In this era of skyrocketing real estate prices, the Maryland Highway Administration has a deal for you: Houses, $10 or less, cash and carry.
It's all perfectly legal -- as long as the buyer agrees to move the dwelling to another location. The houses - and sometimes offices -- are on property that has been condemned by the state because it lies in the way of road improvements. The commission buys about 25 such buildings each year and demolishes them if there are no buyers.
Usually, however, there are.
Jeff Turbyne, a Leonardtown schoolteacher, bought a house for $6.12. A friend of his, Charlie Spangler, did even better. He bought two houses for $6.35.
But the shrewdest buy of all was probably that of Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. After the state paid him and his law partners a total of $200,000 for two Oxon Hill law offices and the 20,000 square foot lot they were located on, Vallario and company bought back the buildings for $10 each, and then moved them.
The houses are sold at public auction, all over Maryland. From the state's point of view, it makes more sense to sell the houses cheap than to go to the expense of demolishing them.
"We're not in the home-buying business," said Matt Bogden, the state highway official who administers the program. "We're in the road-building business. And in the process of building roads, we run into many things. Like houses."
Bogden says the buyers are usually individuals or families who own a nearby lot to which they can move the dwelling. What people forget, however, according to Bogden, is that after purchasing a $50,000 house for $10, the purchaser is also faced with the cost of moving and reerecting it, which can cost thousands of dollar. If the buyer also purchases a property on which to move the building, the cost will be higher.
"We can't tell them what to do with the house," said Bogden. "The only thing we want is to have the house moved. We don't need publicity. I can see this thing coming now: Get in line [for a house]: the line forms to the left; the state loses $40,000. It'll be ridiculous."
According to state officials, most of the houses sell for under $50. Sometimes the prices are higher. A Wicomico County dwelling appraised at $46,000 went for $1,000. A one-story house on the Eastern shore valued at $24,000 sold for $4,400.
The two St. Mary's school teachers who bought houses say they are satisfied with their purchases."It's a better house than the one I live in," said Spangler.
Turbyne bought his house after arriving late at the public auction, and finding that nobody else had shown up to bid. So he mailed in a blind offer. "I figured there would be others interested, and somebody might say $5,00. So I increased my bid to one dollar and some cents." He got the house.
Roy Ridgeway, of J.R. Ridgeway Realtors in Brandywine, bought nine dwellings from the state. "It's good in a market like this, with the cost of money so high," he said.
The homes -- all in Oxon Hill and ranging from $10 to $1,700 in price were moved, renovated and are now for sale. The first, renovacted for $47,000 according to Ridgeway, sold for $59,950.
Vallario and his law partners worked out of offices also located in Oxon Hill. The state offered them about $100,000 for the lot and two office buildings, which were in the way of a Beltway ramp that was going to be constructed. Vallario protested that the property was worth much more, and sued in Prince George's County Circuit Court. He won and the state paid him twice the amount it originally offered -- $200,000.
Of that amount, $80,000 was for the two offices and $120,000 was for the land.
After receiving the $200,000 [three-fourths of which Vallario kept, one-fourth of which went to his partner] Vallario bought back the two office buildings for $10 each. He had them moved, and plans now to rent or sell them.
According to Vallario, the cost and headaches involved in moving the buildings made the whole transaction less worthwhile than it seemed. He claims that the spent nearly $50,000 moving and reconstructing the two office buildings and buying new land to put them on.
His profits -- over the 10 years he owned the land and offices -- were no more than any other successful seller of real estate, Vallario maintains.
In the case of Vincent Manzella, a retired District policeman, the state of Maryland twice condemned his house.
Manzella built his house in the early 50s on Selby Road in Oxon Hill where the Beltway was ultimately constructed. The state condemned Manzella's property and paid him $27,000 for the house.
Manzella immediately rebought the house for $500, and moved it one block down the road.
Nine years later, to accommodate the Beltway ramp it wanted to build, the state condemned Manzella's property again, and paid him $67,000. The frustrated Manzella decided against buying back his house a second time, even at the cheaper price. "I would've but there was no place to take it," he said.
He moved instead to Fort Washington, Md., to escape the arm of the state. He believes he is safe unless Maryland "builds a railroad or dams up the place," he says.
State officials say the house-selling program is an economic necessity. Ironically, condemned land -- as opposed to houses -- is sold for its appraised value. For example, one plot outside Elkton, Md., went for $275,000.
The state is careful to make sure that the houses actually are moved after they are purchased. Buyers must pay $500 for a performance bond guaranteeing they will move the house. They get the $500 back after the house is moved.
Usually buyers have between one and two months to move their houses and most do.David Muser, the state official who runs the house auctions, tells the story of one 80-year-old man who obviously did not know what he was getting into.
The man had bid and paid $700 for a house condemned by the state that had been appraised at $11,000. But instead of moving it nearby, he apparently wanted to take it far away. Some house movers, who frequently attend the auctions to drum up business, quoted the startled man a $21,000 price to move the structure.
"We decided to give him back his money." Muser said.