He comes to real estate auctions. He bids, silently, with motions of the hand. Sometimes he spends millions on property that broke the former owner's back; sometimes he's thwarted by a lender unwilling to sell the property too cheap. Then he slips out as silently as he came, politely refusing even to say who he is.
Who is this masked man?
His name is Charles Edwards, a 50-year-old investor and orthopedic surgeon from Baltimore who is piling up a stack of properties that include some of metropolitan Baltimore's most grinding failures. He says -- and he may be right -- that they won't be failures for long.
"I see him as a very sophisticated bottom feeder," said one prominent local real estate figure. Like many people contacted for this article, he requested anonymity because of Dr. Edwards' well-known dislike for publicity. "He does his homework. He understands numbers. He may be the smartest guy of the bottom of this cycle."
Dr. Edwards is certainly a frequent auction buyer. Usually, he's the only person bidding against the lender, which will often buy a property and try to find a better deal later.
Other would-be bidders are held back by lack of faith in the market, lack of capital -- or both. Dr. Edwards apparently suffers from neither.
"I tell my kids, never go into real estate unless you have an income stream from something else," he said. "I look at it as a very cyclical thing. . . . Real property is disproportionately low, just as financial institutions [stock prices] a year ago were
Since January, Dr. Edwards' Mount Vernon Properties Inc. has bought two of Baltimore County's biggest busts -- the Sorrento Run luxury cluster home project off Falls Road in Brooklandville, and a piece of the Cloisters at Charles development at Charles Street and Bellona Avenue.
Mount Vernon also won the bid for 187 condominiums at The Gardens of Owings Mills in Reisterstown this month, agreeing to pay only about $11,500 a unit. And he's an investor -- though his role is not widely known -- in the group that bought the Belt's
Landing condominium project in Fells Point last week.
One prominent property that got away: the Lord Baltimore Hotel in downtown Baltimore.
Dr. Edwards won't discuss his plans for the properties Mount Vernon buys. And though his reticence makes people more curious, he's anything but crabby.
His main job just happens to be in a field where publicity can be a liability, he explains. He wants to separate the real estate investor from the surgeon who won broad exposure for devising a series of innovative operations and prosthetic devices in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Doctors who dabble ineptly in real estate are a standard industry joke, so there was no shortage of skeptics when Dr. Edwards began attracting notice. But he says he's been investing in real estate since his medical school days in the 1960s -- even though his recent deals are much bigger.
The assets he bought recently had turned very sour.
At Sorrento Run, only five of 69 proposed homes were sold before Maryland National Bank forced the auction. At Belt's Landing, the investors' group bought a building with 92 units -- only one had been sold when MNC Financial Inc. took control. And Cloisters at Charles also sold poorly before parcels were auctioned by Loyola Capital Corp. and Signet Bank/Maryland -- Mount Vernon bought only the Signet parcel.
Why? Real estate specialists have contended that pricey townhouses and condos don't sell well in Baltimore because luxurious detached homes aren't much more expensive.
Still, Mount Vernon might be able to make its projects work.
Dr. Edwards said he will change the original plans for Sorrento Run and Cloisters at Charles to provide as many detached homes as possible. And a financial strategy low on debt could help him succeed where others failed.
"I've said many times that what Baltimore needs is not more luxury town houses or cluster homes," he said. "The question is, did [the previous developers] fail for a reason or didn't they? In general, they failed because they were carrying an inordinate amount of debt service."
For example, Sorrento Run's owners owed about $5.3 million when the bank moved to foreclose; the builders of Cloisters at Charles had borrowed $6.6 million.
Mount Vernon, meanwhile, picked up the properties for a fraction of the debt the former owners left behind.
In fact, no mortgages are recorded in county land records on either parcel, though Mount Vernon paid $1.75 million for Sorrento Run and $2.55 million for its piece of Cloisters at Charles.
And though he would not confirm Dr. Edwards' involvement -- which was reported by two other sources -- Elliott Sharaby, a partner in the Belt's Landing ownership group, said the $4.2 million purchase price was a tiny part of the $21.4 million debt left behind by previous owners.
A cheap purchase price -- and low debt -- will allow the new owners to sell the condos for as much as 70 percent less than what the old developer was asking, Mr. Sharaby says. "I'm able to bring that saving to the customer. . . . The prices will surprise you."
Dr. Edwards insists that he's simply taking advantage of a real estate market hit hard both by slow new-home sales and by skittish banks that stay away from land loans.
"What I buy today, I don't consider any of them steals, but this is a time when fair market value is inordinately low," he said. "I've never looked for spectacular gains. Mainly I look to avoid mistakes."