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AT HOME : Charming Coastal Area Packs Them In : Corona del Mar: Despite small lots and high home prices, community of older beach homes is one of the most desirable in Southland.

July 17, 1994|MARIAN BOND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Marion Bond is a La Habra Heights free - lancer

After living in Denver for 20 years, Carole Lobdell was shocked at home prices in Southern California, especially in Corona del Mar, where they hoped to find a home close to her husband Donn's work in Irvine.

They also wanted to be near cultural opportunities, good restaurants and they wanted privacy. She began house-hunting in the spring of 1992.

"I went out with realtors time and again. I would say 'You people are all insane. . . . You're paying so much for a little house.' I finally got to the point that I saw this was the way it would be. . . . Everyone is crazy, but now I'm crazy too."

The Lobdells found a house they liked and bought it for the mid-$700,000s. They are now remodeling and adding 1,100 square feet to the four-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath house.

"It was difficult (for us) to accept living in a house so close to another neighbor, but we are at the top of a hill," she said. "Visually, we have the feeling of open space."

Corona del Mar, with a population of 13,000, is a coastal community within Newport Beach and is the eastern border of the city. A stretch of beach provides the southwestern border. Pacific Coast Highway runs through Corona del Mar for about three miles.

The area between Coast Highway and the ocean, known as "old" Corona del Mar, or as residents frequently call it, "The Village," is where much of the community's residential charm is found.

Many of the houses are older beach homes, most of which were originally built with wood clapboard siding or shingles, and small-paned wood windows--reminiscent of New England seashore architecture--and situated on tiny lots. Today many of those homes have been extensively remodeled and enlarged, often covering the entire lot or spread over two lots.

Throughout "The Village," where the narrow streets are named for flowers and trees, designers have combined a variety of styles. Next door to what would best be described a mansion will be a beach cottage. The tiny yards, where additions have consumed the lot, are frequently overflowing with blooming flowers in planters, pots and baskets.

Along Pacific Coast Highway there are shops, restaurants and the vintage theater, The Port, which provides a taste of a bygone era.

To the north of the highway, newer homes on larger lots have gradually crept up the hillsides offering views of Newport Bay and Catalina Island.

Corona del Mar, which means "crown of the sea" in Spanish, is one of the most expensive and desirable communities in Southern California. The median home price is in the low $600,000s, according to Dataquick Information Services, and sales are up. But that wasn't always the case.

Back in 1904, George E. Hart, who was described as an "intrepid realtor," bought 700 acres from the Irvine Co., headed by James Irvine II--son of Irvine Ranch founder James Irvine.

Hart offered to sell land at $150 an acre. But in 10 years, only 15 houses and one small hotel had been built, so Hart traded 400 acres for citrus groves in Riverside County. In 1923, Corona del Mar was annexed to Newport Beach.

In the late 1940s, there were hundreds of lots in Corona del Mar with sewer, street and tax assessments of $350 to $400 each, and owners were walking away rather than paying.

Pat McNeilly grew up in Corona del Mar in the 1960s. "I remember when Fifth Avenue was a busted-up old dirt road, and cows would come up and stick their head through the fence and eat weeds.

"I worked in my mother's store, the Toy Shop, on Pacific Coast Highway as a teen-ager," said McNeilly, who is a captain with the Orange County Fire Department. He and his wife, Candi, now own the store, which has become a fixture on the street.

McNeilly was working in Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he and Candi were married. The young couple wanted to move back to the community where their families had lived since the early 1960s. Both had attended Corona del Mar High School, where her father, John Mitchell, was head of the history department.

The McNeillys looked forward to raising their family where they had grown up, but the problem in the early 1970s was finding a house they could afford. They rented for several years, and in 1975 they bought a duplex in the old section of Corona del Mar for $80,000. The couple, who now have three children, still live there.

"We've remodeled twice," McNeilly said. "We have three bedrooms, two baths and have about 1,500 square feet of living space, as well as a 300-square-foot deck on the roof." The other unit in the duplex, about 750 square feet in size, is rented for $850 a month. McNeilly estimates that the property is worth between $450,000 and $500,000 today.

Maxine Propp, a real estate agent with Grubb & Ellis in Newport Beach, has lived in Corona del Mar for more that two decades and also works there.

Home prices range from $360,000 on the low end for a three-bedroom, two-bath 1940s home, she said, to $4.9 million for a custom home with views of the bay, six bedrooms and 5 1/2 baths.

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