Despite the cold and the drizzle, about 75 potential buyers lined up before 9 a.m. under ablue-and-white-striped canopy for a chance at town houses that hadn't been built yet. There wasn't even a model to look at, just a sales trailer on otherwise barren lots.
It was a scene out of the good old days of low interest rates and a booming housing market--but it unfolded last weekend at a new Loudoun County subdivision near Sterling that had started advertising only two weeks before.
The statistics on home sales continue to be grim here and elsewhere in the country. But some people are still buying homes, though perhaps not what they would have chosen a few years back.
A few projects, in fact, have found a subterranean wellspring of home-buyers, buyers that have been tapped by offers of the right product or terms. The formula that sells here varies, but the hot commodities generally have one common denominator: bottom-line cost.
The new community that got them lining up last weekend, called Georgian Villages and developed by Globe U.S.A., is far from downtown Washington, and the 120 planned units will be small. The two-bedroom, two-level units have as little as 870 square feet, just slightly more than a good-sized efficiency of past days. The financing being offered isn't exceptional: It consists of conventional rates or FHA or VA rates of 15 1/2 percent.
But low prices at the planned complex prompted more than 800 people to answer an ad to get a reservation number and for 62 families to sign sales contracts in the first day alone, the developers said.
Ranging in price from $47,500 to $58,990, the two- and three-bedroom town houses attracted a number of first-time buyers for whom the small size was not a drawback, sales agents said.
"This is ideal," said Gwen Lewis, the first person in a line of buyers that had continued to grow throughout the morning. Lewis, an administrative assistant for a Bethesda insurance company, estimated that her driving time to work from the Loudoun subdivision, about 18 miles west of Tyson's Corner out Rte. 7, will be 40 minutes. But this is "close enough," and the advantages of homeownership in a community she likes will outweigh any inconvenience in distance, Lewis said.
The young widow, who has two small children, said the three-bedroom town house will be the first home she has owned. Lewis wanted to buy the house that she now rents in Silver Spring but couldn't arrange the financing there.
"It's nice for the children . . . a nice community," she said about Georgian Village, which she heard about from a friend who is a real estate agent.
Other first-time buyers in this area are choosing a different kind of product: close-in high-rise condominiums geared to singles or "mingles," roommates who buy together.
The number of sales contracts written at a project is no longer an accurate indication on how well the project is doing, because of an increased level of "kick-outs," sales that don't actually go through when the buyers back out or cannot qualify for a mortgage. In some cases, these have run as high as 50 percent. But kick-outs are less of a problem if the price is low.
Among the lower-priced here are River Place in Rosslyn, selling from $35,000 for small efficiencies just across the river from the District. Formerly Arlington Towers, the high-rise was converted to cooperative ownership and stands on a 72-year land lease that costs each unit only $4.19 a month.
While some local housing experts note drawbacks to leasing the land without options to buy or lease again, the developers argue that the low land rents have enabled them to keep the prices there low, compared with similar projects, and to offer a real bargain.
Apparently, many young buyers have agreed. The prices and location, plus an intensive ad campaign, have resulted in about 300 sales since River Place opened this year, according to Housing Data Reports, local housing specialists.
Westmoreland Terrace, another conversion in Rosslyn, also is selling well, according to local housing experts. Prices for one-bedroom rehabilitated units there generally are in the mid-$60,000s, and it was reported to be about 50 percent sold in five weeks.
On the other side of the District, Presidential Park in Adelphi was a quick sellout last fall. With efficiencies starting at $18,990 and 13 1/2 percent financing, the developer sold all of its 375 mid-rise units in 19 days, project spokesman Brian McSweeney said.
"The message to the real estate market is clear and simple," McSweeney said. "There is demand out there for good, affordable housing. Judging from the response, this is a market that has barely been scratched."
One project that many in the housing field point to as a success is Farmingdale, out Rte. I-270 near Germantown, built by the Porten Sullivan firm. The California-style town house complex features saunas, jogging trails, volley ball and community activities geared to young, entry-level buyers. And prices start at about $50,000.
Porten Sullivan had been banking on the mingles market as a key to success when--in a case of optimism prevailing over the common wisdom--it first opened for business last year, smack in the middle of the worst housing depression since World War II. The developer advertised, for example, that two roommates with at least $14,500 in income each could afford to buy.
As it turns out, most buyers there are young married couples or single individuals, though some mingles have bought in too, said Richard Sullivan, company president. Some of the single owners apparently have bought with the intension of renting out the second master suite, he added.
The mingles approach is being tried at another project, Chestnut Grove in Reston, which developer Mike Brenneman of Brenneman and Associates says has started to draw traffic. Three-bedroom units there were turned into homes with two master bedroom suites so they could be successfully targeted to the mingles market. With a starting price of $68,500, two individuals each making $16,500 should be able to buy, he said.
"That's where we think the market is going to be. We have to open up the market that has been shut out," Brenneman said.
When asked about hot sales projects in the District, the most common reaction from real estate experts is a groan. But there are some rare exceptions, and Brenneman points to The President, an eight-story condominium in Foggy Bottom, as an example. Units here are tiny, but they start in the low $40,000s, and sales there have been strong, he said.
"I think what we are seeing is pent-up demand, what one person in my office called cabin fever," Brenneman theorized. "People who have been waiting now are saying, 'The hell with it, we're going to buy anyway.' We're seeing a lot of that."
Another local builder, Michael T. Rose, has tracked his market scientifically, continually updating his customer profiles to know what to gear his product to. Based on the patterns that emerge from the profiles, he changes his product about every 1 1/2 years, he said.
In the late '60s, for example, 30 percent of the women in his projects worked, 80 to 90 percent of his buyers were married, and the average number of children was about 2.
In the past two years, 100 percent of the adults in his communities work, only 52 percent are married and the children have virtually disappeared, with only 0.18 per household average in the last 200 sales, he said.
Unlike some of his colleagues, Rose has chosen not to reduce the size of the homes he is building. Instead, he has redistributed space to suit the new markets, particularly that of single individuals living together.
In the Woodstream community in Prince George's County near Seabrook, Rose is building the Carriage Walk and Surrey Walk projects, town houses that range from 1,700 to 2,200 square feet in size and start at about $93,000.
While mingles are about 48 percent of the buyers at those projects now, Rose foresees a time in the near future when homes will be geared not to two singles buying together but to two couples sharing a home. Five years from now the true single-family home will be a real rarity, he predicts.
One new single-family project that has pulled in the buyers is called Pine Glen in Vienna, near the last stop of the Metro line, said Jean Paris of Heritage Homes Realtors. In two days the project had 11 sales contracts on 15 planned three-bedroom homes with 1,500 square feet, sold for close to $100,000 with no special financing plans, she said.
Paris said that the young builder there, Roger DeMarco, was able to keep his costs down because he bought the land at a foreclosure sale, didn't put up a model, had no unsold inventory to carry, and he didn't even have to pay for lot signs (his wife painted them).
Much of the key to selling now appears to be flexibility, a quality that builder Rose, for one, does not undervalue. This extends to "creative financing" that may go beyond the now-familiar builder buy-downs of interest rates and alternative mortgage instruments.
Rose was approached one time with an unusual offer by a military man wanting to buy at his Sunrise project in Oxon Hills. The man collected opals and wanted to make his down payment with $2,000 worth of the gems.
"We took it," Rose said, adding that the stones became a gift for his wife. Another time, the builder helped a man sell his Corvette to raise the down payment.
"Any valuable commodity you have--a car, a boat," will be accepted as part of a barter, Rose said. "That's the nature of the business today."