A few days ago our editorial staff was talking about what we could use as a cover story for this residential real estate issue. As always, the meat and potatoes of this issue are the listings of houses for sale, sorted by price and including available properties from all the municipalities in our coverage area in each range. If you or a colleague are looking for a house in the $750,000 to $1 million range, for example, you can see a representative sample of what’s available in that price range in six different towns.
But beyond that practical application, we also look for some story line that will help introduce those listings. In past years we have focussed on historic homes, solar homes, the process of staging a home for sale, and so on.
This year we got talking about “starter” homes, and the challenges young — and maybe not so young — first-time homebuyers have in cracking a fairly expensive real estate market such as the one in Princeton and the rest of central New Jersey. The bargains of yesteryear all seem to be gone. What’s dominating the market now are big and new and expensive houses, far beyond the reach of most people new to the real estate game.
But, as our cover story on page 12 indicates, all hope is not lost. In fact, this is an old saw about real estate that hasn’t changed much since the time when I bought my starter home in Princeton nearly 40 years ago.
It was 1977. I was a struggling freelance writer who had no fulltime job but had managed to acquire a few points of financial stability: a pinch-hitting gig with the local newspaper, the Town Topics, and a contract arrangement with People magazine (talk about a diversified customer base). I also had been living in an $80 a month room in a house next door to the Peacock Inn. I needed a bigger place, but when I thought about what I would spend on rent versus what I could invest in mortgage payments I decided to buy and began to salt money away for a down payment.
Even then lots of people in town told me how hard it would be to find a house that I could afford in Princeton. My “real estate lady” showed my houses in West Windsor and in Griggstown, places where I could have a garage and a lawn but where I would never be able to go out at night without having to get in the car. Wasn’t there any place “in town,” I wondered.
Well, there was one, at 59 Moran Avenue, just off Nassau Street, with two bedrooms and one bath. It could be had for $33,000. The monthly principal and interest came to $213.76 (how could I ever forget?), a price that I could actually afford.
There were a few catches. It wasn’t really a house, it was a side-by-side half house, sharing a common wall that I would discover was more a sounding board than a sound barrier. It was located across from a cemetery, the one behind St. Paul’s Church. And, much worse, it was located next door to a roofing company, which began its noisy operations every morning at 7 a.m. sharp and which piled its old scrap metal and wood from roofs that were being replaced in a huge slag pile that sat right next to the back yard of 59 Moran Avenue. The back yard was the only yard — it sat within a few feet of the sidewalk.
Oh, one more thing: It had no parking, and no parking was allowed on any street in the town from 2 to 6 a.m. So every day — 365 days a year — you had to do what I later called the Moran Avenue Shuffle. Find a private lot behind an office where it wouldn’t matter if you were there at night, and then move the car before the private lot began to get used in the morning and before Moran Avenue became clogged with daytime parkers.
But the catches notwithstanding, it was a house, my first. When I called the folks and the other relatives back in upstate New York to share the good news, they were gob-smacked. For $33,000 in the Binghamton area you could have a whole house, with three or four bedrooms, probably two baths, a front and back yard, and parking for the car — or cars — probably in a garage. $33,000?! Are you out of your mind?
As it turned out, I wasn’t.
Many years later, in 2005, I took notice of an op-ed that architect Bob Hillier wrote in the Times of Trenton on the occasion of Historic Preservation Month. Hillier described what he looks for in an old building. Among them:
A good date. For Hillier pre-World War II means better construction than post-WWII. My Moran Avenue house, while not blessed with any architectural flourishes, was nonetheless built in the early 1900s. It benefited from some nice early 20th century features, including a slate roof and plaster and lathe walls.
Nice location. Moran Avenue was within walking distance of Princeton University, Palmer Square, and the Dinky train station. It was a “walkable location” before the term had come into play. And in the ensuing years the walkability got even better as the east end of Nassau Street attracted more restaurants and shops.
Room to expand the bathroom and closets. While my starter home would never have the walk-in closets Hillier likes to create, I was able to turn the second bedroom into a home office with a cathedral ceiling and a sleeping loft in what had been the attic.
Moran Avenue had one other positive trait that Hillier did not mention in his piece: A small yard. Small yards could be great for first-time homebuyers because they don’t require much maintenance and — most importantly — they may be converted into an outdoor room. At 59 Moran Avenue I turned the back porch into a covered deck and framed the yard with stockade fencing, blocking off that slag heap at the roofing company and creating a private outdoor space. To me it was another room to tout when it came time to parlay the half house on Moran into the whole house on Park Place, one block closer to Palmer Square.
The bottom line on that starter home: Purchased for $33,000 in 1977; renovated for another $25,000 (mostly borrowed money), and sold for $92,000 in 1982. My $6,000 down payment had turned into $40,000 in capital in about five years. Not bad, I guess.
To this day I hear people dismiss stories like mine as examples of lucky breaks that let me or others like me be in the right place at the right time. I certainly was not unlucky, but I would also attribute the real estate success to some hard choices: Living in a room in a house instead of an apartment; being single and being able to take in housemates in my first two homes; willing to live in a house under construction and renovation; and forestalling fatherhood until my mid-40s — people with kids rarely want to live under these “starter home” circumstances.
To this day I also hear people say the economics, particularly in now chi-chi Princeton, have changed inexorably. What I did just can’t be done anymore.
Maybe not. But I did just hear about a house — a half house, actually — that’s just a few feet from Nassau Street and listed at $324,900. It’s one bedroom one bath, built in the 1800s. It actually has parking for one car. And it needs some work, which may be a problem for some but possibly an opportunity for someone else.
Its location: 17 Moran Avenue. Auspicious, I would say.