Commercial lot sells at auction for $400,000

Parcel in Cooksville attracts 22 bidders

Building vacant several years

Most county land zoned for businesses is in east

May 30, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Commercially zoned land is a rare commodity in western Howard County, a landscape dominated by farms and houses.

Yesterday morning, one of the rare exceptions went on the auction block and sold at a price that turned a lot of heads.

The small parcel sits at the intersection of Routes 97 and 144 in Cooksville, the site of a sagging and boarded-up tavern that has seen better days.

But the 22 people who showed up to bid - and at least as many to gawk - were not coming for the building. They were interested in its prime real estate, at a busy intersection a half-mile from Interstate 70.

"You can tell by the crowd we have today: We have something special in western Howard County," said auctioneer Dan Billig, standing on the gravel parking lot.

The winning bid: $400,000 for a lot that is not quite an acre. Ten minutes was all it took to get there from the starting offer of $150,000.

Few landowners sell commercial property by auctioneer, said Rocky Mackintosh, who owns a land consulting and brokerage company near Frederick. For those who do, a common reason - and the one that applies in this case - is bankruptcy.

Mike Healey, who lives in Cooksville and watched the auction, said the building has not been used for five or six years. It last held a convenience store and bar, he said.

Potential investors were not bothered by the property's history. They walked around the salmon-colored building - and inside, over buckling tiles and under hole-studded ceilings - with dreams of creating something new.

"We are always looking for property like this," said Saif Qaiyumi, a Realtor and architect. "It's perfect for a contractor's office."

The man who became its new owner after the furious bidding yesterday said he is not certain what he will do with it. S. Bruce Jaffe, an Ellicott City developer, figures the property would be good for a group of convenience stores catering to commuters' dry cleaning and other needs.

Spectators and losing bidders sidled over to ask him: Will the building stay or go?

"Truth is, I'm really not sure," he said.

If location is everything, he appears to have a good spot. Most of Howard County's 15,000 acres zoned for businesses are concentrated in Columbia and along U.S. 1 and U.S. 40. Less than 2 percent - 270 acres - is in the two-thirds of the county known as the rural west, according to county records.

The Cooksville property has an interesting history, crouched as it is beside America's first highway to the west, the old National Road.

The auctioneers, A.J. Billig & Co., estimated the building at about 52 years old. But Martin Brincefield, a College Park resident who owned the site for a few years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, believes the tavern's exterior hides the remnants of a 19th-century carriage house that catered to westward travelers.

"The walls down in the basement are about 2-foot thick," he said. "It's a monstrous old thing, covered up by many years of retrofitting."

The $400,000 winning bid surprised some developers, particularly because considerable work is required - whether Jaffe chooses to renovate or raze.

Even without obvious problems to solve, bidders tend to make more conservative offers than they would if they negotiated a contract because they're taking more risk, Mackintosh said. A typical contract includes contingencies that give developers a way out if they don't get the permits they need.

But put face to face, would-be buyers can easily bid a property's price sky-high, he noted. "Auctions are always interesting," Mackintosh said. "You never know what will happen."

When the excitement was over yesterday - after the whistles of amazement and applause had died down - Billig took off his portable microphone and acknowledged that the winning bid was higher than what he normally he sees.

"I think it was an exceptional piece of property," he added. "But a lot of properties in Howard County fall into that category."

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