A good idea

June 29, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

It was March 1991 when I first wrote that it might be a good idea to turn some of Hagerstown's old rental properties into condominiums.

Finally, 14 years later, somebody else has decided it's a good idea, too.

Her name is George St. Michael - she's named after her grandfather - an interior designer who grew up here on Hamilton Boulevard and now lives in Vienna, Va.

Though she said she has always wanted to restore properties here, she and a business partner first looked at a condominium conversion in Baltimore.

"But we felt the property we were looking at wasn't in a good enough location and I said, 'Let me show you Hagerstown,'" St. Michael said.


The building she chose as her first project is at 43 S. Prospect St. It's right next door to the so-called "dry bridge" over Antietam Street.

It cost her $425,000, but for all that money, she got a building that still needed a lot of work.

The roof leaked so badly that a woman who rented an apartment on an upper floor had plastic trash barrels sitting around the place to catch the rain water.

"And she was paying $750 a month for it!" she said.

The water damage meant that every ceiling in the building had to be replaced.

"With all the water damage, the plaster was just falling off the walls," she said.

All the plumbing was replaced, along with all the wiring, which turned out to be an arrangement that seemed less planned than patched together.

In some rooms, there was termite damage, she said, which meant that entire floors had to be replaced and the decking beneath them shored up.

Where molding was damaged or missing, new pieces were created. Historic windows were taken apart, repaired and reassembled.

All of the hard work paid off. I had expected smaller units of the sort I lived in 30 years ago. But these units, which have more than 1,000 square feet, have 101/2 foot ceilings and big windows.

And, given that the house is located at the intersection of two busy streets, it's surprisingly quiet inside.

Each unit has all the modern conveniences. The old radiators have been replaced with modern units so that each unit's owner can decide how cold or hot they want to be.

All of the appliances are new and each unit includes a stove, refrigerator and an apartment-sized dishwasher. Each unit also has a storage area in the building's basement.

One special feature is that there was water cut-off valves on every appliance. That's so that if, for example, your refrigerator's ice machine begins to leak, you need not turn off all the water in the unit.

There are nine fireplaces in the building, some of them massive, but they aren't working because chimney damage was too expensive to fix.

"It would have cost $40,000 apiece to repair the chimneys and there's four of them," she said.

The units range from $140,000 to $200,000. I asked St. Michael if that wasn't a little bit pricey for Hagerstown. She doesn't believe it will be.

"We've already sold one and I've got people interested in two others. We feel like that's good, because we've only had it on the market for two weeks," she said.

She said she feels the units will appeal to homeowners who want to downsize and to professional couples and singles who are just starting out.

"On one end of the spectrum, you have people who are ready to downsize, but it's not like an apartment. Then there are the young professionals, who want the tax advantages of home ownership," she said.

In addition to mortgage payments, there's a condo fee of $150 a month to build a fund for future repairs. Owners also can rent or purchase parking spaces out in the back, she said.

Despite all of the work this first property needed, St. Michael said she is ready to do another one, and possibly more.

"We have our eye on several other buildings," she said.

When I wrote about condominiums back in 1991, my idea was that young couples who couldn't afford a $100,000 house - average for that era - could buy a $50,000 to $60,000 apartment and build some equity.

St. Michael's property won't serve that function, in part because she had to do so much to it. Blame past City Councils that didn't OK rental inspections. If you've got to essentially rebuild the place, it's hard to hold down the resale price.

The good news is that as the developers realize that there is money to be made doing this, some buildings will be converted to units that are more affordable.

The question of what that means for renters who can't afford to buy at any price is one that will have to be addressed sooner than anyone could have predicted five years ago.

The big plus in this development is that downtown will gain seven new property owners who will have some disposable income and a stake in seeing that the center city prospers. It's a happy ending that was worth waiting for.

Recently I asked readers to describe their favorite places to walk around Hagerstown. The deadline for entries is July 6 and the prize for best letter is dinner for two at the Schmankerl Stube restaurant on South Potomac Street.

So far I haven't had any entries, even though the food is good and the atmosphere is unique.

Tell us in 200 words or less about your favorite walk and what you see. Send entries to Walk Contest, c/o Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, MD 21741, or e-mail them to

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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