People who used to live in Random Hills would barely recognize the Fairfax County neighborhood now.
What was once a community of 19 single-family houses on 6.5 acres is now a cluster of three- and four-story townhouses and condominiums, a total of 483 units built in 1996 and 1998. The homes sit clustered around courtyards and along winding streets. Walking paths with occasional benches and a couple of large fountains give a certain charm to the neighborhood. There is also a gazebo and swimming pool for residents and their guests.
In 1984, according to Washington Post articles from that year, owners of the old single-family houses signed a contract for about $7.5 million to sell their homes as a parcel to Property Co. of America. It was an unprecedented move for Northern Virginia homeowners to undertake such a transaction, but the previously sleepy community feared encroachment from adjacent Interstate 66 and surrounding commercial zoning. The neighborhood sits just south of I-66 and Fair Oaks Mall, and just west of Route 50.
Development has changed the look of the area. Nassir Ansary, owner of the nearby Culpepper Shoppe Antiques, said it has been good for his business, and he expects sales will be even better because of continuing new construction nearby.
Ansary, who has been selling antiques and Oriental carpets from his store near the Fairfax County Government Center for 25 years, said his the rugs have sold well to the new homeowners in nearby Random Hills and adjacent townhouse and condominium communities such as Ridgetop Commons and Wescott Ridge. "People have to have carpets," he said.
David Small, who moved to Random Hills a year ago, said he was happy with the neighborhood but noted that there has been a lot of turnover recently -- three homes have sold in his courtyard in the time he has lived there.
Debbie Rammer, a resident of 11/2 years, said she has noticed the same high turnover on her side of the neighborhood; at least two homes on her block have sold in the past six months. She attributes this to the nature of the housing and the life stages of the residents. Originally, she said, many young childless couples bought there. Recently, they have been cashing out on rapidly escalating prices to move up to single-family houses while others a bit younger have been clamoring for the townhouses and condos of Random Hills.
"It's a young community; these used to be starter houses," Rammer said.
In the past year, most townhouses have sold at prices from the mid-$300,000s to the mid-$400,000s, according to data from Donna Moseley, an agent in the Oakton office of Prudential Carruthers. While that price range may not strike some as affordable, it's well below many other Fairfax County areas and still attracts many younger couples.
The turnover in the neighborhood, along with the hours many of the residents work, means communities aren't especially close-knit, some said. Rammer herself is in the process of downsizing from a large, detached house to a smaller retirement dwelling where she plans to move in a few years. She comes across as a warm, friendly person, but she said she hasn't made much of an effort to get to know her neighbors because she's leaving soon and planning to use the property primarily as an investment.
Small, too, said he didn't know his neighbors yet. Although he walks his dog regularly, he said he doesn't talk to any of his neighbors besides passing hellos to the people who live next door.
"There are a lot of young working people," some with long commutes such as his, he explained. It takes about an hour one way to get from Random Hills to his employer in Bethesda.
Random Hills residents are not afraid of a little commuting -- or a lot. Although the job centers of Northern Virginia are nearby, getting to downtown Washington takes 45 minutes in light traffic and as long as two hours or more with heavy traffic.
"There's no limit at the upper end" of the commute, said resident Donna Kraus. For this reason, "It's hard to get to know your neighbors; we all work long hours."
That's why Vickie Laurence likes to leave her house at 5:30 a.m. "A lot of the [traffic] lights on Route 50 are flashing at that time," so drivers can go long stretches without stopping, she explained
An alternative to driving is to take a bus or drive to the Vienna Metro station. There is usually plenty of parking available before 8 am. After that, it can fill up quickly.
However, the drive is a trade-off for the two-car garages, landscaping, walking paths throughout the community and little gems such as the gazebo, pool, tot lot and fountains with surrounding benches.
"The [two-car] garage makes me deeply happy," said Kraus, who took advantage of a recent sunny Saturday by cleaning her car in the alley between the garages of her house and the row of townhouses that back up to hers. The townhouses are constructed in courtyards so that the homes face each other and a central walkway instead of the street. Garages are accessible from behind.
The rear-entry garages in the courtyard townhouses were a selling point for Laurence. "You don't have to look at everyone's garage from the street," she said.
Another selling point was the landscaping. Laurence just recently moved in and wasn't sure what responsibilities were hers. She had started to think she should figure out what to do about cutting the small patch of grass in front of her home when she came home from work one day to find it already mowed.
About two weeks later, it happened again. "It's like the miracle of the mowing," she said. "I don't see or hear them -- I just come home and it's done."
Sherry and Ahmad Mazhari wanted to make their small front yard even less trouble. They filled it in with white stones in an ornamental circular pattern. But that's not the way things work in neighborhoods run by homeowners associations.
They received a letter from the property management company informing them they would have to replant the grass or face a fine. "I just wanted something low-maintenance," said Sherry Mazhari.
Of course, the landscaping isn't free. The cost is included in the $75-per-month homeowner association fee. The landscaping includes flowers, shrubs, trees and small lawns around the rows of townhouses and condominiums as well as along paths between and around the buildings. Tall hedges shield homes on the outer edges from the wide but lightly traveled Random Hills Road.
Said real estate agent Moseley, "It's set up to appeal to a young community -- tiny yards with a lot of common areas. A busy young person doesn't have time to move the lawn or trim the trees."