Jordan Schwartz and his wife, Asako Yamamoto, are willing to take on a home and fix it up. But a four-level house they checked out in Cleveland Park needed more than just a slosh of paint.
Schwartz rattled off the changes he would make to the house, which hadn't had a major makeover since the late 1960s: "Start with the floor, get rid of the shag rugs. . . . Redo the kitchen, replace the mirrors, tear down the doors and let in some light."
The couple, both economists who work downtown, estimated that it would cost $400,000 to $500,000 to redo the house, listed at $1.995 million. They agreed: too much hassle, too much money.
In the past few years, homes in the Washington area have been selling so quickly, and for so much, that it seems many sellers don't think it's worth the trouble to polish up a place before putting it on the market. Tired houses that need work will still sell for more than they would have previously -- even if they look a bit run-down or 1970s a la "Brady Bunch," but not in a good way.
The phenomenon can prompt the question among home shoppers: "How can they possibly charge that much for that house?"
Would-be buyers coming out of three open houses on a recent Sunday said they would not take on what they considered costly projects that would require redoing nearly everything. Many said the cost of the house plus what they would have to pay for renovations was too much.
"A year ago, it would have sold already," Schwartz said, gazing at the Cleveland Park house, which was originally listed in June at $2.3 million. The house eventually went under contract after being on the market 59 days.
The reactions from the open house visitors may have reflected personal taste or implied that some houses are flat-out overpriced. But they may also underscore what some evidence shows could be a slowdown in the long-overcharged market.
For instance, figures from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., the region's multiple listing service, show that homes in much of the area are staying on the market slightly longer. In Fairfax County, for example, the average home remained on the market 17 days in July, compared with 15 in April and May and 16 in July 2004. It's unclear whether such slowing is insignificant or whether the market is finally beginning to stabilize.
One commonplace occurrence during the market's hottest times was that many buyers waived their right to a home inspection because they feared losing a bidding war. "For about a year, the agents very honestly -- and it was honest -- told people if you put in a contingency, your contract would not be considered," said J.D. Grewell, president of J.D. Grewell & Associates Inc. in Silver Spring and a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors.
In the past three months or so, however, buyers have been seeking home inspection contingencies, Grewell said, particularly for homes that appear to have problems.
Jane Gruenebaum, for one, said after looking at the house in Cleveland Park that she wouldn't go any further without an inspection.
"And then I'd tear everything out of there," she said, adding that the walls, the cabinets and the bathrooms looked straight out of the 1970s. In the end, the cost of redoing the house was enough to turn her away.
"You need someone with deep pockets, and that's not me," said Gruenebaum, 57, vice president of an executive search firm.
Still, the house generated interest, according to the listing agent, Anne Hatfield Weir of Washington Fine Properties, an affiliate of Sotheby's International Realty. She said last week that it was under contract. She called the house "spectacular and architecturally interesting."
She added: "It needs a significant renovation. The people who have bought it are happy to do the renovation at their leisure."
In Montgomery County, buyers had similar qualms about a five-level house in Glen Echo Heights. The view of the Potomac River from the patio was a plus, they said, but they were not highly impressed with its interior.
The children's rooms were each decorated entirely in one color (two in bright pink, one in blue). Buyers were particularly perplexed by one room with a peculiar set of steps leading to a large platform in the corner.
Was it a place for the bed, in case you wanted to sleep at a higher elevation than the rest of your furniture? Or was it for storage? Rose Clifford had no idea.
As the 45-year-old nutritionist from Bethesda wandered through the house, she said that although she enjoyed the view, the house appeared dated. The kitchen, bedrooms and light fixtures needed work.
The price, almost $1.4 million, was just too high for her. "It's a lot of money to pay for a house that needs hundreds of thousands of dollars of work," she said.
Alex Sturdza, who walked through the same house, had similar thoughts. He said it was well-designed, with the exception of the "weird thing about the stairs" to the platform. Still, he said he could not afford to update it significantly.
"I see all the problems, and it costs too much," said Sturdza, 59, a commercial artist.
The house was originally listed at just under $1.8 million, but after two weeks, the sellers lowered the price. Ruffin Maddox, a real estate agent with Washington Fine Properties who represents the seller, said that "since then we've been having steady showings."
He added: "What we are selling there is the view of the Potomac River. From the third floor, it's fabulous."
Maddox said, however, that "virtually everyone who has come to the house has recognized the fact that it needs to be updated."
Sometimes a fixer-upper, like any house, stays on the market because it is simply priced too high. Maddox said the house would never have sold for $1.8 million, even a year ago when the local housing market was quickening. The $1.4 million price is appropriate, he said.
In Arlington County, Babs Murphy, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker, was showing a house in Cherrydale priced at $695,000. She said she knew the place needed significant renovations.
Wires dangled from the second-floor porch as if they were Christmas lights. A pump that was supposed to drain into the street emptied into (surprise!) the laundry room tub instead.
The owner, who died in January, "was a do-it-yourself guy," Murphy said. The place, she said, was undeniably a "bachelor pad."
Scott Freda, a prospective buyer walking out of the house that afternoon, said that the fixer-upper didn't impress him but that it was a matter of personal taste. The 42-year-old civil engineer said he was used to the luxury-style kitchen and bathrooms in his Arlington condo.
He was also put off by the structure of the house, complaining that there were no outdoor steps leading to the front porch, located on the second level of the house. Visitors enter the house at the basement level and walk up interior stairs.
Freda's conclusion: "I want something more livable when you move in."
Despite their complaints, and yes, some repulsion, the house hunters interviewed that Sunday were not shocked at what they saw. Many had been shopping since the beginning of the year and had grown accustomed to dated wood paneling and yellowed linoleum floors.
But there can be hope for buyers looking for a house that doesn't immediately elicit a "bleh" or an "ugh." Rebecca Morrison, 29, recalls a home-buying horror story that ended happily -- eventually.
Morrison, a survey methodologist, had been house-hunting since late February. She said she and her fiance grew frustrated a few months ago when they couldn't find anything worth the money.
"There came a point in April or May that we were like, 'We are never going to find a house,' " Morrison said. "We are going to be stuck in this apartment forever."
She will never forget one house in Cheverly that she said reeked of dogs and had water in the basement. That was "enough to drive us away," she said.
In late June, the couple found their dream house -- sort of. They paid about $350,000, which Morrison said was the top of their budget. The Hyattsville house needs a new roof for its detached garage. They will have to redo the plumbing, but they can wait on that for a couple of years, she said.
In what has been one of the hottest local housing markets in the nation, it was the best she could find for her price. "I was really hopeful and perhaps a little naive that we would be able to get something less than our max," she said.