December 27, 2011

Homestead credit Q&A

So many questions came in during our live-chat Q&A about the homestead credit last week that we couldn't get to them all, but I didn't want to leave people hanging. Ditto with folks who emailed questions to Midday with Dan Rodricks at WYPR that didn't get asked on air.

So here they are, with my best effort at answers.

Two people touched on a similar theme. Margaret from Baltimore asks: "What would prevent thousands of families from fleeing the city to the counties which not only have lower tax rates but also will continue to offer the homestead cap that protects homeowners?"

And Amir from Baltimore says: "These stories are great. I'm a renter and want to find the right place to maybe buy in the city. If Baltimore residents are stripped of the Homestead credit – what incentive is there to move and live for many years?"

I don't think the homestead credit would disappear in the city and remain in the rest of the state. A successful court challenge, for instance, would undo the law statewide. I doubt the General Assembly would get rid of the program on its own -- alterations are more likely -- but there too the homestead credit would probably be dealt with on a statewide basis.

Quick reminder: The homestead program caps any increases in the amount of assessed value a homeowner is actually taxed on at 10 percent statewide, allowing jurisdictions to set their own caps lower. Baltimore's is 4 percent, like Baltimore County's. Carroll, Harford and Howard counties are at 5 percent. Anne Arundel is at 2 percent.

Some counties and cities are at 10 percent -- Annapolis, Sykesville and Montgomery County, to name a few -- but most are outside the Baltimore region. So while Baltimore could raise its cap to 10 percent, it has generally been proposed as part of a plan to decrease the city's overall property-tax rate in order to increase population. Here, for instance, is a 2007 proposal from a city blue-ribbon committee that recommends such a move.

Continue reading "Homestead credit Q&A" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Homestead Property Tax Credit, Property taxes, Q&A

December 20, 2011

Join in on homestead credit Q&A

Got questions about the state's Homestead Property Tax Credit or the Sun's investigation into how it works and doesn't work?

Ask them here. We'll have a live Q&A at noon today, but you can type up your question (or questions) beforehand, too. 

On a related note: You've been commenting, tweeting and emailing various thoughts about how the homestead credit -- and the city's property-tax system overall -- could be fairer and/or better. I'm going to pull them together for a post this week (I'd hoped to do it in time for this morning but other stories interfered, including this one about a lawsuit against the Creig Northrop Team), so there's still an opportunity to pipe up.

Thanks for all the ideas! Interesting discussion.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Homestead Property Tax Credit, Property taxes, Q&A

July 11, 2011

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




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

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

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

She has run the coalition for 18 years.


Take it away, Ruth Ann:


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

Continue reading "Q&A: A lead-paint primer for new (and accidental) landlords" »

June 13, 2011

Q&A: Renting

You asked for answers to renting questions. Nokomis Johns kindly volunteered.

She's the senior tenant/landlord counselor for Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit that has a hot line just for questions in this arena. A BNI employee for more than seven years, her mission is getting "more people informed on the correct laws and procedures before they get into a bad situation."

BNI counselors often provide information about tenant/landlord laws, but they're not attorneys -- and of course the answers to the questions below aren't legal advice. They're designed to point you in the right direction.

Take it away, Nokomis:



Question: What is considered "normal wear and tear" in a rental agreement? I am thinking about what a landlord can deduct from a security deposit and what he cannot deduct.

Answer: Normal wear and tear are things that result from coming and going. They are things that cannot be prevented. For example, the carpet wears down as you walk on it, or after a while the paint starts to crack and peel. These types of things cannot be prevented and the landlord cannot charge you for replacing the carpet or repainting due to ordinary wear and tear. If you do not agree with what is deducted from your security deposit, you can sue the landlord.

Q: I'm really concerned about rising rental costs. Are there rent consumer advocates to help us fight for our rights? For instance, it would be useful for consumers to determine if the rent is fairly priced for the area and amenities. When there's a rent increase, is the amount fair?

Continue reading "Q&A: Renting" »

January 24, 2011

Slash Baltimore property-tax rate in half, economist says

The long-standing political consensus on Baltimore's property-tax rate seems to be that it's a necessary evil. The nearly 2.3 percent rate is so much higher than in the rest of the state that it's a disincentive to buy in the city, but substantially lowering it would immediately dent revenues and force big budget cuts -- so the argument goes.

Steve Walters, an economics professor at Loyola University Maryland, is offering up a plan designed to get the city out of that box.

He and a former student, Louis Miserendino, suggest the city reduce the tax rate by half -- yes, half -- in one fell swoop. But not right this instant. Instead, they write in a new paper, officials should amend the city charter to ensure that the rate will drop in, say, 2015, giving people a reason to buy while prices are still depressed (compared with the suburbs) by the current rate. Then bank the extra money that flows in and spend it only after the rate is cut.

Walters believes that "cash on delivery" plan would be a bridge over the initial budgetary chasm of a halved tax rate. Cities that were forced by tax revolts to slash rates 30 years ago saw revenues surpass their original levels pretty quickly, he said -- within four years in San Francisco, for instance.

Here's a Q&A with Walters about the plan, the political reaction and why he thinks the property-tax rate is the key reason for Baltimore's decades-long population loss.

But if you've seen that already, I figured you might like to hear more of what he had to say and offer your feedback. Read on: 

Continue reading "Slash Baltimore property-tax rate in half, economist says" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:01 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Property taxes, Q&A

January 5, 2011

Q&A: Baltimore Slumlord Watch

Two years ago, an anonymous blogger declared war on the absentee property owners letting large swaths of Baltimore rot. The Baltimore Slumlord Watch site is still going strong today, shining the unwelcome light of publicity on blighted real estate and the people, LLCs and (in some cases) government agencies responsible for them.

Names, addresses, resident agents, photographs -- they're all there, along with occasional commentary that doesn't pull punches. "Please note the lack of a roof, exposing this house to the elements — the houses on either side of this blighted mess are occupied," the slumlord watcher wrote of one rowhouse.

So, in light of the anniversary, here's an unusual Q&A for you all today -- one with an unnamed person. She describes herself on the blog as "tired of watching out of town 'investors' and others destroy neighborhoods as a result of their negligence."

Question: Is Baltimore Slumlord Watch a one-person affair -- not counting reader contributions -- or is there a slumlord-watch team?

Answer: It started out as a one-woman show, but others have joined in. I have a couple of people I consider "partners" in this venture, along with a legal advisor who I go to from time to time with questions. As word got out, other cities started similar blogs (Richmond, Va. and Columbus, Ohio come to mind) so I like to think we're now a loose coalition.

Q: How many run-down properties have you "featured"?

A: Out of the 358 total posts I've written, probably 200+ are centered on vacant properties.

Q: What prompted you to start the blog?

Continue reading "Q&A: Baltimore Slumlord Watch" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (17)
Categories: Q&A, Real estate investing

October 4, 2010

Q&A: Realtor Creig Northrop

Drive through some parts of the region -- Howard County especially -- and you'll see a lot of Creig Northrop. The president of the Creig Northrop Team at Long & Foster is smiling out from bunches of "For Sale" signs.

So many, in fact, that his team is No. 2 in the country for volume on the REAL Trends' Top 400 Sales Professionals list, and No. 6 for the number of deals struck.

Northrop, a real estate agent for more than 20 years, works in Maryland west of the Bay Bridge and in D.C. He chatted with me recently about the housing market, his business and why he thinks this is (really) a great time to buy.

Question: How long has your team appeared on the Top 400 list?

Answer: Ever since it existed. I was the one sort of advocating them to create one, and that was around 2005, 2004. ... At that time, I thought I was No. 1 in the country but there weren't any records so I couldn't prove it. ...

As long as they've done it, I've been No. 2. They should give me an award for perseverance.

Q: No. 1 keeps changing?

A: The guy who's there now has only been there two years. … His average sales price is $17 million. He sells a quarter of the properties we sell. 

Continue reading " Q&A: Realtor Creig Northrop" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (52)
Categories: Q&A

April 28, 2010

Q&A: Md.'s foreclosure mediation program

If you're a Maryland homeowner struggling with your mortgage, you might be curious -- extremely curious -- about the state's newly passed foreclosure mediation law. It takes effect for foreclosure cases filed on or after July 1.

Raymond A. Skinner, the state's secretary of housing and community development, offered details in a recent interview.

Question: What will change for homeowners and lenders?

Answer: What we’re trying to do is to put in place a process which is really kind of the last step before foreclosure can proceed. And it gives the homeowner a chance to sit down face to face with their lender or servicer with a neutral third party to see if something can be worked out before actually going to foreclosure. The law builds on what we had done in 2008, when we changed the foreclosure process and added more time and more notice for borrowers.

Q: What steps does the law add?

A: When the lender ... sends the notice of intent [to foreclose] to the borrower, they’ve got to include some additional things now under this new law. They must include a loss-mitigation application with instructions for how to complete it and where to send it. ... They also have to include information about various loss-mitigation programs, including the federal Home Affordable Modification Program -- the HAMP program -- and also specific information about the lender’s loss-mitigation programs. … In addition, they've got to send information about the state programs -- our HOPE program with the HOPE hot line number and the website.

Q: What comes next?

A: Before they can file an order to docket [a foreclosure case in the court system], they’ve got to file a loss-mitigation analysis. And basically, it’s an affidavit where the lender certifies that they’ve exhausted all loss-mitigation procedures or processes, and they could not find a way to give this particular borrower any kind of relief. And they’ve got to explain the reasons why they could not provide any relief.

Q: They have to be specific?

Continue reading "Q&A: Md.'s foreclosure mediation program" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Foreclosure help, Mortgages, Q&A, The foreclosure mess

April 12, 2010

Q&A about new lead-paint renovation rules

If you renovate homes, on the side or for a living, the federal rules that apply to you will change next week for any project you take on where lead paint lurks. The regulations, put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency, have been in the works for years.

Rebecca L. Morley, executive director of the Columbia-based National Center for Healthy Housing,  covers the basics -- and why homeowners should care -- in this Q&A:

Question: What’s required of people renovating homes with lead paint now, and how is that changing?

Answer: Currently, there really aren’t any requirements for people who are renovating older homes, except that they do have to provide some notification to the owners that there may be lead paint there. … But with the new rule, they’ll actually be required to follow a certain set of practices. So certain things are banned: For instance, they can’t belt-sand away old paint, or they can’t use heat guns to remove the paint. ... It just is requiring them not to create any new hazards during the course of the work that they do.

The focus really is, if they’re going to be disturbing paint … that they don’t stir up lead dust and they don’t leave it on the surfaces when they finish the job. ... A common misperception about lead is you have to eat paint chips in order to get poisoned, but lead dust, which is generated from the deterioration of lead-based paint or these renovation activities, [is] the most insidious exposure threat. That’s because the lead dust isn’t visible and just minute amounts of it can result in an exposure — and a serious exposure.

That understanding, which has come to light over the last couple of decades, has really changed our emphasis about how we deal with lead. You can create significant hazards simply by virtue of scraping it off. We want to clean up really well at the end of [renovation] jobs.

Q: How old does a building need to be in order to fall under this regulation?

A. It applies to any housing and/or commercial and public buildings built before 1978. The commercial and public buildings is for child-occupied facilities, so that gets your daycares and schools.

Q: ’78 was when lead paint was banned?

A: Exactly.

Q: What must renovators do to comply?

Continue reading "Q&A about new lead-paint renovation rules" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Home maintenance, Q&A, Renovation/rehab

March 28, 2010

Q&A: Paul Cooper, auctioneer

Today in the business section, we've got a Q&A with Paul R. Cooper, a vice president at Alex Cooper Auctioneers in Towson. You were all so interested to hear what he had to say in a blog Q&A a year ago that I thought you'd enjoy another conversation.

Last time, he said many home sellers weren't being realistic about asking prices. This time ... well, it's still a problem, he says. Here's the Q&A, with extra questions and answers that couldn't fit in the print edition:

Question: How’s the market for local home sellers?

Answer: It’s a challenging marketplace. But if you are priced correctly based on actual sales data, you stand a strong chance of selling your home in a short period.

Q: So sellers don’t have a handle on what their homes are worth. Why?

A: It’s sort of this analogy: If I had not looked at the stock market prices for the past six months, ... do I really know what my stock is worth? No. You need to look at current data to know what it’s worth. And you need to look at it in the context of, “Only three houses sold in the last six months and there’s 20 active [for sale].” Just because those three houses sold for $300,000 each doesn’t mean your house is worth $300,000. … If you’re patient, it may happen, but you need to beat out the rest of the marketplace in pricing your home.

Q: Does that mean we’re in a race to the bottom?

A: It’s just being realistic. Who knows where the bottom is. ... I think prices will still be coming down, but not as quickly, and I think you’re going to see accelerating volume. As long as there are 16,000 active [for-sale] listings in our area, I don’t see any pressure to push prices higher. When we were at the height of the market back in 2005, ... active listings were at a little over 6,000.

Q: What’s happened to prices?

A: I’m looking at the average and median sold prices for February 2010; I had to go back to April 2005 to find a comparable month. So you can probably say our prices right now are consistent with what they were in April 2005. ... By the way, the April 2005 average and median prices were approximately 20 percent higher than April 2004, so you can appreciate the tremendous run-up in the one-year period.

Q: Some have pointed to that and argued that prices still have a ways to fall. Do you agree?

Continue reading "Q&A: Paul Cooper, auctioneer" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:59 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Q&A

March 2, 2010

Thinking like a statistician ... to avoid disaster


Photo of Kaiser Fung courtesy of McGraw-Hill


Kaiser Fung suggests that everyone think like a statistician, and he's not just saying that because he happens to be one. Fung, author of the new book Numbers Rule Your World: The Hidden Influence of Probabilities and Statistics on Everything You Do, says you'll be better positioned in life if you pay attention to numbers -- and more importantly, to what the numbers really mean.

I figured you folks would be amenable to this point of view. Here's more from our recent Q&A:

Q. Why should Americans care about economic statistics? What impact do they have on people's lives?

I think the recent downturn is sort of a great example of that ... especially if you’re nearing or about to enter retirement. We kind of can see that this kind of very deep recession will basically make or break your retirement. So if you think about the fact that the housing bubble and the credit bubble was all out there for us to see, in terms of the statistics, if you hadn’t paid attention and you kept a lot of your money in stock-related investments, then you’re in deep trouble. So it really is a very important thing.

Q. What's your take on housing numbers, from home sales to prices to foreclosures?

Continue reading "Thinking like a statistician ... to avoid disaster" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Q&A

January 13, 2010

A Q&A with Real Estate Intervention's Aubrey

As co-host of HGTV's Real Estate Intervention show, Mike Aubrey offers reality checks to homeowners having trouble selling. As he says on one episode set in Fells Point, people "need to be reactive to this declining real estate market that we're in."

Touring the competition and re-evaluating whether your asking price is anywhere near what buyers would pay -- a far cry from all the house-flipper programming of the bubble days.

Aubrey, a North Potomac real estate agent who got into the business in 2002, chatted with me recently about what he's seeing in the market these days.

Q. You're based in the Washington suburbs. Do you work in Baltimore at all?

Because of the work that I do on Real Estate Intervention, I end up in Baltimore a lot. We do a lot of shows in Baltimore. That is probably because, sort of the format of this show, at least the first two seasons of the show, has been a little bit dark, and things have been tougher in Baltimore than they’ve been in the D.C. area.

Q. Why?

I think that Baltimore City was ... gentrifying a lot of the areas inside the city during the real estate boom, [neighborhoods] that never necessarily got to complete that gentrification. And so those areas that were in transition are the areas I think really got stymied as we saw the market fall off. Places that I think, had the market not turned in Baltimore, would ... be flourishing right now. 

Continue reading "A Q&A with Real Estate Intervention's Aubrey" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Housing forecasts, Housing market experiences, Q&A

January 6, 2010

Q&A: Homeownership incentives, and what they mean for renters

Years of efforts by Democrats and Republicans alike to promote homeownership for everyone have come in for their share of criticism in these post-bubble days, now that we've seen what can happen when no attention is given to whether prospective buyers are financially ready or the loans they're getting are reasonable for their life situations.

Paula M. Cino, director of energy and environmental policy at the National Multi Housing Council, a trade group for the apartment industry, has strong opinions on the topic, as you might imagine. I asked her to share in a Q&A.

Q. How does government support for homeownership compare with government support for renting?

Cino: Federal homeownership subsidies outnumber rental support 4 to 1 or about $230 billion to the renters’ $60 billion. If subsidies were adjusted to reflect the true distribution of households that rent vs. own, rental housing subsidies would have to increase by about $36 billion. The unbalanced nature of our housing policy is even more obvious when you consider that the richest 20 percent of the population claimed more than a third of the homeownership subsidies through the mortgage interest deduction.

Q. Why does it matter if the government offers more breaks and incentives for homeownership?

Cino: The current allocations simply don’t reflect the diversity of housing needs nationwide. One third of all Americans rent their housing. Moreover, changing demographics and consumer preferences show an increased demand for apartments. The U.S. Census Bureau’s Housing Vacancy Survey shows that 2.83 million new renter households were created between 2004 and 2008. In 2008 alone, 63 percent of net new households were renter-occupied.

For decades, married couples with children dominated housing markets. But today those families make up less than 25 percent of all households. Apartments are needed to accommodate the growing number of young professionals, empty-nesters and childless couples seeking smaller, centrally-located, more affordable homes that don’t necessitate a long-term financial commitment.

Q. What role do you think government policy played in the housing bubble and bust?

Continue reading "Q&A: Homeownership incentives, and what they mean for renters" »

September 17, 2009

Live chat with economist Anirban Basu on the Maryland economy

Hi, folks -- I'll be hosting a live chat with Baltimore economist Anirban Basu at 9 a.m. Friday. We'll go for at least half an hour.

Submit your questions about the Maryland economy, housing market or related subjects as a comment on this post. Or you can type questions directly into the live-chat portal below beginning at 8:30 a.m.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 5:00 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Q&A

Remember: Live chat tomorrow

Wondering where things stand with the Maryland economy? Or how long unemployment might continue to worsen? Or why home sales are increasing in some price ranges but falling in others?

Ask Baltimore economist Anirban Basu. We're one day -- and less than 24 hours -- away from the live chat with him. Come with your questions and help make it lively!

The chat will begin at 9 a.m. tomorrow, right here. You can post a question to our chat system starting at 8:30 a.m., or -- if you're afraid life might conspire to keep you away -- you can post your question as a comment here.

Some of you had interesting questions in the queue for our last live-chat economist, Celia Chen, that didn't get answered because we ran out of time. I encourage you to ask them again.


Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:32 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Q&A

September 14, 2009

Live chat on Friday: Economist Anirban Basu

A reminder to all you inquisitive folks: Baltimore economist Anirban Basu will take your questions in a live chat at 9 a.m. this Friday. Queries about the economy, the housing market and related topics are all fair game. (You can see his bio here.)

Our live-chat system will open its doors here ( around 8:30 a.m. to collect questions.

But you know how it is: Life will prevent some of you from showing up, virtually speaking. I'd love to see some questions asked in advance -- we've only got two so far. You can submit them in the comments.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:07 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Q&A

September 1, 2009

Live chat: Economist Anirban Basu


Baltimore economist Anirban Basu will take your questions in a live chat at 9 a.m. Sept. 18. Got a query about the housing market, the economy or any related topic? He's got answers.

You can submit your questions that day -- two weeks from Friday. But I encourage you to ask 'em now by commenting below, lowering my stress level by ensuring that we can start the chat with a bang rather than with chirping-cricket noises.

Here's a quick bio on Basu:

He's chairman and chief executive of Sage Policy Group Inc., an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore. His clients include developers, bankers, brokerage houses, energy suppliers and law firms, and he's written economic development strategies for government agencies and nonprofits.

In addition to economic development, he focuses on health economics and the economics of education. And he's a regular speaker at the Home Builders Association of Maryland's construction-forecast conferences.

Basu, a Baltimore City Public School System board member, earned a bachelor's degree in foreign service at Georgetown University. He earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a master’s degree in economics from the University of Maryland. He graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 2003.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Q&A

August 28, 2009

Live chat opportunity: foreclosure prevention

The Baltimore Sun's Consuming Interests blog is hosting a live chat next week about the Home Affordable Modification Program. Interested? Here are the details from personal finance columnist Eileen Ambrose:

Foreclosure doesn’t have to be the answer.

Join us for a live chat on Tuesday at noon with housing counselors from St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center. The counselors will be able to answer questions on the new federal program — Home Affordable Modification Program — that modifies mortgages so you can afford monthly mortgage payments. They also can discuss other options you might have if you’re having trouble with your mortgage.

Can’t make the chat? Submit your questions early to the housing counselors at and you can check out the answers later on the blog.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:15 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Q&A

August 20, 2009

Live chat about housing market at noon

Last reminder: Celia Chen of Moody's will take your questions about the housing market at noon today in this space.

A senior director of the Moody's research staff, she manages the company's regional house price forecast models, develops proprietary housing market indicators and writes extensively about housing issues. Chen earned her Ph.D. -- with a concentration in econometrics and international finance -- at the University of Pennsylvania.

She's happy to take housing-outlook questions about metro areas and the nation. Just don't make your questions too specific, i.e. "what's going to happen to $400,000 homes in my neighborhood."

See you at noon!

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:56 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Q&A

August 18, 2009

Don't forget: Q&A Thursday

Remember, folks, Celia Chen with Moody's will be taking reader questions about the housing market this Thursday at noon. More details in this post.

Some of you have submitted questions already. In fact, some of you have submitted multiple questions. I'm planning to sort them to ensure that everyone gets to ask at least one question before we go to No. 2, 3, or 4. If you asked several questions, the first one you asked will go in the No. 1 spot unless you let me know that you're more interested in hearing an answer to a later one.

It's possible that all of you will get all your questions answered before the live chat ends, of course. I'm just organizing my ducks (look at the lovely row they're in!).

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 1:44 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Q&A

August 13, 2009

Next week: Housing forecaster takes your questions



Ask and you shall receive ... answers.

Housing economist and forecaster Celia Chen of Moody's has kindly agreed to take reader questions in a live chat next week. Mark your calendars: Next Thursday -- Aug. 20 -- at noon.

But I encourage you to start asking your questions now. Comment below with 'em. Questions in the queue will ensure that we start the chat off with a bang rather than a whimper, and it's a way for you to participate even if you can't be here (virtually speaking) at the appointed time.

The Baltimore Sun has been doing live chats every week, but this will be the first about housing. Let's make it a good one! I know you're interested, because "housing-market forecaster" was your top choice when I asked what sorts of experts you'd like to question.

Here's a little bit about Chen:

A senior director of the Moody's research staff, she manages the company's regional house price forecast models, develops proprietary housing market indicators and writes extensively about housing issues. Chen earned her Ph.D. -- with a concentration in econometrics and international finance -- at the University of Pennsylvania.

She's happy to take housing-outlook questions about metro areas and the nation. Just don't make your questions too specific. ("What's going to happen to prices on 30-year-old split-levels in Cockeysville that were recently renovated" -- way too specific.)

Commence the questioning.

(Photo courtesy of Moody's

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Q&A

July 25, 2009

The science of housing slumps

If mortgage defaults make you ponder about brain chemistry, the National Science Foundation has a webcast for you.

The event, scheduled for Wednesday at 11:30 a.m., aims to answer "unusual questions about the housing market" -- for instance, "What happened physiologically in the brain when some owners stopped paying their mortgages after hearing about possible federal home bailouts?"

Other questions offered up to tantalize us: "How will the mortgage crisis change the psychology of future home buyer and investor decisions?" and "Why are foreclosures in some areas sparking new bidding wars so soon after the recent market crash?"

Yale University economist Robert Shiller, of Case-Shiller home price index fame, will answer questions. So will Caltech economist Colin Camerer, who enlists brain scans in the quest to understand why people make the economic decisions they do, and economist Nancy Lutz with the National Science Foundation.

Here's the cool part: You can ask them your questions. I checked. Submit them beforehand to

The webcast itself will be shown here (as in, at that link -- not here here). You'll get a prompt for username and password if you click it early but not, organizers say, when it's time for the show.

Submitting a question? Stick it in a comment here while you're at it. Inquiring minds like inquiries.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:01 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Q&A

May 25, 2009

Q&A: Would-be landlords

A Wonk reader is wondering whether to rent out his home rather than sell in this market, but he knows there's a lot to consider beyond finding a good tenant.

He's hardly the only one weighing the "to be a landlord or not to be a landlord" question. So I chatted with Lewis F. Laws, Maryland regional director of Long & Foster's property management division, about what landlords who never thought they'd be landlords should keep in mind.

Laws, who has worked in property management since 1984, oversees managers in the state and also manages a portfolio of properties in Montgomery County.

Q. What should homeowners consider before turning landlord?

The first thing they need to do is determine the age the property was constructed, because Maryland has the Maryland lead paint law, and that's a biggie. So if the property was constructed prior to 1950, then it is mandatory that they will have to register their property with MDE--Maryland Department of the Environment. They will have to have it inspected by a state certified inspector, and they have to obtain from this inspection a passing certificate before they can rent the property. And until they obtain a passing certificate, they cannot legally lease the property.

Everything prior to 1950 is mandatory participation. Properties constructed from 1950 to 1978, they may opt to participate in the program or opt not to. But the problem is, those properties built in the opt-in, opt-out timeline, they may still have lead paint. Because it wasn't until 1978 that the government banned the sale of the lead-based paint.

So what happens is, if they are in the program and they are compliant through the MDE program, it doesn't guarantee them that they can't be sued and lose money, but what it provides is … a cap of $17,000 as an award. Also, if they are in the program, then their landlord insurance policy should cover--they'll have to request it, but it should cover lead-based paint. …

So those owners who have the '50 through '78 properties, we recommend, strongly recommend, they have them tested, [and] if there is lead in the property, then they participate in the program to have that limited liability protection.

Q. What was that about landlord insurance?

They need a landlord liability policy. … If they don't, heaven forbid something happens. If the house burns down and the insurance company finds out it wasn't owner-occupied, they've violated their insurance policy and the insurance company owes them nothing.

Q. What should landlords do to attract renters?

Continue reading "Q&A: Would-be landlords" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 11:40 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Q&A

May 11, 2009

Q&A: Patterson Park Neighborhood Association

Baltimore's Patterson Park neighborhood is often hailed as a revitalization success story, with many aging and vacant homes now rehabbed and lived in. But the Patterson Park Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that did a lot of the rehabbing and community organizing behind that turnaround, filed for bankruptcy protection in February. (The CDC's website is here; the site appears to no longer be operational.)

I chatted last week with Marisa Vilardo, president of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association, about efforts by residents to keep things going the right direction.

Q. A little background--what happened to the Patterson Park CDC?

They ended up taking on more than they could chew as far as investing in real estate and then renovating it, so apparently they did not anticipate the market downturn and have suffered as a result. They're trying to pay these mortgages they have on houses and they can't. The houses aren't selling enough. … The neighborhood association started to get nervous about it back in September, October of last year.

Q. Why does that matter to Patterson Park?

The CDC is to a large extent responsible for the renovations and the reinvestment and progress that the neighborhood made, because they--through the Healthy Neighborhoods program--were able to direct a lot of money toward the neighborhood, and redeveloping. Got a lot of city attention focused on the area.

Q. What has the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association been doing to step into the void?

Continue reading "Q&A: Patterson Park Neighborhood Association" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:20 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Q&A

May 4, 2009

Q&A: Epiphany in Baltimore

Some of you read blogger Epiphany in Baltimore and have followed his efforts to buy a home. (Thanks to the Wonk reader -- whose name now escapes me -- for pointing me that way. Let me know who you are and I'll credit you properly.) I thought it would be interesting to chat with him about his experience, since every buying story can help other would-be buyers … and often would-be sellers, too.

Throughout the interview below, I've included links to his blog for all who would like to see how each step unfolded in real time. And that's why I'm identifying him by his online name: He's a teacher whose personal blog links to a blog about his job, and he therefore prefers to stay anonymous.

Q. When did you close?

I just closed on Thursday! I've been living in the house for a couple of weeks, though, with a pre-settlement agreement.

Q. What did you end up buying -- the Baltimore rowhome rehabbed by St. Ambrose that you were serious about?

Yes, I ended up going with the St. Ambrose rehabbed rowhome in Belair-Edison. It's three-bedroom, with a balcony, finished basement, and a nice yard with a private fence.

Q. How much did you pay?


Q. Which "first-time buyer" grants and/or mortgage programs did you use? How easy or hard was it to line everything up? Do you have any advice for others?

Continue reading "Q&A: Epiphany in Baltimore" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:09 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Housing market experiences, Q&A

April 28, 2009

Q&A: Dollar Homes

Two Q&As for the price of one this week!

Wonk reader Matt Gonter noticed a new blog called Baltimore Housing Overstock that's trying to revive the idea of "dollar homes." (The city raffled off 104 homes for $1 in 1975, as this Live Baltimore bio of Otterbein notes. You can read about the larger, longer-running homesteading project here.)

I thought you all might be interested, so I chatted by email with Steve Goodman, the blog owner and a Better Waverly resident. He kicked off the site last week with this description of his proposal and a request that people go to Mayor Sheila Dixon's May 6 "neighborhood conversation" about vacant and abandoned properties.

Q. Why did you start the site? Do you plan to keep it up as a blog, or do you see it as more of a way to get your proposal out there?

I started the site as a way to spread the word that the mayor is interested in addressing the blight issue, and to rally public support for action. I think we're at a unique moment in time when there is a lot of flux in our country, and a coherent vision of the future can be quite powerful. I want to publicize that there are many people in Baltimore who love the city, but know that it needs to change and are hopeful for what lies ahead. I don't have any long term plans for it; I'm taking it day by day at this point.

Q. Why are you concerned about the city's abandoned homes?

Continue reading "Q&A: Dollar Homes" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 11:46 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Q&A

April 27, 2009

Q&A: Outer Harbor Initiative

By most measures, the neighborhoods around Baltimore's Inner Harbor are doing well. So I was interested to hear of the Outer Harbor Initiative, which calls for attention to be focused on neighborhoods just outside that ring of affluence and activity.

Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity in Baltimore, a nonprofit that builds affordable housing, developed the concept and approached Councilman William Cole for help. I asked Mike Mitchell, chief executive of Chesapeake Habitat, to explain the idea.

Q. What is the Outer Harbor Initiative?

Thirty years ago, the city redeveloped the Inner Harbor, and in the time since that redevelopment, neighborhoods around the Inner Harbor have succeeded in redeveloping. They've attracted homeowners, renters, and those neighborhoods have increased their tax base for the city, and they also have contributed to stability throughout the city.

In Habitat's work, we have seen that the neighborhoods just outside these Inner Harbor neighborhoods have faced blight and a lack of new investment. Part of the reason for this is that investors and speculators have not been willing to turn around their properties for rental or homeownership. And the great irony is these in quotes "investors" have prevented development from happening.

This has caused two negative impacts for Baltimore. First, it's meant the continuation of blight and vacancy, which has meant lost tax base for the city, increased crime and fewer resources for city services and schools, but it has also meant that thousands of Baltimore City residents who could be homeowners in these properties have not had the opportunity to be homeowners and live in these homes.

The Outer Harbor Initiative seeks to resolve this by continuing development beyond the Inner Harbor neighborhoods to this outer ring, these Outer Harbor neighborhoods. The idea is to present a strategy that entails four tools.

Continue reading "Q&A: Outer Harbor Initiative" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Q&A

April 6, 2009

Q&A: Jonathan Benya, real estate agent

Foreclosures are about 40 percent of Jonathan Benya's business -- either representing the banks or working with buyers. Benya, a Realtor with Century 21 New Millennium in La Plata, chatted with me recently about why he got into real estate after the boom and some of the wildest things he's seen inside bank-owned homes.

He usually works from Annapolis southward, though he's represented foreclosures farther north in the Baltimore area as well.

Q: How long have you been a real estate agent?

Licensed, I've been in the business for two years. (My mother has been in the business for 12 -- I worked with her as her assistant for a time.) …

It was a simple twist of fate, really. I used to do audio engineering work for a band, and I had an accident on the job where I broke my fingers in 23 places. I decided it was time to get out.

Q: Holy cow -- how did that happen?

Backstage, after a show. … I got in [real estate] right as the market was tanking, which might be less than opportune, but when you get lemons, you make lemonade.

Q: What's the lemonade?

Foreclosures. … Everybody wants a foreclosure right now. Even when they don't want a foreclosure, they think they want a foreclosure. If I had a dollar for everybody who said, 'I want a foreclosure for half-price that needs no work,' I'd be a rich man.

The problem with foreclosures is, it's always a double-edged sword. They always need some work.

Q: What sort of condition are the foreclosed homes usually in?

Continue reading "Q&A: Jonathan Benya, real estate agent" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 10:05 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Q&A, The foreclosure mess

March 31, 2009

Q&A: Fair housing

Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. and the University of Baltimore School of Law have teamed up to put on a fair-housing symposium this Friday. (Interested in attending? Go to It's free, but organizers recommend you pre-register.)

Michele Gilman, a professor who directs UB's Civil Advocacy Clinic, talked to me last week about the event and the housing issues her clinic is seeing.

Q: Why did you decide to organize the symposium with BNI?

It's their 50th anniversary, so they wanted to do something big and statewide. We thought it was a great opportunity to do something and come together. …

Fair housing is always an issue, but at a time of recession, it's an even more urgent issue. We're seeing that in our docket of cases at the clinic. It's exciting to be part of something that's really tackling these issues head on. Our keynote speaker is James Carr, the chief operating officer of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, and he's going to be focusing on the intersection of fair housing and the foreclosure crisis.

Q: What is that intersection, in your experience?

The foreclosure crisis has disproportionately impacted low-income Americans and Marylanders, which is also the population that I serve in the clinic. ... And it tends to be more moderate- and low-income communities that are also bearing the brunt of dealing with the foreclosure crisis, as far as … abandoned and foreclosed properties and all the harms that flow from that.

But it's also an issue because we have an affordable-housing crisis in this country, and yet at the same time, we have all these empty shells of homes that aren't being used. Certainly, there could be affordable-housing strategies that better take into account what's happening on the foreclosure side. …

We're seeing a unique issue in the clinic where there are clients who are being evicted from homes because their landlords are being foreclosed on. There are so many unintended consequences and ripple effects of the foreclosure crisis.

Q: What is your clinic doing for those evicted tenants?

Continue reading "Q&A: Fair housing" »

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

March 17, 2009

Q&A: Paul Cooper, auctioneer

Paul R. Cooper, a real estate agent and vice president at Alex Cooper Auctioneers Inc. in Towson, said his philosophy is straightforward: Only take on clients with realistic price expectations.

Here's what he had to say when we chatted last week.

Q. So how many potential clients are you turning down?

A lot. ... They can't sell. They owe too much. There's nothing they can do. ... Most people don't have any equity in the properties. They acquired them in the last two, three years.

What's successful are the estate sales — somebody passed away. They have equity.

Q. How do sellers respond if you say they need to lower their price?

Continue reading "Q&A: Paul Cooper, auctioneer" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (15)
Categories: Q&A

March 2, 2009

Q&A: Vera Ballard, personal moving consultant

The number of homes sold in the Baltimore metro area last year was the lowest in at least a decade, since Metropolitan Regional Information Systems began tracking the region. So what's a would-be seller to do?

I asked Vera Ballard, personal moving consultant for Charlestown, a retirement community in Catonsville. Her job is to advise people about preparing their home for sale so they can downsize. (To Charlestown, of course.) It's trickier for downsizers because in most cases they need a buyer who not only likes their house but has already managed to sell his or her own.

Ballard, a real estate agent, has been Charlestown's personal moving consultant since August.

Q: So, what recommendations do you make to homeowners who want to sell?

Continue reading "Q&A: Vera Ballard, personal moving consultant" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Q&A

February 9, 2009

Q&A: Enterprise Homes

Falling prices for homes and land are bad news for the people who own them. They're good news for buyers and affordable-housing developers.

But the tight credit situation — particularly for developers — is another matter. I talked to Chickie Grayson, president and chief executive of Enterprise Homes in Baltimore, about how the economic climate is affecting affordable-housing efforts. (Enterprise Homes is an arm of the nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners, founded by James Rouse of Columbia fame.)

Q. What has the housing downturn, credit crunch and recession meant for affordable housing?

Typically in a downturn, ... people who do housing, particularly people who do market-rate housing, kind of switch over to affordable housing because in a typical economic downturn, there are fewer people to purchase their products. There are many more people at the lower end of the scale. So there are always people who need affordable housing. That need is unending.

But that [switch] is not happening this time, and the reason is, everything that's happening is much more overwhelming than anything that's happened before. ... Up until September it was to some extent a market issue — people weren't purchasing homes — but with the economic downturn and the credit crunch, well, there's no money available either. That's a double whammy.


Continue reading "Q&A: Enterprise Homes" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:36 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Q&A

February 2, 2009

Q&A: Ross Mackesey

Coldwell Banker vice president Ross Mackesey is a number-cruncher, which of course I mean as a compliment. From his Federal Hill office every month, he looks for trends across the region.  "The agents need to be educated as to what's going on," he says.

Q. So — what is going on with the local housing market? What's happening to values?

I'm trying to get to the bottom of it, what really is going on in the market. And what we have found: In those mature first-time buyer neighborhoods, [for instance] the old section of Mays Chapel, ... [townhomes] sell for under $250,000. The prices are very stable, if not going up a little bit.  In the same general vicinity, in the larger houses that Pulte built subsequent to those in Chapel Gate, ... those are also townhouses — much, much larger, and sell in the late 3's and early 4's — and they have come down in price, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 percent. So that's just an example where you are side by side, two different buyers.

In our market, not many people start off buying a $400,000 house. So that does tell you that the part of the market that's working [is] those first-time buyers.

Continue reading "Q&A: Ross Mackesey" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:19 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Q&A

January 26, 2009

Q&A: Pat Hiban

Pat Hiban's been selling homes for 21 years, so he's seen markets good and bad, interest rates high and low. I chatted with him recently to get his thoughts on the slump. (He's most familiar with the southern part of the Baltimore metro area — his Pat Hiban Real Estate Group with Keller Williams Crossroads has offices in Ellicott City and Glen Burnie.)

Q. What's happening to home values in the parts of the metro area you know best?

Hiban: Home values are going down — it's unequivocal. They're definitely going down and they're going to continue to go down. ... Baltimore generally is the last area to be affected by the swings, you know? They come through California, kind of almost down to Florida and they hit Virginia, Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C. and then they kind of move toward Baltimore. That's how it happened when prices went up, and that's how it seems to be happening now that prices are going down.

Continue reading "Q&A: Pat Hiban" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 1:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Q&A

January 19, 2009

Q&A: Civil Justice

The attorneys at nonprofit Civil Justice in Baltimore specialize in real estate cases, so as you can imagine they're a bit busy at the moment. I recently sat down -- virtually speaking -- with Civil Justice's executive director, Phillip Robinson, for an email Q&A about the foreclosure situation:

Wonk: Have you noticed an impact from Maryland's new foreclosure law?

Robinson: The new law has solved several major issues which existed before. We rarely ever hear from homeowners who were not aware or did not receive notice of the foreclosure sale. Since they are getting notice, not previously required under the old system, they are taking the initiative to contact their lenders and trying to work out a modification.

W: Has anything changed in the way lenders are dealing with foreclosure, now that we're several years into the housing slump?

R: The lenders are changing so fast, this is difficult. A few years ago the lending industry claimed over and over there was no problem. Now everybody knows there was, is, and will be a problem for many more years. The loans in the pipeline that will be exploding for the next couple of years are the payment-option arms given to folks with the best credit. These loans will be adjusting and coming due to levels far above the market price of the home.

W: What do you think are the main causes of the foreclosure problem?

R: If you look at the super majority of loans in foreclosure, ... they come from one and/or two sources: (1) mortgage lenders/originators who are now out of business and funded loans to people on false expectations that the person could afford the loan in the short- or long-term; (2) loan products and systems which were more like Ponzi schemes than bona fide investments and financial tools.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 1:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Q&A

August 1, 2008

Q&A: Economist Mark Zandi

Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s, is a frequent housing-market commentator. Now he has a new book out -- Financial Shock: A 360 Degree Look at the Subprime Mortgage Implosion, and How to Avoid the Next Financial Crisis.

Seems an opportune time for a Q&A -- not just about the book, but also about his views on local home prices, his advice for homeowners and his take on the ripple effects of BRAC.

Q. So -- what can we do to avoid the next financial crisis?

Zandi: “Well, we’re doing some of those things already. For example, the Federal Reserve has ... implemented new regulations guiding mortgage lenders with respect to what kind of mortgage loans they can make going forward. ... They have to make sure that the loan … they’re providing to the borrower is affordable to the borrower. Before, that wasn’t really a criteria for making the loan, and now it is. Another thing that’s happened is we’ve gotten a housing bill, which includes a number of things, one of which is a mortgage write-down plan, which should help a few hundred thousand homeowners who are struggling hold on to their homes.

“But what’s so novel about the plan is, it’s the first attempt to facilitate loan modifications that entail a reduction in the amount of mortgage debt owed by homeowners. Before this, there was really no effort to do this. And I think this is really vital. This kind of a write-down plan is very important because there are now close to 10 million homeowners that are underwater, meaning they owe more than the value of their home. To give you context, there are 51.5 million homeowners with first mortgages. So already, closing in on 20 percent of homeowners that are underwater. … That is a large pool of homeowners that are at significant risk of default.”

Continue reading "Q&A: Economist Mark Zandi" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:37 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Q&A

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 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

October 31, 2007

Selling that home

I've got a story today about some of the bells-and-whistles marketing that Realtors -- and, in some cases, for-sale-by-owner folks -- are doing to get buyer attention in this slow real estate market. A taste:
A survey released this month found that agents are rushing to try blogs -- online journals -- and social-networking sites such as Facebook for advertising purposes. Coldwell Banker Real Estate announced in March that it had opened an office in Second Life, the online "virtual world." There are firms that send listing information to prospective buyers' cell phones and give the agent a heads-up.

I quote Joel Burslem, founder of the Future of Real Estate Marketing blog, but could fit only a fraction of the interesting things he said into the story. Herewith are some of his answers to my questions about what people are (or should be) doing to market homes:

Continue reading "Selling that home" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:21 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Q&A

October 24, 2007

Q&A: Refinance or home-equity loan?

Joe from Baltimore writes in with a question:
We have an adjustable mortgage which is going to go up in October 2008 and want to refinance it before it does. We also have around $25,000 worth of loan and credit card debt that we would like to consolidate in one home equity loan. Both me and my wife have good credit scores, not exceptional, but not bad. What do you recommend we do first? The re-fi or the home equity?

I'll bet other people are weighing their mortgage options right about now, too, so I posed the question to Ethan Ewing, president of California-based His suggestion: 

Continue reading "Q&A: Refinance or home-equity loan?" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 4:10 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Q&A

October 21, 2007

Staging (or, how to make it look like you have more taste than you actually do)

The Sun's real estate section has a story today about staging, the practice of presenting a home in a way to grab buyers, rather than turning them off with your beloved but cruddy couch.

Typical suggestions include repainting (or re-wallpapering) in neutral colors, cleaning or replacing carpeting, and essentially removing everything that makes the house look like yours rather than a model home. (Unless your place looks like a model home, in which case -- why are you wasting your time reading home staging tips?)

I recently interviewed Tressa Manna, a Realtor with ReMax Sails in Baltimore, but wasn't able to fit her thoughts on staging into the home-sales story I was working on. Now seems like an opportune time to share.

Continue reading "Staging (or, how to make it look like you have more taste than you actually do)" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:55 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Q&A
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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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