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Tales from a hunt for the perfect Baltimore home

Cindy Cowman is just the type of person Baltimore officials want to woo: an empty-nester living in the suburbs, looking for an urban lifestyle and willing to invest in an older home.

"I wanted to be in the city, with a high walkability score and a lot of foot traffic," said Cowman. "I wasn't afraid to be a little on the fringes, but I wanted to know that [the neighborhood] was moving forward."

Last month, she finished her months-long quest for the perfect home and settled on a rowhouse in the Patterson Park neighborhood. For her, the more-than-100-year-old home is just right.

But finding the ideal Baltimore location for the next phase of her life wasn't easy. She had to start over after disappointments, revise bad assumptions, and spend many days and nights getting to know a variety of neighborhoods.

Buying into Baltimore has unique challenges for people who don't know the city well, Cowman said.

"A lot of younger people I know will say, 'Oh, my God, that's awesome,'" said Cowman, 52, describing the reactions she's received to her decision to move from the suburban community of Nottingham, in eastern Baltimore County, into a dense neighborhood of attached homes. "Some people my age don't understand it. But they don't have the same lifestyle."

The people who have questioned her decision, Cowman said, have not spent time in the city and experienced its advantages — the vibrancy, the culture, the variety. Cowman grew up in a Baltimore neighborhood off Belair Road and was introduced to city life early.

"We used to take a cab downtown and have lunch at Read's," said Cowman, who works as a client relations manager for a financial planning firm in Towson. "I actually remember it before there was an Inner Harbor."

In spite of her long-ago experience with downtown Baltimore, she didn't know many of its residential areas well. With dozens of neighborhoods to choose from, it was tough to narrow her search. Baltimore is 81 square miles and 250 neighborhoods.

"That's a lot to absorb," said Steven Gondol, executive director of Live Baltimore, which helps orient newcomers to the city. The nonprofit was among the first places Cowman went for advice on buying a home in Baltimore.

Cowman definitely wanted a rowhouse — because it's the quintessential Baltimore home, she said — and wanted to be within walking distance of the waterfront. She also wanted to stay under $150,000 and was looking for a place she could substantially rehab.

"Federal Hill was completely out of the questions because of the prices," Cowman said, dismissing one of the most popular neighborhoods for Baltimore newcomers. She also wanted to stay out of Fells Point because of its younger, nighttime crowd.

In October, as she began her search in earnest, Cowman set her sights on Pigtown, a historic neighborhood in Southwest Baltimore close to downtown that is filled with rowhouses in her price range. As she drove through during the day, she saw properties that appeared to meet her needs and wants, she said.

"At night, it's a different animal," Cowman said. She didn't think she'd feel safe there, she decided, and went back to the drawing board.

On the opposite side of the city, Cowman started looking at Brewers Hill and Canton, but neither felt quite right. The rowhouses "seemed small for the price," and both neighborhoods have a "younger vibe" that didn't match the hopes she had for her future community.

"You're paying top dollar there," Cowman said. "In Canton, they wanted $150,000 or more for a home that needed to be almost completely gutted. ... It was cost-prohibitive."

Experience matters

It's common for Baltimore homebuyers to begin the process with one neighborhood in mind, only to find that it doesn't meet their expectations or is out of their budget, Gondol said.

The easiest way to identify potential neighborhoods is to start just the way Cowman did, he said: Identify the type of home desired, the price and commuting necessities, such as whether the home should be near Penn Station, Interstate 83 or the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

"We can then work with the buyer to narrow it down," Gondol said. If a Hampden home is out of reach, he said as an example, perhaps Remington — a nearby neighborhood that has similar homes — is a good alternative.

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."

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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.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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