Slow housing market? You wouldn't know it judging by the number of people who signed up for downtown Baltimore's "Luxury Living Tour" this weekend: 950, nearly double what the hosts were hoping for.
Then again, not everyone riding the shuttle buses and picking up gift bags in model units yesterday is in the market for luxury housing, or housing at all.
Kevin Arthur, 40, is refurbishing his condo in Pikesville. He came with two friends to get decorating ideas.
Jeuli Bartenstein, 57, is hosting 20 relatives from Boston this weekend who came for the Orioles-Red Sox games. To her, the tour was as much a break from baseball as it was an opportunity to see some real estate, though the Northern Virginia resident already owns one investment property in Canton and might be interested in another. To her brother-in-law, on the shuttle next to her and her husband, it was a chance to see the sights of Baltimore.
Organized by Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, the tour sought to highlight the city's high-end living options, featuring three town house and condominium complexes and six apartment buildings on separate bus routes - one for buyers and one for renters. But the most luxurious of Baltimore residences, the Ritz-Carlton, was conspicuously absent: Its managers didn't want the general public tracking through its doors.
And on a wet Saturday, there was plenty of mud to be tracked onto the ivory carpets featured in at least four of the properties. The crowds started out strong when the first buses departed from parking garages downtown and by the harbor at 11 a.m. but thinned by midafternoon in light of the weather.
Tracey Yarborough, 32, adored the four-story, approximately $1.3 million townhouse that she, her mother and her two young daughters saw at the complex next to the Ritz, Pier Homes at HarborView. But after waiting a half-hour in pounding rain for an American Limo shuttle bus to take them to the next stop, she decided enough was enough and returned with her soaked family to the parking garage.
Grant Montgomery, vice president of the real estate research firm Delta Associates, said that given the current market, it makes sense for different properties to combine marketing efforts.
While slow home sales can lead to greater demand for rental housing, Montgomery said that's not so in Baltimore, where many high-end units have been built in the past few years. The apartment vacancy rate downtown and in the Inner Harbor/Fells Point area is 8 percent now, compared with 5.2 percent a year ago, according to Delta.
"These rental units are not cheap by Baltimore standards," Montgomery said. "You went from not having that many high-end luxury rentals in Baltimore to having many places to choose from today."
Nowhere is the abundance of choice more evident than in Inner Harbor East, which has seen explosive growth in the past few years. Claire and Jim Miller, senior citizens who said they are tired of owning a home and are looking for a rental, visited three apartment buildings within four blocks of each other there.
The Millers liked the amenities at the first building, Spinnaker Bay, which offers a glistening fitness room, an outdoor pool and - for the moment - a special rate on parking, but they thought the model one-bedroom unit was too small. A few steps away, they saw a roomier penthouse apartment at The Promenade, but they said the workout room was a bit dingy, the pool was smaller and the lifeguard was asleep.
Open since 1997, the Promenade is the elder statesman of Inner Harbor East. Though the Millers are looking for a new unit, they were charmed by the tour guide there, a guy in a taupe suit named Rik. As it turned out, The Promenade doesn't have any vacancies, anyway. Rik said they were giving tours to help out the folks at Spinnaker. He showed off the photos of the waterfront at the time of The Promenade's groundbreaking, back before there was Power Plant Live.
Continuing east on Aliceanna Street, the Millers found everything they were looking for in a new building called The Eden. They were wowed by the state-of-the-art conference center, the "club room" where residents can have parties, the rooftop pool. In the models, they liked the spacious granite counters in the kitchen and the French doors leading to a sunroom. They took the phone number of leasing agent Michelle Pearce, 26, whose identical twin sister, Sandie, was leading the tours at HarborView.
The condo tour also stopped in Inner Harbor East, where the 40 gift bags laid out at The Vue were gone within the first 45 minutes. Tour participants seemed to agree that The Vue's view depended on which way they were looking out the windows: into the city or into a parking lot.
"This way, not this way," said 54-year-old Theresa Hebrank, who said she might like to relocate from Ellicott City at some point now that her youngest child is graduating from high school. With her husband and her mother visiting from Florida for this weekend's graduation, she figured it couldn't hurt to start looking at the options.
"I like the idea that you can see more than one," she said. "I also like to get decorating ideas."