DC is 1st time homebuyer friendly

Well, not in terms of prices, but programs. So in order to do something useful with my $50 Manolo housing rant, let me tell you of why I know DC is a great place to be a first time homeowner.

$5000 Tax Credit (pdf form)
OK, five grand is just a drop in the bucket, but I found the refund I got back for the two years after I bought my home (I didn’t pay enough in taxes to collect it in one lump sum), helpful. Besides every penny counts.

Below Market Rate Loans From The Housing Finance Agency
I was working with a councillor from the now defunct non-profit who steered me over to the DC Housing Finance office over on Florida Avenue. At the time they were offering 30 year mortgages at a rate so low, it was almost like an interest free loan. They were offering something lately but the 5.6% rate with 2 points was only good till Dec 15, 2007. The process was not without its headaches. I thought the woman administering my paperwork was slow and a bit mean. But in the end I got the loan, which will be forever called the 1st mortgage that will not be touched.

Tax Abatement
My housing councilor and my Realtor pushed the tax abatement, which in those early years made my house payment affordable. If you’re low-moderate income, you’d probably qualify. I was making what I’ll call a starter salary in my profession, so I wasn’t poor, but I wasn’t completely economically stable either, and the year before I made half of squat. So I qualified, with about $10K between me and the cutoff.
The abatement is a five year period of not paying real estate taxes. The money I saved, allowed for an emergency fix-crap fund. It seems that I could have extended the abatement if I hadn’t made $400 over the cutoff amount. So in year 6 I got hit with the full assessed amount, which was a lot, as the assessed value was 4x as much as it was when I bought it. I just got my tax bill and I praised G-d. My taxes have readjusted so it reflects what I would have been paying had I not taken the abatement. So I wasn’t punished for taking that deal. I can’t find an earlier post I made about how the RE tax system rewards long-term homeonwers who stay put AND take the Homestead Exemption. Long and short of it is, people who have owned their homes for a number of years (basically prior to the Real Estate boom) tend to pay less taxes than their neighbors who bought recently IF (big if) they have the Homestead Exemption.

There are other programs for 1st time homebuyer available to DC residents like the HPAP, but I didn’t use those, so I cannot testify to their goodness or badness. Also I think there were some real estate transaction costs that were dismissed because of my status, but I’m fuzzy on that. And there is a caveat to the loan (and/or maybe another program), in that if I sold my house within 10 years of purchase I’d have to pay the city back some of the benefits.

DC looked like a better deal when I was first looking because it has various programs like I mentioned above, that I could not find for Maryland or Virginia.

Not so much lunch break research

But as part of trying to answer a work-related question, I found myself looking at DC Building Permits on microfilm from 1892 to 1920something. Just a quick observation… the 19th century stuff is a lot of new buildings. But there are, and more so in the 1917 & up permits, permits for additions to pre-existing structures. In 1917 and thereabouts people where building kitchen additions, two story add-ons, new porches, steps, thus basically not leaving their homes in the pristine state the original builder had left.

Like going to Neiman Marcus to buy $50 Manolos

…not going to happen. Well, maybe, on-sale, size 10, scuffed and in some hideous style.
Warning this is a rant, and despite the beginning, not about shoes.

Yes, there should be affordable housing, and young people starting out should be able to buy into the American Dream. However, the vibe I’m picking up from a few segments of the population is that at least 900+ sq ft of move in condition fee simple/condo housing in approved hoods (read nothing but NW) should be in the price range of a GS-5 step 1, which would be in the $70K-$100K range. The likelihood of finding such, is pretty much the same as finding those $50 genuine Manolos.

A now defunct non-profit once offered wonderful first-time home buyer classes that helped me become a homeowner. One of the lessons I learned from the class was that getting the house is the easy part, keeping it is hard. Some of y’all are too caught up on the gettin’, thinking all will be right. Furnaces die, roofs leak, drains clog, and when you are a homeowner, there is always something. And something starts at $500 and goes up from there. If the stress is stretching the financials to get a house, then when ‘something’ happens and messes up another ‘something’ (overflowing toilet destroys carpeting in adjoining room), where is the money going to come from? Particularly with somethings that require you fix it that day or that week? So you skip that month’s mortgage payment to fix the something, and you get behind, and something else happens and you get further behind, and then you’re in danger of having your house foreclosed. Then there is plain old maintenance, which is on going, and while not expensive, could be annoyingly time consuming.
Even if a non-profit or exceedingly generous person were to provide a house/condo to a family at a low price there are other problems. Taxes. There are several generous programs to abate and reduce taxes for seniors, and low income persons. However, if you do not qualify for these programs and you live in an area where the properties are assessed in the $300K and up range, you’re screwed. Taxes could run you $200 a month. If you pay your taxes late, there are high interest charges. If you don’t pay your taxes at all the tax lien will be sold at auction and the buyer of the lien could foreclose on you. If you’re in a condo, then there are the blessed condo fees. These can range from less than $100 a month to about $1000 a month, on top of your mortgage. If you don’t pay it, well, it really depends on the condo board. Some will sit and stew and deny you services. Others will attempt to take your condo away.
So back to my poor GS-5 step 1 in need of affordable housing. My advice is to become a GS-9. Short of or in addition to that, first clean up her credit and reduce her debit so she can get a better mortgage. Second, save up for the down payment and closing costs. Get a second job (preferably at a place where you won’t blow the paycheck on the merch with your employee discount — a mistake I made) to help with that short term goal. Third, shop the neighborhoods you can afford. There is a lot in NE and SE DC for under $250K. I’m partial to NE, because there are a lot of hidden gems near the MD border, cute little bungalows and rowhouses needing some love and attention. Third, shop around for a good mortgage and first-time homebuyer programs. Lastly, the house you do buy is not necessarily the one you will live in forever. You may trade up in the future. You may move. You don’t know what life will throw at you (divorce, kids, new job relocation, etc) so keep that in mind.
When I bought my house I was making about $35,000 (I’m guessing it would be above $40K in todays dollars). It appeared in ok condition (learned later that wasn’t the case) in a sorta not so great neighborhood. With the help of a loan from the DC Housing Finance Agency, low interest rates, excellent credit, a re-finagled student load payment, a tax abatement, and $10K saved up this single black woman was able to buy her skinny little plot of the American Dream. Seven years later I live in a much better neighborhood and a much better house and my address never changed.
So it irritates me when people say that it is impossible to buy a home. Hard yes, difficult maybe, but not impossible. The market has come a bit more to its senses and you have a better chance of finding that affordable house. So kids, save your pennies, clean up your credit, and do your homework.


I’ve thrown away the paper now. I was holding on to it for a proposed paper until I hit the “paper that was supposed to write itself.” But the tossed paper was testimony or a chapter of an academic piece located in the Zoning Files for the National Capital and Planning Commission on the problem with PUDs. A PUD is a Planned Unit Development, usually for something taking up a lot of space, like 1/2 a block or more. On ANC Kevin Chapple’s site there is more information about the PUD for the O Street Market.
What I remember from going through the different PUDs filed from the late 1980s to the 1990s, is that the longer these things drag out, some concessions get lost in the process and the PUDs kept reappearing as something new as changes (due to something…engineering/ community wants/ government fickleness) were applied. If the O Street Market project stays on schedule and no other stakeholders or late comers add anything, then all should be well.


Flipping through the Gospel According to St. Martha Stewart (Living), I saw something on the order of “put aside old compost”. Which I promptly did one lovely weekend day. Most of the winter I haven’t been putting a lot in the compost bin simply because it takes a while to break down and I swear the worms get slow and lazy. So, it was easy work to get the shovel and take most of the broken down compost and put it in a heavy duty trash bag. The worms were not pleased.
I now have a nice 20-30 gallon bag of worm poop and decayed material. I plan to share some with B & IT, as well as get some over to the small plot over at the guerrilla garden. I’ll also add it to the soil of my potted plants and put a little in the front yard.
I’ve begun the next batch of compost with kitchen scraps, shredder waste, coffee grounds from Big Bear, and ruined fruit & veggies I don’t get around to eating. Some worms have been relocated to the new compost. Since they can be hard to pick out of the old compost I’m just going to put down some avocado scraps (they LOVE avocado) and pull out while a whole bunch of them are gorging themselves on nature’s green butter.

Mrs. Gibbs house up for sale

I blog this with a bit of sadness, because I’m not sure about the details. I met Mrs. Gibbs at the G2 bus stop. She is a small elderly slender woman and last I spoke with her she was caring for her husband in the home they’ve lived in since the post war period. Their house was filled with a life long and well lived. Logic tells me that time has caught up with them and so the house is up for sale.
1626 3rd St NW is being advertised as an “inherited home priced to sell.” I knew the Gibbs had children who lived out in the burbs, and I gather they have no interest in moving back into the city to live in the family home. $350K is an excellent price. If they include “stuff” in the house, that is a steal. The interior is large, it faces the quiet side of the Northwest Co-op, its right on the Georgetown/Howard bus line, and it has a rear yard big enough for a minivan. Please don’t let it go to an investor, but rather someone who wants to live here. The interior is well preserved and loved (well from what I could tell sitting in the living room), seriously, if you have an interest in trying to preserve interiors, buy this house, you will not regret it.

There is bell ringing in my ear

I’ve been meaning to mention it, but have you noticed bells chiming, sometimes ringing off the hours in the past month or two? I have no clue where this is coming from. Scott is guessing that they are in the direction of St. George’s Episcopal on U St in Eckington/Bloomingdale. Anyone else have a clue of who is ringing the bells?

Info Government May Provide

During one of the usual weekend calls I have with my mother, my mom was complaining once again about her property tax. Without getting too detailed, my parents divorced but Dad’s name is still on the land, and thus, Mom says her homestead exemption is not as great as it could be. So the other day I wandered over to her Florida county tax assessor’s website, which is embarrassingly amateur looking, to see exactly how Mom’s getting taxed.
I wasn’t expecting much, maybe just an assessment pulled out of thin air. What I got blew me away. I got the usual, the assessor’s idea of property worth, the homestead exemption, the tax, and a general description of the property. In addition, there were links to vital records like my parent’s divorce judgement. Clicking around, for other properties, there were links to PDF copies of death certificates (with SS#s blacked out), quit claims, certified titles, maps, tax deeds, and building permits issued if the documents were produced in the last 10 or so years. The public information about things relating to property was linked right on the assessor’s page.
This made me wonder, could larger cities have the same sort of traditionally public information (deaths, divorces, permits, quit claims) available on line? Links to permits would be exceedingly useful. Not even the copy of a building permit, but just even the building permit number, date issued, would be very helpful. Right now I can only find permits issued in the last few months.
But I realize this is only a dream because it would mean different agencies actually working together to serve the citizenry.
Additional: I just dug deeper with the example permit, it shows the inspection. I would kill for this depth of detail with permits issued in the city. No more trying to read tiny writing on a stair of a rickty house.

931 R St NW

Originally uploaded by In Shaw

I’ve always enjoyed the ‘public’ art that is attached to this building, the neon man that once lived on top, the neon squiggle, and now the neon Obama ’08. The picture shown here comes from the files of the Commission of Fine Arts when looking at old DC firehouses and their alternative uses. If I was a better note taker, which many of you now realize that I’m not, (how I actually made it through grad school mystifies me) I would have had some clue as to when this photograph of an earlier look for the firehouse was taken. It is black and white because it is a photocopy of a photocopy.
And here is the building as it is today.Firehouse No 7