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Groups join to offer help to first-time homebuyers

First-time buyers in Baltimore can get homeownership counseling, access to mortgages and help with down payments and closing costs through a new initiative led by a group of public and private organizations.

Freddie Mac; BB&T; Corp., parent of BB&T; Bank; Govans Economic Management Senate; and the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development have joined to promote homeownership for low- and moderate-income buyers.

The organizations hope to help families overcome barriers to homeownership such as impaired credit, lack of resources for down payments and lack of information about home buying.

The Govans group, a nonprofit community development corporation, and BB&T; will conduct monthly pre- and post-purchase workshops to teach about home buying, budgeting, credit and maintaining and keeping a home.

The city housing agency will provide information about its down payment and closing cost assistance programs.

Mortgage giant Freddie Mac will be offering its Home Possible mortgage products through BB&T.; A Home Possible mortgage offers loans of up to 100 percent. Loans that require zero or 3 percent down payments allow borrowers to contribute as little as $500 from their funds and have flexible credit requirements.

Workshops will be held at the Govans group's offices, at 3921 Old York Road in Baltimore, at 6 p.m. on the first and third Wednesdays of each month. Information: GEMS, 410- 433-3400.

N.Y.'s St. Regis Hotel to go partly condo

Manhattan's St. Regis Hotel is convert 59 of its 315 rooms into no more than 33 apartments in a partial return to its original mission. Built in 1904 at 55th Street and Fifth Avenue, it was planned not for tourists but as an apartment hotel, a permanent residence for New Yorkers.

In the late 19th century, Fifth Avenue from 50th to 59th streets was dominated by great mansions built by the Vanderbilts. The Astor family also owned land in the area but showed no interest in living there. In 1896, The Real Estate Record and Guide reported that John Jacob Astor had been considering building private houses on his property at the southeast corner of 55th and Fifth but that because of the street's growing commercialization had decided to erect an apartment hotel.

The $5.5 million building, named the St. Regis, came with hotel-like features and service. The lower floors held sumptuously decorated dining and lounge areas. The tearoom, since eliminated, was a long space topped with three leaded-glass domes and faced with marble and mirrors, along with murals on the subject of the troubles of Psyche.

Last year, the owner of the St. Regis, St. Regis Hotels and Resorts, celebrated the hotel's centennial and announced that the ninth, 10th and 11th floors would be converted to condominium residences. The offering is to be made this year, and a news release from the owner says units are to sell for $1.5 million to $7 million.

The St. Regis project is dwarfed by the plans for the Plaza Hotel to the north, which is to reopen next year with about 200 of its room converted to condos.

Housing boom shifts inland in California

The California housing boom has moved from the coast to little inland towns, which dominate the state's top five housing markets for price appreciation.

The San Joaquin Valley city of Reedley - which proclaims itself "The World's Fruit Basket" - ranks No. 1, with a 68.8 percent jump in its median selling price over the past year, according to a California Association of Realtors report. In Reedley, 30 miles southeast of Fresno, the median price soared from $126,750 in April 2004 to a record $214,000 last month.

That median price for new and resale homes combined might seem high to many of the town's 23,000 residents, but it's barely more than half of the $424,000 statewide median.

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