It’s hard to know what to make of the offer that appeared in local real-estate listings on Friday: Three adjoining houses on Spring Garden Street for sale together at $975,000. All are rentals. 704 Spring Garden is a classic 1900 College Hill home, long ago divided into three apartments. 700 and 702 Spring Garden are single-unit houses, relatively new and essentially identical — built on long-vacant lots in 2003, four bedrooms, four bathrooms, 1,736 square feet each.
The $975,000 price comes out to a head-turning $157 per square foot. There are a couple ways to put that into perspective. Twenty-five College Hill rental houses have been sold in the past five years. Only seven have topped $100 per square foot, the highest being $121 (211 S. Tate Street, then a single-unit rental and now owner-occupied). The 15 multi-unit rental properties have ranged from $63 per square foot to $120 per square foot. So the Spring Garden trio’s owner is looking for a premium of more than 25 percent above the priciest College Hill rentals.
Or consider that owner-occupied houses in College Hill sell at consistently higher prices than rentals, and in the past five years, only two out of 42 have sold for more than $157 per square foot. So, the Spring Garden 3 also are priced at a premium to 95 percent of the owner-occupied houses sold in College Hill since 2015.
On the surface, then, the price of the these houses is well out of proportion for College Hill rentals. But a deeper look shows … what? What could make these three houses worth $975,000? There’s no way to tell from the listings. They contain no interior photos of any of the houses, so if there’s something wonderful inside, the seller isn’t letting on (but why would there be in three rental houses?). The exteriors are OK, not as bad as many rentals but nothing special. The location is no better than that of dozens of other such houses in the neighborhood. Are 21st century houses more brilliantly designed than 100-year-old houses? Are they made of superior building materials? Are they in better condition? Do they have more character? No, no, not necessarily, and no.
Who knows what goes on in the minds of “real-estate investors” (as landlords fancy themselves these days)? Maybe someone with more money than sense will snap these houses right up. Whatever the deal is, good luck.
Surprisingly pricey home sales in recent years
Just because a house is listed at a way-high price doesn’t mean it won’t sell. There have been a few conspicuous outliers among College Hill home sales in recent years.
There’s the truly weird 2018 sale of 619 South Mendenhall Street for $420,000 ($145 per square foot). The only house in College Hill that’s sold for more since 2015 was the Bumpas-Troy House, 114 South Mendenhall Street, built in 1847 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That sale was for $425,000 in 2016.
When 619 South Mendenhall was sold in 2018, it had barely survived a disastrous renovation. Five years earlier, the owners started adding a third story without bothering to get a certificate of appropriateness. The city caught up with them and halted work, but not before the entire roof had been removed. For months, only a leaky tarp protected the house from a rainy autumn and winter while the owners wrangled with the Historic Preservation Commission, finally accepted a compromise plan, changed their mind, appealed the plan they themselves had accepted to the Board of Adjustment, lost, and finally had to settle for the compromise. They had bought the house for $135,000 in 2012. And then, astoundingly, they were able to sell it for $420,000 in 2018. Less astoundingly, when the house was sold again this year, the sellers had to take a loss of about $70,000. (The 2018 buyer was an out-of-state LLC with no idea about the local real-estate market.)
On a square-foot basis, the most expensive College Hill house sold in recent years (and maybe ever) hardly looks the part. 611 Joyner Street is sweet little bungalow, just 1,186 square feet. It sold for $129,900 in February 2018. A swift five months later, after what must have been one heck of a renovation, it sold for $222,000. That doesn’t sound like much, but long division tells us it’s a brilliant $187 per square foot. If all rentals in the neighborhood could get that kind of renovation, we’d be Irving Park.
Also high up on College Hill’s all-time most expensive list is 817 Rankin Place. In 2016 it went for a still wow price of $389,000, $173 per square foot. It’s an infill house, built on another long-vacant lot in 2005. It also has an apartment above the garage, so that’s something. But it originally sold for just $250,000 in 2005. Eleven years later — even after the biggest real-estate bust in modern American history — it had appreciated 56 percent, a reminder that the right price for a house is whatever someone is willing to pay for it.
For purposes of comparison, consider …