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August 31, 2009

Would you move to Accident? How about Boring?

Hear a name often enough, and you won't think twice about it. But that doesn't change the fact that Maryland has some oddly named places.

Accident, for instance. Or Boring. Or Bivalve.

I wonder if a strange name keeps people from moving in. I'd like to think it instead attracts residents who like a little whimsy in their lives, or at least their mailing addresses.

Accident, in Western Maryland, does not appear to be named after a disaster. Historian Mary Miller Strauss writes in Flowery Vale, a history of Accident, Maryland that it's impossible to say for sure, but she believes a story about land speculation.

When Lord Baltimore opened lands "westward of Fort Cumberland" to settlers, two friends from Prince George's County rushed out -- separately -- to survey and claim property. William Deakins Jr. had just finished surveying 682 acres when Brooke Beall showed up and said "he had selected the same tract for his survey, calling attention to his axe marks on the trees to prove his claim":

Deakins replied that it appeared that they had selected the same land "by accident". Since he and Beall were friends and land was abundant, he proposed that Beall take over the survey already made. To this Beall agreed, although his warrant called for 778 acres. John Hanson, Jr., Deputy County Surveyor, made out the survey to Beall, and they named the tract Accident.

What about Boring in Baltimore County? It was named after a postmaster, not because it's ... well, you know. (One resident writes, "Is Boring boring? Well yes it is, but in a good way.")

Bivalve on the Eastern Shore also has a post-office-related history, according to Bivalve United Methodist Church Centennial Celebration 1886-1986 by Paul Willing. It was originally called Waltersville after a local family. But there was already a Waltersville post office elsewhere in Maryland, so in 1887, the newly appointed postmaster had to think of another name for his office. I'll bet you can guess what he came up with.

But why? In honor of oysters, "mainstay of the watermen's livelihood," Willing writes. And that's how Waltersville became Bivalve.

Here are other Maryland places with names that tickled my funnybone:

Appeal in Southern Maryland

Bald Eagle in Prince George's County

Bestpitch on the Eastern Shore

Brink in Montgomery County

Butler in Baltimore County

Crapo on the Eastern Shore

Delmar on the Eastern Maryland -- half in Maryland, half in Delaware. (There's also a Marydel and a Pen Mar.)

Detour in Carroll County

Gist in Carroll County

Parole in Anne Arundel County. (Whenever I've passed by, I've wondered if prisoners were once released there en masse. Actually, it was an exchange site for Union and Confederate prisoners of war.)

Peacock Corners on the Eastern Shore

Pumpkin Center in Western Maryland

Rabbit Town on the Eastern Shore

Rising Sun in Cecil County. (The town was originally called Summer Hill, but a local tavern called The Rising Sun was so popular "that Summer Hill yielded to Rising Sun as the official name of the place" around 1815, according to the Maryland Municipal League.)

Rush in Western Maryland

Sandy Bottom on the Eastern Shore

Savage in Howard County. (Named after merchant John Savage, Wikipedia says, not for barbarous residents.)

Secretary on the Eastern Shore. (Not an ode to administrative assistants -- it was, the Maryland State Archives says, named after Secretary Creek, which in turn was named for Henry Sewall, secretary of the Province of Maryland from 1661 to 1665.)

Security in Western Maryland

Sparks in Baltimore County

Stumptown in Carroll County

Unicorn on the Eastern Shore

Maryland is also home to not one but two towns that share their names with famous 1969 concerts -- Woodstock (north of Ellicott City) and Altamont (in Western Maryland). You can't make this stuff up.

What's your favorite unusual place name?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Housing humor

August 30, 2009

New real estate poll: Staying or moving

Few of us stay in the same house all our lives -- it's the nature of our transient society, not to mention our penchant for moving out of Mom and Dad's when we grow up.

I've been wondering, though, how many people are staying put when they'd rather not. Homeowners stuck because their mortgage balances are higher than their values, for instance. Or folks leery of getting a bigger place (for rent or sale) because of recession-fueled job insecurity.

I'm in the second group, as it happens. What little space I have is chock full of baby gear, but you sort of think twice about taking on more debt when your employer is in bankruptcy.

So share with me: Are you satisfied with your home? Wish you could move on, but can't?

And while you're at it, share how long you've been where you are:

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Polls

August 29, 2009

File this under "C" for "Could Be Worse" (also "Could Be Better")

One in four borrowers in the Baltimore metro area are under water on their mortgages, owing more than their homes are worth, according to estimates by real estate information company First American CoreLogic. That's not the sort of news to make anyone cheer -- anyone who isn't expecting to profit off short sales and foreclosures, anyway.

But at least we're not Las Vegas. Or Detroit. Or Tampa.

They're among the 14 metro areas with at least 40 percent of mortgaged properties in negative equity. Makes our 25 percent look -- well, a lot smaller than 25 percent of borrowers under water would normally look.

Las Vegas tops First American CoreLogic's list, with a whopping 69 percent of mortgaged homes under water. Second is Riverside, Calif., with 57 percent, followed by Phoenix, Ariz., with 56 percent. (Detroit is fifth-highest at 52 percent. Tampa is eighth with 51 percent.)

Baltimore is 33rd on the list, which ranks the 50 largest metro areas.

Fiftieth -- the best spot; this is a list you want to come in last on -- is Pittsburgh. Fourteen percent of its borrowers are under water. Including Pittsburgh, nine metro areas have less than 20 percent of borrowers in negative-equity positions.

Is your home worth less than you owe on it?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Mortgages

August 28, 2009

Live chat opportunity: foreclosure prevention

The Baltimore Sun's Consuming Interests blog is hosting a live chat next week about the Home Affordable Modification Program. Interested? Here are the details from personal finance columnist Eileen Ambrose:

Foreclosure doesn’t have to be the answer.

Join us for a live chat on Tuesday at noon with housing counselors from St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center. The counselors will be able to answer questions on the new federal program — Home Affordable Modification Program — that modifies mortgages so you can afford monthly mortgage payments. They also can discuss other options you might have if you’re having trouble with your mortgage.

Can’t make the chat? Submit your questions early to the housing counselors at and you can check out the answers later on the blog.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:15 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Q&A

Patterson Park auctions: bellwether?

A dozen rowhomes were auctioned off Thursday in and around the Patterson Park neighborhood. That's particularly noteworthy because they belonged to the Patterson Park Community Development Corp., a nonprofit group that was the driving force in that neighborhood's revitalization but fell victim to the housing slump. It filed for bankruptcy protection in February.

More about that in today's story. But the auctions -- held back-to-back from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. -- are worth paying attention to even if you're not interested in Patterson Park. They're a sign of change, and not only since the bubble days.

The average price was $70,000. I thought "ouch," because they'd been refinanced for $110,000 on average in early 2007. But auctioneer Daniel Billig with A.J. Billig & Co. said it was about 30 percent more than his company had been expecting.

Nine months ago, he said, investors "weren't even coming to the auctions. I had some really great properties that I either didn't sell or I had a very tough time. I would say since the beginning of May, we've gotten progressively better. Better results, better turnout."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:51 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Auctions

August 27, 2009

Dueling surveys on home values

Most Americans -- about 80 percent -- think their own home's value has bottomed out and will either stay put or rise in the next six months, according to a recent Zillow poll. Now we've got two new surveys on prices to compare and contrast.

Real estate site HomeGain surveys Realtors on a regular basis, and they're not quite as optimistic as homeowners. Just under 70 percent think home prices will stay put or rise in the next six months, HomeGain said. But more of the Maryland agents surveyed think things have bottomed out around here. Almost 80 percent believe prices won't fall in the next six months, according to numbers the company supplied to me.

I asked you all the same question, as it happens. Just under 60 percent of you (at least those of you who weighed in) think your own home's value won't fall in the next six months. So you're the least optimistic. But still, that's about six in 10 of you who see better days ahead.

Back to the HomeGain survey:

About 88 percent of the Maryland agents polled think their clients' homes lost value in the last year. (By comparison, 76 percent of you think your own home lost value.)

Many Maryland agents think people remain unrealistically optimistic about their home values. About four in 10 of the local agents surveyed said their average homeowner client thinks the property is worth 10 to 20 percent more than they think it's worth.

On the flip side: Nearly as many agents said their buyer clients think listing prices are 10 to 20 percent too high. And that's even though those listing prices might be lower than what owners originally wanted to ask.

HomeGain said it polled two dozen Maryland agents as part of the nearly 1,100 Realtors surveyed nationwide.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (18)
Categories: Polls

August 26, 2009

Making Home Affordable program: Are you in?

The federal Making Home Affordable program is supposed to help homeowners refinance if they're under water on their mortgages and get eligible borrowers a loan modification to prevent foreclosure. The Obama administration says the initiative "has made rapid progress in a few short months," while news reports -- noting continued increases in foreclosures -- suggest not so much.

There's nothing like the voice of experience: Have you applied? What happened?

Eileen Ambrose, the Sun's fabulous personal finance columnist, would like to hear from you for a column she's working on. You can reach her at eileen(dot)ambrose(at)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:52 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Your name in lights (well, newsprint)

What a balanced housing market looks like

When will home sellers and buyers be on basically equal footing? When supply equals demand. The magic number, many housing experts say, is six.

As in, "it'll take six months to sell all the homes now on the market at the current pace of sales."

During the first half of the year, the Baltimore metro area's supply averaged 11.5 months.

"As that number approaches six, we'll start to see stabilization in pricing," said Kenneth Wenhold, director of the Mid-Atlantic region for Metrostudy, a housing-market research firm. "When Northern Virginia broke the six mark, we saw things change very dramatically in a very short period of time. ... They were at about 10.4 months two years ago, and it only took them about nine months to get down to a six months' supply."

Could that happen farther north?

"Hypothetically, the Baltimore market could be close to equilibrium, if not at equilibrium, by this time next year," Wenhold. "Northern Virginia has shown that is a possibility."

Northern Virginia has seen a more dramatic drop in prices, though, which could be driving buyers into the fray.

That's the resale picture. As for new homes, Wenhold says there's a 9.2-month supply in the Baltimore region. Condos are a big part of that. Counting just newly constructed single-family homes and townhouses, there's a "much healthier" 5.8-month supply, he said.

The new-home supply is more restrained than the resales because builders hit the brakes on construction when the housing market slumped, and kept those brakes on hard.

"They've been very good at limiting the amount of supply that's out there," Wenhold said.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Housing stats

August 25, 2009

Real estate poll results: Foreclosures and short sales

Fifty-eight percent of you are either interested in buying a short sale or foreclosure, or you're in the process of doing so. At least that's what you said in the most recent Wonk poll.

That doesn't sound like great news for traditional home sellers. But of course there's a difference between trying to buy and actually settling -- more on that in a moment.

Here's the poll-result breakdown:

Forty percent of you say you'd like to buy a foreclosure or short sale (in which a buyer sells for less than the mortgage balance and the lender eats the difference) as a primary residence. An additional six percent would like to buy one or the other as an investment.

Twelve percent of you say you're in the process of buying a foreclosure or short sale, in all cases but one as a primary residence.

Ten percent of you own a home you bought as a foreclosure or short sale.

Six percent of you are trying to sell via short sale.

And 20 percent of you aren't interested in buying a foreclosure or short sale, which includes one write-in answer from a formerly interested buyer: "tired of slow banks and want to buy a traditional sale." (The other write-in answers: "waiting for the bottom in LA," "willing to buy a home I like at late 1990's prices" -- hi, Darwin Rules! -- and "I can't afford to buy a house.")

BigDragon, who had a contract on a short sale, said in a comment that he got sick of waiting. "After 4 and a half months of silence from the seller's bank I gave up and chased after a new construction townhouse. I've been looking for a place of my own all year long. As a first time home buyer I honestly expected this process to be over in a month or two and not the year it's almost taken. ... It's nice to be able to see real progress from the builder."

Terp05 played the short-sale waiting game too and ended up with the house -- six months after putting in a contract:

The process was painful and too often unexplainable. We received approval in mid March, only to find out the seller filed for bankruptcy a week earlier. This required an extra 2.5 months for the home to be released from the bankruptcy court since it could not be considered an asset (and to prevent the trustee from taking ownership). After release, we had to wait for another approval by the same bank (for the same offer) which took quite some time. The overall feeling I received from the seller's bank was that they had no interest in taking the property off of the books and needed constant prodding to keep the file from disappearing on someone's desk under a pile of (proverbial) paper.

While my patience and persistence paid off in the end, the process definitely took a toll on my mental well-being. The last month or so became agonizing- checking my email almost hourly for updates that didn't come or were of little substance. Also, that "great short sale deal" I thought I was getting didn't look quite as lucrative when prices in my county fell ~17% in the time I was waiting to go to settlement. Fortunately I think I still did well looking at comps in my neighborhood and recent appraisals.

Even though I've made it sound bad, in the end I found the home with the features I was looking for and some perks that I wouldn't have been able to afford otherwise. I got a great interest rate (locked before the run-up in late May) and the first time home buyer credit on my 2008 taxes.

Anyone with a foreclosure-buying story to share? Easier than short sales? Harder?

And for you homeowners trying to sell short, what does the process look like from your end?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Polls

August 24, 2009

Buying a small place?

My colleague Hanah Cho is looking to interview people who are buying or have recently bought a small home.

If you're in this group, she'd be delighted if you contact her at hanah(dot)cho(at)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 2:50 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Your name in lights (well, newsprint)

A tale of two Baltimore buyers (OK, three)

WillBefore.jpg WillAfter.jpg

The boarded-up rowhome -- above, left -- is what Will Cocks, 28, saw when he signed a contract to buy. The prettified one that's above, right? That's what it looks like now.

The Bowie-turned-Baltimore resident is one of the people I interviewed for Sunday's housing-trends story, and I thought you all might enjoy the before-and-after comparison. (Photos taken by the new homeowner.)

Because Cocks agreed to purchase the Greenmount West home from a real estate investment company before rehab work began, he got to design "pretty much everything." And take lots of photos.

Here's a "during":


"I basically watched them build it from the framing up," said Cocks, who paid $265,000 for the home.

You can find a video here, if you're interested in seeing the interior.

Amy Lincoln MacDonald and husband Paul MacDonald, both in their 20s, also moved to Baltimore this year. Here's a photo of the home they sold in Glen Burnie for $215,000:


(Photo supplied by the MacDonalds)

And here's the 1924 bungalow they bought in Lauraville for $155,000:


(Photo above -- and below -- by Sun photographer Kenneth K. Lam)

Since they moved there in March, they've done a good bit of renovation work of their own. For instance, they turned the small kitchen into a laundry room and the bigger room next to it into the new kitchen:


They had a secret weapon in the battle to contain costs:

"My dad is a carpenter," said Amy Lincoln MacDonald, "so he did a lot of work for us."

Do you prefer the idea of buying a home that exactly suits your needs from day one, or a home that you can change to suit?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Housing market experiences

August 23, 2009

Our housing market, neighborhood by neighborhood

Today's story about housing trends in the Baltimore metro area is the labor-intensive one we do every summer: What happened to prices and sales in suburban ZIP codes and city neighborhoods in the first half of the year?

I crunched so many numbers, my teeth hurt.

There's lots to see besides the story:

--Maps (showing the change in metro-area sales and prices, and the same for city neighborhoods) by cartographer extraordinaire Christine Schoenberg, who gave up part of her vacation to pull everything together in time.

--A video about recent home buyer Will Cocks, who moved from Bowie to Baltimore. Thanks to multimedia whiz Christopher Assaf for piecing my raw footage into something watchable.

--A photo gallery showing the place Amy Lincoln MacDonald and Paul MacDonald sold in Glen Burnie and the one they bought in Lauraville, along with Cocks moving into his Greenmount West home. Photography by the excellent Kenneth K. Lam and Karl Merton Ferron.

--A nifty online search tool, put together by web guru Lauren Custer, that lets you see how many homes sold in your ZIP code, for how much and how trends changed from a year ago.

--An Excel file showing home-sale trends in city neighborhoods. In that file you'll find worksheets with the neighborhoods ordered alphabetically, by price change and by sales change. (There's also a clickable city map that lets you see which neighborhood is which, put together on short notice by the inestimable Kevin Richardson.)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Housing stats

August 22, 2009

Good news -- possibly

What's the most important thing a home buyer needs? A job -- which is why anyone interested in the fate of the housing market will be equally interested to know that Maryland employers created 10,000 jobs last month.

Well -- sort of.

Stay with me here.

As it often the case with economic surveys, the Labor Department figure comes with asterisks. The number is preliminary and could be revised down the road. It's also adjusted to try to account for seasonal variations -- the normal ups and downs of employment, like school bus drivers losing their jobs in early summer. As it happens, the state says, it's been a particularly difficult year to adjust because the usual patterns are all cattywampus.

Unadjusted, the job numbers are actually down, not up. But employment always falls in July because it's being compared with employment around June 12, when school is usually still in session. The 6,300-job decline last month is the smallest for a July since 1999.

Thus, a big seasonally adjusted gain. The biggest in four years.

It might be all statistical noise -- unemployment is up. But I've been hearing some encouraging things. Job search engine says Baltimore had the second-most job postings per capita among large metro areas in the second quarter (second only to Washington). And it has the third-best ratio of postings to unemployed residents -- 1 to 1.

Some of that is about the power of relativity -- as in, it's worse elsewhere. Job postings in Baltimore are down 5 percent from a year ago, vs. a 30 percent drop nationwide, says.

It sure would be good for the housing market, and especially the foreclosure rate, if job creation revs up in a big way.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: The economy

August 21, 2009

One week left on 'amnesty' for city tax credit

Buying a newly constructed city home? Baltimore's new-construction tax credit will give you five years of reduced property taxes, including half off in your first year -- if you apply in time.

The city recently gave frustrated homeowners who missed the window another chance, but that amnesty period is swiftly coming to a close. The deadline is Aug. 28, next Friday. If you went to settlement on a new home after Oct. 1, 2004 and it's still your principal residence, you can apply. You might also be eligible if your home was substantially rehabbed after being vacant.

More details from the city Department of Finance, including the application form, in this PDF document.

Baltimore resident Matt Gonter, who applied last week, suggests submitting your form in person. That way you get a time-stamped copy for your records, proof that your application was in time.

Amnesty aside, new-home buyers now have two windows to apply rather than one: within 90 days of settling and within 90 days of getting the first tax assessment notice.

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

Md. mortgage troubles

One in eight -- that's how many Maryland borrowers were at least a month behind on their mortgage payments during the spring, according to new numbers.

What can you do if you're in that group?

The state says to call for help immediately -- before you're in trouble, even, if you're still current but see problems on the horizon. It has a foreclosure-help hot line -- 877-462-7555 -- to put you in touch with a nonprofit housing counseling agency near you. Or you can find the list of HUD-approved nonprofits here.

The struggle to get assistance from lenders has been well publicized, so I wondered how much success local foreclosure-prevention counselors are having. The state Department of Housing and Community Development said the nonprofits helped just over 4,500 people avoid foreclosure in the fiscal year that ended June 30. (That runs the gamut from people who received a repayment plan to those who got their mortgage refinanced, and includes folks who sold their homes.)

That "avoided foreclosure" group is up 33 percent from the previous fiscal year, the state says.

But nearly 13,700 in total saw counselors in the year ending June 30. So what happened to the nearly 9,200 who aren't on record as avoiding foreclosure? The state says some of those homeowners are still in counseling, some dropped out of the system and the rest ended up in foreclosure, bankruptcy or similarly depressing circumstances.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Foreclosure help, The foreclosure mess

August 20, 2009

Today's live chat

Thanks again to Celia Chen of Moody's and to all of you who joined in during today's live chat. You can see the transcript here if you missed it.

I was impressed by the variety of questions you asked. Many of you had multiple questions, and alas -- there wasn't enough time to get to them all. But everyone who asked questions by the time we were supposed to end did get the first one answered, which was nice.

I hope you found it worthwhile.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:24 PM | | Comments (0)

Jamie Smith Hopkins: Live chat with economist Celia Chen on Baltimore-area housing market

Live chat about housing market at noon

Last reminder: Celia Chen of Moody's will take your questions about the housing market at noon today in this space.

A senior director of the Moody's research staff, she manages the company's regional house price forecast models, develops proprietary housing market indicators and writes extensively about housing issues. Chen earned her Ph.D. -- with a concentration in econometrics and international finance -- at the University of Pennsylvania.

She's happy to take housing-outlook questions about metro areas and the nation. Just don't make your questions too specific, i.e. "what's going to happen to $400,000 homes in my neighborhood."

See you at noon!

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:56 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Q&A

Where home sales are brewing

If you want to know how many homes have been sold in a particular area, you look at settlements. But if you want to know how many homes will be sold, you've got something better than tea-leaves -- you've got pending deals.

The number of buyers signing contracts last month (with or without contingencies) rose throughout the Baltimore area vs. a year earlier, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems. That includes Baltimore, which was still seeing a drop in completed sales last month.

Here's how pending deals stacked up last month compared with July 2008:

Carroll County, up 31 percent

Anne Arundel County, up 26 percent

Howard County, up 22 percent

Harford County, up 16 percent

Baltimore City and Baltimore County, both up 8 percent

Contracts don't always turn into sales -- something could go wrong, like a loan falling through. But they're a clear intention to buy.

I was surprised to see that the counties posting the biggest increases in pending deals were also the most expensive in the region, on average. Much of the action is in first-time-buyer markets, and you'd think that first-time buyers would have an easier time finding affordable homes in the city and Baltimore and Harford counties. 

But maybe buyers are uncovering deals in pricier communities. Of the completed sales in Carroll last month, 36 percent were under $250,000. A year earlier, it was 26 percent.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Housing stats

August 19, 2009

The clock is ticking on the $8,000 tax credit

Determined to get the $8,000 tax credit for first-time buyers? Keep in mind that the Nov. 30 deadline isn't about signing a contract -- you need to get to closing no later than that day.

So says the IRS, which specifically uses the word "close." This matters because you'll want to allow at least 30 days -- and probably more like 60 -- for a normal transaction to go from contract to closing. Even if there's nothing unusual about the home you're buying, you could find yourself delayed by issues relating to the loan, the appraisal, the home inspection -- you name it.

That goes double if you want something more complicated, such as a foreclosure.

What if you're having a home built for you? The IRS says you have to be physically occupying the place by Nov. 30. More Q&As here. (Personal finance columnist extraordinaire Eileen Ambrose has also done a number of Q&As on the credit at the Sun's Consuming Interests blog.)

Some real estate sites, wanting to remind you that "now is the time to buy," have countdown clocks. (This one at the Maryland Association of Realtors webpage, for instance.) Where we stand as of this second: 103 days, 18 hours and 0 minutes, accounting for the extra hour we'll get Nov. 1.

Do you feel the pressure? Or do you have a "whatever will be will be" philosophy on the credit? (Or perhaps you're purposely waiting until the credit's gone?)

The Wall Street Journal, sounding a cautionary note, profiles a first-time buyer who recounts all the things he did wrong in the rush to get the $8,000. For instance, getting into a bidding war on a foreclosed home he saw only briefly, and not "taking into consideration taxes, homeowners' association fees, and the cost to fix up and maintain a distressed property."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: First-time buyer tax credit

August 18, 2009

Don't forget: Q&A Thursday

Remember, folks, Celia Chen with Moody's will be taking reader questions about the housing market this Thursday at noon. More details in this post.

Some of you have submitted questions already. In fact, some of you have submitted multiple questions. I'm planning to sort them to ensure that everyone gets to ask at least one question before we go to No. 2, 3, or 4. If you asked several questions, the first one you asked will go in the No. 1 spot unless you let me know that you're more interested in hearing an answer to a later one.

It's possible that all of you will get all your questions answered before the live chat ends, of course. I'm just organizing my ducks (look at the lovely row they're in!).

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 1:44 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Q&A

Homeowners on their home values

Most homeowners think their homes are worth less now than a year ago, but only one in five is expecting more drops in value here on out.

That's what people told real estate site Zillow in a July poll released today. The company's take on the results? "Hope springs eternal."

The Northeast, which includes Maryland in this survey, is more optimistic than average. Seventeen percent of homeowners polled expect their homes will drop in value in the next six months, compared with 19 percent nationwide. Thirty-eight percent of Northeasterners think their home values will rise.

(Midwesterners were the most pessimistic in this survey. But still, three in four are counting on stable or rising values for their own homes.) 

In a press release, Zillow suggested that it thinks homeowners are being a bit too rosy. Here's a statement from Zillow's chief economist, Stan Humphries:

“While their perceptions of past declines in their homes’ values have gotten more realistic over the past year, each quarter homeowners express the opinion that the worst is behind them. Unfortunately, that has not been the case thus far and it’s far from clear that it’s the case today. Despite some signs of slowing depreciation in many markets in the second quarter – the height of the 2009 home-buying season – there are many market fundamentals that will challenge home prices in the near-term: high for-sale inventory levels, foreclosures, negative equity, and price-to-rent ratios that still aren’t back to historical levels yet.”

On the Zillow blog, the company's vice president of communications wonders: "Are homeowners on to something the numbers aren’t showing? Or is this simply a coping strategy after many months of watching equity shrink away?"

The Zillow poll also asked if people thought their homes had lost value in the last year. Among Northeastern residents polled, 56 percent said yes. Zillow estimates that values actually dropped for 77 percent in the region. 

If you're chomping at the bit for the margin of error, I'm afraid I have to disappoint: Zillow said the poll, conducted online by Harris Interactive, "is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated."

Say -- let's do a real quick poll of our own:

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Survey says ...

August 17, 2009

Small is the new big?

Sunday's Dream Home feature shines a spotlight on Ken Smith's six-room house in Kingsville. Not six bedrooms. Six rooms, total.

The size was part of the appeal for Smith, who liked the idea of an equally small heating and cooling bill and less space to clean.

This reminded me of an interesting conversation I had recently with appraiser Michael Casella, a partner with Muller-Casella Associates in Towson. Small -- or at least smaller -- is where the action is, he said.

"Two years ago, it was all about building a bigger one," he said. "'I can build a bigger one than you can.' Really in a relatively short period of time, it has stopped. There are areas where the 2,800 square-foot houses are selling for what the 4,000 square-foot houses are selling for."

He figures people are pricing in the electricity costs, taxes and maintenance, and opting for less than buyers did a few years ago. He also thinks a lot of people are downsizing.

(Want to look at Smith's small house? The photo gallery is here.)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:37 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Housing market experiences

New real estate poll: Foreclosures and short sales

Start looking at homes on the market, and it won't be long before you come across foreclosures and short sales. In early July in Howard County, for instance, four out of every 10 homes for sale under $200,000 fell into those "distress" categories.

So -- who's buying?

You tell me:

Investors are the traditional buyers for distress properties, but first-time buyers have looked at this market post-bubble in hopes of getting a deal (or something in their price range).

The "yes but" I often hear is condition -- and for short sales, the uncertainty. Short sales require a lender's OK, and lenders sometimes take months to respond to an offer ... even if that response is a simple "no." (Real estate agents expect first-timers to stop considering short sales now that the deadline for the $8,000 tax credit is approaching.)

Got a story to share? Comment away.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Polls

August 16, 2009

Poll results: Calling the housing-market bottom(s)

A plurality of you (there's your word of the day) don't think the Baltimore metro area's housing market has hit bottom yet. But you do think prices and sales will stop falling around the same time.

That was the result of last week's twin Wonk polls, which asked you to put on your forecasting hat.

The most popular answer was 2010 for a market bottom, both for sales (30 percent of votes) and prices (33 percent of votes).

Here are the rest of your answers:

For a bottom in home sales, 20 percent of you said "now," 17 percent said 2011, 16 percent said not for years and 15 percent said by the end of the year. (If you add the "now" folks to the "end of the year" folks, you get a plurality of people who think sales have or will stop falling this year.)

For a bottom in average home prices, 26 percent said 2011, 22 percent said not for years and 18 percent said this year.

And one reader said "when we have 1999 prices" for both questions. (Darwin Rules, I presume?)

You had a lot to say about this topic, not surprisingly.

BigDragon, for instance, wrote: "Calling the point where home sales stabilize is rather tricky. I think what you're seeing right now is a bull trap. It's not so apparent at the moment, but government interference in the foreclosure process has artificially limited the supply. Soon a whole new batch of foreclosures will hit the market and slow things down again."

Readers "Little Debbie," Frank Rizzo and Darwin Rules battled it out, with "Little Debbie" generally more optimistic.

Frank Rizzo wrote, among other points: "Price declines have a long way to go. As more and more people are underwater, more and more people will walk away."

"Little Debbie," asking him to cite sources, said: "Opinions and speculation are silly."

After some back and forth, "Little Debbie" issued this modest forecast:
I herewith change my position: We will see 1979 (2nd quarter) prices before we hit 98.902% inflation because 83.9% of all homeowners will foreclose (that includes people who own their house free and clear). This is because there are 37.97 million homes on the shadow inventory and lenders will soon start charging 57% interest rates after 73.5% of the lenders go belly up. Once the 8k tax credit expires, oil will hit 5000 a barrel and everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) will begin to foreclose.

This is all extremely clear because we are already on this trajectory. That is how economics work!

The bottom is NOT close. We are only at 2003 prices: we have 24 more years left.

The only safe investments are guns and gold. I would also recommend moving to Greenland and buying an igloo with cash.

Jaded responded: "Your last post made me laugh 107.43% of my pants off!"
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:32 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Polls

August 15, 2009

Rental vacancies here and elsewhere

About one in every eight rental units in the Baltimore metro area was empty this spring -- a vacancy rate that puts us on the higher end of the scale nationwide.

Baltimore's 13 percent rate topped 54 of the 75 largest metro areas, according to the Census Bureau's estimates.

The good news? Vacancies shrunk during the spring, dropping 21 percent vs. the winter. That's one of the larger improvements among large metro areas.

The Census Bureau says the vacancy rate is highest in Memphis -- a whopping 26 percent of units are empty there -- and lowest in Bakersfield, Calif. (2.5 percent empty).

Of course, we have to take all of this with the grain of salt required when dealing with estimates. Does this match up with your sense of things, if you're a renter or landlord?

These numbers, in case you're wondering, include both apartment complexes and single-family homes. And foreclosures could be in the mix: "If the unit is classified as 'vacant for sale only', it will be included in the 'vacant for sale' category," the Census Bureau notes. "If the unit is for rent or 'for sale OR rent,' it will be included in the 'vacant for rent' category."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:29 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Landlording, Renting

August 14, 2009

House for $100 -- sort of

For sale: 6,200-square-foot house with five bedrooms, a gourmet kitchen and a master-suite marble bath for $100. Or rather, $100 for a ticket that gives you a chance to win the new Baltimore County house in a raffle.

Lorraine Mirabella reports today on the trend of house raffles -- homeowners teaming up with charities in the hopes that enough people will buy tickets to both pay for the cost of the home and raise money for the nonprofit. Sometimes it works. Often it hasn't, at least in Maryland:

Of the 12 applications in 2008 and 2007, four never followed through on their applications, five were unable to sell the minimum number of tickets and two others were completed. ...
A nonprofit risks losing the money spent marketing and planning the event. Even successful raffles can be problematic - for the winner. Winners of house raffles need to pay income taxes on their prize as well as property taxes, which could require securing a mortgage or selling a current home, neither of which are sure bets amid tightened credit.

Interested in the five-bedroom home? See photos here.

UPDATE: Lorraine Mirabella shares a tidbit that didn't make it into the story -- the raffle organizers say the winner can keep the house or sell it back to them. The builder says he has buyers lined up in case the winner chooses Door No. 2.

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

Price reduced -- by $41 million

A third of the homes for sale in Baltimore are listed for less than their original asking price on Trulia, the real estate site said today. About $41 million less, cumulatively.

The city ranks 11th for its percentage of homes with reductions, which Trulia calculated by seeing how many current listings -- not including foreclosures -- dropped their prices between Aug. 1, 2008 and Aug. 1 of this year.

The average price drop? Eleven percent.

Some of those individual decreases are steep. This three-bedroom Northwest Baltimore rowhouse that went from $75,000 -- its purchase price in 2006 -- to $30,000, for instance. Or this rehabbed Patterson Place home, down 31 percent to $110,000.

Jacksonville, Fla. topped Trulia's list with asking-price cuts on 38 percent of homes for sale. But sellers' reductions were biggest in economically depressed Detroit, down 22 percent on average.

Price reductions might bring buyers to the table, but that doesn't guarantee that those buyers won't offer still less. Average sellers in Baltimore got 89 percent of their asking price last month, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Housing stats

August 13, 2009

Next week: Housing forecaster takes your questions



Ask and you shall receive ... answers.

Housing economist and forecaster Celia Chen of Moody's has kindly agreed to take reader questions in a live chat next week. Mark your calendars: Next Thursday -- Aug. 20 -- at noon.

But I encourage you to start asking your questions now. Comment below with 'em. Questions in the queue will ensure that we start the chat off with a bang rather than a whimper, and it's a way for you to participate even if you can't be here (virtually speaking) at the appointed time.

The Baltimore Sun has been doing live chats every week, but this will be the first about housing. Let's make it a good one! I know you're interested, because "housing-market forecaster" was your top choice when I asked what sorts of experts you'd like to question.

Here's a little bit about Chen:

A senior director of the Moody's research staff, she manages the company's regional house price forecast models, develops proprietary housing market indicators and writes extensively about housing issues. Chen earned her Ph.D. -- with a concentration in econometrics and international finance -- at the University of Pennsylvania.

She's happy to take housing-outlook questions about metro areas and the nation. Just don't make your questions too specific. ("What's going to happen to prices on 30-year-old split-levels in Cockeysville that were recently renovated" -- way too specific.)

Commence the questioning.

(Photo courtesy of Moody's

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Q&A

August 12, 2009

Need foreclosure-prevention help?

Baltimore County's Office of Community Conservation is inviting homeowners who want mortgage advice or free legal counseling to attend a "foreclosure solutions" workshop next Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

The event, to be held at New Town High School, 4931 New Town Blvd. in Owings Mills, will offer information about managing mortgages and one-on-one foreclosure-prevention counseling with attorneys.

If you register by Friday (before 4:30 p.m.), you'll be guaranteed a time slot with an attorney, the organizers say. Call 410-887-3124.

Those free counseling sessions are being put on as part of a partnership with the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland and Civil Justice Inc.

The county is scheduling other sessions with one-on-one counseling in October, November and December.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:43 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Foreclosure help

Financing that home purchase -- now vs. then

Near the peak of the housing frenzy four years ago, 75 percent of homes sold in the Baltimore metro area went to buyers with conventional mortgages -- loans not guaranteed or insured by a government agency.

Now? Thirty-five percent.

The share of buyers turning to FHA-insured mortgages has increased tremendously in these post-bubble, post-subprime times. Forty percent of Baltimore-area buyers went FHA in July, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems. (That's up from 2 percent in July 2005. Yeah -- 2 percent.) It's such a turnaround that FHA-financed purchases jumped ninefold from four years ago, even though total home sales fell by almost half.

Also up: VA loans, assumptions -- where the buyer takes over the loan held by the seller -- and owner financing. Of course, owner financing deals only rose from 1 to 4, so I wouldn't call that a trend. (Though it is a 300 percent increase ...)

And even in these recessionary times, some people (267 in July, to be exact) do have the means to buy a house with 100 percent down. Fewer people than four years ago, granted, but they represent a greater share of total sales: 12 percent, up from 7 percent in July '05.

One Wonk reader recently got a USDA-backed mortgage. Those loans are for purchases in rural areas that aren't necessarily as rural as you might think -- a fair swath of the Baltimore suburbs is eligible.

Have a financing story? Do share.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Mortgages

August 11, 2009

July home sales and Zillow's take on the local market

Sales of homes under $250,000 were way up last month in the Baltimore metro area. Sales of pricier homes? Slightly down.

More interesting stats -- and economist forecasts -- in today's story about the Baltimore-area housing market. C'mon, you know you want to read it.

For all you nice folks who've already been there and done that, here are new statistics from Zillow's second-quarter Real Estate Market Report:

--A quarter of borrowers with single-family homes in the Baltimore metro area are "under water" on their mortgages, Zillow estimates. This stat relies on "Zestimates" of home values and compares current estimated value to the original mortgage amount. (So this does count people whose principal payments have put their heads above water, but it doesn't count homeowners who owe more than they could sell their home for because they tapped their equity in the go-go days.) 

--Seventeen percent in the metro area -- about one in six -- sold for a loss in June. By that, Zillow means homeowners who sold for less than they bought, foreclosures not included.

--Just under 9 percent of homes that changed hands were foreclosure resales, Zillow says. That's up from about 3.5 percent a year earlier. (Zillow's figures range widely. For instance, 2 percent in Towson and 21 percent in Middle River.)

Zillow's figures show about the same percentage of negative equity nationally as here, but more homes sold at a loss and more foreclosure resales.

The company said that nearly 30 percent of U.S. homes sold in June changed hands at a loss for the seller (which seems really high to me, but then California and Florida have a way of skewing national numbers). And foreclosure resales added up to 22 percent of homes sold, the company said.

Zillow said its separate Homeowner Confidence Survey found that 29 percent of homeowners "say they would be at least somewhat likely to put their home on the market if they see signs of a turnaround, ... signaling an abundance of potential shadow inventory waiting in the wings." (The July survey was conducted online.)

That's a lot of frustrated would-be sellers. If you're among that group, what signs of turnaround are you waiting for -- and how long can you hold off?
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Housing stats

August 10, 2009

July home sales in the Baltimore area: up

More homes sold last month in the Baltimore metro area than a year earlier, according to numbers just released by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems. It's the second month in a row of increasing sales -- and the first time that's happened since the go-go days of 2005.

This ain't '05, of course. Average prices fell 6.8 percent in July, to just under $298,000. Four years ago, prices were rising at a 20 percent clip.

Prices fell across the Baltimore area in July, from 5.5 percent in Carroll County to almost 11 percent in Harford County.

But what about sales, you say? Buyers closed on 2,240 homes in the city and surrounding counties last month, up nearly 10 percent from a year earlier. That follows a 2 percent increase in June vs. the year before.

The increase wasn't quite universal. Home sales rose in the suburbs, particularly in Howard County (up 27 percent). But 8 percent fewer homes changed hands in the city last month, according to MRIS.

Do you think the federal government's first-time homebuyer tax credit is fueling sales? What will happen when the credit expires Nov. 30 -- assuming it's not extended?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:03 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Housing stats

Unearned property tax credits

Matt Gonter, Baltimore resident and Wonk reader, doesn't like it when people wrongly get the benefit of the homestead property tax credit. It irritates him that absentee landlords on record as owner-occupiers are paying less in taxes than they ought to be, especially because he suspects the city's high tax rate could be lowered if no one was cheating.

It irritates him so much that he's spent his free time researching online to see which owners of rented or vacant properties are reaping tax breaks for supposedly living there.

I wrote about his crusade last year. Now he has an update: He says he's finished checking out homes listed as vacant by Baltimore City and has found 1,148 that are on record with the state as principal residences. That means their owners could be collecting the homestead credit.

"I believe that this type of cheating runs rampant across the state," he told me, noting that a Montgomery County resident had similar results with a project there.

Gonter said he's still finding homes on a daily basis that are both officially listed as owner-occupied and advertised for rent.

The homestead credit caps property tax increases for owner-occupiers. In Baltimore, the limit is 4 percent a year. The value of the tax break ballooned along with home prices earlier in the decade -- last year it was worth $1 billion to homeowners statewide.

The Maryland General Assembly, concerned about people collecting homestead credits on several homes at once, passed a law in 2007 requiring all homeowners to apply for the credit with their Social Security number -- giving the state a simple way to check if double-dipping is afoot. But the deadline isn't until 2012 for everyone who bought in or before 2007.

Perhaps that's why Gonter keeps finding addresses to add to his list. "The state ought to hire some researchers to look up vacant and rental properties throughout the state," he said.

As it happens, Baltimore ran an audit last year on homes registered as rentals, said Helene Grady, the city's deputy finance director. "We got a number of hits," she said.

The city did a separate check recently to see who's collecting special property tax credits requiring residency -- like the one for new construction -- even though they don't seem to be living in the homes. A few dozen owners will be getting letters soon, asking for documentation that they do indeed live there, Grady said. If they can't prove it or don't respond, they'll get revised tax bills.

While the homestead credit can add up to a lot over time, the city's new-construction credit is valuable immediately. It cuts an owner's tax bill in half the first year and a significant but lesser amount the following four years.

"As we have more and more of these properties getting the credit, we realized we needed to tighten up procedures," Grady said.

I'm sure you have thoughts -- you always do when the subject is property taxes. So weigh in.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Homestead Property Tax Credit, Property taxes

August 9, 2009

Real estate poll: Forecasting the housing-market bottom

I've been trying to avoid polls that ask you to get out your crystal ball, but hey -- since all the cool kids are talking about housing-market bottoms ...

It's really two questions: When will home sales stabilize, if they haven't already, and when will prices stop falling?

So, voilà -- two polls.

The first is about buying activity. Do you think home sales in the metro area have stopped falling, and if not, when? (Sales rose slightly in June vs. a year earlier, so you'll be opining on whether it's a trend or a blip.)

And what about prices?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:00 PM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Polls

Poll results: Location, location, location

Forget parks, snazzy restaurants, family and friends -- what you really want near you is your job.

That was the most popular answer by far in last week's Wonk poll, in any case. Thirty-six percent of you picked "close to work" as your locational priority in selecting a home. An additional six percent said your priority is splitting the distance between your job and your spouse or significant other's job, which means four in 10 of you have commute uppermost in your mind.

The next most popular answer (with 22 percent of the vote) was good schools.

Seventeen percent of you are most interested in having lots of fun things to do nearby.

Nine percent will make sure family and/or friends are close by.

And one or two folks each picked these answers as No. 1 priorities: lots of parks/trails/natural spaces, active community organizations, safety and "away from people." (The last two were write-ins.)

I didn't include safety on the list because I figured it's important to everyone. I wanted to see what people consider the key priority besides, you know, staying alive. Wonk reader Jelena summed up that imperative with this comment on the poll: "If I can't feel safe in my own home/community, the schools and commute don't really matter." (She included "healthy environment" in the overall category of safety -- "e.g. no highway in the backyard."

Real estate agents say schools are generally top-of-list for people with kids, so the "commute is king" results in this poll might mean that many of you don't have children. Or perhaps a number of you consider school options after you've narrowed down neighborhood choices based on commute time.

That's the thing -- I'm sure many of you have a number of need-this-near-me priorities. So what's better, living in a neighborhood that satisfies all of them partially, or giving up most of your locational desires in exchange for getting a few exactly right?

JB opines in the comments that the answer is a neighborhood close to your job and with good schools: "usually you'll end up with all of the other things you listed."

Of course, that's assuming you can afford it.

Wonk reader M commented: "This is a good discussion because it hits the core of what people will sacrifice for and what they will not. The main thing when looking for location is finding that life/work balance. The problem occurs when you are forced to work in a certain area (like DC) and don’t find any of your 'wants' and 'needs' for a reasonable prices, which is where the long commute discussion comes in."

Interesting conversation, folks.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: From home to work, Polls

August 8, 2009

Property reassessments out of cycle

Wonk reader Wick asks, "If I buy a Baltimore City home that is assessed at 100k for a purchase price of 200k, and the home was just assessed (11/08, at 100k) so is not due for re-assessment for 2 more years, will they reassess as soon as I buy the home? Or, will the 100k assessment hold until next 3-year assessment is due, and by then I'll be protected and can apply for homestead credit?"

I put the question to the state Department of Assessments and Taxation. Henry Sikorski, state supervisor of assessments, said Wick doesn't need to worry -- unless there's recent new construction on the home that the state hasn't assessed.

The state will do assessments out of cycle for major work on a home, typically over $100,000 in value. It will also reassess if a vacant lot is built upon or if the property use changes, say from commercial to condo, Sikorski said.

Paying $200,000 for a home the state assessed at $100,000 doesn't in itself prompt the state to come swooping in. "We don't go in and reassess on sales," he said.

Hope that helps, Wick (and anyone else out there pondering the same thing). Oh, and don't forget to apply for that homestead credit. New buyers have a six-month window.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Homestead Property Tax Credit, Property taxes

August 7, 2009

Useful real estate sites

I thought some of you might appreciate a post on useful websites for the housing crowd. You old hands out there know them all already, I'm sure, but hey -- you can hum a tune to yourself while I bring everyone else up to date. And then you can comment with useful sites I forgot to mention. Win-win!

In no particular order:

Real Property Data Search. Want to find out what homes sold in the last year on a street you're thinking about moving to? Wonder what the seller of a home you're thinking of buying paid when he bought? The state's assessors know, and they share on this site.

MdLandRec.Net. This site -- put together by the Maryland Judiciary and Maryland State Archives -- collects records such as mortgage documents. You need to sign up, but it's free.

Metropolitan Regional Information Systems' stats page. MRIS, which runs the multiple-listing service in the region, issues statistics every month about sales and prices. You can see figures by metro area, jurisdiction and ZIP code.

The federal government's House Price Index. Once run by OFHEO, now the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the HPI is an apples-to-apples look at prices in metro areas and states. It compares sales and refinancings of the same homes over the years.

Then, of course, there are many -- many -- sites that have real estate listings and related information. Craigslist. Google. HomeGain. HomesDatabase. Roost. Sawbuck. Trulia. (And that's just some of them.)

What sites have you found useful? Share, share!

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Real estate online

August 6, 2009

BRAC folks in demand

If you're trying to sell a home in Harford or Anne Arundel counties, you're probably eager to see some of those much-discussed BRAC people. You know, the government and government-contractor employees whose jobs are being relocated to Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade.

But there's competition. Delaware's New Castle County wants to benefit from the base realignment and closure, too, and it said this week that it's put together a 52-page relocation guide for incoming APG workers. (You can see the website version here.) The county promises "modest property tax rates and fees when compared with counties in adjoining states," and a "great mix of urban, suburban and rural."

Baltimore, in between the two bases, is also hoping for BRAC movers. Live Baltimore, the nonprofit that promotes Baltimore living, has its own come-on-over page with promises of $6,000 incentives for BRAC people.

And as you can imagine, real estate agents, builders and real estate investors in other spots -- like Cecil County and Lancaster, Pa. -- are sticking "BRAC" oh-so-hopefully in their websites.

Where do you think most of the relocating workers will end up living? Where are you looking, if you're a BRAC person?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (26)
Categories: BRAC

August 5, 2009

Hidden-gem nomimations thus far

I asked you to tell me about hidden-gem neighborhoods in the Baltimore metro area, nice places off the popular radar where homes typically cost less than $250,000. You've collectively nominated 44 -- all but a handful in the city -- that you think fit the bill.

Here's the nomination list as it stands now. Is a worthy neighborhood missing? (Or did I somehow miss your nomination?) Add it in the comments. (We still have no nods for Harford County places.)

I'll soon be going through the list myself, so -- last call.

In Baltimore City:

Coppin Heights/Greater Rosemont
Ednor Gardens
Frankford Estates
Greenmount West
Hamilton Hills
Historic Union Square
Howard Park
Lake Walker
Locust Point
Morrell Park
Old Goucher
Original Northwood
Patterson Park
Seton Hill
Upper Eutaw/Madison
Upper Fells Point
Villages of Homeland

In Anne Arundel County:

Bay Highlands 

In Baltimore County:

Annen Woods
Perry Hall  

In Carroll County:

Reservoir Ridge   

In Harford County:

no neighborhoods nominated

In Howard County:

The Village of Long Reach 


This list doesn't include the nomination for Silo Point because it's a condo tower, not a neighborhood, and isn't under-$250. Plus, I don't think it's particularly hidden. (Nice try, though, Baller.) Also not included is a nomination for a neighborhood in Cambridge on the Eastern Shore, which isn't in the Baltimore area.

Some of the neighborhoods above might not meet all the guidelines, but I'll be looking into that soon enough.

Want to read the nominations? They're mostly here, with a few here and here.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (27)
Categories: Hidden-gem neighborhoods

August 4, 2009

Magnets 'round the world

Apparently, some folks are willing to read wonkish things about Baltimore housing even if they're nowhere near Baltimore. As we speak, Real Estate Wonk magnets are wending their way through the mail to parts as far-flung as the Netherlands.

If you've asked me for a magnet, I've mailed it. Let me know if it doesn't get to you and we'll try again. (If you haven't asked, then of course you won't receive.)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 2:04 PM | | Comments (2)

Some good economic news

Jay Hancock notes on his blog today that the Conference Board is seeing good help-wanted stats -- at least relatively speaking -- for Maryland.

I'll let him sum it up:

Maryland had the best ratio in the nation of the number of jobs listed compared with unemployed people seeking work; to wit, there are two people looking for work for every one help-wanted posting. Not perfect, but compare that with Michigan, where there are 10 people looking for work for every opening listed. In Pennsylvania there were nearly five unemployed folks for every opening.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:16 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: The economy

Auctions (and what to know before you go)

Max Spann Jr. calls auctions "a little stock market of real estate." I watched one of his company's little stock markets in action over the weekend.

You can read about it here, but the upshot was 19 Dewey Beach condos with original asking prices of $399,000 to $850,000 selling for $240,000 to $585,000.

The New Jersey-based Max Spann Real Estate & Auction Co. ran the event differently than auctions I've seen before, where something goes on the auction block and people bid specifically on that something. In this case, the format was "bidder's choice" -- the condos were offered up in batches and the winning bidder picked the one he or she wanted. Then people bid on the remaining condos in the batch, and the next winner opted for his or her favorite of the ones left over, and so on.

As it happened, the condo with the most expensive asking price in the Marina View complex in Dewey Beach was not the one that got the highest bid.

That unit -- the one picked first -- was a two-bedroom with an original asking price of $775,000. "Very interesting, seeing the order and people's preferences," said Brendan Garfield Crotty, a Bethany Beach real estate agent who attended the auction.

"I think some of these people got good deals," he added. But "some of them paid almost market value."

Buyers might end up getting better deals with short sales or foreclosures, he said, plus they usually also have more time for things like inspections.

I chatted with local real estate agent Michael Hamby about auctions in general because he used to run an auction company on the side. Hamby, with Champion Realty in Annapolis, suggests people do plenty of due diligence before showing up with certified checks blazing.

He says you should understand how much you'll pay the auctioneers if you're the winning bidder -- the Max Spann buyer's premium is 10 percent of the bid -- and make sure you know who's covering the closing costs, whether you get to do a home inspection, etc. He also recommends going to the auction with someone who knows real estate.

"Let the buyer beware," Hamby said.

Beware, for instance, the pseudo-auctions. He said he saw one listing that read: "Bid deadline is this Friday at 2 p.m. Absolutely will be sold."

It said that for many, many Fridays.

"This house was on the market for 232 days," he noted dryly.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:15 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Auctions

August 3, 2009

Calling the bottom of the housing slump

It's always easier to pinpoint market highs and lows well after the fact -- hindsight being 20-20 -- but The Associated Press thinks it's now safe to say the "worst is over" for housing.

Here's its argument:

By every measure, except foreclosures, the housing market has stabilized and many areas are recovering, according to a spate of data released in the past two weeks. Nationwide, home resales in June are up 9 percent from January, on a seasonally adjusted basis. Sales of new homes have climbed 17 percent during the same period. And construction, while still anemic, has risen almost 20 percent since the beginning of the year.

Even home prices, down one third from the top, edged up in May, the first monthly increase since June 2006.

The AP story notes that many economists aren't expecting a quick upturn -- just that things probably aren't going to get worse for homeowners.

Do you agree with this conclusion for the country as a whole? What about for the Baltimore metro area?

Home sales in the metro area (in case you need the reminder) rose 2 percent in June vs. a year earlier, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems. Average prices fell 10 percent. There were about 18,800 homes on the market, just under eight for every one that sold that month.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (23)
Categories: Housing forecasts

August 2, 2009

Real estate poll: Location, location, location

Location is key in real estate, or so the saying goes. But what makes a location work for you? What do you want in the surrounding community?

I've been musing about this thanks to a comment by Wonk reader Alek, who writes that people with lousy commutes have only themselves to blame: "You choose where to work, and you choose where to live." Which is of course true -- but a lot of people feel compelled to weigh factors beyond commute when they decide where to live.

I don't mean price or rental costs, in this case. I'm talking about the things you want near you -- amenities, family, you name it.

What's most important to you? Weigh in on this week's poll:

I'd be interested to hear the top five or 10 factors you want in a location, and what you're willing to give up -- or already have given up -- to get priorities.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Polls

August 1, 2009

New jobs -- er, maybe

As Anne Arundel County tries to prepare for growth at Fort Meade, there's one question mark that has nothing to do with the government-worker relocation better known as BRAC. It's the National Security Agency, and how much it will expand.

A lot, the county thinks. Possibly.

Not surprisingly, county leaders are having a hard time getting the secretive "No Such Agency" to loosen its lips.

What we do know (because even secretive agencies have to file notices with the Federal Register) is that NSA wants to build 5.8 million square feet of space at Fort Meade over a 20-year period -- enough to house 11,000 employees.

What we don't know is whether those employees would be holding 11,000 new jobs, or whether they're current employees who will be moved from other buildings on and off Fort Meade. Or some combination of the two options.

What's this got to do with real estate wonkery, you ask? Several things, as it happens.

--If NSA really does add thousands of jobs, that's good news for home sellers within commuting distance. Jobs and housing are inextricably linked. More people with jobs means more who can afford to buy a house or pay the mortgage they already have.

--More jobs also means more people on the roads at rush hour. Anne Arundel County leaders are concerned about traffic snarls just with BRAC workers, never mind NSA recruits, and with tax collections falling it's not an easy time to be expanding roads or transit. (Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold joked Friday that BRAC stands for "Better Rely on Assistance from the County" because the state is cutting back and "the stimulus money, while helpful, is not really going to provide the shot in the arm for our transportation projects.")

--What if NSA isn't adding jobs but just moving them from offices outside its Fort Meade campus? A lot of landlords will be scrambling for new tenants, said Matthew M. Aid, author of The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency. He said NSA has about 5,000 employees in something like 50 offices and warehouses near Fort Meade. (That's on top of at least 20,000 NSA personnel on base, he said.)

Aid has a great stat to illustrate the sheer size of this agency. And as it happens, it's housing-related.

The amount of space NSA is using, or at least was using in the middle of the 1990s, adds up to 7 million square feet in and around Fort Meade, he says. That's the equivalent of -- are you ready for this? -- 3,400 four-bedroom houses.

Not McMansion-sized houses, mind you, but still.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: The economy
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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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