Unreal Estate: How a $79K Bungalow Became a $975K Denver Gut-and-Flip

Most people, I suppose, are more than slightly sentimental about the first house they ever owned. Unless you have money to burn, it was probably some kind of fixer-upper, or a very cozy older home in a strange zip code, or otherwise flawed.

But then, the whole process is a leap of faith anyway, a roll of the dice on Denver's volatile housing market, a declaration that you're ready to take on the responsibilities of home ownership and put down roots and raise a family or whatever.  

The other day, I happened to be in the Berkeley neighborhood and decided to swing by my first house — a 1924 Craftsman-style brick bungalow, situated on a steep hill, surrounded by similar homes. At first I thought I was on the wrong street.  Then I realized I was looking right at the place, only it was now wearing a giant, crazy-ass second story where the roof used to be. My modest little bungalow had become a million-dollar pop-up, the most garish thing on the block. 

Or, to quote the sales literature, it had been transformed into a "one of a kind home," "remodeled with entertainment and functionality in mind," with "water and fire features" and a putting green in back. 


You can imagine my bewilderment. When I bought the place a couple of lifetimes ago, I wasn't looking for water features or a putting green; I was in the market for cheap but charming. This was at the bottom of the late 1980s recession, and the bungalow — two bedrooms, one bath, a thousand square feet and a full but mostly unfinished basement  and detached garage — was priced to move at $79,000. I borrowed most of the down payment from my parents, took out a mortgage for the rest at 9 percent, and invested in some paint. 

I think I was the third owner. The place had staunchly resisted updating, from the lovely metal-and-glass cabinets in the kitchen that reminded me of my grandmother's house in Walsenburg to the ill-fitting storm windows and the enormous octopus furnace in the basement.

My biggest contribution was digging up the back yard to put in a fairly productive garden. 

During the ten years I lived there, the house on Grove Street hosted many celebrations and dinner parties and good conversations on the shaded front porch. It was also a quiet haven in times of loss and discouragement.

Thanks to the double-digit hikes in Denver's housing market throughout the 1990s, I was able to sell the place for twice what I'd paid for it. The new owner kept it for another fifteen years and more than doubled her money, too, selling for $337,500 in 2013.  

Then the flippers got it.

They gutted the first floor and added a second level that boasts three bedrooms, a laundry room and a balcony. They put a bar in the basement, quintupled the number of bathrooms (including an "En Suite 5-piece Master Bath"), wedged the water-and-fire-featured patio in back, and landscaped like fiends.

Listed at a cool million in May — okay,  $999,900 — the 3,500-square-foot behemoth sold for $975,000 last month. That works out to $278 per square foot, a pretty fair gauge that Denver's incendiary market can't get much hotter. 

I know, I know, similar tales of rapid transmogrification are told all over northwest Denver. But my former bungalow is the first property on this particular block to undergo such an extreme makeover, and the jarring sight of it, so out of character with the neighborhood, raises certain questions.

Who needs five bathrooms? Will more pop-ups and scrape-offs follow in its wake, simply because someone, somewhere, is willing to pay seven figures to live within spitting distance of Scratch Burrito and Billy's Inn? And where the hell will Denver's young, first-time home buyers go, looking for something that they might actually be able to afford?