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August 31, 2011

Double-, triple-dipping on the homestead credit

The homestead credit is a no-second-helpings deal in Maryland: You can get the tax break on only one home, your principal residence. That's true for married couples, too -- just one credit.

Julie Scharper and I reported that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her husband collected homestead tax credits on two separate properties before she stepped up to the city's top job. Kent Blake, her husband, repaid seven years' worth of credits between January and May 2010 on a Columbia house he owns. A spokesman for the mayor said the repayments were made "without any prompting."

Clerk of Circuit Court Frank M. Conaway Sr., one of Rawlings-Blake's challengers in the mayoral primary, has been collecting homestead credits on two properties while his wife benefits from a third.

He said he didn't realize that he had been receiving the tax break on a rental property in addition to the one for his home, adding that he would pay that money back. But he declined to comment when he was asked why his wife -- the city's register of wills -- also is receiving a credit on a city property she owns.

Read the full story here.

Blogger Adam Meister has written about the Conaways' homestead credits, a fact that escaped me until after I did a deep dive into all the major mayoral candidates' property records and found problems. (I'm the opposite of a political junkie, so I hardly ever read politics blogs. Hey, I can't be a wonk in everything.)

What's probably best known about Meister's blogging: his posts about Frank Conaway's daughter, Belinda Conaway. The city councilwoman filed and then dropped a libel suit against Meister for writing that she had indicated in a document filed in the land records that a Baltimore County property she owns is her principal residence. That home also received a homestead credit. (Belinda Conaway's attorney said the document had been signed in error.)

Homestead credit double-dipping has cropped up a lot over the years, sometimes by property owners who -- for reasons explained in today's story -- don't realize they're doing it. Triple-dips, even quadruple-dips, happen, too.

A 2007 law designed to put an end to unwarranted homestead breaks specified for the first time that owners must apply for the credit, a requirement that is being phased in. New buyers must submit their information, including a Social Security number, to state assessors. Owners who bought before 2008 have until the end of next year to follow suit.

If a Social Security number is associated with more than one property for purposes of the homestead credit, that's a red flag to assessors to follow up with the owner. And because the IRS links spouses' Social Security numbers, staffers will know if there's any husband-and-wife double dipping on credits, according to Robert E. Young, director of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation.

Those checks and balances won't be fully functional until the application deadline for longer-term owners has passed, of course. That's 16 months away.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:01 AM | | Comments (15)
Categories: Homestead Property Tax Credit, Property taxes

August 30, 2011

Tax tips for home sellers (and would-be sellers)

If you're selling your home, you're probably not thinking of the income-tax implications just yet -- April 15 seems so far away. But it's always best to be forewarned.

Owings Mills-based accounting firm Glass Jacobson is offering some tips to that effect, including these:

1. Generally, you are eligible to exclude the gain from income if you have owned and used the home as your MAIN RESIDENCE for two out of the last five years prior to the date of its sale.

2. If you have a gain from the sales of your main home, you may be able to exclude up to $250,000 of the gain from your income ($500,000 on a joint return).

3. You are not eligible for the exclusion if you excluded the gain from the sale of another home during the 2 year period prior the sale.

You'll find all the tips here.

In case you're wondering: If you sell your primary residence at a loss, you can't deduct that from your taxes, Glass Jacobson says. Sorry, folks.

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

August 29, 2011

Delays on the way to the settlement table

Sarah Parker was all set to close on the sale of her Timonium home at the end of May. Instead, she settled about 10 days later -- after a problem with the buyer's mortgage that almost upended the deal.

Marney Kirk, her real estate agent, says settlement delays are popping up frequently these days, often because the loan underwriter wants more information at a late date.

"Most settlements are not taking place on the day they were supposed to happen," said Kirk, with Keller Williams in Timonium.

The delays are usually for days rather than weeks, she said, and typically end with the deal closing after all. Just later than planned.

For Parker, it meant extra stress thrown into the mix of a cross-country move that came soon after she and her husband married.

"It started out very smoothly," said Parker, a high school teacher. Her Cape Cod had been on the market just four days before a buyer made an offer. 

"We had a closing date, everything went fine, and then last minute -- two days before we were supposed to close -- they told us we were not going to be able to close because there was a problem with the lender," she said. "Long story short, it was a divorce situation, they were trying to determine the verbiage between alimony and child support in terms of how much she could qualify for the loan. She was pre-qualified; this was what was so frustrating for us."

Parker actually put the house back on the market and had a few more showings -- not knowing if the $249,000 deal would collapse -- before the problem was finally resolved.

She and her husband moved to Florida, where they're now waiting to close on a short sale. Closing date, last we chatted: Aug. 30 -- tomorrow. Warp speed in short sale terms.

The four-bedroom house she's hoping to get for $285,000 was built in 2004, with a hot tub, an in-ground pool, a huge kitchen and a three-car garage. The sellers bought the place for $435,000 in 2006, she said.

She can't wait to get her things out of storage.

"It'll be like Christmas," she said.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Housing market experiences

August 26, 2011

Chase opens Baltimore center for struggling borrowers

Chase, which is opening "homeownership centers" across the country to give struggling borrowers a location for face-to-face conversations, officially launched one in Baltimore Thursday. It's the first Chase homeownership center in the state, the company said.

Homeowners with mortgages serviced by Chase or EMC can meet with loan counselors at the center, at 1040 Park Avenue, Suite 210.

Some other big servicers have centers of their own. Bank of America's closest is in Alexandria, Va., which opened earlier this year.

Have you been to a loan-help center or workshop (such as Bank of America's three-day event at the Baltimore Convention Center in June)? Did it do you any good?

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

August 25, 2011

Earthquake damage? Make sure it's fixed by someone with a license, state urges

State regulators are reminding homeowners with wall and foundation cracks or other damage to their property -- courtesy of the earthquake this week -- to avoid unlicensed contractors.

Contractors must be licensed. But more importantly, you're covered by the Maryland Home Improvement Guaranty Fund if a licensed contractor does lousy work or otherwise causes you economic harm. Go with an unlicensed guy, and you're out in the cold.

"Too often, unlicensed contractors arrive after a major storm or a natural disaster with disingenuous offers to help," Stanley J. Botts, state commissioner for occupational and professional licensing, said in a statement.

The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation says you can get license and complaint histories from the Maryland Home Improvement Commission at 410-230-6309. License information is also available online.

How did the earthquake affect you?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 3:25 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Home maintenance

August 24, 2011

Homestead credits for non-homesteads

The point of the homestead tax credit is to keep Maryland owner-occupiers from seeing their property-tax bills skyrocket. Nobody else is supposed to get the benefit of that tax break, but it's going to the owners of 465 homes cited by the city as vacant.

The analysis was simple: Colleague Scott Calvert and I compared the city's list of homes with vacant building notices against its list of properties with homestead credits. Total amount of city homestead credits to homes listed as vacant: $325,000.

The city sends its list of registered rentals to the state Department of Assessments and Taxation twice a year so it can be cross-checked for homestead recipients. But it hasn't been sending the vacants list and asking for the same analysis. 

After we reported this on Tuesday, the city Finance Department said it would be sending that list to the state assessors by the end of the afternoon. Challengers to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, meanwhile, issued strongly worded tsk-tsks. The follow-up story is here.

In related tax-credit news (same story): Mayoral candidate Frank M. Conaway Sr. is receiving homestead breaks on two properties, a rental home as well as his own home. He said Tuesday that he had no idea he was getting the credit on the rental, and he notified the assessment department by email.

"I tried to pay it today, but they wouldn't let me," Conaway said. "Nobody wanted to take the money."

Loyal readers will recall that city resident Matt Gonter has spent years tracking down and reporting owners of properties with unwarranted homestead credits. Here's the 2008 story about his one-man effort and a 2009 update.

He's been prodding the city to do more on its own. Last month, the Finance Department launched a "billing integrity program" designed to catch tax cheats and those unwittingly getting breaks they shouldn't be receiving.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Homestead Property Tax Credit, Property taxes

August 23, 2011

Less improvement on the mortgage-delinquency front

The number of Maryland homeowners in trouble on their mortgages has been getting better -- modestly -- since last summer. But the pace of improvement is slowing down.

Borrowers who were at least one month behind during the spring dropped in numbers from a year earlier by 4 percent, according to new numbers from the Mortgage Bankers Association. The year-over-year decline was about 10 percent last fall and winter.

New delinquencies, borrowers just one month behind, actually rose year-over-year. The increase was slight, but that's the first time single-month delinquencies grew since summer 2009. The mortgage bankers' trade group blamed rising unemployment for a similar trend nationwide.

More details in this story, including Maryland's high ranking nationwide on seriously delinquent mortgages that aren't yet in the foreclosure process.

On a related note: The state has now approved just over 680 Emergency Mortgage Assistance loans for homeowners who are unemployed or suffered a drop in income. The no-interest, forgivable loans help cover past-due amounts and a portion of the monthly payments for up to two years.

Of the $40 million allocated by Congress to Maryland, almost $23 million has been committed to homeowners so far. The drop-dead deadline to approve funding for the loans is Sept. 30, so the state says homeowners must apply by no later than Sept. 15 to allow for processing. Earlier is better, state housing officials say, because the money is first come, first served.

More on how to apply here.

How is the foreclosure situation affecting you?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: The foreclosure mess

August 22, 2011

Homes for less than $10k and other craziness (housing market, mid-2011 edition)


Photo by Sun photographer Jed Kirschbaum


Want a home for less than $10,000? You wouldn't be alone: About 275 of the properties changing hands in Baltimore during the first half of the year fell in that price range.

That's one out of every 10 home sales in the city.

That's more than the number of under-$10,000 Baltimore homes that sold in 2009 and 2010 combined.

That's a bigger group than the number of homes selling for $750,000-plus in the entire metro area.

And that's just one of the tidbits in the mid-year 2011 housing-market story, the every-six-months exercise in number-crunching and mapping that I hope you'll find interesting.

Here's the linkage (and a few details about that photo above):

You can read the story.

You can check out interactive maps showing the change in average prices and buying activity (both for the region's ZIP codes and the city's neighborhoods). Kudos to colleague Michael Workman for putting this together.

You can splash around in the numbers with this searchable database of ZIP codes. Three cheers for colleague Patrick Maynard for making this possible.

And you can have fun with photo galleries, one showing the most expensive suburban communities and city neighborhoods and one showing housing-market extremes. Brownie points to colleague Liz Hacken for turning the numbers into a visual experience.

Enjoy, I hope!

As for the photo: That's the interior of a home on Archer Street in Baltimore that a real estate investment company recently bought for $5,000. AORE Investments expects to put $55,000 in the rehab, which you can see will have to be substantial.

The purchase price is so low that the settlement costs add up to nearly as much. But this home is far from the cheapest transaction in the first half of the year. For details on that, you'll have to read the story.

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

August 19, 2011

Buy or rent? Trulia says buying is cheaper here (but not everywhere)

Trulia, comparing the cost of buying in Baltimore with the cost of renting, says buying is cheaper. The costs are more in favor of buying vs. renting here than they are in most large cities, according to Trulia's figures: We're No. 10.

Trulia is using asking prices and rents from its site -- it has both sides of the housing coin -- and runs them through a calculation we've talked about before: Divide the asking price by a year's worth of rent.

If your number is 15 or lower, buying is better, in Trulia's book. If it's above 15, advantage renting -- especially the higher that number gets.

Baltimore's figure is 11. Lowest of all is Las Vegas, at 6. At the other end is New York with a whopping 36, which Trulia (in what seems like an understatement) dubs "much more affordable to rent."

Patrick Killelea outlines a different rule of thumb on his housing-bubble-and-bust site

I walked it out in this post, but bottom line, he turns the calculation around -- divide a year's worth of rent by the asking price. Nine percent or more suggests that "prices are reasonable," he writes.

None of this necessarily tells you where home prices will go from here, especially with unemployment, foreclosures and other factors weighing on the market. (Regional averages, meanwhile, don't tell you whether the specific home you're looking at is a good deal.) But as Killelea notes, there is a certain amount of peace of mind that comes with buying a home that wouldn't lose you money if you had to rent it out.

I polled you a few months ago on whether you thought owning or renting had the edge over the next 20 years, and owning got just 52 percent of the vote. Twenty-eight percent of you thought renting had the upper hand, while the rest -- 20 percent -- thought it was too close to call.

Have you been doing any rent vs. buy calculations of your own? What are your conclusions?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Housing stats, Renting

August 18, 2011

Days on market for the typical Baltimore-area home for sale: 98

The typical home for sale in the Baltimore region in July had been sitting on the market for 98 days -- a little over three months.

So says, which released a market-trends report with statistics on homes for sale. Many of the stats we see are for places that have already sold, so it's a change of pace to get a snapshot of the so-called market inventory.

The region's median time-on-market is almost exactly the same as the nation's, which is one day shorter at 97. Several metro areas are at or above 150 days -- five months. Two -- Oakland, Calif. and Denver -- are under 50. (Denver's typical home has been on the market about a month.)

Aggregated days-on-market figures hide a lot of variations, of course. Homes are always coming on, brand-spanking new, their time on market measured in minutes. Others have been languishing for months. Occasionally years.

And the figures don't necessarily reflect how long the wait has been for sellers, since some pull their homes off the market and put them back on later so they can be brand-spanking new all over again from a multiple-listing standpoint.

Average asking price for listings in the Baltimore region, in case you're wondering: $335,000, down 5 percent from a year earlier, according to The median asking price is substantially lower, $245,000.

On a related note, says the Baltimore area was the 18th most popular for online real estate searches in July. Chicago was No. 1, followed by Las Vegas and -- wait for it -- Detroit. (The typical asking price in Detroit is $95,000.)

But back to days on market: For comparison's sake, I looked up the statistics for home sales in July, which come from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems' stats arm. The average home sold that month changed hands in 114 days.

Thirty percent of the sales went in 30 days or less.  Twenty percent sold in six months or more.

If your home is on the market, how long has it been so far?

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

August 17, 2011

Designing the best 'Best Places to Live' list

There's no perfect best-of list, especially if you're ranking communities. Go to any neighborhood and chances are the people who live there don't all agree about whether it's a nice place or not, let alone the people who don't live there.

So I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that Money's most recent ranking for best small towns has drawn "you gotta be kidding" comments from readers who don't agree with the three Maryland communities the magazine included on its list.

"I wouldn't ask my worst enemy to move there," Geoff wrote of Montgomery Village.

JD commented, "This makes me laugh - I lived in Crofton for 7 years and HATED every minute of it!"

"As for Eldersberg, except for some defense facilities nearby that are cutting back, nothing is close for commuting," wrote didactic1.

Some readers had good things to say about the communities, naturally. Some suggested other places for an ideal best-of list.

But all this got me wondering: Setting aside the fact that no list would be met with universal approval, what would make a pretty darn good list? What statistics would you look at? How would you try to account for hard-to-measure qualities that make a place livable?

When I picked the hidden-gem neighborhoods in 2009, I didn't try to make it a top-10 list. They weren't a best-of, just examples of nice places where average prices were under $250,000 and name recognition wasn't (as far as I could tell) especially high.

I understand the appeal of ranking, though. After all -- thousands of you stopped by to look at yesterday's post about someone else's ranking. Imagine how many hits Money is getting.

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

August 16, 2011

Three Md. communities make 'Best Places to Live' list

Crofton, Eldersburg and Montgomery Village made it onto Money magazine's list of best small towns this year.

The "Best Places to Live" ranking looked at communities of 50,000 or less, considering such factors as school test scores, local purchasing power and crime.

Thirteen states -- including Virginia and Pennsylvania -- have five towns on the list. But about half have zero, so three ain't bad.

In case you're wondering, this is separate from Money's best-of list that ranks small cities, the one that last year had Columbia/Ellicott City together as No. 2.

Crofton is in Anne Arundel County, Eldersburg is in Carroll County and Montgomery Village is in Montgomery County.

What would you call the best small town in Maryland?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:15 AM | | Comments (22)
Categories: We're No. 1! (Or thereabouts)

Memo to neighborhoods: Don't make it harder than it already is for homeowners to sell

Real estate agent Nancy McCord writes in with a problem: She's trying to sell a home in a condo community in Columbia and is feeling hampered by the property-management company. It's quick to tow cars that don't have an approved-to-park-here sticker, she said -- which includes prospective buyers.

"The management company is closed by 2:30pm on Fri. and opens again Monday mornings. Realtors do most of their showings on weekends. It is at the realtor's risk to show during the weekend," she writes.

"I have tried to get the management company to see what damage they are doing their own residents by not making it easier to show properties there," she added. "Not only should they help sellers, but encourage them. Without the fees from the owners, there is no money to pay the management company. I know of at least some residents that have been towed and are very angry about it. I've tried to reach the association - made up of owners but to no avail."

This is a new one on me. Has anyone else had trouble of this sort -- either getting towed while looking at a home or hearing that your prospective buyers are being hassled? What would you suggest in this case?

The market is hard enough for home sellers, so you'd hope your neighborhood isn't unwittingly making it worse.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Neighborhood and neighbors

August 15, 2011

Home prices ... up?

The Fiserv Case-Shiller index shows home prices in the Baltimore area going an unexpected direction in the first quarter of this year: Up.

The Baltimore metro area saw a price gain of 1.2 percent compared with a year earlier, the index says, and though that's a very small gain I called the company just to make sure it wasn't a typo. Other measures I've seen for the region all show losses.

It's not a typo. But Fiserv doesn't see it as the beginning of a trend. It's predicting that prices in the region will be 4.6 percent lower in the first quarter of next year than they were in first-quarter 2011.

David Stiff, Fiserv’s chief economist, attributes the Baltimore area's small increase -- at a time when the index shows home prices falling just over 5 percent nationwide -- to an unemployment rate that's not as bad as the United States'. It's averaged 7.5 percent in the region this year, compared with 9 percent for the U.S.

The Fiserv Case-Shiller index compares repeat sales of the same homes over time as a way to avoid the problem of changing mix -- homes selling now that aren't comparable to the homes selling a year ago. Taking the average or median price of everything that sells can leave you comparing apples and oranges, so you can see why Fiserv's numbers don't necessarily track with multiple listing service data. (In March, the MLS showed average sale prices in the metro area dropping 7 percent; the median fell 11 percent.)

But Clear Capital, another real estate information firm, has a repeat-sales index that shows home prices in the metro area falling, too. I asked Stiff what could explain the difference.

"When prices are reaching a bottom and there’s a lot of volatility in the data, different measures are probably not going to agree," he said. "In fact, ... the quarter to quarter changes in our indexes are up and down for Baltimore. So it could be because of the timing when the data was collected for each measure; it could be in differences in geographic coverage. ... They're all probably within the margin of error."

Something the Baltimore area has going for it, which helps cushion the employment and housing situation, is the Washington effect, Stiff said. More federal money in the form of government employees and government contractors, plus some "spillover demand" from people who work around D.C. but decide to live around Baltimore, he said.

Those ripple effects are likely to weaken as Washington tries to get a handle on outsized debt. As the University of Baltimore's Richard P. Clinch has so succinctly put it, "When the government sneezes, we catch the flu." Here's hoping it won't be the 1918 kind.

If you're interested/anxious about the effect of federal belt-tightening on the area, check out this Q&A with the founder of Blueprint Maryland, a nonprofit launched to help the state get through this test of its mettle with at least a passing grade.

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

August 12, 2011

Distress homes: 21% of city listings, 44% of actual sales

About 1,000 Baltimore homes on the market are either foreclosures or short sales -- 21 percent of the total. But such distress properties accounted for a whopping 44 percent of actual sales from January through July, according to a Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors analysis of multiple listing service data.

All told, buyers have picked up almost 1,500 foreclosures or short sales in the city -- mostly foreclosures.

Do distress properties make up a much larger share of sales than listings because buyers are zeroing in on them as the good deals? Some of it seems to be fewer foreclosures on the market. They accounted for just under 300 properties for sale as of Wednesday, but there were more than twice as many -- about 640 -- on the market in mid-November.

The lingering effect of robo-signing, perhaps. The number of seriously delinquent loans certainly hasn't dropped in half.

But even if there were as many foreclosures on the market now as there were in November, they'd push the distress category to 28 percent of all listings. So yeah, it does seem like buyers -- investors in at least some cases -- are gravitating toward these homes.

Foreclosures, that is. Short sales represented 6 percent of the city's sales so far this year but 15 percent of listings on Wednesday. Frequently a long and frustrating process, trying to close on a short sale.

Here's the breakdown for the rest of the region, calculated by the GBBR from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems data:

Remember, in all cases the sales figures are January through July while the listing figures -- what's for sale -- are as of Wednesday.

In Anne Arundel County, foreclosures were 19 percent of home sales and 4 percent of listings. Short sales were 9 percent of sales and 12 percent of listings.

In Baltimore County, foreclosures were 22 percent of home sales and 4 percent of listings. Short sales were 6 percent of sales and 12 percent of listings.

In Carroll County, foreclosures were 19 percent of home sales and 4 percent of listings. Short sales were 7 percent of sales and 9 percent of listings.

In Harford County, foreclosures were 20 percent of home sales and 3 percent of listings. Short sales were 8 percent of sales and 10 percent of listings.

In Howard County, foreclosures were 10 percent of home sales and 3 percent of listings. Short sales were 8 percent of sales and 13 percent of listings.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Distress sales

August 11, 2011

A would-be home seller on the decision to get off the market

Would-be buyers frustrated about asking prices comment here with semi-regularity. But I hear from frustrated would-be sellers, too, especially those who have dropped their price without getting any interest.

One reader from Baltimore's Mount Washington neighborhood emailed this week to share her experience:

Last December, my husband and I fell in love with a two-bedroom condo in an up-and-coming city neighborhood that put us within walking distance of our commutes (Penn Station for one of us, a nearby office building for the other). After 20 years of homeownership, and with our only child in college, we were primed and ready to downsize downtown. We hired a reputable local Realtor and put our home on the market in March, 2011.

Flash forward to this August. Countless brokers' open houses and house showings later, we've taken our house off the market and asked for a refund on our condo deposit.

What happened? The home shows very well; that's not the issue. Our street has some rough edges--but it's in one of the most coveted neighborhoods in all of Baltimore, with a great local school and amenities. So that's not the issue. We lowered the asking price twice. So pricing wasn't the hold-up. I placed extra listings on a couple of key websites and prepared extra flyers for visitors, highlighting the great school. Yet we didn't get a nibble; not one.

The culprit is timing. A quick survey on Zillow shows an astonishing glut of area homes in our price range languishing for half a year or more, unwanted. Despite historic low mortgage rates, prospective buyers on the modest end of the market--where we're priced--just aren't taking the bait. Looking back, there's nothing we could have done differently, short of giving the house away. Lesson learned. We live to fight another day.

I hear frequently from real estate agents that just about any home will sell if the price is right. In volatile times, though, it's not always easy to figure out what that price is. And a homeowner might not be willing to accept that amount -- whatever it may be -- if he or she has reason to believe the value should be higher and will get there in the near term (or if, as frequently happens, he or she is underwater).

This all gets back to the idea of "pent-up supply," homeowners who sure would like to sell but aren't on the market.

If you haven't had enough of housing yet today, check out the story about July home sale statistics and how the craziness of the last week has seeped into the local market.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (19)
Categories: Housing market experiences

August 10, 2011

July home sales in the Baltimore area

Baltimore-area home sales rose in July compared with a year earlier, while home prices continued to sag.

It's the first time in five months that sales increased, but that's not surprising. The comparison point — July 2010 — is when settlements slumped as the effect of the federal first-time homebuyer tax credit waned. (Most buyers trying to get the incentive of up to $8,000 closed by June 30 last year, which if you recall had been the deadline until Congress extended it at the last minute through the rest of that summer.)

More heartening for would-be home sellers than the 12 percent increase in July home sales: The number of new contracts in the Baltimore region has now risen for eight of the last nine months, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, which runs the multiple-listing service used to buy and sell homes in the area. (MRIS's stats arm has more statistics here.)

Buyers and sellers signed 24 percent more contracts in July than they did a year earlier — deals that will turn into sales within a few months if all goes smoothly. The approximately 2,400 new contracts represent the largest number signed in the month of July since 2007, before the full effects of the credit crunch and financial crisis set in.

This possible sales stabilization did not translate into price support, however. The average sale price in the Baltimore metro area slid 5 percent to just under $279,000.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:33 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Housing stats

Typical asking price in August: just under $230,000

A snapshot of the region's housing market in July is due out at 10 a.m. from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems' stats arm, RealEstate Business Intelligence. Check back for the rundown later this morning.

While you're waiting, here are some other numbers to chew on:

The typical asking price for a Baltimore-area home on the market so far in August was just under $230,000, according to the Department of Numbers, a website that tracks various statistics around the country. It's the first month since January that the asking price has dropped rather than risen.

The typical asking price, after decreasing from $219,000 in December to about $213,000 in January, increased steadily afterward to $231,000 in July. (This is for the metro area as a whole, not just the city.)

The peak? May 2006 -- $350,000.

I mentioned in June that the upward rise in asking prices was unusual compared with the past few years. We did tend to see an uptick in the spring and summer, but not to this extent.

"Anybody can ask whatever," Wonk reader Joe noted in a comment on that post. "Reality kicks in with the answer usually."

Sam added, "I've been looking to buy for several months now, and I everything I have seen is around 50k over priced. The reasonably priced home have sold so although I am picky, I honestly do not think I am overstating the price to value disparity. I sincerely hope this uptick is due to larger homes being introduced to the market, otherwise, we will just be seeing homes sitting on the market until the sellers wise up."

I'd suggested the larger-home theory as one possible explanation -- not that I'm assuming that's the reason, but just because such a change would press asking prices upward. On the flip side, fewer low-priced homes -- say, bank-owned ones -- would also have the effect of increasing the median list price.

What are you seeing out there? How many homes are well priced, and how many aren't?

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

August 9, 2011

S&P downgrade could affect your mortgage rate -- but probably not soon

Standard & Poor's downgrade of the United States' credit rating late Friday, followed by downgrades of financiers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on Monday, might not affect the mortgage rate you can get right this instant. But it probably will down the road, warns.

Zillow, meanwhile, expects basically no impact on rates for now but a housing-market hit of another sort. More on that in a moment. 

Bankrate's Greg McBride, chatting with me on Monday, said the Fannie and Freddie downgrades from AAA to AA+ matter more for borrowers than the country's debt downgrade.

"The downgrade of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt is what could lead to greater spreads between Treasury yields and those on mortgage-backed securities, and the rates borrowers pay," McBride said.

"Investors that buy mortgage bonds often buy them because they're guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The yield they're getting is only as good as the guarantee. If Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been downgraded, then those investors may command a higher premium for holding that debt, and that would translate into higher mortgage rates."

How long it might take to see the effect is anyone's guess. Right now, McBride said, the weak economy is helping keep mortgage rates low -- and certainly the Federal Reserve has no interest in seeing them rise. What might happen for a while is that rates could stay where they are rather than falling when Treasury yields fall, he said.

But a pickup in the economy would put upward pressure on mortgage rates, he said.

"The significance of the downgrade is in the long run, Uncle Sam, consumers and businesses will pay higher interest rates, even if only slightly higher rates," McBride said. "But that additional interest is money that's not being spent elsewhere in the economy."

LendingTree said lenders in its network were offering the same rates on Monday that they had on Friday -- 4.125 percent for a 30-year fixed mortgage.

"Although that's an increase of one-eighth of a point above Thursday's record lows, rates have held steady over the weekend and today," the company said Monday afternoon.

Consumers were apparently nervous: LendingTree said it had one of its "biggest days ever" over the weekend in the number of borrowers locking in loans.

Zillow's Stan Humphries wrote in a blog post Monday that Zillow Mortgage Marketplace saw an almost 20-basis-point increase in rates over the weekend, "but intraday rates have falling today and are back down to their Friday levels."

Consumers can expect "almost zero impact on mortgage rates" in the near term, he predicted. 

"With European sovereign debt fears and renewed signs of a slowing economic recovery (which was already moving in slow motion before), there's a real flight to safety in the markets right now, leading global investors to snap up U.S. bonds," Humphries wrote. "The reality is that, even with a downgrade, U.S. debt is still one of the safest bets around relatively."

But he's not saying there will be no impact on the housing market overall. He's pretty sure there will be, and not a good impact, either.

"In periods of economic turmoil, many consumers tend to hunker down, making it less likely they will engage in high-priced transactions like home purchases," he wrote.

The damaging effect on the stock market also means people have less money on hand.

"This makes it even more difficult to call the bottom," Humphries wrote.

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

August 8, 2011

Baltimore City's housing market

Next up in our tour of the region: Baltimore. The city's level of home sales is below what it was 13 years ago, after soaring during the bubble years and plummeting during the bust at rates that outpaced the suburbs.

Here's the change in the number of homes sold during the month of June, according to data from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems' RealEstate Business Intelligence arm:




And here's the change in price, also more dramatic on the up and downswing than the 'burbs:



Both price measures show an increase of just over 120 percent from 2000 to 2007, compared with around 100 percent for the Baltimore region as a whole (a little more than that for the median price, a little less for average).

Since then, the city's average sale price has slumped 24 percent. Median, a whopping 39 percent. Regionwide, by contrast, prices fell just under 20 percent.

We've chatted before about one of the causes: a lot of cheap foreclosures pulling down the average -- and the median especially -- in the city. So your personal results may vary.

(Missed the first stop in this jog down memory lane? Check out Anne Arundel County here.)

City homeowners, how have your values changed in the last few years? Buyers, what are you seeing out there? (Has anyone snagged a really low-priced home?)

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

August 5, 2011

Stemmer House under contract, but you'll have to wait for details


Photo of the Stemmer House, seen through a garden arch, by Sun photographer Barbara Haddock Taylor


If you read the weekend piece about the 260-year-old Stemmer House and its lush grounds going up for auction Wednesday, you might have been curious to hear the rest of the story -- what happened.

The auction was canceled because a buyer got the Baltimore County property under contract the night before. But at the buyer's specific request, that's all the auction house can say.

"I can't divulge, unfortunately, the price or the person at this point," said Jared Block, a real estate auction specialist at Alex Cooper Auctioneers.

The extremely curious among you will have to wait for the deal to close and pop up in the public records, assuming of course that you don't have an inside source.

UPDATE: Alex Cooper's Paul Cooper says he can reveal that the family buying the property is looking forward to restoring the house and maintaining the gardens. "It's not their intent to develop the land,"  he said.

Colleague Susan Reimer, who wrote the weekend story, notes that owner Barbara Holdridge had the property on the market earlier and could not sell. The auction was set to begin at $1.4 million, "far below her original asking price," Reimer writes.

"I assume it is because of the economy," Holdridge told her. "You know, I have had generous offers over the years, and I just scoffed at them. I always thought I would die here."

Here's a photo gallery of the house and gardens to satisfy the lookyloo in us all. (Check out the aerial view via Alex Cooper.) And here's a letter from a reader who hopes the property will at some point be preserved.

The main house, a Georgian mansion, is 6,300 square feet. It sits on more than 27 acres.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Auctions, For sale

August 4, 2011

Anne Arundel's housing market, by the year

I usually look at the region as a whole, but I know you're probably more interested in what's happening to a somewhat smaller housing market. Your neighborhood, say. Or at the very least, your county or city.

Over the next week or two, I'll share graphs that show the change in sales and prices in each of the six jurisdictions that make up the Baltimore area. First up: Anne Arundel County.

Here's a look at how the number of homes sold has changed in Anne Arundel since 1998 for the month of June, with data pulled from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems' RealEstate Business Intelligence arm:




And here's the same snapshot for average and median sale prices:



Anyone looking to buy -- or sell -- in Anne Arundel County? What are you seeing out there?

Do you think BRAC, the base realignment and closure process that's set to come to a close Sept. 15, has had any effect in this county?

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

August 3, 2011

Moving to Baltimore, needing advice about where to rent

Here's a reader question that anyone who has moved cross-country can relate to -- how do you figure out where to live if you don't know anything about your new community? The mother of a soon-to-be Baltimore resident emailed this week with a plea for help:

My 23 year old son just got a job and will be moving to Baltimore from Atlanta. He will be looking to rent a one bedroom apt for about $850. We plan to come up in about 2 weeks to look - can you make any suggestions about neighborhoods? He will have a car so he needs parking but his job is sales so he doesn't have a specific area where he needs to live. It also just so happens that his girlfriend is doing an internship at Johns Hopkins so she will be in that area but Michael will be in Baltimore for at least 18 mos. He's active, needs a gym (former track athlete) but also likes space and a washer and dryer.

What do you think? Renters, which areas have you enjoyed living in (neighborhoods especially, not necessarily specific apartment buildings) and why? Homeowners, you can weigh in, too -- it's not hard to find houses for rent these days, and some are near gyms.

I lucked out when I moved from Maryland to Iowa for my first job out of college: A colleague I hadn't even met yet called me up after I took the offer and said he'd find me a place to live. (Best co-worker ever.) But most folks relocating to a new area can't count on that sort of out-of-the-blue help. Advice from people in the know is the next best thing.

An explanation of how you zeroed in on an area that suited you would be helpful, too. There are a lot of apartment-search sites and homes for rent sites these days. But that gets you only so far.

New residents in need of crime and safety information have a variety of options, at least. This post links out to local government statistics sites. And this one notes some of the .com places with crime information.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (18)
Categories: Moving, Renting

August 2, 2011

Homebuilders: Regulation accounts for 25% of a new home's price

In Maryland and across the country, local and state agencies shape the homebuilding process through regulations -- rules about where and how companies can build. The idea is to avoid problems.

But the National Association of Home Builders says regulations add a substantial cost, accounting for 25 percent of the price of a new single-family home.

The trade group's study, conducted by, relied on survey responses from homebuilders, including firms with experience acquiring land and developing lots.

As you might imagine it would, the report suggests government officials think twice before adding more regulations in an environment where "builders are already reporting new homes appraising at less than the cost required to produce them."

The cost of regulation and regulatory-related delays tends to be somewhat higher in the Northeast, the study says.

Maryland -- at the cusp of the Northeast and South -- has a variety of rules that vary from county to county. Some are of the building-code sort. Some are queues designed to control the pace of development so it doesn't get ahead of new schools. And some require upfront fees to pay for the impact of more people on the roads and students in classrooms.

Maryland's "impact fees" are among the highest in the nation, according to a separate survey by impact-fee consulting firm Duncan Associates.

Duncan Associates says Maryland is one of the few states where you'll find impact fees for school construction, one explanation for its high ranking. Impact fees of all sorts average about $8,900 in the state for a single-family house, close behind No. 2 Florida but far behind the No. 1 state. The average impact fee tally in California is more than $23,000.

Impact fees under $5,000 for a single-family house are more typical, the 2010 survey found.

So, is this bad, good or neutral? It really depends on your perspective.

Plenty of suburban Howard County residents were aggravated with development when I covered that beat in the early part of the housing bubble, so they liked anything that slowed the pace and contributed fees for capital improvements.

If you're a homebuyer, you might wish for fewer regulations if it would mean a lower price tag. Or you might not, depending on the sort of house and neighborhood services you'd get without them. Difficult to tell without being able to compare.

Homebuilders, meanwhile, tend to complain the most about rules that bog down the pace of work -- especially if it's inconsistent, like a commute that's 15 minutes some days and an hour on others.

Are there local building regulations you love or hate? Do you think, all told, development rules are worth the bottom-line cost?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Housing stats

August 1, 2011

Figuring out which city neighborhood you're in (and a lot more)

When your city has more than 225 neighborhoods, it's not easy to eye up a home or business and know for certain which one it's in. Back in the day, you'd have to get your hands on a Baltimore neighborhoods map and scrutinize the boundaries.

Life was so hard before the Internet.

The city government's Baltimore City iMap site has for a while now popped out the answer about a neighborhood when you plug in an address. It takes a little while -- you can almost hear the gears grinding -- but hey, it beat the hard-copy alternative.

Now, though, the city is transitioning to Baltimore CityView, a quicker neighborhood look-up that also offers other sorts of answers. The closest farmers' markets, for instance, or the median household income. You can export what you find to a spreadsheet.

Hat tip to Sun restaurant critic Richard Gorelick for noticing this update.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:15 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Neighborhood and neighbors
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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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