Ground leases are very rare for non-rental properties in the Washington area, according to real estate lawyers, but are common in other places.

Few deals were set up that way in the early days when the District and its suburbs were being transformed from farms to neighborhoods, and such leases have been almost impossible to structure for non-rental buildings as laws have tightened in Maryland and the District, lawyers say.

Ground leases on residential, non-rental buildings are legal in Virginia but are still rare, said lawyer Robert Diamond of the firm Reed Smith in Falls Church.

In Baltimore, by contrast, leaseholds with ground rents are common in many old neighborhoods. The developers sold the houses but kept the land as a continuing income stream. Ground leases were also the norm in Hawaii and London because of the concentration of land ownership in a few families.

Ground rents on Baltimore houses are tiny percentages of the property value, however, and the lease must be sold for a nominal fee if a homeowner wants to buy -- and can locate the leaseholder.

The ground rent was considerably higher, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, at Kenwood Place. And the condo owners had long known who the owner was.

But developer Laszlo Tauber, his management company and then his estate just didn't want to sell until they got their price. And if anybody knew about prices, it was Tauber, a man known as a consummate dealmaker who never left a dime on the table.

Tauber, after all, had put the ground lease into effect in 1973, Diamond said. That was years after Kenwood Place was built, but the lease seems to have served as a way to draw income from his own management company and partners. In those days, condo conversions were only just becoming common.

-- Sandra Fleishman