The Thin, Bendable Line Between Kensington and Fishtown

Crafty Philadelphia homeowners might be bending neighborhood boundaries to boost sales. Should the law intervene?

What’s in a name, you ask? Well, if you happen to be looking to buy a house in Philadelphia, quite a bit, it turns out.

Two years ago, when my wife and I decided to put landlords and security deposits behind us and take advantage of some of the lowest mortgage interest rates in decades, we knew we wouldn’t be able to afford a house in our Fairmount neighborhood—where a two-bedroom trinity tops $225,000 and doesn’t even have a living room.  Of course that didn’t stop us from looking; but after dedicating several weekends to house hunting it became pretty clear we were either in the wrong zip code or the wrong line of work.

So, we expanded our search, finally settling on what our realtor advertised as a “charming, recently renovated three-bedroom gem in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia.” We’d heard great things about the up-and-coming hipster enclave, and a year after settlement we couldn’t be happier with our choice. Our home is indeed charming; and the extra bedroom has come in handy as a dedicated office/studio space.

There’s just one problem: We don’t live in Fishtown.

On paper, the northern edge of Fishtown tops off at East York Street (and there are locals who would take issue even with that demarcation). Our home happens to be two blocks north of that. We live squarely in Kensington, despite the marketing materials that suggested otherwise. Now I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. We’re not name droppers; it makes little difference to us what the area we live in is called, and in fact we are quite content living in Kensington. The people are friendly, the bars are always hopping, and there is an authenticity here that’s lost in a place like Queen Village, North Liberties and, yes, even Fishtown.

But I can’t help but wonder how much less we might have paid for our house if it hadn’t been redlined into a district where it didn’t belong.  So I decided to do a little research.  According to the real estate listing site Zillow, in August the average sale price of a house in Kensington was about $143,300, while the same house in Fishtown sold for $214,800. That’s a pretty stark contrast, I’d say. Trulia showed the average list price of a Kensington house to be $146,966, with a median closing price of just $98,600 – more than $130,000 less than we shelled out for out property.  Of course there are lots of factors that go into a home’s valuation (our spanking deck surely cost a few clams).  But lets face it, here in the “City of Neighborhoods”—Wikipedia lists more than 170 of them—location does matter, and when crossing the street can add $100,000 to the price of a house, I’d say it’s pretty important that it be listed correctly.

Sadly there appears to be little preventing creative realtors from fudging the boundaries for marketing purposes. Since we’ve lived in the neighborhood I’ve seen houses as far north as Huntingdon Street – a clear eight blocks past York Street – listed as being in Fishtown.  And the tactic is certainly not limited to hipsterville. The same thing is happening in other sections of Philadelphia. Scan the listings on sites like Blockshopper and Movoto and chances are you’ll find homes designated as being in the “Fairmount/Art Museum” area even though they fall north of Girard Avenue—the standing boundary for the neighborhood and a far cry from the tree-lined luxury of 21st and Green, at the heart of the district.

Lucky for us, Philadelphia is unique in the sense that we have a strong heritage of neighborhoods going back more than two hundred years. It’s hard to get one over on us. By contrast, in cities like Indianapolis, Chicago, Charlotte and San Francisco, so-called rebranding is commonplace, and realtors’ associations have been known to create entire neighborhoods out of thin air simply to make a sales pitch.

In New York, a rolling hodgepodge of acronymical portmanteaus like Dumbo (for “Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass”), BoCoCa (Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens) and SoBro (referring to the South Bronx) prompted New York assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries to introduce the Neighborhood Integrity Act last year that would have required the city to “develop a community-oriented process before brokers can rebrand a neighborhood or redefine its boundaries simply for commercial purposes.”

The bill failed to gain traction, but  it drew attention to the lengths the real estate industry will go to rebrand existing territory in an effort to make it more sexy, and by contrast more profitable. According to Jeffries, the consequences of such calculated redistricting are often profound.

“Working families are pushed out of rebranded neighborhoods as housing prices soar,” he wrote in a May 2011 editorial for The Brooklyn Paper. “Newer residents pay more to rent or buy, largely as a result of the deceptive marketing.”

Pennsylvania law already prohibits real estate agents from being a “party to a material false or inaccurate representation…regarding a real estate transaction,” which would certainly cover misrepresenting what section of the city a house sits in to pad the price. But since Philly’s neighborhoods tend to ebb and flow over time and in many cases have no legally recognized boundaries, it’s easy to see how one man’s Kensington can become another man’s Fishtown.

Complicating matters, not every online real estate listing was put there by a bona fide broker or agent; Trulia doesn’t allow owners to post their own homes for sale, but Zillow and Craigslist do. Movoto has a special section of their site for homes that are listed FSBO, or  “For Sale By Owner.”

For the record, the realtors that helped us locate and purchase our house could not have been more professional and courteous, and I doubt either of them was responsible for, or even aware of, the creative nature of our listing. I would have no problem recommending them to friends or family.  What’s more, as a Philly native, I knew well before closing that our house was outside the “official” boundaries of Fishtown.  That simply didn’t matter to us; we fell in love with the house and we wanted to make it our home.  But for the prospective buyer for whom neighborhood is likely to play a real role in their buying decision, I recommend you do your homework before house hunting. You may be surprised by what you learn.