Not so long ago at all, at a time when Internet stocks were soaring like the space shuttle over Cape Canaveral, I asked a financially savvy friend of mine what he thought was the wise course of action. “Seems like a good time to sell Internet stock,” he said simply.

How impractical, I thought. I had no chance of coming up with a clever business gimmick, launching an IPO, and exploiting this sellers’ market. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I actually had plenty of Internet stock to sell — all that high-flying junk that stockbrokers had convinced me to buy over the previous year. While I regretted that I had not gotten into the IPO game, I held on to that bag of stock until it was too late. You can bet I’ll never make that mistake again.


Now it’s housing, and stories of fast profits are flying like they did back in 1999 and early 2000. Of course a lot of people, wondering whether or not they should cash in, have a sobering reason not to: They need a place to live. Having sold one house at an outlandish price, they will still need to pay a similarly outlandish price to keep a roof over their head (unless, and here’s a heretical thought, they become renters).

But I have no such dilemma. Through a combination of good timing, hard work, and dumb luck (that never hurts), I have not only the house in which I live, but also the one next door, which now sits vacant. So I watch the prices rising, think back to the lessons of the Internet, and . . . decide not to sell it but rather to hold onto it and sink more money into its expansion and renovation.

What is it about these houses that make them such alluring investments, or such colossal money pits? In my case it’s partially a hobby. I have orchestrated the makeovers of several old houses in Princeton and find it a rewarding challenge — from the inevitable zoning board application (I have been there four times now) to working with the professionals on the design and construction.

But there’s also an emotional component. Your home is your castle, but your investment property is your chance to shape the community. Thinking of selling my dilapidated old house on Park Place made me think of a buyer who would promptly tear it down — a smart move financially, but not what I want to live next to.

I was encouraged by a piece architect Bob Hillier wrote for the Times of Trenton last Friday, May 6. His op-ed piece, marking Historic Preservation Month, described Hillier’s logic in acquiring the almost 100-year-old Witherspoon School for Colored Children, later the first integrated school in Princeton, and more recently a nursing home, and converting it into an apartment building. Here’s what Hillier looks for in an old building:

A good date. For Hillier pre-World War II means better construction than post-WW II. My old house, never a “great” old house that Hillier looks for and not blessed with any architectural flourishes, was nonetheless built in the early 1900s.

Nice location. Mine is walking distance to Princeton University and Nassau Street.

Resale potential, particularly with central air conditioning. Mine has a basement and an attic and the possibility of two-zone AC.

Room to expand the bathroom and closets. While my old house will never have the walk-in closets Hillier likes to create, it will at least have a second bathroom upstairs.

My little project will never match Hillier’s. His Waxwood project, for which Hillier will host an open house on Thursday, May 19, has 34 units, compared to my one.

But the sentiment is similar. So instead of putting some lipstick on this old pig and a for sale sign out front to lure in a frantic buyer, I am instead down in the basement, cleaning out the clutter from 20 years of life here before the construction crews descend. As I pore over boxes and boxes of notebooks and clippings and manuscripts, the back-up data for hundreds of articles reported over the years, I come across a strange one:

Several copies of the fall, 1980, issue of Policy Review magazine. It’s the product of a neo-conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, and its board of editors include Kingsley Amis, George Gilder, and Herman Kahn. Surely, I think, I never wrote an article for this august publication. But there is my name on the cover.

The article turns out to be a reprint of a piece I had written earlier for New Jersey Monthly, an account of my jousts with the bureaucracy as I transformed my first old house (59 Moran Avenue, purchased for $33,000 in 1977; renovated for another $25,000, and sold for $92,000 in 1982). Yes, there is something about these old houses that captivates our interest and our checkbooks.

So the answer is no, this one’s not for sale. But I do have some Internet stock you might want to consider.

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