While many Washington area real estate companies scrap over crumbs in this time of recession, it's all strawberries and cream at Von Meister-Georgelas Properties in McLean.
That's because Von Meister-Georgelas is in the mansion market, where the signs of recession are nil.
The average price of the firm's 33 properties is $400,000. "The person who is looking for a $400,000 house is not worrying about the interest rate or whether he can afford the monthly payment," says manager Jay Chambliss.
So it would seem. Since June 1979, Von Meister-Georgelas' sales have increased more than 200 percent, and the number of agents has grown from eight to 24. The top salesman made $63,000 in commissions last year.
Last winter, when interest rates were hovering at about 15 percent, the company began marketing $300,000 houses in the Summerwood subdivision of McLean. "Four of them were snapped up in the darkest days," Chambliss said.
Business has been so good, in fact, that Von Meister-Georgelas has gotten choosy. "We turned down one house the owner wanted to sell for $425,000," Chambliss said. "It was not well decorated. We don't have to get in that situation anymore."
Von Meister-Georgelas' success is one rather dazzling reflection of some significant changes in the Washington area's economy. Where once the highest-paid executives tended to be members of Congress and undersecretaries in the federal bureaucracy, now they are consultants, attorneys and doctors, some of whom make three times as much as the president of the United States.
Much of this new money has poured into the McLean area, where Von Meister-Georgelas does most of its selling, although it does have a property in Potomac that is listed for $1 million. In the early 1970s, there was only one speculative builder of mansions in Fairfax County -- John G. Georgelas, founder of the realty firm. Now there are six or seven.
At 24-carat subdivisions like River Oaks and Potomac Knolls, a variety of builders are mortaring and hammering together houses that will bear price tags of $495,000, $575,000, $675,000. One of them -- Casa de Diamantes (House of Diamonds, after the patterns of the beveled-glass leaded windows) -- is being offered by Von Meister-Georgelas for $680,000.
To stir up interest along the mansion market's grapevine, Ruth D. Cannon, the Von Meister agent who is handling Casa de Diamantes, recently threw a party at the property for brokers, settlement attorneys and officers of lending institutions.
The Mediterranean-influenced house stands in stark contrast to the pillared colonials and Georgian fortresses up the street, but Cannon isn't worried about its salability. "Not everyone likes Spanish-style houses," she says, "but those that do, like them very much."
She recalls the tribute one near-buyer paid to the paneled doors and curved molding: "I'll remember the wood in this house for the rest of my life."
Though people in the market for Von Meister's houses are not likely to wait for the interest rate to edge down 1 or 2 percent, sometimes, for all their money, they have unrealistic expectations, says Chambliss.
A typical example:
A house-hunting executive from Atlanta with a six-figure income is used to getting what he wants. What he wants in this case is at least five bedrooms, one of them on the main floor, a library, tennis court, swimming pool, spare room for the maid, all of it on a couple of secluded acres overlooking the Potomac River. He's willing to go to $400,000.
In the discreet hands of Von Meister-Georgelas, the Atlanta executive will get a gentle orientation in mansion buying in the Washington area.
"We'll show him some $400,000 houses," says Chambliss. "It may have five bedrooms, but some of the other things will be missing. Maybe the view overlooking the Potomac. He'll say, 'That's not what I had in mind.' We'll say we think we have just what he wants. Of course, the price is $550,000."
The cofounder of Von Meister-Georgelas is Diane Von Meister, a low-key but ambitious wheeler-dealer whose golden blond hair nicely accents her midnight blue, 6.9-liter Mercedes-Benz.
"This place is my dream" says Von Meister.
About three nights a week, Von Meister hits the Washington party circuit -- Pisces in Georgetown was a recent stop -- to rub elbows with people who can afford the houses she lists.
There are occasional ads in the newspapers featuring a new listing, or mailouts to people in the Green Book, Diplomatic Directory and Congrssional Staff Directory, but most sales, says Von Meister, come from personal contact.
Listings are also advertised in a color brochure that is placed in the rooms of the Hay-Adams Hotel.
Agent selection is done with a jeweler's eye. "When I interview applicants," says Chambliss, "one of the first things I ask them is, 'Who do you know?'"
One of the agents, not coincidentally, is married to a well-known Washington divorce lawyer. Another, Liane Stever, has warmed many hearts in animal-loving McLean by her unstinting willingness to shelter stray cats and dogs (at last count she had 17 and six, respectively). "I have some people near Ethel Kennedy's" she says. "They will take Von Meister-Georgelas cards round to their neighbors."
When agents are selling a house, says Chambliss, they "stay away from superlatives. If a house needs work, we say it."
Eventually, the matter of money must be raised. But there are differences of opinion on how that delicate but necessary subject is best broached.
"One of the things we've never done is make people feel inadequate," says Liane Stever. "We would never ask, can you afford it?You never hurt someone's feelings."
Jay Chambliss has a different attitude: "We pick them up, turn them upside down and shake them by the heels." CAPTION: Picture 1, Real estate broker Diane Von Meister, in front of a mansion in Potomac being sold by her company. By Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, Ruth Cannon tidies up the front walk of a house on Potomac Mills Drive in Great Falls, Va., which her company hopes to sell for $680,000; Picture 3, Ruth Cannon stands next to a leaded window in the $680,000 house. Photos by Douglas Chevalier -- The Washington Post