Willoughby: If only I could’ve should’ve bought it, Aspen’s real estate regrets
Legends & Legacies
The Aspen Times carries a weekly feature, “What’s the big Deal?,” which revels in a local real estate sale. The title packs a smidgeon of irony and much truth. Anyone who has lived in Aspen for more than a decade has watched prices climb to breathtaking heights.
A common story, shared over a few drinks while looking at the colorful house ads, goes like this, “I could have bought that place for (a much lower price). I should have made it mine back in (a previous year).” Such pastime pronouncements by procrastinators are not unique to contemporary Aspen. Every generation has said, at least one time, that prices could never go any higher.
It is hard to analyze Aspen’s early decades of real estate because often no prices were listed. Perhaps if you had to ask the price, you couldn’t afford it. With silver riches burning a hole in every pocket, surely home prices would have bid upward. But subdivisions followed city plots and an abundance of buildable land stretched far from town. Miners with little money built cabins on claims that cost only filing fees.
Expressing 1880s prices in today’s dollars throughout this column shows that housing, even during a silver boom, was a bargain compared to today. The lowest rent in town in 1885 cost $280 per month for a three-room house. You could land an eight-room furnished house for $580. A seven-room log house with a cellar would set you back $465 a month. You could buy a three-room dwelling for $6,800, or buy a lot with two three-room houses for $23,000.
Note that you could buy housing for less than two years of rent. But there was no financing available.
A decade later, after the Panic of 1893, you may expect prices to collapse. However, in 1895 and 1896 prices exceeded those of the 1880s. A new four-room brick house sold for $38,000. A two-room (not to be confused with two-bedroom) house went for $7,000. Water showed up in advertising as a nice extra. A house on two lots with seven rooms went for $77,000. An ad promoted a house as an investment possibility: A tenant had occupied it continuously for $1,000 a month.
In 1905, prices fell. You could pick up a house for as low as $3,100. But dwellings were smaller then, most under 1,000 square feet. A miner made about $20,000 a year, so home ownership was within reach of most long-term residents.
During the 1930s, my parents did not count on real estate appreciation. To increase their lifelong prospects, they depended on an increase in the price of silver. The price determined their income. Silver had reached a low of $4.16 an ounce after the stock market crash, but President Franklin Roosevelt helped to boost the price to $11.11. My parents landed a bargain right after they married in 1934. They bought a house for $500 at the time (less than $10,000 in today’s dollars). The place sold furnished, with three new pieces of bedroom décor (see photo).
After moving in, my parents discovered the roof struggled under the snow load. They did not have money to fix it, and sold the property around 1941. But they kept the furniture, which remains in our family. A few years ago, I saw an identical chest of drawers for sale in a California antique shop. The cost? The original price of the furnished house, $500.
I found a house on a site comparable to my parents’ house, in that west end neighborhood not far from the Yellow Brick School. The one story Victorian hefts a $6 million price tag.
Dang, they should have held onto it. They could have picked up a house with two lots during the late 1950s for $75,000, or a lot in Pitkin Green in 1962 with river frontage for $72,000.
If only I could’ve should’ve bought it. But there’s no rush. The price could not possibly climb any higher.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.
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