When Michael Brown hit town 10 years ago, he was 23 years old, had "absolutely not one cent" to his name and had a $1,200 Texaco gasoline bill hanging over his head.
But he managed to land a $8,200-a-year job as a Capitol policeman and then, using his 1964 Jaguar XKE as collateral, he borrowed $3,000 for a down payment on a ramshackle $8,500 Capital Hill house that had been vacant for years.
Michael Brown is no longer a Capital cop. In the last decade, he has parlayed that original $3,000 loan into his own real estate investment company with interest in 75 properties in Washington and 120 in Baltimore, plus an $80,000, 17th century home on the Greek Island of Patmos.
By his own account he is worth more than a million dollars. The reason: Brown is playing the Washington Real Estate Game.
Like amateurs playing a casual game of Monopoly, Brown and countless other Washingtonians are pyramiding small initial investments in gutted shell houses, row houses, condominiums and finished homes into profits and net worth statements with six and seven figure bottom lines.
Real estate in the Washington area is the best hedge against inflation, the sure-fire way to get ahead, these people believe, and as a result they are plunging their savings and parlaying the inflationary equity in their homes and profits from earlier investment purchases into portfolios that their parents never imagined possible.
The players are all over town, congressmen, federal bureaucrats squirreled away in their boxes with jobs they hope to escape from, lawyers and doctors with discretionary income, journalists trying to make enough money in real estate so they can quit their regular jobs and write a book.
Together, they constitute only a small group, probably less than 10 percent, of those who are refurbishing Washington's riot-torn slums and reselling the reborn housing for vast profits, according to several lenders in the city. Large, full-time builders still do most of that work. But as a group, there probably is no more spirited collection of investors than Washington's amateur real estate players.
For many, like Brown, the fun is in the playing, the search for just the right property, which can be defined almost uniformly as one that will spiral in value, all the while providing tax write-offs for loan interest charges, real estate taxes, depreciation and maybe cash losses from rental properties.
"It's exciting to make deals," says the boyish-looking, 33-year-old Brown. With partners, or by himself, he says he bought many of the 195 properties in Washington and Baltimore while he was moonlighting from his job as a Capitol police clerk.
"The hunt's more fun than the kill," says Bob Jones, 33, a top-level executive with the General Services Administration who estimates that he is worth between $400,000 and $500,000, all from real estate investments he has made in the last four years.
"The deals are what's fun," Jones says. "The more complicated the more fun."
Aside from the gamesmanship, there is, of course, the profit motive. Money can be lost on Washington real estate, if the property can't be unloaded or if an investor is financially overextended. But most experienced players say that with a single-minded purpose of finding the right property that can be rented or sold, it's hard to lose in the Washington Real Estate Game.
As Brown concludes: "It's safe to say if you bought something out of the paper and sold it a year later, you'd make money."
Washington's amateur real estate players put their deals together in a variety of ways. But they all seem to have an unyielding belief that real estate values are only going one way in Washington -- up, up, up.
"They've seen the market over a period of years," says William B. Fitzgerald, president of Independence Federal Savings & Loan Association of Washington. "They think it's phenomenal, which it is. They don't want to fool around with the stock market; that's a high-risk market."
Fitzgerald said some people keep saying the Washington real estate market "is going to burst. It's not. It's a great market, stable, solid."
But that is not to say there are not more than a few headaches along the way. And while the money may seem easy in retrospect, it is not exactly like picking it off the tree.
There are hassles with contractors, if a building is being "rehabbed," in the parlance of the game. More than one amateur investor has found that contractors do not always show up for work when they say they will, or they do the work shoddily. Lenders want their money repaid, even if a house is not rented or sold. Bad tenants can wreck months of refurbishing in one night, or go months without paying their rent.
For pure frustration, few could top the story of John Ritch, who had a dream six years ago that still might be realized, but which in the meantime has, in his words, "turned out to be a slowly unfolding version of hell."
The 36-year-old Ritch, who handles Western European affairs for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was struck by the beauty of an elaborate Victorial row house on the corner of P Street NW at Logan Circle. The three-story brick house had been vacant, like many homes in Washington's inner city, since the 1968 riots.
But Ritch thought he could restore the house to its one-time grandeur in a socially responsible way by turning the home into nine apartments for low-income residents. He borrowed $25,000 from friends to buy the rundown house, paid an architect $8,000 to redesign the interior and then ran headlong into a brick wall of troubles.
It took four years to get a 3 percent rehabilitiation loan approved by the city because of bureaucratic delays. In the meantime, the cost of the rehabilitation rose from $160,000 to $270,000.
Despite working for the government, Ritch had no idea what it was like to deal with the government. "If I'd had the salaries of the people paid to push paper [on his applications] I could have rehabbed half of Logan Circle," he said.
Eventually Ritch needed another $100,000 in loans to finish the project and it took another year to get a loan for $50,000 of that amount approved by the city.
The house at No. 4 Logan Circle is still not done. When it is, Ritch figures he will have a $400,000 property, with his $370,000 in mortgages covered by the rents of his federally subsidized tenants.
In the meantime, Ritch has already gotten a taste of life as a landlord. While enduring the hassles with the restoration of the Logan Circle property, Ritch refurbished four apartments at a nearby row house at 1305 P St., NW.
"What could be better than having a couple of carpenters who worked on the project rent the apartments?" he asked.
It turned out one of them used the apartment as the neighborhood heroin outlet. Ritch found that under city law it takes months to evict a bad tenant, but he said police soon arrested the man.
Rep. Stewart B. McKinney (R-Conn.) also found that the Washington Real Estate Game can turn sour. During his four terms in office here he has bought 19 properties for $612,000 and sold them for $1,737,000. But instead of a handsome profit, McKinney says he lost money on the rehabilitation work because of construction costs and has decided to bow out of the real estate business.
One D.C. lawyer who decided to rehabilitate a DuPont Circle row house quickly learned that "all that glitters is not gold. The plumber didn't show up [at first] and later [the plumbing] didn't work and had to be torn out."
Still, the 45 year old lawyer, who declined to be identified, has profited spectacularly for his efforts, building a net worth of more than $300,000 from Washington real estate ventures within the last three years.
The key to such success, he and others say, is the willingness to take risks. The lawyer said that when he and his partner finished with the DuPont Circle renovation, they had put $95,000 into the project and had a buyer willing to pay $160,000 for the three-story town house.
But at the last second, just as a $60,000 note was coming due, the prospective buyer backed out. "We were stuck," the lawyer recaled. "We were about to go busted on the first deal."
The lawyer said his partner wanted to take the buyer's reduced offer of $135,000 but the lawyer balked, found tenants for the property and refinanced it.
He is glad he did, he said, because the property is now worth $225,000 and the $1,500 in monthly rent payments cover his monthly mortgage on the refinanced loan.
Making money is the lawyer's prime motivation in playing the Washington Real Estate Game, he says, but there is something else as well.
"It's testing one's wit against the world," he says. "it's a game spirit."
Whatever their motivation, almost all the amateur investors find that watching after property and playing landlord can be extraordinarily timeconsuming, especially when most of the amateurs hold down full-time, non-real estate jobs.
Deborah Shapley, a 33 year old reporter for Science magazine, says she bought a condominium when she was single, sold it when she got married, purchased a small apartment building, made some money on its sale and now owns a six-unit apartment building off Columbia Road NW.
She said she sometimes spends as much as 40 hours a week tending to her tenants' needs. "Troubles come in battalions," she noted. "You respond when the situation demands."
Bob Jones, the senior executive at GSA, said he often spends five or six hours a night poring over his deals, dealing with subcontractors or checking that work is done properly.
"Someone who's a serious buyer of property is going to have to do it at night," Jones said. "You need to be ready to spend the time it takes to do it -- or else don't do it."
Michael Brown is one who made his fortune in the daytime, because he worked nights on the Capitol police force. His police paycheck put food on the table, he says, but his real estate ventures gave him the most pleasure.
Fater refurbishing his own home at 316 9th St. NW, Brown bought a second house next door and started redoing it. Word of his purchase soon spread and savings and loan associations started calling him with offers of mortgages for other vacant homes they had foreclosed on.
Brown, an art major in college said that initially he bought vacant houses to restore them for their aesthetic value. "Then I realized there was a market," he said.
By 1972, Brown was buying property in other parts of the city, such as a row house he bought near Logan Circle.
As Brown recalls it, a man who lives near Mount Vernon was asking $10,500 for the property and when Brown offered to pay that much the man called him down to his home to talk about the deal.
I'm a good Christian man," Brown remembers the seller telling him. "I want you to know what you're buying."
"I tried to explain to him that the area was coming back," Brown said, laughing at the recollection. "I just turned around and sold it for $18,000 or $20,000."
To this day, Brown delights in such deal-making, using equity here, cash there, partners' money another place, all to buy more property.
"It's incredible," he says. "I'll put a price on something and someone will come in and offer me more."