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So, Who's Buying Them?

New Condos Are Everywhere And Their Prices Are Soaring

By Sandra Fleishman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 2, 2004; Page F01

The question pops up all the time, just like the high-end condos that keep popping up near Metro stations across the Washington area: Who's buying all these expensive apartments?

Ballston resident Sonia Schmitt thinks she knows. A World Bank employee who has moved up to ever-bigger condos five times in the past nine years, Schmitt says it's a combination of buyer types.

The Monroe at Virginia Square held a preview party for potential buyers.

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She sees mid-thirties singles trading up from smaller condos and empty-nesters downsizing from bigger homes -- or even smallish homes that have appreciated so much that they can afford a $400,000-plus condo. More frequently, as prices jump ever higher, she sees buyer couples -- either married, cohabitating, same-sex or just acquaintances who are partnering simply to "get in the home-buying game." Most of them, she says, already live in the Washington area.

What they share, though, she says, is a desire to live where you can get it all -- fun restaurants, fun shopping, cool movies and other entertainment -- and where you can get it right next to a subway stop, connecting you to everything else.

"They just like the lifestyle of a condo. They're not interested in maintaining a house or mowing a lawn," said Schmitt, an animated 37-year-old. "I grew up living in houses and townhouses and I couldn't wait until I didn't have to."

Schmitt substantiates her theory simply by looking at her neighbors at the Berkeley at Ballston, an upscale building that opened this spring near the Ballston Metro stop. She moved there in June, two years after signing a contract. Across the hall is an older power couple with another home in New York. A few doors down is 26-year-old Suriyun Whitehead, a Boeing software engineer who bought two condos in 2002 -- an existing one he decided he could rent out to cover that mortgage and the $330,000 Berkeley unit he bought during preconstruction and moved into in June. He got down payment help from his parents. Elsewhere in the 80-unit building, Schmitt can count at least three mid-thirties executives, all single.

Schmitt also goes to every preview party and building opening she can find, giving her more perspective.

The most recent condo preview Schmitt attended, which the developer said drew almost 4,000 people in the pouring rain, convinced her she should jump into the market again. You could get an appointment to buy only if you attended the party, she said.

She put in a contract on a $600,000 unit at the Clarendon1021, a planned building near the Clarendon Metro station.

That's really just anecdotal data. But builders and developers say Schmitt has nailed the demographics.

Andrew A. Viola, vice president and Washington area regional manager of the Bush Cos., said soaring prices have changed the area's urban condo-buyer profile in only a few years.

Buyers generally stopped thinking of condos as homely animals at some point in the late 1990s, but over the past few years, as single-family and townhouse prices have soared, condo prices have reached a new plateau, Viola said. Luxury units with luxury prices have abounded, meaning buyers need more income or more creative financing. And as the overall housing market has tightened, reports of potential buyers lining up or camping out for any kind of housing have raised shoppers' willingness to pay more. When Bush Cos. opened its first area condo project in Ballston, the Windsor Plaza, in 1994 and 1995, the response was "90 percent singles," Viola said. Most were 35 to 45 years old, and earned from $35,000 to $90,000 a year.

At the company's newest projects, such as the Residences at Station Square in Clarendon and the 2020 Lofts at 12th and U streets in the District, buyers are "65 percent singles, and now 80 percent of them earn in excess of $80,000 a year," Viola said.

"A lot earn over a hundred thousand, and the age is a little younger than before, between 28 and 35," he added.

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