Real Estate Live

Maryann Haggerty and Elizabeth Razzi
Washington Post Real Estate editor and columnist
Friday, March 20, 2009; 1:00 PM

Welcome to Real Estate Live, an online discussion of the Washington area housing market with Post Real Estate editor Maryann Haggerty and author Elizabeth Razzi.

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.

Razzi has written about real estate and other personal finance topics for magazines and newspapers since the days of double-digit interest rates. She is also the author of two consumer-advice books, "The Fearless Home Buyer" (2006) and "The Fearless Home Seller" (2007).

Today, they discussed the local housing market -- from condos and investment properties to contracts and mortgages.

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

The transcript follows.


Maryann Haggerty: Thanks for joining us. We'll dive right in. Please send your questions, observations, etc.!!!


Elizabeth Razzi: Hello, everyone! It's the first day of spring, and isn't it about time for it? Let's dig in.


Calvert County, Md.: I bought my home last September. Even though I paid less then the appraise value, I know at this point I owe more then what it's worth. I really don't care because I plan on living here for a long time. I plan on doing some much-needed cosmetic repairs, etc. My issue is that some "experts" say not to put money into it if you owe more than it's worth. What is your opinion?

Elizabeth Razzi: The key is that you plan to live there a long time. If you can afford to make these repairs, there's really no reason you shouldn't get them done now. Will they make the home more enjoyable? Increase its value--to you? After all, if you were making cosmetic repairs with the explicit intent of increasing resale value, it would be best to put them off until shortly before the sale, so they would be the most current fashion and fresh-looking. A 10-year-old paint job doesn't exactly enhance resale value--though it could prevent deterioration of the house.

Maryann Haggerty: We have a story in tomorrow's Real Estate section about the remodeling market right now. The main points: Things have slowed down, so you can find a good contractor, and perhaps a good deal. People generally are doing what they need to do to maintain the house (i.e., prevent water damage) or make it more comfortable for you. Resale is not top-of-mind...


Washington, D.C.: I would like to refinance my mortgage, but my lender has indicated that I do not have enough equity in my home since I only bought it 18 months ago. Is it possible to try and refinance using another bank or am I stuck with my original lender?

Maryann Haggerty: You could try, but I doubt you would have much luck. If the loan is held by Fannie or Freddie, you might be eligible for a refi under the new administration program.

Elizabeth Razzi: Definitely check out the new government refinance program. The government just announced a new web site that can help you figure out if you qualify for the program.


Northern Va.: I read a question from someone the other day I thought was great, but it wasn't answered. How has PMI helped the mortgage crisis?

Elizabeth Razzi: Helped relieve the mortgage crisis or helped cause it?


Feeding Hill, Ma.: Why isn't there help for mortgages that are not owned by Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae?

Elizabeth Razzi: The simple answer is because the government has taken over Fannie and Freddie and can make them do what it wants them to do. But there are efforts to aid folks outside the Fannie/Freddie world. The government is pushing enders to do more loan modifications for loans that are not owned by Fannie and Freddie. And the Fed's big push to drive down mortgage interest rates affect the whole market.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, I'm buying a house, closing on April 17, two days after tax day. I've never had anything but the most simple taxes and am kind of clueless here. Do I just do my taxes now as I normally would and then amend them after buying the house (to get the tax credit) or do my taxes now, asking for an extension for the actual filing? What would be the easiest and get me that tax credit the soonest? I'm probably just going to do TurboTax.

Maryann Haggerty: You can claim that credit n your 2008 return, if you wish. You have several options, including filing for an extension by April 15 (It's a simpler form, but you DO have to pay any taxes you owe); or filing an amended form afterward (different form number.)

My computer is acting up a bit, so I can't find the exact link for you, but the IRS Web site lays it out in some detail. If my computer cooperates, I'll try to post it later.

Elizabeth Razzi: Asking for an extension definitely seems the easier route. The site has lots of information on claiming the credit and on asking for an extension.


Convention Center Area: We are trying to time a move, and I would love any input that you may have. My husband and I currently live in a 2-bedroom condo near the Convention Center with our 16-month old child. We bought it for $500K almost five years ago with an 80/20 mortgage for 7 and 6.5 percent. Comps are currently in the $515K-$530K. We have about $15K in equity and another $15K that we could use as a down payment. We would like to move in the next year or so because we need some outside space and a decent school for our child (we might have another also). As we lived for many years in Alexandria, we are thinking about moving to either Alexandria or Arlington (possibly Fairlington) to a home with about the same value as our current one. Do you think that it would be best to try to make this move this year or do you think that waiting a year would be financially beneficial? It doesn't seem like the home values in either location are going down, and I keep thinking that any uptick in the economy would be helpful to our current home value. But, is it just silly to wait when we would really prefer to move now?

Elizabeth Razzi: I can't begin to guess what will happen to prices a year from now. But two things argue in favor of trying to make your move now. One--and it's a very big one--is that you really want to do it now. Second thing arguing for doing it now is the current, extremely unusual, presence of government incentives designed to boost the market. Your condo might attract a first-time buyer who would be eligible for that $8,000 tax credit that is only available for properties that close by December 1. Also, interest rates are being pushed artificially low, which would benefit the buyer of your condo as well as yourself.

Maryann Haggerty: Because you really want to move, it really does behoove you to at least look around.

Timing markets is difficult, if not impossible. However, I would point out that just about anything that buoys the price of the place you're selling will buoy the price of the place you're buying. There isn't that much difference between those two locations


Prince George's County, Md.: My husband and I were married 32 days when he suffered two heart attacks, and less than six months when he died. He did not have a will nor did we get the chance to put my name on the deed or the mortgage. Is there any way to do this now? I have fallen behind on the mortgage with HFC and they consider me a "third party" and have denied my request for consideration for their Hardship Program.

Maryann Haggerty: Ouch. Sorry.

The estate must go through probate. As his wife, you have rights, but a court will have to determine what they are. (For instance, minor children may be entitled to part of the estate.) It's quite possible the judge will decide it's your house. Get a lawyer.

Elizabeth Razzi: Oh, that's so difficult. Please accept my condolences. Absolutely, engage the help of a lawyer right away.


Fairfax, Va.: A report from the trenches: We are looking at buying an investment property in the area. We have placed several offers on foreclosures and short sales. In the past two weeks, we have seen the usual rules fly out the window. Instead of having a 2-3 day period to collect offers, our latest short sale seller says he is going to collect offers indefinitely. On the other end, our realtor is encouraging us to place offers on several short sales, since few of them ever come through and we can always walk away from it during a home inspection. It's a bit of a Wild West feeling -- not like the more orderly (but also wild) rules during the housing bubble.

Elizabeth Razzi: Very interesting! Is anyone else seeing the same?


Burke, Va.: For those of us who qualify, the DoD homeowners assistance program is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for military members. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, who oversees the program, DoD is working on the details -- why does this worry me? Do either of you have any insight on the details DoD is working?

Maryann Haggerty: I haven't looked closely at the details of that program, but it has been only about a month since it was approved as part of the larger bailout stimulus bill. Even the nimblest organization has problems figuring out programs in that short a time. The program Web site says it will be a few more weeks. (


Arlington, Va.: Thanks in advance for taking my question. We're looking to either do an extension on our existing home or a tear down/build up. We spoke to a few builders two years ago and the prices at the time were incredibly high which is why we decided to wait. What percentage decrease can we expect to see in the cost of building a new home today? Also, is this the right time to do the construction or should we hold off another year or so in case prices are expected to go down further?

Maryann Haggerty: Prices won't drop infinitely--materials, labor, etc., have a cost. (Land might be a lot cheaper. Or not, depending on the location.)

But you can indeed expect that costs might be more reasonable than they were two years ago. Maybe 10 percent. Maybe more. Depends on how much flex was built into the bids you got two years ago.

Elizabeth Razzi: Few people really realize that remodelers sometimes threw out deliberately high quotes during the boom. They were busy, and there may have been something they didn't particularly like about a certain job.(Maybe it was complicated, or too small to be really profitable, or the neighborhood was inconvenient to their other jobs.) So instead of turning down the work, they quoted a pie-in-the-sky price. They're not doing that now. I'm not trying to say ALL jobs were priced this way, but it did happen sometimes.


Bethesda, Md.: Bought a condo two years ago at about 540k, and now the Montgomery County tax folks say it's worth 410k. Give me a wild guess -- how long do you think we need to live here to break even? Thanks.

Elizabeth Razzi: Nope. Not gonna even guess. But you do need to understand that your tax assessment is NOT the same as the property's real value, especially in Maryland, where homes are assessed only once every three years.

Maryann Haggerty: Even the best assessor's office is only right sort of on a bell curve, if it uses current mass-appraisal methods.


Gainesville, Va.: In answer to your question: I have a good friend who is trying for their 15th house in Gainesville. Yes, it's a feeding frenzy on the low-ends.

Elizabeth Razzi: Wow. Fourteen strikes and still not out of the game. Maybe your friend needs to change strategies?


Falls Church, Va.: This might be more of a personal finance question, but it does relate to real estate. My wife and I bought our house in 2002 with $35,000 down and a HELOC of $35,000. Instead of simply paying the interest on the HELOC, we also paid down the principal to the point we only have about $15k left on the loan. Our first mortgage plus the HELOC puts our combined mortgages at about $270,000. Foreclosed properties in our neighborhood (Falls Church section of Fairfax County) have sold for less than we originally paid for our house, but for more than we currently owe on it. My question is - should we continue to pay down the principal on the HELOC or just pay the interest? We don't plan on moving for 4-5 years and I would love to build up our savings instead of paying down the principal on the HELOC.

Maryann Haggerty: This is a gut feeling, not completely thought out advice: Right now, I would feel better with a little more cash saved up, especially if I had any reason to believe my job was shaky.

Elizabeth Razzi: Well, I firmly believe you can't separate personal finance and real estate, so it's good that you're thinking in terms of the overall picture. Too many people don't do that. I'd give the edge to building up savings. After all, you could always use that savings to pay off the HELOC in the future. I don't know what interest rate you're paying on that HELOC, though. If it's a high rate, you may want to start getting rid of it -- as long as you have six months of emergency savings built up. That should be priority no. one.


Washington, D.C.: I feel the time may be good to start looking at some real estate. My question is are we at the bottom yet? Aren't income levels coming down, not up?

Maryann Haggerty: I'm totally unwilling to call a bottom to any market. Or a top. Even Warren Buffett isn't right 100% of the time on that (and my Berkshire Hathaway stock proves that right now.)

Household net worth plummeted last year, because of the falling housing and stock markets. I would guess overall net income is dropping in places where unemployment is rising, but can't find the most up to date numbers on that. (Stupid computer!)

Elizabeth Razzi: Honestly, if anyone could call a bottom to this market, don't you think there would be a stampede to the closing table?


Washington, D.C.: Should I hold off on refinancing a bit longer in hopes that rates continue to decline? And is any continued rate decline expected to take weeks? Or much longer?

Elizabeth Razzi: Hey, I never expected rates to go this low. This Fed action is truly extraordinary. I would get my refinance in motion now, as it could take a while.

Maryann Haggerty: While pundits are saying rates won't shoot back up, they are also saying they are unlikely to fall much more.

If you absolutely positively need 4.5%, then you may want to roll the dice and wait. If 4.875% will save you noticeable money, why not just take it?

As a very rich person once told me, no one ever went broke by taking a profit.


Alexandria, Va.: Ladies, I just can't find any advice out there on my dilemma: My condo was appraised at just a few thousand more than I owe and I have an adjustable rate mortgage on the 1st trust (adjusts every spring) and a balloon on the 2nd. I have about $15-$20k to do something with, should I, 1) put money down to own 5% and refinance to a fixed rate with PMI, 2) sell the place for a loss and use the money to pay the fees and realtor, or 3) just keep my ARM/balloon mortgage and put the money toward one of the mortgages. I don't like the place and really wanted to be out of it by now (four years). If I sell, I will simply rent. Also, are there any financial advisors out there anymore who can provide me "one-time" advice without having to sell me financial products?

Elizabeth Razzi: Well, let's see. You don't say how big your second trust is or the interest rate. But if I were going to pay anything off, that ballooning second would be at the top of my list. But you'd rather sell and get out of there anyway. Have you tried selling it? Why not give that a serious try before paying off any mortgages? As for financial advisors, there are fee-only financial planners, but they usually work with people with a pretty high net worth, half a million dollars or more. A CPA might be able to give you a good one-time consultation and will, of course, be especially effective explaining the tax angles.

Maryann Haggerty: That all makes sense.


Refinance now or not: I bought my home with a Fannie Mae lender and while my credit is good my score is only in the 680 range so how can I be sure I would get a decent rate that isn't just about where I am now (around 6.5)? With a score in the high 600's and no late payments can I get a rate in the 5% range with a refi and not take money away from the table? I am current on my 30 yr mortgage but I want a better rate. My house is worth about what I paid for it or maybe 5K-10K less. Is it possible?

Maryann Haggerty: Ask a lender! Seriously, ask. Individual circumstances vary a lot. FICO thinks that 680 will still get you a better rate, but you can't tell from Web sites, etc., what YOU will get.

All the pundits are saying today that rates won't shoot back up right away, so you may want to think about how to improve that score a bit, too.

Elizabeth Razzi: It can take six months to a year to change your FICO scores. Check the site to see what they say you can expect to be quoted given your scores. And you can ask a lender to be specific in quoting you an interest rate based on your score.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for the chats, I always read them. When a buyer asks the seller for help with closing costs, how does that work? Does the seller agree to cover closing costs, knowing roughly what they'll be, or does the buyer ask the seller to cover a specific amount? Does the seller pay the lender directly, or does he pay the buyer?

Elizabeth Razzi: Thanks for being a loyal chatter! Usually, the seller will agree in the contract to pay up to a certain dollar amount in closing costs. If it's more than 3 percent of the sales price, though, things get complicated and the concession is supposed to be noted on the appraisal. Cash doesn't actually change hands; the settlement agents adjust the amounts payable to the seller and from the buyer at the closing table.

Maryann Haggerty: Even if it's a circumstance where the seller needs to bring cash to closing--those do happen--all money goes through the settlement agent and is recorded on the HUD-1 settlement sheet.


Fairfax, Va.: I have two questions. 1) What is a good color for a bathroom that's not too trendy or loud? I want a spa-like atmosphere (I have white everything in there, so that helps) and was thinking of a very light silver-blue. Any suggestions? 2) I am thinking of re-doing my closet. I don't have a laundry room or a hallway closet, so I need to make room for clothes and possibly some space to put my linens, etc. Any suggestions?

Elizabeth Razzi: Our friends in the Home section are the experts on this stuff, but I will venture a guess about colors. Light silver-blue sounds delightful to me, but if you're going for a long-term, non-trendy choice, I would go with white or off-white tiles and use the blue for paint and accessories. As for place to store linens, antique armoires, wherever they fit in the house, might be a cool choice.

Maryann Haggerty: This is SO a Home question. But what the heck. In order to pick the light silvery blue (with just a teeny touch of greenish maybe?) in my main bathroom, I must have had 40 different paint chips up there. I eventually made one of my girlfriends pick it for me.

Guess what? I bet my husband would be hard-pressed to remember whether it's blue or green. But he's super-impressed that the towels coordinate. He never would have considered that on his own.


Alexandria, Va.: Dear Ms Haggerty & Ms Razzi, any update on the Metropolitan Dream Home scam? It has been over 18 months, and I would like to know if any of the suits have gone to trial, the status of the many that signed up for this Ponzi operation, even what happened to some of the directors and consultants of this illegal operation.

Elizabeth Razzi: I have been keeping an eye out to see if anyone has been charged, but haven't caught any. The last I've heard of it was that the receiver was still trying to track down assets. And former participants are without their money. If you happen to hear of something, please shoot me an email.


Laurel, Md.: Hi Maryann and Liz, my fiance and I want to take advantage of the $8,000 tax credit for first time homebuyers. I have no idea how to start looking for a house. We don't have any money for a down payment and was wondering if you know of any resources we could use for down payment and closing help. What should be our next steps?

Elizabeth Razzi: Down-payment assistance has pretty much gone by the wayside. The best thing you can do is to work as hard as you can to save at least a 3 percent down payment, plus a few thousand dollars extra for closing costs and new homeowner expenses. And...not least, you want to have a chunk of savings left over after the purchase.

Maryann Haggerty: There still are some government programs that will help with the down payment. Check this HUD Web site, which has links to the Maryland program:


Arlington, Va.: The bathroom color comment raised a question for me. I'm hoping to sell my condo this year but don't have the conservative off white walls. The colors are not outrageous and the color scheme is well done, but my living room is green, bedroom is dark blue, office is light blue, kitchen is mustard and bathroom is lilac. I'm definitely not repainting before I put it on the market, but is this something that may turn buyers away?

Maryann Haggerty: Real estate agents will tell you that yes, it will turn people away.

But if it's really nice, it may help your house stand out in the minds of buyers.


Ashburn, Va.: I'm thinking about updating the kitchen in my townhome for eventual resale, but I'm not sure how far I should go. How much value do upgraded countertops, appliances, lighting, etc. add to a home?

Maryann Haggerty: In part, it depends on upgrading from what.

If you bought your house 5 years ago, I don't see that an upgrade from Corian to granite will add all that much.

However, a 25-year-old house that still has the original dark blue-ish Formica could well need to be updated enough so that buyers don't dismiss it out of hand.


Washington, D.C.: Has the D.C. First Time Homebuyer Credit been extended for 2009? Thanks so much.

Elizabeth Razzi: Maryann and I just had a little off-screen confer about this. Yes, it has been extended. But you should evaluate which gives you the greater benefit, the DC credit or the new $8,000 federal tax credit, and choose the better one. You can't have both.


Howard County, Md.: I am in the process of renovating a basement, and am thinking about whether there is value for resale in creating a bedroom in the basement. What are the requirements for calling a room in a basement a "bedroom" for the purposes of a real estate listing? I know of the window requirements, and I believe that including a closet, while nice, is not a requirement. Is there a requirement that a bathroom be available in the basement? Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks.

Elizabeth Razzi: The real estate agent isn't the one you really need to worry about. It's the county zoning office and building inspector. Make 100 percent certain that you meet their requirements. As far as the real estate sales angle, I don't know the particulars for Maryland, but I've always been told it ought to have a closet if you're going to call it a bedroom. And, honestly, as a buyer, I would insist on it. A bathroom isn't necessary, but it sure does make it more livable, especially if your future buyers hope to use it as an au-pair or mother-in-law suite.

Maryann Haggerty: A year or so ago, we did a story on this. (It's here:

The closet isn't a legal requirement, but buyers really want closets. Bathroom isn't a requirement, either.

Let me just underline something: The window requirement and other safety requirements are really really important. Any room where people sleep MUST have at least two means of exit. People die every year because homeowners ignore this.


Detroit, Mi.: I am selling my home in Detroit and am due to close on it in about three weeks. I'm looking to buy or possibly lease a condo. I have always owned single family homes (3) and am a little nervous about buying a condo because I've been told by someone that there are hidden fees charged (assessment fees) that will cover any future maintenance. These are in addition to the monthly association fee. Do you know if there's a cap on what any assessment fee (if any) would be? Also, can you educate me on what I can expect from a financial point of view when buying a condo.

Elizabeth Razzi: Congratulations for achieving a sale in Detroit! Not easily done. You need to learn more about condos -- not because they are bad, but because they are different. Condos charge regular assessments to cover the ongoing costs of maintaining the property. And sometimes there can be special assessments if they encounter a big, unplanned expense. In well-run condos, they charge enough each month to build up a well-thought-out reserve fund to handle big recurring expenses, like roof replacement. In badly run condos, they charge a lower monthly rate, but fail to save for a rainy day. Before you make an offer on a condo, make sure to get the condo's full financial disclosure packet, and review it carefully. It would be worth the money to have your accountant or lawyer take a look at it, especially if you don't feel comfortable picking apart accounting statements.


Arlington, Va.: My fiance and I have a condo in Shirlington and will be looking to buy a house this fall. The condo was my first purchase so I've never had to juggle the whole "sell first then buy" scenario. How difficult is this to do? Will our contingency make us less attractive to sellers? Thanks.

Maryann Haggerty: In a buyers' market like this one, you sell first, then buy, if at all possible. It might mean you are juggling multiple moving dates, or not, if you can find a place to buy quickly enough.

But if you see the perfect place before you sell, sure, feel free to make a contingent offer. Yes, a contingency will make your offer less attractive. But these days, many sellers will seriously consider a contingency offer.

Elizabeth Razzi: They may consider a contingent offer, but if they're smart, they will insist on a 2 or 3 day kick out clause, which says if another offer comes in, they can take it unless you drop your contingency and move along with the purchase yourself. Don't forget, you and any buyer can negotiate when closing would be. You might ask for an extra month or two to allow you to find a home. Just don't make that a contingency! Home sales are hard enough to achieve in this market without fuzzing deals with extra conditions.


Davidsonville, Md.: Last April I bought a nice little 30-year-old rancher, it had come down some in price and I knew the market could go down more but I needed a place and a tax break and planned to be there a few years. Now, have met a wonderful person and am getting married and no longer need the house. Who'd a thought? So of course the house is worth probably $50k less than I paid and renting would get me maybe half my mortgage. So, sell (if I can) and take the loss (I am working so no special finance help for me) or rent at a loss until market turns around some?

Elizabeth Razzi: Congratulations on your upcoming marriage! It doesn't sound, from your question, that living in the rancher is an option for you. You and your fiance should look at this in the context of your combined financial picture. Do you have enough cash flow to carry this place at a loss as a rental? Do you have enough cash to sell at a loss? If you can carry it as a rental, it could (noooo guarantees offered!) eventually yield you both a nice profit years down the road.


South Riding, Va.: Hi there, while we can afford our mortgage right now, soon we'll have another child, and with the extra daycare expenses, things will be rather tight. I'd like us to refinance to try and lower our interest rate, and therefore payment, but the value of our home has gone down, and while we probably aren't upside down, we probably don't have 20 percent equity anymore. Also, our loan amount is almost $450,000, so it is not conforming. Are there any options for us to refinance?

Maryann Haggerty: The administration's Fannie/Freddie refi program is designed for someone in your situation, if they own your loan. (You don't have to add PMI if you don't have it now, for instance.)

It is highly possible other lenders may swing 'round to that program, too. Or not, of course.

Also price out FHA.


Anonymous: We're in the process of buying a house (everything done except mortgage) and the underwriters just came back and were worried that the house was "appraised too low." It was appraised for the exact sales price, but it is MUCH lower than comps in the area. We know why -- it is 50 years old, has 50-year-old carpet and appliances, and a 80-year-old smell (the owners). The house was on the market for a year without offers (trust me, if you saw the bathroom's avocado sinks and peach toilets, you'd know why). Similar homes (updated, of course) are going for at least $100-150K more than this house. We're putting 20% down and have excellent credit, but are not sure what to do about this appraisal (having never been in this situation). What happens when a house is appraised lower than its comps?

Maryann Haggerty: Is the appraisal sufficient for the loan? Sounds like it is. The underwriters may be worried that someone is trying to pull a scam off --for instance, getting a loan on a building that's on the edge of being condemned. Perhaps they would be reassured by pix that show it actually exists, etc? Perhaps the appraiser just needs to add a note?


Dallas, Tx.: Can you recommend any resources for learning how to go about refinancing? We know we need an appraisal, and to talk to lenders and/or to find a broker, but we just don't know in what order. Would also be nice to understand what fees we can push back on. Thanks.

Elizabeth Razzi: You start by pulling your credit scores to make sure you're in good shape to qualify for a refi. Then find a good lender offering competitive rates. Shop around for one and be persistent. They've cut staff in recent years and their phones are ringing off the hook. The lender dictates who the appraiser will be.


Elizabeth Razzi: Time flies! If you haven't done so yet, please check out the Local Address chat and answer the weekend poll. This time it's about whether all those government incentives are changing your plans to buy or sell this spring. From what I saw on today's chat, I expect the poll's responses are going to change soon! Have a great weekend.


Maryann Haggerty: Wow! It's 2pm. We have to wrap it up.

Check tomorrow's Real Estate section for an interesting article on remodeling in today's market. Also for a story about the remodeling of an interesting old DC building, the Louise Hand Laundry.

And please--check out Elizabeth's blog, "Local Address," appearing daily on this Web site, at

Enjoy the first weekend on spring!


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