Best Places to Live 2010
THIS COLD POSTBUBBLE REALITY taught us a lot about homeownership we didn’t want to know (the challenges of short sales, the benefits of strategic foreclosures, how to find a good real estate attorney), but it reminded us of one thing we should have never forgotten: Loving where you live is just as important as loving what you live in.
Here are Seattle Met’s picks for the Emerald City’s 15 must-live neighborhoods right now, plus vital stats on the people, property, and parks in 116 communities.
THE BRAND NAMES
Those who don’t live there want to, and those who live there never want to leave.
The sales pitch Good luck getting four-year Alki resident and editor of the neighborhood’s newsletter, Glynnis Vaughan, to spill sexy sound bites on what she calls one of Seattle’s best-kept secrets. “We’re only prepared for the crowds during the summer months,” she protests half-heartedly. Fair enough, Gylnnis. We’ll do it for you: There are two and a half miles of walkable beachfront with honest-to-goodness sand. There are unmatched views of the downtown skyline and Vashon Island. There’s a zoo’s worth of beasts on display—from tiny tide-pool critters to big, barking sea lions—along the beach. There’s the wealthy residents’ relaxed, no-pretense vibe. And then there’s the beach—or did we mention that already? Glynnis, you wanna get in the last word? "Our community truly has a commitment to preserving the uniqueness of our region, and of course we have our landmark Statue of Liberty in our waterfront park.” See—even she can’t help but mention the beach!
By the numbers Even after the market adjustment of the last two to three years, median home values in Alki ($499,750) are still the seventh highest in Seattle, behind Madison Park, Sand Point, and Queen Anne.
What you’ll find “The feel of Alki has changed quite a bit over the last couple of decades,” says Keller Williams agent Kristen Meyer Lapriore. Chichi condos—some priced as high as $2 million—have pushed out many of the beach bungalows that used to line Alki Avenue Southwest, but get off the main drag and you’ll still find plenty of those funky little pads on the inner streets. And—no surprise here—it’s those condos that tend to sit on the market, while well-priced single-family homes continue to get snatched up by Seattleites in search of sand.
The sales pitch Julie Whitehorn believes there’s a perception among some Seattleites that Queen Anne is a wealthy, elitist community that doesn’t take well to outsiders. “There’s a joke that goes, How do you know if someone lives in Queen Anne? They tell you,” she says. “But it’s much more likely that the people I know won’t tell you that they live there, because they’re concerned that they’ll have an instant bad reputation.” Lost in all of the talk of Queen Anne’s proximity to downtown, stellar views, and high-end homes, she says, is the neighborhood’s intense volunteerism and crazy-high level of community involvement. Whitehorn got involved with developing the Queen Anne Farmers Market in 2007—after helping to save the Metropolitan Market—and since then, she’s been shocked by the amount of support she’s received. “We had some doubters who felt that we couldn’t do this, that it would take too much time and effort,” she says. “But I have people knocking on my door and calling, saying, “How can I help?”
By the numbers The number of homes for sale in Queen Anne jumped to 161 in October 2008, but had dropped to 89 in January 2010 … Average sales price topped $600,000 for all but one month in 2009 … In ’08 and ’09 Queen Anne had, on average, 4 percent fewer houses on the market than Magnolia per month, but it sold 17 percent more homes over that same time period.
What you’ll find Of course, Queen Anne got its rep as a tony enclave from those qualities that Whitehorn tries to downplay. “That’s what you see from the city,” says Windermere associate broker Lisa Strain. “You look up and you see these beautiful homes that have giant view potential.” (And—spoiler alert—you’re going to pay for those views.) But like Capitol Hill, Strain points out, there’s much more diversity than you might expect: “You get multifamily buildings, town houses, and $3 million properties, all within two blocks of one another.” Just ask Whitehorn. “I live in a thousand square feet,” she says. “And so do most of my friends.”
The sales pitch If you’re one of the thousands of walkers, joggers, bikers, dog lovers, or stroller pushers (did we leave anyone out?) who all but live at Green Lake when the weather is nice, back in 2007 you may have spied a brown-haired woman sitting at a table just off the northwest bank behind a sign that read, simply, Poet. That was A. K. Allin, the Poetess of Green Lake, who read her work to passersby—and whose presence among the funky-quirky populace convinced Amy Duncan she’d moved to the right place. “All stripes of people visit the lake to walk the loop,” says Duncan, who settled in the area in 2004 and cofounded the My Green Lake blog last year. “It’s a great place to see all of Seattle.” And judging by its name recognition and popularity among young and established families, it’s a great place for all of Seattle to see. “It embodies a lifestyle that a lot of people like to think they lead: being active, outdoorsy,” says Windermere real estate agent Ian MacMillan. “In a lot of ways, it’s the heart of the city.”
By the numbers For all but two months in 2009, months of housing inventory were well below six—the benchmark for a balanced market—and plummeted to as low as 2.1 in October … Homes don’t sit for long: Average days on market rarely topped 60 last year.
What you’ll find Green Lake’s housing stock is as diverse as its people, with prices from the low $400,000s for century-old Craftsman homes to over a mil for new construction. Even the failed mixed-use project that was once Vitamilk Dairy, on the east side of the lake, hasn’t hurt the neighborhood’s rep among young families in search of an urban setting that doesn’t sacrifice community bonds for hipster-baiting appeal.
The sales pitch The sign outside of the storefront at the corner of Madison Street and 42nd Avenue East says “Madison Park Hardware,” but everyone calls it Lola’s, after original owner Lola McKee. It’s a name so synonymous with this secluded little burg of high-priced homes tucked between the Arboretum and Lake Washington that when a group of locals banded together to replace Madison Street’s concrete dead end with benches and vegetation to encourage quiet contemplation, they called the project LOLA—Love Our Lake Access. “It’s a destination,” 16-year resident Ken Myrabo says of Madison Park. “A lot of the neighborhoods, you can just drive through. Here, you can’t. And we’ve got everything we need.” That includes what Myrabo calls the “active” park (as compared to the planned contemplative area) along the water, which recently underwent an extreme makeover, thanks to funds raised by the Friends of Madison Park. It’s almost enough to make you wonder if Madison Parkers ever leave. “Oh, I leave,” Myrabo says with a sigh. “But if I want something at the spur of the moment, I can get it.”
By the numbers There were never more than 33 homes for sale in Madison Park in 2009, no doubt because the average asking price ranged from $1 million in November to $2.4 million last January … Average sales price in January ’10 ($1.9 million) was up almost 9 percent over the same month last year.
What you’ll find Originally a collection of second homes—primarily beach bungalows owned by Seattleites who spent their winters elsewhere in the city—Madison Park has steadily grown into a community of manses and estates that routinely sell for more than $1 million. “You’ll still see some of the beach bungalow houses,” says Windermere agent Margie Zech. “But a lot of them, over the years, have either been completely remodeled and expanded or torn down entirely.” And what used to be a slightly older neighborhood has skewed younger as of late, thanks to—of course—that park.
The sales pitch On a good day, you can peep Mount Baker from the hill on 50th Avenue Northeast, View Ridge’s literal and figurative high point. And on a less-than-good day? You’ll have to settle for Lake Washington, Mount Rainier, and the Cascades. You don’t need to be a topographer to figure out how this picturesque northeast Seattle nabe got its name, but the stunning vistas are just part of the reason that move-up buyers desperately want in: The lots are big, unlike in the city’s more cramped locales; Seattle Children’s Hospital is nearby; its schools consistently score high marks (View Ridge Elementary is one of a few public institutions in Washington to receive a 10 out of 10 rating from greatschools.org); and commute times to commercial centers are (relatively) short.
By the numbers The price per square foot of homes sold in View Ridge remained steady, around $250, between January 2008 and January 2010, the toughest two years of the postbubble market … Average sales price was less than 95 percent of average asking price for only three months during that two-year span; it was 98 percent or better for 10 of those months.
What you’ll find Among the Tudor, Cape Cod, and Craftsman homes that comprise the bulk of View Ridge’s housing stock, a healthy dose of midcentury modern structures dot the neighborhood, thanks to mid-mod founding father—and prolific builder—Albert Balch. And a good portion of those homes have undergone major overhauls at the hands of younger families that have moved in over the last decade, driving prices between 60 and 80 percent in that period, according to John L. Scott associate broker Paul Harvey McLaughlin: “A lot of the young money has come into the neighborhood and updated these older homes and increased the value.”
It’s anybody’s guess what will happen to home values next, but if there’s anywhere they’ll stay stable, it’s here.
The sales pitch Britt Weber knew no one in Normandy Park when she moved to town nearly 16 years ago, but she did know where she could meet young mothers like herself: the pool. Geographically, the Olympic View and Normandy Park swim clubs sit at opposite ends of this posh hamlet of 6,000, but metaphorically, they’re the twin social suns around which everything else orbits. During the day, stay-at-home moms ferry their tykes to the water refuge for dishing (the moms) and splashing (the kids), and on Friday nights Olympic View’s members bring potluck dinner for end-of-the-week get-togethers. In fact, the only major event that doesn’t seem to revolve around the pool in family-oriented Normandy Park is the Fourth of July parade, which starts at Marvista Elementary and wends its way through town to the waterfront.
By the numbers Asking prices for homes listed in 2009 were consistently above $700,000 and even topped $800,000 in the first four months of the year … Median price of homes sold, however, dropped as low as $260,000 in December.
What you’ll find A planned community that—thanks to the Great Depression—didn’t quite end up as planned, Normandy Park is for the most part a collection of big homes built on big lots in the ’60s and ’70s. Although the area’s most recent residential project, a development of 26 million-dollar homes five blocks north of Nature Trails Park, stalled last fall, majestic views of Puget Sound and two beaches (the Cove up north and Marine View Park to the south) are feathers in Normandy Park’s cap and promise to keep values relatively stable. Says Tony Hettler of John L. Scott, “It’s still considered the most desirable area in southwest Seattle.”
The sales pitch For oenophiles, Woodinville is Western Washington’s Walla Walla: More than 45 wineries located within 30 minutes of downtown draw drinkers from every corner of the country. “We just had a couple in here from Vermont,” boasts Mike Stevens of Brian Carter Cellars. For longtime residents, though, it’s a rural sanctuary with good schools (the Northshore School District scored 9 out of 10 on greatschools.org) and cozy, small-town character that they’re not keen on sacrificing for wine-country cred. So far, the two sides have kept things copacetic—thanks, in part, to regional development code. “Some land-use decisions that King County has made—like maintaining a rural designation along the Sammamish River Valley—will keep some of that character intact,” Stevens says.
By the numbers Average sales price dropped beneath $400,000 in only three months in 2009.
What you’ll find The recession wasn’t kind to Woodinville. Mike Petryszak, a John L. Scott broker, says prices for million-dollar homes in the Eastside wine country have seen a 12 to 15 percent decline as of late. But homes valued in the $400,000 to $500,000 range look to remain steady—or slightly increase. Go ahead and scoff at those seemingly low-end prices, but $450,000 can get you 2,000 square feet of new construction on 10,500 square feet of land. And the community may just have its wineries to thank for attracting buyers. “People will be out doing the wine tasting,” Petryszak says, “and they say, ‘This is nice. We didn’t even know Woodinville existed.’ ”
The sales pitch They’re crazy for community events in Richmond Beach. If the residents of this picturesque, 120-year-old pocket neighborhood in west Shoreline aren’t munching cookies in the sand as the Argosy Christmas ships drift by, they’re running their kids through a haunted house gauntlet at the annual Halloween carnival at Syre Elementary School. But this month’s Strawberry Festival—which, ironically, has more to do with live music than fruit—takes the shortcake for its public-gathering mojo. “There’s not a time when you go to one of these events that you don’t see a million people you know,” says Sheri Ashleman, the neighborhood’s events coordinator. Heck, Richmond Beachers are so eager to assemble publicly that, for the last three years, on a day when they should be in the throes of a tryptophan-induced coma, they’ve gathered—in various costumes—for the 3.4-mile Turkey Day Fun Run. “I think it just shows how much our community loves to come together,” Ashleman says. Or how much they like to play dress-up.
By the numbers Average price per square foot of homes sold in Richmond Beach fell below $175 in only three months between January 2008 and December 2009.
What you’ll find Even with Puget Sound views and access to the recently renovated Richmond Beach Saltwater Park, home prices in this waterfront enclave aren’t nearly as expensive as you might expect. In Innis Arden—the planned community to the southwest, homes routinely top $1 million—but here streets are full of everything from $400,000 three-bedroom ramblers to 2,700-square-foot Northwest contemporary properties for $550,000. Says John L. Scott agent Christine Huffstetter, “You can find some pretty solid property that has enough square footage so you can stay there for a while.”
The sales pitch The last thing Christine Stepherson wants to do when she gets home from work? Get back in the car. So that’s why she and her husband moved to pedestrian-friendly Capitol Hill five years ago, when they were expecting their second child. And the Stepherson clan has plenty to walk to: Volunteer and Interlaken parks are practically in their backyard, and they’re just a quick hike away from the Pike/Pine corridor. Along with proximity to downtown, that high walkability quotient—it ranks an 87 out of 100 on walkscore.com —has made Capitol Hill one of the most sought-after spots for all, um, walks of Seattle life. Which, coincidentally, made it uberattractive to the enviro-evangelist Bullitt Foundation, which announced in March that it would build its new headquarters at the corner of Pike Street and 15th Avenue.
By the numbers With the exception of a couple large spikes in February and December 2009, median sales price in Capitol Hill hovered near $525,000 throughout last year … Four homes sold last February for an average price of $1.65 million.
What you’ll find The occasional bungalow is tucked into the tree-lined streets of the nabe’s northern reaches, but Capitol Hill was built on its stately manors. (They don’t call the two blocks of 14th Avenue East leading up to Volunteer Park “Millionaire’s Row” for nothing.) Median sales figures notwithstanding, Windermere sales associate Deirdre Doyle says you’d be hard pressed to find a house there for between $500,000 and $700,000. “A lot of our inventory tends to be the bigger, older homes,” she says. Unless, of course, you don’t mind sharing an entryway with your neighbors. Five years ago Leigh Sims and her husband bought a home in one of the condo buildings that have sprung up to serve the surge of younger families in the Pike/Pine district. Why does she love it there? You guessed it: “We can walk to everything in our neighborhood,” Sims says. “It’s awesome.”
The sales pitch Thirty years ago, the big names in the Kirkland commercial district were a Ben Franklin dollar store and J. C. Penney. Today, they’re Sur La Table and high-end boutique Promesse. And the downtown core isn’t the only part of the well-heeled suburb to get a face-lift. “Kirkland today is not even remotely close to what it looked like 25 years ago,” says longtime resident Roger Blier, CEO and cofounder of the dining membership club Passport Unlimited. “It has a diverse demographic mix.” To see that, you just need to pack a lunch, walk north from downtown, and spread out a blanket in one of the parks along Lake Washington; thanks to the influx of people—and money—that rode Microsoft’s power cords into Redmond, all ages, races, and tax brackets are now represented in what John L. Scott associate broker Jeff Samuelson calls “Seattle’s Sausalito.” And they’re spreading out. Just a quick jaunt south from downtown, the offshoot community Houghton continues to thrive, thanks to the shops and restaurants at Carillon Point.
By the numbers Despite fewer new listings in 2009, the number of homes sold in Kirkland grew by 20 percent last year, compared to 2008 … Price per square foot of homes sold in 2009 was consistently above $200 and peaked at $276 in October.
What you’ll find As with most million-dollar homes in Seattle, values of Kirkland’s mega manses took a hit postbubble, but those in the $500,000 to $700,000 range have held relatively steady. And West of Market, the 15-block waterfront pocket where 1950s bungalows have given way to stately chateaus, remains a desirable destination for old- and new-money newcomers to the community. “As the market improves and gets back to normal,” Samuelson says, “I can’t think of a better place to be than downtown Kirkland.”
Call them up-and-comers or first-time-homebuyer havens, but these five spots are where savvy Seattle spenders go to find properties priced to move.
The sales pitch Columbia City started tempting potential transplants with a buffet of boffo international cuisine along Rainier Avenue a decade ago. Then, after first-time buyers were squeezed out of North Seattle by out-of-control real estate prices in the prebubble days, they followed the good smells—and more affordable housing—to this sliver of savvy living south of the city. And what’s been good for buyers has been better for business: Eric Weakland of Columbia City Ale House estimates that these days nearly 80 percent of his customers live in the neighborhood, and the one-year-old light-rail line that stops on MLK Way is zipping more potential residents—and customers—to his neck of the wood every weekend.
By the numbers Average asking price in Columbia City was never higher than $401,000 last year … Homes sold in 2009 rarely spent more than six weeks on the market, and those sold in July and December were listed less than 20 days.
What you’ll find A lot has changed in Columbia City since the early ’90s, when longtime resident Ken Nicholas remembers hearing gunshots in the street. “This place was in bad shape,” he says. But the cleanup began after those trailblazing business owners moved in and the townhome market heated up to serve the single scenesters and young couples who came next. Columbia City’s neighbor to the north, Beacon Hill, has been equally popular with first-time buyers, but while families favor the latter, those in search of an urban ambience gravitate to the former. “It’s a walking community,” says Nicholas.
The sales pitch Renton certainly has its urban center, but this isn’t it. The Renton Highlands—particularly east of 156th Avenue—is quintessential suburbia, where younger families are attracted to the quiet streets and good schools. (The Issaquah School District, which serves the eastern portion of the Highlands, rates 9 out of 10 on greatschools.org). “Most of these buyers are first-timers who were renting in Bellevue and Seattle,” says John L. Scott associate broker Michael Orbino. “These aren’t move-up buyers.”
By the numbers After averaging more than $525,000 for the first three quarters of 2008, the average asking price in East Renton dropped into the low $400,000s last year.
What you’ll find Aside from the schools, it’s new construction that’s drawing buyers to the Highlands. But instead of the $600,000 custom homes that weren’t moving, builders such as American Classic and CamWest are pumping out slightly smaller—but much less expensive—homes for two-thirds the price. “These are for people who like big square footage,” Orbino says. The only things they’re sacrificing are high-end amenities. “Instead of a three-car garage, you get a two-car garage,” he says. “Instead of a cobblestone driveway, you get a concrete driveway. They’re still nice homes, they just don’t have all of the options.”
The sales pitch When Donna Hartmann and her husband started shopping for their first home in 1997, they gave their real estate agent a map of the delivery area for Maple Leaf’s uberpopular Chinese spot, Judy Fu’s Snappy Dragon, and said, “We have to live in this area or we’re going to starve to death.” They may have come for the food, but they stayed for the won’t-you-be-my-neighbor friendliness. “In Greenlake, everyone goes down to the lake to walk,” Hartmann says. “But up here, people are walking on their streets all the time.” And before long, they’ll be walking a lot more in the park: Last fall, the city began a three-year project to bury the Maple Leaf Reservoir near 88th Street and Roosevelt Way, a project that will add 15 acres of usable land to the adjacent playground and ball fields.
By the numbers There were less than five months of real estate inventory in every month of 2009 except February and as few as 1.4 in June … Median sales price fell below $400,000 in six months last year, compared to only one month in 2008.
What you’ll find Without a showcase feature like Greenlake’s water or Sunset Hill’s view to drive up housing prices, the charming Craftsman homes and Tudors in the southern end of Maple Leaf have remained affordable by Seattle standards. But a variety of factors even within the compact community—proximity to Roosevelt or the park, road noise from I-5, traffic from Northgate Mall—can create sizable price differences from one street to the next. “I really can’t think of another neighborhood that is so diverse within such a small area,” says Windermere’s Rob Graham. “There are a million variables in Maple Leaf.”
The sales pitch You can thank Fremont for Ballard’s resurgence over the last decade. As the cost of doing business climbed in the former’s commercial district, the latter welcomed all of those displaced mom and pops with open storefronts. The only question is whether the once-sleepy fishing community can manage to keep rents in check and those shops in town. On the other hand, when John and Joan Q. Public move to Ballard, they seem to stay put. “As they move from their first house to their second and third houses,” says Windermere associate broker Liz Talley, “they might only go a couple blocks, because they like the sense of community that they get here.” That’s what happened to Dawn Hemminger and her husband six years ago. After living in their first home for eight years, they traded up for a bigger pad eight blocks away—and were instantly rewarded for their loyalty: As they finished unloading their furniture and trinkets into the new place, one neighbor after another started chatting them up until they had a full-blown block party on their hands. “It was just really neat to live in a neighborhood where all of your neighbors want to get to know you,” she says.
By the numbers More than 350 homes sold in Ballard in 2009, roughly 130 more than Maple Leaf, East Renton, and Columbia City combined … Between April and November of last year, at least 40 percent of homes available each month sold.
What you’ll find It’s Cape Cods and Craftsman homes as far as the eye can see in Ballard, and many of them are more affordable than you’d think. That might be why Talley’s office was one of the busiest Windermere branches in Seattle last year. “We didn’t have as much transition in pricing as other areas did because a lot of the stuff we sold was in the entry-level or move-up range,” she says.
The sales pitch With towering trees and quiet streets (as long as you’re not right off of Aurora), Shoreline is as close to a suburb as you’re going to find on this side of the lake. But in actuality, it’s a city of 14 well-defined neighborhoods, each with a character all its own. Although the older, more established ’hoods have been rocking powerhouse neighborhood associations for decades, spots like Richmond Highlands and North City are busy building up their once-dormant organizations. The renewed focus on community building is already paying off: Friends of Sunset Park formed after the beloved Sunset Elementary School closed in 2007 to raise money and encourage the city, school district, and parks department to develop a temporary park on the land until a new—as-yet-unplanned—school could be built.
By the numbers Median sales price rose above $335,000 in just February last year, when it jumped to $472,000 … Average price per square foot of homes sold topped $200 last year only in October.
What you’ll find Put simply: You get more for your money in Shoreline, and you don’t have to cross the 520 bridge to do it. Lisa Surowiec and her family moved there six and a half years ago after getting priced out of Broadview. “We needed a house with one more bedroom,” she says, “and it was just more affordable to find a bigger house up here than in some of the nicer neighborhoods in Seattle.” But by moving up to Richmond Highlands, they found a home with that extra bedroom for less than their budget of $400,000—plus they were close to good schools and the urban-forest oasis of Boeing Creek. “So Shoreline it was,” she says.
Updated April 27, 2010. This corrects an error in the photo caption originally printed in the May 2010 issue.