Looking for a handyman's special to restore? How about the three-story, red brick row house at 473 M St. NW. It's perched amidst street winos and drug pushers and, if truth to told, the house is a shambles, with trash kneehigh in the basement and as much plaster on the floors as on the walls.

The price? Just $57,000.

Or how about a corner row house at 600 14th St. NE, a location described as Capitol Hill even though it's 20 blocks away from the Capitol? It has boarded-up and broken windows, a peeling gray-painted brick facade, a front yard overrun with weeds and, as the real estate agents like to say "great potential."

A mere $115,000 will make it yours.

The cost of livable housing in the Washington area may be fast exceeding most wage earner's comprehension, not to mention their bank accounts. But the astonishing fact is that unlivable housing costs almost as much.

Gutted shells of houses -- offten located in neighborhoods long forgotten by anyone with the means to escape them -- are escalating in price between $10,000 and $20,000 a year, sometimes more.

The city estimates there are about 4,000 shells in the District including about 900 owned by the city government. Such shells often consist only of four outside walls, some flooring, a few interior walls and a roof, all of which may have gaping holes. A year ago, these shells cost about $40,000 in the sometimes tawdry Shaw community; now the price may exceed $60,000.

A few blocks to the west, closer to Logan Circle, shells the cost $60,000 or $70,000 a year ago now carry price tags of $85,000 to well over $100,000.

Shells close to the Capitol, because of their scarity, often are worth $100,000 or more, although the price decreases as one moves east.

Why the big increases? No one in the Washington housing and real estate industry seems to know for sure, but certainly inflation has boosted the cost of everything, especially housing. But in Wahsington other factors are at work as well.

Many house hunters are searching for the perfect shell that can be renovated into a modern-day dream home close to their work. Constant resales of shells in recent years have pushed prices rapidly upward and even the city's attempt to tax profits on quick resales may have pushed prices even higher. Real estate industry officialssay this speculator's tax has prompted some shell owners to take their properties off the market, thus creating a relative scarcity of available shells -- and raising their prices.

"People realize the city's coming back," said one D.C. speculator who has bought and sold numerous shells. "It's going to be one of the wealthiest, prettiet cities in the world."

Thus urban pioneers are creating a demand for in-town property, people like Barry and Heidi Mackey who paid $41,000 in June 1978, for a dilapidated row house at 444 M st. NW and probably will pour another $80,000 finished.

The 400 block of M Street is not exactly an urban retreat yet; the rubble of vagrants and drunks (discarded clothing, empty pints of Wild Irish Rose and other trash) covers the front yards of the block's abandoned houses.

But that doesn't stop the Heidi Mackeys of the world from dreaming of the day their block will be a model of civility. For the moment, however, she is talking the precaution of installing iron gates on the door -- ones, however, decorated with a fleur-delis design from the emblem of Wiesbaden, Germany, the town where she grew up.

"It looks like Georgetown, doesn't it" she excitedly asked a vistor the other day.

The price of such pioneering keeps accelerating. Timothy Carroll, her neighbor-to-be across the street at 455 M, had to pay $57,000 for his row house and he says the renovation will run another $50,000.

An Brian Logan, who manages the Long and Foster relty office on Capitol hill, said, "We don't set the price. The owners don't even set the price, The buyers set the price."

Shell buyers have inadvertently fueled the prices of the gutted units in another way, Logan said. Because they frequently don't realize what a refurbishing job is going to cost, they are willing to pay more for the unfinished building.The result is that the cost of buying a shell and restoring it is often more than for homes that are already restored.

As with livable homes, prices of shells currently on the market seen to feed off those that were sold recently, with sellers figuring that if a similar unit a few doors away went for, say, $55,000 a year ago, then this one ought to be worth that much -- and then a good deal more.

One of Logan's agents, Robert Thomas, said, a speculator could buy a shell cheaply, let it sit for a year or two, "do nothing except drive by and make sure it hasn't burned down," and then sell it at an inflated price.

Or the speculator could do a "skin job," making the cheapest improvements possible to the shell to make it presentable, "multiply his investment by two and then fight off the buyers," Thomas said.

The third way, he said, is to do a complete and thorough renovation.

But several people in the real estate business here say that indiscriminate "flipping" of shells -- that is, buying a cheap shell and then quickly selling it at a big profit -- has ended, thanks to provisions of the D.C. speculator's tax.

But whether that tax has had the total effect that its supporters intended is open to debate. The law, which imposed taxes of up to 97 percent on the profits gained from a fast resale, was designed not only to stop quick flipping but also to promote renovation of houses by exempting sellers from the tax if they warrantied the major components of a house (roof, heating, electrical, plumbing and other items) for two years.

While about 250 homes have been warrantied in order to gain an exemption from the tax, real estate industry officials say that many other owners are simply holding off on selling their properties until the effective period of the tax has passed. If a house or shell has been owned more than three years, the speculators tax does not apply to profits gained from a resale.

In the months the law has been in effect, a total of only $10,146.46 has been collected from five or six sellers, according to the city. While the District's enforcement of the law was virtually nil at first, the city now has one employe checking all residential real estate sales and asking the sellers for information to determine whether the tax must be paid.

Despite the monitoring of the property sales, real estate industry sources say some people are still ignoring the law and refusing to file papers connected with the tax, even to claim an exemption.

On one recent day, the Washington Board of Realtors listed only 25 shells for sale, about half the number in recent years. While individuals no doubt are offering other shells for sale themselves, the overrall number definitely seems to be limited, according to various realtors and housing speculators.

This scarcity also has helped boost the prices of the shells, according to several people in the business. In addition, owners now holding onto their properties simply are planning to ask for more money when they do get ready to sell, these people say, while the prices of the warrantied, refurbished houses have also been increased to cover possible repairs during the two-year warranty period.

As one speculator concluded, "Any law the city has passed to help the poor has increased the cost to the homeowner in the city." CAPTION: Picture 1, $115,000: This house at 600 14th St. NE is described as a Capitol Hill address.; Picture 2, $45,000: House at 471 M St. NW.; Picture 3, $57,000: Row house at 473 M St. NW. By John McDonnell -- The Washington Post