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July 31, 2011

Changes to lead-paint rules

Heads up to all who own or renovate older homes: The Environmental Protection Agency has revised its lead-paint rules.

Here's how the National Center for Healthy Housing describes the changes:

Renovators must build a containment wall—a barrier consisting of plastic sheeting or other impermeable material over scaffolding or a rigid frame—to enclose an exterior work space and prevent the spread of lead dust outside of the area.

Uncertified workers should be trained by certified renovators in lead-safe work practices.

Certified renovators should ensure their workers maintain containment and do not spread dust or debris.

States may charge higher penalties for non-compliance with the rule.

This is a revision of rules that went into effect last year. Here's a Q&A with the center in 2010 that runs down what those rules mean, and why it matters for homeowners. The rules apply to homes built before 1978, when lead paint was banned.

And here's a recent Q&A with the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, aimed at helping new landlords (including homeowners who are renting because they can't sell) navigate state rules about testing and remediation.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:55 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Lead paint

July 29, 2011

Homeownership, investors and the "pent up" phenomenon

Several (somewhat related) trends to chew over:

A recent study by the Research Institute for Housing America, a nonprofit arm of the Mortgage Bankers Association, says we can probably expect "further notable declines in homeownership rates in the United States." The rate jumped during the housing bubble -- pumped up by lax lending terms -- and has slid backward since.

Though it's possible that decline is over, the study's authors write, they think a drop of as much as 1 to 2 percentage points over the next few years is more likely.

As homeownership falls, more houses end up with landlords. One clue to investor activity: One out of every five homes changing hands in the Baltimore metro region in June were bought with cash, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems' stats arm. (Investors are sure that statistic includes so-called "hard money" loans, which are pretty much the only financing available to real estate investors these days and usually look like cash at the settlement table.)

It's possible the homeownership rate would be different -- lower or higher -- if not for the "pent up" phenomenon of would-be buyers and would-be sellers stuck in place. A recent Wonk poll that asked readers if they're feeling pent up drew a lot of "yes" votes -- nearly two-thirds of those who took the poll.

Most popular choice among the pent-up crowd: "I would sell and then buy if market conditions were different," picked by 28 percent of poll-takers.

People who want to sell but not buy afterward accounted for 20 percent of the vote.

Pent-up buyers with nothing to sell were 14 percent of the vote.

Not scientific, naturally -- pent-up folks are probably more likely to be reading a real estate blog. But it's interesting nonetheless.

Wonk reader Art points out that some pent-up sellers have managed by turning landlord, aided by rising rents. "Several of my potential real estate clients have opted to rent their houses instead of selling them," he wrote. "They are hoping the market prices eventually come back to where they can afford to sell."

Others are sticking it out where they are. Chris writes, "I would love to sell right now, but my wife and I are underwater on our mortgage by about $40,000. We are paying extra each month on the the principal balance to try and catch up so we can sell. I hope prices stabilize soon, but not holding my breath. We need a bigger home because we started a family."

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Housing stats

July 28, 2011

What's your neighborhood gathering place?

The U.S. Postal Service is considering 3,700 post offices for closure -- 41 of them in Maryland -- and the community reaction to that possibility made me think about neighborhood focal points.

Sure, some people just see the post office as a place to drop off packages and buy stamps, but others feel very strongly that it's an integral part of the community -- a place to meet neighbors and catch up on goings-on.

Does the post office near you operate in that way? What is the gathering place in your neighborhood, or gathering places?

Do you have any at all?

Pools can work in that way. They're among the gathering spots in Columbia, or at least they were when I was growing up there. Parks and playgrounds have the same sort of appeal, though their demographic tends to skew young. And then there are malls.

For some neighborhoods, the go-to place is a restaurant. Patterson Park folks felt so strongly about the focal-point power of the building at the corner of Baltimore Street and Linwood Avenue that they banded together to buy it last year after the nonprofit that owned it collapsed and the restaurant there folded.

Planners sometimes talk about how some communities have no "there" there. I hope yours has a there.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Neighborhood and neighbors

July 27, 2011

Four condos left after GrandView auction

Bidders snapped up 21 condos at a second auction at GrandView at Annapolis Towne Centre, leaving four in the 150-unit project unsold, the auctioneer reports. 

Mark Troen, chief operating officer of auctioneer Sheldon Good & Co., told me in June he was confident that everything at the high-end project would sell. Yesterday he said the builder could have auctioned the few remaining units at the Sunday event but decided a traditional transaction for the rest would bring an equal or higher price.

"We always promised that at least 10 would sell," Troen said. "We actually got to 21, so I think that's a pretty good result."

The winning bids ranged from $337,600 to $810,000 on units that Sheldon Good said were originally priced at $514,000 to $937,900.

About 200 people attended the Sunday auction, including 55 who registered to bid, Troen said.

It was a take-two auction for the complex, built by Sturbridge Homes. Bidders picked up 33 units in November, three more than Sheldon Good announced would be put up for sale.

Buyers also bought units between the two auctions. All those efforts combined explains how the GrandView went from largely empty to almost done with sales in just over half a year (though obviously some under-contract condos haven't closed yet). The earlier auction was held a year and a half after the first units changed hands.

"We sold a tremendous amount of inventory in the last seven months," Troen said.

Seen any interesting auctions lately?

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

July 26, 2011

The property-tax rate's effect on Baltimore

Colleague Julie Scharper wrote this weekend about mayoral candidates' dueling plans on property-tax relief in Baltimore, a story that includes the perspectives of several residents who moved out recently or are in the process of doing so.

"I'm part of the thirtysomething generation that wanted to live in the city," said one of the folks she quoted, a 31-year-old whose family bought a home in Anne Arundel County last month. "But every single place we looked at that was in our price range, the property taxes were $5,000 to $6,000."

This is the sort of experience that residents, and real estate agents, have bemoaned for years. Alas, I know of no research that's attempted to get at just how common this is -- moving out, or deciding not to move in, because of the city's property-tax structure. (The city's rate is more than twice as high as the rest of the jurisdictions in the state.)

So weigh in on the (admittedly unscientific) poll below. It's a choose-all-that-apply, so pick as many of the answers below as you agree with:

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Property taxes

July 25, 2011

As prices drop, more buyers opt for more bedrooms

Dropping home prices give buyers an opportunity to spend less on a house. But a growing share of the buying pool is opting to just get more house.

Forty percent of Baltimore-area buyers closing on a house or townhouse in June purchased a place with four bedrooms or more, up from 36 percent at the height of the sales frenzy six years earlier.

Three bedrooms are still the most popular choice, with a 50 percent market share in June. But that's down from 53 percent in June 2005.

And two bedrooms or less? Ten percent of purchases, down from 12 percent.

The numbers come from Metropolitan Regional Information System's stats arm, RealEstate Business Intelligence. (RBI tracks condos as a separate group but doesn't break them out by number of bedrooms, so I don't know if they're showing the same trend.)

The sales slump in houses and townhouses in the metro area follows the same bedroom trend. Sales of two-bedroom-or-less places dropped by 58 percent in the past six years, sales of three-bedroom digs declined by 53 percent and sales of four bedrooms or more fell by 45 percent.

So how much are people spending? Below are the average sale prices for detached homes and attached ones (rowhouses, townhouses, duplexes) in the Baltimore region -- the city plus the five suburban counties around it -- by number of bedrooms. The two-bed category is two bedrooms or less, and the four-bed is four bedrooms or more:


June '11June '05Change
2-bed detached$198,275$242,615-18%
2-bed attached$143,610$190,280-25%
3-bed detached$246,845$313,685-21%
3-bed attached$185,733$206,701-10%
4-bed detached$431,483$502,054-14%
4-bed attached$209,122$254,045-18%

There are four- and five-bedroom homes with less overall space than some three-bedroom places, so more bedrooms doesn't always mean more square feet, of course.

If you're in the market to buy, are you looking for the biggest place you can afford? The smallest place you can manage to fit in? Something in between?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (15)
Categories: Housing stats

July 22, 2011

A housing affordability problem

Housing costs are a big piece of most people's budgets. Too big, in many cases.

The rule of thumb is to keep them at or below 30 percent of your before-tax income. But the Center for Housing Policy's newest look at metro areas finds that it's difficult to impossible to do that on one salary alone for workers in a large variety of jobs

Here's what the Center's Paycheck to Paycheck analysis found for the Baltimore region:

--To afford the typical rent on a one-bedroom apartment (just over $1,000 a month including utilities, according to HUD), you need to earn $42,000

--To afford the typical rent on a two-bedroom apartment (almost $1,300 a month including utilities), you need to earn $50,000

--To afford to buy a typical home for sale at $220,000 (using a 10 percent downpayment and a mortgage with a 5 percent rate), you need to earn $65,000

The average salary in the Baltimore metro area: $55,000, according to the state. Yeah, $10,000 less than the threshold to buy the typical home -- not the average home, mind, which is more expensive -- and just $5,000 more than the two-bedroom threshold.

The center analyzed 72 occupations in the Baltimore area, jobs like nurse and truck driver that typically require no more than a bachelor's degree, and found that three-quarters don't pay enough to afford the rent on a typical two-bedroom unit. All but a few don't pay enough to buy that $220,000 house. (The center used median salary data for workers with several years of experience, so it's not entry-level.)

This week's story on the report mentions some of the popular coping strategies, such as getting smaller digs, commuting longer distances and ratcheting back on non-housing expenses. The most common is probably the dual-income strategy. But as the center's Maya Brennan notes, you can't always count on both you and your spouse or significant other having a job.  

She and report co-author Laura Williams offered up suggestions from a housing-policy perspective. Help more people purchase homes through employer-assistance programs that contribute toward downpayment and closing costs, for instance. And make sure apartment construction isn't being held up by bureaucracy, since too little supply drives up rents.

The other side of the coin is income.

I talked about the findings with Dean Baker, co-director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (and one of the few housing economists who predicted the housing bust early in the boom). High unemployment does not create an environment where workers see wage growth, he said. But salary stagnation has been a problem for a long time, he added.

"It makes it very tough for people to make ends meet," he said. "If wages had kept pace with productivity growth over the last 30 years, wages would [now] be 25 to 30 percent higher for most workers. Then they would be able to afford a decent place."

He sees trade as part of the explanation, and one that doesn't effect everyone equally. International competition brings down costs for consumers and other end users, but for workers in fields directly exposed to that competition, it also pressures pay, Baker said. The trend has especially pummeled jobs that don't require college degrees.

"So lawyers, doctors, economists are still in largely protected labor markets," he said. "Manufacturing workers generally are not."

Other factors he sees putting downward pressure on wages: less unionization (from 20 percent in the private sector in 1980 to 7 percent now) and more deregulation (think telecommunications and airlines).

So is this our future, or can income trends change?

"We could start trying to level the playing field" by trying to subject doctors, lawyers and other more educated workers to international competition, he said. And if the value of the dollar fell to allow for more balanced trade, that could add millions of manufacturing jobs, boosting wages, he said.

More job creation in general would really help, too, naturally.

Speaking of downward pressure, that's the effect on home prices when a lot of people don't make enough to afford many of the homes on the market. But Baker wouldn't count on that solving the affordability crunch anytime soon.

"Prices tend to be very sticky," he said. If sellers can hold out, they often do.

More about the Paycheck to Paycheck figures, in case you're wondering: The affordability calculation for homebuying included principal and interest plus estimated taxes and insurance. Because that payment doesn't include utilities (like the rent figures) or maintenance, the analysis used 28 percent as the affordability threshold for buying vs. the 30 percent for renting.

What percentage of your before-tax income are you paying on housing? Are you making the numbers work on one salary?

If you think there's an affordability problem for homeownership and/or renting, what's your solution?

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

July 20, 2011

Mayor's proposal for property-tax rate: 9% cut by 2020

The newest property-tax proposal in Baltimore's interesting mayoral race is the mayor's. Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is set to announce that she will seek a 9 percent cut in the city's property-tax rate for homeowners, phased in through 2020, the Sun's Julie Scharper reports.

That's much smaller than the 30 to 50 percent cuts supported by challengers, a reduction the mayor and her finance department have called unrealistic. Another difference: The reduction would apply only to owner-occupied homes, not rental properties, vacant homes or commercial buildings.

The city's 2.268 percent rate is more than twice as much as the rest of the state. Rawlings-Blake says dropping that to 2.068 percent by 2020 is doable, and she proposes to plug half the revenue hole with almost all the money the city expects to get from slots. (The slots project has been held up for a while now, with lawsuits from the developer the city cut loose. New bids to build a Baltimore casino could come in next week, the state says.)

Savings to an owner-occupier if the tax-cut plan goes forward: about $400 a year on a $200,000 property, once the reduction is fully phased in. If you qualify for the homestead tax credit, you'd automatically get the rate reduction. (Remember that "qualify" isn't the same as actually receiving a credit amount, so presumably owner-occupiers with $0 credits wouldn't have a problem getting the new rate.)


Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:23 AM | | Comments (26)
Categories: Property taxes

Would you believe ...

Here's a round of "can you believe this" for the real estate crowd:

o Remember robo-signing, which brought foreclosure sales to a halt last fall, prompted federal investigations and has left banks negotiating exactly how many billions of dollars they'll have to pay to settle the issue? The Associated Press says mortgage companies are still doing it. And, in a twist, largely on documents for refinancing and purchase mortgages rather than foreclosures. Politicians are calling for new hearings.

o You know those all-cash deals for homes? Some investors are taking that literally, skipping the checkbook and bringing dollar bills. "One guy came in with a Safeway bag with $10,000 in it and counted it out on the table," a California real estate agent told the San Jose Mercury News.

o Think people who bought their homes at the height of the bubble are the most likely group to ask way too much if they're listing it for sale now? Zillow says that distinction goes to the homeowners who bought after the June 2006 peak. "Sellers who bought post-bubble seem to think that since their home purchase occurred after the peak of the market, and thus home values were already significantly discounted relative to the peak, the seller escaped the worst of the bubble," Zillow's Steve Brownell writes. "The problem is that 'The Bubble' didn’t pop so much as steadily deflate for the better part of 5 years now, and current home values now represent what they were worth in 2003." 

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: The foreclosure mess

July 19, 2011

Art imitates foreclosure


Photo by Justine Maki


Colleague Justine Maki deserves brownie points, and actual brownies, for her dispatches about the lighter side of real estate. She's told us about an amusing open house and an auction of (not actually) a park. Today she returns for a guest piece about an unexpected bit of art:



When Steve Kilar wrote what journalists would call a "scene" piece about Artscape on Saturday, he included a little tidbit that Real Estate Wonk readers may find particularly funny:

The children moved on to a series of painted play houses, the plastic type from big-box stores for back yards. But these had been decorated in a variety of styles, fantasy versions of homes one might see driving around the city. ...
"He's especially taken with the little HUD home over there," Becky said of Will, who was playing in a small house plastered with foreclosure signs and a splintering pressboard roof. There was even an empty liquor bottle outside to complete the picture.

Artscape is known for displays that push the limits of taste or offer commentary on current events and society. The playhouses were generally brightly colored and inviting and surrounded by hoards of kids in various stages of exhaustion. The foreclosure house, as you can see in the photo, wasn’t exactly inviting though it was smack in the middle of the "neighborhood." When I stopped by, no kids were paying attention to it (but it also lacked an open door).

The very idea of a foreclosure among the castles and other playhouses made me think of that axiom "art imitates life" — in this case, not in a cheerful fashion.

This was the only foreclosure or housing-related display I came across at Artscape. Anybody see anything else?



Thanks, Justine!

If you'd like to write a guest post -- either to share expertise or to share an interesting housing-related personal experience -- please drop me a line. Details here.

And if you've got questions you'd like to see a guest poster address on another subject, ask away right here.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Architecture/art, Guest post, The foreclosure mess

July 18, 2011

Most figures show rents going one way -- up

Renters beware and landlords rejoice: Monthly rents keep going up.

An analysis of higher-end apartments in the Baltimore region shows average effective rents -- what tenants actually pay after factoring in concessions -- are up by nearly 6 percent compared with the middle of last year. Separate reports also show significant gains.

The one type of rental that doesn't seem to be doing so well for owners? Houses.

The report on higher-end apartments by real estate information firm Delta Associates focuses on the so-called "Class A" category, newer complexes that come with amenities. Delta says the average effective rent for such apartments in the Baltimore metro area is about $1,450 a month, up 5.7 percent from a year ago.

Here's the breakdown by area:

In Anne Arundel and Howard counties, rents rose almost 4 percent, Delta says. In suburban apartment complexes north of the city, rents jumped 7 percent.

Downtown Baltimore rents rose almost 5 percent, while the Fells Point/Inner Harbor area posted a 7 percent gain, Delta reported.

Some of that gain is about fewer concessions, such as a month's free rent. The value of concessions shrunk by nearly half over the year, Delta says.

The company expects a "modest pace" of rent growth over the next two years because developers are jumping on the apartment bandwagon. About 4,100 new units are planned for delivery in the next three years in the region, up by more than a third from the mid-2010 pipeline.

So what about the broader rental market? Axiometrics puts the average effective rent at about $1,130 in the Baltimore metro area and says that's up 3.2 percent just in the first five months of the year alone, same as the national average.

Cazoodle, a rental search engine, tracks the average monthly rent for apartments in Baltimore -- just the city, in this case -- and says that rose 5.5 percent in the first half of the year vs. the same stretch in 2010.

But Cazoodle's statistics suggest that houses for rent aren't experiencing the same trend. Average monthly rent for those properties dropped 2.5 percent, the company says.

Presumably a change in the mix of what's up for rent could explain some of that. More smaller rowhomes and less expansive places, say. But there are an awful lot of can't-sell homeowners who are trying to wait out the market by renting out their property, so competition could be a factor.

What are you seeing out there?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Landlording, Renting

July 15, 2011

Pent-up demand vs. supply

If everyone who's holding off on buying a home and everyone who's holding off on selling a home got together to commiserate over a beer, we'd need a heckuva big bar.

It's just one of the many outgrowths of the difficult housing market, not to mention one of the uncertainties the market is facing. People nervous about the possibility of continued price drops or unable to get a mortgage or worried about the stability of their job aren't running to the settlement table. Homeowners who can't sell for as much as they owe are cooling their heels, too -- along with some number of folks who aren't underwater but want to gain back some of their vanished home value before letting go. And some folks, of course, are in both camps -- they can't buy because they can't sell.

Wonk reader chappy10 figures pent-up supply, the would-be sellers who aren't selling, are "the larger group by leaps and bounds" compared with the pent-up supply of would-be buyers. "A lot of people *would* sell, but are unhappily stuck where they are," chappy10 writes.

So: Where do you fit? Would you like to buy, sell or sell and buy, or are you happy with your housing lot in life?

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

July 14, 2011

Clock ticking down for emergency-loan help to struggling homeowners


Better get a move on if you think you'd qualify for an emergency bridge loan to stave off foreclosure. The deadline is closing in.

The state has about $28 million remaining of the $40 million in federal funds, and two-and-a-half months left to commit it all. Applications for the Emergency Mortgage Assistance program that aren't approved by Sept. 30 -- not received, approved -- can't be funded.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development says its underwriting staff need about two weeks to process an application, so Sept. 15 is as long as you'd want to wait. Earlier is better, in case there are any hitches.

Maryland officials, nonprofit staffers and other volunteers knocked on doors yesterday morning in Baltimore's Ednor Gardens-Lakeside neighborhood as part of an outreach campaign. They visited 500 homes, leaving door hangers with information when no one was there. (The photograph above, taken by Rosa Cruz with the state housing department, shows volunteers from Civic Works. From left to right: Muhammed Shodeinde, Bridgette Canada and Terrell Binford.)

The no-interest, forgivable loans are for homeowners who lost their jobs, took a cut in pay or are dealing with a health crisis. You must be behind on your mortgage by three to 12 months. Here's how the program works: 

If you qualify, you can get a loan of as much as $50,000 to cover your past-due amount and help pay for up to two years of future mortgage payments. If you stay in your home and follow the rules, you aren't on the hook to make payments on the emergency loan for five years -- at which point the it's forgiven.

Cruz, who is a spokeswoman for the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said the agency had about 880 applications as of July 1, almost 300 of which had been approved for a total of $11.4 million. About 350 more were being processed and the rest -- 229 -- had been rejected.

More details here about the program and how to apply.

Maryland is one of just five states running their own versions of what is known nationally as the Emergency Homeowners' Loan Program. Elsewhere, the program is administered by NeighborWorks America.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the effort, said yesterday that homeowners who fall under NeighborWorks' umbrella must turn in a "pre-applicant" screening worksheet by July 22 -- next week -- if they want a shot at getting one of the loans.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Foreclosure help, The foreclosure mess

July 13, 2011

A crazy 'Zestimate' history on Baltimore house

When Zillow changed the way it calculated its popular (and controversial) "Zestimates" last month, lots of homeowners saw their Zestimated value rise overnight and slightly more watched it drop.

But Wonk reader Hilary had a much stranger experience. The new algorithm, applied to the last five years of data, turned her Bolton Hill home's Zestimate into a roller coaster that makes the housing bust look like a kiddie ride.

Like so:


"I count eight months in which it either gained or lost over $100k, and a couple more that were close to that," Hilary wrote me. "In December 2008, when the financial world was imploding and the housing market seemed to be in freefall, Zillow's new algorithm has my house's value going up from $493k to $671k, and then to $732k the next month. Really: look at the graph and ask yourself: could this possibly describe the value of any actual house?"

(I'm not sharing the web link to Hilary's chart because that page lists her address, but this is indeed what it looked like as of late Tuesday.)

When I asked Zillow about this Zestimate, the company quickly declared it an error and said it would be fixed soon -- likely this week.

The company stood by the current-day Zestimate for Hilary's house. But the previous five years of figures were buggy, a spokeswoman said.

"They knew about this bug already and were working on fixing it," Zillow's Katie Curnutte said of the company's tech staffers.

Why the algorithm change? It's the second major alteration since Zillow launched in 2006 -- the first came in 2008 -- and the company says it's in response to the volatile housing market.

Now, Curnutte said, "We look at more recent transactions and we weight them heavier than we used to. That lets us keep up with a market that's changing really rapidly."

Zestimates are free, and they offer homeowners (and prospective buyers) a glimpse at what properties might be worth -- most homes in the country, not just ones for sale. But they're frequently criticized by appraisers, real estate agents and academics for inaccuracies.

Curnutte said Zestimates aren't an appraisal and aren't meant to be used for anything other than a "starting point" in the quest to determine value. But she says the new calculation method puts them closer to the mark.

Zillow checks its accuracy by comparing Zestimates to arms-length home sales, and it says the typical error in the Baltimore metro area dropped from 12.1 percent with the previous algorithm to 7.9 percent with the new one. (Here's more on the margin of error by region, including the ranges. For instance, Zillow says just over one-third of Baltimore-area Zestimates are within 5 percent of the sales price.)

For Hilary's part, she says she always assumed that Zestimates weren't spot on but could be "somewhat informative about relative changes in housing prices, as long as whatever mistakes they made were more or less consistent over time." The recent zig-zagging threw her for a loop and made her question even that.

The new algorithm was met by "howls" from some homeowners whose Zestimates plummeted as a result, The Wall Street Journal reported recently. But Hilary says she really doesn't care what value estimate is applied to her house.

"I'm not remotely interested in selling it in the foreseeable future," she says.

How did your Zestimate change? Does it look right to you?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Real estate online

July 12, 2011

Good news, bad news for Baltimore-area housing market

Here's the good news/bad news for the Baltimore region's housing market in June (with emoticons!):

:-D  The month was the biggest June in four years for the number of new contracts signed

:-(  But it's still way smaller than during the other Junes in the aughts

:-( or :-D (depending on your perspective)  Average prices were down 7 percent vs. a year earlier

:-(  And the number of home sales that closed in June -- as opposed to contracts signed, which will likely settle in July or August -- hit its lowest level in at least 13 years

:-D On the upside for sellers, competition was waning, with 7 percent fewer homes on the market than a year earlier

:-( But there's a lot of homes that could end up on the market later, courtesy foreclosure

Here's the full story, emoticon-less.

If you like to splash about in raw data, and who doesn't, you can find it at RealEstate Business Intelligence, the stats arm of Metropolitan Regional Information Systems.

One of the themes of this extended housing bust is "pent up" -- as in demand and supply. People who want to buy but are holding off because of volatility (or tighter mortgage rules or job uncertainty or any number of issues). Homeowners who want to sell but are hoping things will improve if they wait.

Is this you? Or are you a former pent-upper?

One of the real estate agents I talked with for the story, Azam Khan of Long & Foster, is seeing more activity and attributes it to fence-sitting market-watchers turning into buyers and sellers.

"People have been sitting around for the last three years, wondering, 'Should we list our house, should we not list, should we buy, shouldn't we buy?' And now it’s like, 'OK, let's do it,'" he said. "They've waited so long. It’s almost a whole cycle. You imagine people stay in their house for four years, maybe five. They've already done three years, three-plus years of this waiting and nothing happening. ... People have to sell because they get married, they have kids, they need to move for school districts or they're being relocated. And I'm seeing that happen more."

Here's what I wonder: If you line up all the prospective buyers and sellers who are still waiting, which group would be bigger -- and by how much?

On a side note, here are the links to the other statistical reports I mention in the news story:

Zillow's Real Estate Market Reports

Clear Capital's 2011 forecast

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Housing stats

July 11, 2011

Q&A: A lead-paint primer for new (and accidental) landlords




The difficult housing market has turned a lot of homeowners into landlords by necessity. They can't sell, at least not for the price they require, but they still need to move on -- so they're renting out their former homes.

For these "accidental landlords," and really any new landlord with an older home in Baltimore, trying to figure out how to comply with lead-paint rules seems daunting. One reader has a whole host of questions, and I thought a number of you would love to know the answers, too.

Enter Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning in Baltimore. She kindly agreed to do a Q&A guest post, with input from other staffers at the nonprofit.

She has run the coalition for 18 years.


Take it away, Ruth Ann:


Question: How does one best go about the process of getting square with the Maryland Department of the Environment lead rules for renting? Do I test the place myself first? Call MDE first? Call an outside contractor first?

Answer: Educate yourself on the Maryland Reduction of Lead Risk in Housing Law. Compliance with the law is mandatory for rental properties ("affected properties") constructed prior to 1950 and voluntary for rental properties constructed between 1950 and 1978.

The law requires that rental property owners register their property annually with MDE and pay a fee of $15 per property, distribute lead informational and tenants' rights pamphlets to tenants, and have the property inspected by an independent inspector at each tenant turnover to make sure their property meets the Maryland Risk Reduction Standard.

Contact a lead certified inspection company or contractor before conducting any work in the property. Call the National Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning at 800-370-5323 or the Maryland Department of the Environment at 800-776-2706 if you need rental property owner compliance assistance.

Q: How do I find lead-paint inspectors?

A: Visit the MDE Lead Poisoning Prevention Program website for a list of certified lead inspectors and contractors in your area.

Q: What's a reasonable cost for testing? And will they tell me what I need to do to pass, or just if I pass?

A: Properties must pass inspection to verify that the property meets the Maryland Risk Reduction Standard either through a lead dust inspection or a visual inspection. The most commonly used inspection method in Maryland is lead dust sampling, where the inspector will review the property to insure there is no deteriorating paint and then take multiple dust wipes in the property to verify that the lead dust levels are below Maryland clearance standards.

The cost will vary depending on the size of the house and the number of lead dust wipes collected. Call multiple certified inspectors and compare prices if you are concerned about price.

If the property passes the lead dust inspection or visual inspection, the inspector will issue you a lead inspection certificate. If the property fails inspection, the inspector will notify you which surfaces in the property failed lead dust inspection or where deteriorated paint was observed.

Note: Lead dust testing will be the required inspection standard for all affected rental properties in Maryland starting on 1/1/12.

Q: Do inspectors test only the windows, or do I have to worry about paint on the rock walls in the basement?

A: No, inspectors test more than just windows. The inspector may test the window well, window sill or the floor in any room in the home, so make sure all surfaces receive proper prevention cleaning. Use Maryland certified contractors who know how to use proper lead-safe work practices and proper clean-up procedures to reduce lead dust and debris. In order to pass inspection, an affected property must have no chipping, peeling or flaking paint on any surface in the rental dwelling unit that is used for living, sleeping, eating, cooking or sanitation.

Q: How much of a chore is it to find contractors who meet the lead-safe work rules for any improvement?

A: There are two certifications required of contractors who work in affected rental properties – certification as a Maryland lead contractor as well as an EPA Lead Safe Certified Firm. You can obtain a list of certified contractors in your area by visiting the MDE and EPA websites.

Q: Will I inevitably have to remove any original doorframes and windows?

A: It is not required under the law, but there are a number of benefits to replacing older wooden windows and doors including, among others, less ongoing maintenance, reduced lead hazards and improved energy efficiency in the home. There are available grant and loan programs through the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development at 410-514-7530 and locally in some jurisdictions if you need financial assistance to complete lead hazard reduction work.

Q: Should I get certified before I start to look for a tenant, or wait until one is in place? It seems like doing it in advance is nice because there's less time pressure if you need to do work, but looking over the Department of the Environment website it also seems like that first tenant might trigger a re-certification requirement, in which case there's not much point.

A: The property must be inspected and certified prior to occupancy at each tenant turnover. You should have the property certified before offering it on the rental market because you want to be sure that the property is in compliance with the law and that you can deliver the property to the tenant on the agreed-upon date in the lease. If you wait until you have a lease, and then you fail the inspection, you may face additional problems.


Thanks, Ruth Ann!

Thoughts, questions, arguments? Comment away.

If you'd like to write a guest post -- either to share expertise or to share an interesting housing-related personal experience -- please drop me a line. Details here.

And if you've got questions you'd like to see a guest poster address on another subject, ask away right here.

July 8, 2011

Property-tax bill rising? Here's one reason why

Now that property-tax bills are hitting mailboxes, I've started to hear variations on this theme: "Why the heck did my tax bill go up if my property assessment went down?"

Blame the Homestead tax credit -- that's the most likely reason, anyway. The complex system for shielding owner-occupiers from big increases has a flip side, namely that many homeowners continue to see their total-due expand in a downturn.

Here's why:

The Homestead credit caps your bill by preventing your taxable assessment -- the amount of your property assessment you're actually taxed on -- from increasing more than a certain percent each year. That ranges by jurisdiction in Maryland from zero to 10 percent. In Baltimore and Baltimore County, it's 4 percent.

As long as the tax rate doesn't change, that effectively caps the increase in your tax bill by the same amount.

But here's the rub:

Say you bought a city home in 2000 when its assessed value was $100,000 and watched the value skyrocket to $200,000 in 2005. Now the assessors say it's worth $170,000. Will you see a tax decrease? No. Because you're only paying on $154,000 of that value -- $100,000 increased by 4 percent each year through 2011.

And if tax rates stay unchanged, you'll keep paying 4 percent more a year until you catch up with your full assessed value -- either by dint of time, more property-value drops or both.

Another Homestead-credit complexity that confuses the heck out of people: New buyers who move in partway through the fiscal year -- which runs July 1 through June 30 -- pay taxes for that partial year as if they were the previous owner, inheriting that person's Homestead credit if there was one. So it's not unusual for a new homeowner's taxes to jump a lot on his or her first July 1 in the property. That homeowner won't be eligible for the Homestead tax break until the following July.

Also, keep in mind that big renovations can affect your tax bill even if you have the Homestead credit. That's another "whaaa?" moment for homeowners.

If you're itching to appeal your assessment, here's a post with links that will get you going in the right direction. Just remember that an appeal will only decrease your taxes if you can get your property assessment lowered to an amount below what you're actually paying taxes on now.

If your bill doesn't note that taxable assessment, just your full assessment, never fear. You can figure it out.

First, look for the line that tells you how much your jurisdiction -- Baltimore or one of the counties -- is taxing you before the effect of the credit. Subtract the credit amount to get your bottom-line locality tax.

Multiply that number by 100.

Divide by your locality's tax rate, which should be on the bill but is also listed here -- well, last year's fiscal rates are, at least. (They're shown per $100 in value, which is why you needed to multiply by 100 first.) For Baltimore, it's $2.268.

And there you are -- your taxable assessment. This is the important number: If you appeal and persuade the state that your property is worth less than this amount, you'll lower your tax bill. But if, as in the example of the city homeowner above, your true value is between your $170,000 full assessment and your $154,000 taxable assessment, you'll see no (immediate) effect on your taxes.

If you're planning to sell and you're in this "in between" situation, you might want to appeal anyway to save your prospective buyers the trouble of appealing themselves. Or maybe you don't, if you're convinced that a lower assessed value will interfere with your asking price. This seems to be a point of some contention. What do you think, buyers, sellers?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Homestead Property Tax Credit, Property taxes

July 7, 2011

State inquiry into mortgage servicers finds "eye-opening" problems

What's causing mortgage-servicing errors, from misapplied payments to double-charging for homeowners' insurance?

At least part of the reason seems to be that the records aren't managed in a way that allows servicers to see everything about a loan's history in one place.

Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation saw this type of record-keeping problem again and again after launching an examination of servicers in the wake of robo-signing last fall.  That inquiry is still in the works.

Anne Balcer Norton, deputy commissioner of financial regulation at the labor department, said the state found that piecing together the pre- and post-default story of even one borrower requires servicers to pull information from multiple databases, including some outsourced to other firms.

State examiners went back and forth with servicers for months to get documentation that could provide a full picture, she said. Some material was never provided, despite multiple requests, and "you have to assume it’s because it does not exist," Norton said.

She said the experience has been "very eye-opening."

"It really does call into question the accuracy of the record-keeping in general," said Norton, who emphasized that she was speaking specifically about the state's inquiry, not the overall effort by state attorneys general across the country. (That nationwide inquiry/settlement is still in the works, but you can see the leaked settlement proposal from March right here.)

Norton, who worked as general counsel to a mortgage lender and as the head of a local nonprofit's foreclosure-prevention team before joining the state, experienced a record-keeping problem from a consumer's point of view a year ago. It involved her homeowners' insurance.

If you don't have a policy in place, your lender will get one and charge you for it. Such "force-placed" insurance is much more costly than a regular policy -- 10 times pricier, in some cases.(Lenders say that's because it's usually purchased for homes whose borrowers are behind on payments, increasing the risk that the home will end up damaged. But critics say the cost is inflated by kickbacks -- making it harder for borrowers to get themselves current.)

Norton said her servicer notified her that she had no insurance coverage and it planned to force-place a policy. But she did have coverage.

"I had to call, find out what their records showed, insist on getting the name of the person I was talking to, getting their direct line, getting their direct fax, their email address, getting the policy, calling back to confirm," Norton said. "It took three tries before it was actually recorded. ... Every time you call, it was the same thing: 'We have no record of you having a policy.' OK, I'll do it again."

That's her advice to homeowners who run into problems: Be persistent. And while it might be very nice to hear someone say they'll take care of it, don't rely on that -- call back later to confirm.

This is culled from my reporting for this week's story about mortgage-servicing problems. You can read the story here.

Brian J. Casey, one of the homeowners featured in the story, has been been fighting to resolve a record-keeping nightmare for the past three years.

He said he got into a temporary cash crunch in 2008 when a client failed to pay his banking-consultancy business, putting him two months behind on his mortgage. So he was glad to accept a local bank's offer to refinance him into a loan that would save him $1,000 a month. But when he asked for a payoff statement from his servicer to close the deal, the servicer claimed he was farther behind on payments than his own records showed -- and told him it couldn't provide the loan history to back up its figures, he said.

"They formally told me by electronic mail, 'We don't have it,'" said Casey, whose servicer had at that point recently taken over his loan from a failing company. "Literally, 'We don't have the records.'"

One twist I couldn't fit into the main story: When the servicer said he was in default, it charged him not once but several times in October 2008 for force-placed insurance -- at $3,900 a pop -- even though his own $1,000-a-year insurance policy had already been paid up, Casey said. The servicer reversed the charges later without explanation, he said.

"The whole mortgage-finance industry is terribly flawed," Casey said. 

On a related note:

Jim Kowalski, a consumer attorney in Florida who helped bring "robo-signing" to light (except he calls it "robo-perjury"), said some servicing problems are a result of the firms building walls around divisions that need to communicate. When the payment-processing department can't tell the foreclosure department to call off a sale because they’re using different computer platforms and don't talk to each other, for instance, borrowers fall through the cracks, he said.

"It's a rampant problem," said Kowalski, a former state prosecutor.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Mortgage servicing, Mortgages, The foreclosure mess

July 6, 2011

Mistakes were made, servicers' trade group says (and Justice Dept. arm offers examples)

Mortgage servicers and servicing critics agree on at least one point: The industry has made mistakes, and things should change. What's in dispute is the scope and type of problems -- and how often misbehavior plays a role.

David H. Stevens, president and chief executive of the Mortgage Bankers Association, a trade group whose members include servicers, talked with me for this week's story on the state of servicing and said he's supportive of the idea of nationwide mortgage servicing standards -- which seems likely to happen under the guidance of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

"Coming out with a common set of standards that applies to everybody, ideally applies to all states, would create a system in this country that would have integrity and protect consumers and be enforceable, and that's what we're lacking right now," said Stevens, former commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration. (He expressed concern about competing sets of rules, some in place, some in the works.)

On the subject of servicing problems, he said "mistakes were made, and they were made in a variety of different ways." He said servicers were caught off guard and overwhelmed by the extent of the housing crisis, though he said some companies were more adept than others.

The problems Stevens is talking about are the ones struggling borrowers are well acquainted with by now. He rattled off a list "from lack of trained resources, to being able to properly explain these new [assistance] programs that had been created, to operational challenges of handing off a borrower who calls a call center to someone knowledgeable about underwriting guidelines."

That all falls into the broad category of foreclosure-prevention assistance -- loan modifications, short sales and the like. Situations such as Lutherville doctor Anca Safta's -- where a servicer sent an intent-to-foreclose notice because it wasn't properly recognizing her on-time payments -- "would be an extreme rarity in the process," Stevens said. Loan-modification issues are "the more common challenges we have heard," he said.

Homeowner advocates say problems such as foreclosing on the wrong people, locking people out of their homes and throwing away their possessions when they weren't behind on any mortgage or weren't yet to the point of foreclosure auction, and charging inappropriate fees are more common than the industry acknowledges.

The U.S. Trustee Program, the arm of the Justice Department charged with protecting the integrity of the bankruptcy process, was involved with the investigation that led to a $108 million settlement with Countrywide last year over allegations about fee-gouging before it was acquired by Bank of America.

In November the trustees launched a "concentrated enforcement effort" of bankruptcy cases in locations across the country to closely look at mortgage servicers' filings. Their findings so far suggest "continued, widespread problems," said Jane Limprecht, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trustee Program.

"To obtain more information, we have filed hundreds of motions for discovery," she said in an email. "In response, servicers have filed more than 200 motions to quash our discovery requests."

Limprecht said the enforcement effort grew out of work on individual cases. "We soon saw that there were broader, long-standing problems that had victimized many homeowners," she said in the email.

What they're looking for include inaccuracies in amounts servicers claim are owed, impermissible charges and insufficient proof.

I asked for examples. Here's what Limprecht provided:

A servicer filed a $30,000 arrearage claim primarily for missed payments. The amount listed for each missed payment exceeded the monthly amount due on the note, suggesting that the missed payment included an escrow payment. There was, however, a separate $370 escrow shortage charge already included on the claim. Further, the servicer claimed other charges, including $1,600 for "foreclosure fees," for which it did not provide an invoice or dates explaining the charges. The servicer amended its claim twice and both times calculated the missed payments differently than in the original proof of claim. The supporting documentation attached to the first amended claim was for a property that was unrelated to the debtors.

A servicer amended its claim four times to add a variety of charges, such as appraisal fees, bankruptcy attorney fees, foreclosure fees, property inspection fees, and interest on escrow. No invoices for the charges or dates for when the charges were incurred were provided. On the most recent proof of claim, the undocumented charges exceeded $6,000.

A claim was filed for $52,042.58. After the debtor objected, the claim was amended to reduce the arrearage amount to $3,156. ...

A servicer obtained forced-place insurance even though the debtors had their own insurance. The servicer then sought relief from stay [in order to foreclose], asserting an arrearage based on the erroneous insurance charges.

No supporting documentation was included for $10,260.50 in "prior service" fees.

After a debtor's chapter 13 plan was confirmed, the lender doubled the escrow payment, increasing the monthly payment by about one-half. The debtor could not afford the new payment and the lender filed a motion for relief from stay to foreclose.

The links above were provided by me for people in need of definitions for escrow and forced-place (also known as force-placed or lender-placed) insurance.

There's been a long-running argument over fees and charges, and whether servicers are purposely squeezing homeowners to drum up more money for themselves rather than helping people who could otherwise avoid foreclosure.

The Mortgage Bankers Association says in a white paper about servicing that it's a "myth" that companies make money from late fees, considering the expenses they shoulder when a borrower is in default. Servicers have no financial incentive to foreclose because they then lose the monthly stream of income they received from managing the loan, the group says.

"I recognize there are mistakes made, but without question, it does nothing but harm to the servicer as well as the family," said Stevens, the trade group's CEO. "Servicers lose on all counts when they make mistakes, and the fees do not offset the expenses associated.”

Congress has heard testimony about servicer compensation that suggests it is indeed playing a role in the way the companies are handling delinquent borrowers' requests for modifications, short sales and other foreclosure alternatives. Laurie Goodman of Amherst Securities Group testified in May to a subcommittee of the Senate Banking Committee that servicers have conflicts of interest that harm both homeowners and mortgage investors, including this one:

The servicer often owns a share in companies that [provide] ancillary services during the foreclosure process, and [charge] above‐market rates on such. Entities that provide services during the foreclosure process that are possibly owned by servicers include force‐placed insurance providers and property preservation companies. (These companies provide maintenance services as well as property inspection services.) Even when a servicer is not affiliated with the company providing the service, they often mark up the fees considerably.

What is the consequence of affiliates of the servicer charging above market fees? Such fees are added to the delinquent amount of the loan, making it much harder for a borrower to become current. Moreover, when a loan is liquidated, the severity on the loan (the percentage of the current loan amount lost in the foreclosure/liquidation process) will be much higher, to the detriment of the investor(s) in that mortgage. It also tends to make servicers less inclined to resolve the loan through a short sale, as fee income that will be earned in the interim (as the loan winds its way through a lengthy foreclosure process) is quite attractive.

More on force-placed insurance tomorrow.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Mortgage servicing, Mortgages, The foreclosure mess

July 5, 2011

For Md. homeowner, a refinance request gone wrong

Angela Cottrell regrets ever calling her mortgage servicer to ask about refinancing options. What Wells Fargo suggested she do ultimately increased her loan balance and ruined her credit, she said.

Cottrell, who bought a Charles County home with her husband in 2005, couldn’t take advantage of lower interest rates with a traditional refinance in 2009 because their home’s value had dropped below the mortgage balance. When she heard about an Obama administration program allowing certain “underwater” borrowers to refinance, she said, she contacted Wells Fargo.

She said staffers there looked over her financial documents and told her she qualified for lower payments — but through a modification, not a refinance. The company enrolled her in a trial plan, only to declare months later that she wasn’t eligible because she made too much money.

The company demanded she immediately pay back the difference of about $14,000 or it would foreclose, according to the attorney she later hired. She also faced unspecified late fees despite paying the agreed-upon amount on time, said Jason Ostendorf, her Owings Mills-based lawyer.

They say they don’t understand why Wells Fargo put her in a modification when it had all the information it needed upfront to see if she qualified. Cottrell said she never claimed she couldn’t afford her mortgage. She said she had, in fact, made $6,000 in additional payments over the years to bring down her principal balance more quickly — progress that was completely wiped out by the modification.

“I figured if you tell somebody they qualify, they qualify,” said Cottrell, 59, an insurance claims processor. “They never explained to me what would happen if I didn’t qualify. If they had explained to me, ... I would never have gone into it.”

Stressed and angry, she sued last year. That case is on appeal. But Wells Fargo — which declined to comment, citing customer confidentiality considerations — did agree to forgo foreclosure by increasing her mortgage balance by $11,000.

“Why do people have to hire a lawyer before the mortgage servicer does their job correctly?” asked Ostendorf, her attorney.

This is one of the outgrowths from the reporting of this week's story about mortgage-servicing problems. Stay tuned for a few more installments.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Mortgage servicing, Mortgages, The foreclosure mess

July 4, 2011

Mortgage servicing woes

When the brouhaha over foreclosure "robo-signing" hit last fall, mortgage servicers said the bogus court documents were just minor deviations from the rules and didn't change the fact that borrowers were way behind on their payments.

But it's increasingly clear now that servicing problems aren't limited to foreclosure documentation or to people who aren't paying.

Consider, for instance, Lutherville doctor Anca Safta, whose servicer threatened to start foreclosure proceedings this spring even though she'd never missed a payment. The company wasn't crediting her account because of an error in its records.

Or consider the Massachusetts couple whose Florida retirement home -- paid for in cash -- was broken into and cleaned out by a servicer's contractor last year in a case of mixed-up addresses.

You can read more in Sunday's story about mistakes and misbehavior. But there was lots of interesting stuff I couldn't fit in the story, and it seemed a shame not to share. For instance:

Borrowers (and some number of mortgage-less victims of the foreclosure crisis) aren't the only ones with complaints. Increasingly the pension plans, investment funds and other investors that bought loans as mortgage-backed securities are making it clear that they're unhappy with their servicers, too.

"As difficult as it may be to believe, many of the most sophisticated investors were as victimized and abused by the servicers and their affiliates as were many consumers," said Chris J. Katopis, executive director of the Association of Mortgage Investors, in May testimony to a Senate banking subcommittee.

I'll be parceling some of the other interesting tidbits into blog posts this week. In the meantime, here's a video in which Safta explains some of the twists and turns in her situation. (You'll have to see the story for the rest -- when we chatted at her home, she had yet to get an explanation for what exactly had gone wrong.)


Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Mortgage servicing, Mortgages, The foreclosure mess

July 1, 2011

Landers releases his property-tax-rate reduction proposal

Some people think the city should dramatically reduce its property-tax rate, some think it shouldn't (or can't), but everybody's talking about it these days.

Now comes Jody Landers, one of the mayoral candidates, with more specifics about his plan.

You can find it, just released, right here.

The essence is this: He proposes a 30 to 35 percent drop in the rate over the next four to six years, which would take it from almost $2.27 cents per $100 in taxable value to somewhere between $1.45 and $1.60.

He argues that a dramatic decrease by itself would not produce enough growth to quickly make up for all the lost revenue. So he would pair it with a "combination of spending reductions and new or increased revenue measures that do not detract from the City's ability to compete for residents and business."

In addition, he would change the property-tax system so that properties vacant for an extended period and those identified as "blighted" would be taxed at higher rates. (Washington has such a tiered system, and Wonk reader Matt Gonter has pressed for the city to adopt it, too. UPDATE: Here's another link to more backstory.)

"Property owners who maintain and improve their properties and are thereby helping to increase the tax base reap the reward of a lower tax rate, and those who are detracting from the tax base pay a higher share of taxes," Landers writes in his plan.


Do you have a favorite tax-reduction (or non-reduction) plan?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 1:34 PM | | Comments (23)
Categories: Property taxes

For homebuyers, sellers and agents alike, a rapid increase in real estate tech

Technology has revolutionized real estate -- and not just because we can check out photos of homes for sale while sitting around in our pajamas.

There are smart-phone apps for finding the nearest listings while you're driving about. Programs that email or text you when new homes that fit your specifications hit the market. "Zestimates" of everyone's home value.

John L. Heithaus, chief marketing officer for the region's multiple-listing service, Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, says this rush of technology -- and tech-fueled information -- is creating opportunities and challenges for buyers, sellers and agents alike.

"The real estate business is now open seven days a week, 24 hours a day, because of technology," he said.

MRIS held a tech-oriented conference last week in Silver Spring that drew nearly 300 real estate professionals, who came to hear about social media, digital marketing and the like. So the subject is on Heithaus's mind.

He thinks the challenge for consumers these days is the overwhelming amount of information to sift through, not all of it useful or accurate.

The challenge for agents, he says, is to keep up with fast-changing expectations. They need to be in "the center of the conversation" via social media, figure out how to use a variety of tech tools and hop to it if a would-be buyer sends a text that she's in the neighborhood and wants to check out their listing right now, he said.

"I'm a third-generation real estate kid," Heithaus said. "I can remember my grandfather's real estate business -- all he needed was a car, the multiple-listing service and a telephone. ... It's a whole new world."

MRIS is working on a "collaboration center" in which an agent can open a password-protected spot online to share information with a client and vice versa. The company has also launched a web television station, MRIS TV, with an HDTV-esque show called Distinctive Digs -- featuring homes for sale in the Baltimore-Washington area -- and another, Real Estate IQ, that has trends and suggestions.

"Our objective really is to start a dialogue with people," Heithaus said.

What real estate tech do you find useful? Do you do your real estate-ing primarily on your computer, your phone or another mobile device, i.e. iPad?

For that matter, what real estate tools or information do you want that you're not getting?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Real estate online
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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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