Appreciation: What a difference a year makes

ADDRESS: 872 Locust Avenue

ASKING: $735,000

SIZE: 3087 fin. sq. ft., 690 unfin.

YEAR BUILT: 1910

NEIGHBORHOOD: North Downtown

CURB APPEAL: 9 out of a possible 10

LISTED BY: Roger Voisinet of RE/MAX Realty Specialists 974-1500

Until a few years ago, houses on Locust Avenue rarely came on the market. And when they did, they were quickly snapped up by new, loving hands. The variety of architectural styles, the proximity to downtown, and the fact that the street virtually dead-ends north of the Bypass all add to their appeal. So the recent glut of homes for sale have set tongues wagging and purses flapping, and On the Block has been unable to resist the lure.

In June 2002, the chance to cross the threshold into the inner sanctum of one of these stately homes presented itself for the first time. Never one to miss an opportunity to see something grand, I called straightaway for a tour. Good thing I hurried, because four days later it was under contract for $625,000, sparking curiosity about the identity of the new neighbor. But, of course, with the market being what it is, only old-timers batted an eye at the price.

Now this house is back on the market, and just a year later the price tag is a tangy $735,000. One wonders what glorious addition or upgrade could have prompted such an increase (maybe air conditioning, for starters?).

Amazingly, this year's tour revealed that the house remains completely unchanged. Willie Mundie and Lois Roach purchased the house in 1993 for $200,000. Nine years later, they sold to Martha Marable, the current owner, realizing a tidy 213 % gain– which represents an annual percentage rise of a little over 13%– not too shabby in these days of the Dow Jones meltdown. In the year since, the asking price has really jumped: 18%.

With Albemarle County and Charlottesville property values going through the roof, houses are no longer homes; they're investment opportunities. If you bought a house in one of our newly desirable areas (think Belmont, Woolen Mills, even Locust) ten years ago, you're probably now sitting on a goldmine.

But there's always a cloud in front of that silver lining. Sure, you can sell and realize a handsome profit, and that's dandy if you're moving to Dubuque. But if you want to stay around, where will you live? Appreciation for the goose is appreciation for the gander. The only place most folks can afford to live is where they already are. The people who feel the pinch most acutely are newcomers, who confront west-coast prices without having turned over a local sow's-ear-turned-silk-purse.

"If I could predict the [housing] market, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing," quips James Crawford in the city's real estate assessor's office. With value reassessment for 2004 currently under way, Crawford points out that by the time an assessment is mailed out, it's already a year late.

Assessments are used mainly for tax purposes, but as prices keep going up, assessments follow– and tada!– higher taxes. Assessments are based on the city's estimate of fair market value, which, as far as residential properties go, is based on market comparison. So, houses in the same neighborhood tend to stay in the same price range.

Locust Avenue homes remain above the fray, though, both in style and in price. This particular house, solidly built of brick and in immaculate condition– with a sweeping, Tara-style entrance– will probably never suffer the ravages of a weak economy. One imagines that as Charlottesville sprawls ever outward into one plastic subdivision after another, this stalwart house will only become more appealing.

The grounds alone inspired the agent and a prospective buyer to envision glorious garden parties. Several gazebos with flowering vines, a maze of boxwoods, a greenhouse, and a tranquil fish pond successfully muffle the continuous drone of bypass traffic in the background.

And all that sounds like a lot more fun than a meeting with your broker to decide when to sell those now worthless shares of Value America.