999 in the last three years.
Over the last decade, downtown Silver Spring has been transformed from a relatively affordable, slightly shabby area to one of the region’s most desirable areas for families and young professionals.
The median home price in 2009 was $400,000, up by 14 percent from three years ago. Residents seeking large homes within walking distance of the Metro pay for the proximity to a town center: Four-bedroom single-family houses on residential streets often sell for $750,000 and up. Lots of new condos and townhouses have been added in recent years.
“We wanted a neighborhood that was close in and felt urban but where we could buy a house with a yard for our family,” says Rachel Posell, 44, a personal trainer and mother of three. She also appreciates the area’s ethnic diversity, strong school system, and reliable government services. When it’s warm out, she and her family like to walk around downtown Silver Spring, which features a farmers market, concerts, and lots of restaurants.
Arlington’s 22202 Zip code—which includes the neighborhoods of Arlington Ridge, Aurora Hills, Pentagon City, and Crystal City—is filled with young professionals and two-income families drawn to a highly rated public-school system.
Real-estate agent Mary De Luca says many residents work for the federal government, including at the nearby Pentagon, which has helped protect real-estate prices. The median home price in 2009 was $490,000, up by 9 percent over the last three years. (The median price rose even more over the same period in Oakton’s 22124 Zip code, but that area saw a big drop last year, from $649,990 to $504,000.)
Says De Luca: “Arlington went from a place that people didn’t want to move to in the ’80s and ’90s, when it was sort of rundown, to being what we have today”—an area filled with restaurants, bike paths, shopping, upscale condo developments, and single-family homes.
Franki Parde, who has lived here 30 years, says her neighborhood, Aurora Hills, has restaurants and shops that rival those of Georgetown but without the difficult parking. Parde and her husband walk almost everywhere on the weekends, including to the nearby Pentagon City mall.
Where Prices Have Held Steady
Wedged between Old Town and southern Arlington County, the 22302 Zip code in Alexandria includes the neighborhoods of Fairlington, Beverley Hills, North Ridge/Rosemont, and the sprawling 1,700-unit Parkfairfax condo community, a five-minute walk across a pedestrian bridge from Shirlington.
Prices here have been remarkably stable. Last year’s median sales price was down by 3 percent to $320,000—the biggest year-to-year change since at least 2005. Last year, homes spent an average of just 56 days on the market, among the lowest numbers in the region. “It’s not remarkable for something to sell in a week or two,” says real-estate agent Tom Pietsch.
Prices range from around $100,000 for a studio condo to $1 million–plus for a four-bedroom Colonial with a detached garage. Many residents live in high-rises or garden-style condos. A few custom-built houses are sprinkled among decades-old Colonials, Cape Cods, bungalows, and ramblers.
Thanks to profuse azaleas and dogwood and cherry trees, a cloud of pink and white blooms appears each spring. “The area offers a suburban feel even though it’s very close to the city,” says agent Joy Deevy.
A big draw is the proximity to Reagan National Airport and major arteries such as I-395. Metro doesn’t directly serve most of the area, but Alexandria’s DASH bus connects commuters to the nearby Pentagon and elsewhere.
No longer an enclave of urban pioneers, Logan Circle is among the District’s most popular addresses—which helps explain why it’s been immune to the price fluctuations that have affected other areas.
Last year’s median sales price was $435,000, up by 3 percent from 2008, with homes spending an average of 83 days on the market. Since 2005, the median has stayed between $415,000 and $435,000.
Rowhouses list in the $800,000-to-$2-million range, says agent Ira Hersh, while condos fetch anywhere from $300,000 for a small condo in the southern part of the neighborhood to around a million for a luxury loft with high-end finishes.
In addition to the Logan traffic circle, the area’s other defining landmark is the bustling Whole Foods on P Street. Officially, the Zip code stretches from 16th to 11th Street and from tree-lined Q Street south to Metro Center.
During the boom, new buildings seemed to crop up on every corner. Historic Victorian rowhouses mingle with sleek mid-rise condos.
New restaurants and independent shops open almost weekly along 14th Street. Says agent Mandy Mills: “There’s just a great buzz right now about Logan—I think it comes from all the art and furniture galleries, which have brought this really eclectic, creative energy to the area.”
Once a popular summer retreat for Washingtonians, the old-timey town of Kensington draws commuters who often settle in for the long haul.
Nestled along Connecticut Avenue north of Chevy Chase, Kensington sprouted around a stretch of the B&O Railroad. Today those tracks are served by MARC trains that pull into DC’s Union Station in less than half an hour.
Last year the median sales price was $462,000, down by almost 6 percent from 2008—the biggest price change in recent years—due to a smattering of condo foreclosures on the outskirts of town. Since 2005, the median price has stayed within a small window.
Real-estate agent Gary Ditto says homes tend to list from $350,000 to around $2 million, but the most active range is between $400,000 and $750,000. Historic Victorians near downtown hover near a million dollars.
Loosely modeled after its manicured namesake garden district in London, Kensington hugs Rock Creek Park and features a Victorian garden at the town center where locals gather for a weekly farmers market. The colorful Labor Day parade has lots of small-town charm. Shoppers flock to the 80-store Antique Row on Howard Avenue. Along Beach Drive, playgrounds and jogging trails abound.
Where the Bargains Are
Triangle, in Prince William County, isn’t an obvious place to attract buzz. Home to just 6,000 people and dominated by Quantico Marine Corps base, which takes up much of Triangle’s western half, it lacks the amenities of nearby Woodbridge and Fredericksburg.
But it does have bargains. Houses here have lost more than 50 percent of their value in the last three years—the steepest drop in all the Zip codes we analyzed—thanks to an influx of new construction during the boom years and then a lack of buyers. The median home price in 2009 was $275,000, down from $600,000 three years earlier, and waterfront houses are available for around $450,000. New four-bedroom houses cost around $350,000.
“I think it’s a smart place to invest,” says real-estate agent Debra Marko. “Prince William County is really working on making that area more attractive to homebuyers.” Triangle’s town center, which was a little seedy, has been razed to make space for an expansion of Highway 1 and new retail developments.
While it doesn’t have many businesses, Triangle is surrounded by the Potomac River, Prince William Forest Park, Locust Shade Park, and the Chopawamsic backcountry area, making it a good place for nature lovers. Locust Shade Park has outdoor performances in the summer as well as boat rentals, and Forest Greens Golf Club has a four-star rating from Golf Digest.
Glenn Dale, in Prince George’s County between Bowie and the New Carrollton Metro station, is another area where prices have fallen fast. The median price in 2009 was $365,000, down from a 2006 peak of more than $650,000. Houses spent an average of 156 days on the market last year.
“The prices of newer houses are between $350,000 and $450,000, and for that you’re getting double the square footage you would have before,” says agent Hollie Pakulla. Most homes here are single-family, but there are a few townhouse developments.
Glenn Dale is next to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and less than 30 miles from DC, Annapolis, and Baltimore. Most of its amenities are close by on Greenbelt Road, including a Giant supermarket and several restaurants. The Glenn Dale community center attracts residents for everything from martial arts to cooking classes, and the adjacent outdoor water park is a draw for families.
Just north of Columbia Heights, the 20011 Zip code—home to the 16th Street Heights, Crestwood, Petworth, and Brightwood Park neighborhoods—is one to watch for DC buyers on a budget. The median price has fallen by nearly 30 percent since 2006, down to $275,000 from $380,000.
Foreclosures are the main reason for lower prices, says agent Kevin J. Wood. The area has one of the highest foreclosure rates in DC.
Most of the homes in Petworth and Brightwood Park are rowhouses built in the early 20th century, and many need refurbishing. But good deals in the last two years have been drawing first-time buyers and young couples. “It’s close in to the city, and it has great housing stock with amazing front porches,” says Wood. “Until recently, there haven’t been many amenities, but that’s changing.”
The area is more residential than Columbia Heights. Prices are highest in 16th Street Heights and Crestwood, an enclave of elegant homes between 16th Street and Rock Creek Park that’s home to DC mayor Adrian Fenty.
International-business executive Eddie Suarez and his partner bought a three-bedroom house in Petworth for $326,000 in a 2008 estate sale. “We just finished our second remodel of the house, and we love it,” says Suarez. “And in the last year we’ve seen a new demographic of young people, Hispanic people, white people, gay and straight people all moving in.”
Suarez is a fan of the Rock Creek golf course, the Scandinavian restaurant Domku, and Fusion, an Indian restaurant. Sala Thai, a local chain, is opening above the Petworth Metro station. Says Suarez: “You can see and feel the change in the neighborhood.”
On the Rebound
Southwest DC offers waterfront access without Georgetown prices. It may be the District’s smallest quadrant, but there are big plans to transform its riverfront into a bustling hub for offices, apartments, condos, restaurants, and retail.
The median home price fell by nearly 25 percent between 2006 and 2008, but a 12-percent upswing last year (to $282,500) suggests that the market has stabilized. Re/Max agent and Southwest resident Steve Dean says prices have continued to rebound this year, but there are still deals. Four-bedroom townhouses overlooking the river go for around $700,000, and studio apartments can be found for less than $200,000.
Catholic University architecture professor Eric Jenkins, who moved to the area from Capitol Hill six years ago, says he found homes for half or two-thirds of what they cost in his old neighborhood. He was lured by the midcentury architecture and central location. Reagan National Airport is ten minutes away, and Capitol Hill is within walking distance.
Residents can see and hear fireworks from Nationals Park, stroll to the Smithsonian museums, and chow down on steamed blue crabs at the Maine Avenue seafood market. In addition to a $1.5-billion waterfront development project, scheduled to break ground between 2012 and 2014, Arena Stage is undergoing renovations and is set to reopen this fall. Southwest residents get discounted tickets.
Lovettsville is a small town with mountain views that’s undergoing a boom. Between 2005 and 2008, the median home price dropped by nearly 40 percent. But last year it made a 10-percent comeback to $378,500.
Elaine Walker, Lovettsville’s mayor of 20 years, attributes the upswing to new plans for Town Center, including about 200 single-family homes and lots of retail space. Bike paths and pedestrian walkways are also in the works.
Historically, most of Lovettsville’s population (now 1,500) has lived in homes with three acres. Corn and cattle farmers reside next to tech professionals who commute on the MARC train, two miles from the heart of town.
Scott Dockum, a federal employee who works in DC, says he moved to the area because of the friendly community and knows every neighbor on his block. “You don’t have to make a certain salary to feel like you belong,” Dockum says. For families, Loudoun County schools are a plus.
Outdoor movies in the park and swimming and tennis at the community center are popular summer activities. The town, founded by German immigrants, is well known for its Oktoberfest celebration, which shuts down Town Center for days of crafts, bratwurst, beer, and polka.
Located between Rockville and Gaithersburg, Derwood combines easy access to DC via Metro and MARC with the quiet of suburbia. Median home prices rose by 3 percent last year to $420,000 after a decline of 16 percent in 2008. The area has a collection of condos and townhouse communities as well as, to the east, single-family homes on half-acre-to-acre lots. Lot sizes tend to be larger than in nearby Rockville, says Keller Williams agent Cindy Moses.
Two years ago, she explains, only distressed properties were selling. As the economy has improved, expensive homes have been selling faster and first-time buyers have been snatching up midpriced houses. Since last fall, she’s begun to see multiple offers.
Many buyers move to Derwood for its schools. The area also has nature trails among rolling hills, tall trees, and nearby Lake Needwood.
“People are very family-oriented,” says Danielle Swallow, who moved to the area in 2006. “They care about community, and they care about their property.” She says it’s not unusual to find neighborhood barbecues or gatherings in the many green spaces. Though Derwood lacks its own commercial hub, restaurants and movie theaters are a short drive or ride from the Shady Grove Metro station.
Good for Young Families
Bordering upscale McLean, Fairfax County’s Falls Church has a similar suburban setting and top-notch schools but much lower home prices. Last year’s median price was $428,500, compared with $794,205 in McLean’s 22101 Zip code.
“You pay a lot more for the name McLean,” says mom of five Irene Levy, who grew up in McLean but moved to Falls Church in 1989.
The Zip code feeds two Fairfax County high schools, McLean High and George C. Marshall High, both of which made U.S. News’s list of the country’s best high schools for 2008–09. Haycock and Shrevewood elementary schools received Governor’s Awards this year.
Houses here spent an average of just 66 days on the market in 2009, and prices have remained fairly steady since 2005. “If it’s in good condition, it’s flying off the shelf,” says real-estate agent Bethany Ellis.
Housing includes condos and townhouses as well as older brick Colonials and ramblers. A few new Craftsman-style homes have been built on lots where smaller houses once stood. Near the West Falls Church Metro station, condos and townhouses command $400,000 and up, while single-family houses start around $600,000, according to Ellis.
If residents are lured here by good schools and easy access to major roads, the laid-back vibe is what hooks them. Families stroll along tree-shaded sidewalks or walk and bike on the paved Washington & Old Dominion trail. “It’s a throwback to bygone days, with lots of little neighborhoods,” Levy says. “There are people on our block who haven’t locked their doors in 25 years.”
Cradled between the Severn and Magothy rivers in Anne Arundel County, Severna Park is a family-friendly place with moderate house prices and good schools.
It’s also an ideal spot for water lovers. “Just try to find anyone who doesn’t have a canoe or kayak stashed in their yard,” says Maureen Carr-York, who moved here with her husband in 1988. The area draws many CEOs and government officials and their families, plus celebrities including Pat Sajak.
But while many residents are wealthy, the homes are more often modest cottages or brick Colonials than mansions, says agent Bonnie Wolfe.
Last year’s median price was $421,500, down from a five-year high of $500,000 in 2006. Houses in older neighborhoods with waterfront access start in the upper $300,000s, while some premium waterfront lots harbor multimillion-dollar homes. Houses stayed on the market an average of 151 days last year. “It is definitely still a buyer’s market,” says agent George McDowell.
“It has an old-time, small-town flavor—the feeling of a community that grew up over time,” Carr-York says. When they aren’t sailing or crabbing, residents bike or walk on a paved rail-to-trail path or cheer on community sports teams.
Top-ranked schools are a big draw. Folger McKinsey Elementary, Jones Elementary, and Severna Park Middle have all been named Blue Ribbon Schools by the Department of Education. And students at Severna Park High School consistently earn Anne Arundel County’s highest SAT scores. Of last year’s graduating class, 72 percent went on to attend four-year colleges and 22 percent local community colleges.
Up and Coming
Trying to predict which neighborhood will take off next? Keep an eye on Brookland, a quiet residential area that abuts Catholic University in Northeast DC.
Largely overlooked during the real-estate boom of recent years, Brookland’s commercial core is drawing interest. Developer Jim Abdo is partnering with Catholic University to create a project at the Brookland–CUA Metro station with retail, condominiums, and an arts space. EYA—the company behind Arlington’s Clarendon Park and Hyattsville’s Arts District—is developing Chancellor’s Row, a new community of townhouses. At the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station on the other side of the neighborhood, Rhode Island Station is slated to include more than 250 rental apartments, new retail, and three parking garages.
Bo Menkiti, founder of a local real-estate company called the Menkiti Group, says he’s seeing more families and young professionals gravitate toward Brookland. “Many buyers come here because they were priced out of other neighborhoods like Capitol Hill,” says Menkiti. “They want more space and room for a yard. In Brookland, you can sit on your front porch and hear the birds chirp, but you’re still very close to downtown.”
Most of the houses—a mix of bungalows, Victorian farmhouses, and brick Colonials—were built in the early 1900s. Prices start around $200,000 and top out around $600,000. A renovated four-bedroom starts around $400,000.
Neighbors tend to know one another. There’s a weekly farmers market and an active civic association. The 30-year-old Colonel Brooks’ Tavern is a favorite gathering spot. “You can sit at my bar and have lunch with an amazing range of ages, incomes, and races,” says owner Jim Stiegman. “We’ve always been one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city.”