THE ECONOMY'S DOWN, unemployment's up. Yet housing isn't getting any cheaper. Despite the tech crash and Boeing woes, the median King County sale price for

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THE HOT POCKETS

Finding five affordable Seattle neighborhoods.

THE ECONOMY'S DOWN, unemployment's up. Yet housing isn't getting any cheaper. Despite the tech crash and Boeing woes, the median King County sale price for a single-family home (or condo) has risen almost 9 percent from last October to $260,000, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (MLS). Disheartened with the stock market, people are liquidating their battered portfolios into down payments, encouraged by rock-bottom interest rates. As a result, the market has become more competitive than ever for first-time home buyers.

Real estate holds value, but where can newbies get ahold of a bargain? Ballard is over. West Seattle view lots are a thing of the past. Green Lake? Hah! Still, affordable neighborhoods do exist within reasonable commuting distance of downtown. We're not talking about low-income affordable, but affordable if you—and a spouse or domestic partner, ideally—are in that wavering "If we buy a house, does that make us Yuppies?" state of growing up.

With that in mind, here are five of Seattle's most appealingly affordable hoods (based on MLS and King Country assessor's data run through the highly unscientific Seattle Weekly Math-a-Tronic). They may not be cheap, but they're the closest we've still got within city limits.

SOUTH PARK

The Rap: Strange toxic odors, fetid Duwamish, airplanes screaming overhead.

The Reality: Excellent Mexican food, surprising charm. History and industry are neighbors.

The Commute: 20 minutes to downtown via Metro route 132 (longer via bike on the Duwamish River Trail).

The Median Price: $185,000

The Beta: Say it loud, you're South Park and proud! No longer the overlooked stepsister to artist-infested Georgetown, the south-of-the-Duwamish enclave boasts the lowest median sale price of our quintet. "It's a great neighborhood," enthuses architect Mark Johnson, who with his video producer wife, Mitzy Oubre, bought a 1900 fixer five years ago for about $100K. Friends steered them to South Park from West Seattle. "We were going to be eternal renters," he recalls. What about South Park's rep for decrepit fixers, and industrial squalor? "You'll find a house that needs everything! It scares some people off. I see that as an advantage." In other words—it keeps housing costs down.

Sure, they've done work, such that their assessed value has already doubled. Yet the fixers and For Sale signs aren't so abundant in South Park as they once were. "There were a lot for a while," Johnson says, explaining how properties often sell by referral in such a small hood. There are also new "skinny" in-fill houses on the market for under $200K (particularly south of 99, which slashes through South Park like the Berlin Wall) and nifty little pre-WWI Victorians to restore.

Among the latter, one river-facing 1910 house is currently listed for $235K, perhaps the cheapest waterfront parcel in Seattle! It dates to the pre-Boeing, pre- industrial period in South Park's history, when the small farming community had its acreage expanded by the straightening and rechanneling of the Duwamish. Of such vintage homes, Johnson cautions, "Deferred maintenance is the biggest problem." You can also consider living aboard your boat at the South Park Yacht Club and fish for your dinner off your fo'c'sle, although health advisories may apply.

Speaking in their yard on a remarkably quiet Sunday afternoon, facing a triangular tree-lined central square while their weimaraner, Orion, romps with his chew toy, Johnson and Oubre tick off the pros and cons of South Park. Strong community organizations and activism; "scrubby," unpretentious vibe; diversity; a planned new library; Long Painting is leaving; plus the famous burritos at Muy Macho on 14th (the main commercial strip)—sounds great, right? On the other hand, going out for coffee, groceries, or The New York Times means a trip to West Seattle. Airplane noise varies with the wind direction. And the rusty old 16th Avenue drawbridge needs renovation or replacing, meaning future traffic disruption.

Johnson concludes, "It's sort of its own little small town . . . " " . . . without the services," Oubre interjects.

DELRIDGE

The Rap: Steel mills, electrical towers, gateway to White Center.

The Reality: Hushed and hemmed by greenbelts, overlooked by time—almost like How Green Was My Valley.

The Commute: 20 minutes to downtown via Metro route 20. And your own off-ramp!

The Median Price: $205,000

The Beta: West Seattle's eastern slope represents its last bastion of affordable near-city commuting. "Going to downtown is so easy from where I'm living," says public-health nurse Antoinette McKinnon (who, ironically, drives the other way to White Center to work). With assistance from the Delridge Neighborhood Development Association, a nonprofit housing entity, she was able to buy a $153,000 two-bedroom town house in the DNDA's Brandon Court project, located next to the new library.

"Everyone was shocked," she recalls of her initial move to Delridge, where she first rented for three years. The hood had a bad rep for drug dealing and petty crime—much of which has abated, she thinks, since the relocation of West Seattle High School this year. "There have been a lot of car break-ins, but less so lately. And less litter, big-time." (Moreover, Brandon Court has security parking.) "I walk my dog around the neighborhood," McKinnon adds, referring to the many greenbelt parks and trails.

McKinnon usually does her shopping at the QFC to the south on Delridge Avenue (up the hill to Fauntleroy is another option), but she pines for walking-range coffee shops, cafes, and mom-and-pop stores—instead of the gasoline station convenience marts. (For now, Uptown Espresso and the Luna Park Caf頳tand at the north end of the avenue and are the only places worth hiking to.) Though she likes the mixed-use Brandon Court model, commercial tenants have been scarce, with only the DNDA and library occupying space below.

When will the amenities come? There's a lot of For Sale signs sprouting up, plus some new construction, a sign that Delridge is waking out of its steel-mill and army-housing past (though the Birmingham mill does continue to function). The DNDA is also planning a $7 million project to develop the vacant 1917 Cooper Elementary School building into artist live-work lofts and a ground-floor cultural center. Prudential realtor Donald Fillius pronounces the area "hot," meaning you may want to make it the first stop on your Sunday open-house tour.

"I have hopes for the Delridge neighborhood," McKinnon declares.

SOUTH BEACON HILL

The Rap: "You mean there's something on the other side?"

The Reality: Hipsters are homesteading on the old frontier. Call it SoBeHi!

The Commute: 30 minutes to downtown via Metro route 36.

The Median Price: $218,000

The Beta: "I would kill for Starbucks," laughs NPR producer Luke Burbank, who, with his artist wife, Nicola Vruwink, bought into the hood a year and a half ago for $189K. Having opted for a nice house over a familiar locale, the couple admits the absences of bagel joints, coffee shops, and New York Times boxes that North Enders take for granted. As Burbank says, the area is full of Thai people—not Thai restaurants.

Burbank continues, "The neighbors are so much cooler than our old neighbors" in dog-unfriendly, uptight, white Hawthorne Hills. Working in the yard, he recalls, residents are friendly and eager to chat— albeit in thickly accented immigrant English. What about a neighborhood association? He'd have to start it himself, he admits. Car prowls? A few, but the same is true for Wallingford.

He approvingly points to the shiny new NewHolly development nearby, to sprouting real-estate signs (some north of $200K), and to actual new construction on the block. Still, while now paying less to own than they once did to rent, the challenge remains to invite North End friends down to socialize. Having a house, they thought, would make dinner parties commonplace. Instead, Burbank explains, their friends view their place as being "pretty far out of the way." However nice a home, homesteading can still be an isolating experience until others follow. "I tell people what exit [Albro Street off I-5], and they're like, 'Oh, god!'" laughs Vruwink.

Going out means Stella's Pizza in Georgetown or the Beacon Avenue Pub up north ("the fancy part of Beacon Hill"), but there's never a line or an attitude. "It's authentic, what all the places on Capitol Hill are tying to affect," says Burbank. Yet, he adds, "We don't really walk anywhere." The reason: no sidewalks and no place to walk to. Instead they generally drive to the Seward Park PCC for groceries.

Staying in, when you've got a sweet, light, and airy '20s farmhouse on a double lot, is pretty attractive. The old carpets were yanked up to reveal nice wood floors, and the kitchen has a clean retro quality—not the bad '70s makeover with cabinets from Ernst. Burbank's 8-year-old daughter, Addy, can play outside beneath the fruit trees with their boxer, Flea, who's systematically destroying a plastic garden rake. Meanwhile, Vruwink makes art in her garage-loft studio. She and Flea are also regulars at a nearby local dog park. Still, there's the ongoing challenge of explaining to others, and yourself, where you live. "We were so lost," Vruwink recalls of moving to the unfamiliar South End locale. But now? "Going to the airport—that's a breeze!"

HALLER LAKE/BITTER LAKE

The Rap: Caught in a deafening pincer between I-5 and Aurora.

The Reality: Easy access to Northgate Mall, and you can still look down on Shoreline. We call it "the Lake District."

The Commute: 35 minutes to downtown via Metro route 5.

The Median Price: $248,000

The Beta: OK, there's unending traffic congestion in this area, but you know what? It keeps the prices down! Bounded roughly between I-5 and Greenwood, running north from 110th to 145th, the Lake District is both cramped and convenient. Houses run small on large lots, many of them on snarls of dead-end streets (because of the highways and lake). As a result, it's not a place where you want to drive in rush hour, but you're only trying to make it to the nearest Metro stop or Park & Ride lot.

"Time-wise, we're probably closer to downtown than Ballard or Fremont," says Chuck Cady, RE/MAX realtor and long-time Haller Lake resident. We're touring around the hood in a van with his name emblazoned on the side—I want one, too!--as Cady reels off statistics. He estimates that up to 50 percent of his clients are first-time buyers ("unusual for us"), but cautions they aren't rock-bottom shoppers. Double-income newbies are commonly shelling out $200K-$235K for the area's North End cachet. What about finding a place in the more affordable affordable range? "Totally doable," Cady insists. "Not necessarily the Taj Mahal [but] presentable."

For example, I later examine a 700-square-foot 1935 house closing at around $185K (less than I paid for my smaller Queen Anne condo). It's a few blocks off Aurora, near Ingraham High School, a former rental but no dump. Tellingly, it's located on one of those oddball residential streets bounded by strip malls, trailer parks (yes, one still exists), auto-salvage yards, driving ranges, and hazardous-waste disposal sites where Lake District bargains can still be found.

"There's a real mix," Cady says of the housing stock, which ranges from cute '20s bungalows to banal '60s ramblers to a few overwrought million-dollar trophy homes on the waterfront. Over in Bitter Lake (west of Aurora), condos predominate, but there are also some cool little cottages originally built, Cady explains, to house the workers at the Playland amusement park (1930-61). A little bit of history right here in North Seattle—who knew?

The biggest barrier in getting people to look in the area? That's easy, as Cady echoes a common buyers' refrain: "Haller Lake? Where's that?"

CROWN HILL

The Rap: Once a snooty way to deny you live in Ballard or Greenwood.

The Reality: Now you can no longer afford to live in Ballard or Greenwood.

The Commute: 30 minutes to downtown via Metro route 28.

The Median Price: $250,000

The Beta: You know how the Vikings pushed their dead to sea in burning longboats? Crown Hill is kind of like that. According to Jim Demetre, currently sprucing up and moving into his new C.H. domicile, "It's a very geriatric neighborhood. You have either the young families with kids or the elderly Scandinavian women," the latter tending to be widows clinging to their solid but run-down homes. As compared to unaffordable, boomed-out Wallingford and Green Lake, he says, "Crown Hill is kind of the border of that frontier. Crown Hill is more working class"—or was, since he and other former Amazon.com co-workers have lately been arriving in the hood.

In other words, think of Crown Hill as the most unaffordable of the affordable. Two incomes will be required, particularly if you're expecting to raise a family there. Being crisscrossed by thoroughfares helps keep values within reach in Crown Hill, but anything affordable will be small, run-down, and probably a rambler— although there is some cute surviving stuff from the '40s, '50s, and earlier.

Where are the deals? Look for the dirt-and-leaf-covered cars that haven't moved in years, the boats dry-docked for decades in driveways. (If you're lucky, maybe they'll toss in the Bayliner with the other nonworking fixtures.) Run-down rental properties make for some promising fixers, with double-paned windows first on the to-do list (to help dampen street noise on the arterials). "It's a little dodgy on some blocks," says Lake & Company realtor Kristen Cramer, who sells in the area. Precisely. Dodgy is just what we want. Dodgy means affordable in Crown Hill.

For example, one 1910 house listed for $210K boasts 1,360 square feet and a garage facing the unpaved alley behind it. The street's relatively quiet, north of 85th, where the sidewalks disappear—a stone's throw from the not-very-Gothic Crown Hill cemetery (do Lutherans even have ghosts?). But it's clearly a fixer, where the widowed Scandinavian grandma who probably died there with her three-dozen cats—which subsequently ate her body—had no extra Social Security money for paint or repairs since the Kennedy administration.

By contrast, Demetre got his place, a nice 1941 Cape Codder south of 85th, out of his own better-off grandmother's estate. He concedes, "Had I bought it on the market outright, this home would've been $300K." Ouch. Then there's the (absent) social scene. "It's hard for me to see getting together with friends within the boundaries of Crown Hill." That's what Ballard and Phinney Ridge are for. Although, thankfully, there's a Dick's on Holman Road, and the Sands on 15th promises showgirls(!). So never say Crown Hill is dull. Until you've lived there.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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