K. C. Hill, a chimney sweep operating under the name of The Artful Dusters, last weekend was one of 124 exhibitors at the Montgomery County Home Fair in the Commons Mall in Rockville.
But Hill had a problem other than attracting new customers, and for guidance he could have turned to another exhibitor -- the Montgomery County "Operations Match" program for people looking to share homes.
"My home is being sold and I have to find another place to live," said the 26-year-old Hill, who pays $112 a month in a shared house in Chevy Chase. "I really don't know where I can find another place I like that I can afford."
A home-sharing program might not be expected to exist in an area ranked among the five wealthiest in the United States, as Montgomery County regularly is. But as so many other areas are, Montgomery also is struggling with the challenge of meeting the demand for affordable housing in a continually changing financial market, and in the face of a general feeling that few people can afford to buy a house at today's costs and interest rates.
"A main difficulty we wanted to address here is the need for a total range of housing," said Montgomery Chamber of Commerce Vice President Larry Pignone who attended the fair. "Montgomery County has many high-priced houses, but in order to attract businesses we've got to be able to provide lower-cost housing suitable for all the employes of a firm. While we can't do that directly, this fair can show people possible money-saving alternatives and how to obtain them."
Among those alternatives discussed at the fair were creative and owner financing, condominium ownership, group purchasing (as opposed to the more common group renting), and assorted federal and state programs, including the Housing Rehabilitation Loan program for single-family residences. This low-interest loan, usually under 8 percent, can be used to bring a run-down building into compliance with codes, thus increasing the amount of low-cost housing available.
Every exhibitor at the fair was supposed to have some connection with housing, the relationship was at times a bit tenuous, as in the case of the Shaklee Corp., manufacturer of "Products in Harmony with Nature and Good Health," i.e. "natural" shampoos, candy bars and vitamins.
Of prime interest and curiosity was the recently approved variable loan mortgage rate allowing a lender to change the interest rate on loans periodically. The amount of change would depend on the performance of four major economic indicators, and the effect of the loan would be to leave home buyers in the dark as to what their monthly loan payments would be.
"I know we've been getting a lot of questions about it," said Chuck Long of the Jack Foley Construction Co. "We were calling lenders when we heard it was going to be approved, but they didn't even know much about it."
"At least initially, it has to be good for the consumer."
Consumer Michael G. Block, account executive for Bache Halsey Stuart Shields Incorporated, wasn't so sure. "That (variable interest loans) really scares me," he said. Block said that he wasn't sure if he'd move from the house he purchased three years ago (it has increased in value by more than 50 percent since then), but added that if he does move, "It'll only be to a house where I can get owner-financing."
"Until the consumer understands (variable rate loans), there are going to be problems," said Cheryl Ganley of Wolfe Man Sheehan Realty in Frederick. "People are not going to initially accept not knowing their monthly payment."
Sarah Booher of Mimi Seleg Homes sees a bright future for the variable rate loan. "It's a good idea. It will protect the lender, and since more money will be available, it's good for the buyer. And there's nothing really catastrophic about this -- two years ago, nobody wanted creative financing. They wanted 'something simple.' Now they're used to it and they'll get used to this new program too," Booher said.
Not every represenative at the fair was totally concerned about improving the financial health of the housing industry. Some companies, such as Ausitronic Security Systems, actually thrive during perceived periods of economic weakness.
Among the brokers, cookware salesmen, cable television companies, investment firms and plant shops represented was at least one person torn between her personal and professional interests in housing.