- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2007

When Bruce Ruble put his South Arlington home on the market a couple of years ago, he was struck by the long lines of people who came to view his house. There was only one problem: They weren’t there to buy.

“Virtually everyone who came to see it did so out of curiosity,” says Mr. Ruble, who inherited his all-metal ‘50s-era Lustron home from his parents. “We must have had about 80 gawkers.”

Whether you call them strange, unique, or just plain weird, homeowners with one-of-a-kind houses can face a unique set of challenges when it comes time to sell, especially in a cooling real estate market.

“Any time you have a home that’s unique in some way, it can be difficult to sell,” says Kim Sharifi, a Realtor with Weichert’s McLean/Old Dominion office, who helped Mr. Ruble sell his home. “The pool of buyers is so small right now that a very high-priced home can be as difficult to sell as a very tiny one.”

Marketing Mr. Ruble’s Lustron house, all 1,013 square feet of it, proved a unique challenge.

“It was the hardest house I’ve ever had to market,” says Ms. Sharifi, who says she became an expert on Lustron houses in the time it took to sell the place. “And it’s the only house where I could put the floor plan up on the outside walls with magnets.”

Produced for just two years beginning in 1949, Lustron houses, manufactured by the short-lived Lustron Corp., attempted to meet the growing postwar demand for housing by providing inexpensive, easy-to-transport homes that would arrive disassembled on the back of a tractor-trailer and be fitted together onsite.

“If you get up close, you can see that the house is made up entirely 3-foot-by-3-foot metal panels,” says Mr. Ruble, whose parents purchased their first Lustron home in Kansas City and liked it so much they bought another one when they moved to Arlington in 1965.

Today, Lustron fans marvel at the quality of its built-ins, sliding doors, and other design elements, including the original combination dishwasher/washing machine (https://home.earthlink.net/~ronusny/).

But other one-of-a-kind homes can come with built-in quirks that can have new owners shaking their heads and shelling out lots of cash for renovations.

“I remember one Tudor home whose last owner, a stone contractor, had installed marble all through the first floor,” says Bruce Wentworth of Wentworth Studio, a Washington-based design and construction firm. “It was beautiful, but all wrong.”

Then there are what Mr. Wentworth calls “the Wendys,” attached greenhouses that end up being too hot or too cold, leaky, and unwanted by the next owner.

Quirky owners with particular tastes often end up installing fairly permanent elements that don’t quite stand the test, a sort of “designed obsolescence,” Mr. Wentworth notes.

“They’re too personal,” he says, “and they may not fit with the context of the neighborhood.” Historic properties far older than Mr. Ruble’s 1950s-era home come with their own special circumstances. They may be small, with fewer bedrooms and bathrooms than their contemporary counterparts.

Finding your niche is an important aspect of marketing your one-of-a-kind home, says Brenda Small, president of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors. But it’s also important to take into account some of the same factors that affect all home sellers.

“The condition of the property is important” she says. “So is location, pricing, and the size of the lot.” The key for special properties, she notes, is to find the right people.

“You are looking for a market of qualified buyers who can better appreciate what your home has to offer,” she says.

To find that right buyer for your unusual home, you may have to sell it a bit differently.

Ms. Sharifi targeted those people for whom the single bathroom and lack of space of Mr. Ruble’s Lustron house were just small asides. She advertised in local papers, to be sure, but she also posted on Web sites devoted to Lustron Houses and post-World War II prefabricated housing.

It’s not just Lustron homes that are causing a bit of business on the Web. Dome homes have their own Web sites, like the Monolithic Dome Institute (www.monolithic.com) that allows dome owners to “hook up,” across the states.

And there are groups devoted to homes on former missile sites, castles, concrete houses, and even one, www.doowopusa.org, devoted to design elements of the 1950s and early 1960s.

One of the things that made Mr. Ruble’s home special was its nearly intact interior, which made it outstanding among Arlington County’s few remaining Lustron homes.

“My father was one of the world’s all-time champion cheapskates,” says Mr. Ruble, who noted that his father bought a second “gas-o-matic” heating system from a neighbor, also a Lustron homeowner, after the latter decided to update, so he could use it for parts.

Despite its appeal to a particular niche market, lenders can balk when it comes to financing that one-of-a-kind home. After all, they’ve got to think down the road, if it comes time to sell, and they won’t always be caught up in the unique aspects of the place.

Since there are no comparables — homes whose characteristics mirror the one you’ve got your eye on — it can be difficult for an appraiser to come up with a reasonable figure.

The National Association of Realtors recommends getting clear, detailed appraisals of these one-of-a-kind homes to help lenders calculate costs and risks.

Consider construction costs if the house were to be rebuilt today. Take lot size and location into account, and justify your figures with precise and provable reasons.

As a home buyer, you may want to beware. No matter how sculptural and architecturally cutting-edge, the house seems to thumb its nose at the neighborhood. You might have something that’s difficult to unload in the future.

Consider the home off Western Avenue in Bethesda dubbed “the mushroom house” by neighborhood youngsters.

Designed by an art gallery owner in the late 1960s, the home features polyurethane foam construction that causes the walls to literally mushroom.

“That’s an experimental home,” Mr. Wentworth says. “Homes like those should be out in the woods somewhere, not in the middle of a neighborhood.”

Then there’s the Bethesda renovation by a local architect that took a traditional Colonial home and added an addition so extreme — the addition appears to spilling out of the front facade — that the result was featured on HGTV’s “What’s With That House” television show.

That’s not to mention the miniature castles, concrete homes and once-cutting-edge but now just-plain-ugly designs that dot the landscape around the nation’s capital.

“Often the price goes down in these situations,” Mr. Wentworth says, “and the buyer will need to have the financial resources to make changes.”

Then there are there are neighbors. Many people don’t like to live on a street that contains a house that’s, well, bizarre.

“You have to consider the context,” Mr. Wentworth says.

You might find that if you want to sell your unique home, it may end up not being a home at all. The famed Shoe House in Hellam, Pa., went up for sale recently. The 1948 home, built by a local shoe magnate as an advertising gimmick and guesthouse, is now an ice cream parlor.

In the end, the purchaser of Mr. Ruble’s 1950s gem paid $440,000 not to recapture the aesthetic of a simpler time, but for what it was sitting on.

“It was on a very large lot,” Mr. Ruble says. “That’s really what he was interested in.”

The new homeowner dismantled the house, donated it to Arlington County for resurrection on a different lot at a later date, and promptly began erecting a 21st-century-style McMansion.

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