Home sales slim in charming Doylestown

9 Kirkbride Lane, 3rd from left with the tan exterior is for sale in Doylestown. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)

One in a continuing series spotlighting the real estate market in this region's communities.

Arriving after an 80-minute train ride from Center City, a visitor to Doylestown is struck by this fact: Photographs don't begin to do it justice.

The Bucks County seat is much prettier, by far, than any picture.

Today's Doylestown is the result of 50 years of hard work that began with a grassroots effort called "Operation '64," when some residents went to store owners urging them to fix up their businesses.

The borough is both historic architectural jewel and working community, where every older house is identified by builder and construction date, and the newer ones, with few exceptions, look as if they're originals.

As in other county seats - West Chester comes to mind - many of these buildings house law firms and title companies.

Yet, others are home to retail stores and a growing number of restaurants - one after the other on West State Street, as well as in former manufacturing buildings and the old freight depot near the SEPTA station, where you can get a slice of pizza and your ticket.

One thing you notice is the absence of "for rent" signs in the business district. Realtor Nicholas Molloy says only the former Chico's restaurant at State and East Oakland Streets is available - about 3,000 square feet.

"Stephanie's [Sports Bar and Lounge] next door wants to expand there, but the borough is concerned about additional parking," says Molloy, who has sold real estate for 50 years and whose firm, J. Carroll Molloy, has been around since 1916.

Parking is a big issue here, especially on weekend nights, as people from surrounding towns head in for dinner, Molloy says.

It was once a manufacturing hub, but Doylestown's economy is defined these days by service providers connected to the county government and by tourism, with visitors in abundance on every street during a string of warm early-January afternoons.

But tourism isn't new. Doylestown has been a stop for travelers from the start, and, as noted by the local historical society's current exhibit, "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," the borough has attracted artists, writers, and actors for decades, especially between 1920 and 1950.

Midweek, its cultural center, including the Mercer Museum, Fonthill, and the James A. Michener Art Gallery, was drawing a stream of visitors.

"Destination: Doylestown," Molloy says.

It's a compact place. In the last 25 years, about 1,000 houses have been added, but that pales in comparison with the building boom in sprawling townships nearby.

Martin Millner, an agent with Coldwell Banker Hearthside, says Doylestown's size limits the number of houses that change hands here.

"In the past 12 months, there were only 86 properties that actually went to closing, and nine of those were small, one-bedroom condos," Millner says. "There are also some very large, old, charming estate homes in the borough, and when they sell, they can really skew the statistics."

For example, properties now for sale range in price from $2.36 million for a upper-end single home to $110,000 for a townhouse, with most $300,000 to $500,000.

Sales data show that properties have been going for 89 percent of asking price. Millner says the median price of a house, according to Trend Multiple Listing Service, is up 2.7 percent from 2011.

The annual tax bill (borough, county, and Central Bucks School District) for the $2.36 million house exceeds $28,000. For a $420,000 house, it would be $4,700.

"Values have held up well," Molloy says, adding that the borough is drawing downsizing buyers. As a result, upscale condos are planned just two blocks from downtown, a project due to get under way next year.

On its website, Doylestown calls itself a "neotraditional community," referring to the 1980s design movement that looked back at pre-automobile walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. Clusters of new homes have sprouted relatively recently, within about the last 15 years.

Granor Price Homes had done a couple of projects in Doylestown Township, including the 240-home Charing Cross, when, in 1989, Marshal Granor came across a 19-acre former car-seat factory site at Broad Street and Veterans Lane.

"It was the last large piece of land left in the borough," Granor says. "We made an offer to buy it, but then found out it was severely impacted environmentally, and withdrew our offer until it was cleaned up."

That took 10 years. After buying the property in 1998, Granor Price worked with the borough for an additional four years to create Lantern Hill, a development of 117 units and 72,000 square feet of office and retail space that met Doylestown's new traditional-neighborhood-design building codes.

"The timing was good, and the sales were strong," Granor says, with 20 deposits in hand at the start. Buyers "walked to work, some were retirees, even my law professor at Temple, who took the train. Doylestown has always had its own sphere of influence, drawing commuters from North Jersey and New York."

The project was sold out in four years, right before the real estate market took its turn for the worst. Prices then ranged from $305,000 for a single to $170,000 for a three-story townhouse with a basement, he says.

"They have held their value, and there have been few foreclosures," Granor says. List price for a single for sale on Kirkbride Lane in Lantern Hill is $449,900.

Other neotraditional developments followed, though on a smaller scale, such as NV Homes' Belvedere at Doyle Square.

About a quarter-century ago, Granor recalls, Doylestown was not the upscale suburb it is now.

"There were a lot of vacant storefronts, and it looked old and worn. But some very enterprising ordinary homeowners and business people got together and worked hard to turn things around," he says.

"The result is the highly walkable, self-contained, and historic Doylestown you see today."


Doylestown, By the Numbers

Borough population: 8,380 (2010).

Median income: $59,675 (2009).

Size: 2.2 square miles.

Homes for sale: 29.

Settlements in last three months: 18.

Average days on market: 91.

Median sale price (single-family houses): $384,240.

Median sale price (all houses): $384,240.

Housing stock: 4,129 units, mostly older, with "neotraditional" development during the recent boom.

School district: Central Bucks.

SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau; City-data.com; Martin Millner, Coldwell Banker Hearthside Realtors.


Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @alheavens.