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July 30, 2010

Who's got the best blog about Baltimore real estate?

Baltimore Real Estate


Zillow is holding a "best real estate blog" contest, and the Real Estate Wonk is one of the nominees for Baltimore. Keen!

The voting -- already underway -- runs through 3 p.m. on Aug. 11, and you can vote once per day. So "vote early, vote often" actually applies here.

I hope you like this blog enough to vote for it, but do go vote for your favorite whichever it is. The other nominees are the Baltimore Blog, Baltimore Grows, Baltimore Real Estate Investing Blog, the Hannon Realty Group's blog, the Harriett Wasserman Team blog, Hibanism, Maryland Housing Blog, the Metro Baltimore Real Estate Blog and Realtor Marney Kirk's blog.

Clicking on the banner will take you to the poll. Thanks, all.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:22 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: We're No. 1! (Or thereabouts)

Finding historic properties

More than 2,300 of the 5,800 homes for sale in Baltimore are in historic districts. Wouldn't you like to know which if you're house-hunting in the city, so you can -- depending on your preference -- focus in on the historic homes or avoid them?

Now you can. Metropolitan Regional Information Systems just added "historic district" to the classifications on the multiple-listing service in Baltimore.

MRIS thinks this will cut down on confusion, headaches and missed opportunities.

"Many homeowners that did not know their homes were classified in a historic district were understandably frustrated when the City of Baltimore told them to undo or redo remodeling projects because they were unaware of historic construction restrictions," the company says on its blog.

It also notes that the MLS designation should help buyers understand when they're eligible for historic tax benefits, so they don't miss out.

The designation isn't self-reported. The city and the Baltimore City Commission on Historic and Architectural Preservation provided data to MRIS about local and federal districts.

I checked out MRIS's HomesDatabase site for consumers last night to see if "historic district" was a search option there, and it looks like it isn't. But anyone with access to the multiple list itself -- real estate agents, for instance -- will be able to use it in searches.

What are your thoughts on homeownership in an historic district? Love the idea or hate it?

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

July 29, 2010

Condos vs. townhomes vs. houses

What's easier to sell these days -- a condo, a townhome or a detached house?

The cheaper something is, the bigger the pool of potential buyers, and usually condos are less expensive than townhouses, which are in turn less pricey than houses. (Not always, of course. The Ritz-Carlton Residences in Baltimore is a condo development. But you know what I mean.)

Price, though, isn't the only consideration. Think supply vs. actual demand. And on that count, houses seem to be winning, if only slightly.

About 1,300 detached homes changes hands in the Baltimore metro area last month, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems. At that pace, it would take almost seven and a half months to sell the more than 10,000 on the market.

Townhouses? Just over seven and a half months, with 680 sales vs. 5,167 for-sales.

MRIS throws condos into a category along with coops and units with ground rent (often rowhouses). Homes on the market in that group would take more than eight months to sell at their current pace, with 556 sales vs. 4,616 for-sales.

The multiple-listing service also offers a peek at price trends:

The average sale price for houses with two bedrooms or less rose nearly 11 percent in June compared with a year ago, and the average price for houses with four bedrooms or more jumped 7.5 percent, but everything else was down.

Three-bedroom houses dipped slightly in average price. Three-bedroom townhouses dropped 2 percent on average. The condo/coop/ground rent category, which isn't broken out by bedrooms, declined 4 percent.

And townhouses on either end of the spectrum -- two bedrooms or less, and four bedrooms or more -- were down about 6 percent.

Are you buyers out there looking for a house above all else, or does a condo or townhouse appeal?
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (18)
Categories: Housing stats

July 28, 2010

Is the Homestead tax credit a bad idea?

Edward L. Kennedy, a Perry Hall resident, qualifies for the Homestead tax break. That doesn't mean he likes it.

His credit for the condo he moved into three years ago is $85. His neighbors, who moved in several years earlier, is substantially larger. Thus his tax bill is nearly $800 more than theirs even though their condos have identical assessment values.

"Now if that’s not fair, I don’t know what is," said Kennedy, 83.

The Homestead credit caps the annual increase in owner-occupants' tax bills. That ceiling ranges across the state; in Baltimore County, where Kennedy lives, it's 4 percent. The idea behind it is to protect owner-occupants from huge one-year spikes in their bills, but it has the side effect of pushing more of the tax burden onto newer buyers.

"You're robbing Peter to pay Paul. I’m Peter,” Kennedy says.

As colleague Larry Carson pointed out in a story in 2005, the height of the housing boom, neighbors' tax bills can differ "sharply" under this system.

"Maryland attorneys general have issued opinions for decades arguing that the system is unconstitutional because it fails to treat all homeowners equally," he noted in the article. "No one has ever tested that theory with a lawsuit, however."

I suspect that's because (1) many homeowners don't fully understand how the system works, (2) most who do feel they benefit from it and (3) you're not likely to pay for the expense of a drawn-out lawsuit if the tax hit to you is several thousand dollars a year or less.

Enlighten me, folks: Are you in favor of the Homestead tax credit? Do you personally see much benefit from it?

How would you design a system if you wanted to avoid penalizing homeowners based on their length of ownership, but also wanted to ensure that no one ends up with a 20 percent annual jump in their taxes during a real estate boom/bubble (assuming of course that the lessons of the last one don't sink in)?

Most provocatively of all: Do you think a guy with a rowhouse he rents out to tenants should pay taxes on his full assessment every year if his owner-occupant neighbors don't?

July 27, 2010

Homeowner's persistence yields results

A Baltimore resident contacted me months ago to explain her particular housing woe, and she's kept me updated as her story progressed. I thought Keisha's experience (and how she handled it) would help others, so she kindly agreed to share with all of you.

She purchased a rowhome on Baltimore's west side in spring 2009 after relocating back to the state. After signing the contract, she used a variety of professionals recommended by her real estate agent, from the title company to the home inspector. "That was a big mistake on my part," she says now.

Here's her story in her words:

In June of 2009 as the summer heat started rising, I went to use my central air only to find it did not work. I notified the builder that rehabbed the home and within a week they sent an HVAC contractor. It was then I was told the air condensing units were stolen from my roof.

I did what most would do: I notified the police, then the insurance company. Days later the insurance company came to the property only to deny my claim because they saw no evidence that air condensers had ever been installed on my property.

Needless to say, I thought, "This can't be true, I had a home inspection. Furthermore, Baltimore City code enforcement inspectors were just here in mid-May -- surely they would have noticed if I had no air conditioning condensers."

Her first call for help was to her real estate agent, "the one I hired to protect my interests in the closing."

His response was, "If you read your home inspection report, it states that the condensers appeared to be on the roof and thus was not tested by my inspector."

A month later I consulted with a lawyer, who after writing two letters to all parties involved in my closing received only one formal response. It was now October and my repair list had grown to having no heat, plumbing issues in two of the four bathrooms, termites in the basement, water and mold damage in the basement, a roof in need of repairs -- and do not forget, no air condensers. To date I had spent about $2,200 in repairs and had estimates for $16,000 more.

I knew I did not have that type of money, so I began writing letters to the Better Business Bureau, the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division, and my Congressman. I was told by two that this issue was out of their jurisdiction and did not even get a response from the third.

So I continued to write, this time to the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. I thought filing complaints against the contractors who performed the work on the house would yield resolution. This time, I was told I had no valid complaint because I did not hire the contractors to perform work -- the previous owner did.

"This can't be happening," I kept thinking.

Keisha pressed onward, trying the city's code enforcement office. An official there seemed interested in helping, but didn't get back to her as promised, she says. So she went to the office again, this time to see the permits on her home:

"Am I reading this correctly?" I asked the permits clerk.

Her reply, with a look of dismay: "Yes ma'am, it appears your property has never had any final inspection."

Translation: The city allowed the builder to close the walls to my property without a final inspection on the plumbing, HVAC and electrical.

What was left for me to do? My last resort -- I wrote the then-mayor and sent copies to the deputy commissioner of code enforcement.

At this point, it was the end of December. With, if you'll recall, no working heat in her house. But that letter did the trick. She received calls from several people.

Mid-January 2010, eight months after my first problem surfaced and many more developed, the deputy commissioner of code enforcement called and asked to meet me. The following Monday my heat was repaired at no cost to me and an agreement was made between myself and the builder as to what other repairs his company would make at no cost to me.

To date the builder has made good on that agreement -- at his own pace, but the repairs are being made.

The lessons I take from this experience and hope some buyer somewhere will find useful:

1. Hire your own home inspector and other closing professionals, including a real estate attorney, independent of your agent's choice of professionals. Google search your agent -- I wished I did. You will be surprised what a simple Google search will reveal.

2. Visit your local code enforcement office to verify permit status on the property you're considering.

3. Check with your local licensing agency to ensure all contractors are licensed to work in your state.

4. Keep accurate records of dates, times, names, phone calls made, letters written, etc.

5. Never give up. If you know you have been wronged, keep writing, calling, visiting offices. Someone will listen eventually.

Thanks very much for sharing your experience, Keisha. I hope your home serves you well from here on out.

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

Tenants' rights when rentals go into foreclosure

Renting a home or apartment that's wending its way through the foreclosure process? The Public Justice Center in Baltimore is holding monthly workshops to explain your legal rights, from how long you can stay to details on negotiating a "cash-for-keys" deal with the owner's lender.

The next workshop is Aug. 17 at 6 p.m. at the center, 1 N. Charles St., Suite 200.

Call 410-625-9409 to reserve a spot. And remember to bring your lease, foreclosure information and any other relevant documents with you.

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

July 26, 2010

Buying a home in the Baltimore area for the first time?

If you're a first-time home buyer, or just buying a home in the Baltimore area for the first time, you might not know everything you need to know. Worse, you don't necessarily know what you don't know until it comes back to bite you.

A newcomer who got bitten inspired me to start collecting New Buyer 101 posts in one easily accessible place. I'll link them all to this one, adding more as they're written. Some are most helpful if you haven't bought yet, and others are intended as aids once you're already in your home. (Some long-time homeowners might find useful tips here.)

A number of readers suggested subject matter, and I'll be working through that list as I can. I'll happily take more suggestions (or requests) in the comments on this post.

One word of warning -- some of these posts were written a few years ago. I glanced through for outdated information or broken links, but please let me know if anything needs fixing. 

Here are the links:

Maryland-specific information:

Buying a foreclosure

Determining who owns property near you

Development projects near you

Down-payment and closing-cost assistance from the Maryland Mortgage Program

Home improvement (what to do before you hire a contractor)

Homestead property-tax credit (why new buyers' bills will probably be higher than their neighbors')

Homestead property-tax credit (why new buyers' bills could be much higher than the previous owners')

Property-tax appeals after being reassessed

Property-tax appeals after buying

Property-tax appeals off-cycle

Property-tax appeals -- the effect on your Homestead tax credit

Property-tax impact of renovating a home, or buying a newly-improved place

Property-tax rates 

What to do after you buy

General buying/owning information:

The buying timeline

Credit scores -- how they work

Credit scores -- improving/maintaining

Property lines


Useful links for local buyers/homeowners (outside sites) 

Baltimore City's CityView tool (find out what neighborhood you live in, when your trash and recycling pick-up days are, which nearby buildings are vacant and a lot more)

HUD-approved list of housing counselors in Maryland (pre-purchase counseling, foreclosure-prevention help)

Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation's page to apply for the Homestead tax credit for owner-occupiers

Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation's real property data search (find assessments, sale prices, owners' names)

Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development programs for buyers 

MDLandRec.Net (deeds, mortgage documents, etc.)

Local housing-market statistics

July 25, 2010

Baltimore property-tax bills

Hey, all you Baltimore homeowners who received a faulty property-tax bill this month: Has your situation been resolved?

Nearly 8,000 wrong bills went out, the city says. Many were to people who bought their home during the tax year that ended June 30, telling them -- thanks to an error related to the Homestead tax credit -- that they were past due. Another tax break, the Homeowners' Property Tax Credit, was improperly applied to other owners' bills, prompting the city to send a second set almost immediately after the first went out.

At the time, the city said it expected that all accounts would be corrected by last week. (You can see if yours is by going to the city's online site for property-tax accounts.) 

But I just heard from one resident who says she's still trying to resolve her Homeowners' tax credit problem. I hope that's not the general trend.

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

July 23, 2010

Homeowners with no regrets, and other notable numbers

Do you homeowners out there regret buying? Nine percent of Americans surveyed on behalf of recently say yes.'s Greg McBride finds it "surprising -- and reassuring" in these difficult times that 90 percent said no.

Many of the folks who do have buyer's remorse are having trouble selling or making their mortgage payments.

I thought you'd be interested. These other news nuggets caught my eye, too:

Who sells more homes, builders or banks? Banks, says housing research firm Hanley Wood Market Intelligence. That's been true for the last year and a half.

Whither (or rather wither) homeownership: John Burns Real Estate Consulting is predicting that the homeownership rate, which peaked at 69 percent during the bubble years and has since slid to 67 percent, will fall to 62 percent in the next two years as struggling borrowers succumb to foreclosure. The company says it's not optimistic about loan modifications "primarily because so many of these consumers have too much additional debt."

Which brings us back, full circle, to the regretful buyers.

Are you happy with your home? Are you glad you bought it, if you're not renting? How much do factors such as home prices affect your enjoyment of your property -- if at all?

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

July 22, 2010

Borrowing while pregnant?

A New York Times story about lenders leery of extending mortgages to couples expecting a baby has created such a furor, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development weighed in last night to declare that it's launching "multiple investigations."

Turning a prospective borrower down for a loan based on the current usage status of her womb is illegal, HUD says.

"Lenders have every right to ascertain the incomes of families to determine whether they are eligible for a mortgage loan but they have no right to use a pregnancy or a short-term disability as a cause to deny that family a mortgage they would otherwise qualify for," HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said in a statement. "Having a child should be a time for a family to celebrate and must not be a cause for unfair lending practices."

Lenders offering mortgages insured by FHA, the Federal Housing Administration, can't ask about future maternity leave. "If a borrower is on maternity or short-term disability leave at the time of closing, lenders must document the borrower's intent to return to work, that the borrower has the right to return to work, and that the borrower qualifies for the loan taking into account any reduction of income due to their leave," HUD says.

Some dissenting voices are saying pregnancy ought to be part of the equation.

Daniel Indiviglio at argues that having a baby changes people's lives so completely -- and unexpectedly, in some cases -- that it can be impossible to know beforehand whether your well-laid plans will go kaput. (If you're counting on dual incomes, he notes, it'll be a problem should one of you find it necessary to remain home after the baby's arrival.)

He writes:

People became so used to banks providing a mortgage to anyone with pulse during the housing boom that, suddenly, prudent underwriting shocks and amazes. "You mean the bank wouldn't give a couple a mortgage because it's worried about significant factors that could affect their ability to pay? The horror!" In fact, this is a great sign. It means that banks and mortgage companies have learned something from their errors during the housing bubble. Sensible underwriting is making a comeback, and that's ultimately good for the U.S. economy.

Some readers commenting on that piece agreed; some didn't. One, for instance, retorted: "Based on the argument that bad things can happen or that people can change their minds, then no one should get a mortgage, ever."

What strikes you as factors that lenders (and borrowers, for that matter) ought to take into account?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Fair Housing, Mortgages

July 21, 2010

An update on the Pier Homes at HarborView

Buyer's remorse being what it is, people sometimes get cold feet after purchasing a home at auction.

The auctioneer who handled the Pier Homes at HarborView sale in Baltimore last month says one of the 18 buyers backed out during the rescission period, which ended last week. One more is in an extended rescission period while both sides work out pricing on some extras for the unit. The remainder are now in a hard-contract period and will lose their sizable deposits if they walk away without closing.

Jon Gollinger, co-founder of Accelerated Marketing Partners, which handled the June 28 auction, said another buyer signed a contract at the development overlooking Baltimore's Inner Harbor after the event.

He called a one-out-of-18 rescission unusually small.

"It’s rather unprecedented for us," he said. "It’s remarkable."

He attributed it to buyers doing their homework in advance, "and I think the other thing it clearly states is that people think they’ve got a good price."

The luxury townhouses were conceived during go-go times but delivered as the housing market soured. Nearly half the 88 units were unsold going into the auction.

The development team ended up putting 18 on the block rather than the 11 originally planned. Winning bidders got them for as much as $1 million off the advertised last asking price.

I say "advertised" because, as a reader pointed out, a few of these units were once on the multiple-listing service with prices lower than the "last asking price" in the marketing materials for the auction. Bidders were told the last asking price for one of the units on Pier Pointe Landing, for instance, was $1,479,000, but it was on the MLS for a time in 2009 at $1,290,000. (It ultimately sold for $637,000.)

Gollinger, who notes that this question also came up at the "practice auction" held for registered bidders the day before the real deal, says the asking prices he provided to interested bidders were the ones the development team gave him. But he argues that it doesn't matter much in the end.

"What I said to the room: ... What difference does the last ask make vs. what you pay?" he said. "It wasn’t last ask that got people into the room. It was the minimum bid."

The development team's answer to the question was that it offered "special deals to incentivize sales" on certain units at certain times, Gollinger added.

Closing dates for the auctioned units range from very soon through Oct. 1, depending on whether the bidders are buying with cash and how many upgrades they want.

"In many cases, people have asked for a lot of extra work on their units," Gollinger said -- from elevators to extra rooms.

The average deposit, including upgrade costs, is "upwards of $75,000," he said. He doubts anyone will walk away now that they're past their rescission period.

As for the remaining units still for sale: "The developer has raised the prices from the auction pricing. Not substantially, but raised the pricing, in some cases as much as 5 percent above auction pricing."

Why? Because the development team is betting that fewer Pier Homes competing with each other -- and the market signals created by active bidding on the auctioned units -- has stabilized the supply-demand seesaw.

Earlier in the month I chatted with Ross Mackesey, sales manager at Long & Foster in Lutherville, to see what he thought the auction would mean for other luxury properties. He has a background in new-home sales.

"I think the jury's out on what effect it has on the [luxury] market," he said. "Because there's no market. The whole reason they did it is because there was no market. If it got people looking, that's good. I would think in that luxury-home market in the city, any transaction is a good transaction."

The trouble is so much supply searching for buyers, Mackesey said. 

"People aren't changing lifestyle right now the way they were in the mid-decade," he said. "My experience at the high end in the city, over $1 million: Most of those people were moving from comparable suburban properties -- comparable price-wise. And people aren't doing that in this market. They're just staying put."

The highest price at the Pier Homes auction was $956,000. More than 20 units sold for at least $1 million in earlier years, including several in excess of $2 million, according to state records.

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

July 20, 2010

Right hand, meet left hand (property tax edition)

In Maryland, the state assesses property for taxation purposes, but it's the jurisdictions that do the collecting. The upside is that the people trying to determine what your property is worth are not the same people demanding you pay up.

The downside? Ditto.

Baltimore resident Bill Hopkins shared his experience of interagency frustration recently. Here's his story:


In September 2009 I went through the process of appealing my city Real Property Tax Assessment and was granted a 25% reduction…hooray!

The process was convenient and fair and efficient, I thought. Bravo State of Maryland Tax Assessment Appeal Board (6 St Paul St. Suite 301).

July 1, 2010 I received my tax bill from the City of Baltimore for July 1,2010-June 30th, 2011. Guess what? No tax assessment reduction.

So I called the State office 410-767-8455 and they said…”can’t help you, it’s not our job to follow up on these matters, you’ll have to contact the city”.

So I called the phone number 410-396-3987 on the City Tax Assessment statement……….several times……..”push 6 to talk to a clerk”…….good luck with that….no one ever picks up the phone. It rings forever.

So, I get in my car and drive over to the City tax office at 200 Holiday St and wait, not too long, to speak with a very nice clerk who checked her records and said “we do not have any report from the state that your assessment has changed, we can’t do anything, you’ll have to get it straightened out with the state”

Are you kidding me?

Hopkins (no relation to me) says he then drove to the state assessment office in the city and talked to a "very nice" employee who told him she would make sure the city got his report. "Again," as she put it.

Owen C. Charles, supervisor of assessments in Baltimore, said his office certainly should follow up with the city if a property owner runs into a problem like Hopkins did. (He offered to look into Hopkins' case personally, if the homeowner wanted him to do so.)

I chatted recently with Larry Clark, director of professional development at the International Association of Assessing Officers, and it's his understanding that most jurisdictions handle both assessment and tax collection. Of course, "it's not unusual for the state revenue department to handle the valuation of something such as a railroad or a large utility that would cover several jurisdictions," he said.

Which way would you prefer -- assessments and tax collection together, or apart?

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

July 19, 2010

'Extreme Makeover' home in Baltimore is unveiled

Amanda Keller, 26, was pressed amongst the spectators Sunday, waiting with her 6-year-old daughter to see the "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" house unveiled in Northeast Baltimore. "We can't wait to say, 'Bus driver, move that bus!'" she said, referring to the distinctive vehicle the television series uses to obstruct the view until the magic moment.

I don't know if they stuck it out -- there was hours still to go -- but if so, she got to shout the show's catch phrase many, many times.

I lost track of how often the crowd cried "move that bus" (mostly at the direction of organizers) before the one that did the trick. Between the anticipation and the heat exhaustion, everyone was really happy to see that bus move.

Read more in the story about the unveiling day.

Among those with a good view were the boys of Boys Hope Girls Hope in Baltimore, whose application to the reality TV show -- asking for a home for girls on a vacant lot about a block away from theirs -- led to this moment. (The nonprofit, part of an international organization, offers a group-home-style setting for at-risk youth with potential and drive.)

Before work started a little over a week ago, the biggest house on the block was the boys', said Georg Barber, their house manager. The 11,120-square-foot house built for the girls is the largest in the series' history.

"The boys are thrilled, amazed and not quite sure if they should be jealous," Barber joked.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:15 AM | | Comments (0)

July 18, 2010

What's your idea of the best small city in Md.?

Some of you seconded Money Magazine's No. 2 ranking of Columbia and Ellicott City as (together) the second-best small U.S. city to live in. Others of you thought it was a bad choice, calling the communities boring, too car-oriented and not as safe as advertised.

So here's my question of the week to you all: If you were ranking small cities -- or city-ish communities -- in Maryland, which would you put at the top of the list? And more importantly, why?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: We're No. 1! (Or thereabouts)

July 17, 2010

Update on the faulty Baltimore property-tax bills

Baltimore officials now say they've determined that the city -- not the state -- is to blame for the wrong property-tax bills sent to nearly 8,000 homeowners. (Both have a hand in the property-tax process because the state provides the assessment data the city uses to collect.)

More in this story, but here are a few key details:

--Most of the bills, about 6,100, wrongly claimed that the homeowners had not paid all they owed for the last tax year

--The city says a task force is working on ways to prevent this sort of problem from happening again

--The Bureau of Revenue Collections says it doesn't believe many residents paid these bills, but it promises to find out who did and promptly refund the money. (If you're not the wait-and-see type, the city says to call 410-396-3987.)

The city expects that all accounts will be corrected next week. To check yours, go to

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Property taxes

July 16, 2010

What new home buyers should know

Jared Franz feels he's in the poorer-but-wiser category of home buyer. He's hoping to help get the word out so others can avoid pitfalls that aren't easy to spot if you're a first-time purchaser or a newcomer to the region.

He and his wife moved from Chicago to Baltimore last year, and they were shocked to discover -- when they got their property tax bill recently -- that they're paying taxes on a much higher amount than their purchase price. They paid $485,000 for their Canton rowhouse, a foreclosure. The assessed value? Nearly $750,000.

That's $6,357 more in taxes than they expected to pay, based on the purchase price. As Franz notes, that's a $500-plus monthly bump to his housing costs. "Ouch!" he summed up succinctly in an email to me. (Franz, who saved up his down payment over 10 years, said the unexpected cost is a real burden.)

Local homeowners are probably vaguely aware that the state's reassessment cycle for each home is once every three years. But Franz, new to the area, didn't realize that the state doesn't automatically adjust a property's assessed value based on its sales price. No one told him so, or that there are limited periods to appeal. (More on that in a moment.)

I've written about property-tax appeals before, but I'm thinking a "Read This Before (or Shortly After) You Buy a Home Here" post would be really useful for folks -- hopefully anchored on this blog in a way that people could easily find down the road.

So here's my request to you all: Tell me what a new or new-to-the-area buyer ought to know, besides property tax rates, transfer tax costs and the appeal process. What information should such a post include? What do you wish you knew before you bought? I'm looking for Maryland-specific things.

While you're pondering that, here's the rest of Franz's story -- and the appeal rules:

New buyers purchasing from January through June have 60 days to request that the state change their assessed value for the tax year beginning July 1. Everyone else, including buyers purchasing later in the year (such as Franz), must get their applications in by Jan. 1 if they're hoping to get their assessment changed the following July.

If you miss that deadline, you can appeal for the following tax year. But it seems like a long wait if you're paying, say, $6,357 more than you think you should be.

Franz wondered if Maryland has a "clawback" rule to reimburse homeowners for taxes paid on a clearly inflated assessment. I checked with the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, and the answer is no. You can appeal, but there's no retroactive money-back policy.

Franz thinks changes would help:

"I would think the City of Baltimore should at least send your assessed property tax bill when you go to closing, i.e., effectively saying 'if you don't file a petition we will charge you X in taxes next year,'" he wrote me. "Or, as they do with the Homestead tax exemption, include the form with your closing documents (which we did file for!). Or, if a property transacts at a certain price (in an arms length transaction), the tax should automatically be reassessed give or take 10%, or so. These options all seem better than the current system."

Something a bit like one of his suggestions will go into effect Oct. 1: The General Assembly passed a law this year requiring all residential contracts to include a notice that buyers have the right to challenge their assessment within 60 days if they're purchasing in the first half of the year.

So, folks: What should Maryland buyers know?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (25)
Categories: First-time home buyers, Property taxes

July 15, 2010

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition tweets

Sun reporter John-John Williams IV will be tweeting from the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition site in Baltimore today.

Like to follow along? He's @popcouturejjw4.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:39 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Renovation/rehab

Baltimore property-tax bill mistakes

If you're completely flummoxed by a recent Baltimore property-tax bill, you're probably one of the 7,900 or so city homeowners whose accounts were upended by a state computer error.

The mix-up resulted in past-due notices -- some for thousands of dollars -- for certain residents who bought a city home during the tax year that ended June 30.

Some recipients of the Homeowners' Property Tax Credit for lower-income residents, meanwhile, received incorrect bills for the tax year that began July 1. They were just sent out a second set last week with the right figures -- some higher, some lower.

Folks with past-due bills they shouldn't have received will be mailed notices next week setting the record straight, the city says.

Owen C. Charles, supervisor of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation office in Baltimore, said the computer trouble affected the value of tax credits in both situations. (The bills themselves came from the city, since the assessors don't collect. Once the wrong information was shipped to the city, it was automatically turned into bills.)

More details in today's story.

UPDATE on Thursday: I thought both the state and the city were agreeing yesterday that the problem begin with the state, but Charles says this morning that it's too early to say whose fault it is. He's still investigating. He says he is certain the state's property database itself is accurate, and the problem was tax-credit information incorrectly applied. (Application of tax-credit information is the city's job, he says.)

"I couldn't tell you exactly what the problem is -- I just know it's not with the state's data," he says. "We're hearing from the city it's the state's fault, so we're trying to ensure if it's the state's fault, we rectify the situation."

As I was trying to get to the bottom of the wrong bills, a reader emailed to say she'd run into another assessment problem.

She says she noticed on the state's online database that her home's status was changed from owner-occupied to not. That's a problem because owner-occupiers qualify for the Homestead tax credit, which caps annual property tax increases. Non-owner-occupiers don't.

The reader, who's lived in her home for years and doesn't own any other property, wrote: "When I called the city they readily acknowledged that this had happened to a number of properties, and changed the status promptly."

I asked Charles about that, and he said he'd need more details from the reader to figure out what happened. It's not part of the programming problem that prompted the incorrect bills, he said.

If you want to make sure your assessment record is right, check out your property here.

If you received one of the incorrect bills and want to make sure that your account is updated -- which it should be by the middle of next week -- go here.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:01 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Property taxes

July 14, 2010

Asking price reductions on Baltimore homes

The number of price-reduced homes for sale increased in many large cities over the last month, with no $8,000 tax credit to lure buyers. But Baltimore? Here, the share of places with asking-price cuts dropped.

Not enough to kick the city out of the top 10, though, where it's been for many months.

So says real estate search engine Trulia, which tracks price-reduction trends.

Last August, 32 percent homes for sale in Baltimore had asking prices that were lower than their starting point, one of the largest shares among large cities. In January? Almost 30 percent. It was the same story at the beginning of April, the last month to sign a contract and qualify for the first-time buyer tax credit.

The share of price-reduced homes in Baltimore rose to 35 percent May 1, where it stayed over the next month. But at the beginning of this month, it had inched downward to 34 percent.

That decrease goes against the grain. Trulia said nearly half of the top 50 cities have price-reduction levels at 30 percent or more, compared with 10 at the beginning of June.

"We’re seeing more and more sellers reduce their home listing prices to attract potential buyers, who definitely have the upper hand in negotiations this season," Pete Flint, Trulia's CEO, said in a statement. "The slow start to the summer season is a major concern that we are heading towards a double-dip in the second half of this year."

Here's how the city ranks among the country's 50 largest cities, along with the average cut from the original asking price, according to Trulia:

1. Minneapolis, Minn. -- price reductions on 40 percent of properties. Average reduction: 9 percent.

2. Milwaukee, Wis. -- price reductions on 39 percent of properties. Average reduction: 9 percent.

3. Dallas, Texas -- price reductions on 38 percent of properties. Average reduction: 9 percent.

4. Boston, Mass. -- price reductions on 34 percent of properties. Average reduction: 7 percent.

5. Baltimore -- price reductions on 34 percent of properties. Average reduction: 11 percent.

6. Phoenix, Ariz. -- -- price reductions on 33 percent of properties. Average reduction: 13 percent.

7. Memphis, Tenn. -- price reductions on 33 percent of properties. Average reduction: 9 percent.

8. Kansas City, Mo. -- price reductions on 32 percent of properties. Average reduction: 9 percent.

9. Tucson, Ariz. -- price reductions on 32 percent of properties. Average reduction: 10 percent.

10. Columbus, Ohio -- price reductions on 32 percent of properties. Average reduction: 8 percent.

The nationwide average: price reductions on 24 percent of properties on the market as of July 1, with an average cut of 10 percent.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (23)
Categories: For sale, Housing stats

July 13, 2010

Columbia/Ellicott City No. 2 on magazine's best list

Money Magazine thinks you can't do much better than Columbia and Ellicott City if you're looking for a small urban area to live in.

The August issue ranks them together as No. 2 on its Best Places to Live 2010 list, right after Eden Prairie, Minn. The top 100 list, which focuses on small cities, also includes Gaithersburg (No. 25) and Rockville (No. 31).

Columbia isn't an incorporated city, as it happens. Neither is Ellicott City, despite the name. But I'm guessing Money was going for the spirit rather than the letter of the law.

Of the towns, it says:

"Ellicott City boasts grand homes, a lovely 18th-century downtown, and lots of restaurants. Columbia offers a wide range of housing, tons of parkland, and a major music venue. But those varied amenities are far from the only reasons this duo has risen to No. 2 from No. 8 in 2008. It's also an economic powerhouse with a jobless rate just as enviable as Eden Prairie's."

The magazine refers to jobs coming nearby as part of BRAC (though Fort Meade is in Anne Arundel County rather than Howard) and the towns' commuting distance to both Baltimore and Washington. It gives the area props for "excellent schools and a diverse population." And it says "home are affordable -- by Northeast standards, anyway."

Some of you would-be buyers trying to purchase in Howard County might not agree with the last point, judging by the complaints in the comments here. "Affordable" is definitely in the eye of the beholder.

Money ranked Columbia/Ellicott City No. 4 in 2006, so the neighbors fell a bit in '08 before rising to No. 2.

I am, I admit, somewhat skeptical of "best place to ..." lists. The criteria might be perfectly reasonable, but you can't always capture what makes a community special via number crunching -- and this is coming from a devoted number cruncher.

On the other hand, I've lived in two of Money's top 10 places -- Columbia as a child and Ames, Iowa as a fresh-from-college reporter -- and I liked them both very much.

So what's your take on the list, folks?

And do you think this sort of ranking influences any moving decisions? (Larry Carson reports that economist Anirban Basu -- a Baltimore resident -- sees it as "an enormous marketing win for the community.")
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:01 AM | | Comments (21)
Categories: We're No. 1! (Or thereabouts)

July 12, 2010

Baltimore real estate on the small screen

If you like real-estate-related television, this is your week.

"Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" is in town to build a new home for a nonprofit that provides a group-home setting for boys and girls. Excel Homes, which is coordinating the work with the Maryland Community Builders' Foundation, is still looking for skilled volunteers.

TUESDAY UPDATE: Now the need for skilled volunteers is even greater, thanks to the Monday rain.

The show is known for providing "over-the-top living spaces," as reporter John-John Williams IV points out. Even so, this one will be a record for the series -- more than 11,000 square feet.

Meanwhile, Baltimore residents Jen and Joe Di Mattina were just on HGTV's "Bang for Your Buck" as part of a "compare these kitchen renovations" episode. Darned if I can find the actual episode online, but neighbor Matt Gonter reports that their kitchen was judged the best of the three. (UPDATE: Here it is. Thanks, Grant!)

HGTV comes to Baltimore on a semi-regular basis. (Here's a local example from "Real Estate Intervention.")

Any other real estate reality television shows shining a light on our neck of the woods?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Renovation/rehab

July 11, 2010

Real estate poll: Predict home prices

Wonk reader Jaded indirectly suggested today's poll when he predicted where home prices will head from here. I figured you all might like to play this parlor game.

Put on your forecasting hat and weigh in:

What does Jaded think? "I'm predicting a further 7-10% decline in home prices in the Baltimore metro area," he wrote in a comment Friday. (He didn't specify the time period, so this prediction might not be strictly comparable with the poll.)

He's hoping prices will fall, even though he's a homeowner:

"When are we going to realize that this market is still way over inflated and has nowhere to go but down? I know that no one wants to hear that but lower prices are the only thing that is going bring about equilibrium. I own my home and don't want its value to decline but in a few years I hope to be able to purchase a larger home and if prices go up I'll never be able to afford more house! I don't mind a little depreciation now in order to be able to move up later."

It makes sense that renters would root for lower home prices, but I think people (and certainly policymakers) assume that homeowners want the slump to be Over with a capital O. So, homeowners: Do you want prices to rise, or do you agree with Jaded?

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

July 10, 2010

June home sales: Good news, bad news

Sellers waiting for some sign of housing-market recovery might be excused for cheering at the news Friday that sale prices in the Baltimore metro area were up 5 percent in June. Five percent! The biggest year-over-year jump since '07!

But hang on, folks. If ever a month should be slapped with the "past performance does not guarantee future results" label, June was it.

Until a last-minute act of Congress extended the deadline, June was the final month to close on a sale and still qualify for the first-time homebuyer tax credit worth up to $8,000. Economists figure the price pop here and in other parts of the country is more one-off than trend.

More in today's housing-market story.

Contracts -- pending sales -- give us a glimpse at the near future. The deadline for signing a contract came and went April 30, and in May, new deals were down more than 30 percent from a year earlier. June's year-over-year drop in newly signed contracts was a still sizable but less steep 17 percent.

On the upside: About 430 more buyers signed contracts in June than in May. Of course, the bar wasn't set high. With so many buyers incentivized to sign by April 30, May activity was low -- 2,110 fewer contracts than the month before. May: about 1,840 new pending deals. April: about 3,950.

A few more notable numbers from June, as reported by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems:

Homes that sold were on the market for 100 days on average, 21 days less than homes selling a year earlier.

Sellers got closer to their asking prices than they did a year ago. But not that close -- just under 92 percent, compared with a bit over 90 percent in June 2009. (I'd be curious to see that stat broken out just for the under-$250,000 homes, the sort first-timers are more likely to buy.)

The average sale price cracked $300,000 for the first time in months.

Homes newly listed for sale outnumbered homes newly under contract more than two to one.

You can find the raw numbers here. Anything catch your eye?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Housing stats

July 9, 2010

Homebuilder optimism

For a time of uncertainty, newly expired homebuyer tax credits and less-than-wonderful economic news, homebuilders are feeling surprisingly optimistic.

Here and nationwide, they're aggressively buying up land. Permits for new homes are rising, too -- up 70 percent in the first four months of the year in the Baltimore metro area, compared with a year earlier. (Not enough to get back to boomtime numbers, of course, but it's a definite reversal after years of sharp pullback.)

More here, in case you missed this week's story on the topic.

Here are interesting tidbits from analyst Kenneth Wenhold that didn't make it into the article:

Wenhold, director of the Mid-Atlantic region for Metrostudy, a homebuilding market researcher, says the state's new-home market is healthy vs. the nation as a whole. We don't have a huge overhang of built-but-unsold inventory. And the supply of finished lots ready for building is low.

The remaining problem: all the no-longer-new homes. Individual homeowners trying to sell their residences are competition for builders, especially the homeowners trying to sell homes those same builders constructed a few years ago.

"The resale market is still relatively soft in Baltimore compared to the rest of the region," Wenhold said. "That's been a real Achilles heel."

The Baltimore area housing market took longer to soften than the Washington area in the wake of the boom, and he sees that as a reason why it's also taking longer to heal.

"But parts of it are starting to head in the right direction," he added -- in Anne Arundel and Howard particularly, the Janus counties that are both Baltimore and D.C. 'burbs.

Big homebuilders, flush with cash, are buying lots here and in markets across the country that aren't moribund. Result: Land prices are escalating back to the peak in stronger counties.

"If you own lots in Howard County, you can pretty much ask 2004 pricing and you'd be assured to sell them," he said. "Which is really amazing, when you think about what we've been through."

Builders are foreseeing shortages in the future -- there aren't many months' supply of lots in the area -- so they're positioning themselves accordingly. But some are concerned about the high prices. "It’s almost like it’s another little bubble," Wenhold said. (That's in the story, but I thought it was worth repeating.)

High-priced lots got big, pricey homes constructed on them in the boom times. Not so today:

"You're seeing a smaller home on a more expensive lot to try to keep the price down," he said.

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

July 8, 2010

Home prices rising in many markets, but not Balt. area

A real estate data firm says home prices rose in all major metro areas in the last four months save for two places -- one of which is Baltimore.

Prices in the Baltimore metro area dropped 1.8 percent in the March through June period, compared with the previous three months, according to the California-based Clear Capital. The only other large market it recorded price declines in was Bridgeport, Conn., down 2.5 percent.

Our region has been on Clear Capital's "lowest performing major markets" list for a while. It was sixth in the last report.

Among the gainers were 10 metro areas with double-digit increases -- yes, just compared with the previous three months. Memphis was No. 1 with a nearly 21 percent jump.

Our cousin to the south, the Washington metro area, was up 7 percent, the 14th largest increase.

Want to guess why so many regions showed price gains?

Yeah, not exactly a hard question:

"Price trends nationwide have a seen a considerable upswing driven in large part by the flurry of recent sales attributed to the tax credit and springtime buying activity," Alex Villacorta, Clear Capital's senior statistician, said in a statement. "This month's national quarterly gains are certainly a positive sign that many markets have responded to the tax credit incentive, but overall markets remain volatile as evidenced by the six month price change keeping mostly flat." 

Some metro areas, meanwhile, are still "as much as 54 percent below their 2006 peaks," he said.

Baltimore wasn't nearly that hard-hit, which could be part of the reason prices continued to fall during the tax-credit months while other areas rose. Certainly, the number of Wonk commenters saying that local homes for sale are overpriced outnumbers those arguing the reverse. In a recent poll here about how market conditions are affecting renters' ability to buy, the most popular answer was, "I haven't bought yet because prices are still too high for me."

What happens in the D.C. area does ripple outward, though. If prices continue to rise around the nation's capital, it's probably only a matter of time before the trend comes north.

How much time? No idea. It's probably hard for anyone to say if prices will continue to rise around the nation's capital from here out out, considering that this spring was goosed by the tax credit.

A note about the Clear Capital data: The firm draws its sales figures from assessors' and recorders' offices, calculating price by comparing repeat sales of the same homes over the years.

It might seem odd to look at the most recent four months rather than three, but there's a reason for that: In order to include the month that just ended, with data that could be incomplete, the company throws in an extra month of sales for balance.

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

July 7, 2010

Refunds for clients of defunct homebuilder

Did you pay a deposit to Equity Homes and then get neither the home built nor your money back? The state attorney general's office now has $460,000 from the homebuilder's bonding company in order to make refunds to consumers.

Virginia-based Equity, which was building in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, closed in 2008.

Contact the Consumer Protection Division at 410-576-6569 by Sept. 10 if you believe you're due a refund and have not already talked with officials there. 

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

July 6, 2010

Foreclosure mediation in Md. -- and elsewhere

If you're a Maryland homeowner behind on your mortgage, you now have the right to ask for mediation when your lender starts foreclosure proceedings.

This rule change kicked in last Thursday, so it's too early -- way, way too early -- to know how well it will work. But with mediation/negotiation programs under way in all or part of 21 states, we might get a few clues from experiences elsewhere.

New Jersey, for instance. Like Maryland and most jurisdictions with mediation programs, the Garden State doesn't make sit-down meetings between borrowers and lenders mandatory but instead allows homeowners to opt in if they want to.

According to a mediation report by the Center for American Progress, about 50 percent of participants in that state are reaching settlement in their mediations, most of which allowed the borrowers to stay in their homes. But most struggling homeowners aren't in the mix -- because they're not opting in.

The center, a progressive policy think tank, argues that opt-in states should switch to automatic mediation. Here's how it makes its case:
[L]ike opt-in programs in other areas of public policy (a popular example being organ donation), participation rates are below 25 percent. In contrast, eligible homeowners participate around 75 percent of the time in programs with automatic scheduling.
Jurisdictions have seen the value of foreclosure mediation; nothing in mediation requires the parties to settle—they only do so if settlement nets the servicer greater value than foreclosure—and the high rate of settlements speak to its efficacy. The remaining obstacle is low participation.

The center also takes issue with the way Maryland slotted mediation into the foreclosure time line -- as the last step before the foreclosure auction can proceed. It thinks the number of settlements will rise if mediation comes earlier.

Otherwise, it argues, "a servicer is an inch away from a foreclosure sale and will have little incentive to deal, having already expended much of the time and money foreclosure mediation is intended to save."

If you're interested in a rundown of the Maryland program (when, how, etc.), see this Q&A.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Foreclosure help, The foreclosure mess

July 5, 2010

Strategic penalties for strategic defaulters

Fannie Mae wants people who walk away from their mortgages to pay -- in more ways than one.

Last month the mortgage financier said so-called "strategic defaulters" will be ineligible for a Fannie Mae-backed loan for seven years, and it vowed to pursue them for the amount owed if the home is in a state that allows deficiency judgments. (Maryland is one of them.)

Wonk reader Josh thought this would make an interesting jumping-off point for discussion. Should homeowners, or rather ex-homeowners, pay a penalty for sending their keys back to their lender and saying "so long"?

Fannie Mae, in case you're wondering, defines the borrowers it intends to go after as those "who walk-away and had the capacity to pay or did not complete a workout alternative in good faith."

"Walking away from a mortgage is bad for borrowers and bad for communities and our approach is meant to deter the disturbing trend toward strategic defaulting," Terence Edwards, Fannie Mae's executive vice president for credit portfolio management, said in a statement. "On the flip side, borrowers facing hardship who make a good faith effort to resolve their situation with their servicer will preserve the option to be considered for a future Fannie Mae loan in a shorter period of time."

Much ink and airtime have been used up on the strategic-default subject, from ethical implications to how-to. Some point out that corporations strategically default on loans, so why not homeowners? Others argue that large numbers of people defaulting on loans they could pay will do needless damage to the housing market and the homeowners who are sticking it out.

The Mortgage Bankers Association is on the "don't do this" bandwagon. But, as The Wall Street Journal reported, the trade group sold its Washington headquarters in February for $33.7 million less than the financing it took out in 2007 and refused to say whether it was paying off the difference.

So there's a lot of grist for the conversational mill. What do you think, folks -- should homeowners who strategically default be penalized beyond the credit-score damage that everyone gets from a foreclosure? What about commercial-property owners, for that matter?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (21)
Categories: Mortgages, The foreclosure mess

July 3, 2010

Home improvement project, one week in



On the plus side, a week of home improvement has left my home with new carpeting, new flooring, new paint and this extremely cool bedroom for my toddler.

On the other hand, this is the state of my living room:



So yeah -- not done yet.

My project is of monumental importance to me, but it's hardly impressive in the grand scheme of home-improvement tales. Do-it-yourself efforts are always more interesting.

I can think of two ongoing, local examples being detailed in blogs: Project Rowhouse (mentioned in this space when the partners living there got on HGTV) and young-adult author Mary Miltner's blog (where she notes the joys of fixing up a home whose previous owner thought comic books were good wallpaper).

Seen other blogs with personal tales of home improvement? Please share.

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

July 2, 2010

Drop in pending home sales: Baltimore vs. U.S.

File this under "d" for "duh" -- buyers across the country reacted to the lack of $8,000 federal tax credits for home sales in May by signing fewer contracts. Not exactly a stunning development. But the new figures do allow us to compare and contrast: us vs. U.S.

Nationally, pending sales fell about 16 percent vs. a year earlier, when the first-time home buyer tax credit was in effect. In the Baltimore metro area, the drop was 32 percent -- twice as steep.

It's a similar story comparing May to April, when buyers were rushing to beat the contract-signing deadline. The national decrease was 33 percent. Ours: 53 percent. (For the wonks out there: These numbers are not seasonally adjusted. Also, no statistics were harmed in the calculation of these figures.)

The question that only time will answer, but about which housing-market watchers are happy to put in their two cents now, is whether the contract slump is temporary. If people bought homes in April rather than May or June, then you'd expect to see more activity in July. But if people bought homes in April rather than the rest of the year and 2011 besides ...

Add the uncertain economy, mix in foreclosures, and you have a hard-to-predict brew.

So here's my question to you (OK, questions): What are you seeing out there? Is it easier to negotiate down asking prices? What competition are you buyers seeing, if any? Are you sellers getting showings?

What does the market feel like compared with April?

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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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