In this D.C. rowhouse, he saw character, not condos

Rob Searle bought the house in 2008 at a foreclosure auction. He had gone to the auction intending to buy another house. But when that one was taken off the auction, he wound up buying this one instead, even though he knew little about it.

“I was scared,” Searle said. “I did not want to buy a house somebody lived in. I don’t have the heart to kick somebody out of their house.”

It turned out that renters were living in the house. Searle allowed them to stay and wound up moving into the basement as an on-site landlord.

Distinguished homes for sale in the D.C. region

Shaw rowhouse | This rowhouse in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest Washington was a longtime rooming house. It recently underwent a nearly four year renovation. It is listed at $3.3 million. (Peter Evans Photography)

But the plan always was to renovate the house and sell it.

“I’m an engineer,” Searle said. “I’m not an architect or anything, but I have a soft spot for [beautiful houses]. . . . This [house] had character. Everyone was telling me I should do condos. Shaw was doing great. They were doing the O Street Market. I just felt it should be returned a little bit to the grandeur it was.”

Searle said buying the house at auction for less than market value allowed him to take the risk involved in renovating it.

“Developers work on margins,” he said. “I completely understand the business. It’s not my thing. I like leaving things better than when I saw them.”

Designer Lori Graham, who worked with Searle on the house, described him as a “non-developer developer.”

“He said from the get-go he wants to do it justice, he doesn’t want it to be a churn and burn,” Graham said. She said most high-end developers have, “reasonably so, time-frame and budgetary restrictions that never would have allowed this exercise.”

At first, Searle wasn’t going to hire a designer, but he is glad he did.

Graham “looked at the drawings and she got super-excited,” Searle said. “Within like five minutes, she had all these awesome ideas. . . . For the most part, she took a lot of places in a very different direction.”

Searle went to Graham with what she described as a “super-modern, ultra-Italian modern” look. She persuaded him to incorporate more traditional, classical details into the design.

“You were going to have a very jarring juxtaposition between the historical aspect of the facade and the interior that kind of needed to develop more of a continuum,” she said.

Because he wanted to do what is right for the house, as opposed to what is right for his bottom line, Searle added things to the house a typical developer would have shied away from. He put in a “green” roof.

“Everybody needs a little green,” he said. “I grew up on a farm. I like outdoors.”

He tapped his engineering skills and designed a sliding hatch that opens to the roof deck. “If I’m going to build a big, nice house, nobody wants to push up to get out,” he said. “What I really need is a sliding hatch where you press a button and it opens.”

Because Searle couldn’t find a company in the United States to make it, he ordered it from the United Kingdom.

“I’m mesmerized” by the sliding hatch, Graham said.

After looking at basement units in other houses that developers had done, Searle was determined to treat his as more than an afterthought.

“I always got super-annoyed that they’d put all this money into the upstairs, then they had this separate basement unit that was just cheap,” he said. “This is by far the most stylish basement that I have ever seen.”

When talking about the house, Searle made sure to credit Graham.

“I guess you’d call her an interior designer but I’m going to say she’s an artist,” he said. “There’s something about walking into the house. You don’t know why it makes you feel good, but it does, at least me. It really is like you are living in a piece of art.”

It has taken close to four years to renovate the house, and if it sells at its list price, it would be the highest price per square foot in Shaw.

“It might feel like a stretch because nobody else has done it yet, but my prediction is, in three years people will be selling things for exactly the same price at half the value, half the creativity,” Graham said. “We are under no delusions. This is a very specific buyer. But the buyer who likes it will buy it in a second.”

The five-bedroom, six-bathroom, 3,541-square-foot house is listed at $3.3 million.

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