Selling buyers on the city

Housing: Through its homebuying fairs, Live Baltimore promotes Charm City as a bargain alternative to D.C.

September 05, 2004|By Bob Erle | Bob Erle,SUN STAFF

When Jimmy Story returned to the Washington area last year from a stint overseas as a Foreign Service officer, he decided it was time to find a permanent home for his growing family.

A search of Washington and Virginia listings yielded small houses and big prices.

"We were looking in Northern Virginia and D.C. and thinking that the housing market was going to cool off," he said. "But it didn't. It continued to get hotter and hotter. I don't know how anyone can afford to live in Washington."

Last September, Story attended a housing fair sponsored by Live Baltimore, a nonprofit group that promotes city living. It turned him on to Baltimore living, and he soon found a Charles Village home to his liking.

He bought the house two months later, and his family has been happy since. "We love the neighborhood, we fell in love with the city, and we decided that financially it was the right decision," he said.

Live Baltimore's fairs have been connecting families like Story's with city homes since 1999.

Its semiannual fairs, offered in the spring and fall, provide tours and listings of homes for sale and seeks to connect buyers with Realtors and lenders. The fairs are designed to sell people on the idea of buying a house in the city and offers financial assistance to eligible buyers.

The three-year housing boom that has been fueled by extraordinarily low mortgage rates also has helped increase the city's exposure in terms of housing. As home prices have grown across the region, the city has emerged as one of the more affordable spots for a house, especially among first-time buyers.

"I think that as each year progresses, Baltimore City continues to be a more attractive place," said Tracy Gosson, Live Baltimore's executive director. "I think it's because the city is healthier, affordability is greater, and the quality of life is a major factor."

Gosson understands that some people will always have doubts about living in the city for reasons such as crime and Baltimore's financially strapped public school system. But she said that "you can't sell everyone on city living."

1,000 people expected

Even so, Gosson expects the event Saturday to draw more than 1,000 people. The fair's big drawing card is a $3,000 grant given by the city to the first 50 people who buy homes within 90 days.

Story, who bought in Charles Village, was able to put a grant he received last year toward a down payment and closing costs on his $182,000 home. Live Baltimore says 550 attendees have received $1.65 million in awards since the program's inception.

This fair's focus will be on homes in the eastern half of the city. Those attending will be given a bus tour of selected properties. Preview listings of other homes for sale also will be available.

The majority of homes will cost less than $300,000, said Tom Orth, a Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage agent.

Karen Griffin, who works downtown and rents in Fells Point, plans to take the tour in search of a single-family home selling for less than $125,000.

"Being able to go on this tour, I get to see other places, where other neighborhoods are," she said.

The fair is coming on the heels of Live Baltimore's June launch of the "It's Better in Baltimore" campaign designed to lure Washington residents to Charm City. That campaign features advertisements in Metro stations and in newspapers.

The organization will again reach out to Washington residents through an information session Wednesday at the Washington restaurant Ortanique.

One issue that Live Baltimore contends with in trying to persuade Washington residents to call Charm City home is the commute. The thought of adding another 40 miles or more to the trip is enough to give many buyers pause.

"I was concerned that the commute was going to be a bit onerous," Story said.

Like many commuters, Story relies on public transportation, taking the Maryland Rail Commuter train to Union Station and catching the Metro to his Foggy Bottom stop. He said that from door to desk, it takes him about an hour and 45 minutes. He said he doesn't mind the commute, that it gives him time to read or catch up on work.

Despite commuting concerns, Live Baltimore has had increasing success attracting Washington residents to its events. Gosson estimated that Washington residents make up 21 percent of the traffic to Live Baltimore's storefront at 343 N. Charles St., a 10 percent increase from two months before the advertising campaign began.

At the storefront, prospective buyers can talk to real estate agents, apply for mortgage loans and browse city listings.

Chris Bender, director of communications for Washington's Office of Planning and Economic Development, is not worried about a mass exodus of D.C. residents to Baltimore.

"I think it's sort of like every city has to attract people," he said of Live Baltimore's efforts. "They've got to do what they've got do, and we've got to do what we've got to do."

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