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Buying a Condo Sight Unseen Becomes More Common in Washington Area

February 11, 2016

February 11

Having lost three rentals she really wanted in New York to other apartment hunters who snatched them first, Lindsay Gabryszak said she knew she had to act fast when she found a condominium in Northwest Washington that checked all her boxes: new construction; cutting-edge design; and in the energetic Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood with shopping, entertainment and her job at the Smithsonian Institution within walking distance.

She had spent months scouring the city — touring older rowhouses and apartment condos in Petworth, Southwest and Southeast — but nothing grabbed her. So two weeks after making an initial visit, she pulled the trigger on a condo project called 460 New York Avenue by making a down payment on a $400,000 unit.

But Gabryszak’s attraction to the new condo building wasn’t based on a walkthrough of an elaborately staged model home. No model existed — indeed, 460 New York Avenue was just a hole in the ground at New York Avenue and Fourth Street NW in March 2014, when she bought the unit. She made her decision after carefully reviewing realistic-looking renderings and videos depicting the unit’s interior spaces and grilling the architect and marketing representatives at the project’s sales office.

Purchasing a home without touring it is like buying a car without getting inside and test-driving it — only with bigger consequences. Still, consumers aren’t balking and buying a condo sight unseen is becoming more common in the region.

“It was my first real estate purchase, and I was nervous because of that. I’d been casually looking for about six months,” said Gabryszak, 33. “When I saw the renderings, I knew it was right for me.”

Markle bought the unit based on videos and high-resolution artist renderings she saw in the sales office. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

[FHA eases rules on financing for condos, but maybe not enough]

New condo construction in the Washington region has a long way to go to reach the peak of 2006, when the number of actively marketed units reached 23,000, according to William Rich, multifamily practice director at the commercial real estate research firm Delta Associates. But the number has steadily risen to the current 3,245 from 2,600 in 2012, Rich said

Condo buildings also are getting bigger, Rich said, growing to an average of 43 units per development from 32 in 2012.

Increasingly, as they did before the recession, developers are selling units even before construction reaches a critical mass, and buyers are basing their purchase decisions on a plan rather than a furnished model. Condo buildings that have recently sold units without a model include the Oronoco in Alexandria and the Octave 1320 in Silver Spring, as well as the Adamo, the Maryland, the Lumen, Atlantic Plumbing, Beale House and Parker15 in the District.

Being unable to see the quality of a builder’s handiwork, experience the flow of the space and evaluate room sizes and proportions in all three dimensions seemingly will make it difficult for buyers to do adequate due diligence for such a large purchase. But real estate experts say buyers better get used to the idea. With high demand, low inventory and developers desiring to recoup their costs sooner, they assert that the trend of selling “off paper,” as builders call it, will inevitably expand.

“When you look at the time to build out a model and the cost to build out a model, it makes sense to get really nice renderings and floor plans, maybe do the video and bring it to market,” said Matt Dewey, a partner at Urban Pace.

David Klimas, a vice president with McWilliams Ballard, which marketed 460 New York Avenue, agrees.Markle’s new unit is on the penthouse level and cost $800,000, not counting condo fees. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

“My team is now selling Logan13, which has an anticipated completion for this fall, and we are already 35 percent sold out,” Klimas said. “We just started [construction] in November. There are no hard-hat tours, there are no on-site models. We are selling by appointment, as we did with 460 New York Avenue, at our McWilliams Ballard sales gallery in Logan Circle.”

Sales offices

Velvet ropes, photo-ops in front of logo backdrops, custom cocktails and gourmet hors d'oeuvres are being used to woo prospective buyers into placing deposits on new digs in locations where digging is still underway. But the hard selling happens at the sales gallery, at 1416 P St. NW, near a Whole Foods grocery store.

The waiting room features exposed brick, comfy couches and a giant flat-panel TV transmitting renderings and virtual tours of the buildings under construction. There is a kitchen mock-up in the back room, and the upstairs space is divided into rooms stocked with sample boards depicting hardwood floor options, countertop choices and cabinetry samples.

The sales team’s job is to create buzz for a project well before construction begins. “They teased the market for three months with [promotions] on Twitter, Facebook,” said Klimas, speaking about the campaign for 460 New York Avenue.

Gabryszak said she initially learned about the project through word of mouth. She emailed Klimas, who said he would let her know about an upcoming invitation-only “launch event.”

[FHA rules for financing condo sales draw protest from 56 House members]

Typically, Klimas said, about 350 potential buyers are invited to a launch event, which takes on the flavor of a Hollywood premiere. With champagne flowing, well-dressed salespeople, architects and even lenders are center stage touting the project. Large screens flash pictures of what the units will look like. A camera crew, he said, follows the staff, and those images also are shown on the screens. “It’s over the top,” Klimas said.

The idea is to convey to potential buyers that they are being offered something exclusive and that they should act while the prices are low. The strategy is to sell the units a few at a time in several phases. People who are among the first to buy get the best deal. The prices go up with each successive phase.

“The earlier people purchase, the less expensive their units can be,” Dewey said. “We do multiple releases. Developers release five to eight units at a time. Each release, the price goes up. Some people might purchase on first release. They bought it for $50,000 less than somebody who waited six months to do so.”

“The sales center on P Street wowed me, and I do feel a little smarter for buying in early,” said Terri Markle, 56, president and chief executive of TLF Publications, a Rockville-based firm that produces content for the worldwide lottery industry. She bought a condo at 460 New York Avenue.

Markle made the move from rural Boyds, Md., via temporary digs in Rockville. “I got divorced a while back and decided I didn’t want to stay out there after my last child moved out,” she said. “I grew up in Silver Spring, got married at 21 and always had an idea about living in the city in the back of my mind.”

For Markle, the first step was putting her house up for sale and culling the furniture and accessories that filled 5,500 square feet of spacious living into about 1,100 square feet of what will be her new hip, urban lifestyle. “That’s been the hardest part since I raised a family with two children. It was very emotional; now I only have what I want.”

Markle’s house in Boyds sold for $675,000. Possessions were handed down to her kids, donated or tossed.

Her new unit is on the penthouse level and cost $800,000, not counting condo fees. There are two bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen with an island and a Juliet balcony to take in the city views. Markle keeps her car in the building’s state-of-the-art car-storage system, which uses a mechanical lift to accommodate more vehicles in less space. Storing a car in the building adds $40,000 to a unit’s price tag.

Tom Baum, president of Bozzuto Homes, said that in his experience buyers do not hesitate to purchase a condo based on what they see on a screen.

“We all live in a virtual world now, so seeing a condo on the iPad is a very comfortable experience for today’s potential buyers,” Baum said. “People are more comfortable with it — plus, with today’s renderings you sometimes can’t tell them from a photo.”

How to buy sight unseen

Still, what’s the best way to make sure you’re actually getting what you think you’re getting when you buy a home unseen?

Elizabeth Lucchesi, a real estate agent with McEnearney Associates in Old Town Alexandria, said prospective buyers’ information-gathering should extend beyond a project’s sales staff.

She said it’s difficult for buyers to fully grasp room dimensions and proportions based on videos and renderings. She said it’s important for them to understand what the dimensions are in real life.

“I played NCAA field hockey, and I can’t visualize what five yards looks like. And I’m in houses all the time,” Lucchesi said.

She said she sometimes will take clients to an empty field. There, they measure out room dimensions and use duct tape and cones to set the boundaries. “We taped off where the door is; we taped off where the windows are,” she said, adding that they also measure how high the windowsills are so they can determine what furniture can fit.

To examine a developer’s handiwork, she will take a client into one of its existing buildings and have the client talk to unit owners about whether they’ve experienced nail pops, chipped paint or other problems.

Other suggestions:

●Get a stud-stage walkthrough to verify that the plumbing and electrical outlets are where you need them to be. “It’s challenging to get those things [changed] after the fact,” she said.

●Get an independent home inspector to look at the home once it’s finished — don’t rely only on the builder. “I want someone objectively representing my buyer to determine if there are any pitfalls,” she said.

●Get pre-settlement walkthroughs two weeks before closing and on the day of closing to make sure no problems have cropped up.

●Get key information about the homeowners association. Find out when management of the building will be transferred from the builder to the association.