Friday, June 03, 2005 | Condominium conversions in San Diego and all of Southern California are increasing with both positive and negative implication. On the plus side, they offer more affordable housing which allows more people to purchase a home. On the negative side, they can displace renters who may have a hard time finding a new apartment. Here is Andrew Woodberry’s story.

Strangers started showing up at my apartment complex in the fall of 2004. Middle-aged men in gabardine slacks and Tommy Bahama shorts strolled out of their BMWs to size up the stucco buildings. Their approving gazes obscured by Ray-Ban sunglasses, the smell of Old Spice wafted through the air. These soldiers of “fortune” were there for one reason: Operation Condo Conversion.

When my girlfriend and I first received the letter in the mail, it was not surprising. Hushed whispers of our apartment complex being sold had circulated for weeks. But what was surprising was the staggering price tag: close to $300,000 for less than 800 square feet. Unless the “conversion” aspect includes doubling the square footage and replacing the faux-granite with real granite, consider me a non-buyer. But plenty of people are jumping in – people who have no intention of ever living in the complex.

Flipping real estate has become as much a profession as flipping burgers. With easy access to interest-only loans and a seemingly endless supply of buyers, the real estate market is sizzling. It has been since I first moved out here two years ago. But is all this part of a real estate “bubble” or the future of home buying in America’s Finest City? Will the people flipping real estate be mentioned in the same breath as those who invested in Pets.com and Webvan? Are they descendants of the 17th century Dutch who bid up the price of bulbs? Or will I continue to beat myself up over sitting on the sidelines while others seem to be getting rich so easily?

The lure of the sun and beach have enticed many to come west. After four years of college in New Hampshire and one frigid winter in Boston during 2002, my girlfriend and I strapped a U-Haul to the back of her Honda Civic and followed the path of Ma and Pa Joad. Our destination, San Diego, was full of youth and vibrancy. Gentrification, however, seems here to stay.

One of the charming things about San Diego is how compact it is. You can get from Del Mar to Coronado in less than 45 minutes on a good day. But increasingly, those of us not benefiting from a six-figure job or inherited wealth have had to move further and further away from downtown (Riverside County may as well be considered a suburb of San Diego). A co-worker of mine recently sold his condo in Little Italy for a 33-percent profit (after living there for only three years), moving into a 4,000 square foot house in a suburb of Denver. The price tag: $450,000. That wouldn’t even buy a two-bedroom apartment in my soon-to-be former apartment complex.

Every so often, I think about giving up the San Diego weather to move to New Hampshire, where a two-story home is considerably more attainable. Without taking on the burden of an interest-only loan, I doubt I will ever be able to be a homeowner anywhere near San Diego. It is increasingly an area controlled by the BMW-driving, Tommy Bahama-clad jet set and an area where Florida corporations are buying whole apartment complexes, and selling individual units to people who have no intention of ever visiting or living in the apartments. And an area I’m not sure I can ever call “home.”

Andrew Woodberry works at a Sorrento Valley technology company and is starting to look for an apartment in a pet friendly location. He learned of his apartment complex’s conversion at the Doyle Dog Park where dog-owning amateur real estate speculators were discussing buying a unit in his complex.

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