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Speaking Out

No Sticker Shock for Ex-Angeleno


WASHINGTON — We knew we had really left Los Angeles the first time we skipped down a flight of stairs to examine a finished basement.

And the second time and the third and the 14th and 40th times.

And we really knew we were back on the Other Coast when we ventured into relatively expansive back yards that were lush and green, sans sprinklers, but also bereft of palms and citrus trees. And, under gray skies, our clothes clung to us with the humidity of it all.

We had arrived in the Big Muggy, the nation's capital, in late August, feeling flush with cash that was, in fact, not yet officially ours from the sale of our modest Sherman Oaks home. But we were in the promised land--in escrow on one coast and looking to enter it on the other.

"Coming from Los Angeles, real estate prices here won't shock you," a Washington real estate broker had written to us before our arrival. "In fact, nothing is likely to shock you."

Indeed. The day before we departed, we visited a friend who had broken her toe stumbling over her Jacuzzi, pure pool-side pathos. During a farewell dinner at a trendy Santa Monica restaurant, we found ourselves surrounded by Michael Keaton, Rosanna Arquette, the model Iman and designer Diane von Furstenberg,

Meanwhile, my wife, Katherine, gleefully tossed the "Seven-Day Earthquake Survival Guide" and donated the gallons of emergency water to the thirsty movers.

And, on our final night, I feverishly dreamed I had written a TV movie that was so awful that I knew it was time to leave.

Washingtonians, like Southern Californians, tend to expect newcomers to suffer sticker shock. Many were surprised, even nonplussed, when we stood their expectations on their head and told them that the D.C. housing dollar stretches further here than whence we came.

During the course (or as Katherine felt by the end, curse) of looking at more than 75 houses in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, we found that you can indeed buy more house on more land for less money, especially if you are willing to go somewhat farther from the marble halls of power and the downtown heart of employment.

For $325,000, you can find attractive, if smallish, two- or three-bedroom homes in middle-class neighborhoods of Northwest Washington or just over the line in fashionable Bethesda, Md. If you have your heart set on Chevy Chase, one of Maryland's choicest addresses, appealing homes can be had for $450,000 or so--the equivalent of a starter place on the Westside.

The median price of existing single-family homes in the D.C. area reached $139,900 in the second quarter of this year, the 10th highest price in the nation, according to a survey by the National Assn. of Realtors.

This compares to a median price of $218,000 in Los Angeles and $247,600 in Orange County. These figures are driven down by the inclusion of townhouses as well as properties in more far-flung, less expensive suburbs.

We had sold our two-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot Sherman Oaks home for a sum in the mid-$300,000 range following two years of soaring appreciation--and even as the midyear stagnation began to grip the market.

We opted to buy a considerably larger home farther out in the suburbs that surround the highly efficient Metro line. Farther out by Washington standards is a trip to the neighborhood mini-mall for many Angelenos.

We eventually settled on the area around Vienna, Va., the last stop on the Metro. Some longtime Washingtonians think of Vienna as a distant horizon, but it's only 15 miles from the city center, or a 25-minute subway ride.

Our search concluded with a painful decision involving pleasant alternatives.

House No. 1 was a four-bedroom brick Colonial--imposing from the street--with a large deck facing a small, strikingly picturesque lake. The subdivision included tennis courts, a swimming pool, a basketball court and a jogging path around the lake. The lake's residents include bass and a beaver; deer roam the nearby woods.

The asking price, clearly inflated, was $349,000. Was this housing heaven?

Not quite. Unfortunately, the rooms were too small. It was, our broker said, like a piece of clothing that was too tight: every way you turn, you're slightly uncomfortable. Worse, the house was a standard model that failed to take advantage of the potentially spectacular lake-side views.

So, heeding our broker's advice, we followed our heads and not our hearts and went for another handsome brick Colonial in a more stately neighborhood. This one is on a hill, surrounded by pines, dogwood and azaleas on a lushly landscaped half-acre.

The 20-year-old home has four bedrooms on the second floor, hardwood floors, spacious living, dining and family rooms and a large redwood deck. It's been superbly maintained.

In comparison to our Los Angeles home, we had doubled our land holding and living space--for all of $10,000 more. Of course, we had not replaced the orange tree, cactus or serene, covered patio.

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