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Value Judgments

What makes one neighborhood 'hot,' another undesirable? Sometimes the 'wrong side of the tracks' label is just plain wrong.


Well-meaning Realtors and friends warned Judie O'Neill, "Don't buy west of Lake Avenue" when she was house-hunting in Altadena. Likewise, when Genny Cisneros and her family were looking for a home in Downey they were determined to live "north of Firestone Boulevard."

Almost every community has an invisible dividing line separating neighborhoods that have gained a reputation as more "desirable" from those considered to be on the proverbial "wrong side of the tracks." And in an age when "location, location, location" is still the real estate mantra--and most homeowners want secure property values rather than speculative risk--many are reluctant to cross this line where reality and perception collide.

Historically, homes on the wrong side of the tracks were engulfed in soot from smoke-belching locomotives, wrote Stephen Ambrose, author of "Nothing Like It in the World," the story of the building of the transcontinental railroad. And sometimes today the visual clues are just as obvious--ramshackle homes, littered streets, abandoned cars and bars on windows are all danger signs.

More often, though, the reasons an area is hot or cold are not so clear. Robert Irwin, author of "Buy, Rent and Sell," cites three primary factors for location desirability: the school system, an anchor that draws people to the community and access to public transportation (although in Southern California's car culture this can be less of a consideration).

But when it comes to neighborhoods, these traits often apply to the whole community. Why, then, do perceptions vary from one area to the next?

Geography frequently makes the determination. Homes closer to the beach are more desirable and expensive. Homes perched high enough to afford a view command a higher price.

Manhattan Beach, for example, is separated into distinct geographic areas--the sand, hill and tree sections, according to Bonney Larson of South Bay Brokers. The sand section, close to the ocean, has 3,500-square-foot homes on miniature lots selling from $2.5 million to $8 million. The tree section, a more rustic area that stretches four blocks from the beach to Pacific Coast Highway, has comparable homes selling in the $1.2-million to $1.6-million range. The hill section offers large lots, ocean views and multimillion-dollar price tags.

All three areas are west of Sepulveda Boulevard, but new homes east of Sepulveda, where it was once rumored "there is no life," now sell for more than $1 million, Larson said. City planning and zoning affect the perceptions of a neighborhood. High-density areas with a concentration of multifamily housing create a "definite sense of North and South," said Robert Sawyer, an architect with Elemento Designers in Playa del Rey. "It divides communities."

Sometimes the reason for the great divide is human nature, a need, regardless of socioeconomic class, to identify with a place and to differentiate ourselves through that place, according to Ray Brown, coauthor of "Home Buying for Dummies."

Even in upscale San Marino, where the median home price is $630,000 and the median household income tops $125,000, Huntington Drive serves as a sort of Mason-Dixon Line. The area south of Huntington is sometimes considered less desirable despite the tree-lined streets filled with million-dollar homes.

In the 1950s, the Red Car rail line ran along the center divide of Huntington Drive, according to Rob McMannis, manager of San Marino's Dilbeck office and a longtime San Marino resident. Homes south of Huntington Drive were literally "below the track" and less desirable than homes north of Huntington Drive, where San Marino's founder, Henry Huntington, built his estate.

Eight years ago, it was difficult to break the million-dollar mark for a home south of Huntington Drive, but today homes selling for seven figures are commonplace. In spite of the gains, McMannis said that comparable homes with identical square footage and lot size still sell for more money north of Huntington Drive. And some status-seeking home buyers still insist on an address "north of the Drive," even though the price tag could be 10% more for a comparable home.

The area north of Huntington Drive has never been referred to as "North San Marino," but many communities add the "north" designation to differentiate their neighborhoods. Realtors unofficially refer to the area north of Las Tunas Drive in San Gabriel as "North San Gabriel," often adding the adjective "prestigious," because of the community's proximity to San Marino.

South of Las Tunas, Realtors said, comparable 1,800-square-foot homes go for as much as 30% less.

In Downey, the area north of Firestone Boulevard, which commands higher home prices, is sought after, according to Realtor Maria Chamizo with First Team Real Estate. "When people move to Downey ... they're very happy to live south of Firestone Boulevard, but everyone before long aspires to move north of the boulevard."

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