Bellwether?: Big house might be indicator

ADDRESS: 506 Grove Avenue

ASKING: $439,000

SIZE: 3430 fin. sq. ft., 1400 unfin.



CURB APPEAL: 8 out of a possible 10

LISTED BY: Owner, Gayla Mills 434-989-1119

For a couple of months there it seemed like a wild mania had infected downtown real estate: From Main Street to Belmont and all the sides streets in between, houses went on the market with heady price tags to be snapped up in what seemed like mere minutes.

Alas, the fever has cooled. Eyebrow-raising prices of places on Locust Avenue, for example, that splashed into the real estate section earlier in the summer have dropped drastically in the last several weeks the for-sale signs now drooping forlornly in fall's shortening days.

So it was with some interest that we visited this big (six-bedroom, three-bath) house just behind Locust Avenue, offered at almost half a million dollars. Can the house's many virtues overcome the malaise that seems to have enveloped the downtown market?

That depends on how much potential buyers will value so much space, so many fine features, and such a nice yard. And also how much work they will be willing to do to remedy some of the obvious problems.

The good things about the house are easy to catalogue: newly refinished golden oak floors throughout the main level, heart-pine upstairs; built-in bookcases in the large (28' x 12') living room; wonderful old radiators for the best kind of heat; big, light-filled two-over-two windows; and a made-for-relaxing wrap-around front porch. There are four coal-burning fireplaces, all but one of them boarded up. The one in the living room, although not usable, is surrounded by beautiful brown marble tiles, so small and intricate that they look like flattened shiny seashells. With the fireplace and the bookshelves, the large living room is one of the most fetching things about the house.

An addition was tacked on– in the '50s, according to the owners– and the builders may not have done the place any big favors. For one thing, the way the addition was simply added to the back of the house means the formerly exterior board siding is now part of an interior hall. It's a quirky little feature that makes the house unique, but it must be a bit of a jolt to pass outside walls on the way from your bedroom to the kitchen each morning.

The big problem with the addition is that no attempt was made to match the elegant style of the original house. The addition created huge space in the basement, particularly, there's a perfectly fine living space, with full above-ground access and several windows, with no "basement feel" at all. But from the outside, it's just butted up against the original house, awkward and jarring.

Fortunately, the grounds of the house are very appealing, and they soften the effect of the addition. Two huge dogwood trees, one white and one pink, must be a glory to behold in the spring, and there are also several grand boxwoods and an enormous maple. The front yard is enclosed by a dainty iron fence.

One other feature could be the make-it-or-break-it element for a potential buyer. The second floor of the house is now a completely self-contained apartment, and it's really lovely, with the pine floors, large, light-filled rooms, and an inviting (if antiquated) bathroom with views all the way to Monticello in winter.

The current owners used the space as separate living quarters for their teenagers, who must have loved it, with its full kitchen and separate entrance (these were trusting parents!). Now it might prove useful as living space for new owners who want to be on site while needed renovations particularly to the kitchen and electrical systems are being done downstairs. Or they might want to take out a big wall at the top of the stairs, change the kitchen to a den, and have a huge house just right for a big family.

So. The house has much to offer, not least itself– as an indicator of the state of the downtown market. Is there a buyer willing to pay this much money for a grand, but somewhat needy, residence?

We'll all just have to watch and see.