Washington, D.C., housing market suddenly goes Republican

In the Capital, where tracking the tides of political power is a major league sport, real estate agents are gleenfully waiting for the Republicans. They mutter about the parsimony of Carter Democrats and plot ways of unloading suburban split-levels on Reaganites accustomed to inflated California prices.

"A lot of Carter people rented," says one District of Columbia real estate broker. "And they stayed rented.We expect a bigger turnover this time."

Questioned about the GOP influx, another broker's eyes grow round. "It means wonderful things," she says.

The Washington Real Estate Board expects 6,000 new residents to follow California Ronald Reagan into the area. Mr. Reagan, of course, already has a four-year lease, with option to renew. But a board spokesman says he believes members of the new President's team who buy homes here will spend more than staffers from the past few administrations.

The Reagan transition team has been besieged by real estate agents offering to slice their commissions in exchange for prestigious Republican business.

"A lot of agents are leaving packets on the front stoop," says Ron Boykin, corporate relocation director for Panorama Real Estate.

Mr. Boykin says he believes the transition committee eventually will request proposals for handling the incoming conservative tide from three or four D.C. real estate brokers. The agency that offers the best deal will then be recommended to new administration employees.

Fed by a steady diet of tax moeny, Washington is practically recession-proof. Experts say it is one of the most stable real estate markets in the country -- though rent control has clouded the outlook for apartments and high interest rates have cut housing starts.

As the saying goes, it is a city where everyone is from somewhere else.

"Lots of people move in and out every two years," says one broker. "Generally, newly elected congressmen rent their first, term. Senators buy -- they're here for six years."

Housing is designed for transients: Across the Potomac, apartment complexes seemingly the size of Rhode Island form Arlington's "Condo Canyon"; north of the city, in Maryland, new garden suburbs advertise community buildings with party rooms. Almost everyone wants to live in Georgetown, which ensures that few will be able to afford it. The price for a two-bedrom town house in this chic section near downtown can top $250,000. Farther out, the northwest section of the city is lined with moest colonials. Built of brick or biege fieldstone, wrapped in old elms, they are as tasteful and expensive as Chippendale furniture: $150,000 buys a starter home.

"The Carter people were shocked by the prices," says Elizabeth Patterson of Georgetown Properties. "Most of them didn't buy."

Compared with Atlanta, Washington real estate is expensive. But compared with Los Angeles, it's cheap.

"Californians are used to large prices," says Roy Veatch, president of Period Homes. "Ours seem modest."

Period Homes deals exclusively in choice, antique houses. When the Georgians marched north four years ago, Mr. Veatch hoped they would be interested in the authentic plantation homes he had for sale. They weren't. Now he's wondering if Republican squires will want Virginia estates in Fairfax County, near GOP Sen. John W. Warner's place.

Some Washington observers aren't so sure the new Republicans are all rich and fond of suburban living. They claim real estate brokers waiting for a GOP bonanza are confusing symbols with substance: Reagan holds a dinner for civic leaders at the swank F Street Club, and the city swoons; mention the wrod "Republican," and real estate people start seeing checkbooks with large balances.

"When th eparty in power changes," says Joanna Pernick of Begg Realty. "Sellers always rub their hands in anticipation of rising prices that never come."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.