First-time buyers taking to the city

A national report finds first-time homebuyers dwindling, but Baltimore has plenty

From the wall-length window in Tyler and Erin Matteau's rented fourth-floor apartment on North Calvert Street, there's a view to the south and, maybe, the young couple's immediate future.

"Right there," said Tyler, pointing to a building within shouting distance just beyond Chase Street. "I guess a converted mattress factory or warehouse. That brick one right there."

The price for the two-bedroom condominium on the first floor at Hunter Street had just dropped from $125,000 to $112,500, and the Matteaus, both 28, were hoping to qualify for a mortgage so they could buy it, joining those in the city who appear to be bucking a national trend.

The National Association of Realtors recently reported that first-time homebuyers across the country are as scarce as they've been in 27 years, but the picture in Baltimore seems different. While some in real estate see a slowdown, others say the city is busy with people buying or looking for a first home.

The national report, released this month, shows that 33 percent of homebuyers were first-timers in the 12-month period ending in June 2014. That's the lowest percentage since 30 percent in 1987. First-time buyers normally account for around 40 percent.

"I don't see that at all," said Stephanie Yungmann, an agent with Keller Williams who does much of her work in the city, especially in the northeast neighborhoods of Hamilton and Lauraville — prime first-time buyer territory. She said this spring and summer were as busy as she's seen, and "the people who were coming and in and buying were all first-time buyers."

But the report did not surprise Sharon McKenna, a former president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

"We're following right along with that," said McKenna, an agent with Long & Foster in Towson who does about 60 percent of her work in Baltimore County, the rest in the city. She said first-time buyers are scarce everywhere.

"First-time homebuyers are being very cautious," she said. Along with tougher lending standards, "the insecurity of the economy is still a big part of it."

McKenna was among several in the area real estate business seeing fewer first-timers and offering possible reasons: young people saddled with student debt, stricter lending standards, stagnant wages, poor job prospects and reluctance to buy after years of gloomy news about foreclosures and tumbling house values.

Dave McIlvaine, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker in Ellicott City, said he believes the slowdown is probably more of a suburban than a Baltimore City phenomenon.

While the NAR report included no specific information about Maryland, the organization's chief economist, Lawrence Yun, said it makes sense if a national pattern of fewer first-time buyers is not showing up in Baltimore.

"The areas where you would see more first-time buyers are where it's more affordable," he said.

The median home sales price for the Baltimore area in October was $239,000; for the city itself it was $99,825, according to Real Estate Business Intelligence, a subsidiary of Metropolitan Regional Information Systems.

Yun said Baltimore offers the walkable urban community many young people want, a reasonable commute to jobs in Washington and home prices much lower than in the district's suburbs. Baltimore also offers an array of home-buying incentives designed to help cultivate stable neighborhoods and reverse years of population decline.

"I can easily see younger people living in downtown Baltimore," Yun said.

Based on survey responses from 6,572 people across the country who bought homes between July 2013 and June 2014, the report found that 56 percent of first-time buyers were between 25 and 34 years old.

This month, Interest.com ranked the Baltimore area sixth in home affordability among the country's 25 largest metropolitan areas, a jump from 17th in 2013. Mike Sante, managing editor for the website focusing on consumer finances, said the Baltimore metropolitan area — defined for this report as including the city, five surrounding counties and Queen Anne's County — rose in the ranking because median home prices fell by nearly 3 percent while median income rose about 2 percent.

"That's what makes homes more affordable in Baltimore than any other big city on the East Coast," Sante said.

Darlene Powers of Baltimore County hopes to buy for the first time in her life — at 58 years old.

"I would like to own a little family townhouse, porch, two bedrooms," said Powers, who has raised four children, all grown now, but never owned her own place. She's been a custodian at county senior centers for four years, and since the summer has been working with a counselor at Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore to raise her credit score so she can qualify for a mortgage.

Her credit score is "low," she said, but declined to give the number. She said she has some old debt, mostly from medical bills, that she hopes to pay off in the next month or so. Then she expects to start looking for a place, probably in the county.

She's been working with Kareema Pinder at Neighborhood Housing, who said the agency has been busy working with people trying to buy their first house, mostly in the city. She's seen no slowdown in first-time homebuyers.

The same goes for Live Baltimore, a nonprofit organization that promotes city living, and the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center.

"We're on par with previous years," said Steven Gondol, executive director of Live Baltimore, where about 90 percent of the people who use their services are looking for their first house. The organization helps prospective buyers learn about the home-buying process and the many financial incentive programs offered by city, state and federal agencies.

Today's buyers face lending standards that have tightened considerably since before the housing bubble popped, when some bought houses with no money down and no documents proving income.

Now, some say the pendulum probably has swung too far in the other direction, with requirements for down payment, credit score, ratios of debt to gross income and demands for documentation — sometimes even for details about gifts of a few hundred dollars that show up in bank deposits.

"We were turning down people we knew were qualified to buy," said Mike Dunn, area manager for Prosperity Home Mortgage in Towson.

Dunn said he thinks the tougher standards might be discouraging some first-time buyers. Based on conversations with his daughter and her friends — all in their 20s — he also wonders whether young people are soured on home ownership from hearing so much news since the housing crash about foreclosures and owners swamped by debt.

"All they've heard is buying a house is not a good thing to do," Dunn said. "They know people who have been foreclosed on, who have lost a house."

At the least, some millennials seem to have taken a lesson in caution.

"It's not as stable of an investment as it was when our parents bought houses," said Tyler Matteau, who works as an office manager downtown.

That has not discouraged him or his wife, Erin, a physical therapist at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in the Loch Raven area. They have looked at about a half-dozen places and hope to make an offer on that condo nearly across the street. The price seems right, the space is good and it has its own parking spot.

Alex Hutchinson, 29, said he started looking to buy a place in Baltimore soon after he moved from Washington six months ago. He's renting in Mount Vernon and said he has been prequalified for mortgages by two lenders, but he's not trusting their judgment about how much he should spend.

"I've been pre-approved for more house than I can afford," said Hutchinson, an economic development officer for the Baltimore Development Corp. "I know what I can afford."

The sudden sense of greater responsibility can be daunting, said John Sawyer, 31, a neuropsychologist with the Department of Veterans Affairs. He and his husband, Michael Sawyer, 29, a psychologist at Towson University, just bought their first place, a three-story townhouse in Homeland.

"It's overwhelming," John said. "Oh, my God, we have this thing we have to pay back."

They moved in on Halloween, which perhaps should have been a hint. Days later, as they entertained friends who had come to help with the move, he noticed foul water backing up in the utility sink in the laundry room, spilling onto the floor.

One of his first thoughts: "Welcome to being a homeowner."

As it turned out, a sewer line had broken, and the flow backed into the plumbing. A plumber showed up to clear the line, then a crew to replace the pipe, digging a trench in the yard as deep as a grave.

Fortunately, the break occurred on land maintained by the homeowners association. The Sawyers had ducked a big bill and a rude introduction to owning a home.

"I think it's a fun new homeowner story," John said.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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