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Real Estate Spotlight

Isabel Ernst: Developer

Longtime Georgetown resident Isabel Ernst got her start in real estatein 1998. She now lives with her husband, Ricardo, a professor of Business at Georgetown University, and her four children in Georgetown. How did you get your start in development? I got into real estate development when I bought our house in 1998, the historic Hillandale Mansion. It was completely abandoned and was falling apart. It had no electricity or water, and the windows and doors were either missing or destroyed. It had great bones, though. I took it upon myself to bring this beautiful house back to life. I spent two-and-a-half years renovating the mansion. I did all the design myself and learned a lot about space and materials, two very important components for a successful project. After I finished my home in 2000, I realized that development was my passion and started my business. What has been your most memorable project to date? The Clyde building on 10th between M and L St.: It was a leap of faith when I bought it, because it was still a very "transitional neighborhood." The building was condemned, but it also had great bones, so we completely gutted it and transformed it into 14 beautiful apartments. When you're not at work, what can you usually be found doing? I am usually taking care of my family, my husband and my four kids, spending time with my friends, taking care of my house, going to board meetings for the different organizations I am involved in, planning trips or going to art fairs with my parents. Not a lot of down time! What is the hottest neighborhood in Washington right now? D.C. has a lot of great emerging neighborhoods that are blending into each other. We are slowly building a wonderful city with a very international flavor, where people can walk or bike to work, to the theater or to a hot yoga class. As Mayor Gray described it, "D.C. is a world within a city," and I cannot imagine living in a better place anywhere in the world. What is your favorite thing about being a developer? My favorite thing about being a developer is the demolition face when you get down to the bones and then start to rebuild; the smell of fresh paint and a beautiful space surrounded by beautiful materials.

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Sealing the Deal: Superhero Agents

Regardless of the advent of online shopping for a home, real estate remains a people business. Real estate agents who understand this do crazy things for their clients, going beyond expectations to make sure their buyers and sellers have the best possible experience. Eric Murtagh, a real estate agent with Evers & Co., literally went the extra mile and gained a decades-long partnership with Jim Gibson, founder of Gibson Builders. Back in 1990, before everyone had cell phones, Gibson was looking for fixer-upper projects in close-in neighborhoods. Gibson mentioned to Murtagh (who was hoping to win him as a client) that he was going to Rehoboth Beach for the weekend on a Friday. “A beat-up carriage house came up for sale in Palisades that Friday night,” says Murtagh. “I didn’t think it would last through the weekend and I didn’t have a way to reach Jim. So I left for Rehoboth Beach at 4 a.m. on Saturday in the pouring rain with my thermal paper MLS listing page and a blank contract and drove down without knowing where he was staying. I only knew what his car looked like. I made it in about three hours and I finally found his car just as he was walking outside. He saw me and thought I was crazy for making the ride down to the beach to find him. He took me out to breakfast, liked the house and wrote an offer.” Sometimes, agents can do something over the top without ever leaving D.C. “I was working with a very earthy, spiritual couple from Colorado who called me in to take over their listing that wasn’t selling,” says Daniel Heider, vice president at TTR Sotheby’s International Realty. “As a part of my pitch I brought them a bundle of white sage and we ‘saged’ the property to cleanse the former agent’s energy, right after they signed the exclusive.” Marriage, babies, death and divorce move houses A Washington Fine Properties agent says one of his oddest experiences was when a seller client said, “Oops, I forgot Dad!” The agent kindly went back into the home to retrieve the urn that had been left on the mantel, which contained the client’s father’s ashes. The fast-paced current market leads to some almost comically quick sales “My husband’s friend came in from out of town for dinner on a Sunday evening and casually mentioned that mutual acquaintances were getting a divorce,” says Nancy Taylor-Bubes, an agent with Washington Fine Properties. “He said the husband would be selling the house and I realized that I had a perfect buyer for it. I got right on the phone and mentioned to my broker the next day that I was tracking down the listing agent. Another agent overheard me. Within one day we both had offers on the house, which was in the upper brackets, but thankfully I got it for my buyer.” A more pleasant scenario than divorce led Jim Bell, executive vice president and global advisor at TTR Sotheby’s International Realty, into an “exciting yet terrifying” settlement. “A wealthy buyer wanted to propose to his girlfriend at settlement,” says Bell. “I had to sign for the engagement ring, which was delivered from New York City in an armored car, and then personally deliver it to the closing.” Jamie Peva, an agent with Washington Fine Properties, was showing a Georgetown home that he thought would be a great fit for a young couple expecting their first baby. “The house just didn’t resonate with them and they couldn’t picture having a family there,” says Peva. “I sent them off for a lunch break. I got my three-year-old daughter and put her in the backyard to play, and when they came back and saw her their whole attitude changed and they made an offer.” Transactions that you might think would fail Living on the edge is a common experience for real estate agents, who know that many transactions hang by a thread that could easily be snapped. Andrea Evers, an agent with Evers & Co. in Dupont Circle, had a wild story about her listing near U Street. Her clients decided to remove a broken fence door rather than repair it. A crime occurred while the property was in escrow. “A chase ensued and the ‘chasee’ ran through the alley behind my listing, noticed an opening into a backyard where my clients had removed the door and ran in,” says Evers. “He was stuck and tried to scale a fence, but the man chasing him caught up and shot and killed the trapped man, who died in the backyard of my listing. I got a call very early the next morning from my scared and shaken seller clients. I never heard a word from the buyer agent until the day before closing. Before her clients’ walk-through, she called and asked if I could make sure any police tape or fingerprint dust was not on the property. ‘So, they know?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘No problem, we’ll make sure the house is clean,’ I said. The closing went smoothly.” Hans Wydler, who recently opened Wydler Brothers Real Estate, says his brother Steve Wydler almost didn’t make it through his first year in the business. “He had a listing where a guest clogged an upstairs bathroom and flooded it without telling anyone,” says Hans. “Water started dripping down the dining room chandelier and I got a call from Steve saying: ‘Help. 911. Emergency.’ He sold the house with multiple offers but lost about a year of his life to stress.” Skip and Debbie Singleton, owners of DC Living Real Estate, worked with a buyer of a newly renovated home who fell in love with the dog that had been on site during construction and wanted the dog written into the contract. “It turned out that the contractor-owner of the house loved the dog too, and wouldn’t part with him,” says Skip. “Our buyers got the home without the dog, but they rescued another dog soon after they moved.” Over-the-top service Margaret Heimbold, a Long & Foster agent, recalls: “A few years ago on a gorgeous sunny day in Georgetown, I was summoned by my out-of-town developer-purchaser to present Evangeline Bruce’s former home on 34th Street. It was listed for about $5,000,000. Of course, I was happy to do so and parked my Lexus SUV in the driveway. As I was presenting the house and ballroom, I patted my empty pocket and realized that I had left my car keys in the car. I excused myself and walked outside to the driveway only to find the car was gone. The car was ultimately recovered (with some damage because the person who took it was using it as a taxi service). I never did sell the house, but the developer listed one of his properties for sale with me.” Nashwa Beach, an agent with Evers & Co., jumped right in with stellar service for her first listing. The family was moving overseas quickly and facing financial problems. “The matriarch was a hoarder and I had to clean the entire house,” says Beach. “Movers took out several truckloads of trash and there were a few dead rodents too. I had to store and ship items via freight to their new location and even lend them a few thousand dollars.” Fortunately for Beach, the home sold quickly for $65,000 over the list price. Real estate agents are well known for recommending contractors and moving companies, but Taylor-Bubes and her staff step in to obtain emergency No Parking signs to help customers get a moving truck into Georgetown’s notoriously tight streets. “One time, a new assistant had forgotten to get the signs, so she raced to the police station on a Sunday night and then the whole office moved our cars around and knocked on the neighbors’ doors to see if they could move their cars to create space for the truck,” says Taylor-Bubes. “Everyone hung around waiting for a car to move and then we’d race to put one of ours in the spot to reserve it.” Nancy Itteilag, an agent with WFP, has taken delivery of cars shipped from overseas for clients who weren’t in town, driven clients to the airport and finished packing for clients who were too overwhelmed at the last minute. “I’ve even folded laundry that people have accidently left in the dryer,” says Itteilag, who also delivers lunch to buyers and to their moving crews to keep people happy on a stressful day. Catherine Charbonneau, another Evers & Co. agent, had to get a big bat out of one of her listings in Chevy Chase. “I’ve chased cats, crated dogs and walked dogs for customers, climbed onto the roof, crawled under a home, landscaped, caulked and even sat with sellers to sort their ‘trash, donate or keep’ piles,” says Charbonneau. In other words, customer satisfaction means a lot more than paperwork for most real estate agents. [gallery ids="102395,122741,122746,122732,122725,122736" nav="thumbs"]

How We Live Now: The Demise of the Florida Room

Washington, D.C., has gone through a gigantic sea change over the past several years, from a city of modest middle-class incomes and homes to a metropolitan area having many huge homes with elaborate interiors, reflecting the opulent lifestyles of the people within. One way to see how our concept of informal living has changed is to trace the evolution of a Washington favorite, the so-called Florida room. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, the first Florida rooms were considered a big improvement over the open side porches on the small redbrick colonials that dominated Northwest Washington and the suburbs of Silver Spring and Chevy Chase. Instead of sitting outside on your open side porch swatting mosquitoes, you could fill the open spaces between the porch columns with jalousie windows and screens, creating a seasonal addition to your house. These jalousie windows, made up of frames holding rectangular pieces of glass, had hand cranks to open and close the glass window slats, letting the air in through the screens but keeping the bugs out. When it got cooler in September, you could crank these louvered windows shut and still have the illusion of being outside. This was the spot where mom could bring dad his martini or scotch and they could talk over dad’s workday and enjoy the feeling of being, well, almost on vacation. Meanwhile, the kids could play in the semi-finished downstairs area called the rumpus room. We can guess where the term “rumpus room” came from, but where exactly “Florida room” came from is unclear. The name probably added to mom and dad’s feeling of being able to unwind in the balmy atmosphere of a summer’s evening. These Florida rooms were usually small, typically 150 to 300 square feet, and they were attached to two-story colonials that were also small, a total of 2,200 to 3,500 square feet. There was a living room, a dining room, a small kitchen and a porch or Florida room on the first floor, and three bedrooms and one or two bathrooms on the second. Of course, there were also much bigger homes in D.C. and its suburban neighborhoods, but colonials of this size and shape far outnumbered the larger homes. Now, let’s fast-forward to 2015, and take a look at the typical new home being built today in Washington’s close-in neighborhoods. Builders are continually looking for a home on a lot large enough to carve off another lot, or to tear down an existing house, to build the type of big, new home that is in demand. This new house will be 5,000 to 8,000 square feet, with a living room, a dining room, an expansive family kitchen with islands and table space, an adjoining family room and a den. The second floor will have a multi-room master suite — sometimes bigger than the entire square footage of the colonials described above — plus several bedrooms and bathrooms. The lower-level areas include such amenities as climate-controlled wine cellars, exercise rooms and home movie theaters. The humble Florida room has been replaced with scads of informal space, but this time it’s where the whole family congregates. Since both mom and dad work now, at the end of the day they want to share time and space with the kids. The kitchen is still “the heart of the home,” but it is open and spacious. With gourmet accoutrements, it adjoins a richly equipped family room with a large flat-screen television, a fireplace and a wall of glass windows and doors, opening to porches, decks and usually a small, but well-landscaped backyard. Currently, backyards are not used that much, since the children are pretty well booked after school with lessons of various kinds and the parents and kids go to interesting places on weekends. Granted, this is not everybody’s lifestyle, but it generally accounts for a growing number of people who are buying new luxury homes. This is a far cry from the lifestyle reflected in the 2,500-square-foot colonials. So, bid adieu, with an accompanying wave of nostalgia, to the Florida room. It served its purpose at a much different time in our cultural history. Come to think of it, couldn’t everyone use a climate-controlled wine cellar?
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Roadside Development: A Different Kind of Commercial Real Estate

One of the biggest names in Washington, D.C., real estate, Roadside Development was established 17 years ago by Smithy Braedon alums Richard Lake and Armond Spikell, who recruited longtime client Todd Weiss to join them. All three are well acquainted with the D.C. metro area. When he was growing up, Lake worked at the Zebra Room, a Wisconsin Avenue business owned by his family. The name Roadside Development was inspired by the company’s first projects: CVS locations in the D.C. suburbs. After doing 17 stores in and around D.C., Armond said, “We build things along the road. Why don’t we call ourselves Roadside Development?” Lake says he and his partners have thought about changing it, “because who wants to live in an apartment built by Roadside Development…[but] it has really stuck.” According to Lake, there are a lot of developers who build housing well, and others who build retail well, but Roadside’s mission is to “marry the two.” He offers Roadside’s City Market at O in Shaw and its Cityline in Tenleytown as examples and calls them his favorites, saying that the projects “captured what was necessary for those neighborhoods.” He talks glowingly about City Market. “It was an early form of grocery store in the 1800s when it was built. It made sense to incorporate the market and make it the centerpiece of the entire development.” But, Lake says, Roadside wanted to “design something that sets that building off and apart from more modern construction.” The company looked at different shapes, materials, colors and windows and came up with a design that pays homage to the original market while maintaining modernity. Lake also talks passionately about the need for affordable housing in the District, calling such housing “imperative.” He adds, “We all fail if we don’t provide safe and quality housing for everyone.” In that vein, during the City Market construction process, Roadside promised area seniors 78 affordable units, eventually constructing 90 that rent at below-market rates. Lake is looking forward to future Roadside projects, such as renovating Frager’s Hardware, a Capitol Hill institution that burned down in 2013. He calls the project a “smaller version of [City Market at] O Street” and says that Roadside is seeking to add vitality to the block and bring people in to live at the site. In Georgetown, Roadside has the old Neam’s Market site under contract. Lake says: “We don’t own the property. We aren’t talking about plans yet because we haven’t formulated them completely. It’s a really cool corner with a lot of history. The corner is a Washington institution. It’s a small piece of property, but we want to do something neat there if we are able to.” Lake calls the pipeline the “single most complicated part of the business,” explaining: “We just finished building $400 million worth of stuff, but you have to make sure there’s something else in the pipeline for the future when you are in the final stages of other projects.” He adds, “There are so many variables in the types of development we do, always something that can trip us up, whether it’s zoning, the market or changes in attitudes.” The company “has been pretty fortunate to find projects to keep us active.” Lake says he worries sometimes about overdevelopment and “too many of the same thing being built,” but says Roadside works as hard as it can to differentiate its product by bringing in retail, office space and, when feasible, housing. So far, that mix and Roadside’s vision have brought great value to the District while restoring and enhancing its architectural character.

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