Howard University last year sold a house to its president, James E. Cheek, for less than half its assessed value and bought it back nine months later for the same price, according to District of Columbia real estate records.

Neither Cheek nor the univerity's official spokesman would comment on the two transactions involving the house on upper 16th Street NW where Cheek and his family have lived rent-free since Cheek became Howard's president in 1969.

Several university trustees and senior officials, who asked not to be identified, said they thought the original sale of the property to Cheek on March 9, 1984, was an indication that he was planning to resign. They suggested that the sale back to the university on Dec. 26 might have signified that Cheek changed his mind.

Alan Hermesch, Howard University spokesman, said Cheek, 52, has no plans to step down as president. He said the real estate transactions were a "private matter." Cheek did not return several telephone calls from a reporter.

The red brick house at 8035 16th St. NW was sold to Cheek last March for $115,000, according to official records compiled by Rufus S. Lusk & Son, a real estate information firm. The full purchase price was financed by the university with a mortgage at 5 percent interest.

The value of the house as assessed by the D.C. Finance and Revenue Department last year was $267,000. The prevailing interest rate on home mortgages at the time was about 13 percent.

Geraldine P. Woods, chairman of the university trustees, said the house was sold to Cheek for the same price the university had paid for it in 1969 under an arrangement the board made with him when he became president.

Asked why the house was repurchased by the university, Woods said, "We decided it was better for the university to have it in our possession." She declined to elaborate. "It's nobody's business but Howard University's," Woods said. "There's no federal money involved. It's Howard's money."

The 118-year-old university is a private, nonprofit corporation, but it is the only comprehensive private university that regularly receives a specific federal appropriation, a special status Howard has held almost since its founding. This year the appropriation is $158.2 million.

Federal support, including an additional $25 million in grants and contracts, covers about three-quarters of Howard's academic expenditures, and university officials testify annually before Congress on the school's budget.

Last year Cheek was paid $124,497 plus an expense account of $27,500. Besides housing, he received free use of a car; both are benefits are provided to many university presidents.

According to Internal Revenue Service regulations, if Cheek had retained ownership of the house he bought last March, he would have had to declare as income the difference between its fair market value and the relatively low price he paid for it. Based on the assessed value, this difference was about $150,000, which would have required him to pay a total of about $90,000 in federal and D.C. income taxes. CAPTION: Picture, House at 8035 16th Street NW was sold for $115,000, half of its assessed value. By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post