Garland Nicholas used to live in a row house in the District. But he got tired of taking care of the lawn and having only one bathroom.
So he found something better--a condominium. Now, he's got 2 1/2 baths, and someone else maintains the grounds. If a package comes while he's at work, the staff will hold it for him.
"I chose this because I deemed it the best possible alternative to having a house," Nicholas said.
And Nicholas, a hairdresser at Norbert's salon on Connecticut Avenue NW, said his Adams-Morgan condo has gone up in value in just the few months since he bought it. He's sure it will end up being a better investment than was his nearby row house, on which he made no profit after nine years and some remodeling.
A condo as a lifestyle trade-up from a house? A condo as a better investment than a single-family home? What's wrong with this picture?
Nothing, really. Condos--especially in the District--are coming into their own, shaking off the bad rap they earned in the early 1990s, when they would languish unsold for months. In the city and close-in suburbs such as Arlington and Bethesda, condo prices are up, demand is high while supply is low, sales are increasing and developers are snapping up sites for new projects.
Why this uptick in condo popularity in the more built-out areas of the region?
One reason, agents said, is that with the increase in real estate prices across the board, buyers who once might have been able to afford a single-family house have been priced out of that market.
Another reason is the nation's booming economy, which has meant increased sales for every type of housing. The $5,000 federal tax credit for first-time home buyers in the District has also given Washington's condo market a big shot in the arm, agents said.
In terms of perception, condo living is also evolving into an upscale, downtown, rather chic alternative to living in a house--without passing up the financial benefits of owning rather than renting.
For young professionals, living in a condo means an urban lifestyle, whether it's Dupont Circle, Bethesda or Arlington. There's time available to spend on careers and social lives rather than housework. For empty nesters, condo living is an alternative to yard duties and house maintenance. It gives them an easy one-level floor plan as they age, and makes traveling and going out more convenient.
"Condo living is not a utilitarian lifestyle," said Monty Hoffman of PN Hoffman Inc., a builder of luxury D.C. condos. "It's not a cheap alternative. It's a luxury lifestyle. You pull up in your Jag, go up to your roof-top condo in your private elevator from your secured parking space."
Okay, very few condos have private elevators to roof-top apartments. And even fewer condo owners pull up in their Jags. But what's true is that "condo" is no longer a dirty word.
And perhaps, it never should have been.
Data analyzed by the National Association of Realtors show the median price of condos in the District increasing 9.3 percent from 1991 to 1998, while the median price of single-family homes in the District fell 7.9 percent during that period.
In the suburbs, condos haven't fared as well, but not as badly as their reputation seemed to suggest. The same data show that the median price of condos in the metropolitan area as a whole stayed the same from 1991 to 1998, while the median price of single-family homes rose 9.8 percent during that period. About a third of all condo sales are in the District and two-thirds in the suburbs.
"There were years where condo prices were going up while single-family prices were going down," said Mark Calabria, senior economist at the National Association of Realtors. "For a lot of the '90s, the single-family market was losing money while condos were more or less keeping their own. But a lot of people don't realize that. I was even surprised by the data."
Plush new D.C. buildings have raised the median price of condos in the city. But agents say prices in older buildings are rising too, especially units with more than one bedroom.
In the suburbs, the slower price increase is due in part to the spread of condos to lower-priced areas, such as in outlying Loudoun and Prince William counties. That has brought down the median price of condos outside the city. The suburban condo markets have also been under pressure from the town-house market, which is also attractive to first-time buyers.
In the District, though, the new feeling about condos is palpable.
"A lot of apartments that weren't selling years ago are now selling with no problem," said Caroline Mindel of Mindel Management, which manages 26 buildings, mostly in the Kalorama, Dupont Circle and Adams-Morgan areas--all hot neighborhoods. "And prices have gone up dramatically."
Sales of condos throughout the metropolitan area are also up, according to figures compiled by the multiple listing service for this area, Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. In the District, in the first 10 months of this year, 2,253 condos were sold, up from 1,956 for the same period last year. In Northern Virginia, 3,791 condos have been sold through October of this year, up from 2,978. In Montgomery County, 1,933 condos changed hands through October, compared with 1,597 last year. MRIS only began collecting data from Prince George's County this year so no comparative figures are available.
The ratio of owners to renters in D.C. condo buildings also is shifting, moving away from heavily investor-owned to more owner-occupied.
"There are buildings that were 30 to 40 percent investor-owned that are now almost completely owner-occupied," said Connie Maffin, an agent in the Georgetown office of Pardoe Real Estate ERA. "A building across the street from me in the Logan [Circle] area used to be about 35 percent investor-owned. Now investors are only about 8 percent in the 45-unit building. Over the past two years, with the supply of condos down and interest up, there are very few investor condos left."
Condo buyers are more likely to be first-time buyers than purchasers of other homes, according to data in the 1997 American Housing Survey, a biennial report by the U.S. Census Bureau. Condo buyers tend to be single, childless and more often female than buyers of single-family homes, according to the survey. Condo buyers tend also to be both younger--and older--than buyers of single-family homes.
Beth Glascock is an example of what's driving today's young condo buyer in this area.
Glascock, 29 and single, works as a library assistant at secondary mortgage market giant Freddie Mac. She was living with a roommate in a rented apartment in Vienna when she decided she wanted to be closer to the city.
"I looked around the Rosslyn, Courthouse and Ballston areas to rent a place," said Glascock, who wanted to live in Arlington. "Rents were sky high. So I decided to look at buying a place. Buying was a tax write-off and besides, I thought it might be nice to finally be able to paint my own walls the colors I like."
Glascock ended up buying a two-bedroom condo at the Circle, a 14-story building in the Courthouse neighborhood. Her mortgage and condo fee combined are about the same as what she would have paid to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the area, she said.
Mary and Ralph Vinovic had completely different reasons for their recent move from the suburbs to the Harbor Square co-op in Southwest Washington, two blocks from Arena Stage. In a co-op, a form of ownership that's legally different from a condominium even when the buildings look the same, the buyers purchase shares in a cooperative that owns and manages the apartments.
Mary Vinovic, 67, and Ralph Vinovic, 71, had lived in Prince George's County for the past 30 years. They had raised their two sons in a big five-bedroom Colonial.
"We weren't getting any younger," said Mary Vinovic, "and too many people wait too long to get rid of a house, and then illness strikes and they can't manage the stairs any longer. We didn't want to get in that situation."
The Vinovics bought a large two-bedroom waterfront unit last August. They couldn't be happier with their new, urban lifestyle. "This apartment is as big as two stories in our old Colonial," she said. "And I get to see the Washington Monument from my bedroom and walk to the grocery store."
Developers are quickly stepping up to the increased demand for more spacious and upscale condo living.
"Developers are producing higher-quality, more expensive condos," said John Glascock, Beth Glascock's father and a professor of real estate and finance at George Washington University who has studied local condo sales. "They've figured out what people want. They want more upscale spaces and more bathrooms. So that's what they're building."
PN Hoffman, for example, is about to break ground on a 53-unit building at 1515 O St. NW, one block west of Logan Circle. Monty Hoffman said he plans high-end apartments with granite counter tops in the kitchens and hardwood floors throughout. He's just finished another condo on Logan Circle where prices ranged up to $550,000.
Fellow developer Jim Abdo of Abdo Development, also working in that neighborhood, is about to start on an 85-unit condo building near Hoffman's. The high-end loft building will have large two- and three-bedroom apartments that sport tall ceilings and big windows in New York-style open spaces.
"We're seeing a significant number of people walking into a large two-bedroom, saying, 'Gee, I wish it had a third bedroom,' " Abdo said. "Some people want a home office. The empty nesters want to have the ability for the kids and grandchildren to visit, stay for the holidays and not feel they're in cramped conditions."