October 20, 2008

How-to Monday: Investing in affordable housing

In these days of financial instability, housing development seems like the last place you’d want to invest your money.

Calvert Foundation begs to differ.

The Bethesda nonprofit has investment vehicles for affordable housing, a niche of the market it says is holding up well despite all the turmoil. And you don’t have to be a Rockefeller to get involved.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Investing in affordable housing" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

October 13, 2008

How-to Monday: Escrow

Homeowners are accustomed to mortgage payments that include taxes and insurance. Every month you pay 1/12th of the annual tab (give or take), and the lender socks it away into an escrow account for when the bills come due.

But a lot of the subprime loans made during the pre-credit-crunch frenzy didn’t come with escrow accounts. There’s nothing like being hit with an unexpected tax bill to ruin your day — or wreck your budget.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Escrow" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

October 6, 2008

How-to Monday: Researching loans and foreclosures


Associated Press photo


Foreclosure can affect you and your neighborhood, never mind if you personally have never been late paying your mortgage. When lenders repossess homes, economists say, values go down nearby.

The good news is that the riskiest mortgages — subprime — made up 10 percent of all loans in the Baltimore metro area as of May, down from 13 percent a year earlier. That’s according to an estimate by First American CoreLogic.

The bad news? About 8 percent of metro-area homes with subprime loans were either in the foreclosure process or had been foreclosed on, almost four times what it was a year earlier.

A homeowner or buyer could be excused for wanting to know how good or bad, exactly, the mortgage picture looks close by. With a bit of time, you can find some answers.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Researching loans and foreclosures" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

September 29, 2008

How-to Monday: Selling at auction


Auction photo by Sun photographer Chiaki Kawajiri


If you’ve had a “For Sale” sign in front of your house for months, you want something to happen and you want it to happen yesterday.

William Z. Fox suggests an auction.

He would — he’s chairman and chief executive of Fox Residential Auctions LLC in Pikesville — but some homeowners heartily agree with his point of view. As sales and prices dropped nationwide last year, auctioneers’ revenue for home sales rose 5.3 percent to almost $17 billion, according to the National Auctioneers Association.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Selling at auction" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

September 22, 2008

How-to Monday: Divorce and the family home


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It’s hard enough at the best of times to decide what to do with the house during a divorce. When homes on the market outnumber sales 10 to 1, that’s really not the best of times.

What to do?

First, communicate, suggests Louise Phipps Senft. As president and founder of LPS & Associates/Baltimore Mediation, she sees a lot of divorcing couples looking to negotiate agreements, and right now the family home is the focus of much energy and angst.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Divorce and the family home" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

September 15, 2008

How-to Monday: What (and where) you can afford

Question: Where can an average Joe afford to buy a home around here?

Answer: More places than a year or two ago. But probably not as many as you’d like.

Mortgage financier Freddie Mac recommends against borrowing so much that more than a quarter of your before-tax pay goes to principal and interest. With that in mind, I did some number-crunching to see which communities are affordable for a household with annual income of $90,000 (average for the Baltimore metro area) and a household making $60,000 (about the salary of a registered nurse).

Read on for details, including a chart showing the breakdown by ZIP code.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: What (and where) you can afford" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

September 8, 2008

How-to Mondays: Apartment intelligence


Photo of the 39 West Lexington apartment building by Sun photographer Kenneth K. Lam

Good news, apartment-hunters: The slump in home sales and rise in foreclosures haven't meant skyrocketing rents. Many landlords are increasing monthly rental costs more slowly than usual.

Average rents rose 2 percent in the Baltimore metro area from a year ago, to about $1,090, according to M/PF YieldStar, which tracks the multi-family housing industry. Annual increases are typically at least twice as big, says Greg Willett, the company’s vice president of research.

Why the slowdown? The housing slump, Willett says. Yes, the trend that apartment owners thought would work to their advantage.

Continue reading "How-to Mondays: Apartment intelligence" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

September 1, 2008

How-to Monday: Mortgage rates


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Mortgage rates aren't what they used to be — and not just because they're higher.

You can normally predict the going rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage by looking at the yield on 10-year Treasury notes. If the yield's 3.8 percent, as it was in the middle of this month, you'd expect mortgage rates would be a bit less than 5 ½ percent. Instead, they were hovering around 6 ½ percent.

As Treasury yields dropped earlier in the summer, in fact, mortgage rates stayed steady or even rose. Joseph Bell, a Wonk reader who’s thinking of buying a house, wonders: "Is there any reason for this?"


Continue reading "How-to Monday: Mortgage rates" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

August 25, 2008

How-to Monday: International lookylooing

The Baltimore Sun's redesign, which launched yesterday, has had a last-minute ripple effect on How-to Mondays. Rather than appearing first here and then being reprinted (at least in part) in the paper, it will be print-first (Sundays in Real Estate) and blog-second.

That doesn't mean much for you folks who follow the blog -- I'll still try to include extras here, because I love you all so very much -- but there's one temporary blip: The How-to set to appear today ... well, it's now running next week.

But I refuse to let that mean a How-to-less Monday, not after all the How-to's through sickness, vacation and holidays. Today's post, though abbreviated, is a monument to wonkish stubbornness.

If you've ever sold, bought or thought about buying, you've probably heard the term "lookyloo." Typical definition: Curious person who checks out homes for sale and has no intention of buying. The internet has given lookyloos a lot more scope for the imagination, what with pages of loving details, photos, walk-through videos, etc. -- and now there are sites that allow you to take your inner lookyloo to the next level.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: International lookylooing" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

August 18, 2008

How-to Monday: Foreclosure help ... and "help"


Associated Press photo

You get what you pay for, right? Well ...

If you live by that rule of thumb and you're trying to avoid foreclosure, you'll seek out a for-profit foreclosure consultant who will charge you for any services provided. But consumer-protection advocates say you're much better off going to a nonprofit housing counseling agency that will work with you for free.

Here's why ...

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Foreclosure help ... and "help"" »

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Categories: Foreclosure help, How-to Mondays

August 11, 2008

How-to Monday: Improving your credit


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So you now know oodles about how credit scores work -- or you do if you read last week's How-to. On to the more practical Part II: Improving your score.

This matters a lot if you're in the market for a home loan and don't want to get stuck with a 10 percent interest rate. Lenders are much, much pickier than they were before being hit by rising foreclosures. 

Two years ago, a 620 FICO score was enough to get you the best rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage, says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for, a financial services and consumer education firm. Nowadays? The 700s.

His top recommendation for a healthy score is this: "Never ever give a lender a reason to say anything bad about you to the credit bureaus."

In other words, pay on time. Really on time, and not a day afterward. A 30-day-late ding on your credit report means you were late by as much as 30 days or as little as one, he says. A lender might choose not to report you for day-late behavior, Ulzheimer says, but why take that chance?

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Improving your credit" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

August 4, 2008

How-to Monday: Credit scores


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You probably know your SAT score, assuming you took the test in high school. But what about your credit score?

Once you're past the college-application stage of life, the second score is a lot more important. Or, rather, scores, since a variety of companies are watching and grading you. Mortgage lenders look at your scores to help determine how big a risk you are, and therefore what interest rate you should pay. Many others will take a peek, too, from credit card companies to insurers to apartment complexes.

Do they know more about you than you do?

"The U.S. consumer is grossly undereducated with respect to credit," says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for, a financial services and consumer education firm.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Credit scores" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

July 28, 2008

How-to Monday: House trading


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There's nothing like trying to sell a house in a down market to get one fantasizing about the what-ifs.

For instance: What if you could tap into the large pool of people who, just like you, would be in the market to buy if only they could sell? What if you could find someone with a place you want who in turn wants to buy your place?

Actually, you can. You can give it a try, anyway.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: House trading" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

July 21, 2008

How-to Monday: Tracking down a property owner


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So you want to know who, exactly, owns that vacant property near you. Perhaps it's an eyesore and you'd like the name of the guy to complain to. Or you want to buy it and can't figure out where to send the offer. Or you're just nosy. (That's OK; we're all friends here.)

Follow me -- to the Internetmobile, Robin!

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Tracking down a property owner" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

July 14, 2008

How-to Monday: Neighbor disputes


Image courtesy of Ben Earwicker, Garrison Photography, via Stock.XCHNG


Loud music playing in the wee hours. Front yard doubling as a junk yard. Incursions into your property.

What do you do about a neighbor who's driving you crazy?

A Wonk reader wonders because one of hers planted bushes on her side of the property line. But frustrations with neighbors can be many and varied.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Neighbor disputes" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

July 7, 2008

How-to Monday: Where homes are selling

If you don't absolutely, positively have to sell a home at the moment, how do you figure out if you really, honestly want to? Once you get past the financials -- how much do you owe, how much could you get -- you might consider how many homes in your neck of the woods are selling and how many are sitting.

If you're a would-be buyer, you'll probably want to know that, too.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Where homes are selling" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

June 30, 2008

How-to Monday: Paying off your mortgage early


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Sure, you get a tax deduction for the interest you pay on your mortgage, but that doesn't mean you aren't heartsick about all that interest. That's why paying off a mortgage early -- and cutting out as much interest as possible -- will always appeal to some homeowners.

There are various options, some better than others, experts say.

Consider, for instance, biweekly payment plans through your lender. If you make half your mortgage payment every other week, that's 26 half-payments -- or 13 full payments rather than 12, eliminating mortgage debt more quickly. But don't sign on the dotted line if the lender charges you a fee to participate, says's Greg McBride.

"You can achieve the very same objective on your own," he says.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Paying off your mortgage early" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

June 23, 2008

How-to Monday: Finding foreclosures


Associated Press photo


The more you hear about foreclosures piling up, the more you may be tempted to buy one. There's a lot to consider if you do -- but first things first: how to find them.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Finding foreclosures" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

June 16, 2008

How-to Monday: Price ranges


Photo by the Associated Press

If you're thinking of buying, it's useful to know what's in your price range. Once you have a clear idea which neighborhoods have homes you can afford -- or which homes you can afford in the neighborhoods you like -- then you can start seriously looking.

Have no idea what areas are in your price range? Here, let me help.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Price ranges" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

June 9, 2008

How-to Monday: "Trigger leads"


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Applying for a mortgage? Don't be surprised if you get calls, emails or letters from competitors hoping to steal you away from the company you picked.

When your loan officer requests a copy of your credit report, the credit bureau can -- and often does -- sell that information to firms looking for would-be borrowers. People in the biz call it a "trigger lead."

Don't think that's died down as lenders have tightened their guidelines. A few months ago, Hunter Bloch was bombarded by calls after applying for a home equity line of credit with his bank. "It was at least 10 a day," said Bloch, who happens to be a mortgage broker. (He's vice president of Annapolis First Mortgage LLC in Hanover.)

Continue reading "How-to Monday: "Trigger leads"" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

June 2, 2008

How-to Monday: Rental costs


Photo by Lloyd Fox, Sun photographer

How much does it cost to rent a place around here? That depends entirely on what you mean by "here."

M/PF YieldStar, which tracks apartment buildings, says the average rent for a two-bedroom in downtown Baltimore is about $2,020 a month. Elsewhere in the city, it's just over $930. Big difference.

Costs range in the rest of the region, too:

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Rental costs" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

May 26, 2008

How-to Monday: Property taxes


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Local property taxes range considerably in Maryland, as anyone who's moved to and from Baltimore knows. You might not want to make homebuying decisions based on taxes alone, but it doesn't hurt to understand the differences beforehand.

So I've broken it out for you. Here's what you'd be paying in county and state property taxes this fiscal year if you bought the median-priced home in various jurisdictions in 2007, and what you'd be paying for a $300,000 house.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Property taxes" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

May 19, 2008

How-to Monday: Childproofing


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Expecting a child? In the flurry of baby purchases and preparations, don't forget to childproof your house or apartment.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says that home hazards kill or injure about 2.5 million children every year, a sobering statistic.

Here's what the commission and others suggest you do:

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Childproofing" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

May 12, 2008

How-to Monday: The buying timeline


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Few things in everyday life are as intimidating and overwhelming as first-time home buying can be. There's so much to consider, and you don't know what you don't know.

So here's a rough to-do list -- the steps buyers typically go through from start to finish.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: The buying timeline" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

May 8, 2008

Your idea here

QuestionMarkStockxchng.jpgEvery Monday in this space, I cover an issue related to buying, selling, renting or just generally living in a home. Every Monday. Eventually I'm going to run out of ideas.

So help me out, kind readers: Tell me what topics you're most interested in. What would you like to see? (Click HERE for all the previous How-to posts, if you'd prefer to check there first.) 

How-to Monday isn't the time for exhaustive analyses or big investigations, of course. It has to be a how-to, for one, and it can't be too complicated or it'll never fit in the small space they give me when it gets printed in The Sun the following Friday. But that doesn't mean you can't suggest news stories for my (frightening long) queue.

So chime in, either in the comments or by email. What would you like to know? What do you think others should know?

(Image courtesy of Stock.XCHNG)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:25 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: How-to Mondays

May 5, 2008

How-to Monday: Property lines (or, Whose tree is it anyway?)


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If good fences make good neighbors, then you'll want to know the extent of your property. How else can you figure out where to put the fence?

Problem is, the "location" or "mortgage" survey a buyer gets is conducted to assure the lender that the house is inside the property lines, said John V. Mettee III, vice president of Frederick Ward Associates, an engineering, architecture and surveying firm in Bel Air. It's not very useful for telling you if that tree that needs trimming belongs to you or the Joneses next door.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Property lines (or, Whose tree is it anyway?)" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: How-to Mondays

April 28, 2008

How-to Monday: Homesharing


Photo of homesharers courtesy of St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center


For 20 years now, St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center in Baltimore has run a matchmaking service. Think empty rooms, not lonely hearts.

The nonprofit helps Baltimore and Baltimore County homeowners with space to spare find people looking for a room to rent, and vice versa. The program, launched by employee Mark Benson, was conceived as a way to get elderly residents some extra income and companionship but has proved to be popular with younger homeowners, too.

"It's one of the most creative things we do," says Vincent Quayle, executive director of St. Ambrose, which is best known for its housing counseling and foreclosure prevention work.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Homesharing" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: How-to Mondays

April 21, 2008

How-to Monday: Mortgage fees


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Looking to get a mortgage or refinance an existing one? If you have the credit score to make it work, you shouldn't have trouble finding people who really, really want your business. The trick is deciding who should get it.

Christopher Cruise, a mortgage trainer in Silver Spring and a board member of the National Association of Responsible Loan Officers, suggests that you look carefully at the fees the mortgage broker or lender plans to charge.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Mortgage fees" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: How-to Mondays

April 14, 2008

How-to Monday: Rent-to-own


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You can rent a house. You can buy a house.

Or you could do both.

Rent-to-own -- a contract that gives a renter the option to buy at a set price -- is a niche part of the housing market. But it's one that more would-be sellers might be pondering as they consider alternatives in these slow times.

Be aware that these deals offer a lot more complications (or, at least, issues to consider) than a straight rental or regular sale would.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Rent-to-own" »

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Categories: How-to Mondays

April 7, 2008

How-to Monday: Home improvement


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Home improvement isn't immune from the housing downturn, but the decline in upkeep and major work is modest compared with the slump in buying, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies

If you're thinking of hiring a contractor, the Maryland Home Improvement Commission urges you to keep these tips in mind: 

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Home improvement" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: How-to Mondays

March 31, 2008

How-to Monday: Developments in your back yard


Source: Sun photographer Barbara Haddock Taylor


To be forewarned is to be forearmed -- or to have something to look forward to, as the case may be. That's why people like to know what real estate developments are brewing in their community.

Once, there was little choice for the interested citizen but to visit the local planning department. Now -- well, that's still the main option, but more jurisdictions are offering some information online.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Developments in your back yard" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: How-to Mondays

March 24, 2008

How-to Monday: Schools and neighborhood safety


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What do you want to know about a neighborhood before you sign a sales contract or apartment lease? Lots of things, probably -- but safety and schools top the list if you're like most people.

You'll need to do your own research: The federal Fair Housing Act prevents real estate agents from giving you information about school quality or other factors that boil down to characterizing a neighborhood.

"Realtors refer anyone who is interested in what goes on in the schools to the Board of Education," said Debbie Hager, director of communications for the Maryland Association of Realtors. "The Realtor really needs to remain totally impartial."

The Internet makes it easier than ever to start your research, though it's not the end-all and be-all.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Schools and neighborhood safety" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: How-to Mondays

March 17, 2008

How-to Monday: Affordable mortgages


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The mortgage mess hanging over the country offers many useful (if painful) lessons. First on the list: Don't borrow more than you can really afford to pay back.

Closely related to that is Lesson #2: Don't blindly rely on industry professionals to tell you what that amount is. Get down and dirty with the math yourself.

Here's a look at the debt-to-income levels you'll need to qualify for a loan nowadays, and some thoughts about how to get beyond that to true affordability.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Affordable mortgages" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: How-to Mondays

March 10, 2008

How-to Monday: What to do after you buy


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So you've bought a house -- now what?

A Wonk reader had the excellent suggestion that new homeowners could use a few pointers about, well, being new homeowners. It's one of those potentially never-ending lists, so please add your thoughts where I leave off.

First up on the list: Dotted lines awaiting your signature.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: What to do after you buy" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Homestead Property Tax Credit, How-to Mondays

March 3, 2008

How-to Monday: Choosing an agent, part II


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Would-be buyers in the market for a Realtor as well as a house should choose just as carefully as a seller looking for a listing agent. You want someone who will help you separate the good deals from the chaff, point out pitfalls and act in your best interests.

Never fear: Read on for tips galore. (Are you selling rather than buying? Then see last week's How-to post.)

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Choosing an agent, part II" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: How-to Mondays

February 25, 2008

How-to Monday: Choosing an agent, part I


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There's no law that says you must get a real estate agent if you're buying or selling a house, but many do. Like any profession (particularly one that's not hard to get into), you can find great Realtors, middling ones and some who are worse than none at all, so you'll want to choose well. 

I'll address agent-shopping for buyers next week in Part II. Here's what the Consumer Federation of America thinks sellers should keep in mind before making a choice:

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Choosing an agent, part I" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: How-to Mondays

February 18, 2008

How-to Monday: Mortgage insurance


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So much attention has been paid lately to the travails of short-term homeowners that longer-term homeowners probably feel a bit left out. "What do I care?" you grumble. "Why don't you cover something that affects me, dagnabbit?"

All right. How about getting that private mortgage insurance premium off your monthly mortgage bill?

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Mortgage insurance" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: How-to Mondays

February 11, 2008

How-to Monday: Foreclosure help


Baltimore Homeownership Preservation Coalition public-service ad 


More than 50,000 Marylanders were behind on their mortgage payments at last count in September. Homeownership advocates fear that even more will be this year, with thousands of adjustable-rate mortgages scheduled for their first resets to higher payments.

If you're worried that foreclosure could be in your future, you're not alone -- and you do have places to turn for help.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Foreclosure help" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Foreclosure help, How-to Mondays

February 4, 2008

How-to Monday: Short sales


Associated Press photo


If you're looking for a house to buy or checking out your competition because you're selling, you've probably started seeing these words: "Short sale." It sounds like a wish to sell quickly -- and in essence, it is -- but more importantly, it means the seller is trying to get rid of the house for less than he or she owes on it.

When they work out, short sales can be a deal for buyers and a relief for sellers in danger of foreclosure. But they're complex. Short sales require the lender's OK, and there's no incentive for the lender to approve an offer if it thinks it can do better by foreclosing and selling the house itself.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Short sales" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: How-to Mondays

January 31, 2008

Come one, come all

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: Chime in about what you'd like to see in future How-to Monday posts. (Click HERE to see examples of past posts.)

All right, fine, it's not your only chance. Feel free to chime in anytime, actually. But treat this as your personal invitation to keep the How-to entries topical and useful. I like to cover topics of interest to renters, homeowners, buyers and sellers, so you fit in there somewhere.

If you'd rather not comment here, email me by clicking on the "Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins" link below this post.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:48 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: How-to Mondays

January 28, 2008

How-to Monday: Renter's insurance


Sun photo

Buy a house, and your lender will usually require you to get insurance. Rent one, and you’re free to choose as long as your landlord has no opinion on the matter.

So why bother, if you don’t own the place?

Because renter’s insurance is about your possessions, not the walls around them. It’s a lot cheaper than car insurance, if you’re smarting over that bill.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Renter's insurance" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: How-to Mondays

January 21, 2008

How-to Monday: Competition


Sun photo


Sometimes a seller's competition is an exact duplicate house, but sometimes it's simply the variety of homes in the same price range. How can you tell if you've picked a good price range to compete in -- or, if you're a buyer, to look in?

It doesn't hurt to find out how many homes are listed and compare it to sales. A little tally for the metro area in December shows some interesting results.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Competition" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: How-to Mondays

January 14, 2008

How-to Monday: Dealing with that pesky draft


Associated Press photo


If you're getting a chill despite the money you're throwing at Baltimore Gas & Electric, it's probably high time to winterize your home.

Here's the good news: You can do some of it yourself.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Dealing with that pesky draft" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: How-to Mondays

January 7, 2008

How-to Monday: Help for renters -- and landlords


Sun photo


What can you do if the heater in the apartment you're renting conks out this winter and your landlord won't fix it?

Or if you're facing eviction and need to know your options?

Or, for that matter, if you're the landlord and your tenant is driving you to distraction?

A local group has answers.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Help for renters -- and landlords" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: How-to Mondays

December 31, 2007

How-to Monday: Assessments and appeals


 Sun photo 

If you have a house, you have a property tax bill. Any day now, a third of Maryland property owners will be getting letters about a reassessment of the value that helps determine that tax.

You may have it in hand already, if your mail person is swift: The state Department of Assessments and Taxation sent the 728,185 notices out on Friday. The parts of the Baltimore area that are being reassessed this time 'round are northwestern Anne Arundel; the middle section of Baltimore City; the north and middle parts of Baltimore County; northeastern Carroll; the middle part of Harford; and both southern and western Howard. (You can find maps HERE.)

There's always some anger and frustration when new assessments hit, but the odds of furious screams are much higher in this time of slumping sales and soft prices. Why, you might wonder loudly, doesn't your new assessment reflect the fact that prices are stagnant or in some cases falling?

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Assessments and appeals" »

December 24, 2007

How-to Monday: Buying vs. renting


Associated Press photo


Is a housing downturn the best time to get your foot in the door?

If you follow the stock-market advice to buy when everyone's selling, today's conditions look pretty favorable. That's what the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Home Builders keep saying.

But wait -- if you believe the forecasts of economists who expect significant price declines in the near future, you'd want to hold off 'til things get worse for sellers and better for you.

Oh, and if you're extremely nervous about buying in a neighborhood only to end up living near foreclosed or otherwise vacant homes, you might think it best to sit tight until prices, sales and the economy at large are again rising merrily.

Got all that?

Apologies if you were expecting a straight answer. There doesn't seem to be one, and there are enough opinions out there already -- you don't need mine. Instead, let me offer you a way to do your own forecasting.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Buying vs. renting" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: How-to Mondays

December 17, 2007

How-to Monday: Points

This How-to is brought to you by a question from a colleague: What the heck is a point?

If you're talking mortgages and not pencils, it's an upfront fee to get a lower interest rate. The more discount points you pay for, the lower the rate -- but don't assume it's always worth it.

Allison Vail with LendingTree, the online company that connects borrowers with lenders, says you need to figure out if time is on your side.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Points" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: How-to Mondays

December 10, 2007

How-to Monday: Pricing


Associated Press photo


One of the many challenges in a housing slump: How do you figure out what's a fair price when the market keeps changing?

Pat Hiban of the Pat Hiban Real Estate Group (with Keller Williams Select Realtors in Ellicott City, and try getting all that out in one breath) says his recommendation to sellers is -- first off -- to decide "whether you are a have-to seller or a want-to seller." That's not for pricing purposes, by the way: That's to suggest to the want-to folks that maybe they really don't want to sell.

For the have-to's -- or the especially determined want-to's -- Hiban says his strategy is straight-forward.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Pricing" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: How-to Mondays

December 3, 2007

How-to Monday: Timing the housing market


Associated Press photo 


Housing slumps aside, home buying is usually brisk in the spring and early fall, slowish in the summer and really slow this time of year, as buyers set aside visions of settlement tables for sugar plums. So does it make sense to try to time the market if you've got something to sell?

Inquiring minds, and a reader who needs to unload a Locust Point house in the next six months, want to know. I turned to Dave Wright with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Annapolis, a Realtor since 1976.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Timing the housing market" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: How-to Mondays, Q&A

November 26, 2007

How-to Monday: Rehabbing

Admit it: You've thought about rehabbing. You have a house that could use some work, or you fantasized about buying, fixing and flipping a rowhome during the boom, or perhaps you just wondered how on earth people do it. (Maybe you've actually rehabbed a place yourself, in which case you've thought a whole lot about rehabbing, up to and including "what have I gotten myself into.")

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Rehabbing" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:31 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: How-to Mondays, Video

November 19, 2007

How-to Monday: Renting vs. selling, part II (financing)


Photo copyright 


So you're buying a new house but thinking about renting out your current place rather than selling it. Naturally you've read last week's How-to post, so you have some food for thought about the joys and headaches of becoming a landlord. But how are you going to finance your move if all your equity is tied up in your old home?

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Renting vs. selling, part II (financing)" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:14 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Homestead Property Tax Credit, How-to Mondays

November 12, 2007

How-to Monday: Deciding whether to sell or rent


Photo credit: Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press


A Wonk reader wonders whether it makes more sense to sell your house or rent it if you have to move -- and no doubt she's not the only one pondering this question. I asked real estate agent Dahlia Kaminsky because she works with city rehabbers, who have been pressed to consider alternatives to the fix-and-sell business plan that worked so well during the boom.

"A lot of people have their homes listed for sale and rent simultaneously," said Kaminsky, with City Life Realty in Hampden. "It's not an option for everyone, but for people who have the luxury, I would say, of being able to have options open to them, they are indeed renting or selling -- whichever comes first."

Things to consider, in Kaminsky's opinion:

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Deciding whether to sell or rent" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:29 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: How-to Mondays, Q&A

November 5, 2007

How-to Monday: Apartment hunting


The Zenith in Baltimore. Photo taken by Amy Davis, Sun photographer.


Yes, I see you out there, Baltimore-area renters. I know you feel ignored, what with all the home-sales news out there. On second thought, maybe you feel relieved that you're renting. But either way this post is for you alone.

That's right, homeowners. Move along. This is not the post you're looking for.

Now: Here's how to harness the power of the Internet to avoid renting a wretched hive of scum and villainy. (And that's my last Star Wars quote of the day, I promise.)

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Apartment hunting" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:38 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: How-to Mondays

October 29, 2007

How-to Monday: Closing costs

It's easy to think that the big upfront cost of buying a home is the down payment. But don't forget those closing costs. Taxes. Escrow. Lender fees. Application fees. Appraisal. Title insurance. The list goes on and on.

No surprise that home sellers trying to drum up interest are offering to pay some of that expense: It's thousands of dollars. And those costs are higher than average here, according to a survey by Read on for details ...

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Closing costs" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:20 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: How-to Mondays

October 22, 2007

How-to Monday: Finding auctions

There are auctions aplenty for homes nowadays, many foreclosures but not all ("RELOCATION FORCED SALE, OWNERS WILL SACRIFICE PRICE" screams the listing for one scheduled this week).

Here's how to track them down.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Finding auctions" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:06 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: How-to Mondays

October 15, 2007

How-to Monday: Walkability

How walkable is your neighborhood? You probably have some idea, if you've tried walking anywhere. Now you can get a third-party opinion.

Walkscore -- as the name implies -- scores addresses based on how walkable they are to businesses, institutions and amenities. The website aims to help prospective homebuyers and renters weigh their options. ("Buying a house in a walkable neighborhood is good for your health and good for the environment," the site says.)

My suburban home scored 37 out of 100. I thought it would do better: The community is a pretty walkable place as suburbs go, with a shopping center and a variety of things to do.

The bigger surprise: My childhood home in Columbia, that "new town" designed to be walkable, got an even worse 31.

So I tried 501 N. Calvert Street, The Sun's address -- hey, I feel like I live here some days. Score: 86 out of 100. Lots of things in walking distance when you're near downtown.

Keep in mind the site's information might not be 100 percent accurate. The Sun, for instance, is on the amenities list under the category of "libraries." (There's plenty to read in the building, I'll give them that.)

Here's what the site says about its scores, which are based on "as the crow flies" distances:

90 - 100 = Walkers' Paradise: Most errands can be accomplished on foot and many people get by without owning a car.

70 - 90 = Very Walkable: It's possible to get by without owning a car.

50 - 70 = Some Walkable Locations: Some stores and amenities are within walking distance, but many everyday trips still require a bike, public transportation, or car.

25 - 50 = Not Walkable: Only a few destinations are within easy walking range. For most errands, driving or public transportation is a must.

0 - 25 = Driving Only: Virtually no neighborhood destinations within walking range. You can walk from your house to your car!

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:07 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: How-to Mondays

October 8, 2007

How-to Monday: Finding typical asking prices

If you’d rather know the typical asking price of unsold homes on the market rather than the typical price of the ones that sell -- a useful bit of information nowadays -- then you’re in luck. collects that data. You can check out trends in the Baltimore metro area or other major metros, plus a calculation of housing affordability.

The median asking price in the Baltimore area was $308,000 as of Oct. 1. That's down a fraction of a percent from a month earlier and about 9 percent off from a year ago.

Ben Engebreth, software developer and real estate hobbyist, started the site for a simple reason.

Continue reading "How-to Monday: Finding typical asking prices" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:38 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: How-to Mondays
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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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