Homes are a big draw Relocation: Housing plays an important role when companies or individuals are making decisions about moving.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Just a year ago, Chip O'Rear was spending as many nights as possible sleeping in his hammock, soaking up the sounds of the ocean.

"I literally lived on the beach," said O'Rear, who started his job as a technical sales specialist for DAP Inc. in April 1997.

For his new employer, O'Rear gave up the sand dunes of California to head to landlocked Dayton, Ohio, and then packed up again a few months ago when the manufacturer of home improvement and building products moved its headquarters to Baltimore.

Although the 35-year-old expects to move again as his career develops, this is the first place he's put down enough roots to actually buy a house. The $500-a-month mortgage payment on his Canton rowhouse is lower than the $805 monthly rent he paid for a two-bedroom apartment in Dayton.

Real estate issues play an important role when companies or individuals are making decisions about their futures. For some, it's only a small part of the picture. Others give great weight to such quality-of-life concerns.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation left Connecticut in 1994 for Baltimore because the urban environment here seemed better suited to the nonprofit's mission of helping disadvantaged children and families. Lower housing prices were just an added benefit.

While DAP Inc. already had a manufacturing facility on the east side of the city, Baltimore didn't have a lock on the headquarters' move.

Jim Slattery, the company's chief financial officer, recalls

spending days being escorted around the area by the folks at Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc.

Bel Air, Columbia, Fells Point, Federal Hill, Roland Park -- a wide range of neighborhoods was carefully examined as part of the decision-making process.

DAP officials also looked at Dallas, Boston and Atlanta.

"The traffic in Atlanta was horrendous," Slattery said. And much of the housing was quite expensive, he said.

The company has moved 20 of its executives here during the past several months and now has about 125 people in its new headquarters. Slattery bought a house in Fells Point.

"It's very much an issue," said Mary Burkholder, assistant secretary of marketing with the state's Department of Business and Economic Development.

Burkholder's staff works with companies considering moving to the state, as well as with local firms working to expand. The basic package given to such firms includes information about corporate sites, available aid programs and employee training. But, when asked, the state helps set up bus tours so executives and their staff can get the full flavor of the homes available, Burkholder said.

"I hear really good comments while they tour the neighborhoods," she said.

It's difficult to track down numbers on relocation activity. The Employee Relocation Council, based in Washington, says about 1,200 of its members are representatives from corporations that regularly relocate workers. Another 11,000 members are involved the relocation industry, including real estate appraisers and brokers, national house-buying firms and national moving firms.

The nonprofit organization reported that a poll of its members last year drew responses from 230 companies. Those firms reported relocating nearly 300,000 employees in 1996 with costs ranging between $9,000 and $50,000.

In Maryland, state officials and relocation professionals say activity has been strong the past couple of years.

Denise Rodgers, relocation manager at O'Conor, Piper & Flynn-ERA in Baltimore, reports her staff is working with about 1,800 relocation referrals right now. That includes both people coming and going, some for personal reasons.

It's a substantial increase over the 1,000 or so Rodgers' office had last year at about this time.

"The market is very strong," she said, giving credit to a steadily growing economy. Her clients have included Bell Atlantic Corp., which brought more than 700 engineers to downtown Baltimore over the past few years, and the relocation of the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore.

Rodgers said she is seeing a trend in employers' growing emphasis on helping transferees or new hires find a suitable lifestyle, similar to what they've left behind.

Domino Sugar asked her to go to New York to meet individually with employees being relocated. Sweetheart Cup Co. Inc., in Owings Mills, was also very hands-on.

"Some companies really want you to be there," she said.

Not just for homeowners, either. The arrival of Target department stores a few years ago meant a lot of work for the O'Conor, Piper & Flynn-ERA agents. "We spent weekend after weekend moving around hundreds of renters," Rodgers said.

Tours left from places such as the Hunt Valley Marriott and the Columbia Hilton. But before people make the decision to buy, they rent. Between 35 percent and 45 percent of people who relocate with her company's help choose to rent, she said. That's a national trend.

"A lot of people come into our marketplace looking at it as a steppingstone in their careers," Rodgers said.

Generally, Baltimore gets good reviews from the new arrivals.

Kristin Coffey, with the Annie E. Casey Foundation Inc. on St. Paul Street, had never seen Baltimore before her employer decided to move. Now a renter in Mount Washington, Coffey said she'd never experienced anything like happy hour at the Cross Street Market when she lived in New York City and Washington.

Her fellow workers were all given the chance to tour the region by bus and feast on crabs before making their career choice. Coffey said about 40 of the 50 staff members offered positions in Baltimore decided to make the move.

The Inner Harbor, Orioles baseball, the Chesapeake Bay and the nearby mountains are often mentioned when people describe the region's assets.

"We have a lot of history that a lot of folks coming from, say, North Dakota are just enthralled with," Rodgers said.

Money is an issue, as well.

Slattery expects to see a break on his income tax and on his property taxes, since the township he lived in near Dayton had relatively high levies. "Ohio is a high-tax state," he said.

David Desser, an associate broker with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., said newcomers often see things he doesn't. "A lot of people think we have hills, which surprises me," said the Baltimore native who works mainly in northwest Baltimore County.

One client he worked with in March was thrilled to be getting out of Texas. "Houston's just like a sprawling nothing," the buyer said.

Of course, Baltimore isn't perfect either.

There are those famously high Maryland closing costs.

And living on the East Coast is generally more expensive than in say, Louisville, Ky., where many former employees of Providian Corp. are coming from. Providian was acquired last year by insurer Aegon USA Inc., the Baltimore-based subsidiary of $130 billion Aegon N.V. of the Netherlands. Aegon is expected to move about 150 people to Baltimore.

If Houston takes shots for its sprawling development, so does Baltimore.

Rodgers said many of her clients come from places where residential areas cluster around a city center complete with parks, shopping, libraries, churches, even city halls close by.

A drive up York Road from the Baltimore Beltway depresses them. "This is just like one big, long strip shopping center," they tell her.

Desser has lost a few potential clients to St. Louis, where the same amount of money buys more house. But it's hard to beat the Baltimore region for variety in houses, observers say.

Burkholder said some people are hard-core city dwellers, while others need the suburban life. "We have the full range."

There is one thing that builders could do to make her job easier, Rodgers said. Build a few more houses on speculation. Relocators often don't have time to build from the ground up, but a structure under way would make it easier to buy a brand-new house, she said.

O'Rear likes his older home just fine. Searching for it helped convince him this would be a good place to live.

O'Rear said he looked at 10 or 12 rowhouses before making his pick. At one point, he got a little bit lost and asked a woman walking by for directions. She told him how to get there, walked with him and ended up spending about a half-hour in the process. "She toured a house with me," he said, laughing.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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