While the first busker of the day in our noisy neighborhood is the 5:15 a.m. grind of the Elgin Pelican street cleaning machine (see last week’s column for a listing of other and more mellifluous sounds), another seemingly unchained melody is the ker-ching of rising real estate prices.
I first heard the reveille a few years ago, when a half house around the corner on Madison Street — with three small bedrooms, one bath, small living room, dining room, and kitchen, and smaller yet backyard, and otherwise ordinary in most ways — sold for $399,000.
But the feature of the house that really puzzled me was the parking. There was no garage, of course (what do you expect for under $400 K!), only a parking place in a driveway (very important when the borough does not permit parking on the street between 2 and 6 a.m.). But there was just one problem: You had to share the driveway with the people in the apartment house next door. But still it sold — for what was then an unheard of price.
At that point the words from the Bob Dylan song rang through my head: “Something’s happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”
Eventually I figured it out. What attracted me to the neighborhood in the first place was the smallness of the houses (and at the time their affordability) and its propinquity to the small town services a few hundred feet away on Nassau Street. My first house ever was a half house on Moran Avenue, next door to a roofing company and across the street from St. Paul’s Cemetery. It had two bedrooms, one bath, one small backyard, and no parking whatsoever. But what did you expect in 1977 in Princeton for just $33,000?
A few years later, irritated by the daily shuffling of the car from an overnight off-street spot to a non-metered street spot during the day, I bought another house, a fixer-upper for something like $72,000. At about that time, 1983, articles in the paper were asking the question: Is it possible to buy any house in Princeton for under $100,000?
A decade later, with two children in tow, I found a slightly larger house: Another, more desperate fixer-upper for $150,000.
Then came the new millennium, the crash of the tech stocks, and the advent of the real estate bubble. Even now that the bubble is beginning to leak, prices in my neighborhood have held steady: Baby boomers whose kids had left the nest began bidding on houses; so did yuppies with no kids yet, or very small kids.
Some folks out in West Windsor worry about “what kind of people” would move into a transit village such as the one proposed by the Princeton Junction train station. The experience in my neighborhood suggests it would be people who like small houses, who see common walls as one less wall to paint and small or non-existent backyards as one less lawn to mow, who like to be able to walk to the drugstore and the neighborhood bar and restaurant, and who don’t mind the sound of the 4:52 a.m. train to Manhattan or the 5:15 a.m. street cleaning machine.
So this spring I was not surprised when the aforementioned house around the corner went was listed for sale at $535,000. The price since has come down to $499,000, but it got me asking a new question: Is it possible to buy a house in my neighborhood for under $500,000?
I began to peruse the real estate ads and visit some open houses. A few harsh realities emerged: 1.) You can do a lot better for your money if you are willing to give up the location and move a mile or two away. Of course you won’t be able to stroll out your front door and enjoy a sidewalk jazz concert a few hundred feet away. 2.) You can get more bang for your buck if you increased your budget to $800,000. But then you might be stuck with more house than you need or want (and might have a yard to mow!). 3.) There are precious few places under $500,000 left in the neighborhood. For my purposes I ruled out apartment condominiums, such as the clever conversion that Hillier Architects did with the old South’s Garage at 36 Moore Street, and the two-bedroom units above Triangle on Nassau Street.
That left the half house on Madison Street for $499,000 and then, almost in the $500,000 range, was a house for sale on Moran Avenue. That caught my eye because Moran was the location of my first house, that $33,000 charmer that I bought 30 years ago.
The house, now on the market for $525,000, turns out to be the joined-at-the-common wall twin sister of my old house: They call it a three-bedroom, though the current owners have knocked out the wall between two bedrooms to make a more impressive master bedroom. It’s got one nicely renovated bathroom upstairs (skylight and heated tile floor) and one sweet backyard (not too big).
No, it does not have any parking, but you can get a permit to allow overnight parking on the street. And I’ll bet no one would be offended if you began the negotiations with an offer under $500,000.
And one more thing, a good thing, in my opinion: The house looks out on that cemetery. Take a stroll up to Nassau Street on a Saturday night to hear the 6th Street Quarternion at Blue Point Grill. Then come home and enjoy our neighborhood’s version of “The Sounds of Silence.”