By Alan J. Heavens
February 28, 2014
Once some folks move to Philadelphia’s Mount Airy neighborhood, they seem to find it difficult to leave.
“The people who came here more recently than my neighbors and I did do leave,” says Marilou Buffum, an agent with Berkshire Hathaway Homes Services Fox & Roach Realtors, who bought her house in 1971, when she was teaching at West Philadelphia High School.
“It was a ‘five-year house,’ ” Buffum says with a laugh, adding that even though longtime residents don’t really need the rambling twins and singles, parting with Mount Airy is difficult to contemplate.
There’s something about this place that keeps drawing buyers in search of big houses and large yards and the relative ease of travel by car and rail eight miles to Center City.
And, of course, Fairmount Park, which is never far away, whether you live east or west of Germantown Avenue.
Those who sell residential real estate in Mount Airy stay put here, and they’re the ones who can tell you how the neighborhood has evolved.
Best of all, they can testify, without fear of contradiction, that the reasons why people buy here haven’t changed in 40 years, even if Mount Airy, and the Germantown Avenue business corridor, has.
As CNN Money put it in 2013, “Mount Airy pairs a racially and religiously diverse population with a neighborhood packed with historic homes and leafy streets.”
Meaning “everyone’s welcome,” says Larry DiFranco, of Elfant Wissahickon Realtors, a resident since 1976.
Mount Airy’s story translates into real numbers for real estate, DiFranco says, with a 22 percent to 26 percent increase in sales from 2012 to 2013.
In a range from $70,000 to $3 million, there were 271 transactions recorded on the Trend Multiple Listing Service last year, 2.5 percent higher than 2012.
The average price is $274,680, and the median $199,000, says DiFranco, a South Philadelphia native whose first contact with Mount Airy came when he was collecting statistics for the city in 1974.
Today, he says, prices are about where they were at the housing boom’s end in 2007, after climbing 2 percent to 5 percent a year between 2001 and 2007. There are just 108 active listings; when houses go on the market properly priced and in good shape, they sell quickly.
Ruth Feldman, of Weichert Realtors McCarthy Associates, says days on market increased to 119 days, from 75, this year. Pending and sold units are down, but she blames the weather.
Feldman, who has lived in West Mount Airy for 32 years and reared two sons here, says rowhouses in the last 12 months have averaged $171,000, 93 percent of list price; twins are averaging $259,000 (97.2 percent), and singles $490,000 (92 percent).
“People tend to stay, upsizing with expanding families, downsizing to apartments,” she says.
When Buffum and DiFranco bought their houses in the 1970s, the properties needed work, efforts repeated and repeated again as the years passed.
Unlike times past, Buffum says, today’s buyers are two-paycheck families and uninterested in taking on major renovations.
DiFranco tells sellers that buyers want things finished and done “nicely to the nines.”
Says Buffum: “If the paint is the wrong color, [buyers will] say, ‘There’s so much work to do.’ ”
A lot of work has already gone into Mount Airy, notably the revitalization of the Germantown Avenue corridor, which resident/developer Ken Weinstein says has turned around in just 15 years.
Weinstein played a big role, buying troubled properties like a nuisance bar, putting $200,000 into it, and watching it turn into the popular Earth Bread & Brewery.
Restaurants, stores, fitness centers, and a classical theater group are now thriving on a street most residents avoided 20 years ago, one that brought down property values on some adjacent blocks.
There’s also a mini-village in West Mount Airy anchored by Weavers Way co-op and the High Point Cafe.
Weinstein’s latest effort is a sales agreement for Mount Airy Presbyterian Church at Mount Pleasant and Germantown Avenues. He will lease the sanctuary back to the congregation, turning the rest of the building into 20 condominiums.
“Our goal is to create residential on the avenue to increase the number of eyes watching the street and customers for the businesses,” says Anuj Gupta, executive director of Mount Airy USA community development corporation, which started the residential ball rolling with the Winston Commons condos several years ago.
Mount Airy USA has three mixed-use projects underway at 6300-6500 Germantown Avenue, Gupta says.
Instrumental in this evolution, in addition to Mount Airy USA and Weinstein, were the East and West Mount Airy Neighbors Associations and groups like the Wissahickon East Project, which successfully pushed to acquire six acres in East Mount Airy added to the Fairmount Park system.
Gupta offers an illustration of how embracing the neighborhood is: He and his family have just moved to their second house in Mount Airy, and at the height of a recent winter storm, a little girl knocked on their door and gave his wife a note.
“The neighbors were inviting us to a potluck supper that night to welcome us.”
Town By Town: BY THE NUMBERS
- Population: 27,035 (2010).
- Median income: $56,815 (2011).
- Area: 3.2 square miles.
- Homes for sale: 108.
- Settlements in the last three months: 48.
- Median days on market: 119.
- Median sales price (all homes): $199,000.
- Housing stock: Mostly pre-1940 rows, twins, and large singles, with some condos and a scattering of infill construction.
- School district: Philadelphia.
- SOURCES: U.S. Census, City-Data.com; Larry DiFranco, Elfant Wiisahickon; Peter Buffum, BHHS Fox & Roach; Ruth Feldman, Weichert Realtors, McCarthy Associates