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September 30, 2009

Hancock: Don't extend the first-time buyer tax credit

Sun columnist Jay Hancock argues today that Congress shouldn't extend the $8,000 tax credit for first-time buyers, which is set to expire Nov. 30. (Its possible extension is the subject of intense lobbying by housing-industry groups that want it around for another year.)

Hancock says letting the credit sunset is the fiscally responsible thing to do, "since the country no longer seems in danger of entering a new Depression."

Agree? Disagree? He's taking comments here.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:43 AM | | Comments (1)

Homeowner beware

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Borrower needs help. Borrower goes to foreclosure-rescue business to get help. Borrower signs documents to get or start the process of getting the mortgage refinanced, only to discover later that the foreclosure-rescue specialists were really getting the home signed over to them.

Such fraud has happened across the country, both before and after the housing market went downhill. One local case just wrapped up in Baltimore City Circuit Court with a judgment ordering the defendants to pay just over $1 million in restitution and penalties.

The business associates, Michael K. Lewis, brother Earnest Lewis, Cheryl Brooke and Winston Thomas, pleaded guilty earlier in the year to criminal charges related to dozens of foreclosure-rescue scams. Michael Lewis was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison, Earnest Lewis to 4 1/2 years, Brooke to almost four years and Thomas to just over three years.

The Baltimore civil case, brought by the Consumer Protection Division of the Maryland Attorney General's Office, covered 13 properties, most in the Baltimore area. Once the homeowners unwittingly signed over their properties, Earnest Lewis pulled all their equity out with a new loan and split the money with the defendants, said Bill Gruhn, chief of the Consumer Protection Division.

"Some of the homeowners have moved," he said. "Other homeowners are in their homes and we were able to facilitate settlements" with the lenders.

This is how the FBI describes the scheme:

Lewis and Thomas, a senior loan officer with a mortgage lender, told the homeowners that the 'good credit' of Earnest Lewis would be used to temporarily refinance their homes, that they had to sign their homes over to Earnest Lewis and that they could repurchase the homes in roughly one year, or once they regained their financial footing. During the interim, they could remain in their homes only by paying inflated “rent” and fees ...

Lewis, Earnest Lewis and Thomas lied to the homeowners or omitted details as to the amount of money that the homeowners would receive at settlement, what would be done with any equity in the homes and the need to file for bankruptcy protection and failed to inform the homeowners of the particulars of how the lease/buy-back program worked.

In addition, in order to induce mortgage lenders to provide mortgage loans to purchase the homes, Thomas submitted false financial and employment information to mortgage lenders.

Barry Tapp, an attorney who represented the Lewises and Brooke, said their position was that they were trying to save people's homes "and it just didn't work out."

"They're probably never going to be able to pay that money back," Tapp added, noting that the federal case also ended with a hefty judgment against them.

The business advertised heavily on television in the Baltimore area, Gruhn said -- complete with Michael Lewis's daughter appearing on camera to say, "He's my daddy!" The federal indictment said the ads began in 2004, promising credit-improvement help, bankruptcy assistance and foreclosure prevention.

"If anybody ever offers to save your home from foreclosure and that involves you transferring title to them, or to anyone else, and you '[will] eventually get it back' -- that transaction's illegal," Gruhn said. "Nobody should ever enter into such a transaction."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Mortgage fraud/scams, The foreclosure mess

September 29, 2009

"Sticky" land prices

It takes less money than it did in 2006 to put a house together, thanks to a decline in the cost of raw materials. But what about the land you need to put that house on?

"Land prices are another story," says Kenneth Wenhold, director of the Mid-Atlantic region for Metrostudy, a housing-industry market research firm. "They're very easy to go up. It's very hard for them to go down."

In economist-speak, they're "sticky." (So, economists say, are home prices, though not as sticky as many assumed three years ago.)

"We really haven't seen significant declines" in sale prices, Wenhold said. "There are a lot of people who are shopping properties, and the prices might be discounted slightly, but not to the extent that the market will bear."

He has an interesting point to make about Maryland's situation.

Of the 48 markets Metrostudy covers nationwide, "Maryland is the most lot-constrained. ... There's definitely a shortage of lots, especially in certain counties in the Baltimore region as well as the D.C. region. What you're seeing is, [on] well-located lots, developers aren't willing to negotiate on prices."

Their theory is that builders will have to buy eventually if they want to -- you know -- build.

Builders don't have loads of land left in their pipelines, Wenhold said, and in Maryland it sometimes takes two years to get the approvals you'll need to move forward on a project. Builders are trying to crystal-ball a resurgence in demand because they'll need to buy months beforehand.

"That is the art of real estate, residential real estate, right now," he said. "All builders are wrestling with it. It's a question of, do we want to commit or do we want to wait? And if we do wait, there's a risk we're not going to have a presence in certain submarkets."

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

September 28, 2009

Video of Brooklyn Green Townhomes

Interested in seeing the video that goes with today's affordable-housing story? Here it is:


Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:34 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Affordable housing, Video

Market's tough for affordable housing, too

A recession only increases demand for less-pricey homes and apartments, so affordable-housing builders aren't used to downturns affecting their line of work. But no one nowadays is avoiding the ripple impact of tight credit and tightfisted investors.

"While it always has been challenging to do affordable housing, it's even more so today," said Chickie Grayson, president and chief executive of Enterprise Homes, the building arm of affordable-housing giant Enterprise Community Partners.

You can read about it in my story today, which explains how the credit crunch is decreasing the number of affordable rentals under construction and making it more difficult for groups to sell homes aimed at moderate-income workers.

Who qualifies for partially subsidized affordable housing, assuming there's any to be had? It depends on the program, but some homeownership efforts let you buy if you're making no more than 80 percent of your area's median household income. Around here, that works out to $44,800 for a one-person household, $51,200 for two, $57,600 for three and $64,000 for four.

That's the limit for eight "green" townhomes built by the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition, which says higher down payment requirements and tougher loan qualification rules have kept interested people from becoming buyers.

The homes have been finished since December, and the coalition has contracts -- not closed sales -- on just five of the eight. It quickly sold homes it rehabbed between 2002 and 2006, so it's not used to a prolonged wait.

This particular project started as a block of boarded-up homes, bought by the group at the end of 2003. The homes were in such bad shape that organizers decided to tear down and build new, said executive director Carol K. Eshelman.

And also build green, something that was a lot less talked about then. These homes have "living" roofs planted with sedum, solar panels (one each) that heat the water, a rain barrel in every back yard, dual-flush toilets and lots of insulation to cut down on drafts. The idea is much cheaper heating and cooling costs, so the homes will be more affordable to maintain.

The nonprofit group had to get construction financing like any other developer. Local and state government funding in the pot is what's allowing the coalition to offer the homes for $152,000 even though the cost was close to $250,000, Eshelman said.

"I really thought, 'This has been the hard part -- getting the financing together, putting the deal together, building the houses,'" she said ruefully.

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

September 27, 2009

Real estate poll: The right-sized house

The 6,700-square-foot Dream Home is a reminder -- to me, at least -- that what's too big a house for one person is just right for another. And maybe even too small for someone else. (The Little Red Riding Hood theory of house hunting.)

So tell me -- what's your idea of the "just right" house?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:19 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Polls

Small may be the new big, but ...

With all the attention on smaller homes nowadays, you might think nobody wants a big place. Well, Mark Patzschke does. In today's Dream Home feature, he says he bought his 6,700-square-foot Fallston home because of its spaciousness.

You could fit six moderately sized condos in that sort of house. Heck, you could fit a condo on his "1,200-square-foot, multilevel deck."

This is the exact opposite, size-wise, as an earlier Dream Home that is six rooms in total.

Would you want a huge home if price wasn't an issue? I'd find it exhausting just to decorate, but I'm not the decorating sort.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:41 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Unusual homes

September 26, 2009

Your take on supply vs. demand

Most of you think buyers have the upper hand in this housing market. Just not tremendously so.

Just under two-thirds of you obliging folks who took the first-ever Wonk survey this week say the supply vs. demand situation is tipped in favor of buyers. Many think it's "somewhat" so. Less than a quarter of everyone surveyed opted for "heavily" in buyers' favor.

This doesn't mean the rest say sellers have it easy. Just 9 percent think the market is tipped in favor of sellers (and half of those folks say only "somewhat" so).

Fourteen percent believe the market is basically balanced between buyers and sellers. 

And another 14 percent aren't sure.

In case you're wondering, 44 people took the survey. Thanks, guys!

And because it's a survey rather than a poll, we don't have to guess how homeowners and renters weighed in, or wonder whether the people who say it's a sellers market are sellers or buyers. This is the breakdown:

All the people who say the market is balanced in favor of sellers describe themselves as renters or people "in the market to buy." They're paying attention to Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Howard County and other spots out of state.

Only 20 percent of the folks who think the market is "heavily" tipped in favor of buyers are self-described homeowners. Everyone else is either watching the market, thinking of buying in the next year or so, in the market to buy or waiting to settle on a purchase. 

Most of the folks who believe the market is "somewhat" tipped in favor of buyers don't describe themselves as homeowners, either. Forty percent do.

But 80 percent of the people who think the market is basically balanced are homeowners.

There's no pattern I can see about the counties and price ranges you're watching, other than the fact that they're all over the board. Every Baltimore-area jurisdiction, and everything from the under-$100,000s to over $1 million.

What a diverse mix of folks! Very cool.

So what's your take on the balance of power between buyers and sellers?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Survey says ...

September 25, 2009

Healthy -- and not-so-healthy -- homes

If you're a renter and have issues with your place, you're in good company. Half the rentals in the Baltimore metro area had at least one problem in 2007. But don't feel bad -- 41 percent of owner-occupied homes did, too.

Those are two nuggets from a new report by the Columbia-based National Center for Healthy Housing, which used federal American Housing Survey data on 45 metro areas to show "a critical need to improve housing conditions in many U.S. cities." The nonprofit group says substandard residences can cause illness, injury or death.

The State of Healthy Housing study ranks the Baltimore metro area 29th -- meaning that 28 other areas have healthier housing. Compared with the national average, the Baltimore area had more homes with leaks, with cracks or holes in walls, and with broken plaster or peeling paint.

You're more likely to find a local home with at least one problem: 44 percent here vs. 36 percent nationally.

On the upside, less than 1 percent of Baltimore-area homes had no kitchens. (Who are these poor kitchen-less people?)

The study breaks down information by city and suburb as well as renter and owner. Here's the stat that popped out at me: 32 percent of homes in Baltimore City had mouse problems. That's higher than any of the other central cities in the study. No. 2: Philadelphia, with 26 percent.

How's the condition of your place?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Health and housing

September 24, 2009

Don't call us, we'll call you

Note to applicants: If you're hoping to land a city sanitation job, getting a citation for improper trash storage is probably not going to help.

That's the ironic situation brought to light by these photos, which accompany a city citation for "trash on sidewalk, street, alley or public/private lot" in Baltimore's Patterson Place neighborhood. (The bags aren't in a can with a lid.) A close-up on one of the pieces of trash shows a filled-out employment application. For -- yes -- the "Sanitation Department."

But hey, it could be worse. It could be an application for a code-enforcement job.

Tip of the hat to sharp-eyed reader Matt Gonter for noticing this.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Code enforcement

A sign of life?

The first new construction along the Westport waterfront in Baltimore will be -- wait for it -- a luxury apartment complex. That's the plan, at least: Developer Patrick Turner has a contract to sell an acre of land to Landex Development LLC for that purpose, Lorraine Mirabella reports:
Landex, based in Linthicum, plans to build a 200-unit, six-story, glass-facade building that will have balconies and terraces, secured underground parking and concierge services. Construction is slated to start during the last three months of next year.
The site is 1/50th of the Westport land Turner intends to transform into a mixed-use community with businesses, homes and a hotel. I thought it was interesting that the first piece is high end, even in this downsizing, penny-pinching economy. (Of course, they're high-end rentals, not condos.)
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: New developments

September 23, 2009

Foreclosure's shadow falling over commercial real estate

Think it's tough to refinance your home loan? Pity the poor commercial real estate owner. These guys often must refinance -- their loans only last, say, five to 10 years -- and they're having a dickens of a time doing it.

Thus 1st Mariner Tower at Canton Crossing is facing an Oct. 21 foreclosure auction, as Hanah Cho reports today. Baltimore banker Edwin F. Hale Sr. said the loan matured in August and the lender decided not to renew, though he said he's current on the loan. And he can't find anyone else to refinance it:

"There are no hedge funds, insurance companies, banks to go out and redo loans," Hale said. "I've been on a trek literally around the world trying to get this financed. And I have a lot of company."

The Wall Street Journal wrote on its Deal Journal blog to expect things to get worse, not better: "By the end of 2012, close to $100 billion of the loans that comprise [the commercial mortgage-backed securities market] are likely to face difficulty being refinanced because real-estate values have fallen so far that the borrowers won’t be able to extend existing mortgages or replace them with new debt."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:25 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Commercial real estate

Interesting facts

Ask, and you might receive some interesting answers. That's how it works for the Census Bureau, which this week released the answers it got from the 2008 American Community Survey.

For instance, Maryland homeowners think their values fell last year. The typical value residents gave was about $341,000, down 5 percent ($19,000) from the year before. (As the Census Bureau points out, "Value is the respondent's estimate of how much the property ... would sell for if it were for sale." It's not necessarily what it would sell for.)

On the other hand, we're still No. 1! For income, that is. The median household in Maryland was bringing in about $70,500 last year, just topping New Jersey (almost $70,400). What? The difference is within the margin of error, you say? Shh, the New Jersey folks might be listening!

And finally, there's not a lot of living near your work going on. Maryland, Brent Jones reports in a story about the American Community Survey, "had the second longest commute time in the nation at 31.5 minutes, just behind New York with 31.6." I'm disappointed in you all. If only you'd taken a measly seven seconds longer on the daily commute last year, we'd be No. 1 on this measure, too. Come on, guys. Try harder next time.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Housing stats, We're No. 1! (Or thereabouts)

September 22, 2009

The eighth-most viewed home for sale

The photos don't make it look prepossessing -- mismatched paint job, random items on the floor, a small hole in the wall -- but this Maryland property was one of the most viewed homes for sale nationwide on last week. It's eighth among homes listed within about $45,000 of the U.S. median price (roughly $220,000).

I'm guessing that it's price racking up the hits for this five-bedroom brick rambler in the Prince George's County community of Clinton. It's a short sale listed for $180,000, half of what the owner paid two years ago. (You can see larger photos here.)

This got me thinking about short sales, because some of you have said they are definitely not for the faint-hearted buyer. Or, for that matter, a buyer with any sort of deadline.

Short sales are the question mark of the housing market. You could offer the asking price, be the only interested buyer and still not end up with the property. Though the homeowner sets the asking price, it's up to the lender to decide whether to accept. That's because the homeowner is hoping the lender will let the property sell for less than the mortgage amount and forgive the difference.

With short sales, the asking price might be reflecting the home's true value. Or -- some real estate agents are warning -- it might be set waaaay low to grab attention.

"There’s a reason that short sale listings have the statement 'lender approval required,'" writes real estate agent Cindy Bowers of Arizona in this blog post.

On the other hand, as Wonk reader terp05 pointed out last month, you just might end up with a good deal. After a frustrating six-month wait, terp05 said, "in the end I [got] the home with the features I was looking for and some perks that I wouldn't have been able to afford otherwise."

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

Struggling with energy bills?

If utility bills are overwhelming you, you might be eligible for help.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. -- along with Baltimore City Office of Home Energy Programs, Upton Community Association and Union Baptist Church -- is putting on an "energy assistance expo" today to help customers apply for that help.

The event is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Union Baptist Church, 1219 Druid Hill Ave. in Baltimore. If you're going, make sure you bring these items:

Government-issued photo ID

Proof of total gross income for the last 30 days for all household members

Proof of residence (lease, rent book, mortgage statement)

Copies of Social Security cards for all household members -- kids, too

Copy of your most recent utility bill

Name of your home energy supplier and account number

Whether you're eligible for assistance or not, how have your utility costs been lately?


Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Utility bills

September 21, 2009

Finding the right home in an unexpected place

Wonk reader John emailed recently to say he just "moved from the 'disgruntled renter' camp to the 'new city homeowner' camp." He and his partner found a home they love that happens not to be in one of the city neighborhoods they were checking out at the start.

Here's his tale:

The most important thing I learned from this real estate market is that I had to adjust my preconceived notions about where I would be happy living. At the beginning of our house hunt (we have seriously been looking for more than 3 years), we were only willing to live in the tonier parts of 21210, 21212.

But we found that the sellers in those areas were--comparatively--the most unrealistic about price. I can't begin to describe the poor quality of the homes for which the owners wanted [more than] $230 [per square foot]--and all of them would have required at least $50,000 in repairs (not upgrades--repairs).

And of course, all of those neighborhoods are also car dependent--which I view as a negative. (Having lived in Mount Vernon for the past five years, I am not willing to give up my walking lifestyle.)

So where did they go instead?

Here, let John tell you:
After we re-evaluated our options and made ourselves open to looking in other neighborhoods, we found the perfect house for us. We are now living in what is sometimes referred to as Little Lithuania (i.e., northeast Pigtown) and we love our house.

He says he bought the house for "less than $100 per square foot--plus a two-car garage, all downtown and convenient to work."

I've often heard buyers say they didn't end up moving to their first-choice neighborhood because it was too pricey for their budget. What intrigued me about John's story is that he's talking instead about value, how much per square foot and what sort of shape those square feet were in. Also, he started off looking in upscale areas and ended up happily buying in a neighborhood that's usually dubbed "transitional."

What a property is worth has at least something to do with all the things around said property. But even in an exclusive neighborhood, there's such a thing as an asking price that will make buyers say "no thanks."

Have any of you switched gears and bought in a neighborhood that -- for whatever reason -- you weren't considering at first? What changed your mind?

I'm always interested to hear your home stories, by the way -- buying, selling and living-in. Thanks, John, for sharing yours.

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

September 20, 2009

Supply vs. demand in your neck of the woods

We've been chatting recently about supply vs. demand -- homes listed for sale in various price ranges compared with sales in those ranges. Some of you buyers shared your experiences, which is always interesting. I'd like to hear more about what you're seeing, whether you're a buyer, seller or observer, and I've made it easy for you to share.

Not a poll this Sunday. A quick check-the-box survey with four questions.

Go on, try it out! First Wonk survey ever! (Note to the unlucky few of you with insanely restrictive work computer settings: It's powered by Google Docs.)

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

September 19, 2009

When 7.2% unemployment looks good

When does 7.2 percent unemployment look good in Maryland? When it marks the end of -- or at least a pause in -- a rapidly worsening job situation. August was the fourth straight month of 7.2 percent, according to new Labor Department estimates. The rate ratcheted up to that point from 4.5 percent a year ago.

There's been a lot of chatter about the "R" word this week because Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, in a Q&A after a speech, said he thinks the recession is likely over. A majority of you disagree -- or at least 60 percent of you who took the poll that was part of Friday's live chat.

I took a look at Bernanke's remarks, and they're hardly "happy days are here again." He cautions that job growth probably won't be any great shakes next year, saying that most forecasters think the "pace of growth in 2010 will be moderate, less than you might expect given the depth of the recession":

And the arithmetic is that unless the economy grows, you know, significantly faster than its longer term growth rate, it’ll be relatively slow in creating jobs over and above those needed to employ people coming into the labor force, and therefore, the unemployment rate would tend to come down quite slowly. So that’s a risk, that’s a possibility.

The health of the housing market is influenced by the ease with which people can get and keep jobs. (Obviously there's a housing connection, or I wouldn't be blogging about it.)

But sometimes it's the loss of a job that prompts someone to buy a house.

Louis Gagliano, a Baltimore County resident who lost a business analyst job, said it's been very difficult finding a company ready to hire. He's had several interviews of the "you're the one we want if we grow down the road" variety.

In the meantime, he bought a home in Baltimore's Highlandtown neighborhood and is rehabbing it to sell. He dipped into his savings and tapped his 401(k) to finance the project.

He figures it will be ready for sale in October, three months after he acquired it and about a year after the wave of layoffs at his company.

"We're working like crazy," Gagliano said.

I can think of several other locals who got into real estate investing after a layoff. Would you? Or is it more risk than you'd be comfortable taking?

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

September 18, 2009


Way to go, Wonk readers: This week you crossed over the 3,000-comment mark.

The 3,000th comment, assuming I counted correctly, was M's on this post about communities -- including Baltimore -- wooing BRAC folks whose jobs are moving from New Jersey to Aberdeen Proving Ground. Here's what M wrote:

I think it's great that people are considering living in the city. Baltimore has a lot to offer most of these folks and hopefully some make the decision that Baltimore is the place to be. However, I personally do not believe that a large portion of these people will decide that the city is the place to live. The high taxes, high crime, generally poor schools, and parking issues do not shine the best light on city living. Sure there are some great things about the city (it's why I live there) but the majority of these workers have good incomes and families that will hinder Baltimore being their choice.

Also, as a fan of the Wire series and reading a lot about how it was developed and who wrote the stories, I highly disagree with the statement ""Although many people stereotype Baltimore by the storylines they see on HBO's 'The Wire,' it is a work of fiction". Ask any cop or local writer (Which the two writers of the Wire are) and they will tell you the series is dead on accurate.

There's been a lot of reader discussion about city living vs. suburban living and any number of other topics that could prompt the dreaded CAPSLOCK OF RAGE. But you know, you're usually pretty collegial. It warms my heart that you all mingle here -- virtually speaking -- without getting into pixel fisticuffs.

Keep those comments coming. I can blog all I want, but you're the ones who make this a community.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:52 PM | | Comments (7)

A tale of two jurisdictions' housing markets

So the housing market is looking brighter for sellers in Howard County, as I mentioned yesterday. At the current pace of sales, it would take 5.3 months to find buyers for all the Howard homes on the market -- a pretty balanced supply and demand. Tilted slightly in sellers' favor, if anything. (The rule of thumb for market equilibrium is roughly six months, with more being good for buyers and less, good for sellers.)

Baltimore, meanwhile, has more than 15 months of supply, according to Sawbuck Realty.

Now, I realize that anyone of the opinion that Howard County is a nicer place to live than Baltimore will think these statistics require no explanation. But both situations look more complex to me than, say, several thousand people trying to sell their homes in the city and move to the county that James Rouse put on the map. At least, that's the impression I got from burrowing into the sales data.

First off, plenty of Howard County homeowners trying to sell are ... well, just trying. Though it's the most expensive spot in the metro area, the county isn't bucking the trend of buyers going for the less-pricey stuff.

Would-be sellers there with asking prices in the $700,000s and $800,000s are competing against a nearly 12-month supply, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems' figures for August. In the $1 million to $2.4 million range, the supply of homes topped 60 months. And there were no Howard County homes sold last month in the $900,000s or $2.5-million-plus, which means a supply that will last ... let's see ... until the end of time. (Just kidding. At least, you hope I am, if you're one of those sellers.)

But every price category from $150,000 to $450,000 was under five months. The $250,000 to $299,000 range, for instance, is down to 3.8 months. And $400,000 to $449,000? Just 3.2 months. That, my friends, sure looks like a seller's market.

I wouldn't call $400,000 an inexpensive home, by the way, but everything's relative. Two years ago, more than half the homes sold in Howard were pricier.

So, then: What about Baltimore?

It probably doesn't help the city that prices have fallen in the surrounding counties. As the 'burbs got increasingly expensive during the bubble, more people opted for Baltimore. Now, buyers on the fence about urban vs. suburban have more options in the latter category than they did a few years back.

"That's my theory," said Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, when I asked him why he thought sales were still falling (modestly) in the city. "There's a high level of choice, and the choices are more affordable now."

But there's another issue to consider, too. Between 2001 and 2005, home sales rose nearly 50 percent in the city. Fifty! That's 3,700 more homes changing hands in '05 than '01. In Howard County, by comparison, the sales increase was less than 10 percent.

Some of the city's sales boom was driven by investors, many of whom weren't planning to hold the properties long term. So that's a piece of the inventory now.

But plenty of regular homeowner-types bought in the bubble years, too. And here's the thing: The average American moves every seven years. You'd expect that a not insignificant number of those boom-time buyers would be wanting to sell now, just because it's been a while. People's needs change. They want a home that's bigger, or smaller, or across town, or in another state.

Oh, and here's one gee-whiz stat: There's about nine months of supply in the city's $1 million to $2.4 million price range, thanks to five homes selling for that amount in August. That can change a lot from month to month, but still -- that's nine vs. Howard County's 60.

In any case, the housing-inventory numbers could be sending a message about buyers' and sellers' opinions on community quality of life, as MrRational suggests in a comment on yesterday's post. Or that might be one of a number of reasons as varied as the ingredients in a good stew. The real test, I suppose, is where the people who are trying to sell in Baltimore end up buying, once all is said and done. And what happens to the folks with pricey homes on the market in Howard County.

Are you buying or selling in either Howard County or Baltimore City? Why, and what have you noticed about your local housing market?

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

September 17, 2009

Live chat with economist Anirban Basu on the Maryland economy

Hi, folks -- I'll be hosting a live chat with Baltimore economist Anirban Basu at 9 a.m. Friday. We'll go for at least half an hour.

Submit your questions about the Maryland economy, housing market or related subjects as a comment on this post. Or you can type questions directly into the live-chat portal below beginning at 8:30 a.m.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 5:00 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Q&A

Remember: Live chat tomorrow

Wondering where things stand with the Maryland economy? Or how long unemployment might continue to worsen? Or why home sales are increasing in some price ranges but falling in others?

Ask Baltimore economist Anirban Basu. We're one day -- and less than 24 hours -- away from the live chat with him. Come with your questions and help make it lively!

The chat will begin at 9 a.m. tomorrow, right here. You can post a question to our chat system starting at 8:30 a.m., or -- if you're afraid life might conspire to keep you away -- you can post your question as a comment here.

Some of you had interesting questions in the queue for our last live-chat economist, Celia Chen, that didn't get answered because we ran out of time. I encourage you to ask them again.


Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:32 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Q&A

OK, fine, location matters too

I said earlier this week that the really interesting trend in real estate -- never mind "location, location, location" -- is the difference in the number of homes selling vs. those sitting, by price range.

But it's not as if location is irrelevant. Overall in the Baltimore region, supply vs. demand is unbalanced in buyers' favor. Very much so in some spots. And yet, that's not true everywhere. In one county, it seems to be balancing out -- maybe even tipping slightly in favor of sellers.

Yeah, I thought that would get your attention. Can you guess which one?

Ready? OK, then:

Howard County. Yeah, the most expensive one in the metro area. This might strike you as surprising, considering that less-expensive price ranges are the ones seeing the most action. But more on that later.

It would -- as of Wednesday -- take 5.3 months for all of Howard County's listed homes to find buyers at the current pace of sales, according to Sawbuck Realty, which tracks that stat on its website. Supply and demand is generally dubbed "balanced" when that figure is around six.

The rest of the metro area is significantly higher, Sawbuck's figures show:

--Anne Arundel County has a 9.8-month supply of homes

--Baltimore has a 15.7-month supply

--Baltimore County has an 8.7-month supply

--Carroll County has a 9.7-month supply

--Harford County has an 8.9-month supply

Baltimore County and Harford County have a fair number of homes in reach of first-time buyers, so it makes sense that their housing markets are closer to equilibrium than pricier Anne Arundel or Carroll.

But what about pricey Howard? Or Baltimore City, which is the least expensive jurisdiction but has the area's most homes on the market compared with sales?

I didn't think "duh -- location, location, location" was a good enough answer, so I dug into the stats a bit. And found some interesting stuff.

More on that tomorrow.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Housing stats

September 16, 2009

Light for all



Announcement time -- I think this is really cool, and I hope you'll agree.

The Baltimore Sun’s business news staff is launching a new feature called Light Source. It's an opportunity for you to connect with the Sun and help us spot trends that are benefiting or buffeting you. Reporters hear from pundits all the time, but the idea here is to open a direct line with readers. In other words, we’re asking you to be a source.

Once a month we’ll ask questions about life experiences -- for instance, how has the housing-market downturn personally affected you? -- and invite people to weigh in. The questions will be online, so anyone can participate. (We won’t be using anyone’s written answers without calling first to make sure it’s OK. This isn’t an on-the-record interview.)

The Light Source main page, with more details, is here. And you can find the first questionnaire here.

American Public Media, which produces such radio shows as Marketplace, has been doing something similar to great effect. This helps make news coverage more relevant.

Some of you frequent Wonk commenters heard about this yesterday because I have your email addresses. (In fact, several of you have already joined in -- thanks!) But I don't have everyone's address, and I'm sure I missed some of you whose addresses I do have, so consider this your personal invitation.

I hope you insightful folks will check it out and invite others. See ways to improve Light Source? Let me know.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Light Source

Choosing where to move: BRAC edition

Harford County figures it's bused 1,000 people down from New Jersey over the past two years to tour its communities. Cecil County has had bus tours of its own, plus one economic development employee there has -- by her count -- conducted 76 individual tours by car, van and truck just this year. Baltimore County organized a bus tour in May for about 70 people. And last weekend, Live Baltimore gave 33 folks a two-day "consider the city" pitch.

Relocating here for BRAC? You are in demand, in case you hadn't noticed.

The national base realignment and closure process is sending thousands of jobs to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County and Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County. Because Fort Meade's jobs are largely coming from nearby Northern Virginia, the "won't you be my neighbor" action is focused on Fort Monmouth workers whose jobs are headed from New Jersey to APG.

I tagged along on Live Baltimore's BRAC tour on Sunday -- you can read the story about it here -- and it was interesting to see the city through the eyes of Fort Monmouth workers. The chatter ranged from property taxes to neighborhood comparisons -- Homeland reminded one worker of Princeton -- to "The Wire," the critically acclaimed HBO drama that isn't exactly an advertisement for Baltimore's quality of life.

Live Baltimore's talking points included this on the subject of television: "Although many people stereotype Baltimore by the storylines they see on HBO's 'The Wire,' it is a work of fiction. Baltimore is not unlike many metropolitan cities where drugs are to blame for much of the crime problem."

The nonprofit group has all the upsides of a sizable city to help make its case for Baltimore living -- museums, sports teams, walkable neighborhoods, funky stores and the like. But staffers have their work cut out for them in the BRAC competition.

Jim Richardson, director of economic development in Harford County, said his office's study of early movers shows about 80 percent of them living in Harford. Even considering that many early movers are higher-level managers who need to live near the post, that's a big number.

And Cecil County, the rural exurb to the north, seems to be getting a close look from prospective movers. Its two bus tours -- last May and November -- were packed. Erika Quesenbery, marketing coordinator for the Office of Economic Development there, says she's done 76 tours since January for people who drove down from New Jersey on their own.

Easter weekend alone, "we had 14 different couples that came in." She had to enlist her husband and parents to help. Other community members are giving tours, too -- too many for Quesenbery to keep track of them all.

"I'm very attuned now to seeing New Jersey license plates," she said.

It's not just home sales and tax dollars at stake. Counties want Fort Monmouth personnel for their brains. In the "knowledge economy" that everyone talks about, highly trained workers are a boon.

Harford County, as it happens, offers the reverse of Live Baltimore's "we're only 30 minutes from APG" argument:

"Certainly we use Baltimore City as a drawing point, that you can be 30 minutes from downtown," Richardson said.

I know some of you are skeptical that BRAC workers will opt for city living over suburb. But Baltimore already has some BRAC folks, despite the competition.

Eric Pilsmaker, 27, moved to Baltimore from Pittsburgh after taking a BRAC analyst job with a consulting firm.

"I asked colleagues ... where they lived, and they both lived in Baltimore," he said. "I figured for a young guy like me, I'm not interested in living out in Harford County. Baltimore's a really attractive option."

Are you a BRAC mover? A local resident seeing BRAC activity? Share your experiences.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (19)
Categories: BRAC

September 15, 2009

How Baltimore stacks up

If you like to know how we compare with the rest of the nation, the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program has just the report for you: It ranks the 100 largest metro areas on economic and housing-market measures of health.

I wrote a story for today's paper about the economic stats -- we're 18th best, for instance, as measured by the recent change in employment. (As in, it's not as bad here as it is in 82 other places. Woohoo!) The Baltimore metro area was in or near the top quarter of metro areas on most of the economic measurements.

But what about the housing stats? Those are a different story.

Our 5.8 percent drop in home prices in the spring, compared with a year earlier, ranked us 73rd out of 100. (With 100 being worst, at least from a homeowner point of view.)

The metro area was 61st out of 100 for its share of bank-owned homes -- 2.84 for every 1,000 mortgageable properties. (The average for all metro areas was higher, but only because some big regions are so hard hit.) These homes, which were foreclosed on and taken back by lenders, are typically called "REOs" for "real estate owned."

Baltimore's worst ranking on the report: Measured by the change in bank-owned properties from the first quarter of the year to the second quarter, it was 83rd out of 100.

Alan Berube, senior fellow and research director at the Metropolitan Policy Program, said those rankings signal fallout from housing-bubble speculation.

"Stabilizing housing prices and getting through the foreclosure inventory is going to take some time," he said.

Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, wasn't surprised that the Baltimore area ranked poorly for recent changes in prices and REOs. The housing downturn started later here, he said.

"The city probably has the biggest problem, because there are a lot more investor-owned properties here," he said. "But it started in Cleveland like two years ago. The fact is, we've got a ways to work through on this particular problem in the metro area. So this is going to probably get a little bit worse before it gets better."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:41 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Housing stats, The economy, The foreclosure mess

September 14, 2009

Live chat on Friday: Economist Anirban Basu

A reminder to all you inquisitive folks: Baltimore economist Anirban Basu will take your questions in a live chat at 9 a.m. this Friday. Queries about the economy, the housing market and related topics are all fair game. (You can see his bio here.)

Our live-chat system will open its doors here ( around 8:30 a.m. to collect questions.

But you know how it is: Life will prevent some of you from showing up, virtually speaking. I'd love to see some questions asked in advance -- we've only got two so far. You can submit them in the comments.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:07 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Q&A

Price point, price point, price point

Location, schmocation -- the really interesting trend in the housing market today is about price range.

To wit: Half the homes that sold last month in the Baltimore metro area were under $250,000. A year earlier, it was 42 percent. In August 2007, it was 40 percent.

A year ago, the same number of homes sold for less than $150,000 as sold for $500,000 or more. Last month, a change of fortunes: Buyers snapped up 30 percent more under-$150 homes and 8 percent less in the half-mil range.

So, more people are getting less-pricey homes. But how easy is it to sell one?

If you'll recall, there's a number in real estate that helps you tell if it's a buyer's, seller's or balanced market. How many months would it take to find buyers for all listed homes at the current pace of sales?

This is called "months' supply," and the generally accepted balanced-market figure is six. More than that, and it's no fun for sellers. Less than that, and buyers start feeling the pinch.

Here's how things stood in the Baltimore metro area last month, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems data:

In the $200,000-$249,999 price range, there was a 6.3-month supply. Yup, just a bit over the magic number.

In the $150,000-$199,999 price range, the figure was 7.3.

In the $100,000-$149,999 price range, it was 9.7.

And under $100,000, it was 13. (Rehab-required places in search of investors?)

As for pricier ranges:

There was a 7.4-month supply of homes priced at $250,000 to $349,999.

... a 7.8-month supply of homes priced at $350,000 to $499,999.

... a 14.3-month supply of homes at or above $500,000. (Get up to the $2.5-million-plus category, and the months' supply is more than 100.)

So a sweet spot appears to be $200-$249k.

But slice the data even more thinly, and you'll see that the $400,000 to $449,999 range had a 5.4-month supply. Whoa! That's a big improvement from last year, driven both by an increase in sales and a decrease in listings. Are all the move-up folks who sold $200,000-$249,000 homes buying $400,000-$449,000 ones?

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

September 13, 2009

Happily renting

Some people can't wait to own their own home, but others are perfectly satisfied being tenants. Lorraine Mirabella has a story today about those folks, noting that in this "time of declining house values, rising foreclosures and uncertainty about jobs, many who may have jumped into the housing market in a better economy are content to rent instead."

She shares the story of Jordan Hamilton, 27, who moved to Maryland from Tennessee in October:

Initially he thought, "I don't want to continue to throw money away on rent," he said. "But then I had to weigh my options, and thought maybe I'm not throwing money away on rent. There were more pros to continue to rent for right now. I may not eventually be building any equity, and I'm worried about how much money I would lose if I need to sell it for a job move."

Any happy renters out there? Or are you in the aggravated-renter category?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:48 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Housing market experiences, Renting

Poll results: If you controlled FHA

If you were in charge of the world -- or at least the Federal Housing Administration -- you would require that FHA-insured loans had higher down payment requirements. That was the most popular answer in last week's Wonk poll, which asked what changes (if any) you'd make at the agency, which is seeing rising default rates.

So: 42 percent of you opted for more money down. Here's what the rest of you poll-takers said:

Twenty-one percent think FHA lending rules are too restrictive. Loosen 'em up, you say.

Thirteen percent say the lending practices are just right.

Another thirteen percent say FHA ought to increase the minimum down payment and the monthly premiums.

And six percent are in favor of higher monthly premiums alone.

Two of you wrote in your own answers, which both happened to be the same -- stop lending.

I should've asked you where you were coming from, dagnabbit. Is it prospective buyers who are in favor of looser lending rules? Or sellers? Are renters or homeowners more likely to want the bar set higher?

Two readers who commented on the poll had different perspectives:

Justine, who says she'd like to buy a home in a few years, is squarely in the "more money down" group:

I find it hard to believe the government loans require only a pittance for a downpayment. According to the bank's standards, I could qualify for a mortgage waay more than I feel comfortable with, and it's not just because of job security worries. It costs a lot to maintain a home -- and you also want to have money for retirement, kids, the occasional vacation ...

If we're all a little more conservative with our money, perhaps we can avoid re-creating the housing meltdown -- this time using government-backed loans.

Munchong said, "I don't think anyone can fault the FHA, Fannie or Freddie for much of the mess they are in now - I mean, the economy's already quite troubled, the job market is in poor shape and what kind of health, relatively speaking, would the housing market be expected to be in?? Skyrocketing? I mean really...Just when people need help, I think that's what these programs are for, ain't they?"

One thing's for certain: FHA is such a sizable part of the housing market now that anything it does, whether rule-changing or not, has an impact.

Of the home sales in the Baltimore metro area that were financed last month, 46 percent were FHA. That's more than conventional, which used to be the big mover. Its market share was 39 percent last month.

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

September 12, 2009

A lot of reduced prices in Baltimore

Just over a third of the homes on the market in Baltimore have had at least one drop in the asking price -- one of the largest shares among large cities. That's according to real estate site Trulia, which regularly compares listings to see how many are reduced.

Among the 50 biggest cities, these had the most homes with price cuts:

1. Jacksonville, Fla. (37 percent)

2. Milwaukee (36 percent)

3. Portland (35 percent) -- tied with Memphis, Tenn.

5. Baltimore (34 percent) -- tied with Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Raleigh, N.C. (Here's an example of a reduced-price city home -- $255,000 off!)

Trulia looked at homes listed for sale Sept. 1, not including foreclosures, to see how many had at least one reduction in asking price over the previous 12 months.

In the country as a whole, 26 percent of homes for sale have had price cuts.

"The average discount for price-reduced homes remains at ten percent off of the original listing price," Trulia said in a press release.

Baltimore's average reduction is 11 percent -- for a grand total of $43 million off.

City owners asking more than $1 million for their homes are feeling it more: Their average price cut was 13 percent -- a whopping $210,000. (By contrast, the entire sales price of the average city home that changed hands last month was $180,000.)

The average reduction for all homes was smaller in the counties, from 10 percent in Anne Arundel to 7 percent in Harford.

But the number of reductions ranged. Anne Arundel County had just as many as Baltimore -- 34 percent -- and Baltimore County had more (36 percent).

Thirty percent of homes in Harford and Howard counties had reduced asking prices, and 28 percent in Carroll County.

Trulia's "price reduced" search feature lets you see the homes with lowered asking prices. One in Columbia -- which bills itself as "the property Jim Rouse originally selected for himself" -- is on the market for $1 million, a quarter-mil less than it was two months ago.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Housing stats

September 11, 2009

A split housing market

Home sales are rising in the Baltimore metro area, but the effect is really focused.

Buyers got 23 percent more homes last month in the under-$250,000 range than they did a year ago, but 9 percent fewer homes above that price mark.

That's one of the nuggets in today's housing-market story. You'll also find a prospective seller who shares the downsides -- and one upside -- of relocating out of state in a tricky housing market.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:39 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Housing stats

Little Italy residents -- and their renovation -- on TV

Jon Wingerberg and Craig Newcomb have been renovating their three-story Little Italy rowhouse since they bought it in June of last year. A variety of family, friends and strangers know all about it -- from the drywalling to the fireplace tiling -- because the partners decided to blog about it as they went.

Project Rowhouse is replete with before, during and after photos, plus the sort of commentary that anyone who's done any home-improvement projects will appreciate. Such as: "Primer is on the walls and the smell of KILZ is in the air – it’s intoxicating. Literally."

Tonight you can see them and their 200-year-old home on TV. Their renovation is one of three featured on a Baltimore-centric episode of HGTV's Bang for Your Buck.

It's scheduled to air at 9:30 p.m. HGTV sums it up this way: "Designer Taniya Nayak compares three great rooms in Baltimore that were recently renovated with budgets of $50,000 each. Along with a realtor, they look at a modern great room with horizontal metal cabinets, a contemporary great room with a wood-burning fireplace and a spunky great room with a built-in bar."

Wingerberg, 29, and Newcomb, 30, sent in photos of their work on a whim when they heard HGTV was taking applications. Lo and behold, they were selected. (So was another Baltimore rowhouse blogger.)

Wingerberg says he and Newcomb didn't actually spend $50 grand. "It's probably been about -- oh, $25 to $30 [thousand] total," he said. "The show took into account that we did all the labor ourselves. I have a feeling it would have been more than that if we had to hire people for everything."

They moved the kitchen from the basement -- yep, it was in the basement -- to the first floor. They redid both levels while they were at it, and they're finishing the master bedroom now.

"Then we're going to stop for a while," Wingerberg said. "It's exhausting with full-time jobs -- and just everyday nonstop, the renovation goes on. It'll be nice to take a break for a while and just enjoy the house. And quit spending money."

He said they started blogging about the renovations because their family and friends are spread across the country, and it was easier to have their updates online rather than sending out photo-laden emails. "It turned into this fun thing," he said. "We've met other people renovating their houses. ... I didn't really realize that I'd be getting 70 or 80 random hits a day from people that I don't know."

I asked Wingerberg if he'd recommend a months-long renovation to prospective home buyers. He said he's enjoyed it because it's a hobby for him. Just remember, he said, that it can be stressful and "trying on your relationship if you have one."

"But it's completely rewarding to finish something like this," he said.

Is it finished?

"We've going to move on to the bathrooms, but maybe not until next year,"  he said. "Maybe a rooftop deck is in the future, too -- if Little Italy will allow it."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Renovation/rehab

September 10, 2009

August home sales

Baltimore-area home sales in August were up year-over-year for the third straight month, Metropolitan Regional Information Systems said today. The increase was about 5 percent in the metro area, while average sale prices dropped 7 percent.

August's average -- about $295,000 -- is $14,000 lower than what sellers got four years earlier.

"Your mileage may vary" warning: Some sellers who bought at the peak are seeing a much bigger loss of value. An average is just an average, and it also doesn't account for the homes that are sitting on the market unsold.

That unsold group added up to about 18,700 homes last month. That's down 10 percent from a year earlier -- good news for sellers -- but more than double what it was at the peak of the buying craze in 2005.

Sales, meanwhile, are down 54 percent from the level set in August 2005.

On the upside, pending deals that buyers and sellers agreed to last month rose 25 percent from a year ago. I sense a mad rush to close by Nov. 30, when the $8,000 tax credit for first-time buyers is supposed to expire.

More on this in tomorrow's story. Stay tuned.

What are you noticing about the housing market nowadays?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 5:27 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Housing stats

The not-so-expensive 'burbs

Many Baltimore neighborhoods have average sale prices under $250,000, but go outside city lines and you're bombarded with higher-priced options. Average prices are above $250 in three-quarters of ZIP codes in the 'burbs.

Still, if $250,000 is your ceiling, you could look at it as a glass-quarter-full sort of deal and check out the one-in-four ZIPs that are in your price range.

Here's the list, which shows sales averages for the first half of the year: You'll see a few ZIP codes that say "Baltimore," but I've stripped out any sales of homes inside city lines. What you see is the suburban average.

ZIP codes are included if they had at least five sales reported to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, which runs the region's multiple-listing service.

Bottom line: Average prices were higher in almost all these communities during the first half of last year. Nine, in fact, were over $250,000. So your geographic options are growing if you're looking for a home in that price range, though I realize that properties in need of work -- foreclosures among them -- could be pulling down the sales averages.

No doubt you know this already, but you can find homes for less than $250,000 in other places where the averages are higher. And you can find pricier homes in the communities on this list. (One home in Joppa, where the average was about $248,000, sold for more than $600,000 in the first half of the year.)

Do any of the ZIP codes on the under-$250 list surprise you? Are there any you expected to see but didn't?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Housing stats

Got $11.9 million lying around?

Million-dollar homes aren't unusual anymore, but $11.9 million is a different story. That's the asking price for a spread in Annapolis that sits on about 20 acres and looks out over the Chesapeake Bay.

The listing, which went up last week, says the brick-and-stucco Tudor house has a two-car garage, five bedrooms and four-and-a-half bathrooms. (No standing in line for the loo!) There's also a guest house and a waterside patio.

The home is assessed by the state at a much lower value for property-tax purposes -- $1.5 million -- but then the use is listed as agricultural.

Thanks to reader Ted Kluga for noticing that this property hit the market.

According to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, 801 of the homes for sale in the Baltimore metro area in July were priced at $1 million or more. Just 20 were listed for at least $5 million.

It's not an easy time for the luxury-home market, which has to contend with financing constraints plus potential buyers with their own pricey homes they'd need to sell first. Not that this is news to any of you.

Seen any interesting homes on the market lately?

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

September 9, 2009

Mortgage troubles? Meet with a lender Saturday

A number of lenders -- plus housing counselors and attorneys -- are expected to be on hand at a foreclosure-prevention event in Baltimore County this Saturday, and you can still register for it today if you'd like to attend. The event, sponsored by Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Woodlawn High School, 1801 Woodlawn Drive in Gwynn Oak.

The event flyer (a PDF) has more details, including what documents you should bring. You can find the online registration form here.

UPDATE: Cummings' office says you can still register on Thursday, even though the form says the deadline is 9/9.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:05 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Foreclosure help, The foreclosure mess

Oh, the beautiful numbers

This instant -- nine seconds after 9:09 on the ninth day of the ninth month of the year -- it is 09/09/09 09:09:09.

Just thought you'd like to know, if you're a numbers wonk, too.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:09 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Off topic, just because I can

Less-expensive suburbs: Watch this space

I know I said today was the day I'd be putting up the suburban ZIP codes where average prices are below $250,000, but I've changed my mind. You'll just have to wait. I'm such a mean mistreater.

Actually, I'm too busy just now, but I'll put it up soon. Promise.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:06 AM | | Comments (0)

Factory-built homes, the next generation

If the words "factory-built housing" makes you think of rusting trailers, take a look at this:


Sun photo by Larry C. Price.

That's New Colony Village in Howard County. And yup, it's manufactured housing. I mention this because factory-built homes have long had such a stigma attached to them that there's been no coordinated effort to use them in the affordable-housing movement, even though assembly-line efficiencies lower costs. But that's beginning to change.

Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake is bringing nine modular homes to a Fayette Street block in East Baltimore this week, its first foray into factory-built. (Cost for the homes and site work: 25 percent less than what Habitat spent building homes from scratch elsewhere in Baltimore.) The two-story rowhouses (artist's rendering here) will be set over basements, which you can see below:


Cherise Jones, who is buying one of Habitat's modular homes, stands on the construction site. Sun photo by Lloyd Fox.

Other affordable-housing advocates are re-evaluating the idea of using factory-built housing, too. But there are challenges. In today's story, I included some information about the ownership and financing problems facing people who lease their land, and what one organization is trying to do about it.

Another key issue: zoning. As in "don't put that here."

"It's mainly focused on manufactured housing," said Thayer Long, executive vice president of the Manufactured Housing Institute, a trade group that also represents the modular-home industry. (Modular homes are built to local-housing code, while manufactured housing is built to a federal code. Most factory-built housing is manufactured.)

"It's just a simple redline -- 'this property is zoned for this use except for manufactured housing.' Or commonly what they call it is mobile homes or trailers," Long said. "That's old terminology. That's not what our industry is. It hasn't been that way for 30 years."

Long brings 10 photos of homes with him when he visits policymakers to try to change their minds. It's a game: Can you guess which are factory-built and which are constructed on site? They never can, he says.

The zoning issue is one reason why factory-built housing is much more common in rural areas than urban and suburban.

"In our experience, it's not the home," Long said. "It's discrimination against affordable housing. Period. That's where we run into a lot of challenges."

I tried to get my arms around the zoning situation in Maryland, but it isn't easy. The Maryland Department of Planning sent me to the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, which sent me back to Planning, which insisted I try Housing again. When Housing said it really couldn't answer questions about zoning, honest to God, I ran smack into my deadline and gave up.

The trouble is, zoning laws are set by the counties. I had hoped, though, that someone at a state level would know whether the counties' rules are generally manufactured-housing-neutral or not.

Anyone? Bueller?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Manufactured/modular homes

September 8, 2009

Got questions about the first-time buyer tax credit?

The IRS will be answering them on the Baltimore Sun's Consuming Interests blog today at noon.

If you'd like to submit a question early, email it to

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:43 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: First-time buyer tax credit

The not-so-expensive neighborhoods

Lookylooing is all good fun, which is probably why so many people lookylooed at last week's lists of the most expensive ZIP codes and city neighborhoods in the Baltimore metro area.

Sometimes, though, you just want to know where to find the comparatively inexpensive places. You know, with the homes you might actually be able to afford.

Here's a list for you. Today, city neighborhoods. Tomorrow, the world! (The part of the world that includes the Baltimore suburbs, anyway.)

Below you'll find the city neighborhoods where homes sold for less than $250,000 during the first half of the year. A neighborhood had to have at least five home sales to be included.

First column, neighborhood name -- obviously. Second, number of home sales in the first half of the year. Third, average price. (I'm sure there's a way to rename the headers in Swivel, but darned if I could figure it out.)

Before you scroll down, take a guess at the number of neighborhoods. And the average price in the cheapest one.

Ready? OK, go.

Were your guesses close?

And do any of the neighborhoods on the list surprise you?

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

September 7, 2009

When ARMs adjust

One recurring question from readers is about adjustable-rate mortgages, and how many have yet to "reset" -- to adjust upward for the first time after the temporary fixed period.

I went to First American CoreLogic for the answer. This is what the real estate information provider provided:

Most subprime ARMs in the Baltimore metro area have already reset -- 80 percent of them, to be exact. Most of the rest are due to reset by the middle of next year.

But many prime and "Alt-A" ARMs -- Alt-A referring to mortgages in the gray risk area between prime and subprime -- have not yet reset.

That's true for two-thirds of the Alt-A borrowers in the metro area with ARMs, First American says. Some are due for resets soon, but the biggest group -- 35 percent -- isn't scheduled to adjust until at least the middle of 2011.

Four out of every five Baltimore-area prime ARMs, meanwhile, haven't reset. Nearly half aren't due to reset until at least the middle of 2011, First American says.

A little bit of added perspective:

Half of the metro area's subprime mortgages are adjustable-rate. Many Alt-A loans are ARMs, too -- 44 percent. But just 7 percent of the prime loans in the metro area are ARMs.

All told, First American estimates, the reset clock is ticking down on about 30,000 ARMs in the Baltimore metro area.

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

September 6, 2009

$8,000 buyer credit: No, your 3-year-old does not qualify

Consumer finance columnist Eileen Ambrose, in a piece today about the impending deadline for the first-time buyer tax credit, notes that some folks are really trying to push the envelope to get the $8,000.

For instance, she writes, here are a few examples of questions submitted to The Baltimore Sun's Consuming Interests blog:
One homeowner considered filing taxes separately from her husband or even divorcing him if that would help him get the credit.

Parents ask if a child can claim the credit if they refinance their mortgage and put the child's name on the new loan. And one parent acknowledges that she and her husband don't qualify for the credit but asked if they could get the money by buying a house under their 3-year-old's name.

Nice try, but no dice, the Internal Revenue Service says.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:44 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: First-time buyer tax credit

New real estate poll: FHA loans

As defaults increase on FHA-insured loans, so has chatter about the agency's future. Will the Federal Housing Administration require a bailout, industry players wonder?

I know this is of interest to many of you, whether you're a potential FHA borrower, an anxious housing-market watcher or an aggravated taxpayer. So weigh in.

What would you do if you took over the mortgage program?

Have you had any recent experience with FHA-insured loans? How did the process go?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Polls

Poll results: Staying and going

About a quarter of you need a new place and expect to move soon. But just as many of you can't move soon, even though you need a new place, too.

That's what folks said in last week's Wonk poll. And even though it's hardly scientific, I think it tells us something about the state of the housing market -- and economy -- today. 

More on that in a moment. First, the rest of the results:

--Many of you (forty-one percent) are happy where you are and have no plans to move soon.

--Five percent of you are happy where you are but have to move soon, anyway. (Here's hoping it's for a better job and not because you're losing your house.)

Several of you wrote in your own answers:

"I'd love to move, I even know where I'd like to live, but prices are too high."

"I'd like to move but need a new job."

"I want to move from apt. to house, but like you, job situation is iffy." (I told you last week that I'm in the "need more space" category, but one hesitates to take on a bigger mortgage when one works in an industry that's laying off people right and left.)

And three people said they either just moved or are in the process of moving. 

I also asked you how long you've been living in your home. Not long, in most cases.

Twenty-eight percent said between two and five years. Twenty-two percent said between one and two years. Seventeen percent said a year or less. That's two-thirds of you right there.

Thirteen percent each said between five and 10 years, and between 10 and 20 years.

And seven percent of you have been where you are more than 20 years.

The good news is that many of you are happy with your housing situation or are able to move to improve it. Hooray for good news!

The not-so-good news is that a significant number of you -- as many as the soon-to-be-movers -- want to move too but can't. Job uncertainty, affordability problems, probably "can't sell my house" issues -- these are weighing on some of us, and thus on the housing market as a whole.

Have you found creative ways to alter your home -- in the renovation or organizational sense -- so it meets your needs without moving? Do share.

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

September 5, 2009

Homes for sale under $250,000: Where are they?

If you're thinking of buying for the first time, you're probably interested in homes priced below $250,000. What are your chances of finding something in that range?

As always, it depends on where you look. The Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors compared homes on the market two weeks ago and found -- to no one's surprise, I'd imagine -- that your odds of finding a place for less than $250k are best in Baltimore. Nearly three-quarters of listings were priced at $250,000 or under in the city.

Baltimore County and Harford County are next on the list for their share of less-pricey homes for sale. Almost half the listings in Baltimore County were $250,000 or under; it was 43 percent in Harford.

It's hardest in Howard County, where 15 percent of sellers were asking $250,000 or less. 

(One asterisk: The Realtors group didn't include homes listed for less than $30,000 in its affordability calculation, figuring there's nothing in that range that's livable as is.) 

Here's a chart I put together with these stats. (Just remember that the percentages don't include the listings under $30,000.)


And here's the under-$200 picture: 


Looking -- or selling -- in that range? What trends are you seeing?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: First-time home buyers, Housing stats

September 4, 2009

An energy check-up for your home

Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. is offering quick home energy check-ups to customers hoping to reduce their energy usage and bills. The hour-long check of your insulation levels, appliances and the like costs $40. (Unless you agree to use several energy-saving measures -- then it's free.)

Our Consuming Interests blog has more details.

And Sun reporter Scott Calvert wrote a story about energy audits earlier this year, in case you're interested in the trend itself.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:36 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Utility bills

Next on the bailout parade: FHA?

FHA loans, the use of which dwindled during the housing bubble as conventional-mortgage money flowed like water, are a huge part of the market now that subprime has imploded and prime loans are harder to get. Forty percent of the home sales in the Baltimore metro area in July were financed with mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration.

That's made some industry folks very nervous. In the "what goes up rapidly might reverse course and go splat" sense.

The Wall Street Journal reports today that rising defaults on FHA loans are endangering the agency's reserves:

Options for the agency could include politically unpalatable choices, such as asking for taxpayer funds to boost reserves or increasing the premiums borrowers pay for the insurance offered by the agency. Agency officials say if there is a shortfall, they don't have to do anything except report it to lawmakers. But some mortgage and housing analysts see trouble ahead. "They're probably going to need a bailout at some point because they're making loans in a riskier environment," says Edward Pinto, a mortgage-industry consultant and former chief credit officer at Fannie Mae. "...I've never seen an entity successfully outrun a situation like this."
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:53 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Mortgages, The foreclosure mess

Smile! You're on code-enforcer camera

Baltimore housing-code enforcers have new authority to fine property owners who get violation notices but don't do anything about the problems -- a change from the old system of no recourse but court. That's for housing issues that require a warning, from broken gutters to vacant and unsafe homes.

The city has long been able to issue immediate fines to property owners for trash problems, though. And now it has the photographic proof online for all to see, a feature that went live a few weeks ago.

I threw "Canton" into Baltimore Housing's citation search tool, and up popped more than 100 citations with pictures. There's the Baylis Street property -- an in-process rehab? -- with wood and other construction materials piled up behind the open-to-the-elements rowhome. The Belnord home with trash all down the front steps, an old couch slumped on the back patio. The Conkling property owner who dumped a mattress and other trash in an alley -- including mail with name and address. (Doh!)

Baltimore Slumlord Watch, a blog that calls out problem property owners and expresses frustration with city reaction, thinks this feature is pretty keen.

"It would seem that our erstwhile Housing Department has 'borrowed' our method of shaming people into compliance, and you can now see firsthand the evidence of your neighbor’s negligence," the bloggers wrote.

Michael Braverman, deputy commissioner for permits and code enforcement at Baltimore Housing, said the photos are about transparency.

People who get sanitation fines often "have questions that can be resolved by viewing the photograph of the citation," Braverman said. Earlier, they'd call to say they didn't understand the problem or to insist that it couldn't possibly be their property. "They wanted to see the evidence, and you used to have to travel here to see it," he said.

Now it's just a click away. For the cited person's neighbors, too.

"You can look at all the citations that were issued in your neighborhood," Braverman said.

What do you think of code enforcement in your neck of the woods, whether you're in the city or not?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Code enforcement, Home maintenance

September 3, 2009

Priciest city neighborhoods

Yesterday's post highlighted the most expensive ZIP codes in the metro area. But what, you asked, about city neighborhoods? (Some of you asked more nicely than others. Sheesh, folks, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Not, er, that I'm comparing myself to a fly.)

As it happens, I had a city Top 10 all ready to go. So you would have received even if you hadn't asked, but it's nice to know you're chomping at the bit.

Today's story about expensive places has a map showing the five most expensive city neighborhoods on top of the 10 priciest ZIPs. But hey -- I'll throw in five more at no extra charge.

Without further ado, the most expensive Baltimore neighborhoods, ranked by average sale price in the first half of the year:

1. Homeland. Average price: $549,900. (Number of homes sold: 13.)

2. Roland Park. Average price: $487,300. (Number of homes sold: 17.)

3. Guilford. Average price: $471,200. (Number of homes sold: 16.)

4. Inner Harbor. Average price: $423,800. (Number of homes sold: 16.)

5. Otterbein. Average price: $361,700. (Number of homes sold: 10.)

Read on for the rest of the top 10: 

6. Federal Hill. Average price: $323,900. (Number of homes sold: 25.)

7. Mount Washington. Average price: $313,300. (Number of homes sold: 15.) 

8. Locust Point. Average price: $298,400. (Number of homes sold: 29.)

9. Bolton Hill. Average price: $293,900. (Number of homes sold: 28.)

10. Fells Point. Average price: $291,500. (Number of homes sold: 23.)

The rankings are based on neighborhoods with at least five sales. Averages are rounded. Shipping and handling not included. (Sorry, got on a disclaimer roll there.) 

Like the ZIPs, I crunched these figures using sales reported to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems. Unlike the ZIPs, these sales had to be geocoded first so we could determine which neighborhoods they were in. (Just because a home is advertised as "Federal Hill" doesn't mean it actually is in Federal Hill.) Sun cartographer Christine Schoenberg did that time-consuming mapping work -- thanks Chris!

Now, the figures are sales averages. That means these (or other) neighborhoods might -- in fact, almost certainly did -- have pricier homes that were sitting on the market in the first half of the year, not contributing to the average because they weren't selling.

Other gee-whiz stats:

Four of the neighborhoods had at least one home sell for $1 million or more -- Homeland, Guilford, the Inner Harbor and Fells Point.

Home sales rose in half the neighborhoods vs. the first six months of last year -- Guilford, the Inner Harbor, Locust Point, Bolton Hill and Fells Point. Sales in Bolton Hill increased by 150 percent.

Each of the 10 neighborhoods had at least one home that sold for less than $230,000 -- a lot less, in some cases. Livable as-is or shells in need of a full rehab? That I can't say.

Any neighborhoods you expected to see in the top 10 but didn't? (Canton, in case you're wondering, was No. 19 at $239,100 -- an average price that was 17 percent lower than a year earlier.)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Housing stats

September 2, 2009

Most expensive communities in the Baltimore area

Now, I know many of you don't intend to buy an expensive home, but admit it -- you're interested. If only in a "my gosh who can afford such a place" way. So naturally you're curious to know which communities in the Baltimore area are the priciest. 

I have just the Top 10 list for you.

Herewith are those communities, based on average sale price in the first half of the year:

10. Towson in Baltimore County. ZIP code: 21204. Average price: $500,300. (Number of homes sold: 52.)

9. Riva in Anne Arundel County. ZIP code: 21140. Average price: $531,900. (Number of homes sold: 21.)

8. Phoenix in Baltimore County. ZIP code: 21131. Average price: $542,200. (Number of homes sold: 25.)

7. West River in Anne Arundel County. ZIP code: 20778. Average price: $587,100. (Number of homes sold: 8.)

6. Fulton in Howard County. ZIP code: 20759. Average price: $621,800. (Number of homes sold: 19.)

Read on for the top five.

5. Clarksville in Howard County. ZIP code: 21029. Average price: $622,400. (Number of homes sold: 49.)

4. Highland in Howard County. ZIP code: 20777. Average price: $666,900. (Number of homes sold: 8.)

3. Monkton in Baltimore County. ZIP code: 21111. Average price: $668,200. (Number of homes sold: 15.)

2. Davidsonville in Anne Arundel County. ZIP code: 21035. Average price: $707,600. (Number of homes sold: 24.)

1. Glenwood in Howard County. ZIP code: 21738. Average price: $843,700. (Number of homes sold: 8.)

Clarksville was No. 1 last year, but the average home there sold for 20 percent less this year than the average sales price last year. Glenwood, on the other hand, was No. 9 last year but jumped to the top because the average increased.

Whether it's a true increase or a "bigger homes sold this year than last year" skewing, I don't know. Anyone from Glenwood like to weigh in?

To avoid major skewing, the list doesn't include places with fewer than five sales in the first half of the year. Thus a few very expensive neighborhoods don't appear. Gibson Island, for instance.

A recent Forbes "most expensive" list ranks that Anne Arundel County community -- 21056 -- the 12th priciest ZIP code in the country, as measured by asking price. The median asking price there is just over $3 million.

Average time on the market: practically a year. Takes a while to find buyers who can afford that much.

Where would you move if money was no object?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:12 AM | | Comments (25)
Categories: Housing stats

September 1, 2009

Live chat: Economist Anirban Basu


Baltimore economist Anirban Basu will take your questions in a live chat at 9 a.m. Sept. 18. Got a query about the housing market, the economy or any related topic? He's got answers.

You can submit your questions that day -- two weeks from Friday. But I encourage you to ask 'em now by commenting below, lowering my stress level by ensuring that we can start the chat with a bang rather than with chirping-cricket noises.

Here's a quick bio on Basu:

He's chairman and chief executive of Sage Policy Group Inc., an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore. His clients include developers, bankers, brokerage houses, energy suppliers and law firms, and he's written economic development strategies for government agencies and nonprofits.

In addition to economic development, he focuses on health economics and the economics of education. And he's a regular speaker at the Home Builders Association of Maryland's construction-forecast conferences.

Basu, a Baltimore City Public School System board member, earned a bachelor's degree in foreign service at Georgetown University. He earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a master’s degree in economics from the University of Maryland. He graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 2003.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Q&A

Buying Into Baltimore

Live Baltimore's big home-buying fair and tour, Buying Into Baltimore, offers $3,000 as a first-come, first-served incentive to buy a city home. More than 650 have been bought with those sweeteners since the first event in 1998, and they're everywhere -- from Woodberry to Middle East, from Walbrook to Fells Point.

Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that wants folks to take a hint from its name and live in Baltimore, compiled this statistic as it prepares its latest Buying Into Baltimore event, scheduled Sept. 12. (Pre-registration information here.)

The $3,000 -- which can be used toward closing costs or down payment -- is a city loan that turns into a grant after five years. Fifty are up for grabs. Detailed details are here, but in general, buyers qualify by getting homeownership counseling, participating in the event's home tours and buying a place within 90 days afterward. (You don't have to choose one of the 16 homes on the tour, but you do have to buy in the eastern half of Baltimore. The spring fair focuses on the west and the fall fair on the east.)

"Our Buying Into Baltimore program is mostly designed for first-time home buyers," said Anna Custer, executive director of Live Baltimore. "All of those homes we feature ... are under $250."

Many of the participants aren't planning big moves. Nearly three-quarters of the 500 people who showed up for the spring Buying Into Baltimore event were already Baltimore residents.

Some of the out-of-towners were from the Baltimore 'burbs, some from Washington and some from New Jersey. (New Jersey is the home of Fort Monmouth, due to send thousands of jobs to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County as part of base realignment and closure.)

Live Baltimore bused in BRAC relocatees for the spring event. This time, it's got an overnight trip planned with a BRAC-only tour the following day.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: First-time home buyers, Housing events
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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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