Our House, a History

Published May 3, 2019 in Warp & Woof


Our House, a History

35 Years in Our Arlington Home
William Sundwick
Our 1983 marriage presented us with two one-bedroom condos in Arlington, Virginia. We chose to live in mine (a tad nicer?), while my wife put hers on the market. The plan was to start shopping for a house, townhouse, or at least a 2-bedroom Fairlington condo, immediately. My completing school and returning to the Library of Congress from sabbatical delayed that search for a few months.
I had already been living in Arlington for ten years by that time, and my wife in her condo on Columbia Pike for five. We had been a couple since 1979.
First big question was: where do we want to live? Next question: what can we afford there? One-bedrooms in South Arlington, in those days, were selling in the mid-$20s to low-$50s. Mine, in Fairlington, was on the high end, hers on the Pike, the low end.
We had some savings, too – and, a promise of help with down payments from both sets of parents. There were no outstanding debts except for a modest car loan held by my wife (on her 1980 Chevette) — school, a 36-hour master’s program at AU, was, amazingly, already paid up!
Therefore, our real estate agent, Mary Lee Berger, of Better Homes Realty, advised us that we should be looking in the $110 – $130 range. We were cautious about debt, however, and looked askance at the higher end of that estimate. Our limit was the low end – even lower if we could do it. Interest rates on mortgages in those days were topping 13%. As we started looking in Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church, and Fairfax County, we soon discovered that going lower might not be possible (in any dwelling we considered acceptable).
There were two almosts, a townhouse off Carlin Springs Rd. and another in a new development called “Alden Glen” way out Lee Highway past Fairfax City. They were both priced in the $90s, but less than favorable locations and construction quality, it seemed.
We were starting to get anxious. Obvious solution, said Mary Lee, be more flexible with the financial constraints! She started mentioning single-family homes in North Arlington and Alexandria. We were skeptical of this risky step. Del Ray neighborhood? Come on!
We didn’t take her seriously but played along. She directed us to a house just coming on the market in a North Arlington neighborhood called “Madison Manor.” Never heard of it. We accompanied her on a visit. It was a pleasant neighborhood near the Westover Shopping Center, with its quaint small-town angled parking on the main through street, Washington Blvd. We knew that strip mall because of the Black Forest Inn, then a noted bakery as well as restaurant, who had catered our wedding cake in January 1983.
We discovered the local elementary school, McKinley, only a block from the house. This seemed like a plus, should we have kids. It was a good school, too, Mary Lee assured us. Another attractive detail about the neighborhood, originally developed in the 1940s as a couple dozen brick colonials and cape cods, was the easy walk to a future Metro station at East Falls Church, scheduled to open the following year. We both thought that walking to Metro, then riding straight to the Library of Congress door, was a major selling point.

Alas, as expected, it just wasn’t in our range – listed at $123,900. Mary Lee, however, assured us that the sellers, a husband/wife Arlington Police couple, were eager. Bargaining possible?
The house was incredible – eight whole rooms (albeit small) in a center-hall brick colonial. And nicely done built-in storage in the finished basement. One large family had lived in the house for several years in the 1960s, finished the basement, and used it for bedrooms for some of their six children — before code required egress windows from basements. What would we do with all that space? No way we could afford it. But it even had a fireplace in the living room, and “ESIK” (Eating Space In Kitchen — a bar built into one wall in the galley kitchen, maybe space for a high chair). There was also a spacious yard, front and rear, with lots of azaleas, a dogwood in front, tulip poplar providing shade in the rear, and a gravel dog run connecting driveway with aluminum shed (husband was an Arlington K-9 officer, wife a detective). The front yard was bigger, a pie-shaped corner lot, where one street comes to an end at a “through street” winding down a hill (quotes around “through street” – there are no through streets in Madison Manor). Very pleasant house, very pleasant neighborhood. Surely, Mary Lee couldn’t drive the hard bargain we needed, could she?
She did. We closed the deal for $115K. Still more than we wanted to pay, but it seemed like a veritable dream house to us. And, so it was, when we moved in. That was August 1984.  When our two boys (born 1985 and 1988) started getting bigger, however, and we all started accumulating “stuff,” things changed. But we stayed. So did the neighbors next door, who had bought their house one year before us – raising their two kids in tandem with ours. They have become family. Both families have built on – something Madison Manor (and other Arlington neighborhood) people do.
We engaged in two separate expansion projects. The first one, in 2002, finally made the boys’ bedrooms livable for teenagers, and gave us a “bonus room” (family room and bath) off the living room. Dave Merrill, a neighbor who had a daughter same age as our youngest, was our contractor – outstanding attention to detail, craftsmanship, and sensible project planning. We did make the mistake of not having a surveyor do a new plat, and ran into a penalty (both time and money) when the next door neighbors on the other side (not “family”) ascertained the foundation was outside the minimum setback – forcing us to dig it up and start over. That was on us.

But we have enhanced our living experience immensely from that addition over the last 17 years. I’m writing now from my office in an alcove off that bonus room. Our younger son negotiated his entire high school career from his bigger room, his older brother left for college shortly after completion of the project but did return home for a couple years after college.

The timing of our second big expansion project may have been a little too late for the boys to fully appreciate it, but it has given their parents the opportunity to have the large kitchen, complete with central island, that they always wanted – and, a luxurious master suite with two full closets, two separately located sinks, and vaulted ceiling. This 2009 addition paved the way for a later minor expansion of the shared hallway bath on the second floor into the original master bedroom, now a guest bedroom.

If we could get our act together to furnish the boys’ rooms, we could claim (honestly) a four-bedroom, 3 ½ bath home! We have not. We are empty nesters now, with no young families to visit us– only old people. The boys’ rooms are denuded of furnishings, except for storage. They have both become very large closets.
Next project will be finding a contractor for a final basement redo. We need to get rid of paneling and dropped ceiling. Another part of the plan will be knocking down the wall between the separate laundry room and what we call the “den” (after its original purposing as children’s bedroom with built-in storage). We want to turn a three-room basement into two rooms.
Then will come downsizing. Not sure when, but we must face the inevitable. Much of our planning now is aimed at marketplace issues. What will sell? Maximum return? We didn’t do so well in that regard with our first two additions. Zillow makes it look like we’ve invested more than we’ll get back.
But who knows? Amazon’s arrival may jack up house prices in Arlington, they say.

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