Beyond the Beige

Ferrell Ayers in Her New Arlington condominium
Ferrell Ayers, center, in her recently purchased Arlington condominium. Some of the unusual features in the condo made it stand out from others on the market and prompted her purchase. (Dayna Smith -- The Washington Post)

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 23, 2006

First-time home buyer Ferrell Ayers knew what she wanted: a condominium in Arlington.

But which to buy? The slowdown in the real estate market meant there were more to consider than at any time in the recent past. Ayers read descriptions of about 200 Arlington condos listed for sale and visited at least 30. Of those, about 25 were completely forgettable beige boxes, with neutral carpets and walls. Ayers found that as soon as she walked out the front door, she had trouble remembering which was which.

Then Ayers, 30, found a place that caught her eye. It was small, only about 570 square feet, with a big price tag at $250,000. However, it featured a few decorative details that made it unforgettable. Its front entry had a dramatic mosaic floor, composed of ceramic tiles the previous owner had hand-carried home from Italy. Instead of the typical cream-colored walls, the owner had painted the walls pink in the bedroom and a pale yellow in another room. This condo appealed to Ayers more than anything else she had seen. Last month, she bought it.

"I was so drawn to it that when I saw other people looking at it, I wanted it for my own," Ayers said. "The charm made it unique."

It's long been conventional wisdom in the real estate business, particularly in the Washington area, that neutrally painted and decorated homes bring in the most offers and sell most quickly. Agents typically tell home sellers to rid their properties of idiosyncratic furnishings and decor that might turn some prospective buyers off.

But with a growing number of houses for sale -- there were 40,870 houses on the market in the region in August, up from 18,368 in August 2005, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., the area's multiple listing service -- some real estate brokers are finding that houses now need unique detail so they will linger in shoppers' minds. Even agents who are trained to distinguish small differences among properties find that sorting among a rising inventory of for-sale houses can result in a mind-numbing blur.

"Sometimes I see 50 condos in a weekend, and they all blend together in my mind," said Rick Bosl, an agent with Keller Williams Realty in Vienna. He said that in some buildings three or four almost identical units can be for sale. Although price is the first and most important criteria for buyers, a few memorable details can make a difference as well.

That's the marketing strategy that Nancy and Jack Ginsburg are using to sell their house in Leesburg. Nancy, who studied art at Michigan State University, is a painter who has made her home her canvas. An Asian art aficionado, she painted a coiled red dragon on her dining room ceiling, a spray of cherry blossoms in the butler's pantry and a jungle-themed bedroom that features lush palm fronds crawling up the walls. The doorway to her daughter's bedroom is highlighted by a painted floral garland, an image that suggests the visitor is stepping through a trellis to an outdoor garden.

"I love color and I have no qualms about it," said Ginsburg, 50. But then the Ginsburgs, who became empty nesters when their daughter left for college, began thinking of moving closer to the city and pondered putting their house up for sale. When she saw the house, their real estate agent, Elena Pehrkon of McEnearney Associates in McLean, blanched a bit. The house certainly violates the all-beige mantra. They considered painting everything over in a neutral color, or offering a painting allowance. On the other hand, they reasoned, with 40 other similar houses for sale in the same price range, it might be a good idea to let the high-spirited decorations speak for themselves.

Pehrkon wasn't sure how the unusual decor would play in Northern Virginia, where tastes tend to be conservative, so when she prepared the brochure and Web site for the property, she decided to highlight the more conventional aspects: the premium lot that backs to parkland, the upgraded amenities, the granite countertops in the expansive kitchen.

But when she held an open house for brokers, she noticed that visitors stuck around longer than usual, oohing and aahing over the painted rooms, and asking each other which rooms they liked best. The house, recently listed for sale at $860,000, has not yet sold, but Pehrkon feels it got good buzz.

"It may not be to everyone's liking," Pehrkon said, but "it's nicely and tastefully done." And the decor gives the house personality, something that is important when so many homes "all look the same after a while," she said.

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