The Dallas housing market looks great - especially by comparison.

If you’ve heard your company might transfer you to San Francisco, better stop and think a minute before you’re carried away by the prospect of fresh Dunganess crabs at Fisherman’s Wharf. If you plan to live in a house and neighborhood comparable to those you’ll leave behind in Dallas, you’ll need a lucrative second job (like computer crime) to make the payments.

The current rate of appreciation of Dallas real estate (10 percent per year) may have got you thinking about selling out, moving someplace cheaper, and living the good life (for a whole) on your profits. Forget it. In our survey of ten cities, Dallas and Boston tied for lowest housing costs.

Here’s what you’ll find if you’re foolish enough to move away:


Town planners dubbed it “the garden city” for its wide, tree-lined streets. Visitors greeted by the slap of winter whipping inland off Lake Michigan find “the windy city” hits closer to home. One thing is sure: When it comes to real estate, Chicago is no toddlin’ town. Prices in established neighborhoods have been galloping here as everywhere in the country.

Lincoln Park – two miles north of downtown and bordering on a large city park and zoo, as well as the lake – contains a mixture of old and new town-houses, some condominiums, and some mansions. Many of the older, three-story brownstones, graystones, and red-brick rowhouses were built in the late 1890’s, with a patch of grass in front and steps leading up to the entrance. Narrow row-houses in need of work can be bought for around $135,000. Larger versions, with a backyard and garage, usually go for between $185,000 and $225,000.

New townhouses range from $75,000 to $150,000, depending on the size. The last burst of these newer homes came in the 1960’s, leaving this half-square-mile neighborhood in great demand. In addition to being only ten minutes from downtown by car or bicycle, it is only a short walk to public beaches and a harbor where you can dock a boat. The neighborhood park, Lincoln Park, is not terribly inviting at night, but teems with toddlers, joggers, and golfers during the day. Until 1976, houses here were appreciating about 8 to 10 percent a year. In 1977, they shot up 17 percent. “This year,” says Joan Lieb, a broker for Baird & Warner, “prices won’t go down. But with interest rates rising we don’t expect the same kind of appreciation.”

Traveling north of the city along the lake’s shore, you pass Chicago’s best-known and wealthiest suburbs – Evanston, Wilmette, and Kenilworth, where the median income is about $35,000 – before you reach Winnetka, not quite so posh, but a place where bank presidents feel right at home. A four-bedroom house (with basement) there costs $150,000.

The lack of vacant land on the North Shore has driven prices up 15 to 20 percent a year – more than in most other Chicago suburbs. Still, a 1920 two-story frame house with a screened front porch, living room with fireplace, study with fireplace, dining room, large new kitchen, two and a half baths, four bedrooms (with a fireplace in the master bedroom), laundry room, basement, yard, and two-car garage sold recently for $152,000.


“Nobody in Philadelphia refers to it as ’Philly,’ ” Dick Dilworth explains patiently, if a bit cooly. He grew up there; his father, Richardson D. Dilworth, was mayor; and now he sells property with Lexton & Dilworth – so he ought to know. He admits the city has had its ups and downs.

In the late nineteenth century, upper-middle-class residents kept a winter townhouse in the city and a summer estate on the Main Line – the Penn Central Railroad line leading north out of Philadelphia, along which more modest suburban homes would later fill the spaces between the mansions. When the Depression hit, many gave up their townhouses. This trend continued during and after World War II.

“I grew up in the city center in the 1940’s,” Dilworth recalls. “Houses were boarded up. You couldn’t give them away. But now they sell for $ 100,000 and all the city center is desirable.”

Currently two desirable regions stand out: Society Hill and Washington Square West. The 250-year-old rowhouses in Society Hill were converted less than 20 years ago from flophouses and wholesale food markets to elegant single-family homes. Prices now start at $120,000.

Washington Square West, a five-block stretch in the southwest quarter of the city, was a lower-middle-class merchant area until the late 1940’s and ’50’s. As the merchants prospered, they moved to the more fashionable northeast section of the city, where the Main Line begins. Abandoned. Washington Square West went downhill until the late Sixties, when people impressed with Society Hill but depressed by the prices ($40,000 to $45,000 at that time) began renovating houses in Washington Square West.

It’s a motley assortment of housing, with some new homes in places where the old ones weren’t worth saving. Narrow (16 to 19 feet wide), three-story, new or renovated townhouses can cost from $65,000 to $95,000. For about $75,000 you can get three to four bedrooms, two baths, a combined living and dining area, sun deck, small yard, and basement.

Another option is the converted servants’ houses, called “Trinity” or “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” houses. These are three-story boxes with only one 14-foot-square room to a floor. A shell costs $25,000 to $30,000. A well-finished Trinity house can cost $35,000. One in Society Hill would fetch $65,000.

“Professional people used to go to Main Line or Chestnut Hill for a fashionable home,” Dilworth says. “Now it’s the city center. There used to be six or seven decent restaurants here. Now there are a hundred and twenty.”

The Main Line consists of twenty towns spread from Philadelphia to Paoli along a twenty-mile stretch of Penn Central tracks. Commuter trains still run and make the city only 35 minutes – on an express train – from the farthest Main Line suburb. Though close-in, these towns have a rich vegetation of bottomland farms and are also known as the “Green Country Towns.”

Towns midway along the Main Line – Bryn Mawr, for example – are considered the most desirable and are the most expensive. By Highland Park standards, though, they’re a steal. A 22-year-old brick and frame Cape Cod home on one and a half acres sold recently for $112,000. It had five bedrooms, three baths, den, living room with fireplace, dining room, big kitchen, wooded lot, and two-car garage. A 60-year-old three-story stone mansion with high ceilings sold for $155,000. That included a one-acre lot, pool, seven bedrooms, four and a half baths, living room with fireplace, dining room with fireplace, kitchen, sun-room, leaded windows, and garage.

New York

East side, west side – pick a side, any side, and brace yourself. The first thing you need is cash and plenty of it, whether you pick the elegant, fashionable Upper East Side or the trendier, nearly as fashionable Upper West Side. If your father is a banker, you may get a 60-percent mortgage. Regular buyers often have to pay the entire purchase price in cash – unless the seller offers a financing deal.

’”New York is bankrupt,” says Ann Brenneman, relocation director for Country Living Associates. “What bank in its right mind is going to give you a mortgage?” New York’s 81/2-percent usury ceiling on residential mortgages also dampens bankers’ lending spirits.

Brownstones on the Upper West Side – between 55th and 46th streets and Central Park and Broadway – sell for around $200,000. There are only about four condominium buildings in the area; the rest of the housing for sale is cooperative apartments. For example, a one-bedroom co-op overlooking Central Park West might go for $60,000. You pay that in cash. Then you pay a monthly maintenance fee – anywhere from $200 to $2,000. Of course, you save a lot on taxis because all the theaters and the best and cheapest restaurants are right nearby.

“There’s practically nothing for as little as $250,000” on the Upper East Side, says Sylvia French, an agent for Douglas, Elliman. Gibbons, & Ives. If one came on the market, she says, it might be a four-story brownstone with two bedrooms, kitchen, living room, dining room, two baths, library, garden, and no elevator. Property taxes would add another $10,000 a year. Very few change hands. “They’re gold. People hold on to them,” says French.

One agent, who asked to remain nameless, found the area less praiseworthy: ’”Everybody has a dog so there’s a lot of dog-do. There are spindly little trees with grates around them so the dogs won’t kill them. No garages – except Halston’s house. And alternate side of the street parking so you have to keep rushing out and moving your car.”

Thirty-five minutes outside the city by train is Scarsdale, a seven-square-mile, tree-lined village of suburban homes that first sprang up after 1900 but expanded after World War II. According to Alan Britton, an agent for Steinkamp & Brit-ton, the area is characterized by stability -’ ’The whole world has to go to hell in a hack before it affects us as a community” – and subdued affluence – “Even elegant $300,000 homes aren’t ostentatious.”

Professionals flock to Scarsdale in part because of the town’s schools. “Ninety-six percent of high school graduates here go to college,” Britton says. “The only industry in Scarsdale is education.”

Houses range from $60,000 to $485,000. For the common price range of $110,000 to $125,000, you’d get a clapboard or Tudor house on a half-acre lot (strict zoning requires large lots) with four bedrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen, sun-room, two and a half baths, garage, and full basement. Houses appreciate about 7 percent a year.

San Francisco

Unprecedented demand for housing in San Francisco last year helped make California the country’s most expensive state to call home. In 1973, nearly half of California’s homes cost under $30,000. Now less than 6 percent do.

“All the areas in San Francisco are for the upper income [families],” says Jerry Becker, president of residential property for Grubb & Ellis. “The poor rent.” Becker says even scroungy Haight-Ash-bury is making a comeback. “You’d better earn $30,000 or $40,000 to live [and buy a house) in San Francisco.”

St. Francis Woods is a gracious city neighborhood built between 1900 and 1950. As everywhere in San Francisco, lots here are small – less than one eighth of an acre is considered good-sized. Land is so scarce that one lot sold recently for $100,000. A Tudor or colonial with four bedrooms, updated kitchen, living room, dining room, family room, partial basement, garage, and small garden goes for $200,000 to $250,000.

Kentfield. in the bedroom suburb of Marin County, lies fifteen miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. At the turn of the century wealthy San Franciscans retreated here in summer. Now many live here year-around, some in two-and-a-half acre estates, most in smaller homes tucked into the hillsides. Commuters to San Francisco can drive 25 minutes or take a ferry. The ferry takes a little longer, 40 minutes, but breakfast is served on the way in and two bars help pass the time on the way home.

A frame-and-stucco home on a half acre in Kentfield sold recently for $180,000. It has four bedrooms, two baths, living room, dining room, garage, and swimming pool. Last year houses appreciated 24 percent, but agents say that appreciation has slowed to a rate of 12 to 15 percent.

Los Angeles

Prices in the last couple of years have gone wild in Los Angeles, particularly in Orange County. Last year families were camping out overnight at the first sign of a tractor on vacant lots. People would sign contracts for $100,000 homes before seeing even the first structure go up.

Shortages, panic buying, and speculation all contributed to house prices rising as much as 30 percent last year in Orange County. Normally – one uses the term loosely here – appreciation is 12 percent. A new law requiring borrowers to live in the house for at least a year, which went into effect last August, has pushed most speculators out. Prices have not come down, but appreciation has returned to the pre-1977 inflationary rate.

San Marino sits at the foot of the hills about twenty minutes – by freeway, what else? – northeast of Los Angeles’ civic center. Most of the homes were built in the 1930’s with sturdy plaster, not plywood, and occupy quarter-acre lots – larger than most in LA. The tall trees and mountains looming in the distance create a peaceful backdrop – that is, when you can see through the smog.

An average San Marino house costs about $175,000 for three bedrooms, two baths, a large living room, dining room, fireplace, family room, two-car garage, yard, no basement, but maybe a swimming pool.

“I’ve known transfers who come out, look around, and turn down the job and head back,” says Beth Worden, an agent for Spring Realty.

Beverly Hills, “the home of the stars,” does its best to swell California’s already high housing averages. Some of the com-munity’s 6,000 homes have increased as much as 800 percent in the last decade. One ordinary little model sold recently for $1.3 million: two bedrooms, five baths (don’t ask), tennis court, and pool.

Newport Beach, about an hour’s drive down the coast from LA, overlooks not only the ocean but two inland bays with miles of sandy beach between. Something like 7,500 boats dock at this smog-free port. When not boating, one resident says, people here “create” – it’s the “artsy area.”

Art must pay well in Los Angeles. The only homes under$IOO,OOO here are two-bedroom condominiums. For $150,000 you get a rustic contemporary with high-vaulted ceilings, exposed beams, three or tour bedrooms, kitchen, dining room, family room (no living room), two and a half baths, laundry room, and three-car garage. Homes with a view of the water begin at $250,000.


It was no accident that the movie Hospital was set in Boston. There are more hospitals per square foot in this city than there were Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock. But aside from hospitals and colleges, there is little other industry, which leaves Boston’s economy slightly depressed. That’s bad for Boston but good for a newcomer arriving in town with a wad from having sold a home in Richardson. Go directly to Brookline, stopping only to pay capital-gains taxes, because this house will cost less than the one you left.

Brookline is an independent town bordered on three sides by Boston and ten minutes from city center by streetcar. Apartments stand next to private homes, some of which are grand turn-of-the-cen-tury estates with a bathroom for every bedroom and a dining room for the servants as well as the master.

Whether the abundance of white picket fences is responsible or not, residents agree Brookliners make good neighbors. “Every other block has some civic organization,” says Lyn Medoff, an agent for Medoff Associates. Residents spend more per capita on education than in any other place in the state. This attracts young professional families and keeps the schools full.

A frame house with three bedrooms and one and a half baths can be bought for $60,000 to $70,000. More common would be a sixty-year-old brick house with four bedrooms, two and a half baths, a kitchen needing updating, living room, dining room, fireplace, and two-car garage on a one-eighth-acre lot – all for $80,000.

Twenty-five miles northwest of the city sits Acton, hometown of the first minutemen to die at the Battle of Con-cord, 1775: “the shot heard round the world.” Even the five- to fifteen-year-old housing developments on the outskirts of town contrive to share in the town’s history, with names like Minuteman Ridge, Patriots’ Hill, and Deacon Davis Estates. Though not custom-built, these are not typical large sub-divisions; minimum zoning is half an acre, many have a whole acre of land, and the area has lots of big old trees. For $75,000 you can get a Cape Cod colonial with four bedrooms, two and a half baths, living room, dining room, two fireplaces, large kitchen, and two-car ga-raee on one acre. A colonial replica home with pinewood floors, huge “walk-in” fireplaces, and a pond in front of a three-acre lot sold recently for $137,000.


“You can hardly ever put up a ’for sale’ sign in Ansley Park,” says Mary Jane Dixon, an agent for Northside Realty in Atlanta. Young professionals seem to move into Ansley Park and stay. Older homes are often renovated in modern style, with skylights and big windows rather than the original architectural style. For $80,000 to $90,000 you can get a Tudor or Cape Cod home on what is regarded here as a small lot – 75 by 150 feet. Inside would be three bedrooms, two baths, living room with fireplace, dining room, den, patio or screened porch, kitchen (perhaps needing updating), and unfinished basement. “The kitchen is the last to get renovated,” Dixon explains, “because that’s where the maid is.”

An even older and more prestigious area north of town is Buckhead, where the governor’s mansion sits near the Coca-Cola heirs’ estate. None of the lots are less than a half acre and most are more than one. “They don’t welcome outsiders and small children,” says another agent. “The average working person can’t afford to live here.”

Brookfield West is a fairly new suburb located 40 to 45 minutes outside the city. Buying one of the custom-build or subdivision homes on one or two acres gives you automatic membership in local country clubs and golf courses. A colonial or French provincial with four bedrooms, three baths, living room, family room with fireplace (the trend here is away from formal living rooms), kitchen, and laundry room costs $90,000.


Rumor has it that “Bawlamer,” as it is pronounced by natives, is coming back to life. A downtown renaissance in the last couple of years seems to have restored confidence in the city – and real estate prices are reflecting that new faith in the city’s future.

“Two years ago no rowhouses in Bolton Hill ever sold for over $80,000,” says Richard Watson, a Bolton Hill resident and agent for Charles Steffey. “Now the common price is about $90,000.”

Many of the three- and four-story brownstones in Bolton Hill were broken down into apartments for defense workers during World War II and remain that way today. Others have been bought as single-family units and restored to their earlier elegance. Since restoration began in 1970, appreciation has been a steady 10 percent a year.

A four-story brownstone just five minutes from downtown sold recently for $97,000. It has a kitchen and dining room in the basement leading out to the garden: a double living room, two fireplaces and sitting room on the first floor; two bedrooms and a sitting room on the second floor; and on the third floor four more rooms rented out as an apartment (not an uncommon arrangement in this area).

Bargains can still be unearthed on the fringes of Bolton Hill. A huge, unre-stored mansion – the Hawley-Hutzler mansion – recently sold for $68,500: in 1970 it sold for $12,000.

The rebirth of downtown has also spurred the renovation of Federal Hill, a residential area overlooking the inner harbor and now competing with Bolton Hill for the trendy professionals. Three-story shells fetch $30,000. Another $30,000 will make them livable, four- to five-bedroom townhouses. Restored nineteenth-century brick rowhouses that are much smaller than most in Bolton Hill sell for $70,000 to $80,000.

Towson. the seat of Baltimore County, offers a wide range of largely custom-built Tudor homes fifteen to thirty minutes from downtown. The schools are good, the streets tree-lined, and the prices varied. Generally a 25- to 30-year-old home with three bedrooms and two and a half baths on a quarter-acre lot costs $80,000. But there are homes in the county with several acres that can run up to $300,000. Towson homes appreciate at a fairly steady 10 percent a year.


There’s still some open land within 30 miles of downtown Washington, but it’s filling up fast. “The Washington market is one of the most active on the East Coast,” says James Lovejoy, regional director of Realty World. “New starts are high, and turnover is very rapid. Northern Virginia has the highest number of licensed realtors per capita in the country.”

The high turnover of existing houses has encouraged speculation in some of the hotter neighborhoods. “Houses as investments and tax shelters have become a very lucrative business,” says Lovejoy. But, because there is plenty of new construction, the rate of appreciation is in line with that in Dallas – about 10 percent per year. Lovejoy foresees many years of steady increase for Washington housing prices. “D.C. is an unusual market because it is government-and service-oriented; growth is steady, not cyclical as in areas dominated by industry.”

Capitol Hill is the neighborhood for those who want to be close to the center stage in Washinton. A renovated town-house with three bedrooms, two and a half baths, modem kitchen and garden recently sold for $120,000.

The suburbs surrounding Washington are some of the fastest growing in the country. Fairfax County, Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland, offer plenty of rolling farmland and custom houses for $100,000 and up. A brick colonial in Chevy Chase, Montgomery County, with four bedrooms, large kitchen, and small yard, sells for $160,000. A little farther from the city, in Manassas, Virginia, you can get into a subdivision for $60-70,000.

Same House, Different City

Centex Corporation, which builds large developments across the country, is now building nearly identical houses in nine locations. They have three bedrooms, two and a half baths, and 1,800 square feet of living space. Prices range from $62,000 in Dallas to $98,000 in San Francisco’s East Bay. Varying costs of land, labor, materials, and considerations of what the market will bear help explain the differences in price.

San Francisco, East Bay: $98,000

Denver: $88,500

San Francisco, North Bay: $85,000

Fort Lauderdale: $82,000

Rockville: $82,000

Annapolis: $79,000

Springfield, Virginia: $76,500

Chicago: $67,500

Dallas: $62,000


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