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May 29, 2010

A thumbs-up to renting

What's better, renting or owning?

Three-quarters of Americans surveyed for a National Apartment Association poll say renting -- "in the current real estate market," at least. Reasons noted by respondents: no responsibility for maintenance, no exposure to the "unpredictable" housing market and "not being susceptible to foreclosure." (Renters can be affected by foreclosure, of course -- if their landlord loses the property they're renting -- but their credit report won't be.)

The survey, conducted by pollster Harris Interactive, is a shift from how people responded when asked in 2008, at a time of falling home sales and prices. Slightly fewer people thought renting was preferable that year.

Of course, Fannie Mae also has a poll. It says that 64 percent of Americans believe it's a good time to buy a house.


OK, it's probably no surprise that a poll commissioned by a trade group for apartment owners shows a proclivity toward renting, while a poll handled for a mortgage financier suggests lots o' housing-market love.

So here, weigh in on a poll just for you:

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

May 28, 2010

When 'where do you live' has a multitude of answers

I asked you all how you answer the question "where do you live," and Mike D's response made me grin:

It depends on how familiar the person is with Baltimore, these are terms I've used in the past:
"Downtown... well... technically it's MIDtown."
"North of the Harbor"
"Mount Vernon" (This is what most residents in the area say anyway.)
"Mount Vernon... well... technically just outside Mount Vernon."
"Midtown-Belvedere" - "Where's that?" - "Near the Belvedere Hotel." - "Oh... You mean that's not Mount Vernon?" - "Technically? Nope."
Most often, I just default to, "Near Penn Station."
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 3:11 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Comment of the day, Neighborhood and neighbors

What neighborhood is this, anyway?

Baltimore has more than 225 neighborhoods packed into 81 square miles. Darn hard to remember them all, let alone know with certainty which one an address falls into.

But it's easy once you've discovered Baltimore City iMap. Just plug in the address, hit "locate" and it'll spit out the neighborhood name -- along with the council district, trash pickup days, zoning and other useful information.

I was reminded of this yesterday when a reader asked if a property was actually in Hollins Market (it was), and I couldn't think of why I hadn't passed this tidbit along earlier.

Other places offer neighborhood details, including this city government page and Live Baltimore. And you can see how all the neighborhoods fit together if you check out this map. But sometimes you just want to know if that "stunning FEDERAL HILL home!!" is really in Riverside, or if the apartment you're renting is in Mount Vernon or Midtown Belvedere, and that's where a site like iMap comes in handy.

On that note: Do you know what neighborhood you live in (city or suburb)? Do you name it when people ask where you live, or do you go for something broader ("I'm in Northeast Baltimore") or squishier ("I'm near the airport")?

Do you think your neighborhood is a selling point?

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

May 27, 2010

CSI: Mortgage banking

Mistakes were made in the run-up that ended with the housing market falling off a cliff -- that we know. Many mistakes by many people.

The Mortgage Bankers Association, aware that the finger of blame is often pointed toward its industry, commissioned Cliff Rossi with the University of Maryland to lay out the key lending problems in hopes that they don't get repeated down the road.

Rossi, managing director of UM's Center on Financial Policy and Corporate Governance, was once chief credit officer at Washington Mutual and chief risk officer at Countrywide Bank -- which both crashed headlong into the foreclosure crisis -- so he can speak from experience. Before that, he worked for Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, the Treasury Department and the Office of Thrift Supervision.

He argues in the new report that the trend toward selling off the loans you originated, happily divesting yourself of any cares about the results, was not by itself to blame for "fueling excessive risk taking."

"The fact that many large mortgage portfolio lenders expanded their held-for-investment portfolios and retained large positions in senior tranches of mortgage securities before the crisis, and afterward experienced heavy credit losses suggests that other forces were at work beyond the originate-to-distribute model," he writes in the study.

Those forces, in his opinion, include the tempting "higher margin potential" of exotic products such as option ARMs and home equity lines of credit, the false sense of security created by booming home prices and the impossibility of judging risk correctly when you have no idea how much money the borrower you just gave $400,000 to is actually making. (See "Loans, no doc.")

"The development of new products and the expansion of risk parameters on existing products came at perhaps the worst time," Rossi writes. "With virtually no historical experience with these new risk combinations and that which existed largely coming from a benign economic environment,
risk models would have little hope to accurately reflect expected loss, let alone loss levels during an extreme event such as the financial crisis."

So what's the solution? Among other things, "it will be essential for the industry to develop early warning measures of the level of risk in new originations and less reliance on imprecise historical performance of new loan products," he says.

How does this match up with your sense of mortgage mistakes and needed corrections?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Mortgages, The foreclosure mess

May 26, 2010

How Md. benefits from the mortgage-interest deduction

Marylanders get good use out of the federal tax deduction for mortgage interest. Thirty-eight percent of taxpayer returns from the state claimed it in 2008 -- the largest share in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation.

The average nationwide, by contrast, was 27 percent. North Dakota residents were at the other extreme, with just 15 percent of taxpayers claiming the sweetener for borrowers.

The average amount deducted by Marylanders getting the tax break was nearly $14,200, fifth highest in the nation. (The U.S. average was $12,200, but nearly half the states were below $10,000 -- the average was pulled up by the higher-deduction places.)

Tax Foundation Chief Economist Patrick Fleenor wrote in the new report that high-income states tend to have higher deductions.

"In those states, people leverage their incomes to take out huge loans for expensive homes," he wrote. "The large monthly mortgage payments that result are, with frequent refinancing, mostly interest payments, not payments on principal. This maximizes the amount deducted, and since these same high-income people are thrust into a higher marginal tax bracket by the federal income tax's progressive rate structure, the deduction saves them substantially more."

The Tax Foundation takes a dim view of the tax deduction.

"Sound tax policy dictates that interest payments be deductible only when they are incurred to produce taxable income, such as those resulting from a small business loan," Fleenor wrote in the report. "Mortgage interest on a principal residence doesn't meet this requirement, but a special exception was carved out at the inception of the income tax in 1913, and the mortgage interest deduction has become one of the largest and most sacrosanct loopholes in the tax code."

These are the states where filers claimed the largest deductions:

1. California ($18,876)

2. Hawaii ($16,730)

3. Nevada ($15,502)

4. Washington state ($14,262)

5. Maryland ($14,162)

6. Virginia ($14,094)

7. Arizona ($13,616)

8. Florida ($13,375)

9. Colorado ($13,300)

10. New Jersey ($13,215)

In case you're wondering why 27 percent of American taxpayers are claiming the mortgage-interest tax deduction even though many more own homes: Some have paid off their mortgages, so they don't qualify. Others, the Tax Foundation notes, "live in low-cost homes for which the deduction isn't large enough to make a tax difference, so they don't itemize deductions on their tax returns."

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

May 25, 2010

Foreclosures and short sales in the Baltimore market

Four out of every 10 homes sold in Baltimore City during the first four months of the year were distress deals -- foreclosures or short sales.

That's a lot of distress working its way through the housing market.

The numbers come from an analysis of Metropolitan Regional Information Systems data by the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, a slice of which appeared in my mortgage delinquency story last week. I thought you might be interested to see more of these stats.

Foreclosures were significantly more popular among buyers than short sales, which isn't surprising given the uncertainty about how long banks will take to respond to short-sale offers. (The "short" in "short sale" refers to selling for less than the mortgage balance, not a nod to the time involved.) Across the Baltimore metro area, 23 percent of homes sold in the first four months of the year were foreclosures, compared with short sales at 8 percent.

It's an even bigger difference in the city. Foreclosures accounted for 35 percent of sales; short sales were 6 percent. (I'm assuming that interest in city foreclosures as real estate investments is driving those numbers.)

Here's a really interesting finding:

Foreclosures made up a much smaller part of the market that was for sale at the end of April than their share of the solds in the first four months of the year. Fewer available at the height of the spring market than beforehand? Or are buyers snapping up foreclosures while non-distress sales languish?

Whichever, foreclosures were 5 percent of the Baltimore region's active listings at the end of April, vs. 23 percent of the sales from January through April. (Short sales, by contrast, were 10 percent of the active listings and 8 percent of sales -- pretty close.)

Here's the breakdown of foreclosure sales as a percentage of the total market in 2009 vs. the first four months of 2010, which shows an unmistakable trend:

Anne Arundel County: 10 percent // 19 percent

Baltimore City: 22 percent // 35 percent

Baltimore County: 11 percent // 19 percent

Carroll County: 10 percent // 17 percent

Harford County: 10 percent // 23 percent

Howard County: 8 percent // 15 percent

The Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors also looked at Prince George's County, just for perspective. That's one of the state's foreclosure hot spots. In 2009, foreclosures accounted for 34 percent of home sales. In the first four months of this year? Up to 54 percent.


There's a great deal of debate about what will happen to the homeowners currently trying to avoid foreclosure. John Burns Real Estate Consulting, a housing-market research firm, expects that most loan modifications won't succeed long-term.

With that in mind, the company has estimated the "shadow inventory" -- currently struggling borrowers whose homes will become future foreclosures -- at 53,000 in the Baltimore metro area. That's 14 months of supply, assuming a sales pace that matches the 10-year average, said Wayne Yamano, a vice president at the company.

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

May 24, 2010

A $25,000-plus incentive for foreclosure buyers

If you're going to buy a short sale, foreclosure or abandoned home in parts of Baltimore, you could be eligible for a $25,000 incentive.

A consortium led by Healthy Neighborhoods Inc. has $26 million in federal money to try to keep the foreclosure crisis from destabilizing neighborhoods, and it's planning to give some of it to buyers intending to reoccupy these homes.

The $25,000 starts out as a loan, with half of it converting to a grant over 10 years. The rest is paid back when you sell -- assuming the home's value increased.

If it didn't, "we will write off the mortgage so it doesn't get in the way of resale," said Mark Sissman, president of Healthy Neighborhoods.

Certain parts of certain neighborhoods are eligible: Belair-Edison, Better Waverly, Coldstream Homestead Montebello, Ednor Gardens-Lakeside, Reservoir Hill, Patterson Park/McElderry Park and Barclay/Old Goucher. Where, exactly, comes down to census tracts -- see here for more details.

The incentive is larger in Reservoir Hill -- "could be as much as six figures," Sissman said. "There will be loan-to-value issues there. It will simply cost more to buy and renovate than most banks will lend. It's the difference between a 1,200-square-foot house in Patterson Park and a 3,000-square-foot house in Reservoir Hill."

Like the home buyer tax credit, this incentive has income limits:

One-person household: $69,000

Two-person household:$78,840

Three-person household: $88,680

Four-person household: $98,520

Five-person household: $106,440

(Got a bigger family? See more income-limit numbers here.)

The money is part of the second round of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, an effort to get foreclosures occupied again. Healthy Neighborhoods is setting aside just over $1 million for these buyer loan/grants, enough for about 40 purchases.

The rest of the money is earmarked for groups that will buy foreclosures, rehab them and sell them, but Sissman said Healthy Neighborhoods will move more money into the $25,000-incentive pot if it proves popular.

"The competition for these buildings is typically with investors," he said. "This creates a way for homeowners ... to compete with money in hand."

Healthy Neighborhoods selected the geography of eligibility by looking for census tracts with foreclosure troubles in neighborhoods it works in. The second round of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program funding was competitive, so the nonprofit needed to show that the money was -- well -- needed.

The condition of these homes varies quite a bit. Sissman expects that some are in good shape and don't need work. Some, particularly in Patterson Park, were bought by investors who got partially into a rehab before giving up. And some need a complete makeover.

Healthy Neighborhoods will be holding meetings in June to explain the program.

"It's a great opportunity to continue stabilizing the housing market, and giving people a chance to buy," Sissman said.

Does this program interest you, buyers? The first iteration of the first-time home buyer tax credit was essentially a loan, and the market reaction was "meh." But that was $7,500, and all of it had to be paid back over 15 years.

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

May 23, 2010

Neighbors put up savings to snag key Patterson Park building



Have you ever seen a problem in your neighborhood and said, "Someone ought to do something"?

In Patterson Park, residents organized to do it themselves.

Here's the story about how four individuals and two couples pooled their money to buy a key commercial building in the Baltimore neighborhood, sitting vacant now but once a community gathering spot. They're on the hook for about $400,000, including closing costs and some other incidentals.

It's the former headquarters of the Patterson Park Community Development Corp., which reversed blight by rehabbing hundreds of homes but couldn't survive the housing bust. The restaurant Three..., which rented the ground floor, is also gone.

The CDC's demise isn't good neighborhood news. It puts many more homes on the market at an already tough time for sellers. It requires a change of ownership for the CDC's rental properties, which makes residents anxious. It removes a paid staff whose mission was neighborhood improvement.

But residents decided they weren't going to simply let events unfold as they may. Neighbors' decision to buy the CDC headquarters -- to keep the ownership hyper-local and have control over the building's use -- is the latest example. (Getting a contract on the building took several tries. Here's a piece about their first attempt.)

This isn't the only time that Baltimore residents have put up significant money in the name of neighborhood improvement or preservation. So tell me, good folks: What have you seen in your neighborhood (or other neighborhoods) that impresses you?

May 22, 2010

Tax-credit deadline passes, mortgage applications swoon

You didn't need to wait long for a sign of what the end of the home buyer tax credit program means: Mortgage applications by buyers fell 27 percent last week -- following a 10 percent drop the week before -- to their lowest level in 13 years.

"The data continue to suggest that the tax credit pulled sales into April at the expense of the remainder of the spring buying season," Michael Fratantoni, the Mortgage Bankers Association's vice president of research and economics, said in a statement this week.

It's been mostly downhill for new-purchase mortgage applications since 2005, as this chart shows, but the figures did spike last fall (when the credit was originally set to expire) and again more recently.

Refinance applications did rise nearly 15 percent last week as homeowners tried to take advantage of dropping mortgage rates. (Refi requests accounted for two-thirds of all applications.) The average interest rate for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage was about 4.8 percent that week.

As columnist Eileen Ambrose notes, experts are thanking/blaming fears about financial instability in Greece for the low U.S. mortgage rates. Investors, seeing U.S. Treasuries as a safer bet than European debt, are parking their money there, "and the demand pushed down long-term interest rates that influence the 30-year fixed rate mortgage," Ambrose writes.

Financial publisher HSH Associates says the downward trend has continued: "After setting 2010 lows last week, mortgage rates managed another downshift this week and are once again near historic -- approximately 50-year -- lows."

Any deep thoughts to share on rates or the pipeline of future buyers?

May 21, 2010

Priciest suburban Baltimore places to live


Baltimore Sun file photo


Some weeks back, we presented the most expensive city neighborhoods -- as ranked by 2009 home sale price -- for your edification and pontification. Left out of the fun were the Baltimore 'burbs, which are of course more pricey in general.

So let's remedy that. Right now.

Can you guess the suburban community (as in ZIP code) with the highest average sale price last year? (For that matter, can you guess No. 7, which is pictured above?)

Read on for answers and a link to the brand-new photo gallery, put together by editor extraordinaire Liz Hacken.

The priciest: Glenwood in Howard County, weighing in at $790,000.

Most of the highest-average-price communities are in Howard, including the one in the photo above (Highland, at No. 7 -- $643,000).

See them all in the photo gallery here, which includes the top-priced city neighborhoods as well.

As I always do when I compare ZIP codes based on Metropolitan Regional Information Systems data, I only looked at the communities with at least five sales. (Actually, they had to have had at least five sales in 2008 and 2009 each, since this ranking was pulled from an analysis of the change between the years.)

Average sale prices can't necessarily tell you where the region's absolutely most expensive houses are. Perhaps the most expensive houses weren't on the market last year. Perhaps they were and didn't sell.

But it gives you a general idea, and it's fun for anyone with lookyloo tendencies. (So is the "top properties" gallery.)

If you're sick of looking at mansions, check out the hidden-gem neighborhoods for more affordably priced examples of Baltimore-area living. (It comes complete with a huge photo gallery of its own.)

Oh, and if you're interested in holding forth on your own neck of the woods, don't forget My Neighborhood 'Tis of Thee. We've had people sharing in both words and photos, which is great. (The My Neighborhood 'Tis of Thee photo gallery is here.)

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

May 20, 2010

Where the foreclosure crisis goes from here

Which way do you see the national foreclosure drama headed: Getting better? Or worse?

There was grist for both arguments in the first-quarter Mortgage Bankers Association numbers, released Wednesday.

On the one hand, Maryland's total delinquencies fell compared with the fourth quarter -- coming at a time when job numbers started growing again. The "but" waiting to strike at that bit of good news is that first-quarter delinquencies almost always fall compared with the fourth quarter, as some borrowers catch up from budgetary hits at the end of the year such as first heating bills. (An exception: Last year, when delinquencies rose in defiance of trends.)

On the "getting worse" side, Maryland homeowners whose lenders have started foreclosure proceedings now total 4 percent of all borrowers -- a record. The state's increase in foreclosure starts was one of the largest in the nation.

Of course, there's a "but" there, too. Mediation legislation was wending its way through the General Assembly during the first quarter, so some of that rise could be lenders deciding to start foreclosure proceedings with long-delinquent borrowers before anything took effect.

The Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, meanwhile, crunched sales numbers to see how much of the market is bank-owned properties and short sales. It's significant. Check it out in today's mortgage delinquency story.

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

May 19, 2010

A warning for borrowers

Here's a word to the wise from colleague Scott Calvert, who had an unnerving borrower experience recently that could easily happen to anyone:
The other morning I got an alarming call from my insurance agent. He said my homeowner’s policy was 10 days away from being canceled. Why? Because the mortgage company hadn’t paid the premium, something I thought was an automatic process that didn’t require any action, or thought, on my part. Needless to say, I had to get this straightened out right away.

As soon as my agent shared the news, a little light bulb went off. My mortgage had been bought a few months earlier by another mortgage company. Maybe, I figured, there had been an oversight in the handover. Indeed, that’s more or less what happened. I raced home, where I happened to have a cancellation letter waiting in the mail. Then I called the new mortgage company and to my surprise got a human being on the line in seconds. She told me there was no automatic provision for the premium to be paid. Apparently, my new mortgage company’s “welcome letter” told me this, but I had neglected to read that letter.

Fortunately this was an easy problem to fix. The woman at the mortgage company gave me a fax number where the agent could send the insurance bill, and my agent sent off the fax. The woman at the company assured me the premium would be paid well before the cancellation date. (I’ll be checking.) And not to worry, she said, my property tax payments would be paid automatically.

To me the obvious lesson is this: Double-check that the mortgage company pays the homeowner’s premium (and property taxes) from escrow, particularly if the mortgage trades hands, as commonly happens these days. And take a minute to read all welcome letters, no matter how boilerplate-y they seem.

Thanks very much for sharing, Scott. Glad the problem seems to be on the mend.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Mortgages

May 18, 2010

Searching for a home with schools in mind

Schools are usually a factor when parents go house-hunting. Sometimes that's No. 1, as in, "I'm not buying a place if it's not in XYZ school district."

Vermont-based Maponics wants to make it easier to see if the homes that interest you are inside the attendance boundaries of the public schools you like.

The company announced today that it has school-boundary data for the largest U.S. metro areas, including Baltimore, and expects to have every part of the country covered in a year. It's up to their customers to decide how to integrate the data, but you could start seeing it on real estate search sites in about a month. (Maponics' clients include Google, Trulia and Zillow.)

Here's an example of what it looks like: 



Darrin Clement, chief executive of Maponics, said he knows of no other firm that's put together school boundary maps across the country. He thinks the data will change the way people shop for homes.

"It comes down to ease," he said. "Right now, imagine you've got a kid in elementary school and a kid in middle school and a kid in high school, and you're going to move to Baltimore. You know a few of the neighborhoods that are called good neighborhoods, a few schools that are good schools, and you want to potentially find those properties that are in that overlap of good schools for each of your kids and good neighborhoods. And they're not always the same. Could you find that information now? Yeah, with days of research."

What the Maponics data will allow users to do is "turn on boundaries and filter out homes that don't fit your criteria," Clement said. "You're talking an hour of research. Maybe less."

The company thought about doing this years ago but held off because it's so costly. Gathering all the information once is labor-intensive enough, and then you have to keep updating it because some school districts change their boundaries frequently.

"We decided last year, finally, that this was something we were committed to," Clement said.

What do you think, folks?

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

May 17, 2010

Do you have a foreclosure-avoidance success story?

There's lots of foreclosure woe out there. But one group is hoping to hear success stories.

If you avoided foreclosure, mortgage financier Fannie Mae would like to share your experience on a new foreclosure-prevention website it's launching.

It's soliciting stories of a variety of foreclosure alternatives -- loan modification, short sale, deed in lieu, etc. -- as a way of offering encouragement to homeowners looking for a way out.

Contact Kindall Rende at if you're interested in participating.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:05 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Foreclosure help, The foreclosure mess

All hail home maintenance (emphasis on "hail")



Mr. Wonk and I got through Snowmageddon without any damage to the parts of our condo that we're responsible for, but Mother Nature intended us for a later drubbing. I came home from work Friday to that discover that hail -- hail, for Pete's sake -- had flattened flowers and left holes in  window screens across the neighborhood.

I'm not kidding. Here, have a look at one of ours:



It never occurred to me that hail could do that sort of damage. But then, it was pretty sizable hail:



Immediate home maintenance was required. I had thoughts of pulling out the screen, frame and all, and taking it somewhere for repair. Mr. Wonk, who is handier, pointed out that he had all the necessary tools to repair it himself: new screening and a spline roller. ("Spline" is the black rubber strip that keeps the screening in the frame.)



fix.JPG calls screen repair "among the simplest of jobs," but hey -- I was impressed. I didn't even realize we had a spline roller.

Did anyone else take any damage from the hail?

What's the worst that weather has ever done to your home?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Home maintenance, Weather

May 16, 2010

The home buyer tax credit effect

I'm sure this wouldn't be true of a scientific poll given to truly random people, but more than 80 percent of you Wonk readers say the home buyer tax credit had some impact on you.

The most popular answer: "I tried to buy before the deadline but couldn't because so many others had the same idea." (One in four people said that applied to them.)

Next, with 21 percent of the vote, were the folks who got the credit already or qualified and will be getting it.

Seventeen percent of you said you've been purposely waiting to buy until after the credit expired.

No homeowner said they've been purposely waiting to sell, but 12 percent picked this option: "I tried to sell before the deadline but wasn't able to."

Only a small handful said they sold to a buyer getting the credit, including those who turned around and got the $6,500 repeat-buyer credit. (A lot more first-time buyers took the poll than sellers.)

About 19 percent of polled folks said the credit had absolutely no effect on them.

Of course, I forgot to include another option: "Sure, it's having an effect on me -- it's having an effect on us all because that's taxpayer money they're handing out." Sorry about that. An answer along those lines was a fairly popular choice in an earlier poll.

While we're on the subject of the tax credit: Kenneth Harney had a recent column warning folks not to blithely assume that closing by June 30 -- as the credit requires -- will be no sweat. He lists things you'll want to keep in mind, including this recommendation:

Jay Delmont, vice president of Freedmont Mortgage in Hunt Valley, Md., said home buyers who seriously want to close in time need to get the process moving with lenders immediately to avoid the late-June crush. The "main concern," Delmont said, "is that a lot of contracts are being written for a June 28-30 settlement and people need to schedule a slot" with title or escrow agencies as early as possible.

May 15, 2010

What home sellers wanted, and what they got

A few numbers that caught my interest when I took another look at the April home sale statistics from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, which tracks the Baltimore metro area:

--Average sellers got close to 92 percent of their asking price, up from 89 percent a year earlier. The increase is partly because sale prices rose slightly, and partly because sellers this year asked for a bit less.

--The dollar difference between what sellers asked for on average and what they got? $25,000.

--The average asking price vs. sales price varied a lot across the region. Baltimore City had the lowest percentage (average sellers got 88 percent of their asking price in April) and Howard County had the highest (94 percent), closely followed by Carroll (93 percent).

--The average home in the metro area that sold in April was on the market for two weeks less than the average home selling in April 2009. But it still worked out to more than three-and-a-half months waiting for a buyer.

--A third of homes that sold went in 30 days or less.

--Another third of homes were on the market more than 120 days before selling.

Any stats out there catch your eye?

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

May 14, 2010

A look at a Columbia apartment complex that doesn't exist

You've probably seen video walk-throughs of homes for sale. But what about apartments that don't yet exist?

The 3D demo above was put together to give people an idea of what a Columbia affordable-housing project will look like when the aging Guilford Gardens complex is razed and the 269-unit Monarch Mills rises in its place.

Larry Carson reported earlier this month that demolition has begun and the first new units are slated to be finished early next year. Monthly rents will range from $360 to $1,700. (The plan is a mixed-income community.)

Do you find video walk-throughs helpful? From a house- or apartment-hunting perspective, are photographs alone insufficient?

Here's an example of a video walk-through of a fixer-upper that is decidedly not affordable housing:

New York magazine put this one together -- so it's not your normal walk-through, not with an interview happening as you go. And a commercial as an appetizer.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Affordable housing, Video

May 13, 2010

Underwater-borrower numbers stabilizing

The number of people in Maryland who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth appears to be stabilizing. So says CoreLogic -- the real estate information firm formally known as First American CoreLogic -- in its latest report on the country's underwater-borrower problem.

About 23 percent of borrowers in the state were upside down on their mortgages in March, same as in December, the company said this week. The share of folks who are close to underwater also remained steady at about 5 percent.

Maryland ranked ninth-highest in the country for its percentage of homeowners with negative equity, a slight improvement over the end of last year. (Idaho worsened, overtaking us and Virginia for seventh place.)

Like Maryland, the country's negative-equity situation remained essentially unchanged overall.

"As house prices grow again and borrowers pay down their mortgage debt negative equity levels will begin to diminish," Mark Fleming, CoreLogic's chief economist, said in a statement. "The typical underwater borrower is likely to regain their lost equity over the next five to seven years."

Maryland might be in the top 10 for negative equity, but it's a far cry from the underwater leaders. Here's the list:

1. Nevada -- 70 percent of borrowers underwater

2. Arizona -- 51 percent

3. Florida -- 48 percent

4. Michigan -- 39 percent

5. California -- 34 percent

6. Georgia -- 29 percent

7. Idaho -- 23.7 percent

8. Virginia -- 23.6 percent

9. Maryland -- 23 percent

10. Utah -- 21 percent

How does CoreLogic estimate negative equity? It tracks mortgages, including junior liens such as second mortgages, and adjusts them "for amortization and home equity utilization in order to capture the true level of mortgage debt outstanding for each property." It comes up with its own estimation of value as well.

Are you occasionally (or obsessively) tracking your property value vs. your debt owed? Or do you not want to know?

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

May 12, 2010

More price reductions on Baltimore homes

More than one-third of Baltimore homes for sale have had at least one asking-price reduction over the past year, putting the city behind only Minneapolis and Milwaukee for the share of sellers decreasing their expectations, real estate search site says.

Trulia, looking at the market on May 1, found that 35 percent of the Baltimore homes for sale were not priced as high as they had been earlier. That's up from 29 percent on April 1, which could reflect last-minute cuts in hopes of interesting a buyer before the $8,000 and $6,500 home buyer tax credits expired April 30.

Baltimore's month-over-month increase in asking-price decreases -- ya follow? -- was ninth-largest in the country, Trulia said. The company ranked the 50 most populous cities and did not include foreclosures.

"With more than a year of the federal government's involvement, we are now re-entering the free market system. As we readjust to the free market, we expect to hit turbulence in some markets," Trulia CEO Pete Flint said in a statement. "We won't know the true severity of the tax credit expiration until the conclusion of the peak home buying season in the summer months. Only then will we have a better sense if the U.S. housing market can stand on its own two feet."

Here are the five cities with the biggest share of asking-price drops:

1. Minneapolis -- 40 percent of homes had asking-price reductions (average reduction: 8 percent)

2. Milwaukee -- 37 percent of homes had asking-price reductions (average reduction: 9 percent)

3. Baltimore -- 35 percent of homes had asking-price reductions (average reduction: 11 percent)

4. Phoenix, Ariz. -- 33 percent of homes had asking-price reductions (average reduction: 13 percent)

5. Dallas -- 32 percent of homes had asking-price reductions (average reduction: 9 percent)

The nationwide picture: 22 percent of homes with reductions, and a 10 percent drop on average, Trulia said.

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

May 11, 2010

Home prices plummet in Western Maryland

You'd expect to see Orlando and Las Vegas on a list of metro areas with the biggest price decreases in the last year. But Cumberland and Hagerstown?

Both Western Maryland metros had double-digit decreases in the median sale price of single-family homes during the first three months of the year, compared with a year earlier.

Here's how they rank among the 10 metro areas with the biggest drops, according to newly released data by the National Association of Realtors:

1. Orlando, Fla. (-15 percent)

2. Ocala, Fla. (-14.5 percent)

3. Cumberland, Md. (-14.4 percent)

4. Boise City, Idaho (-13.9 percent)

5. Reno, Nev. (-13.5 percent)

6. Hagerstown, Md. (-13 percent)

7. Las Vegas (-11.8 percent)

8. Glens Falls, N.Y. (-11.5 percent)

9. Salt Lake City, Utah (-11.4 percent)

10. Palm Bay, Fla. (-11 percent)

The Baltimore metro area showed a 4.4 percent decrease in median price, not nearly low enough to flirt with the bottom 10 but not average, either. Sixty percent of metro areas tracked by the Realtors showed price increases.

Cumberland, as you might recall, had some of the nation's biggest price increases through a good bit of the downturn. Whether the drop now is giveback, new foreclosures pulling down values or statistical skewing in a small market, I can't say. Any thoughts, guys?

The National Association of Realtors did note that there's more than meets the eye to big price increases in some Midwestern metro areas during the first quarter -- for instance, up 100 percent in Saginaw, Mich. The regions had "high levels of distressed homes sold at deep discounts a year ago" but "now have a more normal mix of home sales," the trade group said.

The NAR also released data showing that Maryland's home sales in the first quarter increased more than all but nine other states, compared with a year ago. The number of homes changing hands jumped 26 percent. (Maryland's been up there for a while after spending time at the other extreme.)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:50 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Housing stats

April home sales in the Baltimore area

Home sales up -- and prices too. That's something rarely seen in the same month in the Baltimore metro area for the past, oh, four years, and it happened in April as buyers rushed to get both feet in the door before the home buyer tax credit expired.

You know how investment firms warn that "past performance is no guarantee of future results"? The April housing market is that times 10, because you can't expect things to look the same on either side of a deadline for up to $8,000 in cash from Uncle Sam.

But it was certainly an interesting month. A few stats from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems:

Home sales in the metro area jumped 35 percent from a year ago.

Newly signed contracts -- future sales, if they close as planned -- ratcheted up about 50 percent.

Average sale prices inched up not quite 1 percent in the region, ranging from a 2 percent drop in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties to double-digit increases in Baltimore City and Carroll County.

Newly listed homes for sale in April topped 6,000, the most since the spring months of 2007 -- a sign that buyers weren't the only ones motivated by the deadline.

Read more in today's story, which includes a home builder with an interesting week after the deadline and a seller with unfortunate timing. (Bought a rowhouse to rehab, put it on the market in 2007 -- still waiting.)

May 10, 2010

The housing-bubble blame game

Some of you took issue with the recent suggestion by several economists that low interest rates, razor-thin down payments and gone-to-lunch lending standards are only to blame for part of the run-up in home prices during the last decade, with John Q. Homebuyer on the hook for some part as well.

Here's part of Wonk reader (and mortgage broker) Josh Dowlut's comment:

From an economic analysis and policy standpoint, it matters not that droves of people full of irrational exuberance were willing to bet it all on housing. It only matters what made those bets possible. In other words, what opened the flood gates, not why did people choose to run through them.

To that answer:

1. The Financial Modernization Act of 1999 and

2. The Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000, undid long-standing depression era safeguards and turned the banking industry into a casino (literally, the CFMA 2000 actually referenced state and federal gaming law).

These two bills of which no one is seriously talking about undoing worked together to create a system where the person and company who decided whether or not to make a loan could lay off the longterm risk on another party. That shirking of risk is what created your option ARMs, no down payment loans, and stated income loans which opened the floodgates to allow both fearful ("if I don't buy now I'll be priced out forever) and greedy (I'll leverage a 10% appreciating asset) buyers to run through.

Frank Rizzo wrote a long comment too. Here's a taste: "There is plenty of blame to go around. The financial institution, mortgage broker, real estate agent, and the appraiser all played their part. ... If banks were required to hold the loans themselves in their portfolio, you would have to think the majority of those loans NEVER would have been approved in the first place."

Mr. Raven offered a helping of blame to the Federal Reserve under Alan Greenspan and successor Ben Bernanke: "Someone has to print the money and guaranty the income or debt. These guys thought they had tamed the business cycle and could manage expectations by just printing more money."

"Little Debbie," meanwhile, wrote up a laundry list of everyone you could possibly think of and then some, tongue decidedly in cheek, with this coda: "Here's the answer: whatever ideology I spout (due, most likely to my socioeconomic circumstances) is the culprit."

Here's a question to get beyond blame: Has the system -- everything that affects the housing market -- been changed to the point that we're unlikely to end up with another housing bubble down the road? Or are we as much at risk as we were before? (Or -- gulp -- more so?)

If you could make one structural change, what would it be?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Mortgages, Quote of the day

May 9, 2010

Lots of you want the home buyer tax credit back

I suspect a lot of people who tried to buy a home by April 30 -- but couldn't -- have stopped by this blog recently. Nearly 70 percent of the folks who took this poll about the home buyer tax credit wish Congress would extend it again.

The second most popular answer, with 14 percent of the vote, was: "I wish it was never approved to begin with."

About 9 percent thought April 30 was the right time for the credit to end, 6 percent wish it had ended months ago and the remaining handful really don't care one way or another.

Reader M.R. is among those sorry that the credit expired. "In the past 3 years I got my credit score ... up over 100 points but with so many people making offers right now, once I finally got a loan approval, it was basically too late," M.R. wrote. "It does kind of suck watching everyone I know take advantage of the credit and to know I did everything I could but I wasn't able to get it."

Darwin Rules -- who thinks home prices still have a long way to fall -- suspects M.R. will be better off for waiting. "An $8K tax credit will look like peanuts compared to what you will save in another 12-18 months."

I polled you because I knew there were strong feelings on both sides of the issue, not because I think an extension is likely. The key proponent of the extension last fall was Sen. Johnny Isakson, and his office reiterated on April 30 that he's not in favor of another round.

Here's a follow-up poll for curiosity's sake:

May 8, 2010

What's really to blame for the housing bubble

Amidst all the arguing over the future of the housing market, you would be excused for thinking that the past -- specifically, what caused the bubble -- is crystal clear.

Au contraire, several economists say.

Way low interest rates, down payments and lending requirements? Those can only explain part of the price run-up, according to a new policy brief by Edward Glaeser, Joshua Gottlieb and Joseph Gyourko, the former two of Harvard and the latter with the University of Pennsylvania.

They argue that interest rates alone probably account for just a 10 percent increase in price between 2000 and 2006, a small portion of the value escalation in many metro areas.

To wit:

Theoretical and empirical analyses suggest that neither interest rates, nor downpayment requirements, nor approval rates moved enough over the past decade to generate the magnitude of price changes that parts of the United States experienced. Moreover, other standard explanations for rising housing prices, like rising incomes, also fail to explain much of the price volatility. Using the standard toolkit of the empirical economist, we are unable to offer much of an explanation for what happened.

Perhaps UFOs were involved somehow. Or pixies.

Or, wait, perhaps it was good ol' human nature:

"We do believe that faulty expectations played some role in what happened," the authors write.

They note that standard economic theory expects buyers to rationally assume that what goes up rapidly won't continue on in that way forever, and in fact will probably come down. But many Americans, buyers and homeowners alike, didn't see things that way in the booming middle of the last decade.

"If economists are going to better understand housing bubbles, we will surely need to accept that home buyers often have very exuberant beliefs about housing prices," the authors conclude in "Did Credit Market Policies Cause the Housing Bubble?"

Blogger James at the Bubble Meter says it's a two-to-tango situation, in his opinion:

I have long believed that fundamental factors spark all bubbles, but then a get rich-quick-mentality takes over in the minds of buyers as they watch asset prices rise. As they buy up assets in a quest to chase the market, this increased demand pushes prices up even more, which then convinces more people that they can get rich quick by jumping in. Thus a feedback loop develops where the get-rich-quick mentality becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, until something finally breaks the cycle. Then the cycle reverses itself.

One of the interesting things about housing is that -- unlike, say, tulips or dot-com stocks -- everyone needs it. (You don't necessarily need to own it yourself, of course, but stay with me here.) From talking to buyers in those crazy days, I know that desperation ("If I don't buy now, I'm never going to be able to afford a house!") was a definite factor. But then, "If I buy now, I'll double my value in a year!" played a role, too.

How much of the price run-up do you think was purely the fault of buyers and refinancing homeowners?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Mortgage rates

May 7, 2010

Real estate extremes in the Baltimore area


Photograph of Canton rowhomes by Sun photographer Kim Hairston


Lots of people bought a home in Baltimore's 21224 ZIP code last year. More than any other ZIP code in the whole region, in fact.

That's one of the housing-market extremes of 2009, and I thought those of you who enjoy top 10 lists would get a kick out of that sort of thing. So I crunched the numbers and editor Liz Hacken put them together in a photo gallery for your amusement and possible edification.

You'll find all the housing-market top 10s here.

The list has ZIP code extremes and city-neighborhood extremes -- biggest average price increases, biggest drops and largest changes in sales either direction. And, of course, the sales hot spots as measured by total activity.

In the city, the neighborhood with the most home sales last year was Canton -- not coincidentally in the 21224 ZIP code. More than 820 homes changed hands in the ZIP last year, almost 350 of which were in Canton.

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

Housing scams aren't just about foreclosure

Because so many homeowners have been scammed out of money or even their home in a bid to avoid foreclosure, it's easy to forget that tenants can be targets of con artists, too.

The Maryland Attorney General's office says about 500 people were allegedly scammed out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in a pyramid scheme that included promises of a year's free rent in exchange for upfront payments toward a supposed business venture.

Liz Kay and Gus Sentementes have the full story here.

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

May 6, 2010

More homes for sale in the Baltimore region

If putting your home on the market is a sign of optimism, however so small, then more sellers are doing some positive thinking. The number of homes for sale in the Baltimore metro area jumped 10 percent between February and March.

That's the biggest springtime increase since 2006, and it comes even as more homes were newly off the market thanks to buyer activity, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems data.

No doubt some of those new sellers in March were hoping to ride the home buyer tax credit wave. (Even some of the sellers who hit the market in April, for that matter. The deadline to sign a contract and qualify for the credit was April 30.)

The inventory of homes for sale in the region has been mostly on the downswing since the fall of 2008, at least compared year-over-year -- a trend that began with sellers giving up, not buyers stepping up. Buying began to increase last year.

The for-sale inventory was down in March from a year earlier, too, even with the bump-up from February. But just 2 percent, which is the smallest year-over-year drop in months.

We'll get a look at April when those stats are released next week.

Do you feel like you have more options now, buyers?

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

May 5, 2010

Whizbang features on real estate sites

Online real estate broker Sawbuck Realty recently unveiled a few new features, including a no-maximum search function. Want to see all 5,491 homes for sale in or near Baltimore? It won't lecture you to narrow your search.

That got me thinking about the wide variety of real estate search sites out there, and how most have something nifty in hopes of getting your undying love, or more specifically your continual usage. 

Redfin, for instance, lets you select (or deselect) homes to include in your search not only by size and price, but also whether the price has been reduced, the home is for-sale-by-owner, the condition is "fixer-upper," the sale requires bank approval and the like. (That's under "more options.")

Trulia tallies up the price reductions in your area of interest and spits out a list, which you can edit to specify whether you just want the price reductions in, say, the past seven days. Then amuse yourself by sorting the list -- from highest price to low, by number of photos, etc.

(Unfortunately, the "number of photos" option can be fooled by those who upload each of their photos several times to inflate the grand total. At least that's the impression I get from the listing that has 84 photos, only 28 of them unique. Tsk, tsk.), which bills itself as the first wiki multiple-listing site, offers up its listings in spreadsheet format, which looks decidedly un-flashy but allows you to see a lot of information about a lot of homes at a glance -- including the asking price, the original asking price and the assessed value. (Press a button and export it directly into your own spreadsheet.)

Some sites let you search just the places having open houses in the near future. Here's the list that HomesDatabase spits out for Baltimore.

And some tally up market-area data. might be best known for its Zestimates of individual homes, but it also shows overall stats on asking prices, sale prices and its estimation of how home values have changed. (On a related note: First American CoreLogic has just sued Zillow over its Zestimates, and several other real estate companies over their home-valuation efforts, alleging that the firms are infringing on its automated appraisal patent.)

What features do you find most useful when you're looking at homes for sale? What's plain annoying?

What do you wish someone would add?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Real estate online

May 4, 2010

Two opportunities for home buyers to snag $3,000

It's not $8,000, but it is a government incentive: You could get $3,000 from Baltimore if you attend an event this Saturday or Monday and buy in the western half of the city. The money can be put toward your closing costs and down payment.

The first 50 people who close on a home purchase within 90 days of Live Baltimore's Buying Into Baltimore event this Saturday (and meet several other qualifications) are eligible for the city money, which starts out as a loan and converts into a grant after you've lived in your home for five years.

Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc. says participants in its own Buying Into Baltimore event on Monday are also eligible.

Both events will have tours of homes for sale and home-buying information.

Live Baltimore's is 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, 1400 W. Cold Spring Lane. CHAI's event is Monday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center, 5700 Park Heights Ave.

You might check with your employer to see if it participates in the city's Live Near Your Work program or the state's similarly named effort. That's another way to get a closing-cost and down-payment grant. (Johns Hopkins employees can get up to $17,000 in certain neighborhoods.)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Home buying grants

May 3, 2010

The last-minute rush for the home buyer tax credit

In case you missed it over the weekend: A Brooklyn Park resident trying to purchase a home before the first-time home buyer tax credit expired let me tag along with her on Friday as she looked at her final choices.

You can read the story -- with all the deadline drama -- right here. Above is videographer extraordinaire Christopher Assaf's take on part of the day.

On the flip side of the Friday rush were potential buyers who decided to wait until after the credit expired to seriously look. Mike Fowler, 26, is in that group. I chatted with him in the credit's waning days.

"My main reason for waiting is that I need to save more," said Fowler, who works at Baltimore-based T. Rowe Price. "I've got money saved, but not enough to put a sizable down payment down."

His secondary reason: He suspects the tax credit "is delaying the inevitable decline in prices," and he'll get a better deal later.

"I do think the credit was a good thing initially because at that time, our whole economy was collapsing," Fowler said. But the extension? Not so much. He figures the pool of buyers will shrink now, "and then sellers are going to be sitting with these inflated listing prices."

That's his best guess, anyway -- he hastens to point out that he's not a housing professional. But all of us, pros and amateurs alike, will find out soon enough what a post-credit market looks like.

May 2, 2010

First-time home buyer tax credit over at the right time?

The debate some of you readers have been having here (and here) about the first-time home buyer tax credit is, in part, about timing. Too soon to expire or good riddance to bad tax policy?

Don, who's trying to buy in San Diego, says the lure of the tax credit encouraged buyers to up their offers so "that $8000 is really given to the sellers (and banks!)" He's glad it's over.

Joanne, another buyer, had the same bidding-war experience but is of a different mind about the credit. "I would rather see the tax credit extended as to see the government give more welfare to those that sit and not work and expect a handout," she commented.

So, here, let's make it a poll: Was the credit expiration well-timed?

A few notable stats:

Homebuyer tax credits claimed by Americans through the middle of February for purchases in 2008 and 2009: 1,795,429

Value of those credits: $12.7 billion

Number of credits claimed by Maryland residents: 29,298

Value of those credits: $206.5 million

May 1, 2010

Senator: Don't expect a home buyer tax credit extension

Several of you commented yesterday that you hope April 30 doesn't actually prove to be the end of the $8,000 (and $6,500) home buyer tax credits -- that Congress will decide to start the bandwagon rolling again.

"I had 2 homes snatched from me with in the last 2 days," Oscar wrote. "I really hope it gets extended!!"

"I hope they extend the house tax credit as well," Jennifer commented. "I had four houses snatched from my husband and I. In my city, it is has been bidding wars. It has been also difficult to find a good realtor!"

Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, was the most visible proponent of extension last fall. So as your pleas came my way Friday, I checked in with his office to ask if there was any chance of another round.

Answer: nope. Which didn't surprise me, since he'd vowed on the Senate floor in November that no more extensions would be forthcoming.

"He ... said that part of the benefit of a tax credit like this is an expiration date -- knowing it's not going to go on forever," said his spokeswoman, Sheridan Watson.

Wonk reader miss clavel thinks that's just as well -- for buyers. Here's her comment:

For those having homes "snatched" from them, who want the credit extended; think again.

It may be the credit which is causing the homes to sell so quickly, as other buyers rush to take advantage of the credit.

I almost rushed into what was not really the best home for me.

It is also possible that the credit is pushing prices up (good for the seller but not the buyer).

Personally, I would rather NOT see the credit extended.

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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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