Town By Town: Somerton, a suburban feel in the city
One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in this region's communities.
Somerton is rare among Philadelphia neighborhoods: Its borders are fairly clear.
"It's really more of a square," says Seth Kaplan, 28, who grew up in Bustleton and chose to buy his first home here in 2009. The house - where Kaplan, chief of staff for State Rep. Kevin Boyle, lives with wife Melissa, son Dylan, 3, and daughter Michaela, 2 - had "a low sale price in a great neighborhood," though it "needed to be completely gutted."
Easily discernible borders are just one thing in Somerton's favor. Another, says Keller-Williams real estate agent Mike Fitzpatrick, is a "strong sense of community and the political wherewithal to keep it that way."
With a view of Montgomery County to the northwest and Bucks County to the northeast, Somerton has the feel of the suburbs without being there.
It used to be much more rural, says MSNBC's Hardball host, Chris Matthews, who moved to Southampton Road from Hunting Park Avenue and Broad Street in 1950.
"We had farms on all sides of us," Matthews recalls. "I once counted five farmhouses in various directions. We had cows out back right up to the barbed-wire fence."
"Somerton was really a village back then, centered on the corner of Byberry and Bustleton Avenue," he says.
What drew the Matthews family to Somerton also has attracted firefighters, police officers, teachers, and myriad officials once required to live within the city limits.
"It's made people in Somerton feel safe and secure," says Fitzpatrick.
The live-here rule has changed, leading to concern about Somerton's future should those city workers decide to go suburban and flood the market with houses for sale.
But economist Kevin Gillen, a senior research consultant at the Fels Institute of Government of the University of Pennsylvania, believes property taxes in Somerton will drop enough because of the city's Actual Value Initiative to reduce any outflow of residents.
These days, it's not a glut of houses for sale but a lack of them that dogs the Somerton real estate market, says agent Carol McCann, of Re/Max Millennium on Rhawn Street in Fox Chase.
"There aren't many homes for sale, and even fewer singles, which are selling for about $200,000, depending on condition," says McCann, who has been selling in the Northeast for 24 years.
The least expensive twin is about $160,000, she says. In Old Somerton, where houses are pre-World War II and larger, prices can run as high as $300,000.
There are "quite a few condos," McCann says, notably Forest Glen and Carousel Station on heavily traveled Byberry Road, near the Forest Hills stop on the West Trenton rail line.
Another SEPTA station sits at Philmont and Bustleton Avenues, surrounded by shopping centers and low-rise apartment complexes.
Condo prices are relatively affordable here, Fitzpatrick says, with a one-bedroom ranging from $75,000 to $95,000 and a two-bedroom for $110,000 to $130,000.
A 11/2-story Cape Cod sells for $150,000 to $175,000, he says. In the 2003 sellers' market, it was about $300,000.
Long before new construction began appearing in great quantity in Center City and satellite neighborhoods, Somerton was where much of Philadelphia's market-rate building took place.
And after City Council's adoption of the 10-year tax abatement in the late 1990s, the pace quickened both for new construction and renovation along the lines of what Kaplan did to make his 1958-vintage Burgess Street house a home.
As counted by Gillen, 548 housing units in Somerton are tax-abated. (The city total is 15,991). On Gillen's map are "two significant clusters of red dots, denoting new construction," he says, adding that "those are housing developments, as opposed to someone making improvements to his home."
One cluster is Westrum Development Co.'s Arbours at Eagle Pointe, an over-55 community of 398 units, starting at $279,900, on the old Philadelphia State Hospital site at Roosevelt Boulevard and Southampton Road.
None of the new developments has been as large as Eagle Pointe. In fact, Fitzpatrick says, a lot of developers (meaning investors) are buying houses from aging owners, offering them "a certain amount of money," then renovating or razing to build new.
As head of planning and zoning for the Somerton Civic Association, Kaplan strives to protect older houses here from being torn down or converted to other uses.
Recently, the association agreed to allow use of what's known as the "big green house" at 725 Byberry Rd. as a synagogue by a Lubavitcher congregation, whose rabbi and his family will live there and eventually add a building for services. Kaplan says there was concern the property might have to be subdivided to lure a buyer.
Somerton remains a "tight" community, with a huge offering of sports programs through its youth organization, and highly regarded public and charter schools, as well as St. Christopher's parochial school, Kaplan says.
Matthews' family was one of the first 25 to form St. Christopher's, and he commuted "down Bustleton to school to Maternity BVM for the first two years."
Matthews keeps in touch with his childhood friends, and has fond memories of going to Somerton Springs in Feasterville to swim and Treasure Island Boy Scout Camp.
"We had it all," he says.
Town By Town: Somerton, By the Numbers
Population: 38,807 (2010)
Median income: $48,383 (2009)
Area: 0.001 square miles
Homes for sale: 68
Settlements in the last three months: 24
Median days on market: 85 (figure for all of the
Median sale price (single-family): $222,000
Median sale price
(all homes): $214,000
Housing stock: Primarily post-World War II; substantial construction 1990s-2007.
School district: Philadelphia
SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau; City-data.com; Trulia.com;
Long & Foster Real Estate
Contact Alan J. Heavens
at 215-854-2472, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @alheavens.