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January 31, 2008

Come one, come all

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: Chime in about what you'd like to see in future How-to Monday posts. (Click HERE to see examples of past posts.)

All right, fine, it's not your only chance. Feel free to chime in anytime, actually. But treat this as your personal invitation to keep the How-to entries topical and useful. I like to cover topics of interest to renters, homeowners, buyers and sellers, so you fit in there somewhere.

If you'd rather not comment here, email me by clicking on the "Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins" link below this post.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:48 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: How-to Mondays

A (would-be) buyer's experience

The Dagger website has a blog post from a 20-something looking for a house in the area, which touches on affordability and debt and all the other things that would-be buyers are probably thinking about these days. You can read it HERE, or get a taste below:
My fiancé and I have been touring homes since just before the holidays. We went in thinking we wouldn’t mind something that needed a little work here and there—we could make it our own and build equity at the same time. But when we started counting up the work that would need to be done and got a better idea of how much we’d be spending in fees just to settle, we changed our minds. You know, maybe we’d better go for a house that already has a washer and dryer. Perhaps we don’t want to worry about kitchen appliances for another two or three years. Maybe we should ask about including new carpet and windows in the deal.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:39 AM | | Comments (0)

Homestead credit -- back to the way it was?

If your home got reassessed recently -- or if you've been reading this blog for a while -- you know that the state passed a law requiring that everyone apply for their previously automatic homestead credit, the tax break that caps property tax bill increases if you've lived in your home for at least one fiscal year.

Well, that may change.

A large swath of the state Senate has signed on to co-sponsor a bill to repeal the law. The point of the application was to flush out people getting the credit illegally -- landlords and the like -- but the "public backlash" has made politicians think twice, Tim Wheeler reports today. Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, the bill's sponsor, said the law was well-intentioned but is confusing and angering homeowners, Wheeler reports.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:34 AM | | Comments (7)

January 30, 2008

Fed cuts rates -- again

The Federal Reserve cut a key short-term interest rate from 3.5 percent to 3 percent this afternoon, the second reduction in just over a week. Its federal funds rate determines what banks charge each other for overnight loans, and therefore has an impact on a variety of interest rates that consumers pay and earn.

The Fed said in its statement that "downside risks to growth remain," generally a code phrase for "look for more rate drops in the future."

You can read the full statement HERE. The Fed also said:

Financial markets remain under considerable stress, and credit has tightened further for some businesses and households. Moreover, recent information indicates a deepening of the housing contraction as well as some softening in labor markets.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 3:05 PM | | Comments (1)

What it takes to buy: $88k

Has the housing downturn made things more affordable for buyers in our metro area? A Washington-based group says the answer is "not much." You can read my story about it here. A taste:
The nonprofit Center for Housing Policy said yesterday that the price of a typical local home last summer was $269,000, too expensive for a nurse, an elementary school teacher, a police officer, a retail sales employee and workers in many other jobs. Though the median price of new and existing homes fell 2 percent from a year earlier, the decline was far too small to close a gap that widened markedly during the run-up in prices earlier in the decade.

With a 10 percent down payment, a Baltimore-area buyer last summer needed to earn about $88,000 to stay within the recommended limit for housing costs - no more than 30 percent of income, according to the Center for Housing Policy's "Paycheck to Paycheck" report.

Plenty of two-income families buy homes, of course. But the National Association of Home Builders says that the typical family in the Baltimore metro area could afford fewer than half of the homes sold last summer, compared with seven out of 10 in 2000.

The full impact of the slump is complex, of course. I included some examples of the affordability upsides and downsides in the story.

You can see the raw numbers for yourself HERE, or go HERE for the center's new online guide for state and local governments working on affordable-housing solutions.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:00 AM | | Comments (9)

January 29, 2008

The bottom line on new home sales

The picture in 2007, as the Associated Press and Bloomberg report, was fairly bleak for U.S. homebuilders. New home sales fell a record amount:
The Commerce Department reported yesterday that sales of new homes dropped 26.4 percent last year to 774,000. That marked the worst sales year on record, surpassing the old mark of a 23.1 percent plunge in 1980.

The government reported that the median price of a new home barely budged last year, edging up a slight 0.2 percent to $246,900, the poorest showing since prices fell 2.4 percent during the 1991 housing downturn.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:42 AM | | Comments (3)

January 28, 2008

How-to Monday: Renter's insurance


Sun photo

Buy a house, and your lender will usually require you to get insurance. Rent one, and you’re free to choose as long as your landlord has no opinion on the matter.

So why bother, if you don’t own the place?

Because renter’s insurance is about your possessions, not the walls around them. It’s a lot cheaper than car insurance, if you’re smarting over that bill.

Premiums generally run between $200 and $250 a year, which works out to a monthly charge of $17 to $21, said Timothy M. Lipinski, a risk portfolio manager at Kirby Insurance Agency Inc., a brokerage headquartered in Baltimore. If you opt for the same insurer handling your auto policy, you could end up with a multiple-policy discount that covers that charge, he said.

"It’s very inexpensive," Lipinski said.

The main point is protection against fire, theft, vandalism and liability. (An example of the latter is if you throw a party and someone injures him- or herself.)

Policies at the pricier end of the range should include coverage against other sorts of damage, such as identity theft or water flooding from a backed-up toilet, Lipinski said.

The Maryland Insurance Administration recommends that renters "seriously consider" renter’s insurance but notes that you’ll want to read through any policy carefully to understand what it doesn’t include. If you have a roommate, for instance, the state says that your policy won’t cover the roommate’s belongings or vice versa.

Read more about the administration's thoughts on insurance HERE.

Have any advice about insurance? Chime in.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: How-to Mondays

January 27, 2008

Speedy renovation: 106 hours

Like those home shows on TV? Then you might have noticed that ABC's Extreme Makeover Home Edition last week featured a Cecil County family.

Andrea Siegel has a story in today's real estate section about how the show, or more specifically local builder Clark Turner Signature Homes, "compacted what would have been a five-month job into about one week -- actually 106 working hours."

So now you know what you have to do if you're facing a big renovation and can't stand the thought of five-or-more months of upheaval: Find a way to get on TV.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 1:10 PM | | Comments (0)

Rebates, the economy and housing

Hanah Cho, Tanika White and I have a story today about the proposed rebate checks -- local businesses hoping it will help them, local residents debating whether to spend or save and economists speculating that much of the money will get put toward debt.

Businesses with some connection to housing -- furnishings, for instance -- are generally feeling the pain more than most, as this part of the story reminds us:

Workers at Dorman's Lighting & Design in Timonium began the year with the belief that business had to get better.

So far, signs of a turnaround are bleak. Traffic is down 30 percent this month, continuing a slowdown brought on by the slumping housing market. Even worse, more customers are window shopping instead of spending.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 1:00 PM | | Comments (0)

January 26, 2008

Just remember: It could be worse

You might not love this housing market if you're a homeowner, but consider: At least your house is still standing.

The AP reports that a Russian woman returned home after an absence to discover that "her home was gone, torn down mistakenly by construction workers clearing a site."

"There was nothing left, not even a log," Lyudmila Martemyanova said, bundled against the cold and standing on a snow-covered lot in the center of the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod.

A local prosecutor, Nikolai Govorkov, said a construction company tore down the wrong building -- Martemyanova's, instead of one nearby that was marked for demolition.

Many Russians have faced what they say are unfair and inadequately compensated evictions from older housing being torn down amid the country's oil-revenue-fueled construction boom.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:28 AM | | Comments (1)

January 25, 2008

Jumbo conforming loans?

The proposed stimulus package isn't just about tax rebate checks. It also includes a greatly increased dollar limit on loans that mortgage financiers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac can buy, the so-called "conforming" mortgages.

The current cap is $417,000. Part of the fallout from the credit crunch that hit last summer is a lot less lender interest in making "jumbo" loans that top that amount. They can't be packaged and sold to Fannie or Freddie, and the Wall Street investor cash has dried up. That means higher interest rates for jumbo borrowers.

What exactly the new limit would be is a bit of an open question.

I've seen numbers on press releases ranging from $625,000 to just under $730,000, despite the fact that Congressional leaders have hammered out a deal with the White House. The fact-sheet from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says the new cap would be $729,750 and would last one year.

The idea is to make it easier for people in high-cost markets to buy and refinance. The Baltimore metro area isn't one of the places typically talked about as a prime beneficiary, but there are a fair chunk of jumbo-loan-priced homes here.

Fannie and Freddie are known as GSEs -- government-sponsored enterprises. The Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, which oversees them, isn't keen on the higher cap proposal. OFHEO Director James B. Lockhart issued this statement yesterday:

We are very disappointed in the proposal to increase the conforming loan limit as we believe it is a mistake to do so in the absence of comprehensive GSE regulatory reform. To restore confidence in the markets we must ensure that the GSEs’ regulator has all the necessary safety and soundness tools.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 1:04 PM | | Comments (0)

New homes planned -- yes, really

Proof that not all residential developers are fleeing the business: Lorraine Mirabella reports today that Baltimore-based New City Partners is buying land in the city's Washington Village neighborhood (or Pigtown, depending on your preference) with plans for 99 townhouses and condos:
The developer is also planning to revitalize a block in the neighborhood's commercial district along Washington Boulevard.

The developer, who unveiled the project yesterday before a city design panel, expects to build a mix of housing types and price ranges that would be affordable to working-class families, said managing partner Kirsten Brecht. She said the company expects the housing market to turn around by the time the houses are ready for sale, currently projected to be in 2010.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:58 AM | | Comments (1)

January 24, 2008

U.S. home sales in '07

Home sales across the country fell about 13 percent last year, the National Association of Realtors said today. The number of sales -- not quite 5.7 million -- was the fifth-highest on record, the group notes. (That's another way of saying that sales dropped almost to 2002 levels.)

Unsold homes fell about 7 percent in December, a hopeful sign for sellers, though agents have noted that it could be temporary. Some sellers pull their homes off the market around the holidays with the intention of trying again during the stronger spring season.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:40 PM | | Comments (1)

Speaking of falling rates ...

Tricia Bishop has a story today about a rush to refinance now that mortgage rates have plummeted:
Rates for 30-year fixed mortgages hovered around 5.5 percent yesterday, with some dipping into the 5.25 percent range early in the day, according to area brokers. That's just a hair above the record lows recorded in June 2003, when the housing market was flourishing.

When the Fed cut a key interest rate by three-quarters of a percentage point Tuesday, it had no direct effect on fixed mortgages. But it got consumers' attention. That, coupled with the lower mortgage rates, which have been driven down by their connection to 10-year Treasury bonds, sent homeowners on the hunt for deals.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:49 AM | | Comments (0)

January 23, 2008

New site for home buyers and sellers



If you're searching online for a home, you've got a new option: Roost ( launched today with real estate search for 14 metro areas, including both Baltimore and Washington.

Why Roost and not, say, or Zillow or Trulia or Craigslist? You'll have to be the judge of that. Roost thinks people will want to search the site because it's partnering with local multiple-listing services to get the full raft of homes for sale through agents. (Search on "Baltimore" and you'll get 6,410 listings, or at least you would had you looked at 2:48 p.m. as I did.)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 2:57 PM | | Comments (2)

What the Fed cut means for you

Personal finance columnist Eileen Ambrose has a story today that puts into perspective the Fed's big cut to its key short-term interest rate.

Quoting Greg McBride of, she says folks with home equity lines of credit should see a drop in rates as early as next month:

The most creditworthy customers could see their rate drop 0.75 percentage points, the same as yesterday's cut in the Fed funds rate.

Higher-risk borrowers might see a quarter- or half-point cut, McBride says.

She notes that fixed-rate mortgages have "little to do with the federal funds rate" set by the Fed but instead track the 10-year Treasury bill, which reacts to economic expectations and inflation. (That's why mortgage rates have been falling steadily in recent weeks.) But you're more likely to see a Fed-related impact if you're considering -- or have -- an adjustable-rate mortgage:
Adjustable-rate mortgages for creditworthy borrowers are tied to the one-year Treasury bill. This short-term bond moves largely in expectation of where interest rates are headed in the next 12 months, McBride says.

So, as the Fed has cut rates in past months, the one-year Treasury bill has dropped. The rate fell from 5 percent in July to 2.7 percent now, McBride says.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:03 AM | | Comments (0)

January 22, 2008

The Fed slashes rates

The Federal Reserve cut a key short-term interest rate from 4.25 percent to 3.5 percent this morning, a move that "stunned markets," as the Guardian in the UK put it. This was not a scheduled meeting.

The Fed's Federal Open Market Committee said in its statement that it is reacting to signs of "a deepening of the housing contraction as well as some softening in labor markets":

Appreciable downside risks to growth remain. The Committee will continue to assess the effects of financial and other developments on economic prospects and will act in a timely manner as needed to address those risks.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:51 AM | | Comments (3)

January 21, 2008

How-to Monday: Competition


Sun photo


Sometimes a seller's competition is an exact duplicate house, but sometimes it's simply the variety of homes in the same price range. How can you tell if you've picked a good price range to compete in -- or, if you're a buyer, to look in?

It doesn't hurt to find out how many homes are listed and compare it to sales. A little tally for the metro area in December shows some interesting results.

Overall, the Baltimore metro region had about 1,800 home sales in December and about 18,000 homes that were listed for sale, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems. At that pace, it would take 10 months to get all the 18,000 homes from "for sale" to sold. The longer the time, the easier it is for buyers to make a deal if the owners really need to sell.

Everyone following along? OK.

Three price ranges did better than the metro average: $100,000 to $149,999 (eight months), $150,000 to $199,999 (seven months) and $200,000 to $249,999 (also seven months).

Three price ranges were right spot on the 10-month average: $250,000 to $299,999, $300,000 to $349,999 and $800,000 to $899,999. Yes, you read that last one right.

Just as the $800 range is an odd one out in the midst of the cheaper prices, the under-$100,000 range is an interesting one: 11 months. Perhaps people in the market for an under-$100,000 house can't qualify for a loan now, or perhaps they don't like the homes available for that price, or perhaps these properties are vying for attention from the now-much-smaller pool of investor-rehabbers.

Here's how the other price ranges turned out:

$350,000 to $399,999: 13 months

$400,000 to $449,999: 11 months

$450,000 to $499,999: 15 months

$500,000-$599,999: 14 months

$600,000 to $699,999: 17 months

$700,000 to $799,999: 16 months

$900,000 to $999,999: 19 months

$1 million to $2,499,999: 21 months

$2.5 million to $4,999,999: 98 months (one home sold, 98 listed)

$5 million and over: infinity. (Well -- probably not. But zero sold and 11 were listed.)

Curious to know what the months' supply looks like in your jurisdiction or ZIP code? Click HERE to go to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems' stats page, where you can get the numbers to do your own calculations.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: How-to Mondays

January 20, 2008

An LA tale of cashing out to rent

Los Angeles Times reporter Peter Y. Hong has a first-person piece today about how he and his wife, convinced there was a bubble, sold their Pasadena condo in 2005 to rent. It's an interesting look at a contrarian move, noting both the financial advantages -- the property they sold has since dropped 5 percent in value -- and the disadvantages (a "less-than-ideal rental house" that has no air conditioning, no dishwasher and is less conveniently located).

Hong writes:

We do plan to buy again someday, on honest terms with a loan we can afford. We didn't expect to rent this long; our girl is 8, and we'd like to get into a house soon that she will truly feel is hers.

We know the wait will make it that much more thrilling to her when we move. But I hope the real reward comes years from now. Maybe she will remember our experience and think twice when people are again promising something for nothing, as they inevitably will.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:43 AM | | Comments (0)

January 19, 2008

Bringing things full circle

The housing boom might not be exactly the same as the dot-com craze of the '90s, but there was plenty of irrational exuberance, to borrow Alan Greenspan's phrase, and both ended in busts.

Now they have something else in common.

President Bush, concerned that the country is heading into recession, in part because of housing-related troubles, said yesterday that he wants to send out rebate checks. Yup, like the 2001 checks mailed out to counteract the dot-com-fueled recession.

Here's a taste of The Sun's story today:

Acknowledging the toll taken by a housing slump and lagging consumer spending, President Bush urged Congress yesterday to rush one-time rebates to taxpayers and tax incentives to businesses to give the nation's economy a "shot in the arm."

Details have yet to be revealed, but the administration is putting a $145 billion figure on the plan.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 2:10 PM | | Comments (0)

January 18, 2008

Zillow expands coverage here, best known for its "Zestimates" of home values, said today that it has expanded its coverage of the Baltimore metro area. It was "very light" before, the company says, but now includes 97 percent of the homes in the area.

Also new for Baltimore, the company says: "Neighborhood Pages" with information on affordability and other issues.

If you check out your home, chime in to say whether you think the value estimate is accurate -- and whether Zillow is showing it heading upward or downward.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 5:38 PM | | Comments (7)

In downtown housing news ...

Lorraine Mirabella reports today that construction finished yesterday on The Zenith, a 191-unit apartment tower on Pratt Street, and is nearly done on the former Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. headquarters on Lexington Street, which is being turned into an 183-unit apartment complex:
Both projects are expected to be big contributors to the transformation of downtown from a predominantly business district to an area where people live and shop as well as work. They are part of the 3,265 rental units that have been added since 2000 downtown, which was double the number of downtown apartments it had a decade ago, said Bob Aydukovic, vice president of economic development for the Downtown Partnership. ...

Despite a slowdown in the for-sale side of the housing market, interest in leasing has grown and rents are rising, Aydukovic said.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:47 AM | | Comments (2)

January 17, 2008

Offices feel the housing pinch

In case you missed it: Lorraine Mirabella reports today that "construction of office buildings in metropolitan Baltimore far outpaced the amount of space tenants signed up to lease" last year, breaking a run of good fortune for office owners.
Just 43 percent of 1.8 million square feet of new office space completed in the Baltimore region last year was leased, according to a study by Colliers Pinkard, a commercial brokerage.

... Commercial real estate experts blamed economic jitters as well as a reversal of fortunes for tenants in sectors such as residential mortgages, who are abandoning or reducing office space.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 5:29 PM | | Comments (0)

The news on new homes

The federal government said this morning that U.S. housing permits issued last month were down about 35 percent from December 2006 as homebuilders continued to pull back to get supply to match lowered demand. Last month's permits were down 8 percent compared with November, the government estimated.

Interested in the entire news release? Click HERE.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:17 AM | | Comments (0)

PR from NAR

The Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors isn't the only group with a PR campaign. The National Association of Realtors has print, radio and TV ads suggesting that people buy. Here's a taste:
You might be wondering if buying a home right now is a smart financial decision. The fact is, homeownership is key to building long-term wealth, no matter when someone buys. Studies show that, over time, most homeowners will steadily build equity. For example, during the past three decades, home values have increased an average of more than 6.0% per year.

The emphasis on long-term values means there's no need to mention the pesky fact that average home prices did not rise 6 percent last year, but presumably most people are aware of that already -- after all, the NAR's press release this week says "some potential home buyers are being kept on the sidelines as they react to national media reports about the housing market."

Click HERE for the press release and HERE for the page where you can find the ads. 

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:11 AM | | Comments (0)

January 16, 2008

Big drop in mortgage rates

The economic winds of change may be blowing ill (good grief, that's a tortured metaphor), but it's nothing but wine and roses for those of you shopping for a mortgage. Well -- those of you who can qualify. said mortgage rates have taken their biggest three-week drop since 1988. The average conforming 30-year fixed mortgage rate is down to 5.75 percent, according to the company's most recent weekly survey, which is where rates stood in mid-2005.

The average rate for a 15-year mortgage, common for refinancing, fell to 5.28 percent, while the average rate for a jumbo 30-year mortgage dropped to 6.98 percent.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:39 PM | | Comments (0)

Housing's impact on gov't jobs

Phillip McGowan has a story today detailing cuts and hiring freezes in local government agencies. Why should a real estate wonk take note? Because the housing slump is partly to blame. Fewer sales means fewer people paying transfer taxes.

Local governments are also blaming "wilting state aid and shrinking revenue from income taxes," McGowan reports:

Baltimore City and Charles County, followed in the past two weeks by Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties, have announced they will not fill job vacancies -- 1,000 openings in Montgomery alone.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:36 AM | | Comments (0)

January 15, 2008

O'Malley's foreclosure plan

Laura Smitherman reports today on Gov. Martin O'Malley's announcement about the foreclosure laws he wants to see changed:
The Democratic governor proposed new requirements for brokers and lenders to ensure that borrowers can afford the mortgages, changes to the state's foreclosure process to make it more consumer-friendly and a ban on the conveyance of property in so-called foreclosure rescue schemes.

O'Malley's administration also wants Maryland to become the second state in the nation, after California, to require that loan servicing companies file monthly reports about how many loans are in default and to document their efforts to help borrowers by refinancing or modifying the loan terms. State officials said there is a gulf between what servicers say they are doing and the actual assistance they are providing.

Click HERE to see the press release.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:46 AM | | Comments (0)

To buy or not to buy: That is the argument

So, you say, what did the National Association of Realtors' chief economist tell the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors yesterday? You can read about it HERE in today's story, but here's the quick answer: He thinks the local housing market has bottomed out and 2008 should be a better year than '07.
"This area will be very interesting to watch because there's very solid economic growth, but people aren't buying homes," said Lawrence Yun, the economist. He added: "Ten years from now, people will look back at 2008 and say, 'Wow, that was a great time to become a homeowner.'"

I ran that past Baltimore economist Anirban Basu, who said he's sticking to the forecast he gave the Home Builders Association of Maryland: No bottom until next year.

"This year I expect to be the year of the falling prices," Basu said.

Check out the story for news about a media campaign that the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and other local Realtor groups are planning.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:40 AM | | Comments (6)

January 14, 2008

Realtors group weighs in on Baltimore

The National Association of Realtors' chief economist, Lawrence Yun, was in Timonium today to talk about the Baltimore metro housing market.

I'll have a story tomorrow about his forecast, given to Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors members. But if you like to see everything rather than all the information that can fit in a 20-inch-long news story, click HERE. That will get you Yun's presentation. (I know it says Jan. 4, but it really was this morning, honest.)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 5:51 PM | | Comments (4)

How-to Monday: Dealing with that pesky draft


Associated Press photo


If you're getting a chill despite the money you're throwing at Baltimore Gas & Electric, it's probably high time to winterize your home.

Here's the good news: You can do some of it yourself.

Check for cold spots, advises David Lupberger, the home improvement expert for ServiceMagic, which connects homeowners with prescreened contractors. If you find drafts around your doors, you can buy a simple weatherstripping kit to reduce the airflow, he says.

You can weatherstrip drafty windows, too. The U.S. Department of Energy discusses weatherstripping options and tips HERE and does the same for caulking HERE. (It recommends doing this work whether you're a homeowner or renter.)

If you're battling cold air seeping in around switches and plug receptacles on exterior walls, try a foam insulating kit, Lupberger suggests.

Should you have a fireplace with no glass doors, consider installing some, he says. After all, "a fireplace is a hole in your wall," he says.

"I don't think people realize how inefficient fireplaces can be," Lupberger says.

Other tasks could require outside assistance. Replacing old windows. Getting an attic properly insulated. Having the furnace looked at to make sure it won't fail mid-winter, or to see whether it's so old that a more energy-efficient replacement is worth the money.

The older your home -- and there are lots of old homes in and around Baltimore -- the more likely you'll need to do this sort of work. Homes weren't built years ago with $100-a-barrel oil in mind.

"Most people already know where the cold spots are," said Lupberger, who has a video on winterizing HERE. "There's a reason why that room isn't as comfortable."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: How-to Mondays

January 13, 2008

Home buying event

Itching to go to a home buyer's expo? There's one coming up Feb. 2 at M&T Bank Stadium.

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., a public service organization of college-educated African-American women, is planning the event, which will have workshops on issues such as closing-cost assistance and also a vendor exhibit area. It's free, but you'll have to register to attend. Information: 888-596-6123 or click HERE

The event is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the stadium's club level.

It drew more than 300 people last year, the group says.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 3:04 PM | | Comments (0)

A night at City Hall

Sheila Dixon will hold a "Mayor's Night In" at Baltimore's City Hall Jan. 30 to discuss foreclosure prevention. The Baltimore Homeownership Preservation Coalition, which is sending experts to talk about the resources available, says the event will be from 6 to 8 p.m.

"If we can save families from foreclosure or encourage residents to seek help before they refinance their homes, we will help not only the families in crisis but will protect the property values of everyone living in the surrounding neighborhoods," Joanna Smith-Ramani, co-chair of the coalition, said in a statement.

EDIT: I've just been told that the meeting will be held in the Curran Room on the 4th floor of City Hall. Though it's open to the public, you'll need a photo ID to get in.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 2:49 PM | | Comments (2)

January 12, 2008

More on Baltimore v. Wells Fargo

I've got a story today about the suit. Read it here, or get a taste below:
Baltimore's lawsuit against Wells Fargo for its subprime mortgages has stirred up frustration among industry players, who say they're increasingly taking heat for offering loans in poorer and minority neighborhoods despite being urged for years to do just that.

Others speculate that these sorts of suits -- Cleveland just announced one against 21 lenders and investment banks -- could have the unintended effect of dampening lending in urban areas.

But the subprime lending that urban areas saw during the housing boom was far more harmful than helpful, housing advocates say. Many of the loans, which have higher interest rates to account for higher risk, also came with high prepayment penalties, no escrow accounts for property taxes and adjustable interest rates. John Taylor with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, quoted in the story, has some interesting things to say about the subprime boom.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:50 AM | | Comments (5)

Housing market hurts Provident

Add Provident to the list of local companies buffeted by the fallout from the housing slump. As Paul Adams reports today:
Shares of Provident Bankshares Corp. fell 11 percent yesterday after the bank said it will write off $28.9 million of its real estate investment trust portfolio, making it the latest victim of the nation's declining housing and credit markets.

In a related move, the Baltimore-based bank also said it is increasing its provision for bad loans by $6 million in the fourth quarter in recognition of the region's slumping housing market.

This isn't about subprime, apparently. Provident says it has only limited exposure to that part of the market, Adams reports.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:33 AM | | Comments (0)

January 11, 2008

No bond, no case

Think the Columbia taxi driver who lost his house to foreclosure without ever missing a mortgage payment had an airtight case in court? Well ... see Larry Carson's story today:
Maryland's highest court dismissed his challenge to the foreclosure, quashing housing advocates' hope that a successful appeal would have prompted change in state law.

The Court of Appeals yesterday dismissed Kwaku Atta Poku's case, agreeing with lower court rulings that turned on his failure to post a required cash bond in earlier legal proceedings.

"It is beyond my comprehension," said Atta Poku, a Ghanaian immigrant and naturalized American. "Is the law made for people to commit crimes against innocent people? Where do I get justice?"

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:06 PM | | Comments (0)

More on housing '07

You've already seen the headline numbers, so here's a taste of what else is in today's story about the local housing market in 2007:
The average number of unsold homes in any given month last year topped 18,000. That's by far the largest number on record. It would take 10 months for all the unsold homes to find buyers at the pace they were moving in December, compared with three months at the end of 2005, when the slowdown began.

The good news: Buyers are finding the end of rapidly rising prices -- and in some cases, the start of falling ones -- makes it easier to find something they can afford. The bad news: It's harder for people without good credit and/or a significant down payment to get a mortgage. (Of course, depending on your perspective, that's also good news, because many of those subprime, no-money-down loans are going into foreclosure now.)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:37 AM | | Comments (0)

January 10, 2008

Our housing market, circa 2007

The keeper of the metro area's housing statistics expects to release 2007 numbers next month, but you -- you lucky Wonk readers -- can get a sneak peak. With December figures out today, I could calculate the annual results. (Preliminary, of course; Metropolitan Regional Information Systems often revises its numbers.)

So here's the deal:

The average price for homes sold in the region -- Baltimore and its five surrounding counties -- was about $317,000. That's up about 2.5 percent from 2006, the smallest increase since MRIS began tracking the metro area in the late '90s.

Sales fell about 20 percent, a bigger drop than 2006. The year started out looking like the market might pull itself out of the slump, but it ended significantly worse -- from a seller and macroeconomic perspective. Economists attribute the change to the 180-degree shift in lending.

Total sales: about 30,000. That's just above 1998, the first year on record.

See tomorrow's story for more details. I also did number-crunching that I couldn't fit into the article and will share it here once I get the time.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 5:51 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Number-crunching

The flip side of the housing market

Sure, it's taking longer and longer to sell a house around here -- but not for everyone, as Lorraine Mirabella reports in a story today:
In November, for instance, when the average time on the market was 105 days, 13 percent of the 1,892 homes that sold in the city and five surrounding counties had contracts in two weeks or less, according to data from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. Those 251 homes went from listing to selling in an average of seven days.

What did they have in common? They were usually "older, three-bedroom, two-bath houses that sold at an average of $304,355 - about $4,000 under the overall average sale price." Quick-selling homes are often also priced better than the competition, look good and "have a full force of marketing, such as enticing Internet photos, behind them," Mirabella reports.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:51 AM | | Comments (5)

January 9, 2008

A foreclosure suggestion

Elizabeth Warren of Credit Slips, a blog about credit and bankruptcy, has a thought about what cities can do about sharply rising foreclosures:
A mayor could appoint a Foreclosure Investigator. Announce that any person anywhere in the city who has received a notice of foreclosure or similar document should immediately call the city officer who will investigate all the paperwork to make certain that every aspect of the mortgage and the mortgage foreclosure comply with the law--at no expense to the homeowner.

There's a lively discussion in the comments there.

Thanks to Holden Lewis of for pointing it out.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:16 PM | | Comments (1)

Weekly interest-rate roundup

In case you're in the market to buy or refinance: The Mortgage Bankers Association released its weekly interest-rate survey this morning, and this is what the trade group found:
The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages decreased to 5.73 percent from 6.05 percent, with points increasing to 1.10 from 1.05 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value (LTV) ratio loans.

The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages decreased to 5.21 percent from 5.61 percent, with points increasing to 1.18 from 1.02 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. is also finding a drop in rates, though not so low:

Mortgage rates declined sharply this week, the first drop in a month. The average 30-year fixed rate declined 17 basis points from the previous week, to 6.14 percent. A basis point is one-hundredth of a percentage point.

Meanwhile, the average 15-year fixed -- a popular option for refinancing -- declined 21 basis points, to 5.76 percent.

Next time I talk to, I'll ask about the difference. Perhaps its survey doesn't assume a 20 percent down payment, as the mortgage bankers' survey does.'s survey was conducted last Wednesday, while the mortgage bankers' poll concluded Friday.

EDIT at 6 p.m.: just released its newest survey. Here's what it says:

According to’s weekly national survey of large lenders, the average 30-year fixed mortgage has an average of 0.35 discount and origination points.

The average 15-year fixed rate mortgage popular for refinancing plummeted to 5.45 percent. says it's the biggest two-week drop in rates since May 1995 and attributes it to concerns about the economy.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:38 AM | | Comments (0)

January 8, 2008

Foreclosures -- a suit and a forum

Baltimore, as you might have noticed, is suing Wells Fargo Bank for allegedly targeting African-Americans in the city for higher-cost, less attractive loans that are going into foreclosure at a higher rate than loans made in white neighborhoods.

The lawsuit says the "damages and costs to Baltimore ... are in the tens of millions of dollars." You can read about it in John Fritze's story today.

On the subject of foreclosures, I have a story today about Maryland homeownership advocates and others gathering in Annapolis to discuss the growing problem and potential solutions. Some of the solutions proffered were educational, some financial -- and some regulatory:

Thomas E. Perez, Maryland's secretary of labor, licensing and rgulation, told the crowd yesterday that the O'Malley administration "will have a robust legislative agenda to ensure homeownership preservation," including "meaningful oversight" for mortgage brokers. Mortgage underwriting, he said, was "unbelievably shoddy" both during the run-up in home prices and sales that ended in late 2005 and, more recently, as sales slumped and lenders rushed to get new business.

"So many people were set up for failure," Perez said.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:01 PM | | Comments (2)

Word of the year? I'll bet you can guess

Our InsideEd blog beat me to the punch on this one, so I'll quote John-John Williams' post:
The American Dialect Society chose the word “subprime” as the 2007 Word of the Year at its annual convention Friday.

Members of the society chose “subprime”, an adjective that means "a risky or less than ideal loan, mortgage or investment" because of the public's concern for a "deepening mortgage crisis," according to a statement released by the group.

The society also added "real estate words" to its 2007 list of categories. Besides subprime, they were:

exploding ARM An Adjustable Rate Mortgage whose rates soon rise beyond a borrower’s ability to pay.

liar’s loan/liar loan Money borrowed from a financial institution under false pretenses, especially in the form of a “stated income” or “no-doc” loan which can permit a borrower to exaggerate income.

NINJA No Income, No Job or Assets. A poorly documented loan made to a high-risk borrower.

scratch and dent loan A loan or mortgage that has become a risky debt investment, especially one secured with minimal documentation or made by a borrower who has missed payments.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:53 AM | | Comments (0)

Maryland at 'crossroads' on growth, state says

In a world full of task forces, here's one more: The newly staffed Task Force on the Future for Growth and Development, "charged with studying a wide range of smart growth and land use issues affecting Maryland." Findings and recommendations are due Dec. 1.

The group's first meeting is scheduled for Jan. 28 in Annapolis, the state Department of Planning said in a press release:

"Maryland is at a crossroads concerning future growth," said Secretary of Planning Richard E. Hall. "We cannot continue to grow the way we have for the past 40 years without dire consequences. The declining health of the Chesapeake Bay, the loss of forests and wetlands and the encroachment of development into ... rural lands are signs that we must grow smarter. We must revitalize older communities where infrastructure already exists and growth can flourish."

The chairman is real estate attorney Jon M. Laria, partner of Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll. Click HERE for a PDF of the press release, which lists all the members.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:51 AM | | Comments (0)

January 7, 2008

Baltimore group launches foreclosure-help ad campaign

The Baltimore Homeownership Preservation Coalition said today that it has launched an ad campaign to encourage struggling borrowers to get help before it's too late. Commercials started airing today on local radio stations, while print messages are going up on billboards and are already in 165 buses. Here's the ad:


The announcement came as part of the Foreclosure Solutions Forum, held in Annapolis today. About 200 people turned out for the event.

I'll have the full story tomorrow.


Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:55 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Foreclosure help

How-to Monday: Help for renters -- and landlords


Sun photo


What can you do if the heater in the apartment you're renting conks out this winter and your landlord won't fix it?

Or if you're facing eviction and need to know your options?

Or, for that matter, if you're the landlord and your tenant is driving you to distraction?

A local group has answers.

Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit that works statewide, has a tenant-landlord counseling arm that offers information to renters and rental owners alike.

"The majority of the calls we get on a regular basis, day to day, are rent court issues," said Stephanie D. Cornish, program manager for the tenant-landlord counseling department. "The process for eviction, security-deposit issues, breach-of-lease issues, right of entry ..."

Heat is another frequent topic this time of year. Local laws across the state require that rental properties have a working heating system.

If you're renting a place and the heat goes out, Cornish recommends notifying the landlord immediately -- and in writing. "Normally a landlord is allowed at least 30 days to make a general repair, but hot water and heat being essential services are not things they can wait 30 days to take care of," she said.

It's not always a quick matter to get a contractor in to fix a furnace, she notes. Landlords should make accommodations for renters in the meantime if it's freezing -- setting up radiator heaters that plug into the walls, for instance. (If your landlord's not doing anything for you, call your local housing inspectors to complain, Cornish suggests.)

Baltimore Neighborhoods got more than 330 calls about "essential services" last fiscal year. Some were from landlords who were hoping they could, say, shut off the water to deal with a nightmare renter. (For the record: No, Cornish says. In fact, it's a misdemeanor in Baltimore City and Baltimore County to deliberately deny essential services.)

In her opinion, there aren't many true slumlords around here. "But there are bad landlords, and there are good landlords that are about to turn bad," she said. "And some of that's about the tenants."

In October alone, Baltimore City landlords filed about 13,000 requests to evict tenants for non-payment. Yes. Just in October. But only about 400 evictions came of those requests, mainly because renters came up with the money in time to stay put.

You can reach Baltimore Neighborhoods' tenant-landlord counseling hotline at 410-243-6007 or 800-487-6007. The group also sells a guide to landlord-tenant laws. (Most of the buyers are landlords.)

"People should take the time to understand what the laws are and how they work," Cornish said. In these housing-slump times, when it's easier to rent than sell, "There are a lot more people becoming landlords than getting out of the business, and there are a lot of people becoming landlords who have no clue of what the laws are."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: How-to Mondays

January 6, 2008

DIY drywall

Got a hole in your drywall? In today's Ask The Builder column, Tim Carter walks do-it-yourselfers through the fix. You can find it HERE.

He says "patching and repair is not a difficult job."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:01 AM | | Comments (0)

January 5, 2008

Subprime fallout, close to home

Laura Smitherman has a story today detailing the downfall of Columbia-based Fieldstone Investment Corp., a subprime lender that saw itself as more conservative than its competitors:
But as easy credit flowed and subprime loans grew to account for one-fifth of the market, Fieldstone got caught in the industry's race to the bottom despite signs of trouble, according to former employees. And when the industry collapsed, Fieldstone went with it.

"They were trying to keep up with competitors," said Betty Williams, a former assistant vice president of credit administration at Fieldstone. "Everyone wanted to get into the mortgage industry, just like everyone wanted to get into the computer industry five years earlier. Fieldstone started a lot of new programs to keep up."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 11:13 AM | | Comments (0)

Subprime space-station loans

Brewster Rockit, the comic strip about an idiot space captain, got into the housing humor business this week. The strip, which you can see HERE, went like this:

Lt. Pamela Mae Snap (not an idiot): "You financed our space station with a subprime loan?"

Captain Rockit: "The loan guy made it sound like a good idea at the time."

Snap: "Did he explain the rate is adjustable?"

Rockit: "He might have, but whenever I get bored my mind wanders."

Snap: "Well, the rate adjusts after one year to--"

Rockit: "You ever wonder if waffles and pancakes are bitter enemies?"

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:54 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Housing humor

January 4, 2008

More on the homestead property tax credit

A reader wonders whether the deadline to apply for the homestead credit, which caps property taxes for homeowners, is really, honestly and truly 2012.

He can't help but notice that his notice urges him to apply within 60 days, and he saw a reference in the Maryland code that failure "to provide the requested information within 30 days from the date of a request shall result in a dwelling being designated as non-owner-occupied for purposes of the Homestead Property Tax Credit."

C. John Sullivan Jr., director of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, says it really, honestly and truly is 2012 -- for everyone who bought their house by Dec. 31, at least. After that date, new home purchasers have six months to apply.

Sullivan said the state will send out a series of reminder letters to those in the owning-by-'07 crowd who haven't applied. He said he meant it when he told homeowners not to panic.

"When tax bills go out July 1 in the various counties, no one's going to lose their homestead credit because we do not have an application," Sullivan said.

"But the response has been unbelievable," he added.

The department has already received six duffel bags worth of applications by mail, and he expects the online tally will hit 10,000 by Monday.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Homestead Property Tax Credit, Property taxes

Foreclosure crunch in Prince George's

Josh Mitchell reports today on the jurisdiction battling the most foreclosures -- and it's not Baltimore. It's Prince George's County. 
Middle-class homebuyers flocked to the county in the early part of this decade as prices in other Washington-area suburbs surged. Now, scores of families face the threat of foreclosure, throwing one of the nation's wealthiest majority-black suburbs into what state and local officials who gathered here yesterday called an emergency.

Prince George's had twice as many home foreclosures in the first nine months of 2007 as any other Maryland locality, according to data compiled by the firm RealtyTrac Inc. and released yesterday by state officials.

RealtyTrac, as I reported last month, freely concedes that there are issues with its numbers for Maryland because it's a difficult place to gather foreclosure information. But all the housing counselors and foreclosure experts I've talked to agree that Prince George's is really getting hit hard.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:57 AM | | Comments (0)

January 3, 2008

Lowering taxes, or possibly raising them

Mayor Sheila Dixon's blue-ribbon tax committee is recommending an 11 percent cut in the property tax rate -- but a big increase in the homestead credit that caps homeowners' bills, and a rise in other taxes. You can find the report and press release HERE (the press release has information about a public meeting on Jan. 16).

The industrious John Fritze, who got an early copy of the report, reports today that the change "could cost many city homeowners thousands more a year."

If all of the panel's short-term recommendations were adopted, the rate would be cut to $2.017 per $100, which would still be the highest in the state. Officials say the reduction could be made within two years. ... A proposal to lift the annual cap on the increase in assessments on principal residences, known as the Homestead Tax Credit, from 4 percent to 10 percent is likely to be among the most controversial of the panel's ideas. It would cost taxpayers $24.2 million, the report says. That money, in turn, would be used to reduce the tax rate by about 4 percent.

Even with a reduced rate, that plan would force many residents to pay significantly more if their home values continued to climb as they have in the past several years. Under one scenario presented by the committee, the owner of a $300,000 home that increases in value by 25 percent every three years would pay thousands more in taxes.

If I understand the recommendations correctly, the plan would seem to be better for homeowners in a low-appreciation housing market and worse in a high-appreciation one. And it would be better overall for small landlords, who don't get the homestead cap anyway. (This doesn't take into account a proposed increase to the income tax rate to 3.2 percent from 3.05 percent, since I can't easily factor in that effect.)

But -- as a smart co-worker pointed out -- many homeowners are taxed on much less than their full assessed value right now because all those big increases during the housing boom were capped at 4 percent a year. In other words, it'll take some time to "catch up." That means plenty of folks would see 10 percent increases a year for a while if values don't plummet.

Well, Wonk readers? What do you think? The report is being pitched as "ready for public comment" rather than a done deal.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:37 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Homestead Property Tax Credit, Property taxes

January 2, 2008

Applying for the homestead tax credit?

If so, thank eagle-eyed property owner and Wonk reader Peter Nguyen, who noticed that the state's online application page wasn't encrypted. The organization that handles the state Department of Assessments and Taxation's website pulled the page down to fix the problem and got it back up today, said department director C. John Sullivan Jr.

This is the first time property owners have to apply for the property tax credit, given to all owner-occupiers. But you don't need to worry about it this year unless you're among the one-third of Marylanders who just got new property tax assessment notices.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 5:21 PM | | Comments (0)

The housing market and the government

Ed Gillespie, a Bush administration communications adviser, "told reporters that the president wants Congress to do more to 'help make the market more stable,'" The Wall Street Journal reports today.

What, though, remains to be seen:

Mr. Gillespie and other aides didn't offer new specifics for how Congress could address the housing problems. There are at least two significant pieces of legislation that Congress left unfinished last year. One would bring relief to more low-income borrowers, allowing them to refinance adjustable-rate mortgages through the Federal Housing Administration. A second initiative could help ease a credit crunch for many middle- and upper-middle-income borrowers, in part by allowing government-sponsored mortgage companies such as Fannie Mae to securitize more large loans.

... A third possible element in a housing initiative would give states authority to issue more tax-exempt bonds to help troubled homeowners refinance their homes.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:01 AM | | Comments (0)

January 1, 2008

Advice for sellers and buyers in '08 -- and an appeal's Steve McLinden has a list of suggestions for buyers and sellers in this new year. Here's a taste:
My blanket advice for would-be sellers: Stay put. Ride this out where you're sitting if possible, because values will stabilize again. If current circumstances dictate otherwise, then you'll have to ratchet up your marketing plan a notch to adjust to the times. As for buyers: Well, you're "in your element" and the getting is good.

Click HERE for the rest of the advice, which gets specific (like "Don't be an as-is seller" and, for buyers, "Don't bank on further market drops"). 

On that note: Happy 2008, all you Wonk readers out there. Thank you for clicking on the blog, thank you for commenting and thank you for your ideas and suggestions. It's been great to have a closer connection with people interested in the housing market, even on the occasions when the closer connection allows you to tell me I'm an idiot. (By the way, you're free to call me an idiot, but please, no name-calling aimed at other readers.)

Keep making suggestions about possible stories, future How-to Monday posts and things you'd like to see me link to this year. I can't do everything, but I do pay close attention to what you have to say.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)
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About Jamie Smith Hopkins
Jamie Smith Hopkins, a Baltimore Sun reporter since 1999, writes about the regional economy. Her reporting on the housing market has won national and local awards. Hopkins is a Columbia native and has lived in Maryland all her life, save for 10 months spent covering schools in Ames, Iowa.
She trained to become a wonk by spending large chunks of time as a geek and an insufferable know-it-all.
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