SILVER SPRING - Writing a nonrefundable check required more than a leap of faith. At first, their future home didn't even have an address. Then, when it did, it was a hideous former office building, long vacant, filled with junk and inhabited by homeless people.
But the residents of what would become Eastern Village already had something that more-established, more-anonymous neighborhoods don't: a built-in community. Eastern Village is a throwback to an earlier era when everyone on the block or cul-de-sac watched out for one other.
"The day my wife and I moved in, we knew everyone," said Stephan Fineberg Sylvan, a federal government employee who was one of the first to decide he would call Eastern Village home. "Not just names, we had friendships with 60 to 70 people."
At the southern edge of Silver Spring, with Washington across the street, Eastern Village is an example of a different way of living called cohousing that came to the United States from Denmark in the late 1980s.
A group of people interested in cohousing might decide they want to live together and plan a community, or a developer might assemble the community. Some cohousing communities are made up of new homes; others are older, retro-fitted neighborhoods.
They are united, though, by their desire to live among those who value the company of others.
Residents at Eastern Village have their own complete private homes, but just outside their doors is a common area where they share a kitchen, living rooms, a play room and a workshop stocked with tools. There's a rooftop garden that will soon have a tot lot, a vegetable garden and a place to sit and meditate over views of Rock Creek Park nearby.
The first cohousing community in Maryland opened several years ago in Frederick County. Others have tried to form groups in Maryland, but Eastern Village is just the second one up and running in the state, according to the Mid-Atlantic Cohousing Web site.
All but one of the 56 one- to three-bedroom condo units at Eastern Village have been sold, with the first families moving in in October of last year. The asking price for the vacant unit is in the upper-$400,000 range. Units that were purchased earlier sold for less.
Prospective owners found each other through word-of-mouth, e-mail and at cocktail parties.
"When I get excited about a particular cause, you can't shut me up," said Sylvan, who found several residents himself.
Most of the units were bought before the building was renovated. Many of the future residents had a voice in deciding what the community would be - down to the amenities, such as what the furniture in the common living space should look like, whether there should be a hot tub on the roof, whether neighbors should divide cleaning duties in the common rooms or hire a service.
It's not a commune - please don't call it that, residents plead, disliking the vision of hippies and free love that it conjures - but a community of open-minded people who want to live with neighbors who share some of their views.
That doesn't mean there is just one type of resident at Eastern Village: They are doctors and nurses, an architect and a Home Depot manager, teachers and consultants. They are different ages and races and religions.
"You learn to live with each other and each other's quirks," said Javier Arroyo, a Silver Spring attorney who said he had to go out of his way to meet his neighbors when he and his wife lived in their Washington apartment.
Cohousing can be found in all housing types: new neighborhoods, older neighborhoods enhanced with a community house, or condo buildings like this. Ann Zabaldo, a cohousing consultant who lives in the Takoma Village cohousing community in Washington, said senior cohousing is a new trend.
"It's [cohousing] done every which way there's housing. There's not one right way," she said. "What distinguishes cohousing from regular condo living is the whole co-creation, common vision. It absolutely changes the dynamic."
In Eastern Village, people borrow each other's cars, watch each other's children and share potluck meals every week. The bulletin board announces all sorts of activities: a Shabbat dinner, yoga classes, a finance meeting, a landscaping meeting, even a public snake feeding being sponsored by the reptile's young owner.
"The downside is a lot of people feel like there are a lot of meetings," Sylvan said.
The shared kitchen will eventually be the center of weekly meals, but the furniture still hasn't all arrived. (Another downside of shared decision-making: It can take a long time to build a consensus, even on tables and chairs.)
In the meantime, residents are making do with weekly potlucks in the temporarily spare common space (one week was Mexican, the next week featured recipes from Martha Stewart's Web site in honor of the famous ex-con's prison release). Each unit contains a kitchen so the dinners together are optional.