World-Renowned Housing Economist Michael Sumichrast

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Michael Sumichrast, 86, an internationally known housing economist who later became an investor in his native Czechoslovakia, died of respiratory failure Sept. 4 at Montgomery Village Health Care Center. He lived in Potomac.

Dr. Sumichrast was chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders in Washington for more than 20 years and wrote a number of books, including "The Complete Book of Home Buying" (1979), which correctly forecast the explosion of housing sales and prices fueled by baby boomers.

Ron Shafer, his co-author and a former editor in the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal, said Mr. Sumichrast was one of the most-quoted people in the housing industry, and statistics bear out that statement: In The Washington Post, Mr. Sumichrast's name has come up 182 times since 1977. His name appeared in the New York Times 150 times, and the Associated Press mentioned his name 635 times over that period.

"Mike loved to talk to reporters, and reporters loved to talk to him because he was the most quotable economist in captivity," Shafer said. "He was bluntly honest and had a great sense of humor."

His credibility rested on the fact that he often didn't follow the industry line. The Post in 1980 named him one of a handful of experts "whose views are so widely quoted that the experts have become institutions in their own right." Dr. Sumichrast and others "demonstrated over the years they take pains to avoid seeming to be shills for their individual industries. . . . Snaps Sumichrast: 'I take the position that I don't have to work here. My strength is to be as honest as I can.' "

Forecasting a downturn in housing starts, tightening credit or falling sales of previously owned homes didn't always make him popular with his bosses, said a son, Martin Sumichrast. But he was popular with builders, due in no small part to his often-expressed love of his adopted country.

Born in Trencin, Czechoslovakia, on March 31, 1921, he was a college student when the Nazis invaded in 1939. He joined the underground resistance and was captured by the Gestapo in Bratislava in 1944. A Gestapo officer mispronounced his name as prisoners were being taken to be shot, which allowed him to step out of the line and save his life. Shortly thereafter, he escaped the camp, joined the Czech unit of the Russian army and helped drive the Nazis from Bratislava.

After the war, he became a sportswriter. But because he became outspoken against his country's takeover by communists, he ended up on an arrest list. Under the cover of night on May 12, 1948, he and two friends paddled a canoe past armed border guards and across the Danube River to Austria, landing just below a Russian tank battalion. After a cold night on the riverbank, they sneaked aboard a railroad car filled with mail.

"As the [Russian] soldiers approached, I didn't know if I could keep from coughing," he wrote in his 1999 autobiography. "They didn't open the car. We were lucky. I swore that I would never again travel in a postal car buried under parcels."

Little did the guards know that the Czech was in the mail, he always said, according to his son.

Dr. Sumichrast married in an Austrian displaced-persons camp, then immigrated to Australia, where he began working for home builders. In 1955, after waiting seven years for a visa, he and his wife learned they had 60 days to get to the United States. They sold their possessions, left by ship and eventually wound up penniless in New York City. Dr. Sumichrast began working for a home builder in Morristown, Pa.

In 1956, the Sumichrasts moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he received a doctorate in economics in 1962 at Ohio State University while his wife earned one in English literature.

The family moved to Washington that fall, and Dr. Sumichrast became an economist with the National Association of Home Builders. He was promoted to chief economist of the association in 1965 and by the time of his 1986 retirement was widely credited with making it one of the nation's most influential trade groups. He consulted with presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and the first Bush. He worked closely with Fed chairmen Arthur Burns, Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan and frequently testified before Congress.

Dr. Sumichrast, who had been banned from Czechoslovakia while communists were in power, returned in 1989 and traveled the country, preaching free enterprise, and started a company to invest in real estate in the new Czech Republic and Slovakia. His firm, Czech Industries Inc. of Rockville, acquired the Austrian firm Eastbrokers Beteiligungs AG in 1996 and changed its name to Eastbrokers International to better reflect the company's evolving business of providing financial services in Central and Eastern Europe.

His first wife, Marika Sumichrast, died in 1986.

In addition to his son, of Charlotte, survivors include his wife of 16 years, Eva Sumichrast of Potomac; two other sons from his first marriage, Misha Sumichrast of New Hope, Pa., and Mark Sumichrast of Gaithersburg; a stepdaughter, Katerian Davitaia of College Park; and nine grandchildren.

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