By ARNOLD S. PLATOU
4:56 PM EST, December 1, 2012
Having sold their previous house, Michael and Kanda Betson and their teenage son are living in a 30-foot camper while Michael oversees construction of their new home in Brownsville.
Paul Plume and his wife, Courtney, have fulfilled his lifelong dream of buying a farm, but their plans of building a new home on its Indian Springs acreage have hit an economic snag they hope is only temporary.
Charlie and Lorena Sanbower have taken a loan on their current house to finance construction of their new one near Hagerstown while hoping to sell their old one soon.
Never mind the economy’s still bad, but these people and about 150 other families are buying brand-new homes here, determined to make the circumstances work for them.
All of the families are like pioneers — forging ahead at a time when many potential new home buyers still are sitting back — but they aren’t being reckless, at least not the three families who talked to The Herald-Mail this past week about their efforts.
Each of them is well aware of the shaky economic ground onto which they are walking.
“It’s a terrible economy,” said Charlie Sanbower Jr., who is 54 and drives a truck for a living. Building a new house right now “is just a chance you take.”
“I’m 50/50 on the economy. It can go either way,” Sanbower said. “Either we’re going to go over the financial cliff or they’re going to fix the problem.”
Paul Plume, who is 47 and owns a small fiber-optics business, began seeing project bidding opportunities for his company “really start to slow down” this past spring. It seemed that larger businesses were growing more hesitant as the presidential election neared “and then, through the whole election, it’s been pretty dead,” he said.
“And I just haven’t seen it pick up yet. And I, personally, am afraid that since Obama got elected, the bigger business people are going to hold onto their money,” Plume said. “They’re going to wait to see how this Obamacare thing is going to affect them.”
Michael Betson, who is 46 and is a mechanic, is worried about the economy, too.
When asked his view of the economic future for both this area and the nation, Betson has a one-word answer — “Scary.”
Economic tidal wave
Ten years ago, Washington County’s economy was steady, at least for home builders and the Realty market in general.
The years 2002 and 2003 contained but a ripple of the economic tidal wave that was coming as mortgage companies sprang up, offering low-interest starter loans and easy credit terms nationwide.
Here, the county and Hagerstown governments issued permits for construction to begin on about 1,000 new houses in 2002 and again in 2003. The number swelled to 1,187 in 2004. And as demand rose, it surged to 1,415 in 2005.
That year, sales of all kinds of housing — new and existing — broke modern-day records here, according to the newspaper’s review of data from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. It tracks sales in communities in several states.
MRIS data includes only those sales of brand-new homes that are reported to it. Industry observers don’t think all are.
Overall, the market here shot from the total $217 million paid in 1,508 sales of new and existing houses in 2002 to a dizzying $573 million total paid in 2,237 sales in 2005 as buyers competed for homes and prices soared.
But by spring 2006, the economic wave had crested and soon began to subside in the pond that is Washington County and in the greater ocean that is all of America.
Nationwide, the meaning of adjustable mortgages dawned as interest rates reset themselves and jumped.
Suddenly, the riskiness of all of the hot new debts was spelled out in what seemed cold new words — foreclosure, bankruptcy, unemployment and short sales.
Officially, the nation’s recession began in late 2007.
Meantime, in Washington County’s new home developments, sales fell to 659 houses in 2006. In the next few years, it continued to drop, so much that by 2011, the wave of buying had subsided to just a ripple — 183 startups, according to the newspaper’s review of the records.
And as demand shrunk in the wider Realty market for all kinds of housing, both values and selling prices slipped.
Sales in the county plunged to a total of $415 million paid in 1,599 sales in 2006, MRIS data shows. By 2011, the market had ebbed to $183 million total paid in 1,210 sales.
Thus far in 2012, sales in the overall market have dipped even lower, according to the newspaper’s calculations using MRIS records. Data isn’t available yet for November.
From January through October this year, the market has reached $149.34 million total from 915 sales of new and existing houses countywide. By comparison, during the same 10-month period of 2011, the market posted $152.25 million total in sales of 1,015 houses.
And in the same period of 2011, permits were issued to begin construction of 154 new houses. By comparison, startup permits have been issued for 159 new houses, just five more, in the same period this year, the newspaper found.
Prices go through the roof
Into this gloomy market this year came Michael and Kanda Betson.
The Betsons, whose son is an 11th-grader at Washington County Technical High School, probably were more knowledgeable than most potential home buyers.
Originally from Frederick, Md., Michael Betson said, he bought a 3.5-acre building lot in a subdivision in a mountainous area near Keedysville for $39,000 in 1993.
Looking back, even in today’s depressed market, that price would seem cheap. But that’s how things were in the 1990s and even until maybe 2000, he said.
After that, prices “went through the roof,” Betson said.
“Around 2002, maybe, prices (for a three-acre lot) went to $139,000,” he said. And in the boom that followed, he said, prices shot up as high as $200,000.
So when Betson got into the market back in the 1990s, it was at what now looks to have been good timing.
Long skilled in construction, he knew how to build his new house, too.
“I did everything myself, from buying the lot, to clearing it, to doing it all, basically,” he said. At the time, the new house was the 15th or 16th built in the 81-lot subdivision, he said.
The family moved in and shortly after the new century began, the neighborhood itself suddenly started growing quickly, Betson said.
“From ’03, ’04, in that area, to ’05 to ’07, in that area, it went from 16, 17 houses to boom!” he said. “But I don’t think you’ll see that (swift growth) for awhile.”
Nationally, the recession was declared over by mid-2009.
Even now, however, the negative effects still are being felt on Main Street in places throughout America.
Living out of a camper
Comfortable in their rural Keedysville home, the Betsons nonetheless began thirsting to move a few years ago. The family wanted to be closer to a town, closer to work and maybe even out of the sort of rules of the homeowners’ association that was in their current neighborhood.
So they began looking again at prices for three-acre lots, Betson said. One they saw for sale was a farm field in the unincorporated southern county town of Brownsville.
“It was on the market for almost $200,000 back in 2010, early,” Betson said. “We looked and looked for about a year,” and then, the price on the three acres in Brownsville began dropping, he said.
But still, it was too high for the Betsons.
“Man, we were like, ‘We can’t afford that,’” Michael Betson said. “I think it was listed for, like, $130,000, and that was with no well. Then, we wheeled and dealed. We ended up with $100,000 with (the seller) installing the well.”
Meantime, the family had put its house near Keedysville up for sale.
There, too, the economy played a role.
That house was “on the market for about a year,” Betson said. “I switched Realtors and sold it in seven days. We lowered (the price) a little bit, about $20,000, but nothing drastic.”
When the new family’s purchase of the Betsons’ old house went to settlement this past October, the
Betsons moved into the 30-foot, fifth-wheel camper they’d bought years ago.
It’s where they live now, parked sometimes next to the foundation a contractor has put in for their new house in Brownsville, and sometimes in whichever campground they can find still open as colder weather ends the usual camping season.
They’re at the 2469 Boteler Road housing site “if the weather’s good, where I don’t really need electric (and) if I got enough water and stuff,” Betson said. Otherwise, it’s at a campground, drawing on the utility systems there.
The inconvenience is just part of the move from their old house to their new house.
“Had to sell that one to build this one,” he said. “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
And, as with the economy, you learn.
“It’s not a good time to sell,” Betson said, drawing on his experience. “But it’s a good time to buy. And what I’m running into right now, it’s a good time to get (lower) prices because everybody’s looking for work.
“There’s still guys out there looking for work. Everybody always needs the extra dollar, especially around this time of the year, holidays coming.”
Indeed, he said, his own brother — an area home builder — is among contractors who are living on small jobs, while the bigger, new housing market has been drying up.
“So he’s helping me on this,” Betson said of his brother.
The new house taking shape is to be a two-story Cape Cod with a two-car garage, a full basement, a covered front porch and a rear patio, according to the startup permit the county issued in October. In all, it says, the house will have 2,616 finished square feet, with a value of $250,000.
By the time it’s completed, Betson said he thinks the house will probably cost more than that because he’s wanting to make it plenty energy-efficient.
The concrete blocks in the new foundation came already insulated and, he said, he plans to install a geothermal unit for heating and air conditioning.
“Going to use the latest, greatest,” he said. “And, in the long run, it’ll all pay off.”
A dream made possible
Paul and Courtney Plume, having just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, are poised for a new beginning on the 114-acre timothy hay farm they bought recently in the Indian Springs area.
Several miles northwest of their current home near Sharpsburg, the 13065 Keefer Road farm makes possible a lifelong dream.
“Ever since I was a boy, I’ve wanted to live on a farm,” said Paul Plume, who grew up in Chewsville and whose father was a supervisor at Mack Trucks.
“I’ve got three horses and I’ve always been limited” by not having enough land to expand that side of his life, Plume said.
Plume and his wife, who is 45 and grew up in Halfway, live in a three-bedroom house off Shaffer Road. In all, they have seven acres there.
The recession created the economic conditions that made Paul Plume’s hopes come true.
“Because of the economy, I had the opportunity to buy a farm for half the price of what it’s worth,” he said.
In buying the farm, the Plumes planned to sell their current house as well as its adjacent lot, work with their son to renovate the old farmhouse for a place for him to live, and restore the farm’s 1896 barn, Paul Plume said.
In addition, they wanted to begin building a one-story home with a three-car garage on the farm this year, he said.
Despite the economy, the plan proceeded well.
The house on Shaffer Road “was on the market for a week and-a-half, and we got a contract on it,” Plume said. “Then, I had a three-and-a-half-acre lot next to it,” which was on the market for just a month-and-a-half until it attracted a sales contract, he said.
The speed with which they sold is merely the result of the Plumes setting realistic prices, he said.
Would-be buyers who are drawn by today’s low prices must realize they can’t expect to sell their current homes at yesterday’s high prices, he said.
“You’re buying low, so you have to accept selling low. And see, people want to sell high and buy low,” he said. “I bought a farm at half its value, but I sold a house that’s probably 20 (percent), 25 percent lower than what it could have gotten in a good economy.”
‘It was a blessing’
At the farm, Plume and his son and a contractor they hired have almost finished renovating the farmhouse.
“It’s unbelievable all the work we’ve done,” Plume said.
He said his wife has continued working as a secretary at Springfield Middle School in Williamsport.
And Plume’s small business, High Performance Cabling Corp., has kept its 10 employees — including Plume and his son — busy, Plume said. The Hagerstown-based company, which he started in 1999, specializes in such work as the installation of fiber optics, as well as voice and telecommunications cabling.
The business has “stayed steady for the last four years only because we do work for federal agencies and because we did work for Ellsworth Electric” in helping to build Meritus Medical Center, he said.
“It was a blessing,” he said of the work on Meritus. “That hospital got us through two years of a real bad economy and then, doing that government work.
“If we wouldn’t have gotten the hospital through Ellsworth, I would have had to lay guys off.”
Potential stumbling block
While all seemed to be going strongly for the Plumes, there was yet one potential weak point that has become a recessionary wrecking ball for many would-be housing deals.
Financing has been harder to come by since the recession has put many homeowners upside down on their mortgages. This means that they owe more than their house is worth in the current market.
So the weakness in trying to buy another house is that the deal often is based on being able to sell your own house. Harder yet are deals requiring more than one such financial domino to fall into place.
Something of that sort now involves the Plumes’ rural Sharpsburg house.
The people who put in a contract to buy the house “have a contingency to sell their house first,” Paul Plume said.
And just recently, “the people buying their (the proposed buyer’s) house — their contract fell through,” he said.
So the people who want to buy the Plumes’ house asked for a 60-day extension to try again to sell their own house, he said.
What happens to that farm dream of his if the people wanting to buy the Plumes’ current house cannot?
Then, the dream is postponed, Plume said.
“What it is, is my (current) home’s paid for, so right now, I just have a mortgage on the farm,” he said. “So my wife and I would live in the house we have now. And we would continue to renovate the barn.
“And we’d just have to wait until our house sold to build the new one.”
Taking a chance
Charlie and Lorena Sanbower had been living in their home off McDade Road in the Cedar Lawn area just west of Hagerstown for nearly 20 years when they decided they wanted to move a little more out in the country.
So about three years ago, they began driving around in their truck, looking for a house to buy.
“We probably looked at a hundred houses,” Charlie Sanbower said. “Every day I was off and she was off, we got in the truck. A Realtor would run out every Monday and give us a list (of houses for sale) and we’d run out in the truck and look at them.
“We did that for a year, but didn’t find what we wanted. We didn’t like the setting or somebody was right up against it.”
So then, the couple decided to widen their search by looking at properties more expansive than they could have afforded in good economic times, but that now were within reach because of falling values and foreclosures.
For the next three months, the Sanbowers visited houses that were in foreclosure, but found “they’re worse yet,” Charlie Sanbower said. Before lenders forced them to leave, many owners of such houses had “beat them up,” destroying cabinets and much more, he said.
When she had seen enough, “My wife looked at me one day and said, ‘Why don’t we just build a new house?’” Sanbower said.
Through a friend, they found out that a 4.93-acre section of a small farm further west of Hagerstown was for sale, he said. So he made an offer and bought it this past January, and they broke ground in April.
Sanbower figures the new house, at 15905 Shinham Road, will cost about $250,000. For now, they are financing the work by taking a new mortgage on their current house, which they’d paid off years ago.
Building the new house has become a family project.
With his uncle, Bruce Cunningham, “as sort of my general contractor,” Sanbower said he himself has been working hard on it, too. Over years of working with his uncle and others, he said he’s learned to pour concrete, build cabinets and do framing and roofing.
Meanwhile, Lorena Sanbower, who is 51, has continued working as a bus driver.
And the Sanbowers put their current house up for sale. They hired the Realtor “who had been so faithful to us all that time,” to sell it.
When it didn’t sell quickly, they pulled it off the market.
“Then, we repriced it. And now, it’s been on the market three, four months,” Charlie Sanbower said. “We got a couple nibbles, maybe three. But nothing firm, cut in stone. That kind of tells you what the economy is.”
Nonetheless, they are optimistic they’ll sell it by next spring, when they’re hoping to move into the new house.
“Hopefully, we sell ours and use the equity to pay for this one,” he said.
Regardless how quickly that happens, Sanbower said he and his wife are happy with what they’ve done.
“You got to take a chance,” he said. “And hopefully, you make it. And we’ll sell ours and come out at the other end — if we’ve got a little house payment or not.”
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