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Maryann Haggerty
Washington Post Real Estate Editor
Monday, October 2, 2006; 2:00 PM

Welcome to Real Estate Live, an online discussion of the Washington area housing market with Post Real Estate editor Maryann Haggerty. Maryann has been with The Post for 18 years and has served as real estate editor for the last five years.

She's been a business and real estate editor and reporter for about 25 years. In all that time, she still hasn't figured out where you can find a lovely but inexpensive house in a charming neighborhood. She's online twice a month to answer your questions about the local housing market -- from condos and investment properties to contracts and mortgages.

For more on local real estate, visit washingtonpost.com's Real Estate section.

The transcript follows.

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Maryann Haggerty: Welcome, everyone, to this special edition of Real Estate Live. On Saturday and Sunday, The Post published a special Real Estate package -- a section on Saturday that focused on market stats, etc., to examine the market right now, and a BIG special section on Sunday that aimed to give would-be home buyers and sellers advice for navigating that market. I hope you saw it. (It was kinda tough to miss -- big bright purple and green illustrations!) Here on the Web, there's a version of the package, which includes additional fun interactive stuff. And now, we'll continue with more interactivity -- I'll do my best to answer your questions. As always, one caveat: I do not have a crystal ball. If I did, with my luck, it would be cracked. There are also more chats later this week. Personally, I'll be tuning in to the one tomorrow with the authors of Home Buying for Dummies. But let's get going with today's questions ...

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Arlington, Va.: Kudos on the "Finding Your Way" articles in this weekend's paper. The coverage was balanced and outstanding. The only problem was with the front page cartoon graphic of the woman holding a map while overlooking a neighborhood -- it was missing the "price reduced" signs that are prevalent these days.

washingtonpost.com: Missed it in the paper? Check it out here:  Finding Your Way.

Maryann Haggerty: Well, we figured once we started to add any more small print, it would be impossible to read! Here's the online package -- but it doesn't show that graphic, I don't think...

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Raleigh, N.C.: My husband and I relocated to D.C. for a year and a half during the housing "boom" and were soon frustrated by the rising costs of housing. We couldn't believe that our first starter home was going to be a $300,000 condo with less than 1,000 sq ft. So we decided to leave before it was too late and we relocated to Raleigh. We are happily buying a new townhome for UNDER $200,000 and we are BOTH making more money!!! So, for those of you in D.C. still griping about the housing market just know that you have an option. Leave D.C. There are actual affordable cities out there and sometimes you won't even have to take a pay cut.

Maryann Haggerty: They tell me Raleigh is a nice place to raise a family. Yes, there are dramatic differences in pricing among different cities. Much of that is for the same underlying reason: supply and demand. The job-creation boom here, which shows no signs of abating, creates demand pressures on housing. However, if moving is the right decision for you and your family--and in your case, it sounds as if you are happy with it--then it is the right decision.

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RE: Pricing: Maryann, One observation I would like to make that I have not seen before is the impact that house pricing has caused in my Shenandoah Valley (i.e., Harrisonburg). Retiring folks are coming down from Fairfax/D.C. area with tons of money due to sale of their houses. They are then able to pay cash for new constructions and still have plenty of money to put in the bank. This has caused our local real estate prices to jump but our salaries have NOT increased. So the "city folks" were able to have nice salaries due to their living in a "high housing" area but are reaping the rewards of much lower house pricing in our area. Just the way it is but it makes it much more difficult to afford housing on local "non city" wages.

Maryann Haggerty: However, here is the other side of the move-for-cheap-housing thing: An influx of people can pump up prices.

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Haymarket, Va.: We contracted to build new construction but our current home has not sold after multiple price reductions. In the event we default and don't settle on the new construction, the builder will not only keep our deposit, but sue us for the difference between our sales price and the discounted sales price they end up selling it for to someone else. Have you heard of anyone successfully beating this in court? They have offered us creative, but extremely expensive financing to settle now but we still risk our house not selling and going bankrupt anyway. Any advice would be appreciated. By the way, our local market seems to be soo much worse than what is being reported. Our home value has decreased by almost $100,000 in the past year.

Maryann Haggerty: I know there are some lawyers experimenting with similar cases. I haven't heard that they've established new case law or anything, though. And sorry, I can't recommend anyone.

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Richmond, Va.: My husband and I are first time homebuyers and are beginning the mortgage process. I am extremely nervous about having to come up with a lot of money for closing costs and down payment. Since we are still very early in the process (still awaiting pre-approval), is it unreasonable in this market to request sellers pay our closing costs? A co-worker of mine just closed on a house here in Richmond in which she requested the seller pay her $14,000 down payment and closing costs, and it was accepted. Do you think she was lucky or will this be the current trend as sellers try to dump their houses?

Maryann Haggerty: I can't tell you about Richmond, but up here, yes, asking the sellers to chip in on closing costs is a reasonable request these days.

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Springfield, Va.: I own a townhouse in Springfield in need of extensive remodeling; estimates for remodeling range from $100,000 to $200,000. I currently have $200,000 in equity. My current mortgage payment is $1500.00 per month. I owe $200,000 and have a 5.5 percent interest rate. Financially I can afford a mortgage payment of $3,000 per month. Currently I am investing my extra cash but the housing market in this area, although slowing, still seems to be a good long term investment. While I want a nice place to live it is more important for me to save for my retirement. Would I be better off remodeling my 20 year-old townhouse or just buying a new single family home? I am not attached to my current neighborhood but would not want to move any further out than Lorton.

Maryann Haggerty: I haven't really done the numbers, but on a rough, rough estimate, based on what you are saying, the renovations may be less costly on a month-to-month basis. Do the numbers for real, then see whether what you can buy for that amount pleases more than what you would have if you stayed and fixed the place up.

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Olney, Md.: What are the prospects for new 55+ projects in the Montgomery County area? Would love to trade my single-family home on half an acre for easier living but want to stay within 10 miles. Great places available in Columbia, Ellicott City, P.G., Frederick, and Virginia, but nothing much happening closer to us.

Maryann Haggerty: There's not a whole heck of a lot of unbuilt land in Montgomery, which is why those projects are going up elsewhere. That said, the 55-plus market is a growth area, and if some developer is able to pin down a piece of ground, you may see more.

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Alexandria, Va.: I got in too late for your last discussion, but I've been holding this question since then. In your last chat, you said "Affordable housing won't simply appear out of nowhere. It requires people realizing that they will have to put up with denser housing -- sometimes in your back yard. And, yes, higher taxes, both to subsidize housing and to pay that firefighter more. Will this happen? I don't know." Look around you. You can't ignore what's actually happening. Affordable housing won't ever appear in this area, even with the new denser development. There are two particular "denser developments" being built in my area that come to mind, Metro West and Kendall Square. Kendall Square is being advertised as 'executive townhomes' which, of course, means executive prices. The cheaper (and denser) of the two, Metro West, will have their smallest condos starting at around $400,000. Do you honestly think our yellow-bellied elected officials would EVER raise taxes so much to pay any firefighter, police officer, or teacher to be able to afford that?

Maryann Haggerty: As I said, I don't know. Perhaps there was just a tinge of sarcasm to that answer, though.

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Arlington, Va.: Thank you for suggesting removal of the metal awning to the Northwest D.C. inquirer. I would love to see neighborhoods rid themselves of all things metal: awnings, fences, storm doors, shutters, porch posts and siding. My first Arlington house had three of these rusty eyesores when I purchased, and replacing with simple wood doors, fencing, and shutters gave my house instant appeal (from my perspective of course). Wouldn't it be interesting if local governments offered free removal of chain link fences? An opportunity to beautify as well as potential for revenue in the form of scrap metal recycling.

Maryann Haggerty: That answer wasn't from me -- it was from an earlier chatter, a star of one of HGTV's programs. Y'all can go look at it later, when we finish up here. But some of those metal awnings are god awful ugly, aren't they?

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Washington, D.C.: I've asked this before and you haven't been able to get to my question ... I hope you'll be able to get to it today. I am a potential first-time homebuyer. On an earlier chat, you mentioned that you viewed dozens of homes before purchasing one and kept an elaborate spreadsheet with information on each one. Would you be willing to share the information you included in your spreadsheet? Thanks.

Maryann Haggerty: I'm old-fashioned -- I didn't keep a spreadsheet, I kept a file system in a big accordion folder, with paper & everything. Every time I went to an open house (or to view a house with an agent) I took the highlights sheet that they hand out. I made notes directly on it. ("Floor in kitchen rotting out," "They call THAT a third bedroom?" "Backyard can be redone for parking," etc.) I filed them with a folder for each neighborhood, and by price within the neighborhood. I also added my own notes as I began to see patterns on what I liked an didn't like. ("10th St. nice; 9th St. not so much.) Those houses that especially interested me got their own folders, so I could drop in additional notes. And yes, I use color-coded markers on stuff, too. I have been assured that, with just a bit of therapy, I could live a normal life.

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D.C.: If you want to move from renting to purchasing a condo, where do you start? There is a lot of information out there, but it is somewhat overwhelming. What are your options as a first-time homebuyer in Northern Va. or Suburban Md.?

Maryann Haggerty: Well, start with the avalanche of info we produced for you this weekend. read it, and you'll get some very good ideas of what steps you need to take. There are financial steps -- get your credit in order; emotional ones -- am I ready to settle down?; and aesthetic ones -- what neighborhoods do I like?

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Alexandria, Va.: I have a 25 year-old townhouse that I will be putting on the market this spring. I have replaced the dishwasher but the refrigerator and stove are original. I have had no problems with them. They are both white in color. I have a separate microwave in a small hutch. Do you think I should replace them? My realtor suggested that I replace my worn living room/dining room carpet with hard wood floors would you agree?

Maryann Haggerty: Listen to your agent. She should know what the market is looking for.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Our house along with a few other homes in our neighborhood have not received any offers, but we're also not happy with our agent. We hired her based on family friends' experience, but our experience is that she's not on top of things in terms of marketing, etc. We're not sure if she's not doing her part or also a mix of the slow market, which is obvious. How do we go about in interviewing other agents since our contract is going to expire?

Maryann Haggerty: Call up three or more agents who ARE selling houses in your neighborhood, if you can find them. Sit down and talk. Find out how each would market your house and why they think you should hire them. Ask for references, and check them.

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Alexandria, Va.: Maryann -- Since the market is down, I was thinking of renting rather than trying to sell at this time. Do you think I am in a fairly rare position? I suspect not, that there are others like me, leading to a large inventory of rentals available. Is that true? If it is, why is the rental market strong now? Please help me sort this out. Thanks.

Maryann Haggerty: The rental market does remain strong, though of course you want to check what it's like in your neighborhood. A big part of the reason is that a lot of people really can not afford to buy

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Albuquerque, New Mexico: Hey Maryann, As a former resident (and maybe future resident), I really enjoy this chat. I believe you mentioned you reside in Capitol Hill. What is your assessment of what is happening there in terms of housing inventory and pricing, now and over the next 18 months. I am particularly interested in information on three bedroom+ rowhouses. Thanks!

Maryann Haggerty: There's a lot more inventory than there was a year ago, but not nearly what there was, say, 10 years ago -- even though the borders of the Hill have expanded greatly in that time. Prices are lower than a year ago, generally, though you still see some that are truly laughably high. And predictions about what will happen 18 months out would require that crystal ball I don't have.

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Maryland (trying to beat the builder in court): Sorry to hear your plight, but on what basis should you be allowed out of your contract? You bought without inserting a contingency, RE: the sale of your current home (typical in new home sales). You took a chance, and you're coming out on the losing end. The builder is no different than any other seller, and has a right to be protected in the event you decide for whatever reason not to go through with the sale. Wouldn't you sue a buyer who backed out of the purchase of your home if you weren't able to sell it to someone else for the same amount? and for what it is worth, my brother went through this as a seller, and while it takes awhile, the $10,000 the would be buyer's owed him has now morphed into over $40,000 for the difference plus legal fees.

Maryann Haggerty: Yes, that's what contracts are all about. Granted, the contract you sign with a home builder has a tendency to be written by the builder. But is YOU that signs.

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Removal of all things metal?: Some of us happen to think wrought iron is lovely. You do what you want for YOUR house and I'll do what I want for mine, 'k?

Maryann Haggerty: I don't think we were talking about wrought iron there, but rather about those cheap looking tinny awnings on the front of some houses. Personally, later this month I am replacing all the pressure-treated wood in my backyard with a complex system of wrought-iron steps and decks. It should be lovely, I hope.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I love the signs on houses that say "price improved." Do they think we don't know what they are really saying?

Maryann Haggerty: Hee-hee!

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Washington, D.C.: Any idea what effect falling sale prices for homes will have on the rental market? I notice the prices are staying high but there don't seem to be too many takers. I was in a new building over the weekend and they hurried me out based on their appointments but no one was there. Seemed very odd to me.

Maryann Haggerty: All the projections that I have seen are for a tightening rental market, with higher prices and fewer vacancies.

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20003: My wife and I bidded on our first house and did not get it, nor did we really expect to as it was grossly UNDERLISTED to create a bidding war. How common do you think this practice will become in this slow market?

Maryann Haggerty: It's risky for the seller, but who knows? After all, the metric isn't how many bids, it's how good the bids...

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Miami, Fla.: My family will be relocating to Northern Virginia in the early summer and I am trying to decide where to live based on best resale value of single family houses coupled with the best elementary school. We will be in the area for four years and would like to sell again easily with the most profit. Is there an area that stands out to you as one that continuously is highly sought after no matter what the overall real estate market is like? We are looking at a max price of $700,000. Thanks!

Maryann Haggerty: You put your finger on the big one: Schools. Strong schools will translate to strong resale values, almost inevitably.

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Shady Side, Md.: Why do people think you can't find a "lovely but inexpensive house in a charming neighborhood," I live in a waterfront community in southern Anne Roundel County. It's close to D.C., inexpensive, beautiful.

Maryann Haggerty: Well, actually, a lot of people would consider Shady Side more than a mite far for a commute. If you have to face Route 4 at 8:30 a.m. five days a week, you might not always have a sunny disposition.

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Rockville, Md.: I'm getting ready to rent my house in Rockville and am a little nervous about potential problems: What if I get a bad tenant who either won't pay and/or damages my property? I heard of the National Association of Independent Landlords which seems to help with those big concerns. It's not that expensive to join but I'd hate to waste the money and have a false sense of security. Do you or your readers know anything about them? Do you have any other advice for me?

Maryann Haggerty: I've never heard of them, and their web site makes it sound less like a nonprofit association and more like a service organization of some type. You will want to check further to see how legit they are. In the meantime, I've seen a really helpful-looking new book, "Every Landlord's Guide to Finding Great Tenants," by Janet Port man, from Moocow

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Creston, Va.: Wanted to offer a suggestion that has proved invaluable to me, when buying a home three years ago (which, yes, I sold for a decent profit) then one this year ... check out local county real estate assessment web sites, which list what properties were bought for. It's a good barometer, along with days on market, of how motivated a seller might be, to get a rough idea of his/her potential profit. My agent pulled "comps" only in my particular condo development, never mind condos of comparable size throughout the zip code, etc.

Maryann Haggerty: It might help you psychologically, but it gives you a very incomplete picture of what a seller is willing to accept.

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Bowie, Md.: I'm putting my home on the market soon. Have you seen an up tick in activity this fall? Also, what do you think is the reason why there are just so many more homes on the market in Northern Va. vs. Montgomery County?

Maryann Haggerty: There was a lot more construction in Virginia in recent years than there was in Montgomery County. That means more competition.

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Washington, D.C.: What are some first-time home buyer programs that I can look into?

Maryann Haggerty: Oh, you really HAVE to see Sunday's section!!! It had a long list of local programs for first-time buyers. Check your recycling bin. I'm not sure if the Web folk can find a link to that. Or you could send me your real-world address and I could see if I can find an extra copy in the recycling bins here... I'm at haggertym@washpost.com

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Montgomery County, Md.: We bought a lovely colonial with a large double addition about 18 months ago in Montgomery County. We're a ten-minute walk to a red line metro station, close to major roads, in a tree-lined, family friendly neighborhood. Due to unforeseen circumstances, we have to move, and are wondering whether to sell now or in the Spring. (We could also rent it out, given we hope to return to the area, but the idea of being long-distance landlords is not appealing.) What would you do?

Maryann Haggerty: Start the process by interviewing some successful local real estate agents to get a feel for the market at your price point and in your neighborhood. Some parts of the market are holding up better than others--and well-located single-family homes in Montgomery County are among them. That said, in a normal market, you likely could not count on a profit after just 18 months, once you take commissions, etc., into account. Take a look realistically at your situation after you have those discussions with the agents, and weigh your options vs. renting then.

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Maryland: Some buyers may prefer a credit for the refrigerator/stove, since that would allow them to buy the ones they want in their own timeframe. The only caveat is that you have to have a stove in the house in order to sell it.

Maryann Haggerty: That's true.

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Fairfax, Va.: Back in 2003, my husband and I purchased a 30 year-old townhome in Fairfax County. We bought during the heyday of the housing boom and like many others, we had to waive our home inspection. Due to the heavy rains in June of this year, we had some flooding in our basement which we have since had repaired. However, the new carpet we installed was ruined and had to be ripped up, and it appears there is some water damage to the lower portion of the walls. We are not sure how to proceed with repairing the walls or if they will even need repairing, but are afraid when we go to sell an inspector will force us to fix the walls. Do you suggest that we hire an inspector and have our house inspected now, before we put our house on the market? How do we find a good home inspector and how much do they usually cost?

Maryann Haggerty: Some people would say just bring in contractors to give you bids, but the inspector idea has merit, too. You can probably hire an inspector for about $300-$400, give or take. Ask friends (and real estate agents, too) for recommendations, and also check the Web site of the American Society of Home Inspectors, www.ashi.com. I was so impressed with the job done by the inspector I used when I bought my house that I have hired him since then to look the place over and give me what amounts to a to-do list.

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Washington, D.C.: How's "landlording for dummies" as a chat topic? Many I know are becoming landlords unwillingly, myself included.

Maryann Haggerty: That's an idea. Maybe I'll see if I can find a guest to help out on that sometime soon!

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Leesburg, Va.: I'm looking to buy a new house in the Loudoun County area and have seem mixed reviews on the state of the housing market and likely price changes. Some say there will be a continue correction for many months and housing prices will decline another five to 10 percent. Others say that the D.C. area market conditions are sufficiently strong to insulate the area from further housing price declines. Do you have an opinion?

Maryann Haggerty: Personally, I don't have an opinion, but we keep poking at the question. Look at the buy now/wait a while debate in yesterday's section.

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washingtonpost.com: A Wealth of Funding For First-Timers, (Post, Oct.1)

Maryann Haggerty: Here's the link to the programs available for first-timers. The link takes you to an introductory article; then on THAT page, there's another link to a detailed list of program contact info.

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To Gaithersburg: To the poster from Gaithersburg, Md. My husband and I are currently looking in Montgomery County and right now we are very picky. To us, it's not worth buying a home in Gaithersburg when we can buy something for a comparable price closer to the beltway. It may not be your realtor, many buyers are waiting for prices to fall and looking to get a good deal.

Maryann Haggerty: Some counsel from a home shopper.

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Metal awnings and such: Realistically, I think everyone would love to be able to keep up with trends and have every part of the home always look fabulous. But likely many of your neighbors, especially the older ones, either can't afford to update or can't physically do some of the things they used to. get to know the people. Maybe you could offer to help them. It's what neighbors USED to do.

Maryann Haggerty: Thanks for the suggestion.

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Petworth, D.C.: Maryann -- You're right. Those metal awnings are awful! We're surrounded by them in Petworth and if there were one aesthetic thing I could change with a magic wand, it'd be to rid our block of them!

Maryann Haggerty: See above. And also take this into account: Many people do like them, I think. (I once had a next-door neighbor who LOVED the Astroturf on his front stoop.) And you could try thinking about it this way: Maybe those aren't eyesores. Maybe they are vernacular architectural history in the making. I recall when the city fathers of Miami Beach planned to bulldoze the entire art deco district because it was considered an unbearably tacky eyesore. Legal and financial problems delayed the plan. A few years later, and it it was South Beach.

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Arlington, Va.: Using almost any of the free 'rent vs. buy' calculators available on line (such as http://www.homefair.com/homefair/usr/rentbuyform.html) shows that it costs about twice as much to buy as to rent in the D.C. area right now. Is there a precedent for this and is there any fundamental reason this relationship should hold true in the future. It just seems odd to me that you can rent something for half of the current cost to own (for example, imagine if car dealers leased cars for half their carrying costs). From a common sense perspective, it isn't sustainable is it?

Maryann Haggerty: Rental costs vs. buying costs going out of whack is, indeed, one of the big signs that housing affordability is a concern. Here's an excerpt from a story we ran 18 months ago. I doubt things have changed all that much since then: "And that's one of the disturbing new signs: Renting suddenly looks like a bargain. "The gap between the cost of renting and the cost of buying, which historically move in tandem, has widened considerably in the Washington area, especially over the past year. It is now the widest it has been since 1989, just before the last real estate crash, according to a study by Torto Wheaton Research in Boston. "The monthly cost of renting an apartment in the Washington area in 2004 was just 59 percent of the cost of buying a home, according to the study. That's down from 82 percent in 2001. "The fundamental relationship between renting and owning has gone astray, which suggests there's an overheating in home prices in Washington," said Gleb Nechayev, senior economist at Torto Wheaton. "There are two ways that the ratio could be restored to a historic norm. Either home prices could decline, rents could rise, or both could happen. The biggest contribution to this balance will come from home prices, we believe."

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New to D.C.: I will be buying soon, and I was wondering what is the purpose of a buyer's agent? They receive a percentage of the purchase price as a commission, so how can they advise you in negotiation? They have an incentive for you to pay as much as possible. Am I missing something?

Maryann Haggerty: Well, to start with, they don't cost you anything directly -- but your question is, rather, don't they have a built-in incentive to keep the price high? On paper, yes. BUT the bottom line addition to the agent's pay isn't huge -- let's say there's a $10,000 difference. A well-compensated agent would be lucky to 1.5 percent of that in her pocket, or $150. Their biggest motivation is to do the deal.

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Arlington, Va.: Rent is rising fast right now but wouldn't the supply of rental units soon exceed demand (unsold homes turned rental) and depress the rent?

Maryann Haggerty: Logically, yes, but it hasn't happened yet.

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Eastern Market: Do you have or know of any experience in trying to buy a property from the relative of a deceased owner who is inheriting it from the relative's estate? The living relative has made known plans to sell it, but my question I guess would be is there precedent or protocol or legalities for working out a deal with the new owner? Is it just a conversations with realtors and lawyers to work out a deal? Any special way to go about this?

Maryann Haggerty: The property probably has to go through probate before it can be sold, either by the estate or by whomever inherits. When someone has clear title, it can be sold. Lawyers, etc., should be able to determine the timeline here. Figure that it will be sold as-is.

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Washington, D.C.: Have any studies/surveys been done as to whether people in the D.C. region understand their ARMs?

Maryann Haggerty: I haven't seen a local one, but there was a national one last year or early this year that we wrote about. Bottom line: Many people are confused. I don't know if there's time to find that link? (Sandy Fleishman wrote the story). And to go with the story, we stopped a bunch of people on the street to ask them what they knew -- and most seemed pretty smart about it. _______________________

Anonymous: For the poster back that talked about density and affordable housing. That's where the SNOB Zone from a Post article comes into play, no one wants dense housing near their current homes or affordable housing because its like "poor people" near them. Not realizing it's police, teachers, firefighters, etc.

Maryann Haggerty: A thought.

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Arlington, Va.: How can I find information on expanding current home vs. moving to a house that has the sq. footage we needed. We plan to stay in the neighborhood ... Ballston area. What are the financial trade-offs?

Maryann Haggerty: That's an interesting and complicated question -- perhaps one we can explore in our next special section, if not before that!

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Maryann Haggerty: Folks, I have to go now. Thanks for spending the time. As usual, it was fun. Remember to tune in later this week for more real estate-related Live Onlines, and also to explore the Web version of the "Finding Your Way" special sections. I also urge you to take a look at the paper version if you have it around the house; I think this is the kind of thing that works very well on the compact paper medium -- it's a different type of organization. (Also, if you can't find the paper one, I may have a few extra copies of the Sunday section here; drop me a line. I appear to have fewer paper versions of the Saturday section, I'm afraid. They don't seem to have delivered as many as I usually get!) Have a lovely week!

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