David and Linda Wolff packed up their belongings last week and made arrangements to move a house full of furniture, two antique cars and a grand piano. But they did not head for their spacious new home in Potomac as they had planned.
Instead, the Wolffs are moving into temporary quarters and are putting much of their furniture into storage. Although they were assured the house would be finished this week, it still has no roof and no windows.
Leadership Corp., a Montgomery County developer that owes at least $7 million to its creditors -- chiefly subcontractors and suppliers -- and another $7 million to lenders, stopped work on nine Montgomery County projects in August. One of the developments is the Palisades, where the Wolffs' $300,000 house is situated.
Attorneys for the corporation and its creditors have been trying for more than a month to agree on a plan that will enable the financially strapped company to avoid bankruptcy and finish the houses now under construction. Roger Frankel, an attorney who represents suppliers and subcontractors, said a "nonbinding agreement on the structure of a work-out plan" was reached this week, but still must be approved by the creditors and Leadership. It could take another two to three weeks to draft the detailed agreement, Frankel said.
In the meantime, the Wolffs and several dozen other buyers are left with no homes to move into and no indication of when their houses may be completed.
The Wolffs are among the several families in this group who sold their former homes on the strength of assurances that their new houses would be finished by a certain date. Some have put down large deposits, ranging from $10,000 to $30,000, or already have paid for extras in the new houses, making it financially impossible or very difficult to buy other houses if they don't get their money back, several buyers said.
The Wolffs sold their home in Vienna after being assured that the new house in Leadership's Palisades development, off MacArthur Boulevard, would be ready for occupancy by October. They have $15,000 tied up in the new house and cannot afford to buy another unless they can get their money back, David Wolff said. The family, including two small children and David Wolff's elderly mother, is moving into a rented house in Chevy Chase.
"It isn't even the two moves that's so bad, it's the unsettled feeling," Wolff said. In August, he and his wife enrolled Andrew, their second grader, in Carderock Springs Elementary, the school nearest the new Montgomery County house, so that he would not have to transfer when they moved. Now, the long drives to and from school every day may continue indefinitely, Wolff said.
Another Leadership home purchaser, Robert L. Trachtenberg, said that he and his family must move out of their Wheaton house next week so that the new owners can move in. But the $300,000 house in the Woodrock development in Potomac on which Trachtenberg has paid a deposit is unfinished. "Without getting our deposit back, we can't buy another house. I don't know what we will do," he said. "We've had seven homes, and nothing like this has ever happened to us."
Purchasers who had "contractual reasons" for getting deposits back and asked for the refund already have received it, according to Betsy Abruzzo, manager of Lewis & Silverman Realtors' Montrose office. But others are not being offered refunds. Most contracts provide that the sale can be canceled if construction is not completed within 365 days, a provision that applies to few of the unfinished Leadership homes. In some cases, prospective home buyers can make their purchases contingent on other factors, usually the sale of their former homes.
The real estate company is selling houses in Leadership's Palisades, Woodrock and Cloisters developments in Montgomery County and Timberlawn South in Fairfax County, she said.
Leadership also has offered cash discounts to contract holders who will buy their houses now in an "as-is" condition and one buyer has expressed interest in the plan, Abruzzo said. A buyer who accepts this offer receives no warranties on the house and must pay for completion of the home. She declined to discuss the size of the discounts, which she said were based on the condition of the houses.
Frankel said he believes only a few houses, which were about 90 percent complete or more, have been offered for sale in their present condition. No more can be sold now, because mechanics' liens have been filed by creditors on nearly all of the unsold houses and clear titles to them no longer could be delivered, he said. A mechanic's lien asks a court to order the sale of property to pay off the debts.
The as-is proposition "is fraught with problems," said David Guskin, a buyer whose uncompleted house also is in the Woodrock development. "If the roof leaks" or other problems arise, "there's no one to turn to." Guskin's family is living in temporary housing, without any idea of how long they might have to wait for the Leadership house to be completed. "I don't know whether to buy another home. You can't take a vacation, you can't have visitors. Your whole personal life is in turmoil," he said.
"I'd like to be optimistic" that the homes will be finished soon, Guskin said. But as negotiations between Leadership and its creditors continue, Guskin and other Woodrock buyers are "beginning to have doubts," he said. Frankel was more optimistic. He said the tentative agreement reached this week is a sign of progress toward getting work started again.
Under the plan, a committee of one representative each from Leadership, lenders, and the subcontractors and suppliers would be established to "review and monitor the general and administrative expenses of Leadership," beginning immediately, Frankel said. The agreement also provides that the developers will not sell any major assets "without the knowledge and approval" of banks and other creditors, he said.
Frankel said his clients will not go back to work unless someone -- probably banks that have loaned money to Leadership to finance construction -- guarantees they will be paid for everything they do from now on. It would be in the lenders' interest to have the houses completed so that proceeds from the sales, either by the developer or by the banks after foreclosure, can be used to repay loans, an attorney involved in the negotiations noted.
If any plan for resumption of construction is approved, the agreement will come within the next 10 days or sooner, predicted Alan S. Mark, an attorney for the National Bank of Washington. The bank made unsecured loans to Leadership, principally for working capital, Mark said. He would not comment on whether banks will guarantee payment of workers and suppliers.
Leadership is owned by Peter J. Berman and Robert D. Berger, longtime Montgomery County builders who formerly owned Berger Berman Builders Inc., which they dismantled in 1981. They are noted for luxury homes that sell at prices starting at about $300,000, but they also have built lower-priced houses recently.
Berman, who has been described by sources close to the company as "easily bored," has left active management of Leadership to others in recent years while he has turned his attention to other projects. He and four other organizers founded Maximum Savings Association, a federally chartered institution, in early 1984, with Berman as chairman. Berman resigned from Maximum's board of directors last month to assume the presidency of Leadership, according to sources.
In the early 1980s, Berman invested in an Atlanta "pet hotel," according to a source close to the company. And, about two years ago, Berman was instrumental in Leadership's opening of a B. B. Ribson's restaurant in Northern Virginia at a cost reported to be $750,000, the source said, but the restaurant has not been profitable.
The creditors are aware of B. B. Ribson's problems, according to Frankel, who said the restaurant is about to be sold.
Berman and Berger have not answered a reporter's repeated telephone inquiries about Leadership's financial difficulties.