Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the Chevy Chase section of Northwest Washington is nearly 100 years old. According to the Chevy Chase Citizens Association, the neighborhood is 107 years old. This version has been updated.
Chevy Chase, D.C., has always been an attractive place to live. Although it is often confused with its more historic and affluent neighbor across the border — Chevy Chase, Md. — the 107-year-old District neighborhood near the tip of the diamond in upper Northwest is known for its classic yet varied architecture, good schools and old-growth trees.
And now the real estate Web site Redfin is calling this quaint, pleasant community — which some residents liken to Mayberry, the fictional setting of “The Andy Griffith Show” — one of the hottest neighborhoods in the country.
Using its online data and surveying its real estate agents, the company determined earlier this year that upper Chevy Chase, D.C., was the fourth-most sought-after place to live in the nation, behind San Francisco’s Bernal Heights North Slope, Los Angeles’ Eagle Rock and Atlanta’s Morningside-Lenox Park.
Redfin ranked 211 D.C. area neighborhoods (5,000 neighborhoods nationally) by the increase in page views on its site from September to December 2013, compared with September to December 2012. Upper Chevy Chase moved up 29 places in page view rankings during that time, and from 30th in the site’s favorites category to third.
That might seem surprising, given that upscale developing areas such as the Atlas District, the 14th Street corridor and the Southwest waterfront appear to have the edge. Now that city living has become more attractive, however, even families are joining the movement, and Chevy Chase is holding its own.
“You’re seeing a new type of buyer emerging,” says Redfin real estate agent Phil Gvinter. “Somebody who is looking for a traditional single-family home with some green space in a quiet area, close to recreation, with a decent commute, and they are looking for that in the city, not just in the suburbs.”
Chevy Chase certainly fills the bill. Within its borders — roughly Western Avenue, Fessenden Street, Reno Road and Rock Creek Park — the quiet streets are lined with leafy trees shading pre-World War II brick Colonials and front-porch bungalows. There’s also the highly regarded Lafayette Elementary School; the abundance of parks; Broad Branch Market, the beloved corner store; Politics and Prose bookstore, a neighborhood gathering place; and the proximity to downtown Washington and Bethesda. Even the small lot sizes can be seen as a positive: less yard maintenance.
According to RealEstate Business Intelligence, a subsidiary of the multiple-listing service MRIS, the median price of homes sold in Chevy Chase, D.C., was $865,000 last year, up from $842,500 in 2012. Compared with the Palisades, Cleveland Park and Georgetown, where single-family detached homes run north of $1.5 million, that’s “a somewhat more attainable price point” Gvinter said.
It’s also cheaper than other nearby neighborhoods popular with families, such as Spring Valley and AU Park, where the median prices in 2013 were $1.3 million and $871,250, respectively. According to RBI data, houses in Chevy Chase lasted fewer than 22 days on the market in the final four months of 2013, while houses in AU Park and Spring Valley stayed on the market twice as long.
Susan and Alex Formuzis bought a 1931 side-hall Colonial in Chevy Chase five years ago. Though they moved from the Maryland suburb of Takoma Park, Susan Formuzis said her new neighborhood felt more suburban.
“When we moved here the first week, I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I feel like we just landed in a Disney movie. Are there going to be cartoon birds flying around?’ ” Susan said. “Because it was sunny and everybody was really friendly, dropping off baked goods at our house.”
As idyllic as it sounds, Chevy Chase does have its drawbacks. The Metro is beyond walking distance, and bus service is limited. Few homes have usable garages; most residents must park on the street. Efforts to control development by designating the neighborhood as historic failed; as a result, some in the community are upset about tear-downs and the design of an apartment building under construction on Connecticut Avenue.
Although the neighborhood has a small-town feel, it is in a big city, which means that burglaries, robberies and the occasional car-jacking are not unheard of. And the Connecticut Avenue corridor that bisects the community doesn’t offer much in terms of chic shopping, dining or night-life options.
“We thought we were moving into the city,” said Erin Polak, who arrived in 2007 with her husband, Matt. “We thought we were going to get access to [restaurants, shops]. It was kind of a bummer at first.”
“In terms of night life, there’s not a lot around here,” agreed Randy Huggins, who has lived in Chevy Chase for half his life. “But that’s fine. We don’t have people throwing up in our yard on Saturday night, either.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge is the small size or quirky layouts of the neighborhood’s homes, and the irregular lots that make additions difficult. Each of these families chose to redesign or reconfigure their tight spaces to remain in the community.
Chevy Chase houses “are awesome because each one is so different, and every project is unique,” says Leroy Johnson, one of the owners of Four Brothers, a D.C.-based build-design firm. “That’s what makes it fun.”
Randy Huggins didn’t even pick out the 1921 bungalow that has been his home for 22 years. Huggins was sharing an apartment near the Grosvenor Metro when one of his roommates found a former American University fraternity house for rent in Chevy Chase.
“We were all suburban kids from Maryland, Baltimore,” said Huggins, now 46. “It just seemed like a homey place.”
When the landlord decided to sell a few years later, Huggins wanted to buy the house with his roommates. “I viewed it as an investment, and I was frankly shocked that none of the other guys wanted to go in on it with me,” he said. So, he bought it alone, paying $305,850 in 1996. “Everybody told me I was crazy to buy in D.C.,” he said. “It’s worked out pretty well.”
The onetime group house and bachelor pad has become a family home for Huggins, his wife, Patricia Balestra, 40, and their two young children.
Before his wife moved in, Huggins had refinished the floors, added molding and renovated the kitchen. About four years ago, he and Balestra decided to overhaul the awkward first floor, where the only bathroom was the master bathroom, just off the dining room. The couple also decided to address a relic from the home’s days as a rental property: its two front entrances.
Huggins hired architect Wayne Adams to draw up a new floor plan that included a powder room, an expanded master suite with a larger bathroom, and a more graceful way to enter the home. Huggins then turned to Four Brothers to do the renovation.
“One of the big challenges [was that] we had to redo the whole structure, because we were removing walls that were load-bearing,” Johnson said.
They opened up the master bedroom by removing a wall, creating a vaulted ceiling and putting in new windows to bring in natural light. They nearly doubled the size of the old bathroom.
“Oftentimes you can come up with much more functional space in a small area if you spend enough time on the design and you think about it creatively,” Johnson said.
Renovating Chevy Chase homes to make them more suited to modern living isn’t cheap, because such projects often involve not only reconfiguring a space but also upgrading old systems such as plumbing and wiring. Huggins estimates he and Balestra spent about $185,000 on the first-floor project.
But Balestra, who lived in Petworth before moving to Chevy Chase, is glad to be raising her children in this neighborhood.
“I know I wouldn’t have chosen to do what Randy did, move into this neighborhood at age 24,” she said. “With kids, I love being here. I love thinking that when [Benjamin is] 10, we can say, ‘Go up to Broad Branch [Market] and get a gallon of milk.’ ”
Susan and Alex Formuzis looked at a lot of neighborhoods with easy access to outdoor recreation before choosing Chevy Chase. “These homes definitely resonate with me,” said Susan, who grew up in a 1920s neighborhood in St. Louis.
The couple manages with one car. Susan, 39, works for a government agency in health policy, taking the bus and Metro to work downtown, while Alex, 43, who is in public relations, drives or bikes to his job on 14th Street.
Susan doesn’t think twice about putting her two young children in a stroller and walking nearly a mile to Connecticut Avenue for lunch or a quick trip to the grocery store. “We walk a lot,” she said. “For us, that’s not far.”
Because she wasn’t ready to undertake a major renovation while her children were toddlers, Susan hired Elizabeth Boland of Design in a Day to help her make the most of the space.
One of the first suggestions Boland made was to tone down the paint colors to a more soothing palette of muted greens and grays. “The kids have enough personality and color,” Susan said. The calmer palette makes the house “feel a ton bigger.”
Covering up the exposed brick on the wood-burning fireplace with a white wood surround brightened up the living room. Hanging window treatments close to the ceiling was another trick to create the illusion of space.
Even little things such as moving a mirror from the dining room to the living room, where it reflects the outdoors, made a big difference.
In the dining room, a dark wood table and chairs were swapped out in favor of a tiger maple trestle table and clear, slender acrylic chairs, which creates more visual space. An effervescent chandelier adds a bit of bling, reflected in the aged brass drapery hardware with crystal finials. “I love the dining room,” Susan said. “We’ve had a lot more people over since we’ve done it. People seem more comfortable.”
Though the house feels bigger, there are still parts of it that are less than ideal for a family of four. There is no main floor bathroom or space to install one. And the hallways are very narrow. “It’s like living on a boat,” Susan said. “It’s very skinny.”
But she’s willing to put up with those inconveniences for the neighbors, which include longtime residents, workers in international organizations and writers.
“The people are really great in this neighborhood,” she said.
In 2007, a year after they married, Matt and Erin Polak searched Maryland and Virginia for their first home, but “we just could not find a place where we thought we were going to get our money out,” said Erin, 35, who works in the biopharmaceutical industry.
“In D.C., we actually felt we got more bang for our buck,” said Matt, 34, who owns a strategy consulting firm. “We’re like, ‘Wait, we can get this for less than a million?’ ”
They found a 1938 center-hall Colonial with a setting — wooded back yard and nearby creek — that reminded them of their childhood neighborhoodsin suburban Virginia and Maryland. They paid $819,000.
“We liked that it was kind of a project, but not too much of a project,” Matt said. “It was old-school D.C. in a lot of ways. We like that in some ways, but we wanted to sort of update the place.”
The couple turned to Neil and Colleen Shaut of Case Design/Remodeling to open up and redo their cramped galley kitchen with its dated pink laminate countertops, a project that cost about $100,000.
Although Matt and Erin prefer a modern look, when designing their kitchen, they wanted to be respectful of the style of their home.
“On some level we did feel like we were limited by [the house],” Erin said. “You don’t want to build a kitchen in a traditional house that’s totally crazy.”
They opted for a classic door style for the cabinetry but in a tuxedo look. The upper cabinets were painted white, while the island was done in a raisin stain with a white Vermont marble countertop. The frosted glass tile for the backsplash brought in a modern design element.
Erin had hesitated about the island. “I questioned do we want a more open floor plan or not. But everybody comes and [sidles] up to the island. It’s great.”
As their family has grown to include a 2-year-old daughter, a 6-month-old son and a dog, Matt and Erin are torn.
“I think we struggle with whether to stay here or move,” Matt said. Not because of the neighborhood, which includes 11 kids on their street alone. “We love the neighborhood. It’s ‘Is the place big enough?’ ”
They’ve thought about expanding.
“If we ever decided to do that, we’d just make this our forever house,” Erin said. “We would just blow out the back and be done with it.”
Kathy Orton is a reporter for The Post’s Real Estate section.
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