Fairfax Makes It Pay to Stay

Before: The 1950s Fairfax City split-level of Bill and Natalie Zink had about half the living space it does now.
Before: The 1950s Fairfax City split-level of Bill and Natalie Zink had about half the living space it does now. (Family Photo)
By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 12, 2008

Fairfax City is attempting to lessen the move-or-improve quandary that many homeowners face when their residences no longer fit their needs.

Whether residents are expanding their families, aging in place or working from home, several programs that go beyond those offered by other local governments are available to help people stay put. "These programs are targeted towards homes that need a little extra love," said Danielle Easter, executive director of the Fairfax Renaissance Housing Corporation.

Residents can tackle functional obsolescence, improve curb appeal, add a bathroom or home office, update the kitchen, or make the house wheelchair-accessible with a first-floor bedroom suite by using one or more citywide programs. Some offer financial breaks; others provide services or information:

  • No-interest home-equity loans. Since 2001, Fairfax Renaissance Housing Corporation, in partnership with Virginia Commerce Bank, has offered two-year, no-interest loans of up to $200,000 for home improvement projects. (The project can cost more, but only $200,000 is eligible for the loan.)

    Loans are available to Fairfax City residents and to prospective residents with contracts in hand. The house to be renovated must be at least 10 years old, with a value of less than $750,000 before improvements. Borrowers must meet the lender's usual loan-approval requirements, but the city places no income restrictions on the loans.

    "This program is the only one of its kind in the nation," Easter said. At first, projects tended to be small, like ripping out the sea-foam or pink bathroom fixtures from ramblers and split-levels built in the early 1950s. Now, Easter said, projects are larger, often involving substantial changes and major additions.

    Project plans must be approved by Renaissance Housing's board, which includes members who have backgrounds in construction, architecture, design, banking and real estate. All projects must meet the city's permit, zoning and code requirements. If a homeowners association covers the neighborhood, it also must approve the changes.

    There are no specified design elements that must be incorporated, but because one goal is to enhance the appearance and neighborliness of communities, designs that include front porches are particularly favored.

    Board members work with residents to make the best use of technology and trends, keep costs in line and fit the neighborhood.

    "It's pretty easy as long as you do your homework," said Lisa George, who is in the midst of a substantial renovation of her 1953 rambler.

    Renaissance Housing evaluates floor plans and landscaping before approving a project and may offer suggestions that the homeowner might not have considered.

    "The whole committee comes to see the property," said George, whose written proposal included photos, justifications and estimated costs. Committee members ask detailed questions about the proposed project, she said. "They can tell you if you're getting good value."

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