When Kenneth Gilbert, a retired salesman from Alexandria, Va., heard that Baltimore's landmark Belvedere Hotel had been converted into condominiums, he took a drive north "just for kicks" to see what deals the developer was offering.
What he found was too good to pass up: a one-bedroom city home with 11-foot ceilings and ornate fireplace in the stately, redecorated Belvedere for about $83,000. The condos impressed him so much he bought one, thought about it, and bought another as an investment.
Shoppers of downtown high-rise and luxury condos are finding the market full of appealing deals, from relatively modest homes in the old Belvedere and other converted Baltimore gems to luxury suites overlooking the Inner Harbor.
The best part, at least from the buyers' point of view: Condo prices downtown are about as low as they get. Some developers have reduced their prices, making it easy for anyone with cash in hand -- first-time buyers, empty nesters or the well-heeled -- to have just about anything they want in a condo in the city.
Other developers have maintained their prices, but admit sales have been distressingly slow.
"All the pieces of the puzzle are here, but something is holding consumers back," says C. B. Alexander, a Realtor with Prudential Preferred Properties in Baltimore.
According to the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, 220 condominiums were sold in Baltimore through September 1991, the latest month for which statistics are available. In the comparable period last year, 248 were sold.
The condo market -- and luxury condos in particular -- have been a problem for the real estate industry nationwide for years, says Bob Lefenfeld, a vice president with Legg Mason Realty Group in Baltimore.
"The luxury condo is a specialty product. It is not a mandatory purchase," he says. "Especially in this market, where the economy has soured and has had an effect on upper-income and moderate-income households, luxury condos have suffered inordinately as a result."
Here's a sampling of what's available and what's selling in Baltimore's major high-rise condo market:
* The St. James Condominiums on North Charles Street has 77 condominiums in its brand-new, 16-story building. The smallest unit is a 1,700-square-foot, two-bedroom, 2 1/2 - bath home that sells for $190,000. The largest basic model is 3,000 square feet for $495,000. St. James penthouses start at about $750,000. A $400 monthly maintenance fee pays for amenities like 24-hour door staff and a swimming pool.
Michael Todd, St. James director of sales, says the homes are 40 percent sold, with 12 sales so far this year. The largest homes, priced from $363,000 to $495,000, have sold the best.
* Harborview Condominiums on Key Highway won't be complete until late 1992. But buyers can purchase one of three types of homes now: one- and two-bedroom units that start at $161,900; larger two-bedrooms that begin at $299,900; and penthouses, ranging in size from 2,000 to 6,000 square feet that start at $675,000.
Harborview maintenance fees, based on the owners' square TTC footage, range from $275 to $700 a month.
Edward Vinson, director of sales at Harborview Properties, says one-third of the first building of 254 units has been sold, including seven of its 12 penthouses.
* At the Colonnade Condominiums on Canterbury Road, homes range from an 880-square-foot studio for $79,000 to a 6,000-square-foot penthouse with a Rolls-Royce as part of the deal for $1,300,000.
Maintenance fees are 23 cents a square foot -- about $380 a month for a large two-bedroom unit.
Michael Berland, director of sales at the Colonnade, says 45 units have been sold since July. The building is now 70 percent sold. "At this rate we're going to be sold out within the next three months," he says.
"The key issue is that we're priced right," he says. "We held an auction here in June where we offered a few units to gauge where the market was," and what people would pay for a condominium, he said.
As a result, current prices at the Colonnade are substantially lower than they were originally. For instance, the 1,650-square-foot two-bedroom units originally priced at $280,000 are now selling for $155,000.
Some realty brokers say the auction may have had a negative effect on the Colonnade and other luxury condos, even though it sparked some sales.
"I think it's effective to stimulate sales. Unfortunately, the public perceives it as a desperation move," Harborview's Mr. Vinson says.
"They see it as a failure. They hear 'auction,' and all they think is you're at the end of your rope," he says.
"The Colonnade and the St. James are operating in perhaps the worst real estate time we've had in years. But I'm sure they're ultimately going to [sell out]. There is a demand for quality buildings and they will prevail."
Mr. Vinson says he is grateful that he has at least a year before the new Harborview condos are ready to occupy, to give consumers time to get over their nervousness about buying.