No end in sight: House costs off the charts

When Robert Ramsey's parents sold their house at 747 Park Street in 1962, they congratulated themselves on "making a killing." After all, the big brick house on five acres that his grandmother bought in 1903 for $1,500 had just netted them $13,000.

Times have changed.

That house today sits amid properties on the market for more than a million dollars. According to data compiled by the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors, in 2003, 59 residential transactions in the county and one in the city topped $1 million, a figure unimaginable in 1963.

As eye-popping as the idea of a million-dollar house inside the city limits might be, more such sales may be on the way.

Asking prices of three residences now on the market range from $1.2 to $1.5 million: 540 Park Street, 901 East Jefferson Street, and a new house under construction on Rugby Road.

Dave Phillips, CAAR CEO, describes another record-setting aspect of last year's sales: the shortest number of days on the market. Measured from listing to contract, the "DOM" can probably statistically go no lower, says Phillips.

"Anything under 50 is pretty amazing," Phillips says. "I don't see how Charlottesville's 38 days on the market can statistically be less."

In Albemarle, the average 2003 home sales price was $335,191. But statistics can be deceiving. Phillips says those 59 million-dollar transactions artificially pumped up the average.

Phillips explains that median sales price is actually a better indicator of the average than the "average" (what statisticians call the mean) price of a house. The median falls in the middle of the range– with 50 percent of sales higher and 50 percent lower. Albemarle's median was $254,500, while the median for Charlottesville and the surrounding five counties was a more modest $195,000.

In response to high demand for primo houses within the city limits, several owners of historic or especially noteworthy properties have decided to forego the services of real estate agents and market the places themselves. For instance, Stan and Judy Tatum are asking $1.2 million for their 1900 house in the Victorian Vernacular style at 540 Park Street.

Agents are mum about the details, but neighbors believe the downtowner who sold her Italianate villa at 705 Park Street probably reaped near the $1.2 million asking price– in just two weeks– also without an agent, the place having been marketed only by word of mouth.

Where's this mania likely to lead? Well, despite its recent designation by Frommers as the "number one" place to live in America, Charlottesville may not be quite as cosmopolitan as a European capital. But if the early April sale of a house in London's Kensington district is any indication, saying "I own a home in Albemarle County" might someday be tantamount to saying "Open Sesame."

A British newspaper reported that Lakshmi Mittal, an Indian steel tycoon, paid $128 million for the 12-bedroom London mansion, breaking the world record for the most expensive house purchase. The Sunday Times said the previous record was set in Hong Kong in 1997 when a property sold for $101.6 million.

So, tighten your belts, Charlottesville. We're all on a wild ride, and apparently not even the sky is the limit.

540 Park Street, yours for a mere $1.2 million

Parts of 901 East Jefferson Street, available for $1.2 million, were reportedly built by John Jordan, one of Thomas Jefferson's builders.

705 Park Street, which reportedly sold for $1.2 million.