Real estate developer Michael Rafferty's decline was hard and swift.
For 11 years he had never made less than $100,000 a year. He bought a house on 30 acres with a swimming pool, had a gardener and housekeeper, wore expensive suits and drove a BMW.
But now, he said, he is just about broke. He sold nearly all his personal assets, sold his wife's silver, and he, his wife and three children are living off old credit cards. They grow some of their food and buy their children's clothes from a consignment shop. He is contemplating a second job cleaning carpets at night.
He had to lay off 21 of his 28 employees, and one worker recently left because she wasn't getting paid. Rafferty said he knew he had reached a low point when he decided to write to President Bush about his troubles.
"I am appealing to your sense of compassion," Rafferty wrote in June, "and in a few short words I am trying to convey the human drama that is unfolding."
He never received a reply.
For the hundreds of real estate brokers, investors and developers who had reaped a rich financial harvest cultivating the Washington area's red clay and green pastures into shopping centers, industrial parks and housing developments, the end of the era of plenty has brought radical change.
The slowdown in the real estate business and a credit squeeze by banking regulators has forced some builders to seek bankruptcy protection, sent scores of real estate agents in search of new jobs and eliminated the Jaguar-driving lifestyle of many developers, architects and engineers who benefited from the prosperous economy of the 1980s.
Once-lavish-spending builders and designers have laid off employees, frozen the pay of others, consolidated with former competitors and are paying some creditors and employees more slowly, if at all.
"Most of us live up to the limits of our income," said Tony Ahuja, who was briefly out of work after he lost his job heading up marketing for an architectural firm.
"You invest in real estate, a new car, a new boat, whatever you need. When you're out of work, you find yourself in substantial trouble."
What began as a downturn for builders "is really starting to be across the board" in many real estate-related businesses, said Roger Snyder, chief executive officer of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association.
Hard times have hit "even law firms specializing in land use and those that don't have the basic broad base," Snyder said. "They've been sort of kidding about law firms doing well regardless, because they go from rezonings to bankruptcies. But that hasn't been the case at all."
Some real estate agents are taking part-time jobs "to help them through this period," said Ricki Gerger, president of the Washington, D.C., Association of Realtors.
Layoffs in real estate have been concentrated in the commercial side of the business, where more agents are salaried, Gerger said. "In residential, those people are on commission, so there aren't the massive layoffs you see in other industries."
Last spring, for example, Smithy Braedon Co., one of the area's top commercial brokerage firms, laid off 35 employees, cutting its staff by 17 percent.
Chevy Chase Federal Savings Bank, Maryland's largest thrift, laid off more than 100 employees last month as it and other financial institutions grappled with the declining commercial real estate market.
Even Regardie's magazine, which relies heavily on real-estate-related advertising, laid off about 15 percent of its staff last month in response to the building industry's decline.
NVHomes, a subsidiary of troubled NVR L.P., has laid off about 20 percent of its work force. The parent company, the area's largest house builder, recently reported a $53.5 million loss for the second quarter this year, after saying some of the land it holds is worth less than what the company paid for it. Local land prices in some jurisdictions recently have dropped about 10 percent to 50 percent, analysts said.
The area's construction industry lost about 8,000 jobs in the last year, and from April through June at least 44 firms in construction and related businesses -- mortgage services companies, heating and plumbing contractors, building supply firms -- filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, a 61 percent increase from the same period last year.
For many, the slowdown marks the end of a lifestyle that began in the early 1980s in which there was little pain and plenty to gain. Michael Rafferty remembers when he turned 28. He made $200,000 that year.
"At that time I was probably the youngest land broker in the market," Rafferty said. "By the time I left, there were 200 Mike Raffertys. We all wore good suits, we all had good haircuts, we all drove BMWs."
He took his earnings and about eight years ago started Southface Associates Inc., a small development firm in Stafford County, an area with potential fast growth, low prices and plenty of room to make mistakes.
At its height, the firm had 28 employees, sold 100 houses a year and made $12 million annually, Rafferty said. In April 1989 he sold 20 houses in one month. After that, "bang, it stopped, just like a brick wall," Rafferty said.
Now, he said, he barely sells one house a month.
"It's devastating, absolutely devastating, on a personal level and a professional level," Rafferty, 37, said. Neither he nor his partner is earning a salary now, and together they have spent $1 million trying to keep their business afloat, he said.
"I couldn't go out and get a $2,000 credit card if I wanted to," Rafferty said. "If you tell somebody you're a builder nowadays, you're telling them you have leprosy."
Jay Feldman was responsible for local government relations for the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association until he was laid off in June because membership in the organization dropped and fewer members were able to participate in revenue-raising events, he said.
"I was constantly busy, in communication with builders, developers, county government, attending events, promoting events," Feldman said. He said he used to spend nine or 10 hours a day on the job. After the layoff he spent time working in his garden, which he had neglected, worrying about bills and sending out 150 resumes.
Feldman, 40, said he never lived extravagantly and never expected to be without work. "When you're making around $50,000, and you're living up to that standard, it's kind of hard to save," he said. "Where I personally used to eat out more, I now eat egg salad. Today I had an egg salad sandwich, which I didn't used to do," Feldman said. "It's stuff like that, or suddenly the Visa bill comes in and I don't have enough to pay for it. The mortgage bill comes in, car payments don't stop, the utility bills don't stop."
The real estate industry's problems result in part from the overbuilding, particularly in the suburbs, of office space and houses. For example, in Northern Virginia, an average of 10 percent of the existing office space in 1985 was vacant, compared with 19.5 percent in July. In the District, by contrast, the number was 14 percent in 1985 and 8.5 percent in July, according to the real estate firm Spaulding & Slye Colliers. Cutbacks in other industries, such as defense, have meant fewer people are able to buy high-priced houses and have thwarted business expansions, leaving scores of investors with thousands of acres of once-prime Virginia and Maryland real estate undeveloped.
Lenders have become wary of making loans to builders when there already is a glut in the market and they have to contend with tough new regulations governing their lending practices that resulted from problems in the savings and loan industry.
Ahuja, 47, who now directs marketing for an architectural firm, said that although he was without work for only two days, the layoff experience has affected him deeply.
"When you first get the layoff notice, you have mixed emotions: 'I put a lot of sweat in this business for years. How in the world can you let me go?' " Ahuja said. "And then, when you get past that stage of anger, you get to the stage of nervousness, you feel, 'Well, maybe I'm not good enough, that's why they cut me from the team.' You question your qualifications. It's not you, but it's very difficult to separate yourself when you're in that position."
Ahuja said he is fortunate that he made friends in the business who found work for him right away. Now he spends part of his time finding jobs for others who have been laid off.
"From a human life point of view, what happens is everybody who has a job is very insecure," Ahuja said. "Even though you have a job, there is no certainty that you'll have a job tomorrow."