Where charm, prestige meet

“Isn’t it charming?” asks Marilyn Mitchell, a well-known real estate agent in the metro’s wealthiest suburb.

Out her car window on Verona Terrace stands a sweeping red-brick colonial with black shutters. In the mid-1980s, Mitchell sold it for $500,000, then a record price for her in Mission Hills. A decade later, it sold again for $1.6 million. And just last year it sold once more — for about $3 million. That works out to a more than 10 percent leap in value each and every year.

That’s hardly unusual in a place where starter homes go for a half-million dollars, where dwellings in disrepair sell in a day for a million and where $800,000 houses are torn down for extra yard space. Mission Hills, you see, not only has the metropolitan area’s highest home prices, but its highest housing appreciation, too.

And that helps explain why this moneyed Johnson County hamlet made the top 10, at No. 7, in The Kansas City Star’s analysis of suburban quality of life.

“For most of our property, the dirt is worth more than the house on it,” says David Fromm, an insurance executive and mayor of Mission Hills.

Housing prices are a function of simple supply and demand, and there’s no place in the metropolitan area more sought-after than Mission Hills. Its two square miles contain just 1,280 houses — about the number built in Olathe every year and a half.

As a place to live, though, Mission Hills is a city of contrasts.

In terms of neighborhoods and lifestyle, what Mission Hills is good at, it’s very, very good at. The Star compared local suburbs in almost two dozen statistical measures, and Mission Hills finished in the top five in almost half of them. In fact, Mission Hills led all suburbs in first-place tallies.

It had the lowest crime rates, shortest commuting time and highest level of neighborhood stability. Plus, the schools serving the city had the best elementary reading and high school ACT test scores.

Yet, what Mission Hills is weak in, it’s very, very weak in. It finished in the bottom five in a half-dozen comparisons, including dead last in park acreage, retail businesses per capita and recreational offerings such as pools, festivals and community centers. The city has no stores or recreation programs.

Frankly, however, most Mission Hills residents couldn’t care less about that stuff because it’s all just minutes away in neighboring communities.

Instead, the draw of Mission Hills has to do with things that are difficult to measure but are reflected in home values: charm and prestige.

Services? Who cares?

Mitchell drives along curving roads, up and down hills and past grassy medians in old Mission Hills, north of 63rd Street. There are homes in Tudor styles with ivy growing up the red brick. Homes in colonial styles with stone columns. Homes in Mediterranean styles with copper tile roofs. Stately. Imposing. Tasteful. Distinguished.

“Kansas City treasures,” Mitchell calls them.

They’re the homes of Kansas City’s old money, and those aspiring to join old money’s social circles.

“If I told you the names of everyone who lived on these streets, you’d know them,” Mitchell says. This section of Mission Hills includes such well-recognized local family names as Hall, Helzberg, Bloch and Kauffman.

Mitchell winds around the one-acre lots, ornamental stone arches, hand-made brick faces, dual picture windows, 70-foot-tall oaks and rows of flowering shrubs in front of double front doors.

“That’s what brings the money over here — charm,” she says.

Still, in Mission Hills, charm has to compensate for a lot of shortcomings.

Tom and Lois Roszak know. They moved to a newer part of Mission Hills south of 63rd Street from the Brookside area. On the Missouri side, they used to walk with their boys to the ice cream parlor and walk their golden retrievers to Loose Park. Once in Mission Hills, though, that changed. They still walk, but there’s not any place to walk to.

Mission Hills doesn’t have a sizable park. It doesn’t have any restaurants or snack shops. It doesn’t have any stores — for years the only commercial enterprise was a pay phone. It doesn’t even have a community pool or a library.

Yet, in the eyes of Mission Hills residents, those are mere trifling inconveniences.

“To a lot of people who live here, those aren’t negatives,” Tom Roszak says while sitting around a glass breakfast table with the family dogs at his feet.

“It’s a five-minute drive to Prairie Village,” adds Lois, who volunteers in Jackson County’s family court program.

“Nothing is that far away,” continues Tom, a corporate tax attorney.

It’s easier to deal with, too, when you have the comfort of knowing houses double in value every decade.

Real estate gold mine

Mitchell heads south of 63rd, into a section called old Sagamore. She turns down High Drive. It’s lined with wood-sided, two-story Cape Cods and colonials on narrow lots. It’s the kind of street found across the state line in the Romanelli West neighborhood or in parts of Prairie Village. Except for price.

The metro area’s average home price is around $175,000. These Mission Hills houses are so much higher, agents like Mitchell refer to them only in discreet single digits.

“These houses shockingly, shockingly, sell for between six ($600,000) and nine ($900,000), and they’re not that big,” Mitchell exclaims. “It’s because of where they are.”

Indeed, Mission Hills can be a real estate gold mine. According to figures compiled by the Heartland Multiple Listing Service, the average sales price in Mission Hills climbed 46 percent from 2000 to 2004.

That price jump isn’t all from appreciation, however. Many buyers who can afford Mission Hills also can afford to redecorate and expand their homes. So on just about every street in Mission Hills, there’s a trash bin, a slew of pickup trucks or maybe a concrete mixer outside at least one property, part of some reconstruction or rehab job.

At one point on her tour of the city, Mitchell steers down Aberdeen Street. She points out her driver’s side window at an empty lot. “This was bought for $820,000 and torn down,” she says. Now the concrete walls of a new basement are rising above the ground. It’ll be a $2 million home.

In most metropolitan areas, lower-priced homes appreciate fastest. Earlier this decade, Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies analyzed changing home prices in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles metro areas, and it found lower-priced housing typically appreciated better than the higher end, in percentage terms. It’s simple mathematics: increases in smaller numbers translate into higher percentage gains.

That makes Mission Hills something of an anomaly.

“It suggests it is extraordinarily desirable,” says Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard’s housing center. “Buyers will pay a premium for that particular location and all that location means.”

And how. It can be an intoxicating game. Marilyn Mitchell has played it a few times herself.

She slows her Jaguar in front of her own home, a stone two-story flanked by triangular gables at each end. It’s her fourth home in Mission Hills. She sold it as an agent in the late ’90s for $500,000, bought it herself a couple of years later for $750,000, then spent a few hundred thousand dollars on improvements ranging from a new kitchen to redone landscaping. Now the city’s continued price appreciation has her pondering her next profit.

“Would I sell it for a million two ($1.2 million)?” Mitchell wonders out loud. “No.

“Would I sell it for a million four? Maybe.”

Population: 3,524.

Weighty landmarks: The Verona Columns at Mission and Overhill roads were imported by city founder J.C. Nichols in the 1920s. Each marble column weighs 3,000 pounds.

Tiny town: With little crime and few residents, Mission Hills relies on Prairie Village police officers for law enforcement.

Big enough: But the city has tucked two golf clubs — Mission Hills Country Club and Kansas City Country Club — into its limited acreage.

Did you know: Ernest Hemingway wrote much of his classic A Farewell to Arms while staying in Mission Hills in 1928.