REAL ESTATE- ON THE BLOCK- Oddity: Is 'most unusual' a plus?

ADDRESS: 2617 Commonwealth Drive


ASKING: $375,000



SIZE: 3500 fin. sq. ft., 600 unfin.

LAND: 0.75 acres

CURB APPEAL: 7 out of 10 

LISTED BY: Owner, Alan Scouten, 979-0233

An old adage in real estate is don't buy the most expensive house on the block. But what about the most unusual?

When people hear about a house for sale in the Berkeley/Four Seasons subdivision– the neighborhood bounded by Route 29 and Hydraulic and Rio roads– an image comes immediately to mind: generic brick one-story ranch or two-story townhouse on a tiny lot. While there's obviously nothing wrong with what's now known by the politically correct term "affordable housing," it's an undeniable fact that there's not much style over there.

But this house at the far end of Commonwealth Drive– the main drag through the subdivision– is different from the rest. While lots of parcels on the street have been "flipped"– bought by speculators and fixed up to resell for a profit– most of the fixing up doesn't seem to have included much imagination, at least on the exterior. But this house– as would be expected of one owned by an architect– is an exception. We counted six other properties for sale along Commonwealth Drive alone, but none have had the second-story facade-altering upgrade of this one, something that can be a blessing and a curse. 

Here, what was once a ho-hum, '50s, picture-window rancher like almost every other one on the street (and on every nearby street) has become a hybrid: a utilitarian brick body with a modern glass-and-stucco appendage. While a significant improvement over the original, the place is now neither fish nor fowl.

But that only matters from the street. Inside, the house has a light, open, flowing vibe that's almost Scandinavian, with lots of blond oak (the owner says it's "red oak," but, newly refinished, it looks blond to us) and quarry tile floors, white walls, an open double-faced wood-burning fireplace, and big new Pella casement windows and French doors. And while all that's pretty standard for recent construction, the way the two styles have been blended– and most importantly, the way the addition has been insinuated into the landscape, particularly in the back– is a cut above typical modern alterations.

For one thing, the owner didn't feel the need to hew to every current fad. And while that may have been as much a function of cost as of aesthetics, the result is highly pleasing. The new kitchen sports nary a shard of the granite that makes other recent kitchens so monotonous (and that wreaks such havoc with glassware and china); the bathrooms are all tiled– none of that horrible fiberglass around the showers; and the original bifold doors have been left alone to create as much room as possible in the three main-level bedrooms.

Upstairs in the addition, the new master suite (with carpeting instead of hardwood floor, alas) has big French doors leading to a good-size balcony, equally large windows over the requisite Jacuzzi in the master bath, and skylights throughout. The extra room up here can be the fifth bedroom or a private office.

On the main level of the original house, the former generic front door has been converted to double-width sliding glass doors that open from a narrow but attractively planted little patio fronted by a waist-high open-work brick wall. The living room shares the fireplace with the entryway beyond (in the addition) and leads directly to the kitchen in the middle of the house. While the kitchen has no windows per se, one entire wall of glass provides views to the deck and large backyard. 

A dining area– not a formal room– lies between the kitchen and entryway, another benefit of the open-flow plan. Beyond that, in the rear of the addition, a large family room has one long solid wall which the current owner claims to prefer over windows– both for privacy from the house looming next door and because it provided a perfect display space for his many paintings. It remains to be seen, however, whether a new (potentially art-less) owner will be equally pleased with a big blank wall where windows could have been.

The large (dry) basement (and fourth bath) served as the owner's office, and he testifies to its comfort and usefulness– even paneled and heat-less as it is– attributing the comfortable year-round temperatures to excellent insulation. 

But the real appeal of the property– and the things that might tempt someone who otherwise wouldn't give this neighborhood a second glance– are the lot and the landscaping. The owner claims this is the largest lot in Berkeley, and it may well be, with its little gazebo, many perennials, and flowering and shade trees that provide total privacy in addition to soul-satisfying beauty.

So should house hunters consider the most unusual place on the block? Depends on how smitten they are with the most unusual surroundings that come along with it.