Still a place for first-time buyers

It was, I recall through the cobwebs of 31 years, a shock to find that the only house we probably could afford was in the 200 block of Montrose Street, not the 200 block Monroe Street as I had read the ad originally.
Married less than two years, we had, at the urging of our accountant, been looking to buy for months, but were stymied by interest rates of 18 percent.
We had seen a listing for the three-bedroom, 1 1/2-bath rowhouse for $63,500 with $10,000 down and an assumable 13 1/2 percent VA mortgage. It was, in my mind anyway, akin to a miracle.
And here it was, in the middle of the block between Moyamensing Avenue and Third Street, 11 1/2 feet wide, three stories high and, as later I learned, 53 feet deep.
As Cher said in Moonstruck, “A miracle? This is modern times! There ain't supposed to be miracles any more!”
For the next five years, however, it was our house, home to our first-born, and the source of the mortgage-interest deduction that our accountant, who remains in that job to this day, craved.
Monthly payment: $850. Property taxes: $500 a year.
When you join Town by Town's tour of Queen Village in today's Business section, you quickly discover that time, and real estate, don't stand still. These days,  houses on the 200 block of Montrose list for $325,000, Prudential Fox & Roach agent Kathy Conway tells me, although interest rates are a reasonable 3.5 percent.
I asked economist Kevin Gillen at Penn’s Fels Institute if I could still be a first-time buyer on Montrose Street.
“The total annual housing costs — mortgage payment plus property tax bill and maintenance costs — should be 30 percent to 40 percent of annual gross income,” Gillen says, adding that “if housing costs exceed that, then your house could be deemed ‘unaffordable’ to you.”
And one more thing: “Include utility costs. Historically, they didn't matter too much, but they certainly do today,” Gillen says.
Without utility costs, I’d be paying $1,416 a month, according to Trulia. That doesn’t count AVI.
The 200 block of Monroe Street wouldn’t be a stretch either these days. Conway says I could pick up a trinity for $200,000, although we ruled them out back in 1982 because I was hitting my head on low ceilings as I maneuvered the stairs in some we looked at.
I didn’t do very well in the resale in 1987, since we put the house on the market just as it was turning sour.
We did a lot of renovating in those five years — mostly to undo things previous owners considered cutting edge at the time — as well as maintenance.
It took us six months to sell it, for $84,500. That was certainly more than we paid, but it was the equity bonanza I’d hoped for.
Conway says many sellers today are doing much better, with many preferring to move into larger houses in Queen Village from their first-time digs.
“I sold a house in the 200 block of Fitzwater Street to a couple for $85,000,” she says. “They took out a 203K mortgage for $130,000 to renovate it.”
Five years later, and now with two children, they sold the renovated house for $729,000, she says.
In many cases, sellers of their first houses are making $300,000 when they sell to move on, not the $40,000 they used to,” she says.