Monday, August 23, 2010

So, another day in real estate. Today's victim was a four-unit (listed as four two-bedroom apartments) apartment building in Cumberland, MD. Originally a single family home, I'm guessing the owners were annoyed when the neighbors built a house two feet away, and retaliated by building an entirely new house in their back yard. Their entire back yard, except for the shed in back, which they built up to.

So a two-story house with finished attic extends to the rear (and with an alley) into a three-story addition containing two two-bedroom apartments (with microscopic kitchens) and an extra bedroom for the now subdivided first floor. Worse, somewhere in the 80's, it appears the owner decided they were really tired of paying for the gas-fired boiler for all the radiators in the building, and replaced them all with electric strip heaters which would instead go on the tenants electric bills. Nice. Cheap. Mean-spirited.

Worse, almost all the radiators have been removed and all the interior supply lines removed, only the forest of piping in the basement remains. The ductwork from original (presumably) coal-fired furnace has also been removed, though the original registers remain, some containing phone lines. All that was surmised from the listing and photos. What wasn't was the sad state of most of the plaster. I immediately subtracted $10K from the price I was prepared to offer. The two places where water (previously) had obviously come through the roof appear to be corrected, but may require further repairs, and all the damage remains. The plaster in most areas requires repair or replacement.

My original assessment had been: It's selling for $45K, I'll offer $40K, on the assumption it needs four new kitchens and four new baths, new wiring, some new plumbing, and some plaster repair. After the tour, I still like it a lot, but it needs extensive plaster repair or replacement, all that other stuff, and inspections on the roof and chimneys with likely repairs to follow. And a likely dismantling of the entire radiator supply piping system. Two windows in the wall facing the neighboring building (blank wall) need complete replacement or filling in. Two doors in the "court of doors" where the alley ends need removal. The back wall that was built against the existing shed needs work.

I walked in sold and looking for reasons to run away. Replacing a whole lot of plaster is straightforward, but not inexpensive. So $12K was the figure dancing in my head -- my quick estimate of how much it would take to rerock all the areas where the plaster needs to be replaced. Not an expert, in about 15 minutes, that's my assessment.

We eventually got past the bad and into the weird. The third-floor attic in the old house is finished, at least in part. Call it thirds. The first third, the front room, is finished, but with some poor plastering detailing. it's backed by three short closets, which are finished, to a degree, as the roof slopes downward. The joke of "this is where we keep the children" seems odd when you find large, short, carpeted closets off the third-floor attic. Proper attic crawl space behind the mini-rooms. Could be turned into storage, but even as storage, should probably be returned to unfinished, unconditioned space. We weren't able to get past the steel door and lockset on the rear addition attic, but I expect a crawl-space again.

So the long and short of it is that I'm in the process of making an offer. My agent believes that they're likely to take $30K for a property listed (in foreclosure) at $45K, or at least not say "fuck off." My estimate is that if I invest the purchase price, plus another $50K over 2 years, plus one day a week and one weekend a month (on average) for two years, I'll have a property that will rent four units ranging from $600-$800 per month, and not need major updates for another 30+ years. If that estimate is correct, I'd invest (roughly) $80K over two years, and recoup (roughly) $800K over 30 years. So, my opening offer is $30K with seller paying closing costs. If they bite, I'll buy. If they negotiate, we'll see.

Now, the omen. For a four-unit building, you can imagine there'd be a lot of keys. Two separate lockboxes, in fact, though the listing agent claimed ignorance on the combination the the second box. Magically, once we'd discarded the provided keys and just started fucking around, I found the key to our condo building in Silver Spring (!) unlocked the door the  the front upstairs apartment.

Let me get serious for a moment. Cumberland, Maryland, is the fourth most resilient housing market in the US. Which isn't to say the recession hasn't hit the area hard, but that the area has been in decline since the middle of the last century, and let's just say the current economic collapse didn't really do much to drive them further into the ground. So I'm looking at a foreclosure property with an assessment of $90K, a listing price of $45K, and I'm offering $30K with the prospect of more than doubling down. The floor for 2-bedroom rentals in downtown is $500/month. I can work this. With style, and possibly even flair.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

At least that was educational. So, the shell was worth saving, but required a complete gut. As a bonus, the attic was a perfect triangular void just asking to be combined with sheetrock and yoga practice. But it was not to be. While the place was built as a store in 1907, and existed as such into the 1960's, the current zoning is somewhere between "vague" and "residential." Questions to city hall were met with an excessive list of intolerable hoops to jump through to receive limited commercial zoning. None of which could be satisfied until months after taking possession. In other words, the whole thing depended on a complete rezoning petition, which could only be filed after purchase, and which, at best, should be expected to cost thousands, and divide at least half the neighbors against each other, before eventually succeeding. You'd be $40K down and another $20K in before you could reasonably make the request, and if the answer was no, you're ruined. As I said to the realtor, "No, not on a bet."

Thursday, August 05, 2010

So, today, it appears I got a real estate agent for Cumberland! Also turns out he's a local radio personality! He gave me the story I wanted, and I let on to my career working in entertainment law. He's afraid of birds in buildings, and I'm looking for investment properties. The current prospect is a former general store. Storefront, with lead-lined meat locker in the basement, has potential to be new ceramics shop after a complete gut and re-imagining.

I've had many false starts with real estate agents in Cumberland. This one seems to respond to email, signed me to a buyers agent agreement (oh how hard it's been to find someone interested in that!), and showed me a property that the listing agent (in the same office!) wouldn't return my calls for! That he's local radio talent impresses me even more, as long as he also remains a competent real estate agent. Ideally, if I find someone I can work with, I'll be buying an investment property every other year, my agent is in for fun, even at the low end. I'll presume that if he's in radio, he's an alcoholic, and work from there. The voice is seductive, though...
So, I went and toured an investment property today. Potential pottery shop with rental apartment above. Abandoned storefront with two-car garage. Total gut job. basement is limestone block (set in stone, aye!) but the floor slopes downhill, first floor storefrtont with 1br apt w/ den behind, 2nd floor 3br apt, 3rd floor unfinished attic with extravagant potential. the two-car garage is potential stoage, but needs replaced with a similar size building with studio apartment above. Neighborhood would absorbe 2:1 or even 3:1 investment and neighbors literally begged me to buy it!

If I do this, it's going to take a minimum of 4 years and $50K, but might be a really good investment. The slate roof is an unknown, but if it can be saved, it would be good for another 80 years! The attic is just waiting to be a mind-blowing "headspace" above the building. The plumbing and electrical need complete replacement, the plaster is compromised from above and the second floor is weak, but these can be addressed once the plaster is down. The back fo the building needs to be rearranged, the porches need to be replaced, and everything needs to be refinished from the studs out, inside and out. The retail space is worth saving if it's permittable, and otherwise, the place isn't worth touching. Only other retail in the neighborhood is a two-story building with private hair salon on first floor immediately behind (across the alley!) If zoning is workable, a pottery shop was the original plan, and this is a perfect pottery shop for the cost of a complete gut job. Bonus -- apartment and headspace overhead, and room for both resident manager (and with garage) resident artist with private studio!

We'll see. It's a disaster in progress and there's no reason to expect they'll accept a low-ball offer. Or that I can make the most of it, even over time. But it's the immediate prospect.

Welcome to my nightmare, Cumberland, MD, edition!