Sunday, May 1, 2022

Return to NoVa

"There is no life here...."
(video from seven years ago, the last time we rehabbed the condo!)

Our tenant vacated the condominium and left behind quite a mess. Apparently she was smoking in the unit (and not just cigarettes!) and also had a cat. The walls were nearly orange with nicotine and there was garbage left behind and the stove was disgusting. The vertical blinds were dripping with bright orange nicotine. Imagine what that does to your lungs!

Our property manager got a quote to paint the place and make various repairs and it came to close to $5,000, not including cleaning fees and other minor tasks. We decided on the spur of the moment to drive up to Northern Virginia and clean the condo ourselves and paint it. I guess we're crazy.

But think of it this way - where else can you make $5000 for a week's work, while having fun?  That comes out to an annual income of over $250,000 a year, which is nothing to sneeze at.  Since we are retired, why not spend a week or so and save the bucks - and deduct the expenses of the trip at the same time?   A nice chance to see old friends and the old haunts - although it seems that Northern Virginia has lost its "small town" feel that it had back in 1987, and perhaps lost its soul as well.

We actually packed our inflatable mattress and tent in the hamster and spent the night at a KOA camping cabin (it was pouring rain) near Rocky Mount, North Carolina. We plan on returning via the Blue Ridge Parkway and tenting for a few nights. It's actually kind of fun.  We are crazy.

Of course, Northern Virginia has changed a lot since we moved away nearly two decades ago. Some things haven't changed of course. Tippy's Taco still has $1.25 Tacos on Tuesday. And our favorite Iranian rug merchant is still in business doing discount flooring. We all seemed a little bit older and he seemed kind of tired. When I asked him how business was and he said it was a little slack. He commented that there was no life here in Northern Virginia. Everybody's come to work for the Pentagon or a defense contractor or Amazon which I guess is now a defense contractor.

And he's right. Being country bumpkins that we now are, we said "Hi!" to everyone we saw, or "Howyall doing?" only to be met with blank stares if not outright hostility.  At the local Safeway, we were laughing and joking and people stared at us like we were crazy.  The young man at the checkout made it clear there would be no hi-jinks in his checkout line!  Until everyone was as depressed as he was, his life was not complete.

And of course, everyone drives aggressively and acts like they are more important than you.   We got over 30 MPG on the highway with the hamster, and we get that driving around Jekyll at 35 MPH.  But in Northern Virginia, well, we're getting 22 MPG, what with the long stoplights, jackrabbit starts (you'd better, or you get honked at!).  It is not a good life here - it is a place to make your fortune and get out, as we did.

We drove by where our old house used to be and saw the mini-mansions that have gone up in its place. We talked to the lady who is living at our old address and she seemed very nice. But she didn't know the names of any of her neighbors. Much has changed in that neighborhood. It's still a walkable neighborhood, you can walk to the Safeway and the Chinese restaurant at local hardware store and the Variety Store. But of course, people end up driving there, much as we did, because we were idiots.

Northern Virginia, like any other suburb of a major city is not the kind of place you go to live. It's the place you go to get a job and make a shitload of money and, if you're smart enough, you leave when the money runs out.  It's not a place to settle forever or buy your "forever home."  It is a place to park for a while, while you have a career.  And that's kind of sad, as life should be more about working, commuting, and then flopping down in front of the TeeVee in your condo while waiting for the Doordash guy to arrive.   Yea, there is a lot of that going on in NoVa.

Is NoVa a total write-off at this point?  Well, like anything else, life is what you make of it.  We learned once again, never to leave the house on the weekends.  We made a mad dash for Lowe's for more KILZ primer - it was like a scene from Mad Max.  All the weekend warriors were out there and the traffic was nonsense.  And of course, they all had to park in the fire lane while they loaded their little bags of dirt and houseplants and buckets to try to cheer up their dreary condos.

And condos, there were a-plenty.  When we lived here there were blank spaces - unused land - all over the county.  Some people actually still farmed or kept horses.  No more - it is all been bulldozed under to make room for more and more condos.  And speaking of which, so is our condo - slated to be demolished in 2025 or 2026, after the real estate market crashes, of course.  Demolition on some of the buildings is slated to begin as early as October - but it doesn't look like the current residents are in any hurry to move just yet.

Funny thing, when we signed up for this demolition deal, they offered us $160,000 for the unit, which at the time was a decent price compared to market value.  Today?  The unit is worth more than that, thanks to the crazy real estate market.    If we hold out to the bitter end, supposedly the payout may be greater.  We'll see.  But it skews the math on remodeling.  We aren't about to put a lot of money into the place if it will all be torn down in a few years.   On the other hand, we have to spend money if we want to rent it out.   Interesting math.

The concern is, of course, that as we get closer and closer to a demolition date, it makes less and less sense to spend money on repairs.  The place could turn into a ghetto in short order, during those waning days.  Why they are taking to long to do this demolition and rebuild is beyond me - the process has taken a decade at this point, perhaps longer.

On a good year, we maybe clear $5000 in income from the property.  The condo fee is $613 a month but does include all utilities.   We pay another $160 a month for property taxes and insurance - as well as another $100 or so for management fees (and our manager takes a month's rent for finding a new tenant as well!).  So on a good year, maybe $5000.  A bad year?  We lose money.

Two years ago, the unit flooded when the ancient plumbing in a unit on the top floor gave way.  The condo master insurance plan paid for a whole new kitchen and some sheetrock repair and one of the worst paintjobs on the planet.  They did what I call a "spray and wipe" - they sprayed a nauseating beige color on the walls and then wiped it off the switch plates and trim.   So you pay all this money for a "paint job" and you get crap.  We had it painted a few years before that, and $3000 later, it was the same deal - a shitty spray-and-wipe.

We scrubbed the walls with three gallons of Orange Go-Jo from dollar tree and are applying two coats of KILZ gold.  On top of that, five gallons of a light grey, with white semi-gloss on the trim.  The floors are parquet and old.  Our friend Reza is going to give us a quote to do wall-to-wall carpeting, and if it is cheap enough, we may do that to make it really look new.   Wood floors are nice and all, but the first thing you have to do is buy a rug, if you are a tenant.  There are mystery stains.

In retrospect, we probably should have taken an "early out" and walked away with $160,000.  But then we would have had to flip that to another property in a Starker deferred exchange, or pay capital gains tax on the total amount - plus lose our Obamacare subsidy ($20,000 right there) for at least a year.   When you start doing things to avoid taxes, the tax system is screwy.   But I digress.

If we play this right, we may be renting it for three or four years.  It would be a good place for someone moving to DC looking for a cheapish place to rent ($1300 to $1500 is considered cheap, believe it or not).   Not a long-term commitment, but a starter apartment.

We'll see how it goes.  Towards the end, it may be cheaper and easier just to leave it vacant.  And under the terms of redevelopment, if the unit becomes unrentable because of construction (e.g., they close the roads into the place) the association will pay us market rent on the place until it is torn down.

Now that sounds like the perfect tenant!