Playing condo game

College football fans score on units for use as second homes in towns near favorite teams


When Tyna Gaylor read that there were condominiums on the market in Blacksburg, Va., she had to see it for herself.

So, the day after attending Virginia Tech's Oct. 27 football game against Boston College in the southwest Virginia town, Gaylor and two friends toured a refurbished two-bedroom unit. Impressed, Gaylor and her husband, Randy, bought it.

The Gaylors, of Fairfax Station, Va., have Hokies season tickets. They intend to use their condo, just off Virginia Tech's campus, as a second home on fall weekends when the Hokies play at Lane Stadium - and as a minor investment.

With their recent purchase, the Gaylors joined a quirky trend. As part of a nationwide condo boom, dozens of college football fans are purchasing condominiums in college towns.

These fans spend $100,000 to $300,000 on average, stay there predominantly on game weekends and hope to hold onto the place long enough to earn a profit when they decide to sell.

Popular in the South, "sports condos" have begun to pop up in the Mid-Atlantic, and insiders, including a Baltimore investment firm, predict a booming industry.

"This is an unusual situation where somebody will actually buy condos for six days a year," said Roy Palmer, project manager for Carolina Walk, a Columbia, S.C., sports condo property. "It's [because of] entertainment and football, no doubt about it."

The first sports condos were converted railroad cars near Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, which 20 South Carolina fans bought in 1990 for $45,000 each. Developers like Palmer paid attention and launched similar projects.

The idea spread as national companies such as Capstone Development Corp. of Birmingham, Ala., and Gameday Centers of Atlanta jumped on board.

Capstone has luxury sports condo developments, featuring hundreds of units and amenities such as a public tailgate zone, in Louisville, Ky., and Starkville, Miss., among other college towns. Gameday Centers is working on luxury developments in big-time football towns such as Auburn, Ala., College Station, Texas, and Athens, Ga.

Local developers in Morgantown, W.Va., Blacksburg and Columbus, Ohio, have sold condos in mixed-use projects to people who plan to use them on college football weekends.

The growth potential convinced Atlantic Capital Group of Pikesville to invest more than $1 million in Gameday Centers. The five investors in the year-old firm, including Chairman Steven Fader and managing partner Jim Bannantine, have the exclusive right to invest more in each property Gameday develops.

"We think it's a niche opportunity in a fast-growing area of college sports," said Bannantine, former president of Columbia-based Corvis Corp., now Broadwing Corp, in Howard County.

"There's a lot of Division I college football teams," Bannantine said. With only about a dozen towns in the mix, "there's a lot of headroom there for growth."

Some buyers use their condos to entertain clients; others just want to spend weekends with family and friends. And all hope to make money.

"If they live out of state, they want some place nice to come to," said Gerry O'Neill of C.R. O'Neill and Co., which is developing more than 2,500 condos in downtown Columbus near Ohio State.

Unlike a hotel on a big game day, "it's always available and they don't have to book ahead," O'Neill added. "If they live in the suburbs, they want a place that's affordable and they're thinking investment, and they're thinking retirement, possibly, in the future."

The typical buyer is an upper middle-class alum - and a huge college football fan, though some younger and less affluent people also are going in on units together.

"Not everybody who's buying them is a millionaire," said Eddie Wilder, who handles marketing for sports condo projects in Columbia, S.C. "It's people that love football. ... In the South, [football] is very much social, very much a party."

National developers hope to spread that aura north, targeting towns with colleges that have numerous alumni in the greater Baltimore area - such as Blacksburg, Morgantown, State College, Pa., and Charlottesville, Va.

They also are eyeing College Park. But, while many college towns are isolated from urban centers and thus are cheaper and easier to build in, College Park, between Baltimore and Washington, presents a challenge.

Housing prices in the region have seen some of the fastest appreciation rates in the country, leaping 22 percent from the second quarter of 2004 to the second quarter of this year.

With land expensive and in short supply, a sports condo project in College Park would have to be built vertically and likely would be priced at least $300,000 a unit, said Mark Vogel, a College Park developer.

In contrast, housing prices increased 15.1 percent in Morgantown, 10.8 percent in State College and 11.4 percent in the Blacksburg metropolitan area (the New River Valley) over that period.

Prices will likely continue to increase in college towns, though not necessarily at those levels, local experts said.

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