Live Baltimore's staff tracks home sales in all of the city's neighborhoods, so they're familiar with the characteristics of each community. No one who works at the nonprofit is allowed to hold real estate licenses, so their advice isn't compromised or self-serving, he said.
"Our whole reason we were founded ... was that we would be an unbiased first step," Gondol said.
When a buyer decides to engage a real estate agent, it should be someone who knows Baltimore well, Gondol said. Cowman agrees. For her Baltimore search, she used the same agent she hired when she bought her Nottingham townhouse eight years ago. That turned out be a poor choice, she said.
Her agent did not know the city's neighborhoods, so could not guide her to Pigtown alternatives, Cowman said. Her suburban agent also wasn't familiar with the city-specific homebuyer incentives that can deduct thousands of dollars from a home's purchase price, she said.
It's a good idea to ask an agent whether he or she lives in Baltimore and has an office in the city, Gondol said, and then dig deeper.
A homebuyer should ask about specific neighborhoods of interest, Gondol said: How many listings and purchases has the agent had recently in certain communities? Where, geographically, has the focus of the agent's buyers been in the past six months?
"These are the things a customer has every right to ask," Gondol said.
They're questions Cowman wishes she'd thought to ask before committing to an agent. For months, she'd completely ignored the Patterson Park neighborhood because she had an impression that it was rundown and unsafe, she said. An informed professional could have disabused her of that notion and pointed her in the right direction, Cowman said.
"I probably wasted a good three months discounting an area that I fell in love with," she said. "The feeling, the vibe of Canton is moving up." In the Patterson Park neighborhood, she said, "you have a young couple with a baby living next to a Baltimore Hon who's been here for 25 to 50 years."
She ended up finding the home she bought on the classifieds website Craigslist, she said.
Since the home was being listed by the owner, and because of its age, Cowman felt she had to be extremely careful that all of the property's documents were in order. She made sure to double-check everything and hired people experienced with mortgage lending and title analysis in Baltimore.
"Because the houses in the city are so old, records are sometimes fuzzy, incomplete or missing," Cowman said. "You want people that are experienced in navigating these issues."
Taxes aren't everything
Another advantage to finding lenders familiar with the city, Gondol said, is that they will better understand the financial incentives, such as down payment assistance, available to Baltimore homebuyers. It's fair game to ask mortgage brokers the same city-focused questions that should be posed to potential real estate agents, he said.
Cowman's last major hurdle, one she is still dealing with, is Baltimore's property tax rate. She plans to appeal the assessment of her home, which she bought for $129,000 and which is just steps from Patterson Park. If the current assessment sticks, Cowman will be paying about $600 more per year in property taxes than she did on her Nottingham home.
Baltimore's property tax rate — the highest in the state — is often a concern for people searching for a home in the city, Gondol said. He tells people from out of state, who might not be accustomed to bundled taxes, that the tax rate includes items — police, fire and public school charges — for which they might be used to paying separately. He points out that the average home price in Baltimore is $85,000 less than in Baltimore County.
"They absolutely have a lower rate, but they have a higher entry point," Gondol said. "How long would that really take to make up?" The convenience of city living also balances out the higher rate, he said.
If Cowman can't get her taxes lowered, she said, she'll deal with it — it's worth the trade-off to be able to wander down to the waterfront promenade on a Sunday afternoon or walk a few feet to Patterson Park and read a book on a bench.
"This is my backyard," Cowman said on a recent evening as she looked out onto the busy park. "Only I don't have to mow it."
Buying into Baltimore
Thinking of buying a home in the city? Here's Cindy Cowman's advice for getting started.
•Check out Baltimore neighborhoods: "Ride through on different days, at different times. Walk through the neighborhood and talk to people who live there."
•Don't discount neighborhoods based on assumptions. Go there and learn about the community for yourself.
•Hire professionals — an agent, mortgage broker and title company — with experience working in Baltimore.
•Take the time to learn about city, state and federal homebuyer incentives. The nonprofit Live Baltimore can help you get started. Go to livebaltimore.com.
•Don't let property taxes scare you away. They can be balanced out by convenience and lifestyle.