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February 28, 2010

The slump's effect on homeownership views

Many of you tell me the housing slump has changed your view of homeownership -- just not in the same way. Some of you have been put off the idea altogether. And some of you rushed out to buy.

I asked you to share how it affected you, and the results of that Wonk poll were really interesting. Unscientific, of course, but interesting.

That's because they suggest a definite difference depending on whether you currently own a home.

The most popular answer for homeowners was that the slump hasn't affected their view of homeownership at all (43 percent of homeowners picked that option), while "it's made me less enthusiastic" was a close second (38 percent).

But for renters? "Less enthusiastic" was No. 1, by a mile -- more than half the renter vote. No. 2, with not quite a quarter of the vote, was "more enthusiastic."

I can see why people who don't have any home values to lose would be encouraged to see dropping prices, because cheaper homes should be to a renter's advantage. But that's a lot of dampened enthusiasm out there among you polled renters. Are you thinking the whole concept of owning a home might be a bad idea?

Just over one in 10 renters and the same percentage of homeowners say the slump has made them never want to buy (or buy again).

But two people wrote in the opposite answer about the slump's effect: "It's made me become a homeowner" and "It made me buy a home."

Homeowner Lisa commented that "the slump has confirmed my conviction to stick with the old fashioned notion that a house is a long-term investment whose sale should be used to top up your retirement nest egg when the day comes."

"I've got 10 years to retirement and a lot of equity in my home, so can weather the slump," she wrote. "It's pretty scary that there will likely be a lot of very impoverished seniors over the next decade with lousy pensions, if all all, and no home equity to speak of."

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

February 27, 2010

Patterson Park auction

An interesting thing happened when the Patterson Park Community Development Corp.'s headquarters went on the auction block Friday. Several interesting things, actually.

1) Some neighbors organized to bid as a group -- that's not something you see every day.

2) They won the bidding war.

3) But they didn't get the building.

Why? Because the lender was owed more than $790,000 and didn't want to accept $298,000 -- a haircut in excess of 60 percent. So the renovated property, which sits at the corner of Baltimore Street and Linwood Avenue, will be auctioned off again at a later date.

More about the auction, the bidders' goals and the Patterson Park CDC in today's story

For those who enjoy auction scenes, here's how this one went:

About two dozen people gathered on the ground floor, which used to be the restaurant Three... and still looked like it was ready to serve lunch. "Handcrafted cocktails," promised a sign on the wall. Plates and bowls were stacked neatly in the kitchen. Through the windows, you could see the northeastern corner of the park the Baltimore neighborhood is named after.

Alex Cooper Auctioneers' Paul Cooper, standing near the empty bar, declared: "Ladies and gentlemen, an excellent opportunity, very well-located building."

He set the starting bid at $250,000, and then the competitors were off -- at a fairly sedate pace, full of pauses and whispered consultations. When it got up to $297,000 and Cooper could see the bidders were flagging, he called a "momentary break" and went off to talk to the lender.

"Do I hear $300,000 on it?" he asked as he returned.

"$298," said Amina Chaudhry, 34, one of the seven neighbors bidding together.

"I've got $298 ... $298,000, any more?" Cooper said beseechingly. "$298,000, any more? $298,000 once -- are there any other bids? $298,000 twice -- are you bidding or are you out?"

This last was directed at local landlord Tom Karle, who had been in the running up to that point. "I'm out," Karle said.

"If there's no other bids in excess of $298,000, then my instructions are we're going to reject that bid and call it a no sale," Cooper said.

To the neighbors afterward, he added: "You still have an opportunity."

This sort of ending doesn't happen often, but it does happen, he said.

CDC founder Ed Rutkowski came to watch, looking somber. Three... owner Michael Harmel was there too. 

"The neighborhood's fantastic," Harmel said afterward. "I'm very sad to be going -- just too much overhead and not enough traffic."

From his spot inside the building Friday, he added: "It would be nice to see the neighborhood hang on to this."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (15)
Categories: Auctions

February 26, 2010

Captcha this

We've switched to Captcha technology for comments here in Wonk world. I was hoping to avoid it, because I know as a blog commenter that it's a bit of a pain, but I've been so slammed with spam lately that it seemed the only choice.

So when you're asked to enter two words to prove you're not a bot, know that you have my grateful thanks. And also, that you're now less in danger of having your carefully crafted commentary junked by accident because it's in the middle of 350 spam comments.

Problems? Let me know. (If the problems are so severe you can't even comment, let me know by email: jamie.smith.hopkins(at)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 11:04 PM | | Comments (2)

Zillow's home-value estimates criticized

You've probably checked out's "Zestimates" at some point -- those free estimates of a home's value -- so you might have given some thought to how accurate they are. That's the subject of much debate, actually.

The latest volley comes from professors Daniel R. Hollas, Ronald C. Rutherford and Thomas A. Thomson, arguing in The Appraisal Journal that they're really Overzestimates:

The results indicate that Zillow overestimates value for approximately 80% of the houses in the sample by at least 1%. ... The average overestimation is 11.66% or $13,576, with a median of $9,717 or 7.92%. Zillow’s magnitude of overestimation is marginally higher than the value overestimation by recent homebuyers reported in the literature.

The authors -- from the University of Texas at San Antonio -- pitted Zestimates vs. 2006 sale prices of about 2,000 houses in Arlington, Texas. "Zillow indicates that this market is one where its data has its highest accuracy rating," they wrote, adding later: "The likelihood is that in [a] more ... volatile market with a lower accuracy rating Zillow would misprice at a higher rate and larger amount."

Zillow roared back with a response:

"In addition to being limited to only one city in the U.S., the study does not compare sales and Zestimate values during the same time period; it looks at sales in 2006 compared to Zestimate values in January and February 2007 – apples and oranges as it’s two separate periods of time," Zillow spokeswoman Jill Simmons wrote in an email to me. "It’s unfortunate that this study has been structured in such a misleading, and limited fashion."

Here's how the authors describe their methodology:

The sale price data, housing characteristics, and location data are obtained from the MLS for the city of Arlington, Texas (Tarrant County), for sales during the last six months of 2006. The sale price data was acquired in January 2007. Next, data from was obtained for each of the MLS sales to acquire Zestimates during the last week of January 2007 and the first two weeks of February 2007.

And here's how Zillow describes (for a non-mathematician audience) how it arrives at its figures:

When our statisticians developed the model to determine home values, they explored how homes in certain areas were similar (i.e., number of bedrooms and baths, and a myriad of other details) and then looked at the relationships between actual sale prices and those home details. These relationships form a pattern, and they used that pattern to develop a model to estimate a market value for a home.

How does the Zestimate of your home -- or homes near you -- match up with your sense of value?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (27)
Categories: Housing stats

February 25, 2010

Underwater Md. homeowners

Pick four mortgaged homeowners at random in Maryland, and chances are that one of them owes more on his or her loan than the home is worth. Twenty-three percent -- very close to one in four -- are in that "underwater" state, according to a new report from First American CoreLogic.

That's higher than all but seven other states. (We've been high up the list for a while, alas.)

Underwater is a lousy place to be. If you need a bigger place, a smaller place, a place in another state where your employer is transferring you, etc., you'll need to bring money to the table -- or become a landlord -- to move on. If you're trying to move because you can't afford your mortgage payments, escaping foreclosure involves an often tortuous process of trying to get your lender to approve a short sale.

If you're not planning on going anywhere and can afford your mortgage payments, then an underwater mortgage could be nothing more than an annoyance. But get too far upside down, and some homeowners will walk, economists note.

"Negative equity is a significant drag on both the housing market and on economic growth. It is driving foreclosures and decreasing mobility for millions of homeowners," Mark Fleming, chief economist with First American CoreLogic, said in a statement. "Since we expect home prices to slightly increase during 2010, negative equity will remain the dominant issue in the housing and mortgage markets for some time to come."

One bit of good-ish news: The underwater problem isn't quite as bad in the Baltimore area as it is statewide. Just under 17 percent of Baltimore metro area homeowners with mortgages are upside down.

The state that's worst off is Nevada, where First American CoreLogic estimates that a whopping 70 percent of borrowers owe more than their homes are worth. Where do you stand?

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

February 24, 2010

Home buyer tax credit questions answered

Many of you have come here to ask questions about the $8,000 first-time home buyer tax credit and the $6,500 credit for repeat buyers. Many, many, many of you. In the interest of saving us all time, here are some of the frequent questions and their answers:

Q. How long do I have before the credits are due to expire?

You'll need to sign a contract no later than April 30 and close no later than June 30.

Q. How much money are we talking about?

It's a maximum of $8,000 for first-timers and $6,500 for repeat buyers. You get 10 percent of your purchase price up to that amount.

Q. What's the definition of a first-time buyer? A repeat buyer?

A first-time buyer, for the purposes of the eight grand, is someone who hasn't owned a primary residence for at least three years. Married couples trying to get this credit must BOTH qualify as first-timers.

A repeat buyer is someone who has owned (and lived in) a home for at least five consecutive years of the past eight, as measured backward from the purchase of the new digs. Married couples trying to get the $6,500 repeat-buyer credit must BOTH meet the timeline test. 

Q. What if I'll hit five years of ownership after April 30 but before June 30? Would I qualify?

Yes, if you time your settlement so it falls after your five-year ownership anniversary.

Q. Do I have to sell my current home to qualify for the $6,500?

No, but you do have to make the new place your primary residence.

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?

Nope, sorry. 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'm building a new home. Does that change anything?

Yes. For new homes, the IRS says, the key date isn't the settlement but when you actually move in.

Q. What do I need to send to the IRS to get my moolah?

Form 5405 and a copy of the HUD-1 settlement statement.

Repeat buyers will also need to provide proof that they met the previous ownership test. "This may include property-tax records, hazard-insurance records or copies of annual mortgage-interest statements filed with their federal taxes," notes columnist Kenneth Harney.

More details here from the IRS.

Feel inclined to ask a question? See if I've already answered a similar one here, a post inundated with buyer queries.

You can also find information directly from the IRS here, with links to more information on that page.

February 23, 2010

On neighborhoods, to each his or her own

If you ever needed proof that a neighborhood cannot make all of the people happy all of the time, check out the comments on this post about Canton. Some people ardently love the place. Some ardently hate it.

"Try to find a parking spot in the evening. If you're lucky and do find one, someone will be happy to break into your car," says EatTheRich.

Mencken opines, "I'll take the Canton of my youth over the arrogant snobby YUPPIEVILLE it has become. The drunks yelling and screaming, not to mention urinating on the sidewalks and leaving beer cans and bottles all over the street when the bars close."

Ed, on the other hand, writes: "I moved to Canton 9 years ago from Fells Point. I heard all the rumors of it being a stuffy location and full of yuppies who believed they were all mighty. What I have found in Canton is a real community with real people."

Busia says: "I love Canton! My husband and I retired here 11 years ago, before the increase in prices. We can walk to everything we need, grocery store, church, doctor's office, and affordable places to eat. We have wonderful neighbors, both young and old, and we have fantastic block parties."

Naturally your experience in a neighborhood can vary a lot from someone else's depending on your particular block and your particular priorities. Do you live somewhere that syncs up well with your wants and needs? Or are you in a spot that's ideal for a certain demographic but not you?

Puzzling home prices

"Just reduced!" might work great at a department store, but not with homes -- assuming you Wonk readers are representative of the buying public.

Just 7 percent of you said in a Wonk poll that your first instinct is the just-reduced home is a deal (minor or major). More than half assume the home is STILL overpriced.

Wonk reader Michele wrote in recently with some concrete examples of homes that sure appear to be in the latter category -- real head-scratchers, in her opinion.

"When I look at these houses, I have to ask: In what sense is this house for sale?" Michele writes. "These houses are on the market officially, part of the inventory, but I wouldn't be inclined to look at them, because the pricing seems to make no sense."

She adds, "I imagine that there can be some debate about whether a house is overpriced. I'm talking about houses where the pricing history suggests a kind of cluelessness that I can't see as subject to much debate. These houses must be overpriced because their pricing history is hard to explain any other way."

Here are some of the puzzles, all in Bel Air -- with addresses redacted to protect the apparently clueless. (Her details, like days on market, are up to date as of about a week ago when she wrote me.)

One home, she says, "has been on the market for 549 days as of 2/12. It started out listed at $619,900 on 8/12/2008 and stayed at that price for a few months, when it dropped to $599,900 on 10/21/2008. Then it sat on the market at that price for 250 days, until 6/29/2009, when the price dropped to $589,900, where it sits, more than six months later now, at the same price. A rational person would look at this house and say that it is not realistically priced and the price reductions were so minuscule as to be pointless (especially that wee little $10k reduction after 250 days on the market). What gives?"

Another house has had a series of reductions. "But the reductions suggest more of an agonizing psychological process rather than an engagement with market realities," she says. "In August of 2008, the place went on the market for $489,900. A month later, it dropped to $477,900. In August of 2009, a year later, the price went down substantially, to $419,900. In October of 2009, it went down a bit more, to $409,900. In December, it went down to $399,990, in January 2010 (on the 26th) it went down to $396,990, and then a day later to $395,000. So the price has gone down repeatedly in its 552 days on the market, but logic suggests that the original price was about $100,000 too high, and that recent reductions have been pointlessly teeny-tiny."

There's the home that hit the market in March of last year at $399,900. "When it still hadn't sold as of the end of July, 2009, it was dropped down to the mystifying price of $389,543, where it remains to this day, now on the market for 318 days," Michele notes.

Then there's the example that's "especially puzzling," she says. "In May of 2009, it went on the market for $429,900. Then, in July, it went down to $419,900. That small drop is not the puzzling part. The puzzling part is that it went back up to $429,900 in August. And then it went back down to $419,900 in November, where it currently sits."

Is this doing anyone any good?

"I guess I feel that the inventory is more difficult for buyers than one would expect of a so-called buyer's market because it includes quite a few of these peculiar properties," she writes. "And I have to wonder about the sellers and Realtors who are participating in a supposedly rational market in such apparently irrational ways. I realize that some of the 'noise' may be due to 'target prices' dictated by the amounts of the mortgages on the properties. But why such inflated expectations and difficult-to-fathom price histories? Any thoughts you or anyone wanted to offer on this phenomenon would be appreciated."

Well, wonks?

If you're a buyer or seller paying attention to part of the market, I'd be curious to hear what percentage of homes seem to be priced about right, what percentage are too high and what percentage -- if any -- are underpriced. (By "priced about right," I just mean a figure that matches up with what's actually selling. I'm not asking you to try to predict where home prices should be.)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Housing market experiences, Polls

February 22, 2010

Have you bought or sold a home recently?

Calling all chatty folks: If you've bought or sold a home somewhere in the Baltimore metro area within the last six months, I'd be interested in hearing about your experience.

Email me at jamie.smith.hopkins(at)

Thanks, folks.

Neighborhood love: Canton


Photo of the Canton waterfront by Jamie Mason


One resident told you all about Overlea. Another shared stories of Hoes Heights. Now comes Jamie Mason, a real estate agent with Long & Foster and a Canton resident, who wanted to join in on My Neighborhood 'Tis of Thee.

Here's what she shared -- in words and pictures -- about living near the Baltimore waterfront. (To see all her photos, plus ones shared by earlier participants, go to the My Neighborhood 'Tis of Thee gallery.)


Although my husband and I loved our six years in Fells Point, we moved to Canton in 2006 because we were able to purchase a larger, newly constructed, two-car garage townhome. I was representing the developer in the sale of all ten new townhomes she was building near the Canton Dog Park, and like to say I was so good at selling the houses, I sold myself. My husband was an easy sell; as soon as he saw the view of the water and Fort McHenry from one of the roof terraces, he was convinced.

Canton -- like many of Charm City's locales -- is really a neighborhood. There is a sense of camaraderie among the residents, a feeling that we're all in this together. When it snows, my husband clears our walk as well as those of several of our neighbors. Next time around, one of our neighbors will clear our sidewalk. (After the last snowstorms, neighbors banded together and shoveled part of our street out by hand, too.)



Above: Canton rooftops in the snow. Below: O'Donnell Square.




We are within an easy stroll of the Canton Dog Park, several pools and gyms, O'Donnell Square shops and restaurants, The Can Company, the newer National Brewery redevelopment, and the Canton Waterfront Park, from which we can catch the water taxi or walk along the waterfront promenade to Fells Point and downtown. Canton has so many great restaurants and pubs from which to choose, as well as Baltimore's first wine bar, Chesapeake Wine Company. My favorite, somewhat less discovered restaurant is Jack's Bistro on Elliott Street. (Okay, so it's also the closest to my house, but I assure you, any place that served macaroni and cheese with chocolate would be my favorite, no matter how far I had to walk to get there.)





Above: Chesapeake Wine Company.



There are some great boutiques, shops, salons and restaurants nestled within renovated historic rowhomes on O'Donnell Square. This is the part of Canton I first fell in love with, because it feels like a quaint, old town square. The redevelopment of the National Brewery has allowed some newer shops to come to the area, including Dogma--Life, With Your Pet, and my current favorite for carry-out or a quick bite, Pasta Mista. If you want the comfort of a known entity, such as Dunkin' Donuts, Five Guys Burgers, or Panera Bread, you can find that at the Brewery Shops as well.




Above: Mr. Boh looks out over the National Brewery redevelopment.


I am close to everything here. If I can't walk to where I want to go, I am a quick taxi or car ride away. For my job, I work all over the city and surrounding counties, but it seems as if -- because I live centrally in the city -- I can be anywhere I need to go for work in 30 minutes or less.

My favorite thing about Canton, though, goes back to that sense of community. We and our neighbors have hosted progressive dinner parties, impromptu deck parties, and cookie exchange parties where none of the attendees had to get into a car. Some of the best evenings we spend are out on our deck or roof terraces, conversing with our neighbors, sharing wine or scotch, or making s'mores over a flaming rooftop firepit.

For those like my mom who don't think they are "city people," I say, you haven't been to Canton. Canton is a small town within a larger city. I love its quaint architecture, its friendly residents and its ineluctable energy.


Thanks for sharing, Jamie.

If you have Canton thoughts, comment away.

If you'd like to write about your own neighborhood -- what you like, what you don't like, what makes it what it is -- then please email me at jamie.smith.hopkins(at) for details. A personal essay with some photos or a photo essay with some words would both work.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (89)
Categories: My neighborhood, 'tis of thee

February 21, 2010

Real estate poll: The slump's psychological effect

The Great Depression had a lasting impact on how an entire generation lived. What about the Great Recession?

Or, more specifically, the housing slump that kicked it off?

I'm curious to know if it's changed your view of homeownership, which for many years has been seen as the American dream, a way to build wealth and all sorts of other warm and fuzzy things.

So weigh in. (And add a comment if you're in the mood, because a poll can't possibly get at subtleties.)

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

February 20, 2010

A decade of delinquencies

Several of you asked for a visual on the foreclosure mess. Here's one -- not actually foreclosures, but the number of Maryland borrowers behind on their payments, as measured by the Mortgage Bankers Association.

The red past-due line on the chart below includes homeowners whose lenders have started foreclosure proceedings -- that's "foreclosure inventory" in the association's parlance (not to be confused with homes already foreclosed on and on banks' books). The blue line shows only those loans in the foreclosure process.


A bit of good news from the newest numbers, out Friday: Fewer people were newly delinquent -- 30 days behind -- at the end of December than at the end of September. That's true in Maryland and the nation.

Because new delinquencies usually go up at the end of the year, when people are hit by heating bills and other seasonal expenses, the mortgage bankers think that's a good sign. But no one's saying the foreclosure mess is going away anytime soon.

On a related note: U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings' foreclosure prevention workshop, postponed because of snow, has been rescheduled to Feb. 20. Here's a PDF with details.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:00 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: The foreclosure mess

February 19, 2010

'Dueling' real estate auctions in Ocean City

If you're thinking of buying one of the still-unsold Bahia Vista condos in Ocean City, you've got two real estate auctions to choose from. At exactly the same time.

At 1 p.m. Feb. 27, 11 of the new condos are going on the auction block at the Grand Hotel in Ocean City. Nine others are set for auction at the Loews Annapolis Hotel.

Marshall Auctions -- which is handling the 11-condo event -- dubbed it an "auction war" in a press release.

A variety of Eastern Shore vacation-home builders have turned to auctioneers to move their unsold inventory in the last year, since the housing slump has been particularly rough for anyone selling "discretionary" real estate. But this is the first project I've seen that was split between two auction companies.

One of the auction firms offered this explanation:
Marshall Auctions will offer 11 condominiums owned by Spiro Buas, a partner in the development of Bahia Vista. Buas retained ownership of the units after the initial partnership grew contentious and eventually dissolved.

Buas arranged a February 27 auction in Ocean City of his unsold units, but only after his former partners had begun to market a separate auction.

Max Spann Real Estate & Auction Co., which is handling the nine-condo auction, says the partners it's representing will let at least four of the units go for a minimum bid of $95,000. Previous asking prices ranged from $680,000 to $790,000, the auctioneer says.

Marshall Auctions -- in a one-upmanship move -- says Buas is offering no minimum bid on at least four of his condos, plus no buyer premium.

I've been to a Max Spann event, and it's worlds away from the dour environment of a courthouse-steps foreclosure auction. Employees wore suits with carnations. A light jazz ensemble warmed up the crowd.

But no one ended up with a minimum-bid steal. The cheapest condo at that August event was bid up from $85,000 to $240,000.

So, what do you think: Will an auction war mean deals for buyers?
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Auctions

February 18, 2010

Property-tax appeal success story

Louis Wilen of Olney will be paying less in property taxes this July than he otherwise would be, thanks to a successful appeal. And he didn't have to wait for a reassessment to register his disagreement.

As I mentioned back in December, homeowners can appeal in the midst of the three-year assessment cycle, not only when a new notice shows up in their mailboxes. Wilen is heading into the third year of his assessment period, and he was convinced his property is worth less than the state assessors' calculation of several years back.

Original value:  $526,360.

New value, post-appeal: $456,810.

That's an almost $70,000 drop, which he notes is a tax savings of about $715 -- assuming no system-wide changes, such as a rate hike.

Successful appeals don't always work out to a property tax savings for homeowners. If, thanks to the state's homestead credit, you're paying on $200,000 of a $350,000 assessment, you'd need a more than $150,000 decrease to end up with a smaller bill.

But Wilen notes that his appeal dropped him below his homestead credit amount, so he's ahead.

If you've appealed, have you had your hearing yet?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Homestead Property Tax Credit, Property taxes

February 17, 2010

Don't do this, for Pete's sake

As this AP story illustrates, some remedies for snow and ice on your property can be worse than the disease:
Authorities say a Montgomery County home caught fire after workers used a propane torch to clear ice from the roof.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:36 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Home maintenance, Weather

What counts as a real estate contract?

Rich wrote in recently with a question/plea: Did he have any recourse in a home-sale deal that fell apart?

He says his family made an offer on a Catonsville home, and the seller said by email that she accepted the terms, had signed the contract and had forwarded it to her agent. Somehow, the contract never ended up in Rich's hands. Instead of sending another one, he says, the seller accepted a different buyer's offer.

He's very frustrated.

"I feel that after our offer was accepted via email [it] constitutes a binding contract," he wrote.

I'm not in a position to resolve disputes, but I thought it was an interesting question that other buyers and sellers might run into occasionally. So I put it to two local attorneys for their general thoughts.

(This is not meant to be legal advice, mind: They just got the basic details.)

Barry Glazer, a Baltimore attorney, real estate broker and former settlement company owner, said he doesn't think emails confirming the acceptance of an offer could be taken as a binding agreement.

"You're going to have to have the contract, because contracts are so involved," he said. "They're typically six pages and small type. ... There's so many possibilities. So without the contract, you don't have anything."

Lee Snyder, an attorney with Mid-Atlantic Settlement Services in Hunt Valley, took a look at some of the emails Rich provided. He noted that one from the seller's agent said the seller did want a small change to the contract, to allow her the right to remedy any defects found in the home inspection. That makes it difficult to tell whether there was "a 'meeting of the minds' between buyer and seller," he said.

If Rich's understanding of the situation is correct -- that there's a completely agreed upon contract -- then his "options are limited to hiring an attorney to file suit immediately for specific performance of the contract thus setting up a 'lis pendens' situation which will keep the seller from performing under the second contract," Snyder wrote me.

Glazer's suggestion: "Report the entire situation to the Real Estate Commission. ... If it was me, I'd want to find out exactly what happened. This is not typical."

Thoughts, folks? Has anything like this happened to you?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Housing market experiences

February 16, 2010

Proposal for split property-tax rate in Baltimore

Those of you following the idea of a split property-tax rate in the city -- one for regular homes, and a higher one for "vacant and uninhabitable" properties -- will be interested to know that state Sen. George W. Della Jr. of Baltimore has introduced a bill that would make it possible.

You can track the bill here. It's just in its early stages now.

The City Council passed a resolution in December that asked the state for authority to set a two-level rate. Read more about that history here.

Thanks to several Wonk readers for the heads up.

UPDATE 2/17: Here's the PDF of the bill, which defines vacant and uninhabitable as properties that have been "cited as vacant and abandoned on a housing or building notice for at least a period of 1 year." And here's the House version, now filed.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 11:37 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Property taxes

Baltimore real estate asking-price reductions

Real estate search engine Trulia, which tracks how many homes listed for sale have had at least one price reduction, said this morning that Baltimore continues to have a high share. Higher, in fact, than all but four other big cities.

Thirty-one percent of listings in Baltimore are on the market for less than their original asking price.

Average price reduction: 12 percent. On a $300,000 house, that's a $36,000 cut.

A separate site,, has shown a fairly steady drop in typical asking prices in the Baltimore metro area. It's just below $240,000 this month, compared with $265,000 a year earlier. (That's an almost 10 percent decline, in case you haven't already reached your stat limit this morning.)

Does "reduced!" on a for-sale sign in a yard catch your interest? Or do you assume that the home is "reduced!" because it was priced too high to begin with and probably still is?

Take the poll:

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:01 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Housing stats

February 15, 2010

The snow's effect on real estate

Winter's not a hopping time for the housing market under normal circumstances. So you can imagine what more than 40 inches of snow in February does to buying and selling.

Actually, you don't have to imagine. Here's what real estate agent Jamie Mason shared last Thursday when I asked for stories about the snowstorms' economic impact:

"I have a closing scheduled for next week that is still scheduled to take place, but the seller is having to rent his house back from the buyer because his movers can't get their truck down his block to pack up his belongings," wrote Mason, with Long & Foster's Fells Point office.

"Because many secondary roads in the city still haven't been plowed, buyers and their agents can't get in to tour houses. I have an open house for one listing that we have now rescheduled twice, and I have two more upcoming listings that we've postponed putting on the market because of the inability for buyers to get to them. I had noticed buyer activity picking up in January, but now it's all but nonexistant."

Of course, that was last week. It's a whole new week now. With whole new snow predicted. (At least the National Weather Service downgraded its forecast to four inches or less.)

You can read the full economic-impact story here.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 2:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Housing market experiences, Weather

February 14, 2010

Roof troubles, post-snow

Vicky from Upper Fells Point reports that one of the rowhouses on her block had a roof collapse -- a problem cropping up here and there across the region in the wake of all the snow.

"Fortunately the property is uninhabited and no one was hurt," she wrote me. "However, what should the person who lives next door to that property do now? There are concerns of structural damage, as well as water damage when the snow begins to melt."

She knows about, where you can see deeds and other property records. Her plan was to look up the owner so the immediate neighbor can contact him or her "with certified mail return receipt to start a paper trail." And she also suggested her neighbor call his insurance company post-haste.

"Any other suggestions?" she asks.

If you have any, please offer them in a comment.

Here are some of the warning signs that a roof is in trouble, courtesy of the city of Alexandria, Va.:

  • Sagging roof steel – visually deformed, cracked or split wood members
  • Sprinkler heads pushed down below ceiling tile
  • Doors that pop open
  • Doors or windows that become difficult to open
  • Bowed utility pipes or conduit attached at ceiling
  • Creaking, cracking or popping sounds
  • New or quickly expanding existing wall or ceiling cracks

The Alexandria roof-safety announcement notes that newer roofs should be able to withstand 30 pounds per square foot, but older roofs -- especially flat ones -- "present a greater risk" of collapse.

Some residents have taken matters -- or rather shovels -- into their own hands, and removed snow from their roofs as a precaution. But that's hardly risk-free. (Please be very, very careful if you're inclined to go this route.) Others are calling roofers to do the removal work, or code enforcers to make sure their homes are OK.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Home maintenance, Weather

February 13, 2010

Relive snowstorm #2 in 2 minutes

Will Cocks of Greenmount West made this time-lapse video from nearly 1,800 photos taken between 2 p.m. Tuesday and 8 p.m. the next evening -- or as Will puts it, "Snomageddon 2.0."

Thanks for sharing, Will! And now let's hope the rest of the winter is positively springlike.

February 12, 2010

Basement remodeling project in your future?

As the housing market slumped, so did home improvement, and spending on that sector has been down since 2007. But, which links homeowners with contractors, thinks things are turning around. Requests to the site for bids on home-improvement work are rising.

Nationwide, requests in the last three months of 2009 were up nearly 40 percent over a year earlier. But that wasn't evenly spread. Baltimore, for instance, saw a 2 percent uptick.

States with big increases -- Arizona, California, Florida and Illinois -- also have large numbers of foreclosures, and thus more properties in need of repair, ServiceMagic said.

In Baltimore, the category with the biggest year-over-year increase in requests was basement remodeling -- up about 80 percent. Roofing was a close second. 

No. 8 on the list of biggest increases: pest control. Yergh.

On the flip side, ServiceMagic said Baltimore residents put in 35 percent fewer requests for new appliances, 34 percent fewer requests for garage or garage door projects and 26 percent fewer requests for siding.

Full report here in PDF form.

All told, the biggest chunk of Baltimoreans' requests -- more than one in every four -- was for maintenance and repair. People trying to get homes in shape to sell? Or just doing necessary work? I don't know, but there is a specific "moving & real estate" category, and that's just 1 percent of the total.

Some of you shared your adventures in home improvement on this post. Anyone just getting started?

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

February 11, 2010

More snow, for Pete's sake: Your photos



Where does the snow end and the harbor begin? That's the question posed by colleague Justin Fenton, who snapped this moody photo of Snowpocalypse II.

Below, a panoramic pic taken by Aaron Szopinski, showing the alley in Hampden he dug out earlier in the week so his wife could get her car out. "Can't say I'm planning on doing it again," he wrote me as the snow was falling yesterday.




Below, preparing for Round Two: Jackie Regales of North Baltimore shoveled her roof to get the weight off before Mother Nature dumped more on.




And here -- behind the cut -- is a photo Will Cocks took in his Greenmount West neighborhood that's so neat I had to share, even though it's from Saturday and not yesterday:



Doesn't the light glinting off the snow make it look glorious and magical, instead of COMPLETELY HORRIBLE? (You can tell I got stuck at work overnight. Stupid, stupid snow.)

Will also made a video of a snow plow coming down his street on Monday, complete with backwards editing that's reminiscent of what happened once it started snowing again. Thanks for hitting the reset button, weather gods.

How are you all holding up?

January home sales in the Baltimore area

Remember the housing market? While we were all buried under snow on Wednesday, January sale statistics came out. Really and for true!

More homes were sold in January than a year earlier in the Baltimore metro area, the eighth straight month of year-over-year increases. Also up: average prices, by about 2 percent.

It's the first time in three years that both indicators rose in tandem, but don't break out the champagne yet, home sellers. The median price -- the midpoint -- was down 2 percent.

You could split the difference and call it flat. Or you could shrug and figure that neither the average nor the median is a guaranteed snapshot of typical sellers' experiences. (The trouble is, the types of homes selling in one month might be different enough from the homes selling in another to skew comparisons.)

The city was alone in seeing a drop in average price -- a whopping 18 percent drop. I took a closer look to see what might be going on and found two trends: Fewer homes selling for $300,000 and up. More homes selling for under $100,000.

It looks like investor buying is playing a role. Last month, 42 percent of the city's home sales were all-cash deals, up from 32 percent a year earlier. But perhaps it's also more first-time home buyers. (Uncle Sam says you have to sign a contract by the end of April and settle by the end of June to qualify for the $8,000.)

The full January home sale story is here.

Want the original numbers? Go here, to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems' stats page.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Housing stats

February 10, 2010

Retire here?

Where to Retire magazine -- because there's a magazine for everything -- says its March/April issue will feature "eight hip cities for urban lifestyles." One of those hip cities: Baltimore.

"Baltimore has a vibrant, revitalized waterfront, museums, world-class medical facilities and everything from historic brownstones to new luxury townhomes," said magazine editor Mary Lu Abbott in a press release.

The other cities on the list are Charleston, S.C.; Atlanta, Ga.; Orlando, Fla.; Fort Worth, Texas; Denver, Colo.; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle, Wash. 

Abbott said a requirement -- beyond hipness -- was "unusually good buys in housing."

What do you think, Baltimore folks?

If you're at or near retirement age, what's your idea of a good place to settle?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: We're No. 1! (Or thereabouts)

What happens when a borrower gets behind

A new report looking at delinquent subprime mortgages in Maryland and nearby states finds that foreclosure is still the go-to solution for lenders -- or at least it was through the middle of last year, when the report's dataset ends.

Loss mitigation and loan modification were "much less frequently pursued" than foreclosure, says the report, prepared for the Baltimore Homeownership Preservation Coalition.

Why? Much has been written about that. The report's authors, J. Michael Collins of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Christopher E. Herbert of Abt Associates Inc., note that financial incentives -- and disincentives -- are one of the barriers.

Servicers, they say, "are reimbursed by investors for missed payments and actions taken in pursuit of a foreclosure, but not for costs associated with loss mitigation activities."

In recognition of these costs, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Housing Administration have long offered servicers incentive payments to encourage servicers to pursue these remedies, but investors in private label mortgage backed securities do not provide such incentives. The lack of income from loss mitigation activities may also lie behind the fact that many servicers lack the capacity to handle the workload associated with elevated requests for loan workouts. Absent incentive payments, servicers do not have a financial incentive for adding to their organizational capacity for these functions.

You can read the full report here.

So: What about the servicers who signed an agreement with the state to "to create a streamlined and transparent loss mitigation process for distressed Maryland homeowners"?

They're foreclosing at lower rates than servicers who aren't part of the agreement, the report says.

But whether that's averting foreclosure or just postponing it isn't clear yet. The signs seem to be pointing to the latter.

"These provisions are not associated with more loan modifications, ... and may represent delays in decisions for foreclosure rather than more aggressive use of alternatives to foreclosure," the authors write.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Mortgages, The foreclosure mess

This cracked me up

The items on Freecycle, a network of sites for offering things you no longer want, are usually of the clothes or household-goods variety. But this week, a funny Freecycler in my neighborhood posted a different sort of free thing:

We have plenty of extra snow. In our yard, on our cars, on our bushes. Good quality snowman snow! Clean, no yellow spots, and it's all yours if you want it, especially off the driveway and walkway! Let me know if you are interested.

Any takers?

Seriously, though, I think she's on to something. We should start marketing our snow to people in states that never get any. Though I'm thinking we might need to charge for the right to cart it off, or they'll think there's something wrong with it.

There: Snow removal problem AND budget crisis solved.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Weather

February 9, 2010

Send your snow photos


Photo by me


What's the damage in your neighborhood? Show us photographically by sending in a photo or three of Snowpocalypse, Round Two.

Because we might as well be miserably snowbound together, right?

Email photos to jamie.smith.hopkins(at) Tell me where and when you took the photo and how you'd like to be credited.

Thanks, all.

Bracing for more snow


Photo by Brad Lhotsky


What do you call back-to-back blizzards? "Snoverkill," say the wags on Twitter. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. And yes, I am aware that it's premature to call the storm being forecast for today and tomorrow a blizzard, but at this point any more snow is too much. Straw, meet camel's back.

How are you preparing? Has anyone taken desperate measures to get snow out of their neighborhood so there's space for Round Two? Have you moved your car somewhere else entirely in hopes of not getting stuck?

Did you ever see a plow?

I'd also like to hear how your life has been affected by all this snow. Did you manage to make it out of your neighborhood? Have you had to delay important things? (Anyone have to put off a real estate settlement?)

Commenting on this post about the digging-out effort, Pete from Highlandtown said a big storm brings out the best and worst in people. He saw the former on his block, where residents worked together to clear the street -- by hand.

Thus, "EVERYBODY on the block can get out. On other blocks people only thought of themselves. They only dug out their own cars and threw the snow into the middle of the street. Now NO ONE on their street can get out. Co-operation works a lot better than selfishly trying to look out only for yourself."

Can the cooperative spirit survive another big storm?

Can the combined might of 5.6 million people wishing the same thing affect weather patterns?


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

February 8, 2010

At least it's pretty



Here's a photo taken by Brad Lhotsky, showing Linwood Avenue through Patterson Park.

I'm offering it up as the silver lining to all this darn snow: It does have its beautiful moments.

Where you're putting the snow


Photo by Jamie Smith Hopkins


A few of your responses to the "so where should the shoveled snow go?" question:

Beth said, "We're about to head out to shovel our alley street near Patterson Park. I think we're going to put the snow in the alley (the part where the trash truck doesn't go). I know it's not an ideal solution, but we already have five foot high drifts in front of all of the houses on our block just from shoveling a walkway (not the whole sidewalk, just an 18 inch path!)"

From Gina: "We live in a townhome community - very tight when it comes to where to put snow. We ended up filling a wheelbarrow and taking it to one of the few grassy spots in the community and then throwing the snow there."

Kate wrote: "We only shoveled a path on one sidewalk on my narrow street. Snow from the street (shoveled, not plowed...even in regular snowfalls the city plows don't make it here) went on the other sidewalk. The drifts are taller than me."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 11:45 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Neighborhood and neighbors, Quote of the day, Weather

Finding a place for all that snow


Photo by Jamie Smith Hopkins


Here's a question being pondered by anyone living in a neighborhood without a lot of spare space: Where on earth do you put the snow you're shoveling?

The Baltimore police department's Facebook page says where city residents shouldn't be putting it: "PLEASE DO NOT shovel snow back into the roadways."

Some residents were flummoxed by that. Wrote one Facebook user, "it's not as though we have yards and driveways -- other than the street or the sidewalk, where are people supposed to put the snow??"

Have you found a good answer in your neighborhood?

One city resident responding to the police's Facebook posting made this recommendation: "Put the snow that you're shoveling down the storm drains on every corner."

Wonk reader BigDragon, who measured 28 inches of snow outside his garage door in Glen Burnie, offered a photographic suggestion:



And to think, we're supposed to get MORE snow on Tuesday.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (20)
Categories: Neighborhood and neighbors, Weather

February 7, 2010

Snowpocalypse: More of your photos

Baltimore real estate agent Jamie Mason, who took the photo below, offers up a caption that made me laugh:

"New feature to market in city home sales: the rooftop luge."



Here's a harbor view she snapped:




Frequent commenter BigDragon sent in photos of the Snowpocalypse in his Glen Burnie neighborhood, including this one that answers the question, "So where exactly can you put the shoveled snow?"



If not there, then here:




And here's the Saturday afternoon view in BigDragon's neighborhood:




Thanks, guys!

You can see earlier Snowpocalypse photos taken by locals in this post, this post and this post. And you can check out a whole bunch submitted directly to right here. It's been a social-media-rific snowstorm.

If you're a city resident in the mood to submit photos anywhere else, Live Baltimore has put out a call for snow pics on its Facebook page. (You can post them there or email to

Snow etiquette


Photo by Jamie Smith Hopkins


My condo association offers a simple rule for getting through snowstorms with neighborly feelings intact: Never park your car in a space you didn't dig out yourself.

It works pretty well when you've got a parking lot that has space for everyone, and no one from neighboring communities has any reason to horn in. It's trickier in a place that has only street parking, plus businesses attracting car-driving people.

That's why Baltimoreans often resort to setting chairs in shoveled-out spots to save them from interlopers, as Gus Sentementes reported after the December storm. (It's not legal on public streets, he said, but city officials tend to turn a blind eye to the practice.)

Where do you stand on the parking-space issue?

What other rules do you abide by (or wish others would) in the name of snow etiquette?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Neighborhood and neighbors, Weather

February 6, 2010

Snowpocolypse, Day 2: More of your pics

The photos keep coming in -- thanks, guys!

Rob Walshe shared this snapshot of his Waltherson neighborhood, in Northeast Baltimore:




And here's another photo from Rob, to show how high the snow got today:




Jennifer Feinstein took this photo of son Zachary Feinstein, 6, outside their Westminster home:




And here's a street view from Westminster, also taken by Jennifer:




Cindy Conklin contributed this shot of the cityscape view from Federal Hill:




Renee Libby snapped this photograph of Baltimore's Fort Avenue:




And I couldn't resist getting a photograph of this mega snowman. Ben Conrad said it took him and Kelli Wise two to three hours to build it:



Snowpocolypse, Day 2: Your pics


Photo by Joe Heisler III


Thanks to all who have sent in photos to show just how much snow you've gotten. Keep 'em coming.

Above, Joe Heisler III gives us a visual report of the situation in Glen Rock, Penn. Wife Kathy said just before noon that they had 27 inches there and the stuff was still coming down.

Here's what greeted Laura in Baltimore when she opened her door this morning:





And here's James Harry's photo of the Baltimore neighborhood of Idlewood (below):




Here's the view from the back of reader PS's house on Potomac Street in Baltimore:




Renee Libby said she watched the tree pictured below "slowly, slowly, slowly get weighed down last night and this morning it's completely blocking the sidewalk on Fort Ave." She declares it "Snomageddon."




And here's what the door to my condo building looked like around lunchtime. I sure hope nobody's under that roof when the snow gives in to gravity:




Thanks to all who shared.

Get that snow off flat roofs, county exec says

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold sent out an advisory this morning warning everyone with flat roofs not to wait around for the snow to melt.

"Flat roofed buildings are extremely susceptible to collapse from the weight of large accumulations of heavy snow," he said in a statement. "In the interest of public safety I urge citizens to take the necessary steps to remove snow from flat roofs in order to avoid the increased danger of collapse."

It probably goes without saying, but be careful if you're going to take those steps.

Do you have a flat-roofed home or business?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 11:24 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Home maintenance, Weather

Got snow damage?

If you spot any snow damage in Baltimore or 'burbs, give me a shout. I'll be writing about the subject on Sunday for Monday's paper, assuming it's not a non-issue.

Thanks, all.

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

Snowed in



Is your neighborhood one of the first to be plowed after snowstorms, or do you feel like you're in the last place on the to-do list?

When we got all that snow dumped on us in December, my way to work was reasonably clear. But some in the same community -- just different homeowners' associations -- complained bitterly several days after the storm that they hadn't seen a plow at all.

So I'm curious to hear about your recent experiences. Good, bad, indifferent? Are you feeling the ripple effects of tight budgets? Does it seem to matter if it's the local government or a homeowner-association contractor doing the work?

Good removal or not, some neighborhoods are just snow neighborhoods. Great hill for sledding, a bit of open space for snowmen and everyone pitching in on the shoveling -- or the snowball fighting -- like one big extended family.

I grew up in that sort of neighborhood. Even as I grouch about the aggravation of uninvited weather as a places-to-go adult, I remember those childhood snow days fondly.

On a related note, my cat Tommy has decided that snow is awesome:


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

The snow in your neck of the woods



Above: The view from Charles Street on Friday evening, contributed by MdoubleA.

Below: Two residential photos from Laura in Baltimore, also snapped Friday.





Thanks, guys!

Got snow photos to share? Send them my way at jamie.smith.hopkins(at)

February 5, 2010

Share your snow photos


Photo by Ed Hopkins


What's the landscape looking like near you? Send a photo (or photos) my way this weekend, and I'll post them. Because hey, there is a real estate connection -- snow falls on all homes, huge and modest alike.

Email any photographs to jamie.smith.hopkins(at)

Stay warm, Wonks!

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:38 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Weather, Your name in lights (well, newsprint)

The Baltimore housing market, in three charts

Everyone talks about the thousand-word worth of pictures, but what about graphs? That and more, I say. I could chatter on about how the regional housing market fared in the last decade or so, or I could show you three charts that would give you a pretty good idea.

Prices. Number of homes sold. Number of homes on the market for sale.

The Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors just so happens to have those charts on hand. Here they are, for your enjoyment or dismay.

Median prices:


Home sales -- keeping in mind that the final bar on the chart is the average of all the years:



And inventory, which also has an average-of-all-years bar:



Which other charts do you think are important for telling the "what happened" story?

If you were dropped on a desert island and could only have -- gasp! -- one chart, which would it be?

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

February 4, 2010

Relocating for a job in today's market

Trying to sell a home is stressful. Going out of state to take a new job is stressful. Add the two together in this market, and yikes -- not for the faint of heart.

It will probably come as no surprise, then, that a survey shows a record low percentage of job seekers relocating for new positions. Just over 7 percent of people taking jobs in the fourth quarter were changing towns to do so, according to outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

The survey of about 3,000 workers dates back to 1986.

Even without tough times, the share has been dropping. In the late '80s, more than 30 percent of new hires were relocating, the survey suggests.

John A. Challenger, the firm's CEO, attributed this to baby boomers no longer interested in moving up the corporate ladder by actually moving, and younger workers who are less likely to crisscross the country for jobs than the boomers used to be.

"This could present some challenges for recruiters as the economy improves," he said in a statement. "Companies will have to depend more on their local talent pool."

I'm sure the local talent pool -- especially the parts of it without steady work at the moment -- wouldn't mind. 

Have you relocated or are you relocating? How did you figure out where to live?

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

February 3, 2010

Mortgage scammer of the week

Like death and taxes, mortgage fraud is something you can count on -- no matter what the housing market looks like. A Laurel man just pleaded guilty to defrauding a lender of $428,000 in a scheme that was orchestrated at the end of 2008, against a backdrop of slumping sales and tightened lending requirements.

In the statement of facts attached to the plea agreement, Olu Campbell said he worked up a plan with an associate to convince a lender to extend mortgages on three Baltimore homes by making the purchases appear legitimate.

Campbell, who used to go by Oluseun Oshosanya, had worked as a loan officer and home renovator. His associate had appraisal experience. Together, they used that background to apply for loans on two of the properties -- just not as themselves.

Instead, they used the names and Social Security numbers of other men who had no idea they were being caught up in the fraud. Falsified details and documents were thrown in for good measure. According to the statement of facts, Campbell's associate produced a pay stub, W-2 wage statement and monthly statements from a bank -- all fake -- for one of the transactions.

But wait, there's more: Campbell himself showed up at that settlement with a doctored driver's license so he could pass himself off as the man whose identity he lifted.

Those two mortgages went into default almost immediately, as you can imagine, since the people whose names were on the loans had no idea they had supposedly purchased homes. The third transaction involved a straw buyer who knew her information would be used, and who paid the mortgage for about a year before defaulting.

What was in it for Campbell? A lot of money, he admitted to investigators. In a single transaction, about $110,000 went to his contracting company, Metropolitan Housing Associates LLC, "for the ostensible purpose of paying a 'contractor invoice,'" the statement of facts says.

"Campbell used $20,000.00 of his proceeds to purchase a used BMW," it adds in an aside.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Mortgage fraud/scams

February 2, 2010

Neighborhood love: Hoes Heights


Photo of Hoes Heights rowhouses by Mary Beth Lennon


There's nothing like hearing about a neighborhood from someone who lives there. That's the point of the "My neighborhood, 'tis of thee" project, which kicked off with some neighborhood love for Overlea from a man who's lived there since 1998.

Now comes Mary Beth Lennon, who moved to Hoes Heights in the summer of 2006 when she decided to buy a home. Lennon, director of communications at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, kindly offered to share why she's glad she picked the small northern Baltimore neighborhood.

There's some disagreement about whether the neighborhood is properly Hoes, Hoe's or Hoes' -- you can find it all three ways. Hoes' makes sense for reasons you'll see in a moment, but the city officially has it sans apostrophe, so that's how it's appearing here. (Oh, apostrophe: bane of mapmakers everywhere.)

Here is Mary Beth's take on her neighborhood, in words and pictures. (Find more of her photos, along with the Overlea pictures, at the My Neighborhood 'Tis of Thee gallery.)


The day after I moved into my home in Hoes Heights, I introduced myself to my next-door neighbor, a longtime resident. After exchanging pleasantries, he told me, "We like to keep our lawns nice here." He continued, "You know, we like to keep our lawns looking nice." After a pause, he said, "I’ve got someone who cuts my lawn." Finally, I got the hint and arranged for my lawn to be cut at the same time as his!

That’s the way Hoes Heights is. Residents take care of their homes, and their front lawns and tidy flowerbeds show pride of ownership.

Gracious gardens, low traffic, and non-existent crime contribute to a neighborhood that is increasingly desirable to young professionals and families. An eclectic mix of single-family bungalows, porch front Queen Anne-style duplexes and classic mid-century red-brick rowhouses give folks a variety of home styles and sizes to choose from.




Examples of Hoes Heights homes. Above, a house under renovation. Directly below, a duplex constructed about five years ago. Below that, homes on Dewey Avenue -- Mary Beth says you're not getting the true Hoes Heights lawn experience, thanks to the ravages of winter.






Tucked between Roland Park and Hampden, Hoes Heights began as a large property owned by African-American farmer Charles Grandison Hoes Jr. Bungalows and duplexes now occupy the north side of Hoes’ farm. Large backyards and gardens give the neighborhood a rustic feeling, and an outhouse or two still stands as a reminder of the old days. 




On the southern part of Mr. Hoes' property now sits a small rowhouse community. My neighbor told me that many of these neat red-brick rowhomes were purchased by African-American veterans after World War II, for between $6,000 and $7,000. Here these teachers, postal employees, Morgan State University faculty members and their neighbors in still-segregated Baltimore created a tight-knit community in which to raise their children.

They encouraged brothers, sisters, cousins and friends to buy homes in the neighborhood, giving it a strong family feeling that continues to this day. A bereavement liaison of the Hoes’ Heights Improvement Association is responsible for notifying every resident when a death occurs in the neighborhood.

A Baltimore Sun article in 1997 noted that the Hoes' Heights Improvement Association also acted to win basic city services denied to the neighborhood. In the late 1970s, the association banded together with the Greater Homewood Community Corporation. A 1980 editorial in the Messenger noted: "Though householders and taxpayers, they were repeatedly denied basic city services that their white neighbors took for granted, such as ... street lights and well-maintained roads with storm run-offs. When their association leaders went to City Hall to complain, they were brushed off."

Not everyone in the neighborhood is related these days, but the family atmosphere continues. Although Evans Chapel Road is a busy cut-through from Roland Avenue and Cold Spring Lane to 40th Street, side streets are quiet. On a summer night, neighborhood kids often ride bikes and skateboards. Adults gather on their front porches. During the day, retired residents keep a close watch on what’s going on, contributing to an overall feeling of security. And when I go away, good friends faithfully take in my mail and keep an eye on my home.

Hoes Heights is one of the most walkable neighborhoods in the city. A shopping center on 41st Street occupies the site of the old Greenspring Dairy, located next to Hoes Heights. Super Fresh, Rite Aid, Blockbuster, a nail shop, a Chinese carryout, Dunkin' Donuts, a drycleaner, and other small businesses are a brisk walk away. The Rotunda and the busy commercial area at Cold Spring Lane and Keswick are also within walking distance. And located in the heart of the neighborhood is Wine Underground, an upscale wine shop named "Best Wine Store" in 2007 by the Baltimore City Paper. A number of churches are close by in Hampden, including Good Shepherd United Methodist Church and St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church.

The defining feature of the neighborhood, however, is the Roland Water Tower.  Built in 1904, it sits between Roland Avenue and Evans Chapel Road.  A chain-link fence now encircles the tower because pieces of the structure are falling randomly to the ground. A coalition of community organizations, called Friends of the Roland Water Tower, is working to raise funds to preserve this elegant brick and terra cotta structure.  



The neighborhood’s location is yet another of its attractions. Hopping onto nearby I-83 puts me downtown in less than 10 minutes on nearly any day. The #22 and #61 buses also serve the neighborhood, and a group of regulars take the #61 bus downtown to work. Access to Charles Street and University Parkway also puts Hoes Heights close to area colleges and hospitals.

A convenient, friendly and vibrant Hoes Heights is a special place to call home for longtime residents, as well as for newbies. But let’s face it: It can be tough to break into a long-established community. However, I knew that I had been accepted when a neighbor commented on some work I had done to my front porch. She confided, "You know, I really didn’t like your new stone wall at first, but it really looks pretty good now." I stumbled over my reply, but in my heart, I truly felt like a bona fide member of the Hoes Heights family!


Thanks for sharing, Mary Beth. Anyone else out there with stories about Hoes Heights? Comment away.

I'm interested in sharing more personal essays from residents about their neighborhoods in the Baltimore metro area. If you'd like to write about yours and share some photos, or share a lot of photos with some words, email me at jamie.smith.hopkins(at) for details. Pieces from long-time residents, newish residents and residents dishing out some tough love all happily welcomed.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: My neighborhood, 'tis of thee

February 1, 2010

What foreclosure mediation could look like for homeowners

Gov. Martin O'Malley wants to make mediation a part of the foreclosure process in Maryland, offering it as one way to avoid more avoidable trips to the auction block. Mediation has popped up in other states, but not in the same way everywhere. So what's the plan here?

Kathleen Skullney, the staff attorney for the foreclosure legal assistance project at Maryland Legal Aid, kindly offered to walk us through it.

The idea, she said, is to tuck new requirements into the state's current foreclosure timeline. Right now, lenders must wait 45 days between notifying Maryland homeowners that they intend to foreclose and actually filing with the court to start those proceedings.

O'Malley's most recent summary of legislative priorities says the bill he is submitting "prohibits the filing of a foreclosure action without completion of loan modification review."

When lenders or servicers file foreclosure actions, they would have to include "an affidavit documenting completion of review, reasons for denial and calculations on which denial was based, or showing that review could not be completed because borrower failed to engage in the process." They would also have to document that they considered other alternatives to foreclosure.

"Meaning you use the 45 days to figure out what else you can do," Skullney said. "And you make sure that that’s a fairly efficient process by giving homeowners the information they need the minute they get the notice of intent to foreclose -- they can immediately apply, whether it’s the federal program, whether it’s the lender’s own program."

On the flip side, homeowners can't expect that failing to respond will bring the process to a halt.

"It really pumps the maximum incentive into that 45 days, both for the homeowner and for the lender, we hope," Skullney said.

She said members of the state's mediation task force did talk about the problem frequently cited by homeowners and housing counselors -- that information sent to lenders gets lost in a sort of loan-mod black hole. The group thought the key was forgoing faxes and just using certified mail, she said.

What if the lender gets the documents, looks them over and is convinced that the borrower doesn't qualify for a modification? There are other alternatives to foreclosure if the lender agrees, Skullney said. For instance, a short sale, in which the homeowner sells for less than the mortgage balance. Or returning the deed to the lender to remove the need for an auction.

She hopes these so-called softer landings will become more common with a law requiring a closer look at what could be done besides foreclosing.

So where does the mediation come in? O'Malley's description of his bill says homeowners would have the right to request a face-to-face mediation session.

Skullney thinks the legislation would give borrowers more legal defenses if they actually do qualify for -- say -- the federal Home Affordable Modification Program. They could point it out in court, she said.

Among states requiring mediation, Nevada's experience stuck out to her:

"They do not have judicial foreclosure at all, but what they instituted was a mandatory mediation program that's administered by the court," she said. "Absolutely every homeowner who requests mediation -- and it’s an opt-in system, so they’ve got to affirmatively ask for it -- is entitled to mediation before the house can be sold. The way that it is enforced is that the foreclosing entity must file a certification from the mediator [before going to auction]. ... The mediation has to be conducted in good faith, so there has to be a genuine discussion of what, if anything, can be done. And the mediator will certify that that in fact took place. If really nothing can be done, then the servicer or the lender, the secured party, sells the house."

What she's hearing from Nevada is that about 20 to 25 percent of homeowners who have gone through mediation there haven't been able to keep their homes, 30 to 35 percent have gotten "significant help as a result," and the rest are just waiting because the lenders haven't responded.

"This makes me believe that the governor is right, and there is an opportunity for workout if the process includes a mandatory period to do that," Skullney said.

What do you all think?

(Note: I've changed this post to reflect that the mediation wouldn't be mandatory, but rather the loss-mitigation consideration. Residents would have the right to choose mediation.)

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