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March 31, 2010

'Act of Congress' to sell house

Lenders often say they don't want to repossess houses. So you might expect that a borrower selling to avoid foreclosure -- and not via short sale -- would delight them.

But Bonnie Jordan, exactly that sort of borrower, says her lender endangered the sale of her Edgewater house by not promptly providing a key number: how much she owed.

"I've never seen anything quite like it before," said Diane Olsen, Jordan's real estate agent. "They just gave her the worst runaround."

Jordan said her title company contacted Chase for the payoff information Feb. 24 and several times afterward with no luck. Then Jordan tried, calling the company March 1 and many times afterward. Most of the time, she said, she left messages for people who didn't call back.

Once she was told that Chase didn't know the total because her case had been forwarded to a law firm, and so the number would include attorneys' fees. She said she called the law firm and was told first that it didn't have her information, and later that it didn't have any idea how long she might have to wait to get it.

Meanwhile, Jordan's March 12 closing date was closing in.

Then the buyer's lender -- for reasons unconnected to Jordan's situation -- decided not to extend a mortgage for the deal. That pushed off the settlement date by five days as the buyer rushed to get replacement financing. But Jordan still didn't have the payoff information.

On March 11, the day before she was originally supposed to close, she called House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's office to plead for help.

Just before 1 p.m. March 12 -- several hours after her original closing time -- she got a call from a Hoyer aide who said the information was on its way. (Hoyer's office confirmed to me that it had worked on her case.)

Both Jordan and her agent said they think Chase wanted to foreclose on her because she had equity. She'd made a 50 percent down payment when she bought the home.

"Why wouldn't they for a change want to own a property that had $100 to $150,000 in equity?" said Olsen, with ReMax Advantage Realty in Severna Park.

I asked Tom Kelly, a spokesman for Chase home lending, why it took 16 days for the company to provide information that -- according to Olsen -- normally takes a day or two. He said it's more complicated for a homeowner in the foreclosure process.

"We had to determine if the borrower had incurred additional fees," he said.

He said the clock didn't start until she requested it March 1. Although she signed an authorization form for the title company, only the borrower can request that information if she's in foreclosure, he said. "We provided the ... payoff statement in fewer than 10 business days from when we received an authorized request," Kelly said.

Did it take the intervention of the House majority leader's office? "The payoff letter was already in process," he said.

Jordan doubts it. A representative at Chase's law firm "said they were all backed up, 'We don't know when we'll have it,'" she said. (The firm wasn't too backed up to file paperwork to start foreclosure proceedings on her loan, though -- it did that March 8, which added more fees to her grand total.) 

Jordan also says no one told her title company that it wasn't authorized to get the payoff information.

Olsen, her agent, said she was glad Hoyer's office could help but thinks it's a shame that it came to that. If all struggling borrowers turn to their Congressmen, “the entire system will come to a grinding halt," she said.

Jordan bought the house when she left Florida for Maryland in 2007, but it was not an auspicious move -- and not just because she paid $575,000 but ultimately sold for $450,000.

Her husband couldn't find a job here. Neither could Jordan, an attorney specializing in elder law. They tried to sell last summer, but a buyer backed out of the contract after they had already packed up and moved back to Florida. After that, she said, she couldn't afford the mortgage.

"It's been a nightmare," she said.

Her financial woes aren't over, either. But at least she avoided foreclosure.

In an email to relatives headlined "WE SOLD THE HOUSE!!!!!!!!!!," she wrote: "It literally took an Act of Congress."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: The foreclosure mess

March 30, 2010

Walking away from mortgage? Read this

One thing is frequently left out in all the discussion about whether it's smart to mail your keys to your lender and walk away if you're far underwater on your mortgage: More is at stake for you than how long it will take until you can qualify for another loan.

As personal finance columnist Eileen Ambrose notes, you could be setting yourself up for trouble down the road:

Indeed, in Maryland and the majority of states, walking away is no guarantee that mortgage debt won't come back to haunt you. These are so-called recourse states, where a lender can pursue you for any shortfall after it sells the house. So if you walk away from a $400,000 mortgage and the lender turns around and sells the house for $300,000, you can still be on the hook for $100,000.

The lender might not come calling to collect right away, but there's time -- generally three years afterward, and sometimes more.

The same is true of short sales, unless you negotiate with your lender not to come after you for the difference.

Do you have a debt forgiveness -- or lack of forgiveness -- tale?

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

Tracking Census participation across the country

Curious how our 2010 Census participation rates compare? You can follow along at the Census participation map.

As of Monday, the city's rate is 41 percent, Carroll County's is 58 percent -- highest in the region and the state, if my bleary eyes do not deceive me -- and the national rate is 46 percent. (The point of the map is to encourage more mail-ins. "If 100% of households mailed back their forms, taxpayers would save $1.5 BILLION dollars," the site says.)

Six towns -- mostly in North and South Dakota -- have 100 percent participation.

Seen any neat maps lately? Do share.

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

March 29, 2010

Anti-fraud help for home buyers, refinancing owners

If you've bought a house or refinanced a mortgage, you signed a lot of paperwork. Did you understand every word? (Did you even read it?)

Civil Justice, a Baltimore nonprofit that offers legal help to people on real estate matters, has found the answer is a resounding no. Even among the well educated and high income.

Now it has a grant from the Governor's Office of Crime Control & Prevention to try to change that.

The new Maryland Mortgage Fraud Prevention Project will match eligible buyers and refinancing homeowners with pro bono attorneys, who will look over documents, explain them and help folks figure out whether it's actually a good idea to sign them.

"We know from the foreclosure crisis, and from all our representation over the years of people ... who get into bad loans or buy a house and it was property flipping, for example, that nobody had consulted an attorney who was going to be looking out for their best interests," said Diane Cipollone, manager of the project and an attorney with Civil Justice.

Her goal is broader than just getting some buyers and refinancing owners free legal assistance. She wants to change everyone's mindset, so the people who can afford to pay an attorney to look over mortgage documents and home-purchase contracts will do so.

"This is a legal document," she said. "This is a binding agreement. ... I think if we can change the way people think about this, we can avoid many future defaults."

The project is in the early stages. Civil Justice trained more than 90 attorneys (in person and by webinar) at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond's Baltimore branch last Friday. (UPDATE: Actually, it trained 54 attorneys. Not everyone who registered could make it.) It hopes to start pairing attorneys and clients in mid-April.

Here's who will qualify:

--First-time home buyers getting a primary residence priced at or below $425,000. (You're considered a first-timer if you haven't owned a primary residence in Maryland in the past three years. Unlike the first-time buyer tax credit, only one spouse has to meet that test, not both.) Buyers also have to attend one-on-one pre-purchase counseling at a state-approved nonprofit housing counseling group.

--Homeowners refinancing their mortgages on their primary residence. Maximum loan amount is $425,000, and the owners can't be in default or getting a reverse mortgage.

If you like the idea but don't qualify, Civil Justice says you can call for referrals to attorneys who will charge a fee.

Ellen Janes, regional manager for community development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond's Baltimore branch, said the Fed intends to study the project's effectiveness and spread the word.

"We are, all across the country in every region, looking for promising approaches to not only help prevent foreclosure and stabilize neighborhoods, but on the front end, come up with as aggressive approaches as we can to help prevent financial harm," Janes said. "I don't think any of us would want to rely on our own wits to get through a complex legal transaction like a home purchase."

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

March 28, 2010

Q&A: Paul Cooper, auctioneer

Today in the business section, we've got a Q&A with Paul R. Cooper, a vice president at Alex Cooper Auctioneers in Towson. You were all so interested to hear what he had to say in a blog Q&A a year ago that I thought you'd enjoy another conversation.

Last time, he said many home sellers weren't being realistic about asking prices. This time ... well, it's still a problem, he says. Here's the Q&A, with extra questions and answers that couldn't fit in the print edition:

Question: How’s the market for local home sellers?

Answer: It’s a challenging marketplace. But if you are priced correctly based on actual sales data, you stand a strong chance of selling your home in a short period.

Q: So sellers don’t have a handle on what their homes are worth. Why?

A: It’s sort of this analogy: If I had not looked at the stock market prices for the past six months, ... do I really know what my stock is worth? No. You need to look at current data to know what it’s worth. And you need to look at it in the context of, “Only three houses sold in the last six months and there’s 20 active [for sale].” Just because those three houses sold for $300,000 each doesn’t mean your house is worth $300,000. … If you’re patient, it may happen, but you need to beat out the rest of the marketplace in pricing your home.

Q: Does that mean we’re in a race to the bottom?

A: It’s just being realistic. Who knows where the bottom is. ... I think prices will still be coming down, but not as quickly, and I think you’re going to see accelerating volume. As long as there are 16,000 active [for-sale] listings in our area, I don’t see any pressure to push prices higher. When we were at the height of the market back in 2005, ... active listings were at a little over 6,000.

Q: What’s happened to prices?

A: I’m looking at the average and median sold prices for February 2010; I had to go back to April 2005 to find a comparable month. So you can probably say our prices right now are consistent with what they were in April 2005. ... By the way, the April 2005 average and median prices were approximately 20 percent higher than April 2004, so you can appreciate the tremendous run-up in the one-year period.

Q: Some have pointed to that and argued that prices still have a ways to fall. Do you agree?

A: There is a trend line you have to get back to, and the trend line is based on CPI increases. [The Consumer Price Index is a measure of inflation.] If CPI goes up 3 percent a year, … then theoretically real estate should only go up 3 percent a year. So when it goes up 20 percent in one year, it’s elevated off the trend line. It’s an accident waiting to happen. It’s just going to fall right back to the trend line eventually.

Q: Are we there yet?

A: We’re not, because we wouldn’t have 16,000 active listings if we were back to where we should be. February 2002 average sold price: $161,600. Median sold price: $131,900. ... So considering the fact that we’re sitting here right now at $271,000 for an average and $230,000 for a median shows we’re well above these numbers. A 68 percent increase in eight years in average sale prices.

Q: How are buyers reacting?

A: They’re making offers, and generally the offers are about 10 percent below the asking prices. That’s been the average. If you go back, traditionally it only used to be about 5 percent under asking prices.

Q: Is it good or bad that the federal government is such a huge part of the mortgage market these days?

A: At this point I think it’s a good idea, because I don’t know who wants to buy our mortgage bonds after what we did to the world. We stuck them with our mortgage bonds, and they’re suffering for it. If anyone got on the phone in New York trying to market collaterized mortgage obligations, they’ll probably get hung up on. ... So the government’s going to dictate what the standards are in down payments, the minimum credit scores. For those that do not have decent credit, I do not see any opportunity to get financing. ... I hear a lot of complaining from the real estate community about trying to get deals through. Certainly from mortgage brokers about how hard they have to work to make a deal work.

Q: What’s the difference between prospective home buyers today and at the peak in 2005 and early 2006?

A: At the peak, everyone’s perception was, “If I don’t buy now, the property’s going to be sold within a week and I’m going to have to pay higher prices, so I’d better act quickly.” There was a strong sense of urgency. ... Now, if you perceive property values [are] going down, you say to yourself, “Well, maybe I’ll wait, maybe it’ll be lower next month.” And certainly there’s a lot of inventory. But I do see that choice houses that are priced correctly are going quickly. When I say “choice,” something I could move in tomorrow with minimal work.

Q: Has the population of interested buyers fallen as far as the sales numbers would suggest?

A: I think there’s a lot of interested buyers, but they’re all looking for a good deal. ... At my open houses, I have an excellent number of prospective purchasers. So there are a lot of people looking for something that’s affordable and reasonably priced.

Q: Why aren’t more homes selling, then?

A: They’re overpriced. Plain and simple. Each marketplace, you can really dissect it. You can go down to specifics are far as neighborhoods. Certain neighborhoods are doing much better than other neighborhoods.

Q: Such as?

A: I spoke to a gentleman in Northwest Baltimore County near the Baltimore-Carroll County line. … I looked up statistics for $350,000 to $700,000 price range near the Prettyboy Reservoir. The last contract signed was September of ’09. With eight active listings. No pending sales. So I told him, ... “Unless you’re going to drop the price tremendously, it’s not going to happen.” There’s no buyers; there’s just no buyers there. One sale in six months? The last contract was six months ago? What that tells you, in the $350 to $700 price range, people are moving closer to maybe Westminster, Owings Mills, closer to urban centers, which is more convenient for shopping, employment. If I have $400,000 to spend, I may not need to be in that area. I may do much better moving closer to a major city. That’s what I mean about supply and demand. It really comes down to specific areas.

Q: What should sellers do to get their homes sold?

A: Just simply price them appropriately based on supply and demand in their immediate area. Don’t listen to reports about properties on a macro basis — about the region, about the country. You need specific data from your immediate area, maybe a mile radius or whatever you perceive your neighborhood to be.

Q: How often are sellers overpricing because they’re trying to get enough to pay off their mortgages?

A: That’s a major problem. I can’t tell you how many phone calls I have from people who tell me how much they owe on the property based on purchases in the past five years, and I tell them, “I’m sorry, you’re underwater. And unless you’re prepared to write a check at settlement, there’s nothing I can do.”

Q: Is anyone pulling out the checkbook?

A: No. Those are the people who say, “I don’t want to give it away.” Quote unquote. I say, “You’re not giving it away. It’s just the marketplace.” If I pay $40 a share for a stock and it’s now $20 a share, is $20 giving it away? No. The market is $20. … My choice is this: I can either hold on to that stock or sell that. Same applies to real estate. … Hopefully it’s going to go up. Not in the near future, not with 16,000 active listings. So I can either hold on or sell right now, take my losses and lick my wounds.

Q: What should prospective buyers do to avoid overpaying in a falling market?

A: Sometimes you have no choice but to buy in this point in the marketplace, but I would certainly look at sales data and go off of sales data to see what the most appropriate price is.

Q: What’s happening at foreclosure auctions these days?

A: Banks are discounting the properties tremendously. Banks do not want to own real estate, they really do not. So they’re anxious to discount it in order to bring about a result at sale time, or if they have to buy it back, they’re anxious to discount it and get it sold after they take title to the property. ... That has a negative effect in many neighborhoods. I’ve spoken to a number of people whose homes are competing with bank-owned properties on the market, and there’s nothing they can do. These bank-owned properties are probably a third less — priced a third less than theirs. I spoke to a gentlemen who wants $100,000 for his townhouse. One problem: I can buy comparable townhouses that are bank-owned for $60, $65,000. Why should I pay $100,000 for his?

Q: What about the commercial real estate market? Market watchers have said for several years that this would be the next shoe to drop.

A: Oh, it’s dropping big time. As far as commercial foreclosures, that’s accelerating quite a bit. And it’s going to probably continue to accelerate. I’ve spoken to attorneys, I’ve spoken to bankers, and they’re really trying to hold off. They don’t want to own this. They’ll do what they can. But an example, I have an office building coming up [for auction] — a major tenant just left. It was 80 percent leased; now you’re probably at 50 to 60 percent. Well, now you’re at negative cash flow, and they don’t have the check to write to the mortgage company.

Q: Are fewer people interested in buying commercial property?

A: The sales volume has gone down tremendously. ... The mortgage market fell apart in August, September of ’07, and then of course the financial marketplace fell apart in September of ’08. So the financing has deteriorated.

Q: What drives you up a wall in your job?

A: You try to educate people about the marketplace, and those who are in denial frankly can be frustrating. I know the market, I know how to analyze it, I have the data. When someone tells me, “No, I don’t believe it,” I say, “Well, what data do you have? What are you looking at?” [They say,] “I just know it’s worth more.”

Q: What about the people who say, “I believe it, but that means I’m stuck here?”

A: That’s unfortunate. You feel bad for somebody in that situation. You have to have a strong degree of empathy in this job. You have to understand where the people are coming from. They made an investment that did not turn out well, and you have to understand their feelings. They’re really not happy right now. They’re upset and frustrated.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:59 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Q&A

March 27, 2010

HAMP: What the loan-mod changes mean

The Home Affordable Modification Program is aimed at keeping struggling borrowers from losing their homes, but the number who've had their loans permanently modified is a tiny percentage of the total the federal government believes is eligible.

Yesterday the Obama administration announced changes to HAMP in hopes of turning things around.

The HUD press release is ... well, not exactly clear-cut about what those changes are. So here's the translation offered by the Consumer Federation of America:

· Requiring participating servicers under HAMP to offer at least 3 months’ forbearance of mortgage debt for unemployed borrowers, and encouraging such assistance for up to 6 months.

· Requiring participating servicers to use principal reduction as a primary means of reducing borrowers’ payments where loans are more than 115 percent of the current home value.

· Offering borrowers that are current on their mortgages but with debts greater than their home’s current value the opportunity to refinance into a lower cost, long-term fixed rate mortgage insured through the FHA if the current lender will agree to reduce principal owed by at least 10 percent and the total combined debt including any second liens would be no greater than 115 percent after the refinancing.

· Requiring HAMP servicers to work with borrowers in bankruptcy on mortgage modifications, and waive the trial period for such modifications if consumers have been successfully performing under bankruptcy settlements.

· Increasing the incentives to get second lien holders to reduce their claims to facilitate modifications.

· Clarifying that HAMP servicers must suspend all foreclosure actions and notices for borrowers that have sought modifications or are in trial modification periods, and requiring a written certification that a borrower is not HAMP eligible before an attorney or trustee can conduct a foreclosure sale.

Barry Zigas, director of housing policy for the consumer federation, thinks these changes will make a difference.

"Borrowers who are unemployed and those that find their homes are worth far less than the remaining debt on them are now those driving delinquency and default numbers," he said in a statement.

Some offered a thumbs down. Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, is particularly critical. (Baker, if you'll recall, is the economist so convinced we were in a bubble earlier in the decade that he sold his home in 2004 to rent instead.)

His criticism is aimed at the "substantial incentive" provided for companies holding first mortgages to reduce principal by having FHA "guarantee a new loan at 97.75 percent of the current market value."

"By substantially reducing the required payment on the first mortgage, the program will be creating a situation in which the second mortgage -- which would be worth little or nothing in foreclosure -- will suddenly again hold considerable value," he said in a statement. "This will be a huge windfall for second mortgage holders. It is worth noting that the major banks have vast portfolios of second mortgages."

This is great for those lenders, he says, and lousy for taxpayers (he says FHA will probably take a big hit from this plan). He doesn't even think it's great for the borrowers involved:

If the purpose of this modification program is to help homeowners, then any policy must ask two simple questions.

1) Is the homeowner paying less in ownership costs than they would to rent a comparable unit?

2) Is the homeowner likely to end up with equity in their home if they sell it in the next 3-5 years?

Both of these questions require an assessment of specific housing markets. If the market is still bubble-inflated, then the answers to these questions will be no and any money spent on modifications will be helping banks, not homeowners.

For some reason there is an enormous reluctance to ask these basic questions about the housing market. The failure to ask these questions in the years 2002-2006 provided the basis for the housing bubble.

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

March 26, 2010

For underwater homeowners, waiting to inhale

If you're among the 17 percent of Baltimore-area borrowers underwater on a mortgage, you want to know when your home will be worth more than the debt on it.

First American CoreLogic suggests you settle in for a while:

For the typical underwater borrower in the U.S. it will take until late 2015 or early 2016 for negative equity to disappear. In certain markets, it will take another five to 10 years or even longer to return to positive equity. For example, Detroit is not projected to recover even by 2020, because of its depressed economy.

First American has forecasts for several metro areas. Baltimore isn't among them, but Washington is. The firm expects the D.C. area will emerge on the earlier side -- 2015.

Pittsburgh and Lancaster, Pa., on the other hand, are both on the 2020 end.

First American expects that the average loan balance will fall by an annual rate of 3.3 percent over the next 10 years as borrowers pay down principal, while it forecasts that prices will rise by 3 percent annually over that period. That suggests that getting your head above water is a bit more about monthly payments than about appreciation.

When I asked you all about your mortgage situation, 30 percent said your home value is a lot higher than what you owe and an additional 5 percent owned outright with no mortgage. (Always a good feeling.)

But more than half were either close to being underwater or all wet. Twenty percent of you say your home's value is a lot lower than your mortgage balance.

Economists say homeowners are more likely to walk when they get far underwater, so you'll see that I'm not changing the subject when I mention that Bank of America has agreed to lower principal amounts for Countrywide Financial borrowers. (Countrywide was acquired by Bank of America.)

It's part of an agreement with the Massachusetts attorney general, but it affects borrowers nationwide. The Boston Globe reports that the principal-reduction agreement is worth about $3 billion to roughly 45,000 struggling homeowners:

Bank of America officials said the new plan requires the lender to offer qualified borrowers reductions in their mortgages — before offering to reduce their interest rates — in an effort to help them afford their monthly payments. ...

Qualified borrowers whose mortgage debt is 20 percent or more above the value of their homes are eligible for a mortgage reduction over a five-year period. Bank of America spokesman Dan Frahm said that helping these homeowners benefits the lender as well because nearly half of such distressed loans end up going into delinquency.

Banks have resisted the idea of principal reductions. Do you think this is a one-off, or will more follow Bank of America?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Mortgages

March 25, 2010

Three ways of looking at housing affordability

We saw one way of measuring home-price affordability yesterday: What's the median price in your region, and how does that compare with the salaries for jobs such as police office and school teacher?

Another new report offers a different way: comparing typical income with housing costs plus the expense of getting from home to work.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology's H+T Affordability Index aims to get people thinking more broadly about the cost of living here vs. there, and whether settling far from work to save money is actually cost-effective.

Its page for the Baltimore metro area lets you look at two maps side by side: which parts are affordable based on the "spend less than 30 percent of your income on housing" rule of thumb, and which are affordable if you want to shell out less than 45 percent on housing and transportation combined.

By the center's calculation of the latter measure, few parts of the Baltimore metro area are affordable outside the city. According to the center, "increased transportation costs begin to offset savings on the cost of housing when commutes reach a distance of about ten miles."

"Families unwittingly shortchange themselves by being economical when it comes to housing
costs while taking on incremental travel costs that wipe out those savings," it says in its report, "Penny Wise, Pound Fuelish." (Very punny.)

The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development takes a different tack: It analyzes affordability (or lack thereof) by offering up a stand-in for a first-time home buyer and a move-up buyer. By its calculations, move-up buyers in Baltimore can afford to purchase there, and likewise in the surrounding counties. But first-timers?

Only in the city and Harford County can they afford to make the leap without stretching, the state calculates. They fall particularly short if they're trying to buy in Carroll and Howard counties.

Here's how the state comes by that conclusion:

It's considering someone a move-up buyer if they can put 20 percent down and earn the median household income for their jurisdiction. It looks to see if that buyer can purchase the median-priced single-family home in that jurisdiction without spending more than 25 percent on principal and interest.

Its definition of a first-time buyer: someone with a lower salary than the move-up buyer (35 percent less) who is buying a cheaper place ($85,000 if the repeat buyer is getting $100,000 digs, for instance). This first-timer has 10 percent saved up to put down, which means mortgage insurance costs get tacked onto the monthly payment.

So many different ways to look at affordability. I personally like Pete from Highlandtown's definition, which he shared in a comment:

"I own a home and i dont want it to lose value. But i also want other people like myself to be able to buy a house. I bought my house[in 2003] back when a construction laborer like myself could afford to buy a house for $45,000. I think that is what makes Baltimore so great. That a guy like me can own his own house and be neighbors with people who have a diverse range of incomes."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Affordable housing, From home to work

March 24, 2010

Affordable or not?

It's been couched as a "bad news, good news" sort of deal: The drop in home prices has devastated some who already own homes, but it makes homeownership affordable to more people who don't yet have a foot in the door.

Now comes the Center for Housing Policy, which is warning everyone not to call the affordable-housing problem solved just yet.

If you've got a 10 percent down payment, you'd need to make about $70,000 to get the median-priced home in the Baltimore metro area without spending more than 28 percent of your income on the mortgage, property taxes and insurance. We're talking about a $235,000 place.

Though $70,000 happens to be the median household income in the metro area, there's a lot of two-income couples accounting for that figure. Trying to buy on one salary can be tricky, especially if you're a police officer ($52,000) or a licensed practical nurse ($41,000) or in any of the many professions that pay less.

The center's newest Paycheck to Paycheck report ranks metro areas by price (we're tied for 29th most expensive out of 208), by change in income needed to buy (we're middle of the pack) and by rental costs (we're 27th most expensive out of 210).

Today's story has more, including the experience of a woman looking for a $200,000 home and finding mostly foreclosures. And check out this map of the most and least expensive places.

What's your experience? Is the housing market affordable to you and the people you know?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:54 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Affordable housing

March 23, 2010

A to-do list for the mayor

Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake's transition committee of 150 (yes, 150) volunteers has several pointed things to say on real-estate-related matters.

In its newly released report, it criticized Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development, urged action on the 30,000 vacant properties in the city and suggested that the time might have come to revoke nonprofits' property-tax exemption.

"The reality is that City government cannot continue to function as it has in the past," the committee wrote in its report.

The nonprofit tax suggestion is for "all or some" nonprofits to "be assessed at a reduced rate, to offset the cost of services provided them." The city has looked to nonprofits before in tight times. (Here's a 1996 story about "payments in lieu of taxes," in case you'd like to take a trip through memory lane.)

Other tax suggestions to consider, committee members said: a nonresident earnings tax -- often known as a "commuter tax."

The housing and community development department, which goes by Baltimore Housing nowadays, came in for sharp words. Committee members wrote that the agency "is often the last actor to commit public subsidies to a development project, resulting in significant delays."

"The department’s strategic plan must emphasize community development and neighborhoods, as the agency appears to lack a clear and coherent vision for revitalizing Baltimore's neighborhoods," the report says. "Almost symbolic of the agency's lack of vision is that it has dropped 'community development' from its name."

The committee also wants to see the 30,000 vacant properties in the city managed better -- and a close scrutiny of everything the city owns, vacant or not. Sell, in other words.

"Properties that are not needed for public use ... should be offered to the public in an open and transparent fashion," the report says.

Here's Julie Scharper's story about the report.

So: Thoughts?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Neighborhood improvement, Property taxes

March 22, 2010

Property flipping, meet 'flopping'

"Flipping" has a shady reputation in Baltimore, "Flip This House" and similar shows notwithstanding. Reselling a house for more than you paid soon after you bought it is no crime -- unless you made the numbers work through deception, which happened in scores of cases here in the '90s and early part of the decade.

As Susan Gaffney put it in 2000, when she was inspector general of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, "When we see properties with FHA mortgage insurance bought and sold the same day for a 50 percent or a 100 percent profit, we can be reasonably certain that something is wrong. In most cases, the profit results from false and fraudulent documentation provided by one or more of the parties to the transaction, such as the lender and/or the appraiser."

Now, brace yourself for "flopping."

Four appraisal groups, including the Appraisal Institute, say it's essentially the reverse trend -- a property's value is falsely deflated for its first purchase, then resold for its true value.

They warn that the federal government's foreclosure-prevention plan to get more short sales approved could fuel flopping by cutting appraisals out of the process. A broker price opinion, known as a BPO, would be sufficient to establish a floor for offers.

What -- the appraisers argue -- is to stop an agent from giving a lowball BPO, then shepherding the bargain property "to a related party" who can resell for a profit?

"To restore investor confidence around the world and dig out from the current financial crisis, we must end the culture of corruption that has permeated all levels of real estate finance," the appraisal groups write in a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

As you can imagine, the Realtors did not take this sitting down.

"There is no evidence to support the assertion that appraisers are more or less likely to engage in mortgage fraud than real estate agents," retorted Vicki Cox Golder, president of the National Association of Realtors, in a counter letter.

Oh, it is on.

The ranks of flipping fraudsters include appraisers and real estate agents, as it happens, so there's ammunition for finger pointing on both sides. Here's the question: Which is harder to fake, a BPO or an appraisal?

Or is there some third option that's a better fraud disinfectant?

This is a particularly important question for Maryland. A fourth-quarter report by Interthinx ranks the state sixth highest on the "mortgage fraud risk" list, after California, Nevada, Arizona, Florida and Colorado. 

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (20)
Categories: Mortgage fraud/scams

March 21, 2010

Home buyer credit: effective or not?

Since the federal home buyer tax credit was extended and expanded in November, has it (a) been the major driver of the market or (b) had precious little effect?

You'd think experts could agree on this one, but I keep hearing both answers.

The Federal Reserve's March 3 Beige Book, for instance, says most parts of the country "attributed stronger home sales to the home-buyer tax credit, with several contacts apprehensive about future sales once the credit expires on April 30." And many of the Baltimore-area real estate agents I've talked to say lots of their buyers are first-timers eligible for the $8,000 credit.

But a Citigroup analyst following Pulte Homes says the extended credit hasn't done much for the builder's sales, the Associated Press reports. And mortgage giant Fannie Mae says the extension has been more bust than boom because many first-time buyers bought last year, though it does expect a flurry of last-minute purchases.

The Wall Street Journal, reporting on Fannie Mae's credit musings, says the financier considers the $6,500 credit for repeat home buyers a definite flop -- it's not a big enough incentive, "given that current homeowners generally must incur commission costs to sell their current homes, a cost not incurred by first-time home buyers."

I've sure answered a lot of questions from people hoping to qualify for the $6,500 repeat-buyer credit, but I don't recall anyone saying the money was the push they needed to buy. Anyone? Bueller?

Either way, I'm curious what you think of the overall tax-credit program. Is it having an effect?

March 20, 2010

Realtors' take on Md. home prices

We can be pretty certain that a lot of home buyers and sellers don't see eye to eye on values, or else the average sale price wouldn't be 11 percent lower than the asking price. But where do real estate agents stand in the debate?

Well, 85 percent polled in Maryland say sellers think their homes are worth more than they -- the agents -- believe it is, according to a new survey by real estate site HomeGain.

Most of that difference is pretty big.

Half the Maryland agents surveyed say their average clients think their homes are worth 10 to 20 percent more. Eleven percent say average clients think their homes are worth in excess of 20 percent more.

The Maryland agents say their average buyers are actually less critical. Sixty-seven percent of their buyers think homes are overpriced, with a big chunk of the opinion that prices are no more than 9 percent too high.

Perhaps that's because the agents report that they're talking sellers down from their price expectations -- somewhat. About half say the average difference between the ultimate asking price and what sellers wanted to ask is no more than 10 percent.

(The Maryland agents were polled as part of a national survey of 1,400 Realtors. About three dozen were from our state.)

The push-and-pull on price is probably a perennial one, but it's been especially potent in the post-bubble days.

Buyers, how close does a home's asking price need to be to your opinion of its worth to make you willing to negotiate?

Sellers, what are you doing to ensure that your asking price will interest buyers?

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

March 19, 2010

Ice dams, flooding and other post-snow home woes


Photograph by Jamie Smith Hopkins


Snowmageddon left us some lovely parting gifts.

Water damage.

The 40-plus inches of snow that overwhelmed the region last month is responsible for leaks in homes via ice dams -- icy ridges that cling to the edge of roofs, preventing melting snow from going anywhere ... except perhaps inside your house. I've heard complaints about that, along with complaints about roof problems from the weight of all that darn snow, of course.

The extra moisture that seeped into the ground could also cause basement flooding and termite infestations, experts warn.

One plague after another, eh?

Maryland is among the states that the National Weather Service categorizes with an "above average" chance of flooding this spring. Soils in the Mid-Atlantic are saturated, it says.

Here's what you should watch for, and what you can do to deal:

The University of Minnesota Extension has some informative photos to show you what an ice dam looks like. You can have ice and water on the same roof if the outdoor air is freezing but parts of your roof have been warmed by heat rising from inside your home.

"This water finds cracks and openings in the exterior roof covering and flows into the attic space," the extension service notes. "From the attic it could flow into exterior walls or through the ceiling insulation and stain the ceiling finish."

You're probably past the point of snow on your roof -- but if not, the extension recommends getting it off. To avoid a repeat performance, "make the ceiling air tight so no warm, moist air can flow from the house into the attic space," the extension suggests. "After sealing air leakage paths between the house and attic space, consider increasing the ceiling/roof insulation to cut down on heat loss by conduction."

Brian Impellizeri, product manager for residential waterproofing products at Grace Construction Products in Massachusetts, also suggests -- well -- residential waterproofing products. (Hey, you can't blame him.) His company sells an underlayment, which goes under roof shingles and self-adheres to the roof.

Ice-dam damage might be immediately apparent, he said, or it might be a while before you see the effects.

"You open up cracks that become entryways for moisture to come in," he said. "It can happen immediately, or it can happen as time wears on."

Warning signs -- besides the dead giveaway of gushing water, of course: off-color spots on ceilings; roof shingles blown off or curled upward; mildewy smells in your attic.

"If they have a leak coming into the house, they have a spot where water's coming in, they need to have it repaired," Impellizeri said. "I’m sure many homeowners in your region are going to have to do that now."

What about basement flooding? The city of Minneapolis, which knows a thing or two about spring melting, offers these floodproofing suggestions:

* Make sure that internal moisture sources such as clothes dryers and bathrooms are vented outside

* Use humidifiers and dehumidifiers carefully. Put humidifiers on a higher level than the basement. A dehumidifier in a moist basement may actually draw moisture into the basement.

* If your basement is moist, don't open the basement windows in the summer.

More suggestions, including what to do if you're already waterlogged, can be found here.

As for termites: The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture says you'll want to keep moisture and wood away from your foundation. Both are termite welcome mats.

"Water should be diverted away from the foundation with properly functioning gutters, downspouts and splash blocks," the ag college suggests.

Also, it says not to go overboard with mulch, "especially if you already have termites or other conducive conditions."

More anti-termite tips here.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Home maintenance, Weather

March 18, 2010

City changes mind on property-tax proposal

Back in December, Baltimore's City Council asked state leaders for the ability to tax owners of uninhabitable properties at a higher rate than everyone else. Now that it's before the General Assembly, though, the proposal is attracting opposition.

From the city.

In a letter to legislators, the head of the city's office of intergovernmental relations says the administration doesn't want it after all.

"We believe that a universal application of a penalty such as [a] specific tax as proposed .... would contradict the business model employed in distressed areas by both non-profits and for-profit developers alike to acquire inventory and hold them until they possess enough properties on a specific block or neighborhood to commence redevelopment," Diane Hutchins wrote. "Our further concern is that the legislation may have negative public policy implications by harming certain property owners for situations beyond their control including owning property adjacent to City owned vacant buildings and collapsing privately held abandoned property."

A city's mayor and council don't always see eye to eye. But the twist in this case? Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake was president of the City Council in December and -- according to the official record -- was among the 14 members voting "yea." (Council member No. 15 was absent.)

State Sen. George W. Della Jr. of Baltimore, who introduced the Senate version of the bill, said after a committee hearing Wednesday that he felt like he "got sideswiped by a hit-and-run driver."

"The Baltimore City Council sends us a resolution; they support this concept unanimously," Della said. "I introduced legislation based on all of that, plus other favorable comments from a lot of folks, not only in my legislative district but from around the city. Honestly, I believe it could be a good tool for the city to use."

When she spoke to Baltimore Sun staff in January, Rawlings-Blake listed it among her priorities in Annapolis and said the idea was "to create incentives for active homeownership." So I was curious to hear how city leaders got from "let's do it!" to "bah" two months later, but neither Hutchins nor Rawlings-Blake's spokesman returned my calls.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce -- which also opposes the proposal -- was happy to chat about it, though. 

Ron Wineholt, the chamber's vice president of government affairs, said his group's objection is largely of the "slippery slope" variety.

"The Maryland chamber has opposed all efforts by local governments in recent years to establish additional classes of real property to tax," he said Wednesday after the committee hearing on the Senate bill. "Our concern is that higher taxes would be imposed on business property by local governments, and that always results in a discriminatory tax outcome. For over 80 years, state law has required counties to impose one rate of taxation on all property. We think that’s fair."

A lot of vacant properties are owned by the city, Wineholt added. "This bill would likely cause more property owners to abandon their property through tax sale, resulting in the city taking ownership," he said. "Abandoned properties are a real problem in Baltimore City, but we think the city should use the existing tools of housing code enforcement, fines and receivership to combat the problem."

The proposal was suggested by city resident Matt Gonter (here's an early post about it, before it was a council resolution), who thought Baltimore should follow D.C.'s lead. You've had some lively discussion about possible merits and downsides.

The resolution itself argues that unmaintained vacant properties "create a higher need for City services, including site cleanup and demolition, provision of legal services, police and fire protection, and legal enforcement," but generally contribute little in taxes because their uninhabitable state means low assessed values.

Della said he's not backing off from the proposal in the face of the city's U-turn. He thinks a dual tax rate is a good idea.

"This is about addressing a real problem we have here in Baltimore City," he said. "What is it, 30,000 vacant properties in Baltimore City? Some of which, granted, the city owns. But it's a huge number of properties. And the system we have in place just doesn't seem to be working to the degree where it gives these property owners the incentive to do something positive."

What especially perplexes him, he said, is why the city would decide to oppose a bill that doesn't actually set a higher rate -- just gives city leaders the right to do so.

"If they don't want to enable it, they don't have to," Della said.

Back in December, I asked what you thought of the idea. Most of the 250 people who took the poll since then have said thumbs up -- though a number of you thought any rate increase for uninhabitable properties should come with a rate decrease for everyone else.

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

March 17, 2010

The home price in the middle

Last month, half the people who bought homes in Maryland paid less than $237,000 and half paid more. That's the median sale price -- and it's 23 percent less than the peak in 2007.

That's a $70,000 drop, for those of you who prefer dollars to percents.

Like most reporters, I'm in the habit of comparing year over year, but it's useful to take the longer view. Or painful, if you happen to have bought around the peak.

Maryland home sales are well below the peak as well: about 2,800 last month vs. 6,000 (!) in February 2005. (Sales were 20 percent above the Feb. '09 trough, at least.)

But back to price:

It's probably no coincidence that the median is solidly in the range that many of you say you'd pay for a home, if you were buying today. The $200,000 to $249,999 price range was the second most popular in a recent Wonk poll, chosen by 17 percent of you. Narrowly edging it out: $300,000 to $399,999 -- which is, after all, a bigger range.

No. 3, with just over 12 percent: $400,000-$499,999.

No. 4, with just under 12 percent: $150,000-$199,999.

No. 5, with 11 percent: $250,000-$299,999.

Throw the $200s together, and they're tops, followed by the $100s ($100,000-$149,999 was the sixth most popular choice by itself). Which suggests that you beloved readers are a lot like the buyers out there right now.

A number of you would buy more expensive digs -- 16 percent chose price ranges at or above $500,000 -- and a few opted for under-$100,000 homes.

Meanwhile, a dozen of you said you can't afford to spend a dime on a home. These topsy-turvy days, that just might be because you already have one.

Does your mortgage or rental payment comfortably fit your budget?
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Housing stats

March 16, 2010

No need for buyers to wait to appeal tax assessment

If you're buying a home in Maryland before July 1, add one more potential item to your to-do list: Appeal the property-tax assessment.

Anyone purchasing property in the first six months of the year can appeal within 60 days of purchase, rather than waiting around for the home to be reassessed. (Anyone can appeal any year, as it happens, but you'll have to wait longer for results to show up on your bill if you're not a new buyer.)

More details about the "appeal upon purchase" here.

Montgomery County resident Louis Wilen, who successfully appealed his assessment recently, suggested I remind you all of this option. "An 'Appeal Upon Purchase' is almost certain to result [in] tax savings for the 1/3 of homebuyers whose house was assessed in 2008, since 2008 assessments are based on bubble values," he wrote me.

"For example, there are many homes in my area that were assessed at about $600,000 in 2008, but have sold for about $500,000 during the past two months," he notes. "Every one of those homebuyers could potentially save about $1000 in property taxes when the bills come out in July -- but only if they submit an 'Appeal Upon Purchase' within 60 days of the purchase date." 

Have you appealed upon purchase? How did it go? (Or are you waiting to hear?)

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

March 15, 2010

$5,000 for some Baltimore home buyers

If you're planning to buy a Baltimore home in the near future, you might qualify for a $5,000 grant to put toward your down payment or closing costs.

Here's what you need to qualify for the city program:

--First-time home buyer status

--A certificate showing that you've been through pre-purchase housing counseling with a city-approved agency.

--Moderate income. The limits are $44,800 for a one-person household, $51,200 for two, $57,600 for three and $64,000 for four. (See the limits for larger households here.)

The program, funded with federal Community Development Block Grant money, has enough money to pass on to 60 buyers. When the program launched last summer, it was tapped out after two months.

"We just got renewed funding," said Tania Baker, a spokeswoman for the city's housing department.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: First-time home buyers

March 14, 2010

Fighting the foreclosure fight -- or withdrawing

Turning back foreclosure blight has not proved an easy task. Government and nonprofit leaders are hoping a "neighborhood stabilization boot camp" -- which kicks off today at Harvard University with officials from a dozen regions, including Baltimore -- will help improve the response.

The goals include brainstorming new strategies and sharing "game-changing solutions" that can more speedily get vacant homes re-occupied.

The event -- sponsored by Living Cities, HUD and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University -- is interesting in part because it's not simply bringing together local government administrators. Each place represented (described as "12 of the regions hit hardest by the housing crisis," from South Florida to Los Angeles) sent a team made up of nonprofits and real estate firms as well as government officials.

Detroit -- exceedingly hard-hit -- is not on the list. But leaders there are considering a doozy of a game-changer.

Razing. Razing across the board.

As the Associated Press notes:

After decades of decline that gutted many once-vibrant neighborhoods, Detroit is preparing a radical renewal effort on a scale never attempted in this country: returning a large swath of the city to fields or farmland, much like it was in the middle of the 19th century. Under plans now being refined, demolition crews would move through the most desolate and decayed areas of urban Detroit with building-chomping excavators, reducing houses to rubble.

Tearing down en masse has been suggested in Baltimore, too. Though the city's situation is not as desperate as Detroit's, it has thousands of long-vacant, abandoned houses, and streets where boarded-up properties outnumber the occupied ones.

Frequent commenter MrRational has on several occasions advocated for a tear-down approach: "There are large tracts of properties in the city described as 'homes' that have no legitimate reason to remain standing," he wrote on this post in September. "The bureaucratic inertia and legalities which allow this can't continue to be tolerated."

Should Baltimore follow Detroit's proposed example? Or is that medicine worse than the disease?

(Tip of the hat to colleague -- and Consuming Interests blogger -- Liz Kay, who thought this would make for an interesting discussion.)
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: The economy, The foreclosure mess

March 13, 2010

Housing events for every preference

If you want to buy, rent, try to hold onto or fix up a home, you've got events to choose from in the next few weeks:

Thursday, March 18: "Foreclosure solutions" session from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Randallstown, organized by the Baltimore County Office of Community Conservation. Government agencies, housing counselors and others will cover topics ranging from federal loan-modification options to avoiding scams. More details here.

Saturday, March 20: Foreclosure prevention event from 9 a.m. to noon in Columbia, organized by the Howard County Housing Department. Housing counselors and several large lenders will be on hand to meet with people one-on-one. More details, including paperwork to bring, on this site. 

Wednesday, March 24: Smart Homebuying Night from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Baltimore, organized by Live Baltimore. Meet with industry exhibitors, including real estate agents and lenders. That meet-and-greet is followed by a pre-purchase housing counseling class, the sort you need to take for certain homebuyer aid grants, but the class is full -- you'll need to get on the waiting list. More details here.

Saturday, March 27: How-to session at 10 a.m. in Baltimore on applying (and qualifying) for the Maryland Heritage Preservation Tax Credit Program, put on by the Charles Village Community Benefits District and Baltimore Heritage. Learn how to save on the cost of rehabbing a home in an historic neighborhood. More details here. (Or go here to see which city neighborhoods qualify.) 

Saturday, April 10: Howard County Housing Fair from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Columbia, organized by the Howard County Housing Department. Bus tour of new housing developments, sessions on topics ranging from buying to energy conservation, and exhibitors -- from landlords to lenders. More details here.

Saturday, April 10: City Living Rental Tour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Baltimore, organized by Live Baltimore. Bus tours of apartment complexes, renting-tips session and an in-person roommate match event. More details here.

Know of other events you think Wonk readers might want to attend? Please share in a comment.

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

March 12, 2010

Change brewing on FHA loans

What's the difference between 3.5 percent down payments and 5 percent down payments? More than 300,000 home sales, the head of the Federal Housing Administration is telling Congress.

FHA-insured mortgages currently require the lesser percentage, but some leaders -- anxious to avoid another bailout -- think the agency would be on stronger footing if it upped the down payment to 5 percent. FHA Commissioner David H. Stevens responded Thursday that this would lead to plagues of locusts o'er the land.

Or, rather, the housing-market equivalent:

FHA evaluated the loan files of a large sample of past endorsements to identify the number of borrowers who had sufficient assets at time of loan application to contribute the additional 1.5 percent of equity at closing. ... Such a policy change would reduce the volume of loans endorsed by FHA by more than 40 percent, while only contributing $500 million in additional budget receipts. This translates to more than 300,000 fewer first-time homebuyers and would have significant negative impacts on the broader housing market -- potentially forestalling the recovery of the housing market and potentially leading to a double-dip in housing prices by significantly curtailing demand.

As the Associated Press notes, the agency is -- on the one hand -- under pressure from Republicans to avoid overreaching financially, but also -- on the other -- from Democrats who don't want lots of would-be homeowners unable to get mortgages.

Where do you come down on the debate? Would higher down payment requirements be a good idea or bad?

Should we be concerned that so many buyers are so stretched that 5 percent down is apparently impossible? 

Change of some sort seems inevitable. FHA is itself proposing a 10 percent down payment requirement for anyone with a credit score between 500 and 579, with no loans extended to anyone with lower scores. It's also planning to up the upfront mortgage insurance premium and -- most significantly, some say -- to reduce allowable seller assistance to buyers from 6 percent to 3 percent.

FHA financing accounted for nearly four in every 10 home sales in the Baltimore metro area last month, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems.

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

March 11, 2010

Baltimore home sales in February

Home sales up. Prices down. Newly signed contracts up, but not as big a year-over-year jump as we've been seeing -- thanks, blizzards.

Those are the housing-market basics for the Baltimore metro area last month. If you want more details along those lines, check out today's home sales story. Rather than retreading the same ground here, I thought I'd share a few other interesting stats:

25: Percentage of metro area homes that sold in 30 days or less.

33: Percentage that sold in 121 days or more.

38: Percentage of homes financed with loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration. (Long gone are the days when no one went FHA.)

20: Percentage of homes paid for entirely with cash. (Investors, usually.)

1,177: Homes that sold in the metro area last month, up nearly 10 percent from a year earlier.

1,757: Homes that sold in the metro area in February 2000, just to put things in perspective.

207: Homes that sold for $200,000 to $249,999 last month, the most popular price range.

114: Homes that sold for $500,000 or more. (Yes -- not that much more than half what sold in the low to mid $200s.)

10: Months it would take to find buyers for all the homes listed for $200,000 to $249,999 at February's pace of sales.

23: Months it would take for all the homes listed for $500,000-plus.

And finally, 56: Homes that sold for less than $30,000. Many, presumably, to those investors paying cash.

As always, the numbers come from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems. If you see other numbers there that fascinate you, do share.

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

March 10, 2010

Home buying by price range

It probably won't surprise you to hear that the action in the Baltimore metro area's housing market last year was in non-ritzy price ranges. First-time buyers tempted by the $8,000 tax credit aren't the demographic for mansions.

Here's how home sales in the metro area changed in 2009 compared with 2008, by price range:

Under $250,000: 12,500 homes sold, up 20 percent

$250,000-$349,999: 5,500 homes sold, down 7 percent

$350,000-$499,999: 3,350 homes sold, down 11 percent

$500,000-plus: 2,200 homes sold, down 13 percent

Just for fun, share your go-to price range:

On a related note, real estate search site Trulia says price reductions on homes currently for sale are still significant around here. The average drop in Baltimore: 12 percent. The average drop in Baltimore for homes above $1 million: 18 percent.

An 18 percent decrease on a $1.5 million home is enough money to buy some homes with -- $270,000. But that's chump change compared with some of the asking-price decreases out there. Consider this five-bedroom Canton condo, reduced from $3 million to $2 million.

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

March 9, 2010

More answers to home buyer tax credit questions

Some hoping they qualify for the $8,000 or $6,500 home buyer tax credit have really complicated situations. Check out the Consuming Interests blog post today for a sample of these difficult questions, with answers from Michael Agetstein, chair of the tax department for Maryland accounting firm KatzAbosch.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:13 PM |

And the winner is ... nobody


Photo of Phoenix raffle house by Baltimore Sun photographer Amy Davis


The contest organized to raffle off a $1.6 million house in Baltimore County sounded good to some people -- enough to sell 12,000 tickets at $100 a pop. But organizers needed about 20,000 ticket sales to make it worthwhile, and they were hoping for 35,000.

So: no raffle.

Steve Scarborough told me that he got a refund for the two tickets he bought, but "they kept $5.96 per ticket."

"I suppose that could add up to a tidy profit for them even if they only sold half of the 35,000 tickets," he wrote in an email. "I may want to look into an opportunity like this."

Now, the charity organizing this event warned in advance that the raffle would be canceled if too few tickets were sold, and it said it would keep a 1 percent processing charge if that happened. But 1 percent of $100 is $1, not $5.96. I checked in with the builder of the house, who partnered with the nonprofit Universal Peacemakers Foundation, to find out what was what.

Alan Klatsky, president of Prestige Development Inc., said the extra money didn't go to the charity. It went to Wall Street.

“The credit card companies who processed the charges (remember there were several) have their own charge which is passed on," he said through a spokeswoman.

UPDATE -- I chatted with the charity that organized the raffle, and here's what it says:

Bob Brantley, president of the Universal Peacemakers Foundation in Upperco, said one of the online credit-card processors he used charged a refund fee. It's not a fee he was passing along -- the processor held the ticket money until the event was canceled, and then sent it back to the ticket buyers with a bite, he said. "We'll do our very best" to reimburse ticket buyers who prove that they didn't get their full $100 back, he said.

Because Universal Peacemakers didn’t exercise its option to keep $1 of each ticket sold as a processing fee, "we got no funds at all out of this," Brantley added. Instead, the raffle turned out to be a money-losing proposition for the small nonprofit -- though how much won't be clear until he sees how many people want their credit-card fee refunded.

"We'll cover it somehow," he said. "We don't want anyone to feel like they were mistreated."

(So far, most of the ticket buyers who contacted him about the fee have decided not to ask the nonprofit to pony up out of its general funds.)

The raffle, originally scheduled for last fall, was pushed off until February to give people more time to buy tickets. But that wasn't time enough.

"The economy's pretty rough," Brantley said. "That was a major factor."

This is not the first raffle that failed to get off the ground.

Food Link, for example, canceled a 2008 raffle fundraiser for an Anne Arundel County house. Executive Director Cathy Holstrom told my colleague Lorraine Mirabella that "it's a lot more complicated than it sounds. We actually lost a lost of money."

So what happens to the 6,200-square-foot mansion in Phoenix with "a huge center hall, gourmet kitchen, walnut floors, 16-foot ceilings and a his and hers marble bath in the first-floor master suite"?

Klatsky is opting for the route many home sellers take: He's putting it on the market in the spring.

"A second model home is also planned for this summer as well," he said.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: For sale

March 8, 2010

Most expensive Baltimore neighborhoods


Baltimore Sun photographer Kenneth K. Lam


Know the Baltimore neighborhood pictured above? It's the most expensive in the city, as measured by 2009 average sale prices.

Which is it? Can you guess?

Read on for the answer, along with the rest of the city's priciest neighborhoods in '09.

1. Homeland. Average sale price: $506,000. Number of homes sold: 40.

2. The Orchards. Average sale price: $493,000. Number of homes sold: 7.

3. North Roland Park/Poplar Hill. Average sale price: $479,000. Number of homes sold: 11.

4. Guilford. Average sale price: $475,00. Number of homes sold: 28.

5. Roland Park. Average sale price: $440,00. Number of homes sold: 45.

6. Inner Harbor. Average sale price: $422,000. Number of homes sold: 46.

7. Cedarcroft. Average sale price: $409,00. Number of homes sold: 8.

8. Otterbein. Average sale price: $359,000. Number of homes sold: 20.

9. Fells Point. Average sale price: $344,000. Number of homes sold: 64.

10. Tuscany-Canterbury. Average sale price: $340,000. Number of homes sold: 33.

You can glimpse each neighborhood in our "most expensive" photo gallery.

The ranking is based off my analysis of Metropolitan Regional Information Systems data -- the local multiple-listing service.  

A Wonkish but important aside: An average sale price can only tell you the average of what actually sold. It can't get at the true average value of all homes. A lot of high-end houses and condos are sitting on the market rather than selling, which can make a neighborhood look cheaper than it really is ... though the pricey homes that aren't finding buyers probably aren't worth as much as the owners hope they are.

So yeah -- true value is not an easy number to come by.

Here, though, are where the homes selling for $1 million or more last year are located:

Five in the Inner Harbor

Four in Fells Point

Two in Homeland

And one each in Guilford, Tuscany-Canterbury and Blythewood, neighborhoods clustered near each other in North Baltimore.

Does this match up with your sense of where the city's pricey homes are located?

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

March 7, 2010

The Baltimore-area housing market in living color

It takes a lot of number-crunching to show you the housing market by ZIP code and city neighborhood, but somebody's got to do it.

Today's story gives you the bird's eye view of the trends -- last year and still developing -- and comes with lots of cool extras for people who like to check things out for themselves.

Colorful maps, for instance, thanks to Sun cartographer Chris Schoenberg. Maps showing the change in average price last year in the region's ZIP codes and the city's neighborhoods, since ZIP codes in the city hide a lot of variation. Maps showing the change in the region and city, too. Even some maps from earlier times. (Give Chris three cheers, because without her cartographic skills, we couldn't sort city sales into their  neighborhoods and would have to make do with ZIP codes only.)

There's also a keen searchable database, put together by the inestimable Lauren Custer, which lets you look up the stats on all ZIP codes with at least five home sales in 2008 and 2009.

More interested in city neighborhood stats? Find an Excel file with sales by neighborhood here.

Did you buy or sell in 2009? How did it go?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 1:00 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Housing stats

March 6, 2010

Results of the dueling Ocean City auctions

It's not every day that condos in the same complex are sold off at two simultaneous auctions, so some of you naturally wondered what came of the dueling events for the Bahia Vista condos in Ocean City.

All sold, the auctioneers report. Eleven of the new condos went on the block at the Grand Hotel in Ocean City, handled by Marshall Auctions, and nine others were auctioned off at the Loews Annapolis Hotel by Max Spann Real Estate & Auction Co.

Max Spann reports that its units went for $396,000 to $561,000. Marshall says its units went for $315,000 to $445,000 -- noting, in a bit of after-auction ribbing, that its buyers paid no premium on top of that. (As is typical at auctions, Max Spann added a 10 percent "buyer's premium" to the sales price.)

Why two auctions? Because the partnership that developed the condos split up. One of the partners went with Marshall. The rest, with Max Spann.

"That has never come up in our four generations of auctioning," Max Spann Jr. said when I asked if he'd ever seen anything like it. "I was actually out at a winter symposium for the National Auctioneers Association, lecturing, and no one had ever heard of it. So it's a new one on me." 

Spiro Buas, who signed on with Marshall Auctions, said he decided it was the way to go after he saw another Ocean City property auctioned off. He suspects his ex-partners got the same idea at the same time, since they were there, too. They went that route without discussing it with him, he said.

"I said, 'Well, that's my opportunity. They've got their date set, they've got their time set, they've got their venue set. The fairest thing for me to do is have an auction at the same day, same time,'" Buas said. "I think I produced ... super terms for the buyers to try to persuade them to come to my auction."

Buas, the original landowner, said what he got wasn't what he expected in 2005, when construction began and the market was hot hot hot. But he didn't want to drag things out any longer. The first sale in the 60-condo complex closed four years ago. Before the market tanked, he had thought he'd be done and on to new things by the end of 2006.

"I think the auction reflected on the market," Buas said. "I think they were fair-market prices."

Spann said the simultaneous auctions held back on his attendance. But because his buyers could bid online, "we did have more activity than usual on our Internet," he said. "Also, a lot of people had somebody at each auction -- a husband at one, a wife at the other."

Did it matter, in the end, that the auctions went off at the same time?

"The Ocean City market is deep enough that even when something like that happens, there were plenty of buyers," Spann said. "All I'm going to say about that is I'm glad that's over with."

He knows the other side is saying its buyers got a better deal. He declined to join in with some nanny-nanny-boo-booing of his own.

"It's not the way to do things," he said.

Anyone go? What did you think?

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

March 5, 2010

What rights should renters have?

A new report in Montgomery County asks the government to tip the rental balance of power more toward tenants than things currently stand -- including a cap on rent increases.

The Montgomery County Tenants Work Group, appointed by the county executive after renters advocated for improvements to their lot, is in favor of a law that would "maintain reasonable and predictable rent increases."

"Tenants who move for reasons of greater affordability report that they cannot anticipate remaining in a rental unit or complex for more than one or two years, due to the unpredictable nature of rent increases," the group writes in its report. "More than 43 percent of renters in the Renter Satisfaction Survey [commissioned by the group] reported that they are not confident that they will be able to afford to live in Montgomery County in the future."

In that survey, almost 20 percent of renters said their annual rent increases topped 7 percent. About half said their annual rent increases were in the 4 to 7 percent range.

The group, in case you're wondering, includes renters, renter advocates, government officials and two people representing the landlord point of view -- a property manager and an Apartment and Office Building Association representative. (UPDATE: The Apartment and Office Building Association notes that it, the property manager and the county officials didn't vote on the recommendations -- those were made by the renters.)

Takoma Park already has a rent stabilization law, the group notes. (New York is probably the city best known for its controls on rent increases.)

UPDATE: The Apartment and Office Building Association's W. Shaun Pharr takes issue with the idea. In a statement this morning, he said: "Rent control is a failed social and housing policy that has been outlawed in 34 states because of the damage it causes to a community's housing stock by discouraging investment in rental housing." 

I thought this might spark discussion among Baltimore renters -- and landlords. What do you think of the recommendation?

The tenant group, by the way, suggests that any law include an allowance "for renters to contribute reasonable additional payments beyond the cost of rent to cover the cost of unit improvement."

Other suggestions from the group:

--"The required 60-day notice that landlords must give tenants regarding rent increases should be extended to 90 days."

--"Pass a 'just-cause' eviction law in Montgomery County, which would only allow for evictions for reasons that would be specified under the law, such as delinquent payment; criminal activity involving the tenant, on the property; substantial damage to the rental unit; or a move by the owner to permanently remove the unit from the rental market so they or a family member might occupy it."

--"A majority of the tenants (51 percent) must vote to approve a condo conversion."

It's tough economic times for everyone, apartment owners not excepted., one of the apartment-search sites out there, says average rent decreased about 4 percent in Baltimore in the last six months -- a $40 drop.

"Difficulties in the real estate market didn't push as many people into apartments as the industry would have expected," founder Rick Ferris said in a statement. "Increases in families renting instead of buying were offset by existing renters taking on roommates or moving back with parents."

The company's figure is based off advertised prices. I'm curious if anyone's personally experiencing a rent drop, from the tenant or landlord side of things. Or a big rent increase, for that matter.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (21)
Categories: Landlording, Renting

March 4, 2010

Baltimore still on firm's 'lowest performing' list

As a number of metro areas post home-price gains, the Baltimore market is still declining, a real estate data firm says in a new report.

Prices were down 3.4 percent vs. a year ago and 1.8 percent compared with the previous quarter, Clear Capital said.  The quarter-over-quarter drop ranks our metro area among the "lowest performing major markets" -- 13th. (No. 1 on that list is Columbus, with a 10.5 percent quarter-over-quarter decline. Ouch.)

The biggest gainer was Providence, R.I., up more than 6 percent quarter over quarter. But the gainers and decliners averaged out for the nation as a whole, which posted flat prices, Clear Capital said.

This isn't the first time we've been on the big-decline list. The upside -- if you're a homeowner -- is that the year-over-year price drop isn't as large now as it was at the end of last year.

Clear Capital also says bank-owned property isn't a growing part of the Baltimore-area housing market. Those types of homes add up to 15 percent of the market, same as at the end of last year. The share is edging up in a lot of other major metro areas. The Baltimore market was the only one in the lowest-performing group that didn't go that direction.

There's been a lot of discussion about the "shadow inventory" of foreclosures or soon-to-be-foreclosures that haven't hit the market. Clear Capital, in a nod to this concern, says the market isn't glutted yet, "hinting that the banks are being very circumspect in how they release inventory."

That's got to be a relief to some homeowners. But others here have argued that it's artificially inflating prices -- and extending the slump -- by holding back true supply. Where do you stand?

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. Its most recent "quarter" is actually four months rather than three -- ending in February. In order to include recent numbers, which come from data that can be incomplete, the company throws in an extra month of sales for balance.

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

March 3, 2010

A timeline for home buyers who want the tax credit

Intending to snag the $8,000 tax credit for first-time buyers or the $6,500 credit for repeat buyers? If you haven't done anything except think about what you'd do with the dough, -- the official site of the National Association of Realtors -- suggests you get a move on.

You have through April 30 to sign a binding contract and can wait until June 30 to close the deal. But that's less than two months left to get pre-qualified for a mortgage and find a good place.

Now, far be it from me to tell you when you should buy. Buy now, later or never, whatever suits you. But here's the timeline recommends if you want the tax credit and would like to avoid squeaking in at the last minute.

Immediately: Get pre-qualified for that mortgage. Shop around, make sure you understand all the terms and think carefully about what you can comfortably afford -- even in these more restricted times, it might be less than what a lender is willing to shell out to you.

By the middle of March: This is when suggests you find (what else?) a Realtor. Some buyers choose to work alone, of course, but either way you'll want to check out listings online to get a sense of what you can get for your money. (Or, at least, what sellers want you to offer.)

March 22th: Start going out to see houses. suggests this date with the assumption that you'll want four weeks to look and then a few days to get under contract. But it notes that "the shorter amount of time you take for house-hunting, the more time you allow to be under contract just in case something goes wrong." That's why it recommends that you actually get that contract in place by ...

April 1: Because if you have a contract at this point, you've got time to adjust if something goes wrong. Not to mention wiggle room for the home inspection, appraisal and other particulars. Appraisals can take as much as a month, says.

This might seem obvious, but don't rush to buy because of the $8,000 (or $6,500) and figure the actual house itself is secondary. Purchase in haste, repent in leisure.

Are you just getting started? What's your personal deadline for getting under contract?

And you folks who got the $8,000 when the deadline was Nov. 30: How much time did you allow?

March 2, 2010

Thinking like a statistician ... to avoid disaster


Photo of Kaiser Fung courtesy of McGraw-Hill


Kaiser Fung suggests that everyone think like a statistician, and he's not just saying that because he happens to be one. Fung, author of the new book Numbers Rule Your World: The Hidden Influence of Probabilities and Statistics on Everything You Do, says you'll be better positioned in life if you pay attention to numbers -- and more importantly, to what the numbers really mean.

I figured you folks would be amenable to this point of view. Here's more from our recent Q&A:

Q. Why should Americans care about economic statistics? What impact do they have on people's lives?

I think the recent downturn is sort of a great example of that ... especially if you’re nearing or about to enter retirement. We kind of can see that this kind of very deep recession will basically make or break your retirement. So if you think about the fact that the housing bubble and the credit bubble was all out there for us to see, in terms of the statistics, if you hadn’t paid attention and you kept a lot of your money in stock-related investments, then you’re in deep trouble. So it really is a very important thing.

Q. What's your take on housing numbers, from home sales to prices to foreclosures?

I’m not an economist, so I’m going to focus more on how a statistician will look at these numbers. One is, it’s very important to distinguish between aggregated averages and local averages. This happens to be a subject I cover in a chapter of my book, which is, should we be looking at one overall average or should we be looking at a lot of averages?

If you look at foreclosure, it’s certainly not hitting the country evenly. Some places, California, Florida and so forth, are much worse hit. So if you just look at national numbers, they’re not going to mean much to you. Same with house prices. … The fact that there’s so much disparity in these numbers ... tells us that we really need to identify what’s the right set of numbers to consider.

The other thing is, we really should pay attention to what’s the incentive for the different players that could be driving these numbers. If you take foreclosures: Do the banks really want to foreclose on people these days? Because every foreclosure is essentially a loan gone bad, and they’re going to have to take losses on their books. Could it be that the foreclosure numbers are severely under-reported? … Thinking behind what the numbers mean is something that someone who has a sense of statistical thinking would be able to do well.

Q. All things considered, then, are these numbers painting an accurate picture of the housing market?

I think the numbers are what they are. It’s the interpretation of the numbers which really matter. If you look at the foreclosure numbers and you realize what the incentives are, you might want to think that the extent of the problem is really hidden. That the numbers give us a false sense of security, even though they’re pretty bad. In reality, it could be worse. ... And that’s why it’s even more important to be able to interpret these numbers and just not take them at the face value.

Q. Think like a statistician, eh?

Yeah, that’s sort of the gist of my book, which is that there are some very basic concepts in statistics that [don't] really require advanced mathematics or anything for everyone to grasp. And if we’re able to think in that way, we’ll actually be much better positioned to interpret the numbers. ...

Daniel Kahneman, who was the founder of behavioral economics, ... also did a lot of research on statistical thinking. What he found is, it's a completely unnatural way of thinking. Our brains are not wired like that. It takes a conscious effort to switch to that mode of thinking. So it’s important to know when to switch.

Q. What should people be paying attention to? That statistics can be squishy?

The main issue I would say has less to do with the squishiness of the numbers themselves but rather ... unfortunate interpretations, missed interpretations of the numbers. And I think the housing bubble is the biggest example of these things having a gigantic impact on our lives.

If you just look at the housing statistics, the build-up of the bubble is very hard ... to miss. At that point in time, whether you’re looking at mortgage debt or housing prices, there is this hockey-stick phenomenon that is all over the place. We have not seen such numbers for a very, very long period of time. But our government unfortunately was staring at the same numbers as a lot of private economists and they came to the conclusion that this is a natural growth and it’s not anything to worry about. And that interpretation has consequences that we are living with and will still live with for many, many years.

At an individual level, if you think about the investors in, say, Bernie Madoff’s fund, that’s a problem too. If they were to pay a lot more attention to the statements they were shown -- and some people did pay attention to them -- they were able to uncover anomalies.

It’s an interesting thing. The reason why the numbers themselves are generally not the problem is it’s usually difficult to fake numbers. The reason for that is that if we think about the economic statistics, they’re all linked to each other in some way. If you try to fake some numbers and you’re changing the relationship to certain statistics, … it’s not hard to uncover that something fishy is going on. It’s much easier to misinterpret the information by either cherry-picking things [or] ... changing the baseline of what you’re talking about.

A common thing that happens is, people will say, ‘Oh, this particular retailer is now doing really well because its same-store sales growth beat expectations by 1 percent.’ That may be in the headline. But if you look into the paragraph itself, it might say its same-store sales growth dropped 5 percent and people expected it to drop 6 percent. … That’s called shifting the baseline. ... An overarching thing we have to be careful about is, are we getting the numbers to fit a story, or are we letting the numbers tell a story?

Q. Lies, damned lies and statistics?

Most of us believe that the numbers themselves don’t lie. It’s the people who are either lying to themselves or misinterpreting the information for others.

Q. Which is why people should become their own interpreters?

For numbers you think will really affect major decisions in your life, you definitely should look at the numbers yourself. And if you were to rely on other people, make sure you understand what the motivations are of the people interpreting the numbers. If you were to … watch CNBC or Bloomberg or any of these channels, most of the people who are talking are actually inside the industry and they may have a reason to either say good things or bad things about whatever number they’re looking at. Without first thinking about what their underlying motivations are, it will be very difficult to interpret the interpretation.

It’s really not just about the numbers. It’s about the people who are using these numbers.

Q. What else should people keep in mind?

There’s really no such thing as true statistics, as in 100 percent accurate. Ultimately, every statistic is based on a sample. So we have to pay attention to how big these samples are, how these samples are selected. But there never will be a true number that can be uncovered.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Q&A

March 1, 2010

Neighborhood-improvement brainstorming

If you were king for a day (or mayor), what would you change in your neighborhood to improve things?

Amid the outpouring of Canton love and hate in the last week, some readers offered up their suggestions. Particularly about parking.

"Many of the wide streets in Canton could have their parallel parking converted into angled parking, which would add several spaces to each block," wrote JB. "Some streets could even be changed to one way and then have angled parking on one or both sides. The city could add hundreds of parking spots to Canton by doing this."

Sherry, a Canton resident who often spends 15 minutes just looking for parking when she gets home from work, thinks head-in parking on wide streets would help, as would a garage. "So would making it easier for homeowners to turn back yards into parking spaces," she commented. "Or painting parking space lines on curb/street to encourage people to park less than 5 feet from the car in front or behind them."

I'm interested to hear what you think is the top fixable problem in your neighborhood, and how you'd fix it. (Extra points if the fix doesn't cost millions of dollars.)

Headroom, another commenter on the Canton post, had a suggestion about how to get suggestions implemented: "I would encourage old and new residents to get involved and start talking to one another, advocating for mutually helpful things, like street/parking rules and better transit. ... Get involved with your elected officials by emailing, writing or attending meetings. They really do listen."

Headroom added, "Most people don't do these things because it takes time. It's easier to stew and shout."

So true.

Foreclosure-help event next Saturday

Looking for a foreclosure-prevention event to attend? There's one in Columbia next Saturday, March 6. Housing counselors, pro bono attorneys, loan servicers and government agencies are all expected.

The event is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Bridgeway Community Church, 9189 Red Branch Rd. More details -- including documents to bring -- noted on this PDF flyer.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Foreclosure help
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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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