CONDO GAME (def.): Game played by Washingtonians who buy layer-cake style real estate." Can involve substantial profits--and losses. Generates excitement--and hostility--among players, but occasionally results in a good party by the pool. Not for the weak-hearted, those who frown on back-stabbing, or who don't readily acede to condominium board directors who try to play "Hill" politics in aging, renovated high-rises. Players win when they (a) laugh all the way to the bank, or (b) lose all illusions about the goodness of people and learn to love their condos--and live with their fellow game-players--anyway.
Washington's condo game began in earnest back in 1973 when one of the city's first large-scale condominim conversion projects began at a rambling, deteriorating garden apartment building on Connecticut Avenue across from the National Zoo.
The building had been inhabited by families with children and old people, many of them Hispanic. Once they were gone, the developer put up a flashy canopy and installed air conditioning, designer kitchens, new plumbing, lush landscaping, and a large, outdoor pool.
Within a year or two, those who had bought units early in the game were laughing all the way to the bank: Resale values were soaring as the District began to undergo a condominium boom, and short-term profits of 100 percent were common at the complex.
Nine years later, who's winning the condo game in Washington? I'm not sure whether I'm a condo game winner or loser, but I'm still playing the game, and am probably a typical player. At 32 I'm single, white-collar, prosperous, living in my second condo (having made a bundle off my first one), and serving as secretary on my building's board of directors. Sometimes I love my unit, but at other times I'm ready to chuck it and head back to a rent-controlled, unconverted apartment (if there's still one left) in Adams Morgan.
One of the things that makes life arduous for condo owners is that our buildings are now being run by boards of directors made up of neighbors. It used to be that apartment buildings were run by easy-to-hate, far-off landlords or management companies. Now, the culprits deciding what color your front door is going to be painted, or writing you a letter saying you've been making too much noise, are neighbors on your board of directors.
While you may not have given much thought to the credentials of your rental landlords, condo owners know a lot more about their neighbors than they did about their landlords, and may think some of those neighbors aren't qualified to run sandboxes. (Some board members, of course, like one particular past president of my own condo board, do excellent jobs.)
This is the irony of the condo game. When prices were reaching for the stars, you might have viewed your board of directors as a petty irritation, or perhaps even have appreciated its hard work. Now, prices are leveling off--and the daydreams of some condo buyers about making short-term killings in real estate are disappearing. Along with the tax write-offs you can get on interest payments are the irritations of community living in a building.
I bought my first condominium--a large, bright efficiency in a 28-year old Cleveland Park high-rise--in 1978. The apartment had 80 square feet of walk-in closet space and a separate dressing room I used as a den. There was an eye-level oven (but no kitchen counter space), and a gleaming new dishwasher.
The price suited my 1978 resources: It cost $31,000, required a $1,500 down payment, and carried a mortgage at 10 1/2 percent interest. I closed the deal after an interminable wait for renovations to be finished, then spent the next year and a half learning the rules of condo life:
Don't be friends with everyone you meet, even if the prospective friends are on the board of directors; don't buy the developer's line about a new swinging-singles condominium life style; and never give your name--or your phone number--to the friendly, but over-zealous real estate agents who solicit your resale business by writing nice letters or sending mailgrams.
Finally, I sold my apartment, and headed straight for the bank, humming the $18,000 gross profit march, after selling my $31,000 efficiency for $49,000.
My next move was back to Foggy Bottom, to the building where I'd lived before buying the place in Cleveland Park. As a renter there, I had been instrumental in setting up the tenants association that later went on to buy--and convert--the building, prompting the departure of half the original tenants in the process.
(Displacing half the occupants had hardly been our goal when we started the tenants association. Then, our purpose was to "protect the rights and interests" of everyone in the building, and prevent the building from being turned into a condominium.)
When I moved back to Foggy Bottom, I had to put up $10,000 of my $18,000 profit to keep the monthly payments on the apartment within reason. I still could afford just an efficiency--this time, without a dishwasher or eye-level oven. Now, 20 months later--and thanks to the recession, high interest rates, and the resultant bombed-out housing market--my condominium is worth little more than I paid for it, and I'm not humming any tune.
Instead, I'm sitting on the board of directors, taking notes in my position as secretary, and dodging the verbal darts, arrows, and plain old potshots being flung my way by fellow board members. Most of them were friends when the building was a rental facility. Most people seemed to like each other in those days; parties were common, and the building was kept in tip-top condition.
As a member of the board, I'm trying to make the building work as a community where residents are respected by their board, and, more importantly, assured the same rights and privileges they had as renters. This isn't easy, and one thing I've learned is that boards of directors like to make rules, to assert their control and to keep people "in line."
Since I won't be making any money off my condo for a while, I figure I'd better make it a decent place to live for the duration. But this doesn't seem to set well with some condo owners, who have found themselves the masters and mistresses of multimillion-dollar buildings.
My condominium, for example, boasts all the intrigue, infighting, and petty scandals for which Capitol Hill is famous. In fact, this could be a new advertising angle for condo developers:
"Be part of official, corrupt Washington! Live in a scandal-ridden high-rise just minutes from the State Department, General Services Administration, and national monuments. Take part in the intrigue and inefficiency that have make Washington famous!"
Of course, I use the word "scandal" advisedly. Passions have flared, nerves become shot, and fist fights, a couple of times, barely averted--or so it seemed.
Our condo conflicts have revolved around such issues as a possibly "illegal" storage room and a "secret agreement" with one owner involving special privileges that the owner finally received by settling out of court.
Also at issue was the replacement of two popular, hard-working janitors largely because they didn't clean high enough up on new lobby mirrors that just about everyone in the building hates to begin with.
There's another side of the story that needs to be considered. And that is the side of the beleagured board members. The president of my own condo board, for example, feels that most of the board's critics are fair--at least most of the time. There are problems he says, when people base criticism on "misinformation" and are "erroneous of facts. . . . Like all committees, boards of directors are extremely inefficient and don't work very well. But under D.C. law, they are all we have, so we're stuck with them.
"Boards are political bodies and by definition, you elect people who are politicians, not technicians. The purpose of a condo board is to make policies, but boards get into trouble when they overstep their boundries and try to do the implementation. The ultimate goal is to leave implementation to the building management company."
And a member of an earlier board in my building observes: "A lot of people criticize, but they aren't willing to do any work, or come up with ideas of their own."