Omar Perez and his fiancee, Dianna Celis, don't know what it means when a Realtor talks to them about their "PITI."
The same can be said for trying to understand a qualifying ratio.
Then again, many first-time homebuyers don't know that PITI stands for principle, interest, taxes and insurance.
But it's even harder to understand the intricate workings of mortgage financing when English isn't your first language. This is where an agent such as Lida Wright, a Spanish-speaking agent with Re/Max-Elite in White Marsh, becomes valuable.
"I still express myself a lot better in my natural language, and I want to use somebody from the Latin community for doing something as important as buying a house," said Perez, a native of Puerto Rico who is fluent in English.
Perez, who came to America in 1995, knows he has to learn the complexities of homebuying to realize his dream of getting his "primera casa," his first house, but, "I'm far more comfortable learning all this in Spanish."
As Hispanic and other immigrant groups arrive in the Baltimore area, Realtors are making a major effort to tap into this growing market to help immigrants cope with an experience that's exhilarating yet frightening -- to achieve the ultimate symbol of success in America, homeownership.
Realtors are in the midst of devising marketing techniques to attract immigrants to their offices, such as using bilingual agents, conducting homebuying seminars in foreign languages and using media such as newspaper ads, radio commercials and brochures.
"If we don't reach out to this new market, we'll lose it," said Bill Cassidy, manager of Long & Foster's office in Fells Point, an area of Baltimore that has experienced a 17 percent increase in its Hispanic population from 1990 to 1995. Cassidy plans seminars in Spanish for homebuyers and sellers.
The main reason for the strategy to reach immigrant arrivals is that prospective homebuyers such as Perez prefer dealing with agents who speak their native language. "Coming from a culture where homeownership is rare, immigrants need to have the complicated procedure of mortgages, interest, settlement costs, and income qualification explained to them in their own language," Wright said. "The less fluent in English a customer is, the more uncertain he or she is."
Realtors are stepping up efforts to hire agents who are bilingual, especially in Spanish and Chinese. Long & Foster's corporate division for marketing has used an advertisement in the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area that lists the languages its agents speak, from Armenian to Tagalog.
"We not only have to project the market, we have to hire for it as well," Cassidy emphasized. "Agents who are bilingual will be invaluable."
Wright is a native of Peru who has been an agent for 13 years. Her Hispanic customers are from many Latin American countries and come to her through referrals from their friends and family. Celis' grandmother and uncle, who are from Colombia, bought houses from Wright. "My customers usually rent when they first come to Baltimore with the goal of buying a home as soon as they can," Wright said.
"They first choose the area in which they want to buy. Sometimes it's the same neighborhood where they've been renting like Highlandtown or Canton where they already know people. Often, a rowhouse in the city or a townhouse in the county is their first purchase because it's affordable," Wright said.
Perez works for an insurance company and rents in the Perry Hall area. He would like to purchase a townhouse in that area. Since he is just starting out, he wants to make sure he'll have a large enough down payment and stay within his budget.
"First-time Hispanic buyers are always scared," said Wright, "because they're worried they won't be able to make the payments and will wind up losing the house."
This is where the expertise of bilingual agents like Wright is critical. She first explains the homebuying process in Spanish to her customers, then sends them to homebuyer workshops such as the one offered by the HARBEL Housing Partnership in Northeast Baltimore. Once a month, housing counselors explain the basics of finance, credit, affordability and loan availability. Wright also will attend the workshops to translate anything her customers don't understand. The next step is establishing what they can afford.
"Prequalification is very important," Wright said. "They know immediately how much the monthly payments will be."
She does not show customers houses above their price range and often starts with properties that are below their range. Wright also directs her customers to seminars explaining the responsibilities of homeownership, especially home maintenance.
"They always have questions, like how the heat pump works or how to fix plumbing problems. The home inspection is also very, very important to them. They want to make sure they're not being sold a house with some hidden problem."