The offers to buy her North Arlington home were all typed up: $400,000, $700,000, even, at one point, $1 million. All Frances Cloud had to do in the years and months before her death was sign.
But Cloud, a great-grandmother who died in 2011 at 92, wasn’t interested in selling her modest Cape Cod to the real estate agents and developers courting her, said her son, Ricky Cloud. She dispatched one agent who brought her cookies by saying, “You’re only being nice to me because you want my property.”
The prospective buyers weren’t interested in the three-bedroom, 1,092-square-foot house, which Cloud and her husband purchased for $5,000 in the 1940s. They wanted her lot, which sits next to a bike trail on a street within walking distance of the Metro and great public schools.
In Arlington, Bethesda and other hot real estate markets, a new wave of tear-downs is underway, with small post-war starter homes being cleared at a pace not seen since the housing boom. And some of the ripest properties for demolition are owned by elderly, longtime residents, who are being pursued by brokers and builders eager for lots that can accommodate larger, fancier new abodes.
Cloud’s house, which was sold to a builder after her death for the less-lofty price of $625,000, was one of 117 green-lighted for demolition last year by Arlington County. All but 10 were in North Arlington. Of those, 42 percent were acquired through estate sales or from homeowners older than 65, a Post analysis of permitting and other public records shows.
In 2012, Montgomery County issued 149 permits to demolish single-family homes and replace them. Of those, 100 were for properties in Bethesda, 39.2 percent of which had owners who had recently died or were above retirement age.
Builders say the age of a homeowner is irrelevant. The only numbers that matter begin with dollar signs: Is the cost of the property low enough to replace it with a bigger house that will fetch the price they are aiming for?
But in costly, densely populated Washington suburbs, the economic realities often lead them to grandma’s house.
In sought-after neighborhoods, vacant land is almost nonexistent, as are foreclosures. The next-best thing is an older house on a lot large enough to accommodate a 5,000- or 6,000-square-foot mini-manse — especially a house that hasn’t been repaired or renovated for years and won’t cost that much to buy.
In the tear-down market, decades of deferred maintenance, dated kitchens and ancient bathrooms are the new “must haves.”
“The rougher the house, the better for the builder,” said Joe Rubin, a Long and Foster Realtor in Bethesda.
Some agents and builders describe the business of tear downs as getting rid of homes that have become “obsolete.”
Take a 71-year-old, three-bedroom, one-bath house on nearly a quarter of an acre on 18th Road in North Arlington. It sold last summer for $585,000 after its nonagenarian owner died.
It was well cared for and had nice hardwood floors, but to call it “dated is an understatement,” said James Sandidge, a broker involved in the sale. “The functionality people are looking for today is not there.”
By functionality, he means something more like six bedrooms, 51 / 2 baths, a gourmet kitchen and a family room with coffered ceilings, which describes the $1.5 million house that replaced the old one.
The tear-down wave in North Arlington dates to the beginning of the 2000s. The number of demolition permits issued in Arlington peaked in 2007 at 248, then dropped below 100. Builders said the decline had little to do with demand and more to do with financing problems. Lenders eased up, and the number of demolitions began to surge in 2011, public records show. There would be even more if builders and agents could find more tear-down properties to buy.
“Arlington seems to be red hot. I can’t finish a house without selling it,” said John Karanik, founder of Suburban Builders, which bought the Cloud house. “My biggest problem right now is finding new buildable lots.”
“It is economics 101 — low inventory,” said Kristin Kelly, the real estate agent who brought Cloud cookies. “Land is so scarce in North Arlington, builders are out there in droves looking for decent-sized lots. I’m getting calls right and left from builders saying, ‘If you get a lot, please call me.’ I am seeking lots all the time.”
Kelly has been selling real estate in North Arlington so long that elderly residents or their relatives seek her out. She even had a woman who wrote in her will that Kelly be the one to sell her house, she said. But she has also become a target of tensions over the super-sizing of North Arlington.
“It’s difficult for me to walk a balanced line,” she said. “I can see both sides.”
She has lived down the street from Cloud for more than 20 years. She said she thought of Cloud first and foremost as a neighbor, not as a potential client. Cloud had talked about possibly selling her house for years and would call Kelly for advice, the agent said. In response, she brought Cloud a couple of offers on her house. Cloud’s son said it was more like five or six.
But after raising three children there, Cloud was torn, Kelly recalled. Known as the Mayor of 22nd Street, she loved her independence. She drove herself, even after her driver’s license had expired, her longtime neighbor Doug Harmon said. She even demanded that her son, who used to come up from Prince William County to trim her spacious lawn, leave her part of the front yard to mow herself.
In the end, Cloud didn’t want to budge, her family said. Harmon and a couple of other neighbors tried to help her by dropping off meals and shoveling snow. Kelly said there were times when Cloud wasn’t able to get out of the house, and Kelly would bring her a sandwich or groceries.
Most of her interactions with Cloud were purely social. But toward the end of her life, Frances Cloud didn’t see them that way. Having seen the offers zigzag with the housing market, Cloud worried that she was getting a raw deal, her son said. Many times in the middle of the night she also thought she heard the doorbell ring and told neighbors she thought it was Kelly.
Kelly didn’t realize anything was wrong until she brought her cookies and Cloud told her she was after her property. Kelly said she went home upset.
“I was terribly hurt,” Kelly said. “I would never, ever try to profit from or hurt her.”
Pocketbook considerations, not pressure, persuade many aging homeowners and their relatives to sell to builders. Builders often pay cash and don’t care if the hardwood floors are warped or every room is freshly painted. They are going to knock it down anyway.
That can be a relief for elderly homeowners living on fixed incomes who may not have the money to get a house market-ready, Bethesda agent Carrie Mann said. They may prefer the certainty of knowing a buyer won’t pull out after a house inspection.
But the intensity of the interest in their properties can be off-putting to some seniors.
A few weeks ago, Edwin Robinson, 85, and his wife, Sylvia, who have lived in the same North Arlington home since 1969, ducked into an open house to get a peek inside the latest tear-down. As soon as they entered, a broker asked if they lived in the neighborhood. When they said yes, the agent’s next question was: “Are you interested in selling?”
Sylvia Robinson was taken aback. “We said, ‘No, thank you,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘We’re not ready yet.’ ”
Alisa Soderquist, 67, received a hand-addressed letter from a real estate agent offering to introduce her to his clients, a family with three children who are desperate to live in North Arlington.
Soderquist, who has no desire to leave the house she has occupied for more than 20 years, said she considered the note overly aggressive and “a bit insulting” and immediately tossed it in the trash.
Doug Welty, an Arlington probate lawyer, has witnessed the fierce jockeying for tear-down properties. Three out of four estate properties Welty has handled recently were razed to make way for new homes. The real estate agents and builders are so eager, he joked, that they “probably got heart-rate monitors and as soon as the locked beep starts, they’re on the phone.”
When Marjorie Lynette Binford died in August at age 81, her relatives quickly sold her North Arlington 1950s Colonial and half-acre lot for $1 million. The buyer was Suburban Builders.
Last month, Binford’s neighbors learned that Suburban was planning to build three two-story houses on the lot, which abuts a county-owned greenway. The lot has beautiful mature trees that almost certainly will be cut down.
“That’s the heartbreak,” said one neighbor, Dana Koch, pointing to a tall oak. Her husband, Ray, likened it to “mountaintop clearing.”
John Karanik, the builder, agreed to meet with neighbors in mid-April to go over his plans as a courtesy. Legally, the neighbors don’t have much standing to quibble with them, as long as he follows zoning rules.
Dividing the Binford property into three will give each of the new houses lots larger than those of many of their established neighbors, Karanik said in an interview. It will also allow him to recoup his costs. He paid more than the assessed value for the house, he said, and land prices have gone up by about $50,000 in just the past 10 months.
Once the new homes on the Binford lot are finished, they will likely sell for about $1.5 million each.
Dana Koch said she can only hope the result “doesn’t look like a skating rink or a Harris Teeter look-a-like.”
The house that Suburban built on the site of Frances Cloud’s old Cape Cod “looks like a motel in the middle of the block,” her son Ricky Cloud said. It dwarfs almost every dwelling around it. He was just glad his mother did not live to see what became of her prized yard.
“My mother would roll over in her grave if she saw the house now,” he said.
In the end, he didn’t use a real estate agent to sell it. His mother had made it clear to her son before she died that she didn’t want Kelly or any other real estate agents involved. He thought he was respecting her wishes when he sold it to Suburban Builders for $625,000.
He got a call shortly after the sale closed from an old neighbor who asked him why there was a “sold” sign outside his mother’s house with Kelly’s face on it. Ricky Cloud grumbled that the agent was “taking credit” for the sale.
The sign was actually a teaser for the new house, which the builder had asked Kelly to sell.
The a $1.6 million, five-bedroom, 51 / 2-bath Arts and Crafts-style home with a two-car garage, butler’s pantry and nanny suite went under contract this month, before it was finished.