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Battered housing market leaves people downsizing their dreams

Some people who bought in developments that have been canceled, stalled or foreclosed are left with pamphlets showing unbuilt amenities and the bitter taste of what might have been.

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By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010; 7:17 PM

Three years ago, a developer with grand dreams of a new neighborhood and town center leveled about 750 acres of pristine forest overlooking the Potomac River in Prince William County. Then the market tanked, and the developer of Harbor Station defaulted on a $100 million loan.

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Now the land is just a gaping hole with construction debris except for one thing: a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course hidden inside, perfectly manicured and green. Empty of players. No clubhouse. Waiting.

Rodney Cahow, 46, a communications consultant, bought his four-bedroom home in nearby Southbridge in hopes of being able to play golf in his back yard. From time to time, he rides his bike past the course and looks over the emerald expanse wistfully. It has a ghostly, unreal quality to it, like a mirage.

As the housing market struggles to recover, there are still nearly 100 canceled, stalled or foreclosed housing developments in the region, according to Hanley Wood Market Intelligence, a real estate analysis firm. In many cases, their fates remain uncertain - along with those of surrounding neighborhoods.

People who bought in these communities before the bust have been left with glossy pamphlets of unbuilt clubhouses and tennis courts and the bitter taste of what might have been. In a post-recession period full of uncertainty, one thing is clear: Expectations have been been downsized.

"All this promise, then - nothing," Cahow said.

Across the Washington area, county planners and builders say some residential projects that have been stalled for months are showing signs of life. Banks with foreclosed, half-built properties are cutting deals with new builders to swoop in to finish the work.

But many of the more opulent plans - such as a hotel near Cahow that was supposed to be built "in the great tradition of 19th-century railroad hotels, set against majestic landscapes" - will be abandoned or scaled back to fit the new reality.

Developers say it's nearly impossible to secure financing to build anything these days on the scale of pre-bust construction. The average new U.S. home is 100 square feet smaller than it was during the peak of 2007, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

"Clearly the trend is toward smaller homes," said Corey A. Stewart (R), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. "I don't think you're going to see a return to McMansion-style developments."

This significant reshuffling is leaving some homeowners feeling as if they were victims of a bait-and-switch. Much of the angst is in communities on the western and northern fringes of the region, where the construction boom was most heated.

In LoudounCounty, for example, residents were stuck with driveways that were too short after a developer foundered, and others saw plans for a luxury clubhouse - with a swimming pool, a workout room and tennis courts - vanish.


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