Sales frozen by blizzard No deal: Except for properties close to agents' offices or on the Internet, the housing industry was snowed in.

January 21, 1996|By Daniel H. Barkin | Daniel H. Barkin,SUN STAFF

One sign The Blizzard had Baltimore snowed was the barren condition of Melvin Knight's voice mailbox. It was empty, voiceless. No buyers, no sellers, no nothing.

For Mr. Knight, a veteran Baltimore Realtor, that was extraordinary. He usually spends the end of every day at W.H.C. Wilson & Co. trying to return literally dozens of calls that accumulate while he's squiring buyers around city neighborhoods or out hustling for listings.

"The world stopped still," Mr. Knight said. "I tried to call some of my more aggressive customers, and nobody wanted to talk about it. People were in hibernation. The phone just didn't ring."

During the recent storms and for days afterward, the phones seldom rang at real estate brokerages and homebuilders' offices. January is typically a slow month anyway, but the massive snowfall effectively froze the region's housing industry. Open houses, appraisal visits, settlements, listing calls and the other deal-making activities that sell houses were almost entirely disrupted.

"Things just stopped for the better part of the week," said James P. O'Conor, chairman of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn, the largest locally owned brokerage in the Baltimore area.

"Business came to a halt," said Wanda Cross, the Lutherville-based marketing director for Ryland Homes, the leading builder in the region.

The simple became complicated, like finding a place to park, a problem that persisted through the past week. What might be adequate plowing and shoveling for cars would not do for showing a house.

Judy Morris, top December seller in OPF's Lutherville office, found one skinny lane going into a court in White Marsh where she was trying to sell a house. That made the house accessible, but parking impossible.

"You couldn't leave your car anywhere," she said. "There was no place to park."

James L. Kinnear, an agent with RE/MAX Advantage Realty, found himself navigating around the chairs and trash cans "reserving" spaces in a townhome community in Columbia last week. Because homeowners had cleared off their spaces by dumping snow onto adjacent ones, only half the parking was available, Mr. Kinnear said. "You just had to find a place on the street somewhere."

Cindy Conklin, an OPF agent in Federal Hill, managed to show a few houses to Federal Hill residents who wanted to buy in her neighborhood.

"We were out and about virtually every day on foot," she said.

Because of the proximity of our office to our market area, we were able to function every day," she said.

Some agents kept busy with buyers relocating to the area who had managed to fly into Baltimore, and were stuck at hotels; some Realtors who could get around spent their days checking vacant listings for storm damage.

And even though the coastal areas were spared the brunt of the snowfall, Ocean City agents felt the chill. Dan Smith, an agent with Moore Warfield & Glick Real Estate, noticed a falloff in customers looking to buy beach properties or set up vacation rentals for next summer. However, Mr. Smith, who has a home page on the Internet, said the weather didn't intrude upon cyberspace.

"My activity on the Internet continued right on through the storms," he said. "Rental inquiries and real estate inquiries were unaffected."

The thaw in business didn't truly take hold in the Baltimore area until this past Monday and Tuesday, according to interviews with agents and builders. Since then, the housing industry has seen a spurt of activity, and Realtors and builders have been eagerly anticipating this weekend.

"We expect to see some very big crowds," said Robert Coursey, marketing director for Ryan Homes.

"People seem to be going crazy," Mr. Knight said. "My phone's ringing off the hook."

"Contracts are beginning to come in," said Julie Verrier, a spokeswoman for Long & Foster, the mid-Atlantic's largest real estate brokerage. "We're playing catch-up now."

Part of the reason seems to be cabin fever, but it's more than just being cooped up, Realtors and builders say. The storms have made many families face the limitations of their homes. Young parents with small children have been reminded how sorely they needed that missing playroom. Older homeowners stranded in the countryside, trudging through deep snow to the mailbox, began yearning for that low-maintenance city townhome.

"They're looking for homes with short driveways," joked William Holman, an agent with C-21 Able Realty in Westminster.

"We're going to get a lot of people looking for garages," added Roxane Zach, manager of the Prudential Preferred Properties office in Lutherville.

William Cassidy, a Baltimore office manager for Long & Foster, predicted that "city condo sales are going to benefit from the shoveling and broken gutters."

Mr. Cassidy is holding an open house today on Croydon Road in Homeland that was canceled last weekend because of uncertain road conditions.

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