It may be small comfort to many would-be home buyers and sellers who have been squeezed out of the market by high interest rates, but the housing industry appears to be faring better in the Washington area thab in other parts of the country during the nation's most severe housing slump.
Although clobbered by the same painfully high interest rates as the rest of the country, more buyers and sellers here seem to have found ways of dealing with them, and sales and construction activity have not declined as badly as in other jurisdictions.
Many local builders and real estate brokers, in fact, maintain that they have adjusted well to the depressed housing market and the depressing interest rates that have caused it.
The key appears to be the ability of a real estate agent, builder or seller to provide or arrange favorable "creative financing" plans. Generally, this is more difficult for smaller firms, the ones that are hurting most.
"It's very difficult for that little guy," said Kenneth Tuchtan of Coldwell Banker-Routh Robbins, one of the largest local real estate firms. "Difficult for us too, but we . . . just tighten up. The little guy . . . can't just tighten up."
Conversely, the dismal overall situation could prove a boon for some of the largest firms, which may emerge from the slump stronger than ever.
"We're getting the business," says Bill Barrett, president of Merrill Lynch-Chris Coile Realty. Gross sales for the firm are up 27 percent from 1980, and the company has increased its market share since January by 150 percent in Northern Virginia and 44 percent in Montgomery County, he said.
A familiar name and the need for exotic financing techniques in today's market are the main reasons, Barrett contends. For example, his firm has hired one person to do nothing but find financial commitments from S&Ls, banks and mortgage bankers, he noted.
"In good times, when everything sells, people go to a friend of their brother-in-law. In a downturn economy, the seller needs all the help he can get," he said. "Having the Merrill Lynch name has been a tremendous help."
Some smaller builders, on the other hand, may have to go out of business during the current housing slump, and some of the weaker real estate agencies may merge with stronger firms.
"We get calls all the time from small brokers that want us to buy them out," Barrett said.
Tuchtan of Routh-Robbins noted the same phenomenon. "There are an awful lot of people who want to merge ," he said.
Overall sales at his firm are down, Tuchtan reports, but he says that the most experienced agents are doing well. "The talented people look like they are going to have banner years." The novices and those unfamiliar with new financing techniques are the ones having problems, he said.
James Banks, executive vice president of the Washington Board of Realtors, points to today's low sales figures and says many local agents are having serious problems. But he adds that, unexpectedly, the Realtors group membership is down only slightly this year and a number of new real estate brokers have entered the field.
"You'd be surprised how many people are coming into the market," Banks said.
There are a number of reasons why the housing business here has not been as affected by the slump as many other areas, observers say. One is the strong influence of the federal government, which, unlike industry, doesn't lay off large numbers of workers when there are economic downturns. High average income levels not only enable higher monthly payments, but make the tax deduction for mortgage interest more valuable because people are in higher brackets.
The transient nature of the area is another factor, and this year the change of administrations has meant more people buying and selling homes here, the experts say.
Overall figures do look grim, but they generally are not as bad as comparable nationwide statistics:
Home sales in July were down about 11 percent in the District from last year, according to Rufus S. Lusk and Son Inc. In Northern Virginia, resales that month declined 9 1/2 percent, in Prince George's 8 percent, and in Montgomery County 35 percent.
Housing starts in the area so far this year are up 18 percent from last year, but Michael Sumichrast, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders, warns that this figure is misleading because 1980 was one of the worst years ever for starts here.
Rental housing, squeezed by the lack of apartment construction and the conversion of apartment buildings to condominiums, is down 7 percent from last year. "We simply are not building apartments here anymore," Sumichrast said.
Almost all the blame for the poor housing market can be laid to mortgage interest rates, now about 17 to 17 1/2 percent, which have put home costs out of reach for many potential buyers. For example, a $100,000 home sold at a 10 percent interest rate would cost $877 a month; at 17 percent, the monthly payment jumps to $1,425.
This has meant that many sellers have had to assist in financing, which costs them money and in essence lowers the price of the home even though average home prices nominally continue to rise here and in the rest of the country.
As far as the buyer is concerned, some are simply staying out of the market waiting for rates to fall. Others are buying smaller homes or going to condominiums, looking farther out in the suburbs, or are sharing mortgages with other buyers.
While sales of other types of homes are down, condominium sales and permits have been rising steadily in the area, according to Rufus Lusk III, vice president of Rufus Lusk Inc.
Home Builders' Sumichrast also noted the increased percentage of permits for multifamily units in the area and added that home starts are much stronger in the outlying suburbs, principally because of the District's high land costs.
The trend here, as across the country, is to smaller, more efficient homes.
U.S. Housing Markets, published by Advance Mortgage Corp., reports that the strongest sellers in the Washington area are lower-priced town houses in Gaithersburg and Fairfax County, designed-for-sharing town houses in Arlington, and high-rise condos in the District.
While some builders are halting work, others see their chance to cash in on the changing market that for reasons of economic life style is turning to a smaller, more efficient home.
"We're taking a situation most people see as a problem and turning it into an opportunity," said Richard Sullivan, co-owner of a budding residential construction firm that was created in May. The company, Porten-Sullivan, specializes in six-plexes and eight-plexes geared to what the industry calls "mingles," unrelated individuals sharing a mortgage and wanting equal master bedroom suites that adjoin shared living space.
Sullivan, who was president of the Washington division of U.S. Homes, one of the country's largest home builders, said many big firms are missing out by being too conservative and sticking with the traditional three-bedroom, 1 1/2-bath design for first-time home buyers.
While other builders are cutting back, Porten-Sullivan has begun seven projects; three will open soon. They expect to have about 2,000 units on the market by 1982.
George R. Middleton, director of sales and marketing at another new company, the Fairfax-based Sequoia Building Corp., also expressed confidence in the future market while acknowledging that this is not the prevalent view.
"Most of our friends and cohorts in the industry have expressed a firm belief that we are totally insane to be starting out in today's hard times. So, if nothing less, perhaps you can find room for the firm's announced creation in the 'Believe-It-or-Not' section of the comics," Middleton said.
Middleton and Sullivan may not be as alone as they think in their bullish attitude toward the unusual housing market here.
Pulte Home Corp., one of the largest builders in the area, reports that sales have increased over last year. The company attributed their strong sales to a wide assortment of innovative financing plans and to turning more to town houses, condominiums, duplexes and the mingles market.
One huge project called Countryside is opening this weekend on 1,270 acres in Loudoun County, and the developer, 437 Land Co., reports that sales to builders are "higher than our most optimistic projections." The developer estimates it will take five to seven years to complete the planned 2,500 homes, community facilities and commercial buildings.
Panorama Real Estate, based in McLean, reported that its July sales of more than $5 million exceeded all previous records. "Our sales associates are finding activity in all segments of the market," said sales manager Martha Adams. "In many instances, however, special financing and expertise has been necessary to complete the transactions."
But others, particularly smaller brokers and builders, find they simply can't afford to subsidize financing.
"Even if you 'buy down' the rate to 13 percent pay a financing institution the difference between the market interest rate and a lower rate , that's your profit, and you have to assume you have a buyer," builder Joseph Horning said. Horning halted construction on four houses in Northeast Washington last year and intends to leave them unfinished until interest rates decline.
Some agents and builders have begun to consolidate their efforts to deal with the latest financing needs. For example, to help agents deal with the new financing plans, the Montgomery County Board of Realtors has introduced several new computer programs in its multiple-listing service.
In Reston, the town's 23 builders have formed an association to try to get warehousing of their financing through a major source of money, such as a pension fund or insurance company. Reston also is trying a novel sales promotion tactic. The builders are holding a sweepstakes, with the prize being a $50,000 credit against purchase of a Reston home. To enter, a prospective purchaser simply has to tour the Reston communities.
One bright spot in the mortgage money situation is the advent on Oct. 1 of tax-exempt All Savers certificates at savings and loans. Real estate agents and builders are putting much faith in the ability of the certificates to pull in more mortgage funds to the S&Ls and to help bring home loan rates down.
However, other financial experts feel that because of the high average cost of funds and loopholes in the tax law, the All Savers will not significantly lower interest rates or increase available mortgage money.
Meanwhile, buyers and sellers in almost all income brackets are feeling the squeeze.
"Two-and-a-half years ago, a buyer would say, 'This is the area I want; this is the type of house.' Now, the first thing we would say is, 'How much money do you make," said Northern Virginia Realtor Board spokesman Joseph Hayden.
"This makes condos and smaller homes more attractive," he said, pausing, "Maybe attractive isn't the right word -- just attainable." CAPTION: Picture 1, Signs of the times: The Porten Sullivan firm is building house at MacArthur Park in Cabin John designed to suit adult households. Unrelated buyers account for a growing share of the market.; Picture 2, Horning Brothers firm has suspended construction of four houses in Gallatin Place NE until interest rates drop.; Picture 3, The Reston Land Corp. and builders in the town are spending $250,000 on a six week campaignn to attract buyers. By Warren Mattox