Greg Alexander

Moving fast to land the perfect house

Baltimore Sun, January 29, 2006

Much has been written about the rising home costs in Baltimore City and how homebuyers are discovering the advantages to city living – well-built historic homes, endless entertainment opportunities and a short commute to downtown’s business centers. However, as more homebuyers made this discovery, prices continuously climbed – especially in desirable neighborhoods such as Canton, Fell’s Point, Federal Hill, Hampden, among others – to a point where being able to afford a home in Baltimore City was becoming increasingly difficult. On a positive note, this trend also encouraged those “on the fence” about buying a home to make a move … and fast.

“The rising house prices made us want to buy soon,” says Teresa Sercombe of her and her husband Matthew’s decision to start looking for a home in October 2004. The couple was renting in Highlandtown – above an ice cream shop – at the time when they noticed the rising home prices. “We started looking in Reservoir Hill, where many of the SCOPE Project homes were located,” says Teresa. The SCOPE Project, designed to create a simplified and cost effective process for putting vacant and underutilized City-owned properties on the open market, allows homebuyers the opportunity to buy homes at a low price for renovation. “The houses in Reservoir Hill were amazing, but we attended a class about SCOPE and learned that although you could buy a house for $15,000 to $30,000, you had to show proof that you had $200,000 or so in the bank for renovation costs,” says Teresa, an office furniture salesperson. “Also, we would not be able to live in the house for at least three months, which was not something that we could afford to do,” adds Matthew, food product manager for a local hospital.

Teresa says that the couple temporarily put their home search on hold after looking at a few houses in Charles Village; however, they then stumbled on a renovated home on Guilford Avenue. “We drove by it and saw the Open House sign, and Matthew convinced me to look at it. He really wanted the house more than I did at first. We didn’t want to rush our decision too much but knew that we needed to buy soon.” So, wasting no time, the couple purchased the home and moved in last February. A good move, says Coldwell Banker’s Daniel Motz, listing agent for the house.

“Guilford Avenue is in high demand, and houses for sale don’t stay on the market long. Although the real estate market has softened as a whole, prices are still at their highest levels. The block [where the Sercombes’ house is] is really taking shape; there are lots of renovations taking place,” says Motz, who adds that most of the homes on the market in the area have been recently renovated. “Overall, there is low inventory of homes for sale in Charles Village, compared to other neighborhoods, such as Canton, Federal Hill and Fell’s Point. The great thing about Charles Village is that most homes are owner-occupied.”

In fact, Charles Village has been enjoying a renaissance for many years due to its gorgeous Victorian architecture, large homes and convenience to restaurants, cultural activities and educational institutions like Johns Hopkins University. Although multi-unit rental properties exist – especially close to Johns Hopkins – more and more homes are being restored to their former glory. What is called Charles Village today is an amalgamation of several small neighborhoods, including Old Goucher and Peabody Heights, where the Sercombes’ home resides. Originally planned as a suburb to Baltimore City after the Civil War, Peabody Heights stood on taller ground than downtown, offering a respite from hot summers. After the Civil War, more and more Baltimore residents yearned for a more suburban living and the development of public transportation – called horsecars – made commuting into the city easier. These same horsecars also brought downtown residents to Peabody Heights to watch the Orioles play at Union Park stadium at the corner of 25th Street and Guilford Avenue. While some of Peabody Heights was developed in the late 19th century, the Sercombes’ home, like many others on the block, was built in 1907 by Joseph Pentz and Frank O. Singer and was designed by Jacob F. Gerwig, according to the book, Peabody Heights to Charles Village (1976).

The Sercombes’ house on Guilford Avenue, a two-story, late Victorian-style home, was renovated by the previous owner, which was attractive to the young couple. “We originally wanted to renovate a house; however, we’d have to hire someone because we don’t have the time and are limited as to what we can do ourselves,” says Matthew. “We saw so many renovated houses that had either been renovated poorly or had all original features removed. I wanted a house with the architectural features intact; if I wanted a generic-looking house, I’d move to the suburbs,” Teresa adds.

The couple agrees that the previous homeowner did an exceptional job on the renovation. “He left many of the historic features like the pocket doors, fireplace and exposed brick,” says Matthew. “He did a great job. My only requirements were good lighting and new windows, which we have. There are some paint colors I wouldn’t have chosen, and I wish the kitchen layout was different, but overall the house is great. We love it.” With one look at the house, one can see why.

Upon entering, tall ceilings, hardwood floors and an exposed brick wall give the living room character, as does the fireplace mantle and closed-in fireplace (most homes on Guilford have closed in fireplaces, and many believe this is because the homes were built right after Baltimore’s Great Fire of 1904). But, the hardwood floors are just one of the many home elements that the previous homeowner restored. The original staircase was refinished, as were the pocket doors, which now gleam and give the dining room a more formal look. The first floor also features a spacious powder room (unusual for Guilford Avenue homes, many of which have small powder rooms built under stairs) and a renovated kitchen. Off the kitchen is a large deck that overlooks a garden and a parking pad, a nice touch in Baltimore City.

Upstairs, three bedrooms and two full bathrooms give the couple plenty of space for themselves, two cats and a dog. The couple transformed two of the bedrooms into offices and say that the ample closet space is a plus. However, the couple agrees the master bathroom was especially important in their decision-making process. The bathroom, which connects to the master bedroom, is enormous, unusual for older homes in Baltimore City.

Homeownership hasn’t come without some bumps along the way, says the couple. “About four days after we moved in,” says Matthew, “Teresa was taking a shower when the fire alarm went off. I looked downstairs and water was coming through the light fixture and through the alarm. I thought, ‘Welcome to homeownership.’ “ However, Matthew says that the previous owner agreed to have the bathroom tile fixed, and other than some sealing work in the basement, the couple has yet to undergo any major house repairs. “We have just started decorating. I needed to ‘feel out’ the house before deciding on furniture and paint colors,” says Teresa. Matthew says that he is still adjusting to East Coast living, as before the move to Baltimore, he had only lived in the Pacific Northwest.

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