Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Erstwhile cop sells homes, boosts town

Chamber officer Paul Clay says housing slump may be turning a corner

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Tom Fedor⁄The Gazette
‘‘Two and a half, three years ago, there were some homes you’d list on Thursday and sell by Monday,” says Paul Clay, a real estate agent with RE⁄MAX Realty Group in Mount Airy. ‘‘It was insane.”
To most people, shooting criminals and chasing down bank robbers bear little, if any, resemblance to selling real estate.

Paul Clay disagrees.

‘‘Most people say law enforcement and real estate, they’re not even alike. I say there’s a whole lot of similarities,” said Clay, a stocky former police officer who now works for RE⁄MAX Realty Group in Mount Airy.

Among other reasons, he said, ‘‘you’re working one-on-one with people and no day is the same.”

In recent months, Clay, 52, has seen plenty of action on the residential housing market. The nation’s housing bubble burst, which has pummeled home prices in many areas and has also affected Mount Airy, where more houses have gone to foreclosure and sales have slowed.

‘‘Two and a half, three years ago, there were some homes you’d list on Thursday and sell by Monday,” said Clay, adding that it now takes an average of four months to sell a house. ‘‘It was insane.”

Clay said that after a slower period in the fall, things did pick up this month.

‘‘As usual when January hits, after the holidays, you get more phone calls,” Clay said, ‘‘and the buyers that are out there get more serious. Not that things are going gangbusters, but there is a noticeable change, and that is an encouraging sign for us.”

Marie Lagos, an agent for Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Mount Airy, said she has ‘‘not seen a big drop” in home sales for her business over the last two years despite the housing market troubles elsewhere.

‘‘I probably saw as much business in ‘07 as in the previous two years,” said Lagos, ‘‘and I’m looking for ‘08 to be a more prosperous year.

‘‘Mount Airy is a wonderful town, a special town, close-knit, family town ... and people are still looking to move in here,” Lagos said. ‘‘I deal with all types of homes but I’m partial to first-time homebuyers and people relocating to the area.”

Don Hodges, a mortgage consultant at Suntrust Mortgage’s Frederick office who has several clients in Mount Airy, said home loan requirements will ‘‘stiffen,” given the current real estate climate.

‘‘You’re going to be required to put down more money now. That’s the biggest change you’re going to see,” Hodges said.

Hodges said that as of late December there were at least 15 home foreclosures in Mount Airy.

‘‘That’s higher than normal, absolutely,” he said.

The previous two years, Clay has had pretty good results.

Selling what he calls mid-market-range homes, those priced from $250,000 to $500,000, he said he sold 14 homes with an average price of $335,000 in 2006 and 15 homes with an average price of about $394,000 last year.

So far this year he has five homes on the market, ranging in price from $279,000 to $474,900 — ‘‘That’s high for me,” he said.

The son of a career Air Force dad, Clay joined the Army after high school but left after three years to start a family and attend Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. He worked as a police officer in the late 1970s and early 1980s to pay for school and re-enlisted in the Army after graduation.

‘‘See if you’ve met anyone else who’s been through basic training twice,” said Clay, who also has a master’s in forensic science.

The married father of two said he retired from the Army in 2000 from the Pentagon and joined Long & Foster Real Estate three years later in this area. He lived in Gaithersburg for a while, then later moved to Mount Airy. In 2005, he switched to RE⁄MAX in Mount Airy, where he now shares an office with two other agents.

Mariah Carr, who bought a house from Clay in spring 2006, said Clay worked tirelessly for her and her husband.

‘‘I don’t think he requires much sleep,” said Carr, adding that Clay gave the couple several housewarming gifts, including a book on Mount Airy history and a magazine subscription. ‘‘We’d get e-mails at 2 or 3 in the morning.”

Clay also works hard for the community at-large in his duties with the Greater Mt. Airy Chamber of Commerce.

On Jan. 1, Clay assumed a more active role in the chamber as corresponding secretary. In this position, which he was elected to in October, he’ll write ‘‘thank you” notes to businesses that host chamber events or dole out discounts to its members.

Currently, the chamber is working to pump more shoppers into downtown Mount Airy. Mayor Frank Johnson said commerce there has dropped off since the Sept. 2 fire, which destroyed more than a dozen homes and business on South Main Street.

To encourage shopping, the chamber recently purchased outdoor signs that read, ‘‘Stop, Shop and Stroll Historic Mount Airy,” and launched a promotional campaign of gift certificates for downtown stores.

‘‘We’re trying to remind people that downtown is still there, and don’t abandon it,” Clay said.

Clay said he is excited about his new position with the chamber, and is also optimistic about real estate in central Maryland. He said the robust government contracting industry and high number of federal employees in the region drives up competition for homes, which keeps prices high.

He paused, then rephrased. ‘‘It helps keep [prices] from dropping so low,” he said.