Haus Schwatz: Cati's DC Real Estate


House History, House Sentiments, House Envy

Do most real estate agents suffer from house envy now and then?  Or are we immune after a while?  We get to see a lot of magnificent homes.  Most of the time I feel inspired by a great place.  I don't ever recall wanting to live in one of them. Neuman House Takoma Park Tour

But how about a certain type of house?  A certain feel of house? Yes, there has been a longing, and it never left me.  Because in the end so much comes down to emotions in real estate, and in the end it's always somehow about our past.

When I went to attend the annual Historic Takoma House and Garden Tour yesterday, it really hit home (no pun intended).

 Jugendstil door plateThe very first place I had all to myself some twenty-some years ago was a squat in a turn-of-the century apartment building in East Berlin, Germany.  The landlord had abandoned it because the communist rent control laws didn't allow private owners to maintain their property adequately.  They had two choices: sell out to a government management company, or let the flats and buildings gradually go to pieces.

The third, unofficial option were tenants that took the upkeep in their own hands.  That's what I did.  After I had more or less broken into the vacant place, I made a deal with the owner:  He would sign a lease with me at the official rent (roughly the equivalent of $5/month) and buy me a new water heater (which were hard to come by in the open market).  In return, I would take plumbing, electrical updates, painting as well as floor and plaster repairs all in my own hands.

The place was on the top (5th) floor, had 11-foot ceilings, 13-inch walls, wide window sills, big heavy doors with Jugendstil brass ware and a scary balcony from which I could observe the streetcars squeaking down the road far beneath.  The floors were laid with 5-inch wide oak planks, and the kitchen had the large walk-in, windowed pantry that was typical for Berlin apartments from that time.

 Takoma Park House Tour 2008Every inch (or shall I say, centimeter) of the place was breathing history. Who had occupied the flat a hundred years ago?  Were they happy?  Did they have kids?  Did they survive World War I?  Who lived there in the 30s?  A Nazi who spied on his neighbor?  The Jewish owner of the store downstairs who lost all of his family?  A bookkeeper whose wife regularly polished the brass on the doors like my grandmother had done with hers? 

And after the war?  Did Russian soldiers camp out in this building?  Did some bureaucrat issue an entitlement to the apartment for his best friend, passing over a line of widowed mothers?  Did the Stasi ever arrest someone in this kitchen?

The speculation could entertain me endlessly.  Living there made me part of history, part of the universe.  It connected me to generations past and future.  It gave intensity to my youth, to the place of many late night gatherings, where we suffered, plotted, loved, lived and hated the way only people who live in a dictatorship can.

A few years later, the roof that had been damaged when a bomb hit the house next door during the war, started leaking.  The task exceeded the do-it-yourself qualities of my closest friends, so I had to move on.

 Takoma Park Historic House TourWhen my friends bought the amazing Takoma Park Victorian two weeks ago, I didn't understand why I felt so much at home there.  Yesterday, at the house tour in their new neighborhood, which featured an amazing set of homes and owners, it began to sink in.  It's all about the history, the emotions, the past and the future.

The house that I bought two years ago is twenty years old.  It's nice, open, airy, and contemporary, and the neighborhood was a great and convenient choice for my family.  But with its hollow walls, flawless window frames and automatic garage door opener it has always felt a bit like a film set, like a temporary structure to me.

As for the history part, I have good reason to doubt that this house will still be standing in a hundred years.  You know what I mean.


 Cati's flat on Doerpfeld street

P.S. A few years ago, when I was visiting Berlin, I happened to drive by the site of my first apartment building.  It had made room for a sleek luxury condominium.  The grief I felt was indescribable.


© 2012, Catarina Bannier


Comment balloon 23 commentsCatarina Bannier • May 05 2008 04:13PM


I completely understand what you mean. My house has no "soul" it's just a house. When I was in Italy last September I felt a sense of that rich history. It's amazing and hard to come by in suburbia, unfortunately.
Posted by Kelly Sibilsky (Licensed Through Referral Connection, LTD.) over 11 years ago
Kelly-- yes, and another thing of course that just occured to me is that in a European city, nobody would consider a 120-year old house "historic."  It's all a matter of your perspective I guess...
Posted by Catarina Bannier, DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way (Compass) over 11 years ago
My grandmother used to live in a grand old home.  I remember when she sold it because she couldn't be far away on her own any longer.  It was as if I was grieving for the house.  Just knowing I would never be there again.  I understand.
Posted by Karen Gentry>>Charlottesville, Virginia Real Estate Professional (RE/MAX Excellence-Charlottesville VA) over 11 years ago

Hi Catrina ~

Thanks for sharing, I love places like this. In my area of SoCal the majority of homes are the typical tract, assembly line production homes. My own is no exception, guess that why I love the more unusual places myself.

Posted by Lynda Eisenmann, Broker-Owner,CRS,CDPE,GRI,SRES, Brea,CA, Orange Co (Preferred Home Brokers) over 11 years ago
What an awesome story. It's too bad in Florida, we rarely find houses that could eek out much history. We have mostly tract houses and not much of anything more than 50 years old. BUT, we do still have a few old plantation homes. Unfortunately, they've been upgraded and are usually occupied by doctors and attorneys offices =/
Posted by Lisa Hill, Daytona Beach Real Estate (Florida Property Experts) over 11 years ago
Great story!!! I grew up in a circa late-1700's house in parents bought it in 1978 and it was in REALLY rough shape but bit by bit they renovated the house---it took about 15 years to complete because they did most of it themselves.  Most of the original frame still exists and although they did update and upgrade they maintained the integrity of the old home.  I remember being a child as they ripped out the plaster and lath walls and the pine plank flooring and finding artifacts of previous occupants and being completely living in a history lesson. 
Posted by Abby Roselli, Staten Island Home Stager (ALR Home Staging and Showcasing, LLC) over 11 years ago
Caterina, What a beautiful and interesting story you wrote!  I can "see" your flat in my mind.  The newer homes rarely have much personality, which is so sad to me. I love older homes, especially the ones that remind me of my childhood! Great post and thanks so much for sharing with us.
Posted by Elizabeth Cooper-Golden, Huntsville AL MLS (Huntsville Alabama Real Estate, (@ Homes Realty Group)) over 11 years ago
Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. I think when we buy a new home we must always make it our own. We have to change things around and be creative. But the saying is always so true "we want what We can't have". If we buy a brand new home, we want an older one, if we buy older, we want newer!
Posted by Terrie Leighton, Reno Real Estate Agent ~ Selling Homes in Reno (Ferrari-Lund Real Estate ) over 11 years ago
Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. I think when we buy a new home we must always make it our own. We have to change things around and be creative. But the saying is always so true "we want what We can't have". If we buy a brand new home, we want an older one, if we buy older, we want newer!
Posted by Terrie Leighton, Reno Real Estate Agent ~ Selling Homes in Reno (Ferrari-Lund Real Estate ) over 11 years ago
We all want to make a home our own.  That is why so many people buy a new home just to make the choices.  It is truly their home  
Posted by Russ Ravary ~ Metro Detroit Realtor call (248) 310-6239, Michigan homes for sale ~ (Real Estate One) over 11 years ago
This was a great story. It is fun to sit down and try to figure out who lived here, what did they do, etc. 
Posted by Christy Powers, Pooler, Savannah Real Estate Agent (Keller Williams Coastal Area Partners) over 11 years ago
Thanks for sharing. This is very interesting. Places do absorb energy from the past owners and the situations that lived there.
Posted by Bob & Carolin Benjamin, East Phoenix Arizona Homes (Benjamin Realty LLC) over 11 years ago

Karen--I can only imagine how that felt.  It's a part of yourself that dies with the move.  it will be so much harder to remember all those happy childhood hours at her house.

Lynda--I think in a way, we're lucky here in DC, insofar that the town has been here for a while, and it has seen some great moments and some amazing people pass through.  Thank goodness, the government and its workers have always needed houses of all kinds and sizes.

Lisa--I love the old plantation homes in the south!  It's a shame that many of them have been--often in a well-ment effort--what a good friend of mine called "destroyrenovated."

Posted by Catarina Bannier, DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way (Compass) over 11 years ago

I grew up in an old small farm house with the original barn and everything. It was hard when my parents got divorced and sold the place. To this day I cannot drive by it and "check up" on it. Too many emotions. As a real estate agent, I now specialize in historic homes, and have renovated a few grand Victorians....I know it all goes back to the old home I grew up in.

You should post this in the Historic Home group.

Posted by Jennifer Kirby, The Luxury Agent (Kirby Fine Homes) over 11 years ago

Abby--this reminds me of how I helped tearing down the wallpaper in a friend's apartment.  There were at least five layers that represented the design tastes of many decades.  And the bottom layer that bound the paper to the plaster was -- newspapers!  We placed them somewhere in the years post WW-I or the 1920s and spent the rest of the day reading to each other from our pieces and sections, mostly ads I think. 

Elizabeth--thanks.  Childhood memories play a role for many of our clients as well, even if they don't want to admit it.  It seems to me that comparisons are drawn all the time, and people have formed strong preconceptions about what a happy home needs to look like.

Terri-- I think you're right, but in our case it was a lot about compromise as well:  I have always wanted old, and my husband loves contemporary.  For some reason, this house was the first one we both thought we could live with.

Posted by Catarina Bannier, DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way (Compass) over 11 years ago

Russ--yes, I can see the virtue of that as well, although I wouldn't trust my own decisions!  Never had the desire to pick out a la carte kitchen counters at the builder's office, but I know that a lot of people do.

Christy--I recently talked to an old Washingtonian who founded a company called Houstory in the 1980.  He offered to research the history of their houses for people (and sometimes institutions).  He told me that the enterprise folded after just a few years--there wasn't enough demand.  I found this hard to believe!

Bob/Carolin--yes, and sometimes that energy can make people very uncomfortable.  I had clients who bought a beautiful house about five years ago and learned at the settlement table that the owner had moved away because he couldn't bear living there anymore since his wife died.  She was on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon on 9--11.  My clients never moved in before they sold the house last year, and I'm not sure that was entirely coincidental.

Posted by Catarina Bannier, DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way (Compass) over 11 years ago
Jennifer-- thank you!  I'm pretty new here and had no idea that there was a Historic Homes group.  I'd love to check it out.  And I can so relate to your story--it's really all about where we came from, although many buyers probably don't share your insight.  (After my parents divorced, my father bought a 19th century farm house 30 miles north of Berlin and renovated it...) I will have to visit your group. :-)
Posted by Catarina Bannier, DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way (Compass) over 11 years ago


I understand your sense of nostalgia and loss at seeing part of your history gone forever.   I lived for 20 years in a home that I loved deeply, actually it was not just the home, but the location and the land.  I went through a divorce and could no longer afford to keep it, so I moved a few blocks away.  If I won a million dollars I'd move right back.  It still remains to me, the best place in the world (and to my ex-husband, too).  We are friendly with each other (not friends, but you understand) and he feels the same way.  In fact, I think we stayed too long in the marriage because of the house.  We knew leaving the marriage meant leaving the house.  

My new husband and I were invited back to a party at my old home and it was so strange and such powerful emotions swept through me.  I had no idea it would have that kind of impact, but it did.  I have never felt emotional about a home before or since, and don't know if I ever will again, but some places are just magical. 

I remember one summer night when our nieces and nephews were sleeping outside in a tent in the backyard with kids from the house next door.  The children were still quite young, and the parents showed them how to chase fireflies.  Adults and children were running and laughing, the stars were out and the moon was glistening off of the water, the air was warm and you could smell the salt water.  It had a beautiful, gentle, almost fairy-tale quality to the evening.

Thank you for sharing a part of yourself in this post and for evoking these memories in me.

Posted by Gail Robinson, CRS, GRI, e-PRO Fairfield County, CT (William Raveis Real Estate) over 11 years ago

I understand exactly what you are saying, but at the same time I can look at my house and see the place where my older son took his first steps.  That is just one of the "historic" moments I see here.  It isn't the same type of history, but it is pretty important to me. 

I've lived in a couple of older homes, and had the same types of thoughts.   What has happened here?

Posted by Lane Bailey, Realtor & Car Guy (Century 21 Results Realty) over 11 years ago
Catarina, what a beautifully written post!  I think that you and I are fortunate to be working in a market where there are so many homes with a story.  Mine, like your first flat, has a bit of a history, along with questionable roofing and systems, and I'm pretty sure it will be here for at least another hundred years.  And you bet!  I get house envy all the time!
Posted by Patricia Kennedy, Home in the Capital (RLAH Real Estate) over 11 years ago
I am lucky enough to live in a century+ old house that has been updated/modernized throughout. It is the best of both worlds. I have recently started researching its' history. You are so right! Once you start finding out about the real people that once lived in an old house you are intrigued to uncover more details--it is addicting! I will post a blog about it someday when I get enough time to finish the job.    
Posted by Linda Sticklin (Home Staging & Organizing) over 11 years ago

Oh, Gail, this almost brought tears to my eyes... what a beautiful memory, though.  I ran into a wonderful colleague from my former office today, and she told me the same: she had gotten divorced and just sold her family home of 30 years.  I remember the all-night holiday parties she threw every year... but for her, it's half of her life and the memories of her daughters growing up.  she said that she burned the virtual tour on a CD for each of them.  I thought that was beautiful.

Lane--yes, of course, we're creating our own history in these places.  The in-town 1930s row house where we lived when our kids were babies, will always be a special place to us.  (I really should burn them the virtual tour for that one, although they probably wouldn't remember.)

Posted by Catarina Bannier, DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way (Compass) over 11 years ago

Pat--thanks!  There are a lot of people with stories in this town as well!  That's what makes it so special (and at times complicated).  Your cool cottage today was just one of those places...

Linda--I'd love to read your house story!  Please let me know when you're writing about it.

Posted by Catarina Bannier, DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way (Compass) over 11 years ago