Sometimes a negative and a positive don't cancel each other out. Sometimes, as in the case of homeowner Clark Tyler and the Hallcrest Heights community in McLean, they just add up to something that's completely plus.
Good things and bad happened in Hallcrest Heights last year, and together they turned Tyler into a homeowner activist.
The first negative was that in a home sales market that was beginning to really heat up, the comfortable town house complex where Tyler and his wife, Barbara, have lived for 15 years seemed to be sitting on the sidelines.
And then, Tyler recounted recently, two homeowners in the development were persuaded last fall by real estate agents to drop their prices in order to sell.
It didn't make sense to Tyler. "Where else in McLean can you buy a house for $250,000?" he asked.
Buyers were competing mightily to buy into other communities in Washington's close-in suburbs. What was wrong with Hallcrest Heights? Well, nothing, really. Okay, these were 30-year-old town houses, and perhaps they were a little "tired." And the proportion of houses that were rented out--a byproduct of earlier owners' inability to sell--was above 25 percent, a fact not smiled on by real estate agents or home buyers looking for stable investments.
But then there were the positives.
One of them was that a relatively new homeowner, 35-year-old Tracy Barrand, had moved in a few years earlier and got on the board of the homeowners association. She began asking interesting questions and urging Tyler to get involved. "Her enthusiasm," said Tyler, "was a breath of fresh air."
Then the other good thing happened. Said Tyler, "I think it was four renters who bought their houses and began really fixing them up. I thought, 'That's what should be happening here.' "
Those four events caused the 64-year-old Tyler, semi-retired from a career in manufacturing, to offer himself as president of Hallcrest Heights Associates Inc. And that may be the best thing that has happened to Hallcrest Heights in a long time.
Tyler staked out his territory as soon as he was elected in January. The association's board of directors could continue to worry about parking and trash and whose dog had watered whose lawn. Or, he said, it could concentrate on property values and the sense of community.
Property values and community won out. And the systematic yet inspired way in which Tyler and his board approached the perceived problems could easily provide a blueprint for other block associations, neighborhood groups and homeowner boards looking for a way to harness the energy people can summon when it comes to protecting and enhancing what is, for most, their biggest investment.
"We approached things methodically," said Tyler while walking his black Labrador retriever mix, Bailey, through one of the development's leafy common areas.
First came a four-page survey, mailed to all 158 town houses. Ninety-five were filled out and returned. "Given that there are 35 or 38 renters, that was a great return," Tyler said, "and that told me something right there."
The survey asked questions on dozens of topics, including whether the homeowners socialized with neighbors (61 percent said yes); why they had chosen Hallcrest Heights (location, value and room size); and average length of residence (12 years).
"It told us a lot about what we have and how people feel," Tyler said. Hallcrest Associates also queried real estate agents about their perceptions of the development, where the average sales price in 1998 was $219,511. Some expressed reservations, citing the percentage of rentals and potential street noise.
Then Tyler turned for advice to Long & Foster agent Laurie Alexander, who had sold the Tylers their home all those years before.
"When he called, I proposed an internal/external approach," Alexander said, meaning both getting the word to residents on the merits of what they have and getting the word out to others.
Tyler thought that made sense. A fact sheet was mailed to 1,500 real estate agents, describing the 18-acre development and pointing out its advantages. But "as in counseling, self-esteem needs to be there," he said. So Tyler and the board organized a meeting late in May.
The meeting was a cross between a pep rally and a home improvement seminar. Residents described renovation projects they had undertaken, including who did the work and how much it cost. Scott Lee, who sold his town house in one day during the spring, explained the improvements he had made that made the house a winner. Photographs of landscaping and remodeling projects in the community were on display. Speakers gave advice on remodeling, landscaping and selling a house, and were available to talk one-on-one afterward with the 75 people who turned out.
The May meeting was a turning point. Residents who had never attended a board meeting ("Annual audit? Yawn," an understanding Tyler said) or association function showed up and were inspired.
"It sparked my interest," said John White, 47, a human resources consultant who has lived there for seven years.
Attracted by Hallcrest Heights' location near his Tysons Corner workplace and its quick access to Interstate 66 and the Beltway, White also liked the space he had in his town house. He plans to undertake some renovations within a year and credited the meeting with helping him focus on which improvements he could make.
Another resident, whom Tyler had never seen before, came to the meeting and thanked the association for its efforts. Soon afterward, he called Tyler to point out some bare spots in the common area near his unit. If they were seeded, he said, he would water them. His efforts have paid off--the bare spots are gone. Other residents are watering the oval common area to the right of the entrance, where even well-established trees might otherwise have died during the current drought.
Common areas make up 38 percent of the development, so taking care of their appearance requires some effort. The areas are not all lumped together. Rather than trying to cram in as many of the colonial-style, all-brick, three- and four-bedroom units as possible, the developers laid out Hallcrest Heights in short blocks, interspersed with six common areas. The design allowed the developers to build 50 end units.
Among those who have been volunteering time and energy to care for the common areas is 25-year resident Jim Glerum, a CIA retiree. "Instead of golfing or playing tennis, I weed and prune," Glerum said. More than 100 trees at Hallcrest Heights blossom in the spring, he said.
Nonetheless, after 30 years, the day is past for some trees in the development. Rather than taking a helter-skelter approach to replacing trees and plantings, the community is working on a master landscaping plan. Glerum and other residents helped an arborist take inventory and develop the plan.
Carrying out such plans costs money, a fact that Tyler appreciates. There are also roads and sidewalks to maintain and replace. To cover the cost of both expected and unexpected projects, the board plans to start setting aside $15,000 each year in a reserve fund. The purpose is to avoid a special assessment.
"A special assessment shows a failure of planning," Tyler said. To help get the word out on plans and activities, a Web site (www.hallcrestheights.com) will be online in a couple of weeks.
All this activity is in contrast to a few years ago, when some half-dozen town houses were up for sale and not moving. Most were rental units that hadn't been fixed up, Glerum said. Places now rarely stay on the market longer than a week, he said, giving credit to the recent changes in management, although the market must be thanked as well. "Clark has done much to reestablish pride in the community," he said.
While Glerum has been busy outside, other residents have emphasized appearances indoors. When Steve McCleaf and his wife, Natalie, moved into Hallcrest Heights two years ago after renting there earlier, they renovated the entire house. They replaced carpeting with hardwoodand remodeled the kitchen and bathrooms.
The McCleafs' remodeling vision was their own, but they praise Tyler for getting people to be "dynamic and involved again." Neighborhood involvement included a house tour that the association held on June 27. More than 40 residents visited their neighbors' homes to see examples of improvements.
"The quality is here," said fellow homeowner Barrand, who dragged Tyler into all this and has the demanding job of heading the architectural control committee. "It's worth maintaining and improving." Barrand, who has lived in the development for five years, looks at all the houses twice a year to make sure they meet association covenants, including the Williamsburg colors required for exteriors.
But, just as some of the landscaping and interiors at Hallcrest Heights need updating, sometimes rules need to be modernized. Less important items, such as the size of doormats, need less emphasis in the rules, Tyler said.
He has been happy to see fewer disputes over such petty issues lately, he said. "Instead, there's a sense of involvement."
Tyler likes that. "It's the opposite of what I call the 'New York apartment syndrome,' where you could live next to someone for 20 years and not know he was a Nobel Prize winner."
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BOUNDARIES: Dulles Toll Road, Route 123, Great Falls Street, Chain Bridge Road
NUMBER OF TOWN HOUSES: 158
QUARTERLY ASSOCIATION DUES: $215
SCHOOLS: McLean High School, Longfellow Middle School, Kent Gardens Elementary
PROPERTY SALES: As of May, the average sales price was $255,000; eight houses sold in 1999.
WITHIN ONE MILE: Post office, public library, Lewinsville Park, Safeway, shopping center, police station, fire station
WITHIN TWO MILES: Scotts Run Nature Preserve, Tysons Corner Center
One of Clark Tyler's initiatives in inspiring the homeowners of Hallcrest Heights to improve their property was a list of 100 small improvement projects. Here are some of the suggestions from the list:
Replace hall tile
Fill nail holes from wall-to-wall carpet
Add tile splashback
Install new countertop
Replace interior flush doors with panel doors
Install energy-efficient rear sliding door
Add crown molding
Add chair rails
Replace wrought-iron bannisters with wood
Replace louvered dining-room doors with French doors
CAPTION: Tracy Barrand, above right, in her remodeled kitchen, has been a catalyst at Hallcrest Heights; she persuaded Clark Tyler, shown walking his dog, Bailey, to get involved in the community. Tyler is now president of the homeowners association, which is working to improve the value of the development's 158 town houses.
CAPTION: Marilyn Schubert, who has lived in Hallcrest Heights for two years, recently renovated her town house extensively.
CAPTION: With the encouragement of an active homeowners association, many of the 30-year-old town houses at Hallcrest Heights have been spruced up.