Buying a Home in the City of Brotherly Love: Row Houses, Historic Neighborhoods, and More

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Philadelphia is one of the oldest cities in the United States, and living there offers an unrivaled opportunity to be part of a rich history. Philly, home to over 6 million people, has a calm not found in its nearby neighbor New York City, and its exciting energy is rarely seen in other westward cities. In a Goldilocks-like way, the city feels “just right.”

Philadelphia boasts some of the oldest houses in the country, as well as some of the best schools in the country. But there are things to look out for, too, when buying a home here. Factors like the strength and quality of the roof on older homes, the availability of parking space, and the possibility of basement flood damage and flood susceptibility, should all be carefully considered when embarking on your homebuying journey in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia ranks on the U.S. News list as one of the best places to live, and it’s No. 27 on the list of best places to retire. If you have your sights set on buying a home in Philadelphia, you’re in the right place.

Buying a home is a location-specific endeavor, and, like buying in other metropolitan areas, there are a few need-to-knows about buying a home in Philadelphia before you start your search. Philly has a booming housing market, and there’s a lot to consider before diving into it.

We’ve taken the legwork and the guesswork out of the process for you here. We interviewed some of Philadelphia’s leading real estate experts, like agent Meg Waldowski, explored various neighborhoods, and pored over the nitty-gritty information about homebuying in Philly, so you have it all at your fingertips in one place.

A house in Philadelphia you can buy.
Source: (Ethan Hoover / Unsplash)

Set your budget and assess current home prices

 Philly is fairly affordable, and that’s one of its big draws.

When it comes to housing, the median sale price for a home in Philly averages around $224,600, as of 2019 reports. This is slightly below the 2019 national median price of a new home, which was $320,700. Philly presents affordable living, and buying there is a good investment, too. With an appreciation rate of 141.16% from 2000 to 2018, Philadelphia homes offer a great return on your money.

When considering your budget, you’ll want to factor in Pennsylvania property taxes. These property taxes are slightly higher than the national average. The Philadelphia Real Estate Tax should also be taken into account — be sure to factor taxes into your overall budget, too.

Philadelphia is affordable, but that’s not an indicator of lower salaries. The average worker’s salary in Philadelphia, as of February 2020, is $66,100 annually, whereas the average worker’s salary in the U.S. was $48,700, as of the fourth quarter of 2019. In short: Philly is not only affordable, but it’s a great place to lay roots and build savings.

Consider the market

Philadelphia real estate agent Meg Waldowski sells homes 77% faster than the average agent in Philadelphia; she says that “Around the $252,300 range can get a buyer a decent property” in the city, and buyers who can range up to $332,360 can look “on the other side of the [Main] line and being in the lower counties.”

The Philadelphia Main Line (or simply “Main Line,” as it’s more commonly called) is a historical region in the Philadelphia suburbs that boasts many affluent residences and wealthy communities, such as Gladwyne, Villanova, and Radnor. The Main Line is named for the main line of the former Pennsylvania Railroad. As Waldowski points out, more affordable housing options can be found in the lower counties beneath the Main Line.

Waldowski is passionate about connecting her buyers with their dream house — but a dream house that also fits their budget and won’t negatively impact their existing lifestyle.

Factor in home insurance and roof maintenance costs

Due to Philadelphia being one of the oldest cities in the U.S., there are many older, stunning homes for sale. But sometimes, those older homes mean more maintenance costs, like roof replacements and repairs.

Roof replacements are needed for various reasons, among them: damage from storms and wind, and also the age of roofing materials. Philadelphia’s older homes, like row houses (most of which have been around for centuries!), may require a roof replacement or repair.

Costs vary, but you can expect to pay around $6,000 to $8,000 for a roof repair in Philadelphia. The average cost paid in 2019 for a shingle roof repair in Philadelphia was $6,057 to $7,838.

Homeowner’s insurance is recommended for most home buyers, as a way to protect your property, home,  and the assets in it.

Know about Philadelphia’s 10-year tax abatement

Philadelphia recently created a 10-year tax abatement program, which may affect your buying decisions. An abatement means you can lower your property taxes while you are improving your home or building a new house. You can choose which abatement is right for you depending on your situation.

Common red flags to look out for in Philly: Parking and mold

 Philadelphia real estate expert Alan Krawitz, the Associate Director at Berkadia overseeing properties, says: “A big thing that’s been a hot button is parking. With the zoning code in Philly, about five or six years ago, they started cutting down on curb cuts. So, if you’re building a single-family home, it’s difficult to get a curb cut for parking. You may be able to obtain parking in the rear.”

Location is very important, stresses Krawitz. “You’ll find so many townhomes in Philly that don’t have any parking. You have to look at the density of the neighborhood where you want to buy, and you have to ask yourself: Will parking be difficult here?”

So don’t just look at the interior of the house, but be sure to consider the whole package. If you’re not a car owner, then you can scratch this flag off your list. But those buyers, who might rely on public transportation, will want to ask: How close is this home to public transport stations? (Philly’s public transportation system, SEPTA, is available throughout the city.)

Waldowski adds that the water table has risen, and that’s a big issue facing the Philly housing market. “Houses that had never gotten water before may get water in their basements now. That’s the biggest thing buyers aren’t thinking about. [When selling a house] I look at the structure and the components. I look at the beams and I look for mold. A lot of our agents are focused on the water and mold situations right now.”

Buyers in Philadelphia should make sure that along with parking availability, they pay special attention to mold issues, and the home’s age and structure.

Source: (olive Bauers / Unsplash)

Housing stock in Philly 

As mentioned, Philadelphia has the benefit of being one of the oldest cities in the U.S.

Founded by William Penn in 1682, the city grew over centuries into the beloved place it is today. And having been around so long, that means you’ll find some very old homes in Philly. For these older, historic homes, you’ll want to check out row houses for sale. These types of houses — of which there are four main kinds — can be found most plentifully in Center City.

Row houses

Row houses are classic Philadelphia homes that populate Center City. They are the most numerous type of house found in the city, and can be found from Queen Village to West Philadelphia to Center City.

They are some of the oldest homes in Philly. There are several types of row houses, which were built to suit the varying economic means of Philly’s early inhabitants. This led to a high rate of homeownership in Philly’s earliest days and helped grow the young city into the cosmopolitan hub it is today.

Row houses promoted the growth of neighborhoods and neighborly vibes, but could also lead to dangerous consequences, like fires spreading quickly from house to house.

Today, row houses are safer than ever, thanks to modern advancements and refurbishments. Note, though, that row house homes do offer less privacy than other styles of houses, due to the way they were originally built — right next door to each other, with no space in between.

Bandbox row house

The bandbox row house is also sometimes called a “Trinity.” It’s the smallest type of row house. You’ll find them in narrow alleyways in Philadelphia. They were originally intended for more working-class Philadelphians.

London house plan row house

London house row houses are larger than their Bandbox counterpart. These homes were built in the 1800s, and can be found today in Philadelphia’s Carstairs Row, also called Jewelers’ Row.

City house plan row house

City house plan row houses generally have a side yard and are more spacious. These houses are found at the historic landmark Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia, which has been dubbed the “nation’s oldest residential street.”

Townhouse plan row house

Though similar in name to the city house plan row houses, townhouse plan row houses are a bit different. The townhouse plan row houses tend to be larger and more detailed. One of the most famous examples of this style of row house is the Powel House at 244 S. Third Street.

Condos in Center City

For newer homes, look no further than the thousands of condos for sale that pepper Center City. Some condos are in older, historic brick buildings, and others are in newer developments.

Philadelphia, where you can buy a house.
Source: (Ethan Hoover / Unsplash)

Pick the Philly neighborhood where you feel most at home 

Philly is packed with vibrant, engaging neighborhoods.

If you have children, education opportunities will likely be a factor in your neighborhood-decision-making process. The three highest-ranking public elementary schools in Philly are Penn Alexander School (Spruce Hill), Masterman Julia R Secondary School (Franklintown), and Gamp (Melrose).

Spruce Hill & Cedar Park

Benefits: Great schools, family-oriented, and dynamic architecture.

West Philadelphia’s Spruce Hill and Cedar Park are leafy, idyllic places for families to call home. Residents love this part of town for its diversity and its focus on family.

Rittenhouse Square 

Benefits: Exciting atmosphere, world-class restaurants outside your doorstep, and cultural activities nearby. And, as the name suggests: stunning Rittenhouse Square is at the heart of the neighborhood.

Famed Rittenhouse Square area in Center City is where you’ll find it all: parks, incredible restaurants and bars, eclectic shops, and a city thrumming with life.

Queen Village

Benefits: Modern vibes in a historic setting, with a waterfront location that is extremely accessible.

Historic and laid-back, this Philadelphia neighborhood has some of the most gorgeous houses around. Queen Village is especially walkable, and you’ll spot lots of pedestrians and cyclists here.

Bella Vista

Benefits: An abundance of fantastic restaurants and brunch spots, family-focused, and houses Philadelphia’s famous Italian Market on 9th Street
Beautiful Bella Vista is an Italian immigrant-founded Philly neighborhood, known for its plethora of restaurants and bars.

A bridge in Philadelphia, where you can buy a house.
Source: (Abdul Delati / Unsplash)

When to buy a house in Philly

From an inventory and availability standpoint, says Krawitz, “It’s like the rest of the mid-Atlantic; most housing ‘inventory,’ so to speak, is found in spring and summer. Because people aren’t doing open houses when it’s snowy and cold outside.”

Warmer spring and summer months, and some fall months tend to be the best times of year to buy a house in Philadelphia. At these times, there are simply more options. And you’ll want options, because houses in Philadelphia sell quick! “For the past six to seven years,” says Krawitz, “it has been a seller’s market. There’s just a lack of product and a high amount of demand.” 

Find an expert buyer’s agent in Philadelphia

 Finding the perfect agent for you is a critical component when buying a house, and there are more than 10,000 agents in Philadelphia. The best Philadelphia buyer’s agents save their clients $49,915 on their home purchase; that’s a lot of cheesesteaks!

Local agents understand the nuances and complexities of home buying in Philadelphia, and they are worth their weight in gold, especially when it comes to negotiating on your house and quickly closing the deal. A good agent will have the proper insight on budgets, home inspections, neighborhood know-how, and more.

They will guide you every step of the way as you move closer to having those keys in hand for your new space to call “home.”

Header Image Source: (Alejandro Barba / Unsplash)