Koortbojian knows he's lucky that he had a large down payment and could walk away without writing a check. But it's still lost money. And he feels badly for neighbors whose values are dragged down by his sale.
"Every person who ... has to sell their house is the victim of all the ones in the preceding months who've had to sell," said Koortbojian, a professor who left the Johns Hopkins University for Princeton University in New Jersey. "What breaks this pattern so it cycles up again?"
Some sellers' experiences have soured them on homeownership.
"I no longer believe that real estate appreciates all the time. I no longer believe it's a safe investment," said Lori Travis, 35, who is trying to do a short sale.
She and her husband, Aaron , put $50,000 down when they bought their Upper Fells Point home in 2004. Then came the slump. Last year, after they discovered major structural problems - including leaks, a sinking foundation and a second-floor tub in danger of falling through to the basement - they had no equity to borrow against for repairs.
That was bad enough, but in January, Lori Travis lost her job as a bookkeeper and accountant. The Travises tried to get a loan modification; their lender said no because they were still paying the mortgage on time. After months of struggling, they realized they could rent a rehabbed home nearby - a bigger place with no leaks, no mold and no faulty foundation - for $850 less per month.
So they did. They moved out last month, advertised their home as a short sale and informed the bank they'd no longer pay.
"Fleeing, basically," said Lori Travis, who didn't want to default but found renting a tremendous relief. "My husband and I tried our hardest to keep up our end of the deal, but it was just too much for us."
Short sales are now so common that some real estate brokerages are teaming up with attorneys to shepherd these transactions along.
"First week we rolled out the program, we had $30 million worth of properties enrolled," said Cindy Ariosa, a regional manager with Long & Foster, which recently signed on with Platinum Group Services to negotiate with lenders.
The Law Offices of G. Russell Donaldson in Crofton has three employees working full time to get lenders to approve short sales. One of them, director of operations Olivia Surge, says homeowners have flocked to the option to avoid a credit- scarring foreclosure or bankruptcy.
But it's not an ideal situation for anyone, she said. Sellers' credit scores are still damaged, and they might get taxed on the forgiven debt. Lenders lose money. And would-be buyers have no way of knowing when - or if - the deal will close.
"These are trying and precarious transactions, these short sales," Surge said.
Allen Hazelton, 26, made an offer in late January on a short-sale townhouse in Hanover and didn't settle until August.
"It definitely affected my mental state ... wondering, 'Is this going to happen or not?' " said Hazelton, who had to stay in his rental a few months after the lease was up.
But he got the four-year-old home for $300,000, or $95,000 less than the previous owner. Of all the places he checked out in several years of market-watching, "it was the best bang for the buck."
Alba Aguiar-Ortega moved with her husband from Miami to Baltimore in 2006 - that perilous year for buying real estate - and figures they got the worst bang for the buck. Soon after they bought a house for $304,000, things started to go wrong. A boiler full of asbestos. A roof leak that turned into a cave-in. A broken chimney. They had to redo the electrical work, the plumbing and the insulation, too.
When they moved back to Miami a year later for personal reasons, they tried renting the house and ended up with tenants who damaged the place and didn't pay. Finally, the couple sold in June, for $244,000. They had to bring $50,000 to the closing, much of it charged against credit cards.
Aguiar-Ortega, 29, says they worked hard to avoid a short sale. She wonders if that was the right decision. But she's sure that all the homeowners who sold for less than they paid are still feeling the effects.
"It takes a long time to recover," said Aguiar-Ortega, now living with family because of the financial hit. "I wish somebody had told us, 'Look, if you want to move to Baltimore, rent.' "