So many investors from other urban areas -- including Washington -- are snapping up inner-city properties here that brokers are forming syndicates for them.
The brick and Permastone-faced rowhouses are selling for $12,000 to $20,000, depending on location and condition.
Comparable inner-city properties in cities such as Boston, Richmond or Philadelphia, York and Lancaster in Pennsylvania are priced from $25,000 to $60,000 and up, says Linda Lehman, 32, a partner in the Silver Spring realty firm Lehman-Gibson Associates.
"If Baltimore comes [up] to the [price] level of other cities for comparable property, you will make a fortune [if you have invested] there," she said.
Lehman believes Baltimore's harbor and its proximity to Washington account in part for its investment potential, which she says is greater than that of any other city on the East coast except Boston and Philadelphia.
The syndicates brokers are putting together simplfy buying and managing of Baltimore properties. The syndicates help investors buy "packages" of houses.
In one such joint venture, conceived by Lehman-Gibson Associates, investors bought units or shares, priced around $11,000 each, that entitled them to a 10 percent interst in a package of 15 Baltimore properties. The total price included mortgage payments estimated closing costs and "points."
Lehman-Gibson now manages about 350 houses in Baltimore joint ventures. Rents are collected by a management firm in Baltimore. Maintenance costs are said to have been cut by one-half to one-third by purchasing supplies wholesale and by using Lehman-Gibson's own Washington-based repair crews.
Washington real estate investor John Groth also began buying Baltimore property 2 1/2 years ago with former Ronald Reagan advance man Robert Tuttle. (Other Reagan staffers who have invested in Baltimore include Lyn Nofziger and Helene von Damm.) Groth put together partnerships that have purchased about 200 houses at an average cost of $2,500 each. He sold 35 houses a year ago, but plans to hold the rest of the "packages" another three to five years.
Buying Baltimore property "makes a lot of sense economically, if you buy smart," said Groth. "Baltimore is a good city, well-run, and they've done a great job of rehabilitating. Properties are well-priced, even at the numbers they are selling for now. You can get a three-bedroom, two-bath house for $15,000 and rent it for $175-$200 a month. Compare that with a $40,000 burned-out shell in [Washington's] Shaw [area].
Other potential investors from the Washington area prefer to put together their won packages by following up advertisements in local newspapers. After one "ride-by" inspection of about 30 inner-city houses 18 months ago, two Washington investors bought eight houses for a total of $72,000 plus closing costs. They paid 20 percent down and the owners took back a five-year, interest-only balloon note of 13.2 percent. A Baltimore management company collects the rents and takes care of repairs.
But, along with its potential for allowing investors to make a fast buck, the Baltimore real estate game has its pitfalls and problems.
The three most common difficulties involve problem tenants, repairs and housing code violations.
Difficulty in collecting rent from tenants is an occupational hazard encountered by investors the world over -- and Baltimore is no exception.
In addition, even with the best of care, 100-year-old houses such as many of those for rent in inner-city Baltimore need frequent repairs. Tenants seldom take care of property as well as owners do, investors maintain, so owners are at the mercy of their managers, who must see that repairs and maintenance are done as efficiently and economically as possible.
Investors say they have had real problems with repairs, however. One Baltimore owner told of being charged $1,200 for a roof job that an expert later said should have been done for about half that amount. Another group of owners paid several hundred dollars to repair a roof, but later learned in Housing Court, where they were suing the tenant for nonpayment of rent, that the ceiling had collapsed and the money had been paid for work that had not been done.
Investors from Washington increasingly have begun to complain that Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development appears to be cracking down on absentee landlords. A "them-versus-us" mentality seems to emerge when talking to these investors.
Although no investors were willing to go on record with specific allegations, there is increasing talk among them of harassment by housing inspectors and subsequent payoffs. Some alleged that as soon as housing code violations in rental property were corrected, inspectors immediately returned and allegedly found new problems, some as minor as cracked windows.
Other Baltimore landlords -- like landlords elsewhere -- complain that they are penalized for the carelessness of tenants or for conditions beyond their control. In one instance, the owners of a vacant house in downtown Baltimore have been cited repeatedly for code violations when neighbors steal plywood boards from the windows and throw trash in the yard.
"There is no protection for landlords. Tenants need to be educated. They don't have the right to destroy a house," said Joel Hirschman, owner of Inner City Management, one of Baltimore's largest property management firms, which in late 1979 managed fewer than 100 houses. A year later, as more and more investors bought into the Baltimore market, the company was looking after 1,000 rental properties.
This rental property specilaist believes excessive regulations and harassment of landlords could backfire and drive away potential investors, just when the city desperately needs local tax dollars.
According to some investors, absentee landlords are cited for housing code violation notices much more frequently than Baltimoreans.
Baltimore's Mayor William D. Schaefer flatly denied the charge.
"I don't find any problem with absentee landlords, so long as they are good, responsible landlords and keep their property up to code," Schaefer told The Washington Post in an interview. But he would like to see "a little personal involvement of their agents . . . and a little bit of commitment to the community."
Owners of inner-city property frequently are characterized as "slumlords" and many Washington investors brisle at the term. Instead of taking advantage of the poor, these investors see themselves as providing housing that would otherwise be lacking, as well as contributing to the city's tax base. And they make a distinction between speculators who "flip" properties soon after buying them and investors who hold them for several years.
"Where we detect people coming in and buying properties and 'flipping' them, we intend to bring down every possible force of the law on those people through the gousing violation process and Housing Court," said Housing Commissioner M. J. Brodie, who oversees a $160 million annual budget.
"We are not going to be victims of that kind of speculation, whether it is from Washington or home-grown or from anywhere else. We try to enforce the housing code in as evenhanded a way as we can."
But Brodie denies any suggestion that Baltimore is cracking down on absentee landlords. "We're delighted to have investors if people do it with a sense of upgrading the property and taking care of it and being responsive to the conditions of that neighborhood," he said.
With all of the problems, most investors are pleased with what Baltimore has to offer them. Harry J. Hogan, a retired attorney and former government official who has invested in Baltimore property, says he is "fascinated by the low cost and tremendous downtown location. For $6,000 in Chicago, all you can get is a brick and a hammer.
"What struck me," Hogan added, "was that Baltimore was out of step with the times, but it may also be ahead of the rest. For years it has worked with he community.Washington and New York are not a community, they are an aggregate of individual households. But we all miss a community and would like to achieve it. Politically, we are consciously trying to move toward the creation of a community."