Doors Close for Real Estate Speculators

Lockboxes cover a bench outside the Halstead condo complex in Fairfax County. The boxes hold keys to units for agents to show prospective buyers or renters. There recently were 49 lockboxes for the 200-unit building.
Lockboxes cover a bench outside the Halstead condo complex in Fairfax County. The boxes hold keys to units for agents to show prospective buyers or renters. There recently were 49 lockboxes for the 200-unit building. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 22, 2006

Investors who sought quick profits buying and selling real estate in the Washington region are in full retreat, dampening demand for homes, most notably for condos.

What is becoming apparent, market watchers say, is how big a part speculators played in the region's real estate boom of the past few years. Not just condominiums, but also townhouses and single-family houses, were snapped up by investors using no-money-down financing and non-traditional loans. They helped send prices soaring at unprecedented rates. And now many are trying to sell, or rent at a loss. Some may eventually dump properties at low prices to get rid of them. That could weigh down values for everyone.

Sales of new condos fell 43 percent in the first quarter of the year, compared with the first quarter of 2005, according to one report, and there are almost four times as many existing condos for sale than last year.

"We think the softness of the market is largely due to the pulling out of investors," said Gopal Ahluwalia, staff vice president for research at the National Association of Home Builders. "They have not only pulled back, they are canceling purchases."

David Bath, a retired dentist in Reston, rode the boom up. A condo he bought in Vienna for $97,000 sold for $250,000 in a single day. He was able to sell another condo in Herndon for an even bigger profit.

Now he wants out. He has had no luck finding buyers for two investment houses and a four-unit apartment building he owns in Florida. He has been stuck making mortgage payments on vacant houses that took a lot of time and money to repair.

"It's a lot of work and I don't see the returns anymore," he said. "I'm going to the table to cash my chips in."

While condominiums were the product of choice for investors, luxury neighborhoods also fell prey to real estate speculation, leading to the prospect of price drops even in affluent subdivisions.

"Here we had it even in $1 million homes," said Kenneth Wenhold, Virginia and Maryland director for Metrostudy, a real estate information firm.

Robert Toll, chairman and chief executive of Toll Brothers Inc., which builds luxury homes, said in a recent conference call with analysts that the Washington market was the hardest-hit in the nation by investors who bought properties intending to flip them, and who have put the homes up for sale. "We can feel the impact of speculative play coming back into the market," he said.

Nobody knows exactly how much of the real estate boom was driven by investment and speculation. Experts say that between 15 and 30 percent of all purchases were made by investors, rather than by people who bought homes intending to live in them. Some bought the properties for cash, sometimes with equity they pulled out of their own homes, so there is no loan record. Other buyers pretended on loan applications that they would live in homes they really intended to flip, so that they could qualify for better loan terms or get around developer restrictions on investor-buyers.

Some projects became particular investor magnets, and, more recently, the subject of real estate blogs criticizing speculative excesses. For example, the local Internet blog Bubble Meter focused last month on what it called "the bubblicious bench." At one recently completed condominium called the Halstead at Dunn Loring, a luxury condominium complex in Fairfax County, a park bench outside the building bristles with real estate agent lockboxes to permit vacant units to be shown to prospective buyers or renters. On a recent morning, there were 49 lockboxes there, outside a building that has about 200 units.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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