Most house-hunters with children check out the school system, and Gene Klopf did that when he moved to Virginia from New Jersey in 1995. But for Klopf, the clincher in moving to the Somerset neighborhood of Fairfax County was the community pool.
The swim team was the focus of the summer day when he was growing up in Silver Spring. He wanted his children to have the same experience. "It's a great sport because it's an individual effort against the clock in a team environment," he said. "And the pool is a safe place for kids to spend their time." All three of his children, now 17, 14 and 10, swim on the team. And Klopf is president of the pool.
Which isn't to say that he sought out a top-notch swim team in the competitive Northern Virginia Swim League. "There are 11,000 people involved in the Northern Virginia swim teams. There are 18 divisions, and Somerset is in the 18th," he said wryly. "Twenty years ago, we were in the first."
Regardless of the team's performance, the pool serves as Party Central during the summer, hosting one activity a month. On the Fourth of July, for example, "everyone knows that you go to the pool to picnic and hang out," Klopf said.
The pool's future is uncertain, however. At the beginning of summer it was unclear whether the pool would even open this year, said resident Mark Gibson. As the community grayed, older homeowners dropped out and new homeowners didn't step up to join. The pool's board of directors mounted a concerted effort to drum up needed support and donations for this year, Gibson said.
"We're in the process of rebuilding," Klopf said.
The Gibsons found friendly neighbors even before they joined the pool this year. "We were surprised," Kristen Gibson, 31, said. "We moved in on a Saturday, and on Sunday our neighbor came over with a chicken casserole. I couldn't believe it."
Mark Gibson, 38, said he sees no need for any citizens association. "People keep up their yards, and I haven't heard about any crimes," he said.
Mark and Kristen Gibson are typical of the double-income, no-children homeowners in Somerset, one of the two kinds of people who have been buying properties there as the original owners have died. The other kind of people are families with young children.
The community has seen the same kind of heating up that the greater metro home market has seen. Paul Miller, an agent with Long & Foster Realtors who lives in Somerset, offered these figures: In 1998, 10 houses sold at an average price of $242,680 (average listing price of $244,698) after being on the market an average of 57 days. In the first six months of 1999, six houses sold for an average price of $259,714 (average listing price, $262,202) after 10 days on the market.
"There was one house that sold in 1998 for $239,900 and sold again this year for $272,500--with nothing done to it," Miller said.
Miller gives his clients who buy in Somerset a pool membership. "I'm a real believer in the community," he said. "A pool offers community interaction."
People in Somerset like the schools, the easy access to major roads and the mature trees that grace the neighborhood's dozen streets.
Ginger Werz-Petricka, 49, went out to Somerset when the relocation service she was working for was contacted to sell a property there in 1991. "I fell in love with it and took my husband out here," she said. "He was used to me showing him some of the million-dollar homes we sold when companies relocated personnel, so after we took a look at this house, he asked me, 'Why are we here?' And I told him, 'We're going to buy this house.' "
"We came by the house in early spring, when the cherry blossoms were in bloom, and the whole street was pink," she said. "We looked at each other and knew it was perfect."
Werz-Petricka describes the houses as well-built, the location as wonderful and the streets as quiet. "And although we don't have children, the schools here are good, so the resale value is always good," she said. The couple have two dogs, which they often take through the wooded park by the pool to the empty back of the cemetery that borders Somerset on the south. "It's really pleasant and safe for our dogs," she said. "We do a lot of gardening, and we meet other people out walking their dogs."
Francis Chandler, who lives by the pool, has planted flowers in the woods and by the pool. "She's an inspiration to us all," Klopf said.
Other members of the community host communal Christmas, Easter and New Year's Eve gatherings.
Kristen and Mark Gibson have only one complaint: Cut-through traffic on Laurel Street, the development's only east-west through street, can make it tough to get out of the driveway in the morning. Student cars and buses headed to Woodson High School add to the traffic, even though everyone walks to school from Somerset.
When the subdivision opened in 1966, price tags were in the $30,000s. A lot of military families settled here, rented their houses when tours of duty took them elsewhere, then came back. As it happens, a fair number of the homeowners are retired military. "When it snows, I always joke about seeing if it's the Army, the Air Force or the Marines that clear the sidewalks quicker," Werz-Petricka said.
Paula Spencer and Dick Spencer moved to Somerset 23 years ago. "It was a booming area," she recalled. "A lot of people were moving in with a lot of little kids. Now we've seen those kids grow up and out, but we still have a lot of great friends."
The population among children is booming again as homes are cycling through to a new set of young families. Tom Herman, 41, said he and his wife were the youngest couple on the street when they moved into Somerset in 1990. "Now, all of a sudden, we've been here the longest," he said.
The turnover has been a boon to his children--they now have four playmates in their age range. His daughter competes on the swim team. "She enjoys the hoopla and being with the team members," Herman said.
Some things go in circles, though. One of the women teaching the Somerset swimmers is a record-holder from the swim team of 25 years ago. And two of the Spencers' three grown children are back home, reports Paula Spencer. "It's a good place to be," she said.
WHERE WE LIVE
BOUNDARIES: Whitacre Road on the east, plus three streets behind Woodson High School; Calvary Memorial Park cemetery on the south; Maple Avenue and Burke Station Road to the west; and Trapp Road on the north.
NUMBER OF HOUSES: 232 single-family homes, most with four bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths, on quarter-acre lots.
SCHOOLS: Olde Creek Elementary, Frost Middle, Woodson High.
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: Schools, shopping centers, parks.
FIVE MINUTES BY CAR: George Mason University, Northern Virginia Community College Annandale campus, YMCA, Vienna Metro station.
CAPTION: Kristen and Mark Gibson stroll on the grounds of Somerset's community pool, the social center of the Fairfax County neighborhood.