Once a challenge, now an opportunity

River Forest manse back on the market for second time

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

When 914 Ashland Ave. was listed for sale in 2017, it was one of the priciest listings in River Forest, asking $3.2 million. The 1919-era Italian Renaissance estate sat on the market for almost two years before selling for $1.6 million in April 2019. 

At the time neighboring homes at 926 and 924 Ashland Ave. -- newly constructed homes built on the site of the former Mars Mansion -- were also sold at steep discounts from their original asking prices of $3.6 million each. 

The home at 926 Ashland Ave. sold for $1.944 million in June 2019, while 924 Ashland Ave. sold for $2 million in August 2019. The word on the street was that there wasn't strong interest from buyers in large estates with large tax bills and lots of upkeep and maintenance. 

Fast forward a few years, and the story has changed. The pandemic has created high demand for large suburban homes with plenty of space for working from home and playing at home. Once again on the market, 914 Ashland Ave. offers an interesting glimpse into the changing market in River Forest. 

When it was listed in 2016, real estate agent Bob Swindahl was quoted as saying the home would require a significant financial investment for rehabilitation as the home was last updated in the 1980s. The tax bill on the house was roughly $51,000, another deterrent to its sale.

After buying the house for $1.6 million in 2019, the new owners began a large-scale renovation of the home, gutting the more than 10,000-square-foot residence. Over a year later, the mechanical systems had all been updated, but the finishes, including lighting, plumbing and a kitchen, were missing when they buyers listed the house for sale for $1.8 million in early December 2020. 

The house was under contact within two weeks.

Julie Hennessy of D'Aprile Properties, who listed the property, says of the home, "The space is raw. There's nothing in there, but it's going to be amazing." 

Selling a home in an unfinished state presents some challenges, according to Hennessy. In general buyers prefer a move-in ready home, especially at higher price points. 

Hennessy says that it takes a certain kind of buyer to want to take on a major project. In addition, she notes that securing financing for a home in an unfinished state can be difficult. The absence of a kitchen and bathrooms presents a roadblock. 

"What kind of appraisal are you going to get? There are no guidelines for a house like this," Hennessy said. "It's not habitable, which is a big issue for banks. A cash buyer here makes the most sense."

Colleen Saleh, who with her husband Phil, has rehabilitated homes throughout River Forest through their company River Forest Development Group, notes that the blank slate of a gutted home with update mechanicals can be enticing to the right buyer. 

"You need to start with a design," said Saleh. "What's so great about this is it's a shell. You can do anything here."

Built in the Italian Renaissance style in 1919 and located on a large corner lot, the house is surrounded by lush grounds and includes a semicircular driveway. The 2019 buyers sought to retain the home's original attributes when possible. 

"Their goal was to preserve as much as possible but to modernize the home," Hennessy said.

The grand front staircase rises above a spacious entry. A landing is flanked by window seats and includes access to a front balcony. A sun porch with heated stone floors and coffered ceilings makes a great bonus living space overlooking the back yard. The gutted kitchen includes room for an 11-foot island, and the rear of the house was reconfigured to include a new powder room and mudroom with garage access.

The rooms of the second floor have been reconfigured and roughed in to accommodate a family. The primary suite includes a spacious bathroom with plans for a double entrance shower, a soaking tub, a sauna and his and hers closets. 

The second bedroom has a separate sitting room and an en suite bathroom roughed in, as does the third bedroom. The fourth bedroom also includes an en suite bathroom.  The second floor includes a space for one of two laundry rooms in the home.

The attic, formerly nanny quarters, is ready to be bonus living space with a work-from-home office with a full bathroom, stackable washer and dryer, and a guest suite with another full bathroom. The basement includes a recreation room with a fireplace, and an original safe and refrigerator in the storage areas.

Saleh estimates that, in general, it can cost around $800,000 to $1 million to gut-rehab a house of this size and says that in its current state, midway through a remodel, a buyer might spend $600,000 to $700,000 to finish this home.  

Hennessy, who grew up in River Forest, says she was flooded with requests for showings.

"There's no inventory in River Forest, and this house is so well-known to people who live here and grew up here," Hennessy said. "There's a lot of interest."

A River Forest native herself, Saleh thought the house would sell quickly.

"It's a great location," she said. "This has always been one of the premier locations in River Forest. The beautiful landscaping always drew people to the home."

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Reader Comments

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Lopez Ramona  

Posted: January 6th, 2021 11:02 AM

Primary suite?

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: January 6th, 2021 10:20 AM

So someone bought it, paid to gut it, paid property taxes of $50k for two years, paid a commission to sell it and paid the transfer taxes. They never lived in it, as it is still an empty shell. In other words, the last owner lost money, but escaped further damage after two years digging in the money pit.

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