A continuing look at the region's real estate market.
Dec. 19 was huge for Jim Cloman. The 22-year-old surveillance officer at Parx casino settled on his first house, a three-bedroom/one-bath in the 6200 block of Algard Street in Philadelphia's Mayfair neighborhood.
"I've already moved in, and I'm cleaning," said Cloman, who is several years younger than what the statistics folks consider the typical age for a first-time buyer in these post-housing-boom days.
But Cloman, and Mayfair itself, don't seem to fit a lot of what the numbers-crunchers are seeing in their data sets.
That's because Mayfair, the slice of the lower Northeast cleft by Frankford Avenue into two somewhat different pieces of residential pie, is not easy to define.
Christopher J. Artur - whose father launched Artur Realty 61 years ago, and who has been selling houses from an office in the 6200 block of Frankford Avenue for 39 of them - readily acknowledges that even the borders of Mayfair are a bit, well, "squishy."
"Some call this Holmesburg," he says as he navigates mid-morning weekday traffic on Frankford Avenue about 10 blocks north of his office, even though the signs on many businesses read "Mayfair."
Experience suggests to him that sometimes a Mayfair address will bring a higher sale price than those in adjacent Tacony or Wissinoming.
"Solid blocks" is the phrase most often heard when one talks about Mayfair, whether the tightly packed east side of Frankford Avenue or the wider streets and larger houses west of it.
There appear to be few houses for sale on either side, no obvious boarded-up properties, no obvious foreclosure or auction signs, no "empties."
Mayfair's houses are primarily airlites. Cloman bought one built in 1945 for $99,850.
Simply put, an airlite is a rowhouse with its kitchen and dining room side by side at the rear of the first floor - as opposed to a "straight-through" rowhouse, in which one (typically the kitchen) is behind the other.
Airlites became standard after World War II; many were built by the Korman and Orleans companies.
On Knorr Street east of Frankford Avenue, Artur says, is a clump of about 300 one-story airlites that are almost like apartments. They are very popular with older homeowners because they offer "no steps" living, he says. The houses currently sell for $100,000 to $125,000.
Affordability is among the things that draw people to Mayfair now. In the old days, Irish, Italians and other ethnic groups gathered in enclaves around their churches, such as St. Timothy's, where Jerry Rowan's parents were married right after World War II.
"My father was born on Tudor Street and my mother on Greeby Street," says Rowan, who lived in the 3300 block of Lansing Street ["some call it Holmesburg"] until he was 18. He reared a family in Newtown, Bucks County, then moved back to Mayfair in 1992 for 10 years until he retired.
"My parents paid $7,500 for that house in 1947, and sold it for $12,500 when they moved to Somerton in November 1965," he says with a laugh.
Rowan, who moved to South Jersey when he retired a few years ago, returns often.
"When we moved back in 1992, it was much more diverse than when I was growing up in the 1950s," he says. "Yet, even today, the neighborhood remains solid.
"I'll drive up and down those streets, and they have held up much better than a lot of places," says Rowan, who was a busboy at the Mayfair Diner in high school and played softball for the original Chickie's & Pete's at Robbins Avenue and Charles Street in the 1970s.
The bustling commercial district along Frankford Avenue that was packed with shoppers every Saturday in the 1950s and 1960s lost ground to other parts of the Northeast and suburban malls in the 1970s. Yet the operable word remains solid.
During the housing boom, "the Asian community in New York City believed the Northeast was the up-and-coming place, and the 19149 zip [code] was where to invest," Artur says.
The influx of those mostly cash investors boosted sale prices of houses in Mayfair far above what they had been, and the long-term effect has been to limit the damage to values comparable neighborhoods suffered in the bust.
Like Rowan, Cloman lived in Mayfair before, from third to eighth grade, and longed to return there from the suburbs.
"It's a little cheaper to live in the city, and while a lot of people don't like cities, they are really trying to improve the area," says Cloman.
Felicia Mack, 27, a dental assistant who works in South Philadelphia, was renting in Bridesburg until she bought her 16-foot airlite row in the 6300 block of Cottage Avenue for $95,000 in August.
"I like it, the neighbors, the house, and the school for my children is in walking distance, and the house was well-maintained by the previous owners," says Mack, noting that the sellers were 94 years old and the first owners of the property.
Artur's father had sold them the house 54 years ago, he says: "I still had the file in the basement."
For Rowan, who still goes to a dental office at Hartel and Frankford Avenues twice a year, the memories of his two tours in Mayfair remain vivid.
"We lived near Pennypack Park, and we'd go fishing in the creek all the time," he says. "DePalma's Bakery would give us dough to use to bait our hooks."
Population: 33,000 (2010)
Median income: $46,211 (2009)
Size: 2.35 square miles
Homes for sale: 310
Settlements in last three months: 127
Average days on market: 81
Average sale price (single-family houses): $97,035
Average sale price (all houses): $97,035
Housing stock: 12,657 (2007), mostly airlite rowhouses built from 1945 to 1955.
School district: Philadelphia
SOURCES: City-data.com U.S. Census Bureau, NIS Philadelphia, Artur Realty