Condominium developers and converters are emerging from the troubled years of 1981 and '82 as a much more cautious and sophisticated industry, choosing their projects much more carefully and directing their sales pitches toward specific segments of the market.
"In the late '70s, when the market was so hot, you could sell anything," said Bob Reed, of Shannon & Luchs Co. " . . . But now every sale we get is earned."
"You've got to be very careful" in undertaking a project today, said Ronald P. Kirby, president of Almist, Inc., a major condo developer here. Kirby said his firm is "looking around" for something as its highly successful Woodburn Village in Fairfax County nears completion, but so far hasn't come up with anything.
The costs of buildings for converters, and land and construction for builders, and of money for everybody has upped the ante across the board for the industry in recent years. And the volatile credit markets have exposed developers to risks undreamed of in the boom years of the late '70s.
Even the most well-conceived projects can come undone in these conditions.
G.V. (Mike) Brenneman Jr., past president of the Washington Board of Realtors and head of a firm specializing in condominiums and cooperatives, cites the case of a 175-unit building at 8101 Connecticut Ave. where the developer, Chevy Chase Land Co., "did everything right" but still had problems.
"They had that building completely sold out on paper," but when interest rates took off "those paper sales fell apart," Brenneman said, and only now are sales making a substantial comeback even though it is "superbly located" and contains "lovely, large" one- to three-bedroom apartments.
Other projects, such as Bishop's Gate on 15th Street NW and the Papermill in Georgetown, have been forced into bankruptcy.
Seeking to avoid such misfortunes, developers are tailoring their offerings to specific types of buyers--beyond the traditional young couples and "empty-nesters"--who experience has shown to be attracted to condos.
One such sub-market is women. In contrast to the situation of only a few years ago when women had trouble getting mortgage loans without a husband or other male relative to cosign the note, they have become a major component of today's condominium-buying market, developers and marketers agree.
"Single women want to buy and they want to do it on their own," said Almist's Kirby. "They are making more money now," he added, which both gives them the ability to buy and puts them into tax brackets where they benefit substantially from ownership.
Kirby and others agreed that since legal requirements and changing economic conditions have forced lenders to deal with women, they have discovered that it is good business.
"Banks love 'em," said Brenneman. "There's been a drastic change."
Brenneman said that in several projects he has marketed, including Webster House at 1718 P St. NW, more than half the units have been sold to women.
Spotting such trends can be crucial.
Shannon & Luchs' Reed recalled a project whose sales had been aimed at empty-nesters and had not been doing well. When his firm took over the marketing, Reed said, he discovered from demographic data that first-time buyers were much more likely prospects.
"Those were the ones who were moving--and 40 percent of them were single females," he said.
A second important and relatively new group are to so-called mingles--unrelated single people who go in together to share the costs and benefits of ownership.
John F. Burket III, vice president and division manager for the Artery Organization, notes that close to a third of the units in his company's Greenfields at Brandermill project in Germantown are set up to appeal to that kind of buyer.
"The bedrooms in some are at opposite ends" of the unit, or in a two-level dwelling "we may pop up a bedroom" onto the second floor so that while the owners share areas such as the living room and kitchen, each has his or her own private master bedroom and bath, Burket said.
He added that the whole project, which is aimed at first-time buyers as well and will eventually total 594 units, has been selling at a better-than-expected rate, and that the mingles aspect has been well-received by prospective buyers.