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January 31, 2010

Real estate poll: Cautious optimism

Most of you -- the survey-takers among you, at least -- are calling a bottom on home prices in your own neighborhoods. Just over 60 percent believe prices will stop falling at some point this year.

Here's how last week's Wonk poll turned out:

26 percent believe home prices in your own neighborhoods will flatten out this year, the most popular answer.

21 percent said they'll fall for a while but then flatten out

20 percent expect continued falling through the year, but not as bad as last year

11 percent are in the "worse to come" camp, predicting bigger price drops this year

10 percent see blue skies ahead this year -- price increases

7 percent think prices will fall as sharply this year as last year

5 percent believe prices will fall for a while but then start to rise

And one reader wrote in an answer: "Same for 15 years out."

Thanks for playing, folks. Now: Next poll!

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

January 30, 2010

The landscape of foreclosure



Wondering how foreclosure woes vary across Maryland? This map, put together by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, gives you a snapshot as of September.

The key, in case you're squinting at it, goes from 0 percent to 0.5 percent of loans in foreclosure or on homes taken back by banks (dark green) to more than 2.5 percent (red). Though red is particularly concentrated in Prince George's County and the lower Eastern Shore, it makes an appearance all over, like an angry, contagious rash. The Baltimore area, as you can see, isn't immune.

This is from a new Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond report, which is map- and chart-centric. Here's the PDF, if you'd like to peruse.

A few notable numbers from the report:

24 percent: Maryland subprime adjustable-rate mortgages in the foreclosure process in September. (Not just behind. So behind that lenders were trying to repossess the house.)

8.1 percent: Maryland prime adjustable-rate mortgages in the foreclosure process in September -- 14th highest in the nation.

When do you think the foreclosure mess will recede?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: The foreclosure mess

January 29, 2010

Metrostudy: Baltimore housing market 'tightening up'

Metrostudy, which analyzes the housing market for builders and others in the real estate industry, thinks things are looking better in the Baltimore area. Kenneth Wenhold, director of Metrostudy’s Mid-Atlantic division, says the "resale market is tightening up" with under nine months of supply. It was more than 11 at the end of last spring.

Supply, for those of you scratching your heads, refers to how long it would take at the current pace of sales to find buyers for everything on the market. Economists usually say a housing market is balanced between buyers and sellers when supply is around six months. So we're still on the high side of supply, but an improvement, if you're rooting for equilibrium.

Howard County's already there, Wenhold said, "and Baltimore County is just a month or two away."

"Between now and spring we should see additional supplies burned off, with the result being prices that firm up," he predicted.

The new-home inventory is nine months, but that's being pushed up by struggling high-rise condo projects, Wenhold said. "Just looking at the single family and townhome components the inventory is 5.9 months, which is pretty low," he said, calling 7.5 to 8.5 months typical for new homes.

Also, "closings were up on a year over year basis, the first increase in new home sales in five years," he said.

How much of that is about temporary government support -- the home buyer tax credits and Fed-supported low interest rates -- and how much is a sign of permanent improvement? I guess we'll have to wait and see. (Or wait and debate.)

If this is recovery, though, Washington is farther along. Metrostudy calls the metro area "among the best-performing in the nation." Its supply of resale listings? At 5.6 months. That's slightly in favor of sellers, if six months is equilibrium.

"Across the country, other markets are struggling with a huge excess of housing inventory, which is driving prices down," Metrostudy said in an analysis this week. "Markets such as Miami, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Diego and Chicago have more than twice the level of inventory typically seen in healthy housing markets. Washington, D.C. is an exception to this trend."

OK, I can hear you thinking, but why should Baltimore residents care? The usual reason: When two cities are so close together, they can't help but have some effect on each other. It's not always the effect people might expect, of course -- but in case this turns out to be an "as Washington goes, so goes Baltimore" situation, we might as well pay some attention to our neighbor to the south.

For his part, Wenhold says the Baltimore area looks good relative to the rest of the country, and he said proximity to D.C. "is a big help."

What's your take on the two markets?

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

January 28, 2010

Spotting loan-modification scams

Many newspapers and television stations have reported on loan-modification scammers, people taking money from homeowners who can least afford to be flimflammed. But it's still happening, so the word hasn't reached everyone who needs to hear the message.

Here's an effort to fill in gaps: Loan Modification Scam Alert, a website run by community revitalization nonprofit NeighborWorks America. The site offers "6 Things You Should Know" (for instance, paying an upfront fee to a company for loan-mod help may get you nothing but further in the hole), a list of common scams, people's scam experiences and the like.

It's illegal in Maryland for a loan-modification company to charge upfront fees, so, yeah -- definitely a red flag. The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation has been issuing cease-and-desist orders to operators as part of a nationwide crackdown. You can read more about that effort here. 

But don't heave a sigh of relief: As a Salon piece from September notes, it's "a giant game of whack-a-mole," with cracked-down-on companies finding ways to continue operating and firms using loopholes to get around state laws banning the collection of upfront payments. Many states have an exemption for attorneys, and -- alas -- attorneys are involved in some of the companies under fire. (On the other hand, about 1,000 attorneys in Maryland have signed on to an effort to help borrowers for free.)

Whom should you call, then, if you're hoping you qualify for a modification of your mortgage? The company that services your loan -- that's the firm asking for your payments every month. Or the state's HOPE hot line, 877-462-7555, which will refer you to a nonprofit housing counselor. Or connect with a housing counselor directly -- the HUD-approved list of agencies is here.

Anne Arundel reverses course on short sales

Anne Arundel County, which had been taxing short sales on the amount the buyer paid plus any of the seller's forgiven debt, said yesterday that it will now levy its recordation tax on just the sales price.

The about-face was an immediate reaction to an opinion issued yesterday afternoon by the Maryland Attorney General's office, which said statute and case law don't give counties the authority to tax homes in the way the county was doing.

More in today's story, including the promise of refunds -- though few homes actually got taxed in this way, the county says.

The original story about the uproar over the taxing practice is here.

No one who commented on the blog post about it said they agreed with the policy. Wonk reader Frank Rizzo, for instance, thought the county should stop:

"If you owe 300k and the homes are selling for 200k, then guess what? The home is worth 200k," he wrote. "If the home was worth more, then most likely they would sell the home for more. ... It should not matter what the seller owes on the home when determining transfer taxes, as they are based on the SALES price. The County wants to keep assessments higher because they know if they ... come down, their property tax revenue will fall too."


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

January 27, 2010

When buying interest peaked last year



If home searches on Trulia match up with the general interest in buying a home, then this map shows how that interest peaked from state to state last year.

In Maryland, the Trulia search peak came in August. But it was all over the board across the country. (More than half-a-dozen states peaked last January.)

But when did contract-signing peak? Or actual home sales? I've put together two graphs that tell the tale in the Baltimore metro area:




Both graphs draw on data from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, which runs the multiple-listing service in the region.

So: Contract signing peaked in June at just over 2,700, with a second pop in September and October -- nearly 2,700 contracts signed in each of those months.

It usually takes at least a month to go from contract to settlement, and can easily go longer. (Short sales in particular can drag on for months.) But settled sales also peaked in June -- 2,375 homes changed hands that month. The second pop for sales came in October and November, with both months topping 2,200.

I included 2008 on the sales chart so you can compare and contrast, and (if you'd like) debate about how the first-time home buyer tax credit changed normal seasonal buying patterns. (I don't have my Excel files here at home, or else I'd put together a chart that shows prior years, too. Looking up 12 months of data is about my limit in a single sitting when it has to be pulled one month at a time.)

Did you buy or sell last year? Share your timeline -- how long did it take to get from start to finish?

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

January 26, 2010

Best and worst places to be selling a home

Where's the easiest place in the Baltimore area to sell a home for the full asking price? Catonsville, by one measure.

Real estate brokerage ZipRealty, analyzing the "hottest" and "coldest" ZIP codes in metro areas it tracks, said the average sales price in in 21228 was 99.9 percent of the average listing price during the last three months of the year. That's a difference of $257.

On the other end of the spectrum is 21216 in West Baltimore, where sellers got 87 percent of what they'd asked for. With an average list price of about $103,000, that's a difference of more than $13,000.

Sales price vs. asking price isn't the only measure of a market's health. Sometimes it's just a yardstick of how realistic sellers are being about what buyers will pay. But it's certainly one way to get at the push-and-pull of supply compared with demand.

Here's ZipRealty's full hot-and-cold list:


1. Catonsville, 21228. Average listing price: $282,701. Average selling price: $282,444. Sales price as a percentage of list price: 99.9 percent.

2. Laurel, 20723. Average listing price: $319,093. Average selling price: $315,355. Sales price as a percentage of list price: 98.8 percent.

3 (tie). Laurel, 20724. Average listing price: $274,333. Average selling price: $270,062. Sales price as a percentage of list price: 98.4 percent.

3 (tie). Abingdon, 21009. Average listing price: $241,064. Average selling price: $237,295. Sales price as a percentage of list price: 98.4 percent.

5. Nottingham, 21236. Average listing price: $241,716. Average selling price: $237,644. Sales price as a percentage of list price: 98.3 percent.


1. Baltimore, 21216.  Average listing price: $103,211. Average selling price: $89,783. Sales price as a percentage of list price: 87 percent.

2. Aberdeen, 21001. Average listing price: $253,409. Average selling price: $236,710. Sales price as a percentage of list price: 93.4 percent.

3. Baltimore, 21215. Average listing price: $93,048. Average selling price: $87,131. Sales price as a percentage of list price: 93.6 percent.

4. Baltimore, 21209. Average listing price: $291,610. Average selling price: $273,266. Sales price as a percentage of list price: 93.7 percent.

5. Edgewater, 21037. Average listing price: $521,505. Average selling price: $489,545. Sales price as a percentage of list price: 93.9 percent.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:45 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Housing stats

Housing-market bidding wars

File this one under "I" for "I thought we were in a housing slump": My colleague Hanah Cho shares this story about trying to buy an Ellicott City townhouse with her husband:

"The place was listed at $329,900 on Jan. 21 and in four days, the sellers received 6 offers, including ours. That's right, six. We just put in our final and best offer above the asking price. What's going on here?"

We both suspect the first-time home buyer tax credit is a factor. It's set to expire after June 30, and buyers have to have signed contracts by April 30. "I know we're trying to make that deadline!" she says.

But she also notes that the house seemed to be priced right "and showed really well."

Anyone else out there seeing bidding wars, either from the buying or selling side?


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

January 25, 2010

Relocating resident asks for "it" place to live

Wonk reader Anthony C. would like you to tell him where to go. In a residential sense, that is.

"I am close to accepting a lucrative employment offer in Baltimore," he writes in a comment. "I currently live in West Palm Beach, Florida. My wife and I are an under 40 professional couple. We want to know where the hottest and best spot to live is. Where are all the high end restaurants, shopping, movie theaters, etc. What is the can't miss area to live in up there? Thanks!"

Where would you live if money were no (or little) object?

Addendum: Just so this post doesn't devolve into advertisements, stick to recommending neighborhoods/areas rather than specific properties. (So far, so good. Thanks.)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 5:10 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Help wanted

Test your knowledge of expensive places

Think you know all about pricey places to live in the country? In the world? Here's your chance to put your knowledge of trivia to the test.

Sporcle, the make-your-own-quiz site, has "name the world's most expensive cities" and "name the country's most expensive cities" games ready for your guesses. Each are based on lists created by Mercer, an HR consulting firm.

If you're more interested in places with the richest people, check out this quiz, based on a UBS survey.

If you make your own real estate quiz, or find others you like, comment with a link.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:30 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Fun

Foreclosure prevention event Feb. 6

Behind on your mortgage or concerned you might get that way? U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings is sponsoring a foreclosure-prevention workshop in Baltimore County a week from this Saturday, Feb. 6. The registration deadline is Feb. 3.

You can sign up to see a representative of your mortgage servicer, assuming yours is on the sizable invitee list, and you can also ask for time with a housing counselor and/or a pro bono attorney.

Homeowner advocates tell me that Cummings' previous events have been packed.

The event is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Woodlawn High School, 1801 Woodlawn Drive in Gwynn Oak. More details, including what financial documents to bring, are on this PDF.

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

January 24, 2010

Not waiting for the homebuyer tax credit

Some of you have been waiting a long time for your $8,000 incentive from Uncle Sam to become a first-time homebuyer. But others report that the tax-credit money arrived speedily, or at least speedy-ish.

Wonk reader Derek reports that his refund check showed up in four weeks flat. "No problems whatsoever," he said.

Pete and Julie, who each bought in June -- separately, not together -- also each got their money in 10 to 12 weeks though they filed at different times.

Julie filed in November and received her $8,000 last week. "My check also included interest!" she commented. Pete, who got his paperwork in "days after closing," also received interest. It makes sense, he said, because he was amending the 2008 return he filed earlier in the year.

Andy said he filed at the end of July, got a letter in August asking for his HUD-1 statement (proof of purchase, essentially) and received the check in the middle of October. The interest added up to more than $100.

January 23, 2010

Real estate poll: Is the worst over?

Recently, the poll-takers amongst you weighed in on how your home values have changed since 2007. One in three said you've lost more than 20 percent in value -- the most popular answer. (The next most popular, picked by 22 percent, was a drop of 5 to 10 percent.)

Now I'm wondering where you see things going. Do you think the worst of the price drops are over? Just like the last poll, you can play along if you're a renter. Just consider the wider neighborhood of homes around you.

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

January 22, 2010

Waiting for the homebuyer credit

Some of you have noted that it's taking a very long time to actually get the $8,000 you expected when you bought a home last year.

Linn wrote earlier this month, "This is a FYI to the people wondering about the IRS' time line. I bought a house in June of 2009 and the IRS received all of my paperwork for the credit on July 6th. It is now Jan. 6th and I still don't have my $8k. The IRS took 6 months to mail me a letter stating they wanted more information to prove I live at my new house. I understand the IRS wanting to prove that people are first time homeowners but having to wait 6 months to get a letter is a little frustrating. And yes, I did call the IRS almost every week to check on its status. At least I'm not depending on the money, although it would be nice to have it. I feel bad for anyone that is depending on it and they have to wait forever."

Michael said he's in the same situation, except he filed even earlier -- the end of May.

Linn posted an update last week to say that the IRS confirmed it received the extra documents but expects it will take 60 to 90 days to decide whether to approve the claim, deny it or ... ask for more documents. Linn wonders, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek way, whether to apply for the credit again on the 2009 tax forms and see what happens. (I'm guessing the IRS won't get the joke, what with all the non-tongue-in-cheek fraud it's had on the first-time buyer tax credit.)

So: How long can you expect to wait if you are applying for the credit on your '09 taxes? Eileen Ambrose notes on the Sun's Consuming Interests blog that the IRS is saying the earliest you can expect it -- if you file toot sweet -- is the end of March. She also has details on what documents the IRS is requiring.

What you've done when it comes to DIY

A number of home-improvement and maintenance tasks are potentially do-it-yourself jobs. But Wonk reader Lori says she speaks from experience in saying that potentially and actually do-it-yourself-able are two different things.

"The ease of MANY DIY jobs is completely dependent not on whether the job is easy to do in a perfect world, but rather whether one is inheriting a Rube Goldberg mess of mediocre construction and dubious code adherence," she wrote in a comment on this week's DIY post.

Here's an example she gave: "Wallpaper removal can ONLY be done by oneself if the (drooling morons) who put the wallpaper up were intelligent enough to use SIZING on the walls. We have a rental property that has wallpaper on the walls and ceilings (!!!), and because of the manner in which it was put up, professionals don't even think it's worth the trouble to pull it. We have had 2 different contractors recommend putting new drywall over it rather than dealing with the fact that pulling the wallpaper is going to tear up the drywall."

(Don't know what sizing is? Here's a explanation from Ask the Builder.)

The DIY discussion you've been having here is so interesting I wanted to shine a light on it for readers who don't make a point of reading the comments. A few more nuggets:

Brian figures he spent about $2,000 and a lot of time doing "a ton of small jobs" around the house he just sold -- "painting every room, rebuilding and painting my deck, painting my garage, putting a bunch a junk on CL for free (it's amazing how fast a pile of scrap wood goes on CL), planted about 8 dozen flowers, etc."

He wishes other sellers had done the same.

"I've been in the market for a new home for a few months and can tell you there aren't many homeowners who do these type of repairs and maintenance," he wrote. "With the market so saturated, these things make a big difference (to me at least). I'll walk out of a completely wallpapered house in a heartbeat unless the place is a steal."

M shared a DIY tale that made me grin: "We recently painted our entire downstairs living area, which included a living room, dining room and kitchen. We painted the ceiling, walls and baseboards and it took us two days this past weekend. I got a contractor who was doing work on a neighbor’s house to give me an estimate and he ball parked it at $1400. We did it for a little over $300 and under 2 days of work. It wasn't worth it while we were doing the work, but after it was a great idea."

Pete offered a useful warning to newbie DIY-ers: "Paint removal should come with a BIG caveat if the house was constructed before 1978." (It wasn't until then that lead paint was banned.)

And avalon, moved by Lori's tale of woe, suggested a "a very inexpensive 'secret weapon'" in the fight to remove wallpaper: liquid fabric softener.

"It took me 8 hours do do one wall with the aid of a store-bought product and a rented steamer," avalon wrote. "I went online and found out about fabric softener and was able to do the rest of the room in under an hour - and it smelled nice afterward! I scored the wallpaper and then sprayed it to saturation with a solution of about 70% water to 30% fabric softener. The walls practically stripped themselves. WHO KNEW?!"

What's the best DIY project you've ever done? The worst?

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

January 21, 2010

Anne Arundel Co. taxing forgiven debt on short sales

Should short sales be taxed differently than "regular" home sales?

Anne Arundel County thinks so. It's levying its recordation tax on the sales price plus any forgiven debt, and the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court is doing the same with state and county transfer taxes.

The county says it's not a policy change and it's just following the law. But real estate agents say it wasn't collecting taxes this way until last week, and that they discovered it the hard way -- by not being able to record sales that had already been to the settlement table.

A title industry trade group says it knows of no other government in the country handling short sales in this way. (Read more about the argument in today's story.)

You probably know what a short sale is if you're reading a blog with a name like "Real Estate Wonk," but just for form's sake, a quick explanation: It's a home sale with a contract price that's less than what the seller owes on his or her mortgage, and the lender is allowing it to go through without demanding all of the difference at closing.

The thing is, lenders are frequently leaving their options open on how they're going to deal with that debt, approving short sales but reserving their right to go after the borrower later. So says Andrew Levy with the Crofton-based Capitol Title Insurance Agency.

That "might or might not" situation isn't enough to get a short sale off the hook for being taxed on forgiven debt in Anne Arundel. The county's controller, Richard Drain, said parties to the sale need to provide solid documentation -- such as a promissory note -- to prove that the lender isn't going to forgive and forget.

The county is offering another way, he said. It will tax the sale on the fair-market value if the parties provide documentation, such as a recent appraisal, along with a hardship letter from the seller about his or her financial difficulties.

But the real estate industry is up in arms about the entire thing. Real estate agents say the sales price is a negotiated deal -- negotiated out the wazoo, usually, since lenders are involved -- and ought to be what the county taxes. And they think the hardship-letter requirement for the exemption violates sellers' privacy.

So: Are buyers getting a below-market steal on short sales, unfairly lowering the amount of taxes cash-strapped local governments can collect? Or is Anne Arundel overreaching? The Maryland Attorney General's office expects to weigh in, but in the meantime, let's hear what you all think.

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

January 20, 2010

Visit that for-sale home in the dark, and other tips

Remember our lively conversation about misused words in real estate listings, like "cozy" for "rooms the size of closets"? The Wall Street Journal suggests that buyers take everything sellers tell them in this difficult market with several dozen grains of salt. "This is a quiet neighborhood," for instance:

Sellers may play down distractions that could drive you crazy, such as barking dogs or idling buses. A charming park by day could be a teen hangout at night. Your best bet is to view a property at different times of the day. ... Talk to neighbors and peruse the local newspapers and blogs to get a feel for a place, and check with police for crime.

What have you done (or wish you'd done) when checking out a home you ended up buying or were thinking of buying?

Sellers, have you ever told buyers something less than flattering about your home or neighborhood because you thought it was the right thing to do, legally or morally?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:30 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: For sale

Baltimore's budget and property-tax rate

Add another voice to the running conversation about Baltimore property taxes, and how the city's difficult budget could affect them: Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's spokesman. Ryan O'Doherty wanted to share two pieces of information with you all.

First, the scope of the dilemma: The finance department says the city is facing a $127 million budget deficit next fiscal year. To put that into perspective, O'Doherty said, that's the cost of employing half the police force or all the fire fighters.

But he said Mayor-to-be Rawlings-Blake was serious when she said that raising the property-tax rate "would be the last resort." The first resort -- before anyone starts talking about tax increases, property or otherwise -- are cuts:

"We've got to show people that the city is serious about making reductions in areas that are not essential before we start having conversations about revenue," O'Doherty said. "I think city residents deserve that -- before we go to their pocketbook, we take a serious look at what we’re spending money on."

Any cuts come on top of what the city already reduced to deal with the effects of tax collections hammered by the bad economy and depressed home sales. As Julie Scharper reported:

The city has eliminated more than 500 jobs, including laying off more than two dozen employees, reduced trash pickups and implemented rotating closings of fire stations to tighten the budget for the current fiscal year. A hiring freeze has been in place since November 2007 and many capital projects have been put on hold. Government offices are set to close for five mandatory furlough days. Most of the unions that represent city employees have agreed to cuts, but the Fraternal Order of Police is engaged in arbitration with the city over reductions. 

Food for thought -- and discussion.

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

January 19, 2010

'No-brainer' DIY home-improvement work

Sometimes you know you can fix something in your home with your own two hands. Sometimes you're absolutely certain you'll need professional help. And sometimes you're not sure one way or the other, which is where Do It Yourself or Not comes in.

The website, run by Marylanders Gene and Katie Hamilton, has details on how much a variety of projects would cost -- and how much time they would take -- if you do them vs. paying someone else to do them for you. 

Here are a few of the projects they think are "no-brainer" DIY efforts:

--Wash windows

--Remove wallpaper

--Remove paint or varnish

--Paint paneling

--Paint a room

"Maintenance and repairs may be tiresome but they’re worth your effort," the Hamiltons note.

They estimate, for example, that it would cost you about $760 to hire someone to paint a room but $150 to paint it yourself.

Some of it comes down to personal preference, I know. Plenty of homeowners are diehards of the do-not-do-it-themselves sort. And life situations make a difference, too. Hard to find the energy to do anything yourself but diaper changes when you've got an infant in the house.

Have you been DIY-ing lately? Do share.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (17)
Categories: Home maintenance

January 18, 2010

Fair housing

It seems fitting to talk about fair housing on a day designed to honor Martin Luther King Jr., because the civil-rights activist was acutely aware of the way bricks and mortar could be used to separate people based on race.

On August 5, 1966, he joined marchers protesting against housing segregation in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune reported that the "mood was ominous" and onlookers threw rocks, bottles and firecrackers at the crowd; King was hit by a stone. But in the end, there were results:

The marches led to an accord that year between the protesters and the Chicago Real Estate Board. The board agreed to end its opposition to open-housing laws in exchange for an end to the demonstrations. Before he left town, King said it was "a first step in a 1,000-mile journey."

The federal Fair Housing Act was part of civil-rights legislation passed seven days after King was assassinated. The act, which covers most housing, makes it illegal to refuse to rent or sell to someone based on race, color, national origin, religion, gender, familial status -- whether you have children -- or disabilities. Setting different terms or conditions is also not allowed. The act covers mortgage lending, too.

In 2008, the 40th anniversary of the act, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said it had received more than 10,000 housing discrimination complaints the previous year. Race was the second-most cited reason. The first? Disabilities.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:18 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Fair Housing

January 16, 2010

The cost of renting is going down

Renters: Are you paying less to live in an apartment than you were a year ago? A year-end report by real estate research firm Delta Associates says average effective rents in the Baltimore metro area -- including concessions, in other words -- are down 1.3 percent from a year earlier, to $1,375 a month.

But that's more a city phenomenon than a suburban one. Rents declined 6.1 percent in the Fells Point/Inner Harbor area and in downtown, where apartments abound.

In the suburbs, the decrease was largest in Columbia -- down almost 1 percent. West and Northwest Baltimore County rents fell 0.3 percent, Anne Arundel County was essentially flat, North and Northeast Baltimore County rents rose 0.8 percent and Harford County rents were up almost 2 percent.

These are so-called Class A apartments, the nicer options out there.

Delta Associates, noting that the pipeline of planned apartments is shrinking, expects that "rent growth is likely to return over the next three years."

Seen any good deals out there?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Landlording, Renting

January 15, 2010

A Rorschach test property-tax comment

I'm beginning to think that Baltimore's mayor-to-be has come up with a nifty way to separate optimists from pessimists. When Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said this week that raising the property tax rate would be "the last resort" but remains "on the table, as any other revenue source is," you could either focus on the "last resort" part and feel relieved or the "on the table" part and take it as a warning of tax hikes to come.

Judging by the comments, many of you see the glass half empty. At least when it comes to city property taxes.

Charlie wrote, "If you want to further drive down housing prices and make Baltimore City real estate look like a bad investment, then by all means look into raising the property taxes. If that's what happens, I will never vote for her in an election."

jtn commented, "If property taxes are raised, I'm moving. I pay almost 6k a year for a row home that is 12x70. It's ridiculous."

And GreenAcresIsThePlaceToBe said, "Just knowing that they are even considering raising property taxes in the City is unnerving. I pay (2X,3X, maybe even 4X)higher property taxes, Special Benefits taxes, exponentially higher utility bills, and 2X or 3X higher insurance to live in a rowhouse in the City versus a single family house in one of the suburbs. It is already ridiculous. Don't worry about my vote if you raise taxes, I won't be here for the next election."

Stephen commented from the other perspective: "From what Rawlings-Blake said, it sounds like she agrees that raising property taxes is a terrible idea, which is why it's a last resort. The city is in a dire financial situation, so increased property taxes sound possible, but do you really think more people would move out because of high property taxes or if more fire stations are closed and the police department is stripped of funding? I'd rather pay a little extra tax rather than sacrifice safety."

The property-tax rate is a political hot potato everywhere but especially in Baltimore. At $2.268 per $100 in assessed value, it's the highest in the state -- and more than twice as much as second-place Baltimore County's $1.10 rate.

You can find people who will defend this as sadly necessary for a city with more cost burdens than its neighbors, but no one's happy about it. Real estate agents say it drives some residents out and convinces outsiders not to move in. Baltimore economist Anirban Basu regularly opines that the city ought to start lowering it now, tough budget notwithstanding.

Rawlings-Blake did touch on this issue in her comments to the Sun's editorial board, saying "my goal is to get to the point where we could reduce the property tax and make the city more competitive with other jurisdictions."

Inevitably, a jurisdiction that must balance its budget has only three short-term choices if revenues aren't rising: Raise taxes, cut spending or both. Which would you prefer? (Or do you see a fourth choice?)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (29)
Categories: Property taxes

January 14, 2010

Dispatch: A home buyer surveys the field

I like to hear from home buyers and sellers experiencing today's unusual market, and I know many of you do, too. So gather 'round for Andrew Waldman, who answered my call to write a dispatch from the home-buying front.

A 27-year-old journalist who moved to Maryland about 18 months ago, he's been living in Baltimore since March. He's renting a place close to Penn Station, which gives him "a very easy commute" to his job near the U.S. Capitol.

Here's his tale of being early in the buying process:


To be frank, I’m tired of paying rent when I could just as easily use that money to purchase my own home. It seems to me that there are lots of good reasons to buy now: the $8,000 federal tax credit for first time homebuyers, lower interest rates and close-to-the-bottom housing prices. I’m also a veteran, giving me the option of several different financing options.

I started my search about a month ago. The first thing I did was the only thing I could think to do ... I called my parents. I’m from a very financially conservative family (read: we’re all cheap), so I figured my accountant father would steer me away from purchasing.

To my surprise, his tone was encouraging.

His advice? "Go for it, and just remember that buying a house is just another way to pay for your living arrangements."

According to both Mom and Dad, it’s a bad idea to treat a home as an investment. Probably good advice, considering what we’ve been through so far with this recession and housing crisis. So, with that in mind, I’ve set a rough budget of $150,000. That price is a little lower than most lenders probably would give me. My location requirement is simple: I want to stay near Penn Station so my commute will still be simple. I’d also like a home with several bedrooms to leave me the option of taking on a roommate.

My Realtor and I have been shooting back e-mails about various properties in the area. What I’ve found is there are quite a few homes in my price range.

Many of them are REOs and foreclosures. Downside: Some of the homes listed appear to be recently (and hastily) rehabbed homes, maybe done by investors who simply ran out of money too soon. In the border area between Charles Village and Barclay, there are lots of houses on the market "as is" and look like they are halfway finished rehab jobs. That area has a lot of potential, but I’m wondering if the housing crash has set it back about five years.

Good example: The first home I looked at was on that side of Charles Village on 22nd Street – a five-bedroom behemoth that had recently been rehabbed. It’s a house that might go for a half million in the right part of town (it’s listed at $139,900). But there are a lot of problems with it – the foundation repairs were shoddy (halfway completed), there are roof leaks, and attention to detail was not impressive. And just around the corner were several unfinished and/or vacant rowhomes. Not a great sign.

After seeing the first house, I’m steering myself more towards non-foreclosure homes – there’s a lot of risk with foreclosures. But I’m not completely against the idea, as long as the home seems to meet a high standard.

At this point in the search, I’m looking at financing options. In the next couple days, I’ll have a really solid idea of what I can afford, and my agent and I will be able to properly move forward on a search. Stay tuned.


Thanks for sharing, Andrew! If you Wonk folks have thoughts for him, you know what to do.

Got a buying or selling experience you'd like to share? Email me at jamie.smith.hopkins(at)

Like to read other dispatches? Find them here.

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

Attorneys volunteering to help borrowers

Nearly 1,000 attorneys have joined a Maryland pro bono effort to offer free help to borrowers facing foreclosure, figuring legal advice and negotiating prowess could keep more people in their homes.

I've got a story on the effort today and figured you might like to know more about how it works, from a "how do I get this free help?" perspective (as well as "how do I volunteer?").

If you're a homeowner, you'll need to first connect with a HUD-approved housing counseling agency participating in the effort. Organizers recommend doing so by calling the state's HOPE hot line, 877-462-7555.

The pro bono attorneys are offering one-on-one advice to homeowners at foreclosure-prevention workshops, and anyone can take advantage of that. Find a list of events here, along with details about how to prepare (scroll down the page).

If you want an attorney to represent you on a volunteer basis, you'll need to meet income requirements. A three-person household in the Baltimore area, for instance, can't make more than $40,720. UPDATE: Actually, the income guidelines are slightly higher for this program than the usual cap for free legal aid. Here's the correct breakdown for the Baltimore metro area:

# People in home

Maximum Income



















Attorneys wanting to volunteer can call the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, 410-837-9379, or go to

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 1:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Foreclosure help, Mortgages

January 13, 2010

A few hours left at Wells Fargo loan-mod event

Wells Fargo is in its final day of a mortgage-help event in Baltimore for struggling borrowers, and I just heard from an attorney who went with clients that it's been truly helpful.

Karl-Henri Gauvin said several of his clients walked away with loan modifications because representatives have the authority to approve them on the spot if the borrowers qualify.

"You cut through all the red tape," said Gauvin, a Baltimore attorney who was named volunteer of the year in September by the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition.

The event -- also open to Wachovia borrowers -- is set to run until 7 p.m. today at the Baltimore Convention Center, One West Pratt Street. More details on the original post.

Did you go? Was your experience good, bad or neutral?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 1:36 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Mortgages, The foreclosure mess

A Q&A with Real Estate Intervention's Aubrey

As co-host of HGTV's Real Estate Intervention show, Mike Aubrey offers reality checks to homeowners having trouble selling. As he says on one episode set in Fells Point, people "need to be reactive to this declining real estate market that we're in."

Touring the competition and re-evaluating whether your asking price is anywhere near what buyers would pay -- a far cry from all the house-flipper programming of the bubble days.

Aubrey, a North Potomac real estate agent who got into the business in 2002, chatted with me recently about what he's seeing in the market these days.

Q. You're based in the Washington suburbs. Do you work in Baltimore at all?

Because of the work that I do on Real Estate Intervention, I end up in Baltimore a lot. We do a lot of shows in Baltimore. That is probably because, sort of the format of this show, at least the first two seasons of the show, has been a little bit dark, and things have been tougher in Baltimore than they’ve been in the D.C. area.

Q. Why?

I think that Baltimore City was ... gentrifying a lot of the areas inside the city during the real estate boom, [neighborhoods] that never necessarily got to complete that gentrification. And so those areas that were in transition are the areas I think really got stymied as we saw the market fall off. Places that I think, had the market not turned in Baltimore, would ... be flourishing right now. 

Everybody knows that Federal Hill ... already 'happened.' But a lot of the areas that are ancillary to Federal Hill, … those places really started to pick up a little bit but [they] never got to happen completely. They just got stuck in time. Those are the areas that have been the toughest to recover as we’ve gone through this process. ...

Let me go macro on you for a second. Let’s talk about the United States, and I think you can apply the same concept to Baltimore. I hate to be simplistic, but those areas that rose the furthest had the farthest to fall. Those areas you didn’t see a ton of difference in, … I think they’re the guy who’s out in Lincoln, Neb. right now who’s been living in his house for 10 years and things have not changed a great deal for that guy during the boom or during the fall. ...

As places went up, as people couldn’t afford to be in certain places, tertiary markets exploded. … Frederick exploded, and Frederick is tumbleweeds right now, you couldn’t give a house away in Frederick right now. Washington County’s pretty bad, too. We actually did a show out in Washington County which has not aired yet in Season Two, and those folks sort of made that classic mistake of, ‘We want a monster house, 6,000 square feet, … so we’re going to build it out here.' And they missed the boat, definitely. They built it purely as an investment.

Q. On that note, what interventions do you think sellers in Maryland need?

This is a very interesting time in real estate. It is a very transitioning time. And the beauty of doing an interview as opposed to doing a television show is that I can kind of give you my ideas in real time as opposed to being two or three months behind the eight ball. That’s the tough thing about my show -- it’s a little bit behind by the time it airs. …

I think what we’re going to see is a W-shaped recovery. I see a lot of areas on the upswing right now, and I see that as being the middle part of that W.

Mortgage rates are still very low, and part of the reason they remained very low is because the largest buyer of mortgage-backed securities was the government in 2009. That’s going to change. … When you’ve got normal buyers, … they’re not going to do it for the margins the government was. That’s going to drive interest rates up.

Two, I think the home buyer tax credit, … another synthetic driving force in the market right now that only applies to contracts written before April 30 , … that’s going to go away. The middle part of that W is being driven by that as well.

Finally, I think the other huge factor, nobody really knows what the impact will be, but I think everybody thinks it will be a negative impact, is the concept of the shadow inventory out there. ... The thing lenders want to do most in the world is give people money to buy houses. The thing they want to do least in the world is own houses. When they [put more of their foreclosure inventory on the market], … we’re going to see the declining part of that W.

Right now we’re on the upswing on the middle part of that W. These three things, the shadow inventory, the home buyer tax credit and rising mortgage rates, we’re going to hit that middle point on the W and start going down again. ...

For sellers in Maryland and sellers in Baltimore City, if you’re looking to sell your house, I think you have a window right now that’s in Q1 of 2010 and the beginning part of Q2 2010, and I think things are going to get worse after that. My advice to sellers is be aggressive.

Q. In what ways?

Price your house right. Every property, whether you’re in Baltimore City or you’re in Washington, D.C., every property in my opinion has to have two things to sell in a tough marketplace: It has to be priced right and it has to look good. ...

If you’re a seller in this marketplace, you need to get great advice in terms of your pricing strategy and get ahead of the market rather than chasing the market.

I still work, I still sell houses -- I’m not just like a TV guy. I think this concept of staging a house and putting a little effort into staging a house makes a difference. As a seller, you have one opportunity to … get somebody’s interest.

Most people are emotional buyers. It’s an impulse issue. You walk in, you love it, you want it.

Q. So you don't think focusing on price and not worrying about condition is a good idea for sellers? Or vice versa?

I have seen houses that are priced extraordinarily well but look horrible, [and] they still sit, and when they do get contracts, somebody wants to get their shirt in price. On the flip side, I have seen people who have absolutely over-upgraded their property, … and the place is absolutely spectacular, it’s perfect, but because it’s overpriced, it also sits. So no, I don’t think one is more important than the other. I think they’re equally important in a tough marketplace.

Q. What’s your advice for people who can’t sell in the first upswing of the W?

One thing is, if you don’t have to move, stay in the house. Even in my regular business, not on TV, with people I talk to now, the first thing I want to know is, why do you want to move and what kind of financial impact is your move going to have? For some people, they take a hit on the mouth for what they’re selling, but what they’re buying, they’re buying for so much less that it makes financial sense to them.

I’m not saying don’t sell. … I’m thinking, though, if somebody doesn’t sell and we are on the downward side of that W, at minimum, if they’re able to wait until we’re on that final upswing of that W, which I think may be as far out as 2011, I think if they can hold out until then, it’s going to minimize their bleeding a little bit. 

Q. Why do sellers need interventions four years into a down market?

You know, people’s homes are very personal to them. And I will say this to you as a member of the media that covers real estate and me as a real estate agent and on this show, what seems so clearly evident to us is maybe not as evident to people out there. I’ve gone through some catharsis through this in the number of people I’ve gotten to meet, … where I was originally saying to myself, ‘It’s impossible that people just haven’t realized this,’ to the point that I believe … there are tons of people out there who aren’t even anecdotally aware of the fact that we’re in the middle of this awful real estate crisis. Honestly. ...

I also think information for people often comes not through qualified sources like talking to a Realtor or something like that, but really comes through neighborhood chatter. ... ‘Yeah, we know the real estate market’s bad, but it hasn’t affected us as bad.’ People have this mass denial in a local area that continues to drive the idea that there needs to be interventions done, not just on my show but every day with people in the trenches, selling these houses, coming in and saying things that knock [homeowners] out of their shoes.

This is going to sound a little bit crass and I don’t mean it in a crass way, but one of the first things I try to get people to realize is, their situation -- whether they’re underwater or not, whether they have any money to bring to the table, if it’s a married couple and they’re getting ready to have another child and they need the space -- none of that has any impact on the buyer. That is the first and biggest mistake that most sellers make, assuming their personal situation has some sort of impact on the buyer and the marketplace. It has no impact at all. Buyers out there, they want a deal. Can you blame them?

After 2004 and 2005, the way buyers were getting gouged, this is some sort of marketplace karma, right?

Q. Do you think home buyers need any inventions?

I do, actually. Funny you’ve said that. ... Sometimes I think the media likes to make the news as much as they report the news, and the idea that the market is absolutely in the toilet is a sensational idea and it makes a lot of headlines … and the truth of the matter is, we are seeing recovery in a lot of areas. And because we’re seeing recovery in a lot of areas, one of the things I’m having to do [is explain this to buyers]. …

People come in with these arbitrary ideas: 'I want to get 20 percent off the listing price of a house' or 'I want to get 15 percent off the listing price of a house.' It is truly arbitrary. For those sellers that have a property that looks good and is priced right, those are going to be the houses buyers are interested in. … You’re not always able to go in and do that. Can you do that with the stuff that doesn’t look good or has some problems? Yeah, you can. But can you make it happen on the stuff that doesn’t have problems, that are attractive to other buyers? No, you can’t.

Q. Any other thoughts about the market?

As much as ... people think I’m just a dark guy and a negative guy, I’m not. And here’s what I can tell you: The market will come back. There’s no doubt in my mind, whether in Kalamazoo or Baltimore City, the market will come back.

It will get better. There’s no doubt. It’s one of the great engines that drives the United States economy, and things are going to come back around. If people can hold on and remain vigilant, what they're going to see is property values begin to stabilize. And real estate will be a good investment.

What it comes down to is owning a property for a protracted period of time, rather than like owning a share of Google.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Housing forecasts, Housing market experiences, Q&A

January 12, 2010

City's incoming mayor on property taxes

What does City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who becomes Baltimore's mayor Feb. 4, think about the property-tax rate? We got a taste yesterday when she met with Baltimore Sun staff to discuss her priorities and answer questions.

The budget, as you can imagine, was one of the first topics. That's how the subject of taxes came up:

"You have to be frank that [increasing] the property tax would be the last resort, just because ... my goal is to get to the point where we could reduce the property tax and make the city more competitive with other jurisdictions," she said. "But while it's a last resort, it's still on the table, as any other revenue source is."

Not that it's ever fun being the jurisdiction with a property-tax rate more than twice as high as Maryland's counties, but it's especially unfun in this sort of economy. Rawlings-Blake said her finance director, Edward J. Gallagher, tells her the deficit is the worst he's ever seen. She promised that her focus would be "public safety and essential services, as well as getting the budget under control."

One of her priorities in Annapolis is also property-tax related:

The City Council has asked the General Assembly to give Baltimore the authority to tax vacant and uninhabitable properties at a higher rate than other homes. Rawlings-Blake said the idea is "to create incentives for active homeownership."

This was city resident Matt Gonter's suggestion, which he made here and through a Facebook group, then on WYPR. Last month, the City Council backed it, passing a resolution asking the state to create a two-tiered rate.

Interested in other things Rawlings-Blake had to say to us yesterday? The Second Opinion blog has more.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (28)
Categories: Property taxes

January 11, 2010

Dispatch: Home buyers walk away

Peter Arrabal has been sharing his tale of trying (and trying and trying) to buy a foreclosure with girlfriend Karen Parlee. Now he presents his final -- or at least final for now -- dispatch from the home-buying front:


We bailed out. Maybe we wimped out. We finally backed out. But no one seems to be able to help us out.

As documented last month, my girlfriend (who, as of New Year's Eve, can be called my fiancée) and I were attempting to buy a townhouse to be closer to our jobs in the D.C. area. We needed relief from our two-hour commutes from Ellicott City.

Through three months, we had submitted four offers and been rejected four times. The fifth time worked, or so it seemed.

As we closed in on settlement, we were told we would be delayed 14 to 17 weeks because of a "post-foreclosure bankruptcy."

"A routine search of Bankruptcy records revealed that the prior owner declared a post foreclosure bankruptcy," they said. We don't even know who said this, because all communications come through the selling agent and are unsigned. Mysterious? Yes. Shady? Absolutely.

We asked them to explain what that meant. What was a post-foreclosure bankruptcy, and what are the repercussions for us and the bank?

"Please inform the purchasers that a routine search of Bankruptcy records revealed that the prior owner declared a post foreclosure bankruptcy," they said. Nothing else.

A few weeks later, the selling agent warned our agent that we had to submit an extension addendum to the contract, because otherwise, the contract would expire on Dec. 11, 2009, and the sellers could walk away with our deposit because we failed to close on time.

Yes, it was our responsibility to extend the contract despite the fact that Wells Fargo didn't own the house they had listed for sale.

We offered to extend the contract for 14 weeks.


"It is our policy not to extend contracts more than three weeks at a time," the e-mail said.

Really? Every three weeks I have to offer to extend the contract, on the hopes that your lawyers manage to clean up this mess?

Enough. We could only put up with their shenanigans for so long. We could only commute two hours each way for so many weeks. Our patience and spirits were worn thin.

And so we bailed out. We drew up a withdrawal from the contract and requested our earnest money deposit back. The original contract called for a $6,280 subsidy from the seller to cover closing costs, which included a home inspection and appraisal, for which we had already paid nearly $1,000. In the withdrawal addendum, we requested reimbursement for those two items.

We got a check in the mail for the earnest money deposit. It may as well have come with a picture of someone's middle finger regarding the inspection and appraisal request. They never rejected that request, they just ignored it completely.

What did we have to show for five months of trying to "realize the American dream of homeownership," as those National Association of Realtors radio spots inspire? A handful of wasted weekends, a few reams of wasted paper, a negative balance of $475 on an inspection and $501 on an appraisal. And we still had that two-hour commute.

If insanity is truly to do the same thing repeatedly expecting different results, then we are 99 percent insane.

Driven by the other 1 percent, we just signed a lease on an apartment in Bethesda, located five minutes away from my work. There were no mountains of paperwork, no waiting, no loan officers. I signed my name a handful of times, wrote a check, and got a pair of keys to my new home.

What did we learn?

1) People trying to buy a foreclosed home face significantly more potential pitfalls than with regular sales.

2) The banks who own these home are often incompetent, irrational and difficult to deal with.

3) This kind of stuff makes absolutely no sense to the normal, rational person. However, when presented to a lawyer or real estate agent, this scenario somehow makes perfect sense.

4) The lawyers always, always get paid.

5) There is not a single incentive that could convince me to ever consider using Wells Fargo in any capacity.

I feel very bad for the agent who tried to help us with this. She worked from August through December trying to help us buy our first home, and ended up collecting no commission, through no fault of her own.

So, for the next year, we'll be paying a monthly rent that's more than what our mortgage payment would have been. There are no for-sale properties on the market right now that meet our criteria, so we'll wait for the spring/summer/fall inventory to come back and bring us some options. (Apparently, no one wants to move during the winter.)

Hopefully, the next sellers we try to deal with will actually own the home they list for sale.


Thanks so much, Peter, for sharing your story of frustration. Much better luck to you on your next go-round with the housing market.

Stay tuned for another prospective home buyer's dispatch. If you'd like to share your own experience of buying, selling or renting, email me at jamie.smith.hopkins(at) (And no, it doesn't have to be a can-you-believe-this situation.)
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Dispatches, Housing market experiences

January 10, 2010

Poll results: You care, you really care

Some of you would gladly rent or purchase a place with a shady past, assuming the price was right, but most of you who took last week's poll say "no way." Someone else can live in the chainsaw-murderer mansion, thanks very much.

Just 3 percent of poll-takers said that what went on in a home they're interested in doesn't matter to them.

It was a choose-all-that-apply poll. Here's how the "I'd care if ..." answers ranked:

Tied for No. 1: If there was a murder there and if whatever happened caused structural problems -- both got 39 votes.

No. 2: If the previous owner/tenant used the property for selling illegal goods (14 votes).

No. 3: If it's renown for ghosts (13 votes).

Rather than making it a multiple-choice poll, I should have just included an "all of the above and then some" option. Several of you offered that as a write-in vote. (My favorite: "Yes, yes, yes and more yes!")

And one of you noted that what would particularly bother you is if the place had been used as a meth lab. Yeah, that would bother me too.

What previous life would you especially want for a home you were going to rent or buy? A long stint in the hands of a home-improvement expert?

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

January 9, 2010

2009: An up year for home sales, if nothing else

It looks like 2009 is the year that shook off the housing slump. The dropping-sales part of that slump, anyway -- at least for now.

The number of home sales in the Baltimore metro area rose 3 percent last year, at least according to preliminary numbers. That's the first annual increase since 2005, the last hurrah of the buying frenzy.

Prices took longer to peak -- on average, at least, they were rising until well into 2007. Last year, they dropped about 9 percent, bringing the average to $280,000 in the Baltimore metro area. (That's below the 2005 figure, for those of you keeping score.)

Read more about it in today's story, or see the monthly figures at Metropolitan Regional Information Systems' website. MRIS doesn't tally up an annual number until mid-February, to allow for late entries of sales into the system and some data cleaning, so all these 2009 stats are my calculations from their monthly figures.

Despite the increase, sales are still way down from a typical year, let alone the peak. But average sale prices remain well above where they were at the start of the last decade. As Housing Watch pointed out recently, Baltimore-area home prices were 98 percent higher in the third quarter of last year than they were in 2000, using the National Association of Realtors figures. That's the second-largest increase among metro areas, behind only Allentown, Penn.

Depending on your point of view, that's either good news or bad. I'll let you all do the editorializing.

One of the troubles about average sale prices is that they're, well, an average of sales. A perfect cross-section of homes doesn't necessarily sell every year. That's why economists like to look at measures that try to get at changes in same-home prices.

So here's an information-gathering poll for everyone's edification. Compared with 2007 (the peak in prices, if averages are telling the true story), how have your values changed? You can play along even if you're a renter. You just need to know what happened to the value of the home you're renting or a home near your apartment.

On a wonkish note, in case you're wondering about my 2009 price-and-sales calculations: I compared the preliminary figures for 2009 with the preliminary figures for 2008. The sales numbers usually end up rising a bit after they're revised, and that seemed the most apples-to-apples way to handle it.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:32 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Housing stats, Polls

January 8, 2010

Stay tuned for December home sale numbers

Metropolitan Regional Information Systems expects to release home sale statistics for the Baltimore metro area later today.

Stay tuned, fellow Wonks.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:15 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Housing stats

A Consuming Interests poll you'd be interested in

The Consuming Interests blog is asking a question that homeowners and economists alike are wrestling with: Is it ever the right decision to walk away from your home and your mortgage?

In a New York Times magazine piece, Roger Lowenstein argues that corporations default on loans for business reasons, so why not Joe Schmoe?

Mortgage holders do sign a promissory note, which is a promise to pay. But the contract explicitly details the penalty for nonpayment — surrender of the property. The borrower isn’t escaping the consequences; he is suffering them.

It's a hotly debated issue, as you can imagine. What do you think? You can take the Consuming Interests poll here.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:10 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Mortgages, The foreclosure mess

Wachovia/Wells Fargo borrowers: an event for you

Wells Fargo is putting on a mortgage-help event in Baltimore next week for struggling borrowers, including people with loans from Wachovia, which it acquired about a year ago. Here are the details:

The company says you'll "meet with a Wells Fargo representative who will confidentially discuss your financial concerns and options," including whether you're eligible for a loan modification through the federal Home Affordable Modification Program.

The event is 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Jan. 11, 12 and 13 -- next Monday through Wednesday -- at the Baltimore Convention Center, One West Pratt Street. Go to level 100, hall F.

You can walk in, but Wells Fargo recommends registering at by the end of the day today. The registration page notes this, but remember to bring a letter explaining your situation, a list of your assets and expenses, and recent pay stubs, bank statements and tax returns/W2s.

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

January 7, 2010

A mobile site for home-searching on the go

There are a lot of apps out there for people who like to check out home info from their phones while on the go -- Zillow's, Trulia's and Smarter Agent's, for instance. Now comes online real estate broker Sawbuck Realty, which says it has just launched the "first location-aware mobile real estate search website" at

Why a site and not an app? Sawbuck says it preferred to go with tech that "doesn’t require a download, opening a separate program to see search results, or a specific mobile platform." The site is designed to detect where you are by your smartphone's GPS.

My phone is not smart ("you stupid phone" is, in fact, what I often find myself saying to it as I'm trying to use it), so I haven't tried out any home-related apps. Have you? What's useful and what isn't? Do you use them as a tool for home searching or lookylooing?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Real estate online

Firm: Baltimore home prices down 8.8%

A real estate data firm says Baltimore metro area home sale prices were 8.8 percent lower in the four months ending Dec. 24 than they were a year earlier.

Good news from the company, Clear Capital: Most of the people selling were ... well, people selling. Bank-owned properties made up 15 percent of home sales in the metro area, which isn't as low as some places but is a heck of a lot lower than the 30 to 50 percent in some of the worst-hit parts of the country. (More than half of sales -- 53 percent -- were bank-owned in Riverside, Calif.) 

Bad news: Baltimore was No. 9 on the company's list of "lowest performing major markets" because prices dropped almost 1 percent from the previous quarter. (Baltimore's quarterly price rose very slightly in the summer, according to Clear Capital.)

Of course, your idea of "good news" and "bad news" will be reversed if you're trying to buy a foreclosure and want prices to keep coming down. (At least there's some good news for everyone ...)

Top performer, according to Clear Capital: Detroit. Yes, Detroit, land of $10,000 homes, which saw a more than 17 percent increase vs. the previous quarter. The company attributed that to the metro area's foreclosure-saturated market, saying bank-owned prices "continue to rise from their steeply discounted levels of early 2009."

Clear Capital, which draws its sales figures from assessors' and recorders' offices, calculates price by comparing repeat sales of the same homes over the years. You might have noticed that its most recent "quarter" is four months rather than three, and that's by design. It throws in an extra month of sales for balance in order to include very recent numbers, which come from data that can be incomplete.

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

January 6, 2010

City's suit against Wells Fargo is no more

As Tricia Bishop reports, a federal court has dismissed Baltimore v. Wells Fargo. The judge did not find plausible the city's argument that the company caused millions of dollars in damages through predatory mortgage lending practices.

Bishop has a short story up now. Look for the full version Thursday. A taste:

"The alleged connection is even more implausible when considered against the background of other factors leading to the deterioration of the inner city," U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz explained in an six-page memorandum opinion accompanying the dismissal order. He pointed specifically to Baltimore's "extensive unemployment, lack of educational opportunity and choice, irresponsible parenting, disrespect for the law, widespread drug use, and violence."

Motz left the door open for the city to file an amended complaint, however, narrowing the scope of its claims.

Do you think the city should do so?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:25 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: The foreclosure mess

Patterson Park in Southern Living magazine

You might remember that Southern Living magazine picked Baltimore's Patterson Park as one of the "best comeback neighborhoods." The story's out now, and you can see it online here.

A taste:

Future restoration of the community rests on the struggle between the housing downturn and energized homeowners rallying behind the community. “You’ve heard of sweat equity? We have fret equity,” says neighborhood association vice president Kimi Aghevli. “You move in and think, ‘What have I done?’ Then your neighbors reach out and bring you into the social circle, lifting this neighborhood house by house.”

The first quote, at least on the online version, is from the owner of Three..., a restaurant across from the park. But as Elizabeth Large noted on the Dining@Large blog recently, she got a "temporarily disconnected" message when she called the business. I checked its website today, and it's down. Oh dear.

C'mon 2010, be better than '09. Better, darn you.

Q&A: Homeownership incentives, and what they mean for renters

Years of efforts by Democrats and Republicans alike to promote homeownership for everyone have come in for their share of criticism in these post-bubble days, now that we've seen what can happen when no attention is given to whether prospective buyers are financially ready or the loans they're getting are reasonable for their life situations.

Paula M. Cino, director of energy and environmental policy at the National Multi Housing Council, a trade group for the apartment industry, has strong opinions on the topic, as you might imagine. I asked her to share in a Q&A.

Q. How does government support for homeownership compare with government support for renting?

Cino: Federal homeownership subsidies outnumber rental support 4 to 1 or about $230 billion to the renters’ $60 billion. If subsidies were adjusted to reflect the true distribution of households that rent vs. own, rental housing subsidies would have to increase by about $36 billion. The unbalanced nature of our housing policy is even more obvious when you consider that the richest 20 percent of the population claimed more than a third of the homeownership subsidies through the mortgage interest deduction.

Q. Why does it matter if the government offers more breaks and incentives for homeownership?

Cino: The current allocations simply don’t reflect the diversity of housing needs nationwide. One third of all Americans rent their housing. Moreover, changing demographics and consumer preferences show an increased demand for apartments. The U.S. Census Bureau’s Housing Vacancy Survey shows that 2.83 million new renter households were created between 2004 and 2008. In 2008 alone, 63 percent of net new households were renter-occupied.

For decades, married couples with children dominated housing markets. But today those families make up less than 25 percent of all households. Apartments are needed to accommodate the growing number of young professionals, empty-nesters and childless couples seeking smaller, centrally-located, more affordable homes that don’t necessitate a long-term financial commitment.

Q. What role do you think government policy played in the housing bubble and bust?

Cino: Years of "homeownership at any cost" housing policy created or exacerbated the problems underlying the housing crisis, like over-supply of housing inventory, inflated prices and the proliferation of risky loan products. The bubble and burst resulted from the culmination of many different policies and programs. One example is the widespread use of zero-down and seller-financed (also called "charity") downpayment programs.

In seller-financed downpayment programs, home sellers contribute funds to an outside organization, which then gifts the contribution to a home buyer for use as a downpayment. Although this may sound like a good idea, these programs have long been criticized. As early as 2005, the Government Accountability Office reported that this practice artificially inflated home prices because sellers usually raised the home’s selling price to recoup the downpayment gift. In 2006, ... the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) noted that loans involving these transactions were three times as likely to go into foreclosure. Yet, Congress didn’t ban this practice in FHA-backed loans until the July 2008 housing stimulus bill, after more than 1 million buyers used these programs.

These programs contributed to the current problem of negative-equity or "upside-down" mortgages, which has led to the relatively new concept of voluntary foreclosure (i.e. where a financially sound owner walks away from a home). Despite these facts, Congress has considered legislation to reinstate seller-financed downpayment programs.

Skewed housing policy pushed many people towards homeownership regardless of their financial or lifestyle needs. The bust is really a reconciliation - bringing homeownership back to sustainable levels.

Q. Should the country be trying to get everybody into homes they own?

Cino: Homeownership is not the right choice for everyone. A range of considerations work against across-the-board homeownership, including changing demographics, the financial burden, lack of mobility, inflexibility in the face of job changes and family status and the simple preference for the convenience of apartment living.

Moreover, we’ve seen that homeownership is not a sure-fire path to build wealth. Like any other investment, people need to weigh the pros and cons in light of their individual needs.

Q. How do you think the government should change its homeownership vs. renting policies? Are there ways it can be more renter-friendly without adding to the national debt?

Cino: Even after the housing collapse, federal policy continued to push homeownership through the new homebuyer tax credit instead of rental assistance for those newly unemployed or foreclosed. Economists have estimated that the credit has cost taxpayers more than $40,000 for each additional house sold because 1.7 million of the 2 million who have taken the credit would have bought a house even without the tax break.

Clearly we need a more balanced housing policy that includes homeownership and a robust rental market. A reallocation of some homeownership subsidies should be directed towards the development and support of affordable housing. We also need to encourage responsible land use choices and promote the production of all types of housing.

January 5, 2010

Neighborhood love: Overlea

A few weeks back I put out a call for some neighborhood love -- why you live where you live, what makes it a nice or quirky or neighborly place (and, if tough love is required, what you're trying to change).

A handful of you have already raised your hands to participate. Overlea resident Bob Marousek was the fastest to the finish line, letting neither the holidays nor the snow deter him.

Marousek, who works in real estate and has lived in Overlea since 1998, also shared lots of photos -- so many that we started a "My Neighborhood 'Tis of Thee" gallery.

So: Take it away, Bob!



Photograph of Overlea sunset by Bob Marousek


Overlea, a suburb of Northeast Baltimore City and Baltimore County, means "Over the Meadow." But it's been called other names throughout the years -- Raspeburg (after the Raspe family, who once ran a general store on Belair Road) and Belgravia (a fashionable residential suburb of central London). Overlea began to flourish with the introduction of streetcar service to the area in 1903. This allowed downtown workers to move away from the cramped city to the "rolling hills of the countryside." The No. 15 streetcar ran from Overlea to West Baltimore Street -- a trip that took a whopping 46 minutes in those days!

Overlea is an ideal location for me, as I can drive to downtown Baltimore, Towson, White Marsh or the Beltway in 15 minutes or less.

The community is bordered by Parkville to the north, Waltherson to the south, Hamilton to the west and Rosedale to the east. Houses in the area range from new construction to more than 100 years old, so there are many styles of architecture, which is what appealed to me. You can find brick Colonials, stucco Cape Cods, split levels, stone ranchers, cedar shingle Dutch Colonials, duplexes and townhomes here.



Examples of Overlea homes. (See many more in the gallery.)


House prices range from about $90,000 to $400,000, so there is a home for everyone's budget. Many of the older homes have been renovated. Quite a few properties have third floors, as larger families needed more space way back when. Some lots are more than a half-acre, with many species of trees and plants.

During the 11 years I have lived here, I have seen blue heron, red tail hawks, wild turkeys and even white tail deer roaming my neighborhood. The wildlife can take a bit of getting used to. One neighbor called police late one night as he thought he heard a woman in need of help. Once the officer arrived, he soon determined it was a wail of a red fox (much to his amusement). Yards are well kept and quite a few of my neighbors have gardens and koi ponds (which the blue heron just love).


The neighborhood wildlife


Once they live here, people seem to stay for quite a while. Some have grown up here and moved away, only to return later. Some have lived here all their lives. I love to hear the history of the neighborhood, with tales of how basements were blasted out with dynamite, of finding Indian arrowheads in the soil, of goats running loose and kids swimming at Gatch quarry, which sat on Belair Road just north of White Avenue.

I don't know if there is much I would change about Overlea; this place has it all. Stop by and visit sometime.


Thanks for spreading a little neighborhood love, Bob.

Would you like to speak up for your neighborhood? Email me at jamie.smith.hopkins(at) to get started. I'm not looking for staid reports of the grade-school variety, and you're not required to go into details about home prices and the like. Just tell us why you live where you do and share a story or two. If you can send a few photos (or a lot, as Bob did), so much the better.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: My neighborhood, 'tis of thee

January 4, 2010

Answers for your home buyer tax credit questions

Got unanswered questions about the home buyer tax credit?

The Consuming Interests blog is hosting a live chat at noon Tuesday -- Jan. 5 -- with Jackson Hewitt’s chief tax officer, Mark Steber. You can ask him your tax-credit (and other tax) questions then, or better yet, submit them in advance to

Baltimore-area home prices circa 2009

What price did the average home selling in the Baltimore area last year fetch? We'll get a preliminary look when Metropolitan Regional Information Systems releases December numbers -- I'm all ready to number-crunch the results for you.

But we're several days away from that yet. So here are some other price-related numbers for your enjoyment while you wait -- including the most expensive home that changed hands last year.

First off: Wonk reader John noticed a stat on that struck him as a milestone.

"The median asking price for a home in Baltimore has now dropped SIX FIGURES since the new tracking series began in April 2006," he wrote me. "In April 2006, the median asking price was $344,663. In December 2009, the median asking price is $241,725."

Prices tend to bump up in the spring, presumably because more people are trying to sell four- and five-bedroom homes aimed at families with kids in school. (Or maybe it's just that sellers who go on the market in the spring are a bit, ah, exuberant with their asking prices, to use a Greenspan word.)

That spring bump-up means it's not entirely apples-to-apples to compare December to April -- or at least not Granny Smiths to Granny Smiths. (December 2009 asking prices in the Baltimore metro area are down about $83,000 vs. December 2006, HousingTracker says.) But as John points out, there are "massive government incentives at work" now that weren't around in April 2006, so nothing is exactly comparable, eh?

Is the takeaway that prices are rip-roaring bargains? The Calculated Risk blog addressed this question from a national perspective -- responding to homes-are-now-cheap arguments -- and insisted that it's really just mortgage rates that are unusually low:

[T]he real key is to focus on supply and demand, and on the general fundamentals of price-to-income and price-to-rent (not perfect measures). House prices are not currently "cheap". They just aren't outrageously expensive nationally anymore.

The links in the quote go to graphs, for the graph-lovers among you.

On a final price note, real estate agent Michael Hamby put together a list of Maryland homes that sold for the most money in 2009 (along with lists for D.C. and Virginia). Priciest Baltimore-area home: A newly constructed six-bedroom, six-and-a-half bath spread in Annapolis that changed hands in March for $5 million.

The top sales figure anywhere in Maryland was -- not that surprisingly -- in tony Potomac, according to Hamby's list. The home, which sold for $7.8 million, has an eye-popping 10 bedrooms and 11-and-a-half bathrooms. The listing says it was "Designed and Built for the Sargent & Eunice Kennedy Shriver Family."

The listing also says the original asking price was $11.8 million. That's a 34 percent drop. 

The listing on the Annapolis home, on the other hand, says the sales price is slightly above the asking price. Perhaps a few additions made to the buyer's specifications, since the listing said there was "STILL TIME TO CUSTOMIZE"?

Never a dull moment with this housing market.

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

January 3, 2010

Off-putting real estate question of the day

When people ask questions on real estate search engine Trulia, the queries are usually along the lines of, "How can I fix my credit so I can buy a home?" or "Do sellers have any liability after selling their house?"

Not so common: "Will the murder of a homeowner inside the home being auctioned or sold affect either the auction price or the selling price of the home?"


The Baltimore buyer asking the query has his or her eye on a home that last sold for $950,000 in 2007.

Would you be put off a house because something bad happened there, even if the crime was unusual for the neighborhood? Here, take the poll:

UPDATE: Forgot to mention this is a multiple-choice poll. Feel free to care about all the scenarios mentioned.

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

January 2, 2010

Property tax and assessments: Your thoughts

There's been more chatter about property taxes, in the comments here and elsewhere, since the state sent out notices to the one-third of homeowners whose properties were reassessed. Here's a taste:

Adam Meister, Reservoir Hill activist and blogger, is a fan of the "constant yield tax rate" -- the rate your local jurisdiction would have to charge to bring in exactly as much money next fiscal year as it's getting from property taxes now. When a local government leaves the rate alone, it typically gets more money thanks to rising assessment values. But as Meister notes, assessment values have been falling:

It is theoretically possible that in 2011 the city may be faced with a situation where they will have to RAISE property taxes to make up for a decrease in assessments. It is highly likely that such a situation will occur in 2012.  ...

This is why we must cut government programs, fire government workers, and lower the property tax rate to the CYTR [constant yield tax rate] in 2010. If we manage our expenses correctly now, then lower assessment will not be a major issue in the future.

One interesting question -- and I don't know the answer to it -- is what percentage of residents with lowered assessments will still get annual tax-bill increases for some years to come, courtesy of the homestead tax credit.

As I've noted, and as columnist Jay Hancock spelled out, some number of residents are paying taxes on a lesser amount than even their soon-to-be reduced assessment value. That's because the homestead credit limits the assessment increase owner-occupiers pay taxes on in any one year. (In Baltimore, the cap is 4 percent.)

A Wonk reader named John commented here recently that the whole assessment and taxation system seems unfair to him:

Income tax is based on income, sales tax based on what you buy. Property tax is based on some bureaucrat's made-up assessment. It is a tax that has nothing to do with the income and ability of the person who must pay it. ... Property taxes should not change unless the property is changed or is sold.

Maryland assessors would of course argue that they're not making up numbers from whole cloth, they're comparing sales of nearby homes. But John's main point is one that others have made as well, namely: Why not just tax properties on their actual sale price?

California has a system that's sort of a cross between that idea and what Maryland currently does with its homestead tax credit. California begins taxing a homeowner at his or her property's "fair market value" at the time of purchase and then increases that amount every year to try to account for inflation -- but no more than 2 percent. In November the state announced a first-ever decrease (link opens a PDF).

Most systems strike some as unfair. Whenever you protect longer-term homeowners from increases, for instance, newer buyers pick up more of the slack (or rather taxes). Any suggestions for a fair-for-all system?

BigDragon, meanwhile, has a can-you-believe-it tale to share since his move from Pennsylvania into newly built digs in the region:

I got a property assessment notice in the mail just yesterday. It went up! They were just taxing the land, but now they claim someone built a townhouse here. I guess I don't have tall enough bushes outside! Darn, that always worked in Pennsylvania.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Homestead Property Tax Credit, Property taxes

January 1, 2010

Foreclosures and abandonment

Baltimore's housing commissioner, Paul T. Graziano, noted this week that he wishes the city got more than $5.8 million in federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program dollars to acquire and fix up bank-owned properties. It's a common refrain across the country, even from cities that got ten times that amount, because pretty much everyone is feeling overwhelmed by the scope of the problem.

City officials are estimating that $5.8 million will cover the cost of buying and rehabbing about 80 units, some to be resold to homeowners and some to be rented out. (That estimate is counting on money coming back into the pot from the resold units and allowing more work to be done.) But more than 2,700 city homes were sold at foreclosure auctions in 2009 alone, and hundreds (if not thousands) more are in danger of following suit.

I had a story about the program this week -- and about the fact that it's taken a long time (in a non-bureaucracy sense of the word) to get it off the ground -- but didn't have space to go into one of Graziano's points. It's an interesting one, namely that Baltimore probably would have fared a lot better if general vacancy and abandonment played a bigger role in how the federal government apportioned the $3.9 billion in stabilization money. (Vacancy is one factor, but foreclosure starts counted for more.)

"We have a lot of vacancies, probably more than most any other cities in the country -- proportionally or otherwise," Graziano said. "I'm happy in many ways that we don't have as many foreclosures [as some cities], but it's still a challenge. And the other vacancies are contributing significantly to our challenges."

A down note to start 2010, I know. Here's to a better new year than the old one.

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