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Real Love

by Karen Martin

April 5,2006

Real estate. It has become a springtime ritual with me. There’s something about the trees budding with promise, the warming winds breezing with possibility, the overall sense of rebirth and renewal.

When I was younger, it was boys. My mother says she always pitied the guy I was dating once springtime rolled around; she knew he would soon be going out like a lamb.

Now that I’m older, forget Match.com – my flirtations are with Realtor.com.

I’ve heard all the talk about the real estate “bubble,” and how real estate investments can be risky these days. I can’t help but feel, however, that finding the right piece of property is a lot like finding a good relationship: it may take some work, but it’s well worth it.

Over the past 11 years I have owned five properties in the Charlotte area -- in Dilworth, Myers Park, Elizabeth, NoDa and now Davidson – and, even with the tiniest capital gains due to timing -- have made a tidy profit on each. It works out nicely for someone like me, who doesn’t have the trust fund or the paycheck to be a big-time player in big-return investments.

My friends are doing just as well, if not better. Maria owns a rental property in Dilworth that she bought in 1991 for $80,000. Even with no significant improvements, that house today is worth $175,000. Joan bought her NoDa home – “on the cusp of the ‘hood,” she chuckles – four years ago for $80,000. “Now,” she says of the houses on her street, “you can’t get one for less than $250,000.”

I love sharing the “how we met” story of my current home near the Davidson village green. Four years ago, my groom-to-be and I were weeks away from marrying when a real estate agent walked me through a bungalow on a different street. It was in a sad state of repair, with holes in the plywood flooring and an exterior staircase to the second floor. My groom decided the renovation would be too much for us at that time, so we instead bought a house in Elizabeth that already had been refurbished.

A year later, wearied by my husband’s daily commute to Statesville, I drove by that house. The owners had completely updated it, bringing it back to life. That afternoon I accessed the Mecklenburg County tax records to find the owners’ names and address. I sent them a note: if you ever want to sell your house, here’s my phone number. Call me.

The phone rang the next afternoon. “We love this neighborhood, we love this house, and we’re not moving,” the woman said, “but there’s a house nearby that you might want to check out.” The owner hadn’t lived there in four years, and now wanted to sell. It hadn’t yet gone on the market.

We dropped by that nearby house, met the owner and within a week had a handshake agreement.

Prior to move-in, we gave our “new” pre-WWI bungalow a warm dose of TLC, entirely renovating and repainting, and replacing the mechanicals. (We later added a master suite plus bonus room, for a total investment of $157 per square foot. Our neighbors just sold their similar-sized home for about $190 per square foot, so assuming we could sell our place tomorrow for, let’s say, only $180 per square foot, we’re still looking at a healthy profit.)

Of course, affection has nothing to do with money. If we were to cash out and move, we would no longer be two blocks from our favorite pizza place, the public library and a coffee shop. We wouldn’t be four blocks from the elementary school and a block from the middle school. We’d miss the way our plaster walls undulate. We’d miss our neighbors, who love their old houses as much as we do.

The real estate “bubble” may be about to burst elsewhere, but I feel confident about the viability of the Charlotte area’s close-in neighborhoods. So good, in fact, that I’m looking at a potential rental property in what may be the next hot area. It needs a good deal of attention and hands-on quality time, but what happy relationship doesn’t?

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