Nine years ago, when Michael Henderson checked out a vacant lot in the District's Edgewood neighborhood, he saw possibilities. He was right. Today, that lot is ablaze in summer color. Mr. Henderson is the proud owner of the home across the way, with a few improvements of its own - new drywall in the bathroom and flagstones in the front.
"I thought it would be a great community garden," says Mr. Henderson, a music teacher at Sidwell Friends School. "Now I sit on my deck and just see this beautiful space."
Whether you are a brand-new homeowner or one who is just looking to make a change, the possibilities are far from endless in today's tightened economy. You may have to look a bit harder for places to make your own splash of color.
"There are some places where you can find a fixer-upper you can afford," says Amy Fisher, vice president of District-based Realty Group Inc. "Petworth, Brightwood, NoMa - the area North of Massachusetts Avenue - and SoFlo, the area south of Florida, parts of Brookland, Woodridge, all have possibilities."
Old neighborhoods are new again, as homebuyers seek shorter commutes and closer proximity to shopping and nightlife, says Jennifer Walker, a Realtor with McEnearney and Associates.
"People are flocking to places that are walkable," she says. "They like having a sense of community and getting to know their neighbors."
But old neighborhoods also mean old homes that may require some work.
What will you have to do? It all depends on the home you buy, but many residents end up doing some rewiring and dealing with basement moisture, the result of years of clogged gutters and poorly positioned downspouts.
In neighborhoods such as these, some bargains still can be had, particularly if you are willing to put in a little sweat equity as you go. Woodridge, an area of detached frame houses from a variety of eras, has fixer-uppers that can be had in the $225,000 range, while Petworth and Brightwood homes that need some work can begin in the high $200,000s and low $300,000s.
Here are a few possibilities to explore:
Located just off North Capital Street between Rhode Island and Michigan avenues, Edgewood is a mix of single-family dwellings and some later apartment buildings that provide a diverse mix of people in a community that is only growing more diverse. It began as a development that followed the extension of the streetcar lines from the city core in the 1920s and was known for the large number of city workers who went there, drawn by affordable pricing and the chance to catch a breeze or two from the area's higher elevation.
Residents in places like Edgewood have known all along something that today's developers are only beginning to appreciate: Front porches make for friendly neighbors and even friendlier neighborhoods.
That community feeling was something that appealed to Jioni Palmer when he decided to purchase a home in Edgewood a little more than a year ago.
"I looked at lots of neighborhoods, but I didn't see people sitting out on their stoops," says Mr. Palmer, communications director of the Congressional Black Caucus. "We've got lots of people who have lived here for a long time who know everybody on the block. People here really look out for each other."
Like many communities, Edgewood boasts an active civic association that helps build community cohesion. (Mr. Palmer is treasurer, and his wife is recording secretary.) And thanks to Mr. Henderson, there's also a website celebrating the neighborhood. There even are weekly walks along the old Metropolitan Branch rail trail.
"We want to get people involved," Mr. Henderson says. "That's how you get to make a good community great."
"I never heard of Petworth prior to moving in," says Dan Silverman, the "self-proclaimed and ordained ... Prince of Petworth," who runs the Prince of Petworth blog (www.princeofpetworth. com). "I ended up with a great house."
Located just south of Brightwood around Georgia Avenue and Upshur, where the 1939 Petworth library is in the midst of extensive renovations, Petworth began as one of the city's first suburbs in 1889, when developers B.H. Warder, Brainard Warner and others carved out a section of the old Tayloe estate for the "summer cottages" that dot the neighborhood.
Of course, Mr. Silverman had a bit of work to do on his 1920s-era bungalow, putting on a new roof and refurbishing the bathroom. The expenditure was well worth it, he says.
"It's a great neighborhood, close to Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan but a lot cheaper," he says. "It's not Georgetown or Cleveland Park, but it shouldn't have to be. And when you come home at night and hear the crickets chirping and you're right in the city, that's something."
Friendly is definitely the way to describe Mount Rainier, Md., a tree-lined neighborhood of modest homes and apartments tucked away off Rhode Island Avenue just over the District line.
"People were instantly warm and welcoming," says Brooke Kidd, executive director and founder of Joe's Movement Emporium, who discovered Mount Rainier when her performing arts organization needed to relocate. "And I loved the housing stock."
Today's community of 1920s bungalows and Victorian cottages began as a working-class neighborhood in the late 19th century. New residents flocked in after 1897 with the arrival of the streetcar, which made it possible for city workers to live farther away from places of employment.
Back then, Mount Rainier was "the country." Real estate advertisements from the period highlighted the rural aspects of the neighborhood, with frame houses and embellished porches striking a distinctive note that differentiated them from the brick row houses going up in the District. During the '20s and '30s, Mount Rainier grew rapidly, and by the World War II era, its single-family frame houses were accompanied by a couple of apartment complexes, complete with their own shopping centers. By the 1970s, though, the population of the always small neighborhood declined as new suburbs opened up farther away from the central city.
Today, Mount Rainier has positioned itself as home to a diverse population and a mecca for artists and arts organizations. It is part of the Gateway Arts District, a revitalization initiative that targets the development of arts-oriented businesses, important in an area where the median income hovers around $40,000. And specialty stores like Glut Food Co-op, a bike co-op and a host of artists studios mean it's becoming bit of a destination.
The winding streets of Cheverly, Md., beckon a new generation of families drawn by affordable mid-20th-century homes and a sense of neighborliness that gives what should be "just a suburb" a homey, small-town feel.
Cheverly's charm owes much to its developer, Robert Marshall, who, unlike many others of the time, sought to save as many trees as possible and have his streets conform to the rolling hills of the area. He began developing the area, which lies about a mile from the northeast border of the District between the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Route 50, after World War I, and like developers in Mount Rainier, exploited its position on the B&O Railroad line. "Ten cents and 12 minutes to downtown Washington, D.C." was a common mantra in Cheverly's early sales literature.
The area also benefited from the post-World War II move to the suburbs. Still standing is the old neighborhood movie theater, which was built in 1947 and today functions as Prince George's County's Publick Playhouse, with an array of live performances and exhibits throughout the year.
In Alexandria, Va., new residents of the Brookeville neighborhood, which is north of Duke Street and East of North Van Dorn Street, are starting to see new possibilities in a slightly different setting. There, homes date from the mid-20th century.
"The neighborhood is starting to see younger families," Ms. Walker says. "They like the nearby renovated Foxchase shopping center along with trails and bike paths."
Brookeville's homes that need a bit of work start around $425,000, Ms. Walker says. Usually, that involves updating kitchens.
Meanwhile, Warwick Village, a nearby development of homes that is south of West Glebe Road between Russell Road and Mount Vernon Avenue, was built in the 1950s as rental town houses. It is finding a new generation of homeowners who seem to love tinkering around with the original floor plans.
"Spacewise, it's one of the best deals out there," Ms. Walker says. "There are no load-bearing walls, so you can do lots of things inside the house."
Fixer-uppers in Warwick Village fall in the $300,000 to $350,000 range, she says.
If you're a newcomer to an old neighborhood, the secret to success is simple.
"You don't just buy a house and become part of the community," Mr. Silverman says. "You've got to appreciate the people who already live there."
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