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November 30, 2009

Dispatches from the home-buying front

Reporters can relay home-buying story after home-buying story, but sometimes it's better to hear them directly from the people doing the buying. So I recently asked if any of you would like to write some dispatches about your experiences.

Peter Arrabal, 22, answered the call. The Ellicott City resident, a health-care worker, is trying to buy a house with girlfriend Karen Parlee, 24.

"Trying" is the operative word. But here, let him tell you about it:

---

A million questions ran through my head. Can we afford it? Can we handle it? Is there something available? Is renting more plausible?

As my girlfriend and I began the home-buying process, the answers all started to point to yes. The last question remained: Why not?

We made the decision to buy. Now I had to figure out what I was supposed to do.

The process seemed straightforward enough. Find a lender. Get prequalified/preapproved. Find an agent. Sift through listings. Look at houses. Make an offer. Inspect it. Get the loan. Close. Move in.

So we began to look. I work down by D.C. and she works in the district, so we focused our search on Silver Spring, Burtonsville, Gaithersburg and Germantown. All were a reasonable distance from our jobs, and far better than the commute from Ellicott City.

It was surprisingly difficult to get a lender to return our calls. Finally, one called back, reviewed our finances and came back with a number: $250,000 at the most. I had my own number in mind, based on our monthly spending: $206,000.

We found an agent, and she started sending listings. We knew we would be focusing on distressed properties in this price range. We started in late August. (Free advice: Never look at a foreclosed home in August. A/C anyone?)

The initial trip out to see houses was plain strange. The first foreclosure was in Germantown and was in pretty bad shape. The ceilings were covered with spiders, and the floors were covered with dead bugs, presumably already eaten by the spiders on the ceiling. The layout was close to what we wanted, and the location was acceptable. The next foreclosure was in decent shape, but just not what we wanted. Too small, and a creepy feeling from the neighborhood.

Short sales were a completely different monster. It was awkward. It was weird. We felt like we were walking into these houses and saying to the owners, "Hi, we're here to buy this house for WAY less than you paid. We're going to undercut you because we know you can't afford this house. Tough luck."

Also adding to the awkwardness was the fact that this particular short sale was full of stuff. There's no other way to describe it. Just ... stuff. The shower in the master bathroom was filled with shoes. From the bottom to about knee height, it was full of shoes. In the living room, along with couches, sat the back seat of a minivan.

As we looked over the house, the family sat there and ate lunch and watched TV, occasionally giving us dirty looks. OK, maybe I imagined the dirty looks, but it was very uncomfortable.

The price was right, but the short sale aspect wouldn't work out, we thought. It would take too long and we'd never know when the bank would make a decision.

So the first few trips were failures. Maybe we were being too picky.

But then that house comes along where you drive into the neighborhood and you just know deep down that this is the right place.

A three-bedroom, two-bath foreclosed home in Silver Spring. Listed at $199,000, it was perfect. Well, except for the fact that Montgomery County has some really strangely named streets. I thought the agent was kidding me when she said to take Brahms Avenue to Schubert Drive to Piano Lane and then turn onto Musicmaster Drive. (If we got to Conductor Way, we’d have gone too far.)

We wrote our first offer for above the asking price. The paperwork is enormous and ridiculous. We repeatedly signed papers saying the same things in different words. We have the right to review the county master plan. This property may or may not be near the Intercounty Connector. The ICC is coming to Montgomery County. There may be lead paint in this house if it was built before 1979. This house was built in 1984, so there is no lead paint in this house. Sign here. Initial here. It became a blur.

And then the waiting game began. We wrote the offer Wednesday, Aug. 26. A week passed. Another week passed. We got antsy and asked the agent to pull some other listings, just in case.

On the same day that we found another house we really liked, the bank made a decision: They had a better offer.

We wrote an offer for the second home, a three-bed, two-bath townhouse in Burtonsville. The basement was mid-renovation when the previous owners fell behind on their mortgage and abandoned it.

The offer never reached the bank. Once the listing agency had it, they sent us supplemental paperwork. We submitted that, and they sent more. And the cycle repeated. Three days after we submitted the offer to the agent, he called and said the bank was not accepting further offers.

We were back to the starting point again. Now it was late September.

Our agent found another foreclosure in Gaithersburg, in another weirdly named neighborhood (everything is named after birds: Chickadee, Pintail, Blue Jay, etc.). It was an end unit and definitely a fixer-upper. The place was enormous and had a big deck and back yard, with a park off to the side of it. Perfect. We made the offer, $26,100 more than the asking price.

The next night, I saw on the MRIS listing that it was under contract. I went crazy all night trying to figure out if we got it or not.

The listing agent called in the morning: Denied again. The bank didn't think it would appraise as high as our offer, and they had a cash offer.

Next up, a regular sale in Germantown. It was in beautiful shape on the top two floors, but the basement was stuck in the '70s (why was faux wood paneling ever in style?). Offer submitted, $6,118 more than asking.

This was our fourth offer. This had to be the good one.

The call came from the agent: nope. They had a better offer.

At this point, the whole thing seemed a little ridiculous. Now we were cutting it close on getting the tax credit (this was before the extension, obviously). This is a recession? The housing market is depressed? We're offering much higher than asking and we can't even get close. What's wrong with this?

We had one more shot before the tax credit would expire.

Tomorrow (Dispatch No. 2): Things get really weird.

--

Want to write your own dispatches? Email me at jamie.smith.hopkins(at)baltsun.com.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Dispatches, Housing market experiences
        

November 29, 2009

Real estate poll: Are you in the market?

Winter, as you've probably heard many times before, is not a big season for home buying and selling. But this winter, there's the federal tax credit of up to $8,000 for first-time buyers and up to $6,500 for repeat buyers to entice people into searching, icky weather or no.

There's some spring in there, to be sure -- you have until April 30 to sign a contract. But most of the time between now and then is decidedly winter.

I'm curious: Are you planning to buy or sell during the season? Or, for that matter, go apartment-hunting? Weigh in:

Homebuyer tax credit questions?

IRS spokesman Jim Dupree will answer tax credit questions -- including ones related to the $8,000 and $6,500 sweeteners for home buyers --  on the Sun's Consuming Interests blog at noon on Tuesday.

Got a question already? Comment on this Consuming Interests blog post or email it to eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com. Complex ones are more likely to get answered if Dupree has time to research.

 

November 28, 2009

Furnishing (or staging) your home for free

The Consuming Interests blog, offering up what its authors think are the best deals around town, included a few items on its list that homeowners might find useful. Because they're free -- yeah, free.

For instance: You can check out prints and maps from the Fine Art Department of the Central branch of the Enoch Pratt Library -- "some of them framed!" points out Consuming Interests -- for as long as half a year. If you've trying to spruce up your digs or stage your home to sell it, the price is right. (Just make sure you get the art back before the past-due fines start being levied.)

Bemoaning an empty bookcase? You can get "secondhand tomes gratis at The Book Thing in Waverly," Consuming Interests notes.

And the Baltimore Free Store "sets up occasional free markets around the city where people can pick up items for no money at all," so you might find useful things for your house or apartment. (Probably not hefty furniture, though. The Free Store website says it's not accepting donations of large furniture at the moment.) 

If you've got the other sort of house problem -- too much stuff -- then you can donate rather than take.

Have you any other free or close-to-free suggestions for homeowners and apartment dwellers? Do share.

 

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: 10Spot
        

November 27, 2009

Hidden gems coda, and your very own soapbox

It started with a request in July and ended today, dozens of nominations and 10 selected places later. The hidden-gem-neighborhood project highlighted the variety of nice places in the Baltimore region with home prices first-time buyers could swing. Not all nice and less-expensive places by any means, but a cross-section.

I hope you found it a fun trip. If you'd like to take it again, you'll find the list -- with links to the photo gallery and all the individual profiles -- right here.

Now: What do you like about your neighborhood? I'm planning to launch an occasional feature on the Real Estate Wonk blog that will give you a soapbox to stand on for a few minutes and few hundred words, an opportunity to introduce everyone to your neck of the woods, share tales of life there and explain what (if anything) you would change about the place. Call it "My neighborhood, 'tis of thee."

Comment below if you'd like to participate. (Just remember to include your email address in the line meant for it, or I won't be able to contact you.) Or email me by clicking on my name directly below. (See it? It says "Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins." Yup, that.)

Thank you all for your help with hidden gems. I'm looking forward to what you'll say about your neighborhoods.

Hidden gem: Violetville

Violetville2.jpg

Neighborhood: Violetville

Location: southwestern Baltimore

Average sale price: $135,000 (January through June)

Notable features: This little triangle of a neighborhood, anchored by St. Agnes Hospital, started life as a 19th-century village and still has a small-town feel. Some streets are lined by rowhouses, some by single-family homes, all with yards. Foliage abounds. A park with ball fields and tennis courts gives kids a destination, and for the adults: Interstate 95. Nothing like slicing your commute time by living a minute from the on-ramp.

When the city expanded its boundaries in 1919, it took most but not quite all of Violetville. The southern piece of the neighborhood is in Baltimore County, as is the Violetville Volunteer Fire Department. You'll find homes on that side of the line that look decidedly suburban:

VioletvilleCountyLine.jpg

 

On the city side, there are rowhomes astride long lawns:

Violetville1.jpg

 

... and free-standing houses, some large:

Violetville3.jpg

 

In nominating the neighborhood, Wonk reader JLG wrote: "This is a great community, more like a small town or suburb but only 6 minutes from downtown. Has its own school, park and churches."

Paul Gill, who's lived in Violetville for about 40 years, loves how quickly he can get everywhere. "It's really very, very accessible," he said.

The Violetville Community Association has tried to position itself as a home for Washington commuters. On its web site, it trumpets: "Violetville is the closest Baltimore neighborhood to D.C.!"

It does have a handful of residents who work in D.C., said Gill, a former president of the community association. But it hasn't seen the level of gentrification, granite-laden rehabbing and high prices that followed in the wake of Washington commuters in the city's better-known neighborhoods. Gill said a real estate agent came looking for lots to develop earlier in the decade -- "her view was that we could be Fells Point without the bars" -- but that was just before the housing bust hit.

And thus Violetville still seems to be what it was in 2005, when the City Paper named it the best neighborhood in its "Best of Baltimore"  issue: "a refreshingly blue-collar Southwest ’hood."

Gill said families have tended to stay put. For a while, he, his adult daughter and his mother all lived within a block of each other in Violetville. And his daughter's husband grew up right around the corner.

"I think it's about as nice a city neighborhood as you're going to find for a working guy," Gill said.

Want to see all the photos I took? Check out the hidden-gem gallery.

Have personal experience with Violetville? Do share.

(All photographs by Jamie Smith Hopkins / Baltimore Sun)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Hidden-gem neighborhoods
        

November 26, 2009

Hidden gem: Village of Olde Mill

OldeMillFlag.jpg

Neighborhood: Village of Olde Mill

Location: Millersville (Anne Arundel County)

Average sales price: $231,000 (January through June)

Notable features: This neighborhood of 1970s houses goes against the grain of suburban lookalike streets with nothing but one color and style. Properties range from split foyers to townhouses with bump-out windows, some clad in wood, some in brick and some in siding. Lots of attention to yards here -- see the photo above. The location, just east of Veterans Highway and Route 97, means a 15-mile drive to downtown Baltimore, 18 miles to Annapolis and 34 miles to D.C.

The average home selling in Millersville in the first half of the year changed hands for $440,000, so Olde Mill is a comparative island of affordability. Dominic Cantalupo, associate broker at Champion Realty in Pasadena, suggested it when I was desperately looking for something in pricey Anne Arundel County that's less costly but still gem-worthy.

You won't get huge homes here, but then more people are in the market for modest nowadays. The properties tend to range from 1,000 to 1,500 square feet. C'mon, take the 10-cent tour with me.

 

A street view on Chalet Drive:

OldeMill1.jpg

 

No two alike:

OldMill2.jpg

 

Townhouses:

OldeMillTH.jpg

 

And did I mention pretty yards?

OldeMillFlowers.jpg

 

Nancy Scanlon, who's lived in the neighborhood since her home was built in 1971, thinks the location is great.

"We like being near the airport, and we like being near Annapolis," she said. "My husband, before he retired, worked for the Veterans Administration in Washington. And we're near Baltimore. ... It's just a nice, friendly, convenient-to-everything neighborhood."

The neighborhood association organizes Easter egg hunts and holiday lighting contests. There's a pool with a swim team, too -- the Olde Mill Swim Club, which charges an annual membership fee.

"We've been happy here," Scanlon said, "and we will be here until we move on to the next life."

Have personal experience with the Village of Olde Mill? Do share.

Want to see all the photos I took? Check out the hidden-gem gallery.  

Tomorrow: Violetville.

(All photographs by Jamie Smith Hopkins / Baltimore Sun)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Hidden-gem neighborhoods
        

November 25, 2009

Careful whom you call for mortgage help

If someone offers to help modify your mortgage for the low-low upfront fee of $3,500, run for the hills. That was the state of Maryland's advice Tuesday as it issued cease-and-desist orders to five loan-modification companies, firms it alleges took that sort of money from hundreds of cash-strapped homeowners and then did absolutely nothing.

The orders were part of a continuing nationwide effort to crack down on loan-mod scams, which have flourished like mold in a damp basement as the housing-market crash worsened in the last two years.

Cease-and-desist orders went to Equity Recovery Services LLC, U.S. Equity Solutions LLC, Save My Home USA Co. Inc., GIAN Inc. and Help Modify Now Inc., along with affiliates and arms operating under other names. The orders were among 118 legal actions across the nation, the Federal Trade Commission said. (Here's a post about a previous wave of legal actions in July.)

Among the online complaints from consumers is this one: "Save My Home USA LOST my home!"

Stephen Prozeralik, assistant commissioner for enforcement at the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, said it's illegal in Maryland to charge upfront payments for loan-modification help. He recommends against going to any company that charges for such assistance -- he suggests a nonprofit housing counseling agency, the HOPE NOW Alliance or a direct call to your mortgage servicer -- but you definitely don't want to sign on with a firm demanding its fee before the work is done.

The problem is twofold: Homeowners who can't afford their mortgages really can't afford to spend several thousand dollars on mortgage help. But when firms take the money and do nothing, the state says, they're also robbing borrowers of valuable time that could have been used for actual loan-modification attempts.

"The majority that we're investigating, they're charging the fees and they're no service whatsoever for the money they've collected," Prozeralik said. "They essentially take the money and run. They don't contact the lenders. They have no ability or even intent to get a loan mod for the person."

Prozeralik said the average fee he's seen Marylanders pay is about $3,500. But he's seen charges as low as $900 and and high as $8,500.

Some of the companies the state is investigating are local. "But the majority of our scammers have come from California and Florida," Prozeralik said -- big housing-crash states. "They put up a pretty website and it just attracts the customers that way. They make outrageous claims ... They'll say, '96 percent success rate' or '100 percent guarantee that we can modify your mortgage.'"

Those are, he notes, "the magic words that desperate people want to hear."

The big foreclosure scam used to be equity thefts -- so-called consultants targeting struggling borrowers whose homes were worth more than their mortgages. But so many people are under water these days that upfront fees are the "it" scam.

"They're learning from each other," Prozeralik said of the scammers. "One group of people will start a company, and then one person will say, 'Why am I working for him? I can make as much money stealing on my own.' And they'll branch out."

He added, "The money is unbelievable. It's almost as much as the equity thefts."

Think you've been scammed? The state asks you call the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Regulation, 888-784-0136. Or you can call the Federal Trade Commission at 877-FTC-HELP.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:30 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Mortgage fraud/scams, The foreclosure mess
        

Hidden gem: The Villages of Montgomery Run

MontRun4.jpg

Neighborhood: The Villages of Montgomery Run

Location: Ellicott City (Howard County)

Average sales price: $200,000 (January through June)

Notable features: This condo community is like many other condo communities, architecturally speaking, but it's got location to recommend it if you want a good public school and quick access to highways. Montgomery Run is cradled between Routes 108 and 100. And it's in district for Bellows Spring Elementary School, which beats both the state and county overall on test scores for math and reading.

The neighborhood is next to a new shopping center, so you can walk to get your Starbucks coffee fix, and it's a short drive from the restaurants at Route 108 and Snowden River Parkway.

The condos might all look the same, but it's a pretty colorful place in the fall. Here, have a look.

A backdrop of green:

MontRun5.jpg

A goose about to take a dip in the water:

MontRunGooseReal.jpg

A splash of red:

MontRunTrees.jpg

Howard is the most expensive county in the metro area, so it's not exactly easy to find whole neighborhoods -- of any significant size -- with homes under $250,000. Harder still to find a neighborhood that qualifies on price and also sends children to an elementary school with higher test scores than the high Howard County average.

That's what clinched the Villages of Montgomery Run for me. (A grateful thank you to the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, which ran sales numbers for me so I could narrow in on neighborhoods that qualified on price.)

At Bellows Spring Elementary this year, 94 percent of students who took the Maryland School Assessment earned a "proficient" or "advanced" score in math. That compares with 88 percent of Howard County elementary students and 78 percent of Maryland elementary students.

On the reading test, 96 percent of Bellows Spring students earned a proficient or advanced score, also besting the Howard and state averages.

(The middle school for Montgomery Run, Bonnie Branch, also outperformed the state on the math and reading assessments. It had fewer proficient scores than Howard County overall, but more advanced scores.)

MontRunSchool.jpg

You can't always judge a school by its test scores, but Laurie Lerman, president of the Bellows Spring parent-teacher association, raves about the place.

"Parents love it. It's a fantastic elementary school," said Lerman, whose older daughter started at the school when it opened in 2003 and whose younger daughter is now a fifth-grader there. "The staff are very committed to the children. They work extremely hard, and they care about each individual child and making sure each individual child gets the absolute best out of their experience."

Do you have personal experience with the Villages of Montgomery Run? Do share.

And -- since this is an education-centric neighborhood profile -- what area do you think gives you the best bang for your buck in terms of public schools?

(If you want to see all the photos I took, check out the hidden-gem gallery.)  

Tomorrow: Village of Olde Mill.

(All photographs by Jamie Smith Hopkins / Baltimore Sun)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Hidden-gem neighborhoods
        

November 24, 2009

Hidden gem: Manchester

Manchester7.jpg

Neighborhood -- or, rather, community: Manchester

Location: Carroll County

Average sales price: $237,000 in ZIP code 21102 (January through June)

Notable features: Rolling farmland, cows, horses and elbow room. You'll find homes with generous yards, new single-family houses for less than you'd spend in much of the Baltimore region and an old-town Main Street.

Manchester is almost 40 miles from downtown Baltimore, and its ZIP code stretches to the Pennsylvania line. Not a commute for the faint of heart. But just the thing if you want a place removed from the urban bustle, where working farms and weathered barns dot the landscape. Here's the view from there:

Horses having lunch:

ManchesterHorses.jpg

A cornfield in the mid-day sunshine:

ManchesterCorn.jpg

Homes set in the hills:

Manchester4.jpg

A sizable front yard:

Manchester6.jpg

Homes in the under-construction Hallie Hill Farm subdivision:

ManchesterHallieHillFarm.jpg

A sign advertising new homes priced below $300,000:

ManchesterSaleSign.jpg

A barbershop on Manchester's Main Street:

Manchester2.jpg

Despite suburban creep, Carroll County is still more rural than the rest of the metro area. It had 142,000 acres of farmland in 2007, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture, and that's more than all but two other counties in Maryland: Frederick and Queen Anne's.

But Manchester is just north of a shopping center with a Wal-Mart, so -- for better or for worse -- it has easy access to some suburban conveniences. Route 30 (which takes you north to Hanover or south to Reisterstown) and Route 27 (which heads toward Westminster) meet in town.

About 3,500 people live in the incorporated part of Manchester, surrounded by the housing developments and farms of the Manchester ZIP code. It traces it name back to 1765, when a settler named it after the English city, his hometown.

If you're a parent who prefers brand-new schools, take note: Manchester Valley High School opened in August -- so new, it has no 12th-graders -- and the town's Ebb Valley Elementary School opened last fall.

Steven Miller, Manchester's town administrator, has lived there all his life and calls it "a typical small town." Residents will sometimes stop traffic on their street to throw a block party, he said.

It's a bedroom community, with most residents commuting out to Baltimore, Frederick and other points. That has definite downsides -- rush-hour traffic is a problem. Pennsylvania commuters join locals in the drive south. The town is trying to get a bypass built, but Miller said he doesn't expect one soon in this climate of tight budgets.

"From 7 to 9 in the morning, and from 4 to 6 in the evening, getting through Manchester is a bear," Miller said. "Off hours, you can pretty much go anywhere you want to and not get held up by traffic at all."

Why do people move there, commute be darned? He says the draw for new residents is the rural setting and less-expensive homes. "It's their own little piece of peace and quiet," Miller said.

Have personal experience with Manchester -- or another rural community? Do share.

Want to see all the photos I took? (This is just a taste.) Check out the hidden-gem gallery.  

Tomorrow: The Villages of Montgomery Run.

(All photographs by Jamie Smith Hopkins / Baltimore Sun)

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

November 23, 2009

Now hear this: a property-tax proposal

Matt Gonter, a Baltimore resident and property-tax activist, is scheduled to hit the airwaves Tuesday at noon during WYPR's Midday show to chat about a proposal he made on the Wonk blog: hike the tax rate charged to owners of vacant property.

Gonter, long aggravated that slumlords pay much less in taxes than people who maintain their properties, commented: "Follow Washington DC's lead and raise the property tax rate for all vacant properties by 800% or more. With over 30,000 vacant properties throughout the city, this would seem to be a no-brainer." (D.C. sets a rate of $10 per $100 in assessed value for vacant properties, compared with 85 cents per $100 for the rest of the residential landscape.)

Gonter started a Facebook page to promote the idea. He's bemused by how quickly it caught people's attention.

"I can't believe that only a week ago I came up with an idea to start a Facebook group dedicated to taxing slumlords extra, and now I'm going to be on the radio to discuss my proposal," he wrote me.

Gonter's suggestion on the blog was part of a larger proposal to lower tax rates overall. Have your own tax-rate idea? Share!

UPDATE: Josh Dowlut, who had a counter-proposal in this space, has been added to the show's roundtable. He disagrees with Gonter that raising the rate on vacant properties will make a positive difference, and he plans to suggest cost-cutting ideas to get the overall property-tax rate down. "A better alternative would be to get big businesses to pay their fair share and end practices such as the 15 year zero tax gift on Legg Mason’s new 200 million dollar waterfront office tower," he wrote in an email to me.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:25 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Property taxes
        

Hidden gems: Loch Raven Village & Knettishall

LochRavenVillage2.jpg

Neighborhoods: The cheek-and-jowl Loch Raven Village and Knettishall

Location: Mostly in Towson (Baltimore County)

Average sales price: $219,000 (January through June)

Notable features: Loch Raven Village and Knettishall have 1940s and '50s brick townhouses with more personality than most of the newer stuff. The yards are large enough for flower gardens, as you can see above, and Interstate 695 is less than a mile away. (Why "mostly in Towson"? Because the eastern half of Loch Raven Village is in Parkville.)

You've got all the locational benefits of Towson here -- malls, colleges, recreation -- without the usual Towson price. The 380-acre Cromwell Valley Park, which has a demonstration farm illustrating "sustainable" and organic practices, is a short drive from the neighborhood.

Of course, this is all true of fellow gem Lake Walker, a short drive to the south and just over the city line. So why pick Lake Walker and these twin Towson neighborhoods if they're so close together? Simple:

Because some people want to live in the city and some don't. The property tax rate is a common point of contention -- it's a little more than twice as much in the city as it is in the county.

So, to each his own. Loch Raven Village and Knettishall don't have the variety of housing types you can find in Lake Walker, but they're well-kept and wear their neighborhood pride on their sleeve, or rather their utility poles:

LochSign.jpg Knettsign.jpg
Here's an example of the architecture in Loch Raven Village, which the neighbors describe as "Georgian colonial":

LochRavenVillage1.jpg

Patriotic front yards:

LochRavenFlags.jpg

And depending on the time of year, you might just happen across a farm stand on Putty Hill Avenue:

LochRavenVillageFarmStand.jpg

Wonk reader bryanintimonium nominated Loch Raven Village and Knettishall without comment, so I went hunting for details that could confirm or deny their hidden-gem status. I drove past both for years without realizing they existed, so that seemed a good start.

Marney Kirk, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Excellence in Timonium, said she's been selling homes in the neighborhoods for 11 years and considers them gems.

"People love living there," Kirk said. "It's definitely a good area."

It reminds Kirk of Rodgers Forge, except less pricey. You'll also spend less than you would have before the housing slump ate away at home values. Homes in Loch Raven Village and Knettishall were going for more than $250,000 a few years ago, she said.

The two neighborhoods have a similar feel, but the Loch Raven Village homes are generally larger and the styles are a bit different. Ralph Simmers Jr., who built Knettishall with his father, based his design on the English townhouses he saw while in the Air Force during World War II. Knettishall is named after the village where he was stationed.

Leslie Jackson-Vallade, a mother of two who's lived in Loch Raven Village for 10 years, says lots of families live in the neighborhood because the townhouses are big enough to accommodate the space-eating needs of kids. Her home has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a "huge" attic and a finished basement.

"We're a very close-knit group," added Jackson-Vallade, treasurer of the Loch Raven Village Community Association. "It's really conducive to young families."

Other residents have deep roots. Janice Krach grew up in Loch Raven Village, went away to college and came back. Since 1975 she's lived in Knettishall.

"It's a nice location," she said. "It's so easy to get to all the places in the Baltimore metro area."

Have personal experience with Loch Raven Village or Knettishall? Do share.

Want to see all the photos I took? Check out the hidden-gem gallery.  

Tomorrow: Manchester.

(All photographs by Jamie Smith Hopkins / Baltimore Sun)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Hidden-gem neighborhoods
        

November 22, 2009

Foreclosure ripple effects

Know 10 people with prime mortgages? Odds are that one of them is behind on the payments. That was the delinquency rate in Maryland and the U.S. at the end of September, an astonishingly high figure for borrowers who were supposed to be good credit risks. 

The Mortgage Bankers Association blamed unemployment, which last month hit 7.3 percent in Maryland and 10.2 percent on average nationwide. Falling home prices are another factor, the trade group notes.

So: Are we at the point where everyone is affected in some way by the rising tide of foreclosures and delinquencies? Enlighten us all by weighing in on this choose-all-that-apply poll:

Have a tale to tell? Please share.

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

November 21, 2009

Tom Clancy's new digs, by the numbers

$12.6 million: What author Tom Clancy spent on his new penthouse at the Ritz-Carlton Residences in the Inner Harbor

3: Penthouses Clancy combined to make his new mega-digs

12: The number of 1,000-square-foot condos -- the sort of residence certain Wonks own -- that could fit in Clancy's condo

$285,768: Clancy's annual city property tax bill, either right away or -- if he gets the new-construction tax break that phases in the amount -- after five years

50: Buyers it would take to equal those taxes among folks getting $250,000 city homes

2: The number of prospective buyers the Ritz-Carlton developer says it is in talks with about combining units to make more mega-condos

38: New condos selling in the city during the first nine months of the year

530: New, ready-to-occupy condos that builders are trying to sell in the city

All of them: number of condo sellers who wish Clancy had wanted their place

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

November 20, 2009

Hidden gem: Lauraville

LauravilleBig.jpg

Neighborhood: Lauraville

Location: northeast Baltimore

Average sales price: $184,000 (January through June)

Notable features: Single-family homes -- some quite large -- on streets with a quiet, off-the-beaten-track atmosphere. Yet the eastern boundary is Harford Road, a major artery. Businesses in the area include a Safeway grocery store and Main Street-style independently owned shops.

Lauraville was mostly built in the 1910s and '20s, but it became a village with a post office just after the Civil War, according to the Lauraville Improvement Association. Much of the neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places.

It recently got a nod from This Old House magazine as the "Best Old House Neighborhood" in Maryland. (I pondered whether to disqualify it as a "hidden" gem for that reason, but I think it's still off most folks' radar.)

Here's the clincher: Residents here are super-enthusiastic about their neighborhood. I say that because lots of people put in nominations for Lauraville and the whole "Greater Lauraville" area, which includes the surrounding neighborhoods of Arcadia, Beverly Hills, Hamilton Hills, Mayfield, Moravia-Walther, Morgan Park and Waltherson.

Wonk reader bex gushed: "great people + open space + old growth trees + booming businesses + diverse homes + new restaurants & bars + local markets + organized, collaborative and progressive thinking = baltimore's best kept secret! and for you commuters out there, there's fairly simple access to 95/895/695."

Rob Walshe wrote: "Great new restaurants, pubs, friendly neighbors and a small town feel."

And sean noted in July, "In the past week alone, I've been able to walk a few blocks from my house to get a 3/8" - 1/2" shower adaptor, Harold McGee's book On Food and Cooking, and Sylvan Beach ice cream (honey graham and fudge brownie, no less). We have great neighbors who share food and flowers with one another, and my wife is teaching art lessons to a couple of the neighborhood kids this summer. I've lived in several neighborhoods in Baltimore, but buying our amazing house in Lauraville 6 years ago was the best decision we ever made."

There are more nominations, but you get the idea. You can really feel the love. Now -- take a look at the homes. This one, for instance:

LauravilleSlope.jpg

Or this:

LauravilleFlowers.jpg

Here's an example of a Lauraville street, with a few of the grand old trees bex was talking about:

LauravilleStreet.jpg

"I think some of these houses are comparable with what you can get in Guilford," said Mark Tough, executive director of the Neighborhoods of Greater Lauraville, a nonprofit community-development corporation. (Guilford, for you non-Baltimoreans out there, is one of the city's most expensive neighborhoods.)

Stroll through, and you'll find public art celebrating the place:

LauravilleNest.jpg

Greater Lauraville is part of Healthy Neighborhoods, the organization that focuses on "strong but undervalued" sections of Baltimore. That means most residents can get home-improvement loans with below-market interest rates, and home buyers on some blocks -- ones that could use more rehabbing -- qualify for free design advice along with low-interest-rate mortgages.

Do you have personal experience with Lauraville or its environs? Please share.

Want to see all the photos I took, including some in the Greater Lauraville area? Check out the hidden-gem gallery.  

Next up -- on Monday: Loch Raven Village and Knettishall.

(All photographs by Jamie Smith Hopkins / Baltimore Sun)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Hidden-gem neighborhoods
        

November 19, 2009

Owner of 5-bedroom house hopes to downsize

I've told you about this story on the difficulties of downsizing in today's housing market, but I was so busy today that I didn't get a chance to point you toward the extras that go with it: a photo gallery and video of Bob Kean's Roland Park house.

 

 
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:02 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: For sale, Housing market experiences
        

Two faces of the housing market

You might be excused if, reading the paper today, you wondered what on earth is going on with the housing market.

On the one hand, there are owners of larger homes having a hard time downsizing because -- agents say -- it's a hard-hit part of the market. On the other hand, the Ritz-Carlton Residences just sold a nearly 12,000-square-foot penthouse condo -- a unit that was originally three separate penthouse condos -- for a record-setting $12.6 million.

Does the really, really high end have more going for it than the merely high end?

Before you start adding thousands of square feet to your home in hopes of attracting a buyer, remember that few have the financial heft of novelist Tom Clancy, who (The Daily Record reported in a keen scoop) is the buyer of the huge penthouse.

How big is 12,000 square feet? As big as five typical new U.S. houses.

But the prevailing trend is smaller, not bigger -- as you might expect during a prolonged downturn. Last year, the median new house was smaller than it was the year before, the first drop since 1995.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:15 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: For sale, Housing market experiences, Unusual homes
        

Hidden gem: Lake Walker

LakeWalker2.jpg

Neighborhood: Lake Walker

Location: northern Baltimore

Average sales price: $235,000 (January through June)

Notable features: This neighborhood hard against the city-county line is, architecturally speaking, the opposite of the suburban cul-de-sac where every house looks exactly the same. Here you'll find nineteenth-century farmhouses, modest Depression-era homes, bungalows, brick townhouses, stylish Tudor townhouses (pictured above) and even some homes that could participate in a suburban cul-de-sac exchange program without anyone being the wiser.

There's no lake -- the neighborhood is named after two streets. But the tree-lined Lake Avenue looks awfully nice even without water as a draw.

Lake Walker, bounded on the west by York Road, is within walking distance of a Giant grocery store. Because it's just south of Towson, it's not far from malls, colleges and Interstate 695. But never mind that for a moment. See what I mean about the homes:

Brick townhouses in a sea of greenery:

LakeWalker1.jpg

Bungalows:

LakeWalker3.jpg

White house, black shutters, lots of windows:

LakeWalker5.jpg

A bit of the suburbs inside city lines (there's even traffic-calming speed humps on the street in front of these homes):

LakeWalker6.jpg

And the tree-lined Lake Avenue:

LakeWalker4.jpg

Janet Abramovitz, president of the Lake Walker Community Association, said the variety of styles among the 770 homes allows for upsizing or downsizing without moving out.

"In fact, we're now on our second house in the neighborhood," said Abramovitz, who moved to Lake Walker in 1996 when she married her husband. Their first place was a small house with a small yard, circa 1930. Now they live in a Gothic-style farmhouse built around 1860 with a "very large yard" that appeals to the gardening couple.

It's not just the property that Abramovitz likes. "It's a kid-friendly, dog-friendly, people-friendly neighborhood," she said. "We have an annual block party, which is just for the neighborhood, which is tons of fun and several hundred people come to that."

She added: "It's such a nice neighborhood in every sense of the word 'neighborhood.'"

Have personal experience with Lake Walker? Do share.

Want to see all the photos I took? Check out the hidden-gem gallery.  

Tomorrow: Lauraville.

(All photographs by Jamie Smith Hopkins / Baltimore Sun)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Hidden-gem neighborhoods
        

November 18, 2009

Hidden gem: Havre de Grace

HdG1.jpg

Neighborhood -- or, in this case, community: Havre de Grace

Location: Harford County

Average sales price: $241,000 (January through June)

Notable features: Water, water, everywhere. Havre de Grace's northeastern boundary is the Susquehanna River, and along its southeastern edge flows the Chesapeake Bay. There's a boardwalk promenade along the river and boats galore, plus a quaint downtown on the National Register of Historic Places.

Some of the homes here are historic and stately. Some are just darn cute. Take a look:

 

Stately:

 

HdG9.jpg

Cute:

 

HdG8.jpg

 

You'll see lots of porches:

 

HdG2.jpg

 

And neat architectural touches:

HdG3.jpg

And, naturally, boats. Lots of boats. (Plus some waterfront condos, too.)

 

HdG4.jpg

Beyond old-town Havre de Grace, you'll find newer subdivisions in the 21078 ZIP code with the sorts of homes that fans of suburbia are accustomed to seeing:

 

HdG12.jpg

While in town, I stopped to chat with artist Debra Moffitt. She was painting a Havre de Grace streetscape that caught her eye:

 

HdG11.jpg

"It's just a charming scene," said Moffitt, an Arbutus resident participating in a painting contest. "It's sort of iconic of Havre de Grace."

About 13,000 people live in the incorporated part of Havre de Grace. Meghan Simmons, manager of economic development there, said she was attracted to the area by the downtown waterfront. She and her husband live in a Victorian house that's big enough for them plus four apartments.

"There's a lot of really neat Victorians that people have invested [in] and turned them into all hardwood, brick-exposed apartments," she said. "Just a lot of really neat places to rent."

Havre de Grace markets itself as a tourist destination. You can rent kayaks in town, visit museums in unique spaces (a lighthouse and a skipjack sailboat), hike on recreational trails, check out the art galleries or simply stroll along the streets and imagine what the town looked like when it was incorporated in 1785. Its name was suggested three years earlier by the Marquis de Lafayette, who crossed the river by ferry and was struck by a resemblance to Le Havre in France. (Locals translate it as "harbor of grace" or "harbor of mercy.")

Outside the historic district is Bulle Rock, a gated community with a golf course that hosted the LPGA Championship for several years.

If you're looking for a short commute to Baltimore, Havre de Grace isn't the place for you. It's a 40-mile drive to downtown. Wilmington, Del. is several miles closer, in fact. But you don't have to rely on back roads to get where you need to go.

"We are right off 95," Simmons said.

Have personal experience with Havre de Grace? Do share.

Want to see all the photos I took? Check out the hidden-gem gallery.  

Tomorrow: Lake Walker.

(All photographs by Jamie Smith Hopkins / Baltimore Sun)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Hidden-gem neighborhoods
        

November 17, 2009

Do you have to sell to get the repeat home buyer credit?

Many of you have wondered if you have to sell your current home in order to qualify for the $6,500 repeat-buyer tax credit on a new-home purchase. The Internal Revenue Service weighed in on that question today, and the answer is no:
Q: I’m already a homeowner. If I buy a replacement home to use as my principal residence, do I have to sell my home to qualify for the homebuyer tax credit?

A: If you meet all of the requirements for the credit, the law does not require you to sell or otherwise dispose of your current principal residence to qualify for a credit of up to $6,500 when you buy a replacement home to use as your principal residence. You must buy, or enter into a binding contract to buy, a principal residence on or before April 30, 2010 and close on the home by June 30, 2010. Additionally, you must have lived in the same principal residence for any five-consecutive year period during the eight-year period that ended on the date the replacement home is purchased.

I'm still waiting for an answer to the question that many of you have posed: Is a couple eligible for the $6,500 if only one of the spouses meets the five-year ownership requirement?

Looking for more information about the repeat-buyer tax credit? This link will take you everything I've written on the topic. And here's the link for blog posts on the first-time buyer credit.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 5:20 PM | | Comments (21)
Categories: Repeat buyer tax credit
        

Be a news source on all subjects Black Friday

Once a month, The Baltimore Sun invites everyone -- yes, you too -- to share experiences that will help us better understand how folks are dealing with day-to-day economic realities. The newest topic: Black Friday, that frenzy of post-Thanksgiving shopping.

Will you partake? Have your plans changed from previous years thanks to the downturn?

You can find the Black Friday questions here. Or go to baltimoresun.com/lightsource, our main page for our "be a news source" effort.

Why are we doing this? Because economic news coverage is better and more relevant when it's not just the pundits talking.

Grateful thanks to all who participate and -- better yet -- spread the word.

Hidden gem: Brewers Hill

BrewersNattyBohIcon.jpg

Neighborhood: Brewers Hill

Location: Southeast Baltimore

Average sales price: $223,000 (January-June). The cheapest home that sold was $157,000; the most expensive, $271,000.

Notable features: Ask people in the region to name a funky Baltimore neighborhood near the water, and they'll probably come up with Canton. Brewers Hill, its small next-door-neighbor to the east, gets a lot less attention. But it has neatly-kept rowhouses, cool beer-brewing history (wave hello to Mr. Boh, pictured above) and easy access to Canton hot spots without the bustling activity.

As reader EL put it when nominating this neighborhood for gem consideration, "We have all the fun of Canton, but none of the parking headaches or intoxicated frat boys."

Some of the blocks look very much like Canton:

BrewersRowhomesFlags.jpg

Other rowhouses have an older-Baltimore feel to them, with neat little touches. For instance, stained glass:

 

BrewersHomes.jpg

Back-yard gardens:

BrewersGardens.jpg

Whimsical decorations, part I:

BrewersHillStars.jpg

Whimsical decorations, part II:

BrewersFace.jpg

And even rowhouse art:

BrewersPicture.jpg

The morning I visited to see if Brewers Hill was as nice as advertised, I stopped to chat with Henry and Judith Flores, who lived there for years. They kept their rowhouse when they moved to Baltimore County, and daughter Christina lives across the street in the house her mother grew up in, so the family has a lot of ties to the neighborhood.

Henry Flores calls it the "forgotten" neighborhood because it's so quiet. "For city living, it's an incredible place," he said. "Here we are, standing in the middle of the road!" (We had a long conversation and never got interrupted by a passing car.)

Judith Flores remembers the days when many of the residents worked at the breweries. "You could always smell the beer," she said. Now the buildings where National Bohemian once was made have been redeveloped into offices and shops that play off their brewery roots:

BrewersNattyBohPicture.jpg

The mix of residents is different nowadays, too. More young professionals. Fewer families with school-aged children.

"When I was growing up, people lived here their whole lives," Judith Flores said. "Now you have a lot of young people moving in."

Former residents tend to come back to visit, though. The gathering place is often the annual summer carnival at Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church on South Conkling Street.

Got personal experience with Brewers Hill? Please share.

Want to see all the photos I took? Check out the hidden-gem gallery.  

Tomorrow: Havre de Grace.

(All photographs by Jamie Smith Hopkins / Baltimore Sun)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Hidden-gem neighborhoods
        

November 16, 2009

Hidden gem: Ashburton

Ashburton5.jpg

First up on the hidden-gem list: Ashburton.

Location: Northwest Baltimore.

Average sales price: $141,000 (January-June).

Notable features: Beautiful single-family homes -- some brick -- and lots of mature trees. An old-money feel without the price tag. Directly to the south is Hanlon Park, with Lake Ashburton.

A 2002 study of city neighborhoods, prepared by Johns Hopkins University graduate students, called Ashburton "a well-defined enclave in northwest Baltimore that has established itself as the home of Baltimore's black elite." In fact, I almost disqualified Ashburton from this list because I thought it was an unhidden gem, a place most people know about. Until I started asking around and got puzzled looks, that is.

Here's the view down Ellamont Road:

 

Ashburton3.jpg

 

And more Ashburton greenery:

Ashburton1.jpg


Wonk reader Alonzo LaMont Jr. said in his nomination of the neighborhood, "There are PLENTY of big old homes in this area, and it's very close to Loyola, Hopkins, Notre Dame (even Morgan [State University] is a stone's throw away). People are paying all those big bucks to live in Charles Village (upper and lower), Homewood, and Hampden when they could have alot more house in Ashburton."

When I visited to get photos, I chatted with resident Alfred Nkere and heard how he came to live in Ashburton seven years ago: "One day I was driving in this area and it just struck me," said Nkere, who owns an import-export business. He moved to a street lined with big trees, a place so green and suburban that "we have this idea that we're not in the city."

Nkere, a father of six, said the neighborhood is a good place to raise a family. "We can have the kids play in the back without worrying," he said.

Here he mows his lawn while 6-year-old daughter Amini rolls by:

Ashburton2.jpg

Another thing Nkere likes about the neighborhood: It's just north of Hilton Street, and thus much quicker by car to Interstate 95 than it might appear.

The Johns Hopkins study notes Ashburton's "architecturally diverse houses," and you've probably gotten some idea of that from the pictures. Here's another example:

Ashburton4.jpg

Do you have personal experiences with Ashburton? Please share.

Want to see all the photos I took? Check out the hidden-gem gallery.

(All photos: Jamie Smith Hopkins / Baltimore Sun)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Hidden-gem neighborhoods
        

November 15, 2009

Happy anniversary to me

I've been a staff reporter at The Baltimore Sun for 10 years. Amazing how quickly a decade can fly by.

Here's hoping for another 10 years at least, assuming the newspaper industry still exists at that point.

On that note: Thanks to everyone who subscribes to a newspaper, whichever one it may be. Newspapers' online offerings -- including blogs -- would not be possible without you.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Off topic, just because I can
        

Your take on city property taxes

An overwhelming majority of the people who took last week's Wonk poll think Baltimore should lower its property tax rate significantly, and now -- despite (or because of) the tight budgetary times.

As of last night, 92 percent of you poll-takers said you agree with Baltimore economist Anirban Basu that the city's rate of $2.268 per $100 of assessed value needs to be cut now.

Six percent said not now, but when the economy's doing well.

Just two percent opted for the straight "no."

And one person felt so strongly about this that he or she skipped over the "yes" option to write in an answer: "Hell yes."

People usually like the idea of having less taxes to pay, so that was a pretty easy question for you all to answer. Now I challenge you to tackle a harder one: What cuts or adjustments should the city make to account for the (at least short-term) drop in revenue? What can the city do to avoid counteracting the "come on in" message of lower taxes with the unwelcome-mat of decreasing quality of services?

Proponents of rate reductions say a big cut would bring more residents, increasing the sources of revenue, but let's assume for this exercise that tens of thousands of people won't immediately drop everything to move in. (Also, you'll want to take into account that the city is already grappling with reduced revenues. Mayor Sheila Dixon announced in September that the city would have to "immediately reduce spending" to deal with a $60 million decline in revenue and state aid.)

Extra points to anyone with an idea more specific than "reduce waste." Here are two proposals from commenters to get you started.

MCG suggests a tax-related strategy:
The city can immediately reduce the overall property tax rate and recover any lost revenue by doing the following:

1) Crack down on all homestead cheats by collecting back taxes, penalties, and interest for any years in which property owners were wrongfully claiming the homestead credit.

2) Discourage people from cheating on the homestead credit in the future by pursuing perjury charges against the most blatant cheaters (e.g. those who own multiple properties in the city and claim the credit on all of those properties).

3) Follow Washington DC's lead and raise the property tax rate for all vacant properties by 800% or more. With over 30,000 vacant properties throughout the city, this would seem to be a no-brainer.

Josh Dowlut has a budget-cutting suggestion:
Property taxes make up roughly half the general fund revenue. Public safety, education, and pensions/retirement plans make up the #'s 1, 2, and 3 expenses.

Roughly speaking you could trim property tax rates by 30% simply by eliminating pension benefits for government workers. We don't get them in the private sector, so why should they?

Dowlut points out that you can find the Citizens' Guide to the Fiscal 2009 budget here.

And here is the Fiscal Year 2010 budget -- the one we're currently in -- along with the mid-year budget-cutting plan.

Ready, set ... go.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (18)
Categories: Homestead Property Tax Credit, Property taxes
        

November 14, 2009

'Fiscal Haiku': a poetic outlet

Frustrated about the national debt or the state of your own bank account? You could write a thousand-word rant. Or you could write 17 syllables.

That's what the website Fiscal Haiku invites you to do, namely "express your thoughts and concerns about the state of America's finances in the form of this most ancient and concise of international literary forms." Haiku, or at least the version as most of us know it, is three lines of five, seven and five syllables.

Fiscal Haiku is on Twitter, too.

Here's a housing haiku from a San Diego woman:

Home values are down

Foreclosures are plentiful

I still cannot Buy

I see some Maryland submissions, though none from Baltimore. Here's one from a Greenbelt man:

Work'd for fifty years

401(k), zero K

Work for fifty more

And by a D.C. 'burbs guy:

Lament of the wind -

"Don't spend money you don't have."

"You bloody idjits."

Got one? Share!

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

November 13, 2009

Searching for a home? Tell your story

We're looking for a buyer to write dispatches from the home-buying front, starting with the search and ending with move in, with lots of updates in between. Take us with you on your treks to open houses, share your observations about conditions and prices, show us contract negotiation, tell us about all the paperwork -- you get the idea.

You'll be helping demystify the process for other would-be buyers. Better yet, you get to weigh in on what works and what drives you up a wall.

We're specifically looking for a first-time home buyer or someone who wants a foreclosure or short sale to live in. (Or you could fit into both categories.)

If this is you, and you're fairly early in the process, drop me a line at jamie.smith.hopkins(at)baltsun.com.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:10 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Dispatches, Your name in lights (well, newsprint)
        

Hidden-gem guesses

Several folks guessed at the hidden-gem neighborhoods based on these photos -- and good guesses they were -- but only one reader correctly named any of them.

So congratulations, bryanintowson! For identifying the twin neighborhoods of Loch Raven Village and Knettishall, you win due praise, a copy of Our Lot: How Real Estate Came to Own Us by Alyssa Katz and a Real Estate Wonk magnet.

Send a mailing address to jamie.smith.hopkins(at)baltsun.com and I'll ship them your way.

Thanks to you all for playing the guessing game. If you other guessers would like a magnet, email me and I'll send you one, too.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 11:48 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Hidden-gem neighborhoods
        

Hidden-gem neighborhoods unveiled

LakeWalker3.jpg

 

Nice places are tucked all over the Baltimore region, from urban rowhouse neighborhoods to rural outposts. As part of the Sun's 10Spot blog campaign, I set out to find 10 that everybody and their brother doesn’t already know about -- ones with prices in reach of first-time home buyers.

tenspotlogosm.jpg

With your help, I've picked 10 of these hidden-gem neighborhoods. They aren't the only gems out there, and I'm not claiming they're the absolute best. (You'll never get a completely objective list out of something so subjective.) But they're all fairly affordable, with average sale prices under $250,000 in the first half of this year. And they're a cross-section of the great variety you can find in our metro area.

Want an urban setting? On the list. In the city but with a suburban feel? Check. The Chesapeake Bay in walking distance? Yup. Cows as neighbors? Got just the place for you. The much-vaunted Howard County schools? Got that, too.

As much as possible, I tried to pull from the list of neighborhoods people cared about enough to nominate. And every jurisdiction is represented. That's on purpose, because you all have reasons for wanting to be in one or another.

Here are the neighborhoods, in alphabetical order. Drumroll, please:

1. Ashburton (northwest Baltimore). Though well-known to the African-American movers and shakers who have flocked here for years, Ashburton doesn't have the regional name recognition of a Canton or Roland Park. A shame, because the single-family homes and stately trees give it an old-money feel without the old-money price.

2. Brewers Hill (southeast Baltimore). Well-kept brick rowhouses, back-yard gardens and National Bohemian's iconic Mr. Boh overlooking it all.

3. Havre de Grace (Harford County). A mix of old-town charm and new 'burb development nestled where the Susquehanna River flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

4. Lake Walker (northern Baltimore). Tree-shaded streets and homes that run the gamut from Tudor townhouse to bungalow. (See the photo at the top of this post for a few examples.)

5. Lauraville (northeast Baltimore). Main Street businesses, single-family-home streets with a suburban feel and Herring Run Park just to the south.

6. Loch Raven Village and Knettishall (Baltimore County). Next-door neighborhoods with stylish brick townhouses in jogging distance of Interstate 695 -- an affordable spot at the edge of pricey Towson.

7. Manchester (Carroll County). Picturesque farms, generous yards and a mix of old and new homes.

8. The Villages of Montgomery Run (Howard County). An Ellicott City condo community near shopping centers, Route 100 and public schools with good test scores.

9. Village of Olde Mill (Anne Arundel County). Houses with beautifully kept yards close to (but apart from) Route 97 and Veterans Highway in Millersville.

10. Violetville (southwest Baltimore). Another yard-centric neighborhood -- flowers, bushes and trees galore -- with a great commuting location: one minute to Interstate 95.

I've put together profiles of each place, but it's overwhelming all at once. So you'll see one per work day until we go from A to V. (Once we're done, I'll link all those individual posts to this one for easy reference.) Up on Monday: Ashburton.

You can see photos right now, if you don't want to wait for the ones that will appear with the profiles. The hidden-gem photo gallery is here.

And yes, I do know Havre de Grace and Manchester are municipalities, communities or ZIP codes rather than "neighborhoods." But hey, it's not easy finding an honest-to-goodness neighborhood in the 'burbs that's under the price limit and is also more than a dozen homes. I'm guessing that's why there were so few suburban nominations.

Initial thoughts, opinions, arguments? If you live or have lived in any of these neighborhoods, please share your experience, either on this post or the upcoming one about that neighborhood specifically.

(Photograph of Lake Walker by Jamie Smith Hopkins / Baltimore Sun)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: 10Spot, Hidden-gem neighborhoods
        

November 12, 2009

Last chance to guess these neighborhoods

Tomorrow: hidden-gem neighborhoods. Can you guess what they are from these photos? The window of opportunity for showing your Baltimore-area smarts closes at the stroke of midnight.

Prizes for right guesses, plus your name in lights (or rather blog pixels).

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:53 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Hidden-gem neighborhoods
        

Economist: Lower Baltimore's property tax rate now

Baltimore has the region's least expensive homes on average, so you might think it would see an outsized benefit from a tax credit aimed at getting first-time home buyers to the settlement table. Instead, the city's sales have increased the least. Only last month, in fact, did they stop falling compared with a year earlier.

Baltimore economist Anirban Basu is convinced the city's property tax rate is to blame.

The city's rate -- $2.268 for every $100 in assessed value -- is more than twice as high as the property tax rates in Maryland's counties. Baltimore County comes closest, at $1.10 per $100. The difference has for years frustrated residents, given city real estate agents indigestion and prompted talk that "something must be done." (The rate is six cents lower than it was in 2002, but most of the Baltimore suburbs lowered their rates, too.)

"We know that people who transact on the basis of an $8,000 tax credit care deeply about their tax exposure," said Basu, who has called for a steep drop in the city's rate. "It's unlikely that people who are looking to minimize their tax bill would choose the city first. It's not that nobody bought in the city, ... it's that not as many people bought in the city as had been anticipated by analysts."

He called on city leaders to lower the property tax rate now, despite the tight budget situation.

"The point is, you can't tax people who don't live here," Basu said. "What the tax is doing is keeping people who would want to live here from being here. ... There's now growing pent-up demand to move out of the city, and this demand is motivated by a desire for greater value."

Read on for a chart, a poll and Basu's thoughts on what drove buyers to the city in a big way during the bubbly years.

"During the speculative period of the middle part of the current decade, value was not the main criterion guiding decision-making," Basu said. "The main criterion was perceived investment value. And there was a feeling among buyers that the city's performance would be strong relative to the counties in terms of percentage increase in values over time."

Here's the sales trend in the Baltimore housing market so far this year, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems data:

CitySales.jpg

So -- what do you think about Basu's argument?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (29)
Categories: First-time buyer tax credit, Polls, Property taxes
        

November 11, 2009

Home buyer tax credit update

The "do I qualify" questions keep pouring in about the revised $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers and the new $6,500 credit for certain repeat buyers. Here, for instance. And here. And also here. I'm hearing many variations of the same questions, so let me sum them up for you:

Q. When do the new provisions -- the higher income limits and the repeat-buyer credit -- go into effect? 

The IRS has weighed in on this one: for purchases made after Nov. 6. To get in before the credit program is due to expire, you'll need to sign a contract no later than April 30 and close on the deal no later than June 30.

Q. I qualify as a repeat buyer because I've owned my home at least five years, but I married more recently and my spouse would be considered a first-time buyer. Do we qualify for either credit if we buy a new place, or are we out of luck?

I couldn't tell from the legislation, so I called the IRS to find out. Spokesman Jim Dupree says the agency needs a bit more time to work through details like this one. "It's new legislation," he noted. "We should get some new guidance very soon -- any day now."

When it does, he said, it will update the agency website. The IRS answers questions about the older versions of the first-time buyer tax credit here, for instance. (One of its Q&As says a married couple can't get the first-timer credit unless both of them meet the requirements, even if they file separate tax returns.)

Q. I've been a homeowner for the last 10 years -- six years in my first home and four years in my current home. Do I qualify?

No. The legislation says individuals must have been in "the same residence" for "any 5-consecutive-year period during the 8-year period ending on the date of the purchase of a subsequent principal residence."

Q. I don't want to buy a new home, but I've owned my current home for at least five years. Am I eligible for the $6,500?

Er -- you do realize this is a "home buyer tax credit," right?

On a non-Q&A note, I thought you'd be interested in what Kevin A. Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research had to say about the tax credit program:

"It's actually kind of insane that they have renewed it," he told me for today's story on the Baltimore-area housing market.

Hassett, whose conservative-leaning think tank promotes free enterprise, thinks it's a bad idea for several reasons:

--Fraud. Tens of thousands of people got the money even though they didn't qualify as first-time buyers, weren't buying anything, weren't old enough to go to grade school, etc. The new provisions require that buyers attach their settlement statements to the tax form to prove they made a purchase, but Hassett doesn't see how this will do anything about repeat buyers getting the $8,000 meant for first-timers.

--What happens when the credits end? "We're pulling activity into today from the future," he said. "Tomorrow, we're going to have to pay."

--Tax dollars for some. "We're taking money from people who earn it and giving it to people who are claiming that they bought a house," he said. "I think that that kind of moving money around, it's the height of big government hubris. ... It's not the government's $8,000 that they're mailing to these people. It's your $8,000."

There's been a lot of discussion, including among you Wonk readers, about whether the credits are a good idea. As of last night, 50 percent of you had given them a thumbs down in this Wonk poll, 46 percent said thumbs up and the rest offered a thumbs sideways.

The thumbs-down sentiment isn't all anti-credit -- some of it comes from readers frustrated that they don't qualify. Wonk reader Sean wrote, "Unbelievable - my wife and I upgraded to a larger home (expecting a child), had to rent our condo due to market conditions, bought a new house 4 weeks ago and have already sunk upgrade dollars into it. We are exactly the type of couple who are helping grow the local economy yet stand to gain absolutely nothing since this is not retro-active. Very glad to see my tax dollars benefit everyone else."

Caro, a reader in favor of the credits, weighed in with this comment: "I think the idea is to reduce the inventory of homes for sale so that our home values can stop dropping so fast. It is better to give a tax credit to home buyers, rather than more bailouts for Wall Street and the banking industry."

And semiconscious is in the no-thanks category: "Everyone should stop and pause to think where this money comes from. The most insidious tax is the tax of inflation. It erodes the purchasing power of fix income individuals, and benefits the banks who are closest to the Fed spigot of free money. This bill is another government step to prop up the banks whose balance sheets are fairy tales."

What's your opinion?

November 10, 2009

Baltimore-area home sales up 36%

You could see it coming as the number of new contracts mounted this summer, but I still said "woah!" when I saw the number of home sales that went to settlement in the Baltimore metro area last month: 2,219, up 36 percent from a year ago.

To put that into perspective, the year-over-year increase in September was just under 10 percent.

It was only last week that the $8,000 credit for first-time home buyers was extended (and expanded), so there were clearly a lot of people who arranged to close on homes last month in order to get the money before it was set to expire Nov. 30.

And buyers were still active last month. Pending deals -- new contracts signed -- jumped 65 percent from a year ago, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems.

Average sale prices continued to decline, down 8 percent from a year ago.

Just to put the buying spree into perspective: The number of homes sold last month is still less than sales in the month of October from 1998 through 2006. And far less compared with the bubble years.

Did you buy or sell last month?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:52 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Housing stats
        

More home buyer tax credits answered

Personal finance columnist Eileen Ambrose, part of the muscle behind The Baltimore Sun's Consuming Interests blog, answers a variety of questions today about the new repeat home buyer tax credit and the revised credit for first-time buyers.

You can read her column about the home buyer tax credits here, with readers' questions and answers from specialists such as Mark Steber, chief tax officer of Jackson Hewitt Tax Service. A taste:

I purchased a house in early 2005 that my wife and I are now selling. Can I obtain the new $6,500 credit? I'm close to the five-year mark but will be a couple of months off.

Steber says "The code is clear about the five-year timing. Unless you can put off the closing for another four months, you will not currently qualify for the credit."

Looking for more information? See some recent Wonk posts on the subject, including which potential repeat buyers qualify.

Asking prices for homes in Baltimore and D.C.

HousingTracker.net, as some of you know, calculates the typical asking price for homes listed for sale in a number of markets. It lets you see at a glance how much prices have fallen in, let's say, the past two years in the Baltimore metro area. (Answer: Seventeen percent.)

But Wonk reader John noticed something interesting that's not simply about how much things have dropped in one market. The typical asking price this month in the metro area around Washington, D.C. -- $300,000 -- is what the typical Baltimore-area asking price was in November 2007.

"Just thought this was an interesting statistic," John noted in an email.

One of those things that makes you go "hmm," all right.

Right now the typical Baltimore-area asking price is about $250,000, or $50,000 less than D.C.'s. It was  $94,000 less two years ago.

Rapidly rising prices in D.C. during the boom/bubble helped drive D.C. workers to Baltimore and 'burbs for cheaper homes. As the price difference narrows, that's less likely -- for purely price reasons, anyway.

Are you a D.C.-area worker who lives or is thinking of living in the Baltimore area?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Housing stats
        

November 9, 2009

Guess these neighborhoods

Calling all competitive Baltimore-area residents: Can you guess which neighborhoods are pictured in this post? C'mon, take a stab at it. The person with the most correct guesses receives a real estate book and due praise.

So far, just one guesser. The field is wide open. (It closes Thursday night because the big reveal is Friday.)

You don't have to live in the area to play, but I'm, ah, guessing Baltimore residency will help.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 1:32 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Hidden-gem neighborhoods
        

Zillow: Fewer homeowners under water on mortgages

Real estate search site Zillow.com says fewer single-family homeowners in the Baltimore metro area were under water on their mortgages in September than three months earlier. Yes, fewer.

Twenty percent of Baltimore-area borrowers owed more on their single-family home loans than their homes were worth in September, down from 25 percent in June, according to Zillow's calculation -- part of its third-quarter real estate market report. Zillow uses its "Zestimates" to calculate values for all homes, not just the ones that sold. (I mention that because there's been discussion here and elsewhere about how accurate those are.)

Zillow said it found that Baltimore-area home values rose slightly from the spring to the summer -- 1.1 percent. (Values dropped about 5 percent from a year earlier, Zillow said, but it estimates that about one in five homes is actually worth more now.)

The slight upward movement in prices this summer might be helping some borrowers get out from a slightly under-water position, but it hasn't prevented sales at a loss. Almost one in six homes changing hands in September went for less than the seller had bought them for, according to Zillow's figures for the metro area.

That ranged quite a bit at a community level.

Zillow said nearly 30 percent of September sales in Carroll County's Westminster and Anne Arundel County's Odenton were at a loss. But in Towson, Fallston, Perry Hall and Parole, fewer than 7 percent of home sales were losses.

And compared with the U.S., far fewer homes sold here in the summer were foreclosure properties, Zillow said. In September, just under 6 percent of transactions were foreclosure resales in the Baltimore metro area, according to Zillow. Nationwide? More than 21 percent.

An aside on the subject of Zestimates: Christopher Fountain, a real estate agent in Greenwich, Conn., wrote a blog post in August that compares Zestimates, assessed value and asking prices to the ultimate sales price for 10 properties.

"Zillow’s right some of the time, the assessed value is closer on others," he notes. "The one that is almost always wrong is the original estimate of value by the agent."

 

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

November 8, 2009

Baltimore-area new condos: Lots to go around

In the market for a new condo? You've got a lot choose from in the Baltimore metro area.

Delta Associates, a real estate information and consulting firm, counts 2,586 unsold units -- enough to last six-and-a-half years at the current pace of sales. And that's not all:

In addition, there are 1,111 units planned with probable sales within the next 36 months. There are an additional 3,200 units in the long-term pipeline in the Baltimore metro area, as well as 6,100 multifamily units planned as either condominiums or rental units.
But it could be worse, or rather it has been: "The inventory-to-sales ratio of condos in the Baltimore metro area has dropped significantly over the past six months," Delta notes.

All told, builders recorded 32 net sales in the Baltimore metro area during the summer, Delta said. The "net" is important -- it accounts for the negative effect of buyers canceling contracts.

Prices in September fell about 7 percent vs. a year earlier across the metro area. The decline is less in the city -- about 5 percent -- and more than 10 percent in the northern suburbs, Delta said.

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

November 7, 2009

Who's eligible for the repeat-buyer tax credit?

Many people are homeowners, so it's not surprising that many people have been asking if they'd be eligible for the new, $6,500 tax credit intended for repeat buyers. One sticking point has been the legislative language used to explain eligibility:
In the case of an individual (and, if married, such individual's spouse) who has owned and used the same residence as such individual's principal residence for any 5-consecutive-year period during the 8-year period ending on the date of the purchase of a subsequent principal residence, such individual shall be [eligible for the credit] with respect to the purchase of such subsequent residence.

Does that mean people who lived in their homes for the past five years and want to move on? People who lived in their homes for at least five years after late 2001, have since been renting it out and now want a new primary residence? People who lived in their homes for at least five years after late 2001, sold the place and now want to buy again?

I posed this to a Senate Finance Committee aide, and he said yes. Yes to all three.

I wondered that to begin with, but the "ending on the date of the purchase of a subsequent principal residence" part made me second-guess myself.

I urge you all not to spend that $6,500 before it's a sure thing that you can get it -- let's see what the IRS has to say, eh? But Wonk reader SSK, it does look like you can take advantage of the credit. (SSK posed this question: "I lived in my Baltimore house for 12 years. Just sold it in July. I re-located to Ohio and am renting. I'm about to bid on a new home. So, I lived in my home for more than 5 years, but I'm temporarily renting now. Do I qualify?")

And you, too, Mark. (He notes, "My wife and I sold our previous home on 9/10/09. We had owned that home for 9 years. We have been living in an extended stay hotel ever since, while we are looking for our next home. We expect to purchase our next home before the end of this year. We meet the income requirements of this bill. So will we be eligible for this $6500 tax credit even though we have already sold our previous home about 2 months ago?")

But you can't qualify if you already bought the new home, the situation that reader Carrie Nelson is in. "We closed on our new home on September 18, 2009. We have just rented our old home because we were unable to sell it. Will we be eligible for the repeat home buyer credit? Why can't they just approve it for any home purchased in 2009. Isn't that something that was done for the first-time homebuyer tax credit?"

The $8,000 version of the first-time buyer credit, passed in February, was made retroactive to the beginning of the year. But the IRS said Friday -- as the legislation was signed into law by President Barack Obama -- that the new provisions would go into effect today, Nov. 7.

Exactly who qualifies should be clearer as soon as the IRS offers more details, as it did with the first and second versions of the first-time home buyer credit. On its home buyer tax credit page, it promised "more to be added soon."

UPDATE: If you're thinking of asking a question, please take a look at this frequently-asked-questions piece -- and the questions and answers in the comments below this post -- to see if it's been answered already. Then, and only then, ask your question here.

Seriously, folks.

I MEAN IT.

I'm happy to help, but not so much if I've already answered the question several times. If you ask a question that shows you disregarded this plea, I might have to break out the snark.

November 6, 2009

Guess the hidden-gem neighborhoods

Next Friday, I'll unveil the long-awaited list of hidden-gem neighborhoods -- nice, off-the-radar and relatively affordable spots in the Baltimore region. In the meantime, can you guess the 10? Photos of each are above.

The person with the most correct guesses wins a copy of Our Lot: How Real Estate Came to Own Us by Alyssa Katz. Anyone with at least one correct guess is entitled to a Real Estate Wonk magnet.

Remember, each of the 10 is in the Baltimore metro area and had an average sale price under $250,000 in the first half of the year. More than half were suggested by you lovely Wonk readers.

Two hints: Each Baltimore-area jurisdiction has at least one. And a few of the spots are really communities, not neighborhoods.

You don't have to squint at the photos. Click on any and a larger version will pop up.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Hidden-gem neighborhoods
        

Expanded home buyer tax credits to become law

It took a while for the Senate to hammer out an agreement on the home buyer tax credit, but only a day for the House to pass an identical measure. President Barack Obama is expected to sign it into law today.

The National Association of Realtors says the new provisions -- a longer time frame for the $8,000 first-time buyer credit, higher income limits and a $6,500 credit for certain repeat buyers -- will go into effect as soon as pen hits paper. The trade group has a handy "compare the tax credits" chart that you can find here.

You can also read more about the details on yesterday's tax-credit blog post.

The first-time buyer tax credit, hailed by the real estate industry as a stabilizing force for the battered housing market, has its critics. They say it's a lot of money, much of it going to people who probably would have bought anyway and some of it going to tax cheats (including 19,000 who didn't actually purchase a home). Some of you have said you think it's a stimulus that won't help in the long run.

In this running Wonk poll, I asked you a simple question about the bill: Thumbs up, down or sideways? The voting was overwhelmingly thumbs up at first. But as of last night, the results were split: 49 percent down, 47 percent up and 4 percent sideways. 

I chatted yesterday with Heather Fernandez, vice president of marketing with real estate search engine Trulia. She's enthusiastic about the soon-to-be-law, though not without reservations. One reason to cheer, she said, is that consumers pump money into the economy after buying a home ($30,000 within the first six months on items ranging from furniture to hot water heaters, Trulia found in a study last year). She also thinks the credits will help move more foreclosures and cushion prices in the short term.

There's a significant "but," though: "What happens to real estate demand on May 1?" Fernandez asks. April 30 is the last day you can sign a contract and still qualify for the first-time or repeat-buyer tax credits.

"While this may spur tremendous activity in the short term, what's going to stop demand from dropping off a cliff?" she said.

We'll know when we get there. U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, the Georgia Republican who championed an expanded tax credit (his proposal: $15,000 for every buyer), said in a statement Wednesday that this third version of the tax-credit program is really and truly the last one. "Tax credits like this only work by creating the sense of urgency to take advantage of them," he said.

Fernandez said one thing's for certain: The credit extension and expansion has a lot of people thinking about real estate. When we talked yesterday afternoon, Trulia's traffic was on track to be the best ever for a Thursday. For that to happen in November -- during housing's slow season -- is really something, she noted. Trulia launched in 2005.

I asked you in another recent Wonk poll how the credit would affect you. Here's what you said, as of last night:

26 percent: I'd qualify as a repeat buyer, and I plan to sell my current home and buy another one

20 percent:  I'm a taxpayer, that's how it affects me. ARRRGGGGH.

16 percent: I don't qualify as a first-time or repeat buyer, to my frustration

10 percent:  I already got a first-time home buyer tax credit

7 percent: I'd qualify as a first-time buyer, and I plan to buy my first home by April 30

5 percent: I'd qualify as a repeat buyer, and I plan to buy but not sell

4 percent:  I'd qualify as a first-time or repeat buyer, but I'm not planning to buy soon

4 percent:  I work in the real estate industry and hope it'll help business

2 percent: I don't qualify as a first-time or repeat buyer, but I don't mind

And a few of you wrote in your own answers. For instance, "It would make it easier for me to sell my house to a first-time buyer." And: "I'm a repeat; my spouse a first-time. Unsure if we qualify for any credit together."

Married couples can't qualify for the first-time credit unless both of them are first-timers under the rules (which actually define a first-time buyer as someone who hasn't owned a principal residence for the previous three years). But I don't see why a couple that's half repeat-buyer, half first-timer couldn't get the repeat buyer credit as long as they qualify on income. (Let me know if you hear otherwise.)

The IRS answered lots of scenario questions about the first and second versions of the first-time buyer credit. Presumably the agency will do the same for this expanded credit program.

November 5, 2009

Senate passes home buyer credits

Here's something Republican and Democratic Senators agree on: tax credits for home buyers.

With a 98 to 0 vote Wednesday, the Senate passed legislation to extend the credit for first-time buyers and add a credit for certain repeat buyers. It's expected to move to the House floor today.

It seems to be the same proposal we've been talking about for the last few days. Highlights:

--$8,000 for first-timers signing contracts through April 30 and closing by June 30. That credit was due to expire at the end of the month.

--$6,500 for repeat buyers who have "lived in their current residence for five consecutive years out of the last eight," the Los Angeles Times reports. But Sen. Harry Reid's press release phrases it as "those who have owned a home for five consecutive years within the previous eight years." More on this in a moment.

--Individual tax filers making no more than $125,000 and joint filers making no more than $225,000 could take the full credit, a significant increase of the income cap. The credit would decrease in value for people making more than those amounts, phasing out completely after $145,000 for singles and $245,000 for couples, the Times says.

--If the home you're buying is priced over $800,000, you can't partake.

You might be wondering what this "five consecutive years out of the last eight" really means for potential repeat buyers. I did, because it makes a difference whether it's "lived in their current residence for five consecutive years out of the last eight," as the Times writes, or "those who have owned a home for five consecutive years within the previous eight years," as Reid puts it -- or something else entirely.

For instance, could the credit go to homeowners-turned-landlords who are renting out their properties after living there five years and who now want to sell? Or what if you bought your home in, say, January 2003 and sold it last December? That would be five consecutive years out of the last eight, after all.

I went on an hour-and-a-half-long search last night for the actual text of the legislation. (Can I get an "ARRGGH"?) I finally did find it, or what appears to be it. Here's what it says about repeat buyers:

In the case of an individual (and, if married, such individual's spouse) who has owned and used the same residence as such individual's principal residence for any 5-consecutive-year period during the 8-year period ending on the date of the purchase of a subsequent principal residence, such individual shall be [eligible for the credit] with respect to the purchase of such subsequent residence.

So ... er ... clear?

Sigh.

Fortunately, the text notes later that the repeat-buyer credit "shall apply to residences purchased after the date of the enactment of this Act." So that clears it up a bit.

If you're a first-timer hoping to take advantage of the higher income limits, keep in mind that the same timeline applies.

Not that this is a done deal quite yet, of course.

November 4, 2009

Housing markets: Baltimore vs. Washington (and BWI)

Home-sale trends are generally stronger in and around Washington, but the Baltimore area is showing some signs of life. That's the conclusion of a new report by Delta Associates, a real estate information and consulting firm, and Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, which runs the region's multiple-listing service.

Sales in the summer were up about 7 percent from a year earlier in the D.C. region, and there were 5.4 months of inventory -- "below the normal, healthy standard of 6 months, signaling that demand is beginning to outpace supply," the report notes. ("Months of inventory" refers to the time it would take homes listed for sale to find buyers at the current pace of transactions.)

In the Baltimore metro area, sales in the summer rose a bit faster -- about 8 percent from a year earlier. But there's more catch-up to do: 8.8 months of inventory.

Homes are sitting longer on the market here as well: 117 days in the Baltimore area compared with 81 in the Washington area.

The market decline hit our southern neighbor first, and it started to recover first, too. D.C.'s job market is one of the strongest in the nation, which doesn't hurt.

The Delta and MRIS report also shone a spotlight on neighborhoods around BWI, a market between Baltimore and Washington. It offered some illuminating statistics about what exactly is selling.

Some 37 percent of homes listed for sale in the area -- nine ZIP codes, including Glen Burnie, Linthicum and Hanover -- are foreclosures and short sales. But they account for 61 percent of the homes under contract there, the report says. Buyers clearly prefer the distress prices of these distress sales.

Speaking of prices, they're down 8 percent from a year ago in the BWI area. But the inventory is quite low -- 2.1 months. Remember, six months is considered normal and healthy. All else being equal, you'd think a 2.1-month inventory would mean a strong seller's market -- this is the sort of number we saw in the go-go housing bubble days. But all else isn't equal.

The Delta/MRIS report says that although the BWI area "seems well-positioned for future housing market growth and recovery, ... until foreclosures and short sales abate further, near-term price declines are not improbable."

How are foreclosures and short sales affecting housing trends near you?

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

November 2, 2009

Houses and house parties

Manorstone.jpg

 

For those of you wondering what people with lavish houses do with all the space: Howard County police say a Columbia mansion -- a 4,600-square-foot spread -- was being rented out for a Halloween party this weekend that drew more than 100 people, possibly much more.

They're clear on the "more than 100" part, because that's how many people were still there when officers arrived in response to 911 calls about gunfire. A 19-year-old was killed and a 22-year-old was badly injured.

Police think the house was also rented out for a party that took place in June.

The Sun's Annie Linskey reminded me that several years ago, a big Anne Arundel County house was the site of a non-fatal shooting while rented out to two NFL players. Neighbors complained that the place was being used as an unauthorized nightclub even before that point.

Do you live near homes that are frequently used for parties, with or without cover charges?

(Photograph of the Columbia house by Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

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

November 1, 2009

Sprinkler-system requirement survives challenge

Should sprinkler systems be installed in every new single-family house? Fire safety advocates think so. Home builders aren't nearly as enthusiastic, noting the cost.

It's a national argument that last week came to Baltimore, during hearings held by the International Code Council. The ICC -- the organization that writes the building-safety rules adopted by states, counties and cities across the country -- entertained a proposal by the National Association of Home Builders that sprinklers be a "mandatory option" rather than a mandatory non-option. (A mandatory option might sound like an impossibility, but it would mean a feature that builders have to offer as an add-on, leaving the choice to buyers.)

Under the ICC's current code, sprinkler systems will be required in newly constructed single-family homes by 2011. The home builders are trying to get that changed, but sprinkler proponents outvoted sprinkler opponents. (Though it's not a done deal until the ICC's conference in May, it was a key vote.)

Sprinklers are already mandatory in all new townhouses in Maryland. Would you want sprinkler systems installed in all new single-family houses? What do you think of them, if you've had up-close and personal experience with them?

Given a choice, would you pay extra to have them in your home?

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