THERE is no way to convert into current dollars the price of ''60 pounds lawful money'' paid in 1781 for the Phebe Comstock House in Silvermine, Conn. But while its appreciation over its first two centuries is difficult to track, the two-story clapboard house with an open-hearth fireplace and dormer windows increased in value by 143.8 percent, when adjusted for inflation, between 1971 and 2001, when it last sold for $442,500.
It may seem a stretch to cite a Revolutionary-era homestead as an illustration of long-term property appreciation, but the example is not so farfetched. By and large, house values in the New York metropolitan region have taken long strides over the decades.
Real estate gains in many parts of the city and its suburbs have been higher than those that were typical for the nation as a whole. That sets the metropolitan region apart, too, from average statewide appreciation. Gains in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in general lagged or barely exceeded the national median.
Adjusted for inflation, the median home price in the nation rose 168.5 percent from 1950 to 2000. In New York State, the increase was 141.8 percent; in New Jersey, 170.9 percent, and in Connecticut, 132.3 percent.
But the counties in and around New York City did far better. Using decade-by-decade Census Bureau data going back to 1950, James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, has traced the broadest trends in home prices in the region and the nation.
''Despite cycles of lagging and surging values, relative to the nation as a whole there have been extraordinary gains in value in the region over the last half century,'' he said.
In Bergen County, for example, the median home value over those 50 years rose 220 percent, adjusted for inflation. In Westchester, it climbed 207 percent.
Manhattan, not surprisingly, outstripped them all: over those five decades its median home value increased by 721 percent.
By way of illustration, Jonathan Miller, president of the Miller Samuel appraisal company in Manhattan, searched the records on a two-bedroom apartment in a 21-story, 159-unit co-op at 860 Fifth Avenue that sold for $22,400 when the building opened in 1949.
It sold for $530,000 in May 1984, he said, for $900,000 in June 1996, for $1.3 million in July 1998 and, most recently, for $1.5 million in January 2002. That constituted, over those 53 years, a 785.9 percent increase in inflation-adjusted value.
Peter Van Winkle, president of A. W. Van Winkle & Company in Rutherford, N.J., knows something about long-term value. His company was founded by his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Waling Jacob Van Winkle, in 1692.
Hardly going back that far, a four-bedroom Cape at 158 Highland Cross in Rutherford -- described by Mr. Van Winkle as ''a very typical post-World War II, returning veteran's house'' -- sold for $7,500 in 1948. In May 2002, it sold for $252,000. And seven months later, the owners ''flipped it,'' he said, for $270,000. So, over that 54-year period, it increased by an inflation-adjusted 382.3 percent.
But how does housing stack up against other investments -- for instance, the stock market? To make the comparison, Dr. Hughes traced the Dow Jones industrial average and data from the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, which tracks price changes for the same housing units, from 1980 through the first quarter of this year.
''In 1980, the Dow was at 830,'' Dr. Hughes said. ''In 2004, it has been running between 10,000 and 10,500. Rounded off, that's about a 1,100 percent gain.'' Home prices in New York State over the same period, by comparison, increased 400 percent, according to the federal data.
''So, on the surface, it looks like you would have done better in the stock market,'' Dr. Hughes said. ''However, that does not take into account the ability to leverage your initial housing investment.''
In other words -- keeping the numbers simple -- assume you bought a $100,000 home in 1980. ''By 2004, it would have increased to $400,000 in value,'' Dr. Hughes said. ''Thus your gain would have been $300,000.''
''However, assuming you only made a 10 percent down payment on the home -- or $10,000 -- that means your initial $10,000 investment grew to $310,000,'' he said. ''That's a gain of about 3,000 percent, which is far better than the stock market. If you had invested the $10,000 in stocks, it would have grown to $110,000 in the same 24-year period.''
''So that indicates the effect of leveraging your initial housing investment into a much larger value through borrowing.''
There are, of course, other factors to consider in comparing housing leverage and capital gains. ''Obviously, you have to pay the mortgage each month over the 24 years,'' Dr. Hughes said. ''However, that is generally not appreciably different from what you would have paid in rent if you hadn't bought the home.''
And, at the same time, a home buyer receives income-tax benefits because of interest-rate and property-tax deductions.
Also to be taken into account is the fact that people's ability to pay for a home has also climbed over the years. In 1953, the median family income for the Northeast region was $4,575; in 2000, it was $57,000 -- a 121.8 percent increase when adjusted for inflation. That 1953 income could buy a lot more than one would think, looking at today's prices. In 1950 a basic Ford coupe cost $1,333, a quart of milk cost 20 cents and the tab for a salad lunch in the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel was $1.50.
A particularly considerable factor to weigh is the volatility of the investment. ''While housing prices have, obviously, gone down during certain periods,'' Dr. Hughes said, ''their volatility is nowhere near that of the stock market in general, and of individual stocks. While losses are possible in housing, very rarely will you confront a complete wipeout, which is always possible in the stock market.''
Some cautionary notes were offered by Joseph S. Tracy, a senior vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, particularly on individual expectations drawn from broad geographical price data.
''Each share of stock in a company is interchangeable with any other, so the price is going to be the same,'' Dr. Tracy said. ''But every house is sort of unique, in its location and other attributes. So there can be a lot of individual price variations within a housing market. We must be careful when using these price indices to infer what you should expect from your own investment.''
So part of the equation must be the cost of adding a bedroom, installing a pool, a major renovation and, perhaps, all those coats of paint over the decades. You don't, after all, have to paint your portfolio; on the other hand, you can't live in it either.
And, while it's one thing for the homeowner who stays in place, it can be a completely different picture for someone who moves often. ''If I get a job opportunity in, let's say, Houston, then most likely I'm going to have to sell my house in order to accept that job,'' said Dr. Tracy. ''And it may not be the best time to sell in the current housing market.''
For example, a one-bedroom apartment at 11 Riverside Drive, near 73rd Street in Manhattan, sold for $180,000 in 1985. Ten years later, at the bottom of the region's most recent real estate slump, it sold for $167,000.
Pointing out that some people lost all their equity during that downturn, Dr. Tracy said, ''If you know you can stay, that's the thing.''
Evidence of staying power: that Riverside Drive apartment sold again, a year ago, for $430,000.
Robert Campbell, a professor of real estate finance at Hofstra University, points out that ''buying a home is an investment over which the investor has substantial control.''
''I can't do much to control the people who run I.B.M.,'' Dr. Campbell said, ''but I can make good decisions about the condition of my home, thereby increasing the value. I can even exercise some influence on the community and the schools by participating in neighborhood organizations, which also increases value.''
So particularly for people who remain in their home for a long time, and don't incur repeated transaction costs, Dr. Campbell continued, ''it's an investment with overall very reliably positive returns.''
For example, the professor pointed out, a three-bedroom colonial at 10 Brookwood Street in Glen Head on Nassau County's North Shore first sold for $2,900 in 1939. ''The lady who purchased the property back then is the same person who sold it in 1991 for $170,000 -- a tidy little profit,'' he said. It is now on the market for $580,000.
Another house for sale in Long Island is a three-bedroom Tudor at 15 Tarence Street in Rockville Centre that sold for $4,000 in 1944 sold again in 1954 for $13,500, in 1967 for $22,500, and is now on the market at $550,000. If it goes for that price, as Dr. Campbell thinks it might, that would be an increase of 1,179.7 percent, adjusted for inflation.
Relatively new homes have also shown significant appreciation.
In the once desolate South Bronx, a two-bedroom condominium in the Melrose Court development on Brook Avenue that went for $55,000 in 1991 recently sold for $110,000 -- a 44.1 percent increase when adjusted for inflation, according to Mario Procida, president of the Procida Realty & Construction Corporation, which specializes in affordable housing.
And at that 223-year-old home in Silvermine, Conn., its current owner, Anne Carbone, a member of the Norwalk Historical Society, traces a price trajectory that, though not without dips, has continued to climb.
After ''60 pounds lawful money'' in 1781, the 13-acre Comstock house -- including a cottage for the last slave in Connecticut history -- sold for $900 in 1824; for $812 in 1844; and, suffering from post-Civil War depression, for $650 in 1866.
But by 1971, though by then reduced to less than an acre, the property sold for $41,500. And now, three years after she paid $442,500 for the house, Ms. Carbone -- who sometimes dons a settler's drawstring chemise, black boots and bonnet while entertaining in her home -- has high hopes for a future price, though she's not about to leave.
''My friend, who's a Realtor, told me it's gone up quite a bit since I moved in,'' said Ms. Carbone, who usually dresses in the more contemporary costume of a financial services adviser. ''I ask, 'How much?' He says, 'Are you going to sell?' I say, 'No.' He says, 'Don't ask.' ''
The trouble with asking, of course, is that the lure of profit can overwhelm the reality that people have to live someplace. But should she decide to put it on the market, her friend the broker, Bill Axness of Coldwell Banker in Norwalk, estimated that it would probably go for ''in excess of half a million.''
By DENNIS HEVESI Published: July 18, 2004