We like older houses. Our place in Wichita, Kan., was built in 1936. We also love midcentury modern. So we were baffled when we put “50 years old or older” in our real estate search and came up empty-handed.
That’s when we did what we always do when we’re perplexed. We Googled it. And discovered that, in 1940, there were about 300 people in Richland, less than 2,000 in Kennewick and about 4,000 in Pasco. That the government built most of the houses dating to the ’40s and ’50s. And that the local population has more than quadrupled since 1970.
Mystery solved. There aren’t that many older houses.
Cities at the confluence
Like the Tri-Cities, Wichita grew at the confluence of rivers: the Arkansas and the Little Arkansas. Just as with the Yakima and Columbia rivers, native tribes used to gather at that confluence. Unlike the Tri-Cities, Wichita took shape in the mid-19th century, and quickly grew into a regional center as the Chisholm Trail brought cattle north from Texas and Oklahoma and the railroad arrived to carry them east. So there are substantial neighborhoods with houses that date to the 1800s, the early 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s.
Approaching World War II, Wichita was a thriving center of regional commerce and manufacturing innovation. Thanks to its embrace of aviation in the ’20s and ’30s, it was poised to become a major aircraft manufacturing center during World War II.
As with the Tri-Cities, the federal government built blocks upon blocks of interchangeable housing to serve the influx of workers. Unlike here — where most of the government housing is well-kept, tidy and showing pride of ownership — most of what’s left of Wichita’s government housing is run-down, the neighborhoods centers of poverty.
Maturity is relative
Early in our search here, our agents raised our hopes when they said they’d found a house in one of the city’s more “mature” neighborhoods. We had to laugh when we learned it was built in 1986.
The search got more complicated once we arrived. Lifelong flatlanders, the first time we drove up onto the hillsides, we became intoxicated with the idea of living where we could see out over the landscape. Wichita has many lovely neighborhoods, but no hills to speak of. To get a long view, you have to look up and down the street. Our 1930s neighborhood was just part of the fabric of the city — nice, comfortable, nothing out of the ordinary.
We kept looking for an older house while becoming resigned to the idea that we’d probably end up with something much newer than we’d hoped.
The search did increase our esteem for those who sell houses for a living. House hunting is a peculiar affair. One person’s dream is another’s nightmare, and I’ll admit that our taste is above average idiosyncratic. At one point, after we’d looked at a succession of very nice homes and proceeded to nitpick them apart down to their studs, I thought our agents must think we’re the craziest, pickiest people. Of course, they demurred. “Oh no,” they said. “You guys are great. We like it when people know exactly what they want.”
Did I mention that our agents were very good?
We’ll know it when we see it
The truth is that after we realized we weren’t likely to find an older home meeting our distinctive (OK, quirky) criteria, we really didn’t know what we wanted. Except that we wanted to be able to see out over something. We mostly knew what we didn’t want. And even then, we didn’t know what we didn’t want until we saw it.
The tight local market didn’t help. Most houses get offers fairly quickly. We had to be ready to make a decision.
Finally, there was the sticker shock. Compared with markets nationwide, the Tri-Cities still represents a relative bargain for real estate. However, Wichita falls toward the bottom of the real estate value scale. We figure, and cursory research bears us out, that housing here is about double, on average.
In the end, we found a two-year-old house, on a cul-de-sac, in a spankin’ new addition. It’s nothing like we imagined — it’s nothing we could have imagined.
It couldn’t be more different from our home in Wichita. And we utterly, unconditionally love it. We have a great view — both city lights and surrounding hills. Every night, we look out and say: “Yep. Still beautiful. Not tired of it yet.” Nor will we be.
We’ve made our home here.
Now — anyone in the market for a nice two-story in an older, close-in neighborhood in Wichita? It’s a real bargain.
Randy Bradbury is a writer who recently moved to the Tri-Cities from Wichita, Kan., with his partner, Denice Bruce, who works in communications for the Environmental and Molecular Science Lab at PNNL. This is another in an occasional series.