Visting this baseball-mad city on a big curve of the Ohio River cannot be compared to kissing one's sister. It's more like kissing an Auntie Mame who refuses to act her age.
The same might be said of Cincinnati housing. Most of it is single-family and showing its age. But there's also a strong intown trend to rehabilitation, rejuvenation and recycling. Not unlike Washington, the place that Winston Churchill once called the "most beautiful inland city in America" is attracting young households into close-in neighborhoods that are getting a second wind.
But Greater Cincinnati, which includes some of Kentucky on the south side of the Ohio River and a patch of eastern Indiana, is also a rapidly expanding suburbia. New freeways provide rapid access to the old center city, which has a revamped Fountain Square as a centerpiece, plus new skywalks and some large office-commercial complexes under way. Finding a new or resale house is becoming more competitive and expensive in this Queen City, which proclaims a booming industrial economy and a below-average unemployment rate of 5 percent.
Only six years ago Mike and Becky Swantko moved here from San Jose, Calif., and found a nearly new four-bedroom house on a half-acre lot in the suburban village of Montgomery for less than $60,000. Today the house would bring double that amount. A big rambler around the corner was sold in two days for $133,000 - only $2,000 below the asking price.
But that's far higher than average. Most people in this Southwest Ohio city buy resale houses priced under $60,000. Last year the average price was $46,300 and it's still less than $50,000 but moving up fast. Most new houses sell for around $70,000.
But increasing affluency is evident and so are houses and cluster condominium town houses in the $80,000s and $90,000s. Many house are semi-custom-built. Only a dozen builders here complete more than a 100 houses a year. Ryan Homes, one of the largest, is the only one that also builds in the Washington area.
Orville Brown, executive of the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati, said that new starts this year will likely total 10,000, with only 3,000 in the multi-family category. He and others in real estate point out that this is a single-family-house city. The condominum concept, with smaller lots and common areas for townhouse and apartments, is only now being accepted, somewhat reluctantly, they say.
The seductiveness of the new single-family house is such that more than 100,000 visitors annually pay $2 a head to attend the local "Homearama" tour of new houses. This year's showcase of 22 dwellings, including one contemporary with an indoor racquetball court and another with an indoor pool and adjacent sun room, covered a price range of $80,000 to $250,000.
Most of them were large, two-story traditional houses - the kind that most Cincinnatians buy. But they lined up to see the contemporaries with glamor features.
Cincinatti's showing of homes was well-organized and worthwhile for those interested in new houses. But the sitting of one extra-large traditional house on a relatively small lot next to a stark contemporary an the mostly routine sitings of the other dwellings could discourage buyers. Half a dozen of the houses were sold before the show started but it may be awhile before all of the Homearama dwellings are purchased.
As yet, however, there is scant evidence of any slowdown in both new and resale house sales in this industrial inland city. Even though conventional mortgage interest rates have moved up to the level of 9 3/4 percent with an 20 percent downpayment, most of the many thrift institutions have money available.
"Getting a loan for a buyer is no real problem," said sales agent Marian Smith. However, she is critical of lenders who take loan applications and hold them a week or more before coming up with an appraisal less than that needed by the prospective buyer. "Valuable time is lost for the seller and prospective buyer," she added.
Steve Casper, a realtor-broker who serves as chairman of the multiple listing service of the Cincinnati Board of Realtors, said that most dwellings are priced less than they would be in other major cities. But the annual rate of appreciation now is about 13 percent.
He added that property taxes are lower than in most big cities, citing a $500 tax on a house sold for $35,000 and a $1,200 tax for one bringing $105,000. Appraisals for tax purposes are made less frequently than in most cities.
In a suburban area, all but two of the 45 new condominium town homes in Montgomery Meadows were sold within a year. These imaginatively attached dwellings have one or two stories and "walkout" basements.The sire is only 8.5 acres so the resulting high density, after parking and interior roads are subtracted, turns off some confirmed suburbanites.
Yet, these houses, which average about $80,000, would probably cost far more in Old Town Alexandria, Falls Church, McLean or varied areas in the District.
While some surburbanites are fighting to keep apartments, commercial developments and light industry out of their neighborhoods, older sections of inner Cincinnati are attracting young, two-income households.
Intown buildings are being converted to condominiums with jazzy features and older Victorian houses in the Hyde Park and Clifton sections are being bought. Realtor Gregory Hague said that some of those houses, which sold only a few years ago for $30,000, are bringing $70,000 or more today, after refurbishing. Riverfront Stadium and other new public facilities have generated new life in downtown. "After a big victory, people walk a few blocks to Fountain Square and talk about the game over a cold drink," one resident said. Most major suburbs are within 25 minutes of downtown and the stadium.
Realtor Steve Casper said that one big reason for mid-city confidence is that people are continuing to realize that they can walk around downtown at night withour any serious concern for personal safety.
Rental apartments and two-unit dwellings also offer more for the dollar than one might find in the Nation's Capital. One in-city dweller pays only $150 a month for half of a house. In a suburban area, a young bachelor pays $205 monthly, including all utilities, for a one-bedroom unit. He also has pool and tennis privileges.
Cincinnati, which has no rent controls, has what realty professionals describe as a strong tenant market and investor interest in backing multi-family contruction projects. Seven new rental projects were announced earlier this year, the largest near the suburban location of a new assembly plant for Ford Motor Co.
However, no apartment boom is expected because of the general conviction that C-City residents will retain their partiality for single-family ownership. Currently, 80 percent of the housing stock is in that category - about 30 percent higher than the ratio in Washington.