Several years ago, Michael Shapiro was looking for his dream house. But not many Washington area neighborhoods sported the kind of home he wanted: low-slung, sleek, with clean lines and lots of glass. Instead, he found himself surrounded by center-hall Colonials, modest Cape Cods and, well beyond the Beltway, expansive - and expensive - homes that dominated the landscape.
“D.C. is pretty conservative in terms of architecture,” said Mr. Shapiro, who in 2005 didn’t yet have his real estate license. “You have to do a lot of peeling away to find those contemporary homes.”
Thanks to the Internet and websites including modern capitaldc.com or oldhouses.com, today’s niche buyers have an easier time finding that special property, whether it is a low-slung contemporary, a 1920s bungalow or a sprawling 19th-century Victorian. Realtors, too, are working to keep up with specialized demands, providing services to first-time homebuyers, members of the military, multigenerational families or those looking for a second home, whether it is in the mountains or by the Chesapeake Bay.
Interested in a historic property? You may want to check out oldhouses.com, which lists an ever-increasing number of older and historic homes. Website owner Joe Copley began the site seven years ago from his own historic home in Charlotte, N.C. Today, the site lists homes from all over the U.S. Quite a few in the Greater Washington area are listed, including a 1905 Victorian in Frederick County that lists for $225,000, or a 1730 log home in McLean that comes in at $2,650,000.
“Not everyone wants straight walls,” said Mr. Copley, who has always lived in historic homes. “Houses today take on a sort of sameness.”
Sellers and real estate agents use oldhouses.com for their historic listings, and once the home is sold or taken off the market, the listings are stored in a permanent archive. The site’s search engine allows for searches by location, price and house type.
“Many old-house lovers are interested in being green or working with something that has a smaller footprint,” Mr. Copley said. “A lot of Arts and Crafts houses and those from the ‘20s have a space and layout that is more amenable to today’s lifestyles.”
Of course, some searches are more difficult than others. That’s particularly true if you are looking for one of those “midcentury modern” houses you may have called home during your own wonder years. The fact is, while there are a lot of mid-20th-century homes in the D.C. area, not all of them are particularly distinctive.
“The resources we have vary in degree and quality from one part of the D.C. area to another,” said Howard Berger, acting supervisor of historic preservation for the Prince George’s County Planning Department. “Some are those modern contemporary, but others are simply traditional houses that were constructed in great numbers after World War II.”
But for those that were designed with more than mass production in mind, there is little that can surpass the clean lines and open vistas of a midcentury modern, proponents say.
“It’s how people want to live,” Mr. Shapiro said.
After long months and many miles logged in his own search, Mr. Shapiro finally found the home he was seeking - a classic midcentury modern that put him in mind of those easy days growing up in the 1970s - but he thought it should have been easier. And with that simple idea, a website - moderncapitaldc.com - and a new career was born.
“My whole scenario is niche buyers,” said Mr. Shapiro, a licensed Realtor with Long & Foster whose website lists homes for sale, provides neighborhood and house histories and lists advertisers that specialize in repairing, renovating or reproducing the accouterments of the Eisenhower era.
Why the new interest in the kind of places and spaces that were dismissed just a few years ago as old and in the way?
“I call it the ‘Mad Men’ effect,” Mr. Shapiro said. “People see places like these on the show, and they look pretty cool.”
Then, said Mr. Shapiro, there is the response to the overly large footprints of homes from the recent past, and new considerations about cost, commuting and other expenses.
“It’s simple, clean design,” Mr. Shapiro said. “You don’t need 10,000 square feet to live well.”
With a little bit of digging and a little bit of help, midcentury-modern aficionados can uncover some real gems. In Montgomery County, the contemporary homes at Rock Creek Woods seem to slip in and out of the protective veil of surrounding forest. Rock Creek Woods was designed in part by renowned midcentury architect Charles Goodman, whose other area projects include the Hammond Wood neighborhood and the Hickory Cluster town-house development in Reston.
Other Montgomery County neighborhoods, such as Quaint Acres and North Springbrook, also boast the sleek, clean lines associated with midcentury homes.
Of course, it’s the human factor, in the form of the real estate agent, who might bring out love for midcentury moderns a prospective buyer didn’t realize he had.
“I had one woman who was certain she didn’t even want to look at a midcentury home,” said Debbie Cook, a Realtor with Long & Foster’s Burtonsville office. “She didn’t even want to get out of the car. But when I finally got her inside, she was just bowled over.”
The woman ended up buying the place and now lives in yet another, albeit larger, midcentury-modern home.
If your tastes run to something a bit older, there are plenty of older homes in the Silver Spring area that contain any number of distinctive features.
“Indian Spring has pretty Tudor Revival homes, and in Woodside Park no two homes are exactly alike,” Ms. Cook said.
What’s popular with her buyers right now? Bungalows and Tudor-style dwellings from the 1920s and 1930s, followed by those ubiquitous Cape Cods that dot the District’s close-in suburbs. These more modest homes offer solid construction, arched doorways, built-in bookcases and seating nooks, and a sense of place and space that seems a bit out of the ordinary in our postmodern age.
“It’s a certain kind of buyer,” Ms. Cook said. “They love the ways these homes are built; in my opinion, they just don’t build solid like that any more.”
Her buyers also like the hardwood floors and fireplaces that grace many of these homes, although most will confess to a hankering for an updated kitchen.
For those obsessed with early-20th-century style, a catalog house from Sears or Aladdin could be just the ticket. Greater Washington is replete with models - or copies - of bungalows and foursquares like the Vallonia or the Fullerton, kit homes whose contents arrived in pieces on a boxcar and were put up - usually with the help of a contractor - on a purchased lot. Happy is today’s seller who can put “Sears catalog home” on his listing.
Not every bungalow is a Sears or other catalog home, whose plans often were copied by local contractors who sometimes constructed the home with lesser materials. In fact, the quest to find out whether your home - or the one down the block - is a genuine catalog home has spawned a mininiche all its own, with a score or so of books and websites that can help you identify the key features - stamped lumber, floor plan, fenestration - to help you determine whether you are living in a genuine Sears Modern Home.
Sears maintains its own website, www.searsarchives.com/homes/, that provides house histories, images and links to Sears catalog homeowners.
Realtors who specialize in particular neighborhoods, such as Del Ray in Alexandria or Greenbelt in Prince George’s County, are often the go-to people for those who wish to live in a home or a neighborhood that carries a little extra history.
Ms. Cook notes that many of her clients start out hoping to live in a historic district but are more than happy when shown a similar vintage home in a non-designated neighborhood.
“They can get something that looks like what they’ll see in a historic district, but it’s cheaper because it’s outside,” she said. “And they aren’t bound by some of the regulations in those areas.”
Other homeowners are attracted by the historical pull of a community itself. Mount Rainier, for example, boasts of the gingerbread trim on its turn-of-the-20th-century frame homes and its air of inclusivity in equal measure. Old Greenbelt, in addition to its open layout and community-minded spaces, sports New Deal-era modernist architecture and a community feel that hearkens back to its time as an early planned community modeled after European experiments in community planning.
But it may not take a village to help you find your own niche. Some homeowners just need a little bit of mystery along with their piece of the past.
For example, the five homes of Montgomery County’s historic polychrome district, in the Four Corners area, may be small in footprint, but they are rich in mystery. Builder John Earley, who was responsible for renovations in the White House and Willard Hotel, covered the homes with a special mixture of brightly colored aggregate, producing a polychrome effect.
Unfortunately, the architect and inventor died before revealing - or writing down - his secret formula, which to this day has never been duplicated.
In the end, though, it’s all about figuring out where your passions lie and finding the words to express them.
“Some people don’t have the words to say what they are looking for architecturally,” Ms. Cook said. “So I always ask them to describe their dream house.”