THE HIGHLAND PARK TEAR-DOWN

Some simple rules for buying property in the Park Cities.

We were quite content, my wife and I, until friends started bringing up the subject of equity. We had two cars, one piece of fine sculpture, some matched luggage, and a small house in East Dallas that we rented for a ridiculously low figure.

“But you have no equity,” our friends would remind us, “no hedge against inflation. Taxes must eat you alive.”

They had us there, all right. Except for the sculpture and the two gold crowns in my mouth, the value of everything we owned was going through the floor. On quiet evenings we could sit in the living room and hear inflation gnawing at our financial independence.

“What you need is a house,” they’d continue, “a nice little place that’s going to appreciate fifteen, twenty percent a year.” They made it clear that they were talking about a real house, one over near Swiss Avenue or, even better, in the Park Cities.

“Buy yourself one of those old frame cottages, fix it up, and make a killing. Or tear it down and sell the lot. Either way you can’t lose.”

We began checking the classifieds just for kicks, instinctively bypassing anything advertised as “An English treasure” or “A sophisticated Continental charmer.” There was house hunting, and then there was hubris. We watched instead for headings like “Surprise!” or “Use your imagination!” or “Would you believe!” suspecting that underneath all the hype was enough quick profit for at least a few weeks on South Padre. One baking Sunday afternoon in August, when the rest of the city was sitting around the pool, we drove out to look at a 4 bdrm, 3 bath, lr/dr re-do on Hanover.

The front yard was a tangle of vines and broken limbs; several seasons’ worth of leaves had been blown up against the foundation.

“Needs work, of course,” the agent said brightly, “but for the right buyer it’s loaded with potential.”

The first thing that needed work was the hall floor, which was lifting up in huge crumbling hunks. The paint was peeling in large designer swatches, and all the wooden floors had a bouncy, conversational quality.

“Foundation needs work, too,” I whispered. The agent smiled and said that it probably did, though she hadn’t been under there herself. We trotted docilely behind her as she pointed out one charming feature after another: a large paneled den that sloped slightly towards the northeast, a fireplace decorated with what appeared to be Bird of Paradise tiles, some delicate millwork that was being methodically devoured by some species of wood worm; a cavernous, musty dining area that would have delighted Miss Hav-isham. The agent sounded hesitant only about the staircase, which was listing about 20 degrees to the right.

“The previous owners let the house go a bit,” she noted apologetically.

“And what are they letting it go for now?” I asked.

“$175,000, though there may be some room for negotiation.”

“$175,000!”

“Of course, you have to remember that you’re buying a prestige address. This is a very solid neighborhood. Good schools. Police drive by every twenty minutes.”

“But $175,000,” my wife and 1 wailed like a Greek chorus.

“Maybe this example will help,” the agent replied. “Three buyers go into the desert to look at a tent that’s for sale. The first one adds up the cost of the canvas and poles and concludes that the tent is worth $50. The second buyer compares this tent with similar tents available in other parts of the world and decides that it’s worth about $500. The third buyer realizes that the tent is in a prime location and that if he’s clever he can turn it into a combination restaurant and camel park that would generate $10,000 a year for five years. He concludes that the tent is worth at least $50,000. So you see it all depends on your point of view.”



Rule 1 for playing the Park Cities Real Estate Game: Be wary of agents who like to talk about tents, lean-tos, hogans, and other kinds of basic housing. Just because you can live better than the Bedouins doesn’t mean that you’re getting a great deal. Besides, it’s always that third buyer who wants to sell you the house.



We also got word of a spacious re-do over on Miramar, but by the time we arrived everyone had gone home. We spent half an hour poking around the yard and peering through the windows of an over-sized clapboard house that looked as though it belonged in one of the suburbs of Boston. There, it might have gone for $75,000. Here, we learned from the agent, it sold for $211,000.

“Two-hundred-eleven thousand dollars!” I gasped. “But it would take another $75,000 just to make it livable.”

A chuckle at the other end of the line. “Think of it this way. The house across the street just sold for $600,000.”



Rule 2 for playing the Park Cities Real Estate Game: No matter how outrageous the stories you hear about prices, believe them. Land values have increased so rapidly in recent years that developers are routinely offering $150,000 for a house and lot, or $135,000 for the lot alone. They’re saying, in effect, that on today’s market your lovely old family homestead is worth about $15,000.

Having concluded that the six-figure housing market was beyond our comprehension, like particle physics and compound interest, we agreed to concentrate on modest two-bedroom, one-bath cottages, the kinds of places that only a few years ago were selling for $20,000.

The closest we came to that figure was a $64,500 “lot/redo” just north of SMU. The agent wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about showing it, saying that the property would undoubtedly speak for itself. It did indeed. A buckling white frame affair complete with sagging roof, sloping porch, and several room air conditioners the size of washing machines, it would have been an eyesore on Tobacco Road.

On the next street, however, was a second house, same basic design but “fresh and young, on a large lot, with several fruit-bearing trees.” (The fruit was horse-apple.) The agent was sitting by herself at the end of a long, narrow dining room.

“Charming, isn’t it,” she said. “Lots of extra touches.”

Without further explanation she led us past the “fantastic new bath,” very snug, and the “delightful traditional kitchen,” even snugger and reminiscent of Grand-mother Baird’s, into what was described on the spec sheet as a “cozy den-library.” The agent waited outside, since all three of us could not have fit at the same time.

“A bit cramped for a library,” I noted, practically touching two walls simultaneously. At this point the agent reached in and pulled a small writing desk out of the wall, like a Murphy bed. “As I said, loaded with extras.”

“And we get all of them for only $89,500,” I said.

“But think about the location. Call the police and they’re on your doorstep in five minutes. Try that in Dallas. Same with services. Outside the Park Cities it can cost $2.25, $2.50 a trip to have your garbage collected. Here it’s $1.65.”

I paused, waiting for the full significance of the figures to sink in.

“Perhaps I can explain it another way,” the agent continued. “If you tried to buy this same house in Winnetka or Shaker Heights it would cost you $125,000, probably more. At $89,500 it’s a steal.”

We said we’d have to think about it.



Rule 3 for playing the Park Cities Real Estate Game: Be wary of people who’ve recently been to Winnetka, Scarsdale, Shaker Heights, or any other chic suburb. Although their facts are probably correct, their perspective is usually askew.



By now it was clear that if we followed the old rule of thumb that said you could afford to spend no more than twice your annual income on a house, we were in the market for a garage apartment. With a moderately successful embezzlement scheme, we could buy a share in a duplex. The one option we hadn’t explored was just buying a vacant lot and holding it for a few years.

Most of the agents we talked to told us there weren’t any lots to speak of in the Park Cities. Didn’t we know that a land shortage was one big reason for the boom? We knew, but we’d also seen lots here and there on our Sunday drives. A plot over on Haynie, for instance, that had a lone corrugated building, a few dead trees, and a nice dried-grass-and-beer-can arrangement that extended all the way to the street. Couldn’t be that much, we said to ourselves.

“Ninety-nine-five,” the agent told us moments later.

“Ninety-nine-five for 12,000 square feet! That’s nearly $400,000 an acre. That’s like downtown Manhattan.”

“More like Winnetka,” the agent replied. “You probably couldn’t touch that piece of property up there for under $125,000.”

“Thanks,” I said, and hung up.

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