Wednesday, December 29, 2010

10 Tips to Banish Mold from the Home

Often, our first encounter with mold at home occurs in that infamous spot between the shower curtain and tub. Unfortunately, in most homes, this isn’t the extent of the mold—the more problematic mold is the insidious kind, hiding behind walls and in floorboards, and potentially contributing to a range of allergies and other illnesses. In fact, a 1994 study by the Harvard University School of Public Health, which involved 10,000 homes in the U.S. and Canada, found that half of those homes had mold levels that participants said caused a 50-100% increase in distressing respiratory symptoms.

What causes mold? Surprisingly, advanced building materials are one of the main culprits. In the last few decades, buildings have increasingly been made to prevent the infiltration and exfiltration of air, leading to higher humidity levels. The insulation materials used in this type of construction contain cellulose and other materials that lock in moisture. Adding to the problem, many wall cavities are wrapped in plastic, allowing for even more moisture. An aging home is at even greater risk, as normal occurrences like window and roof leaks bring in even more moisture—and moisture is a direct cause of mold. Limited ventilation or sunlight only makes the problem worse, and things can get bad fast—one square foot of moldy drywall can harbor more than 300 million mold spores.

When you hear the term “mold,” it can generally be one of two types—allergenic mold, and black mold. Allergenic mold is found in nearly every home, in some amount, however small. This type can provide unpleasant symptoms if it becomes excessive, depending on a person’s sensitivity level. These symptoms include fatigue, nasal and sinus congestion, skin and eye irritation and headaches. While these symptoms can be extremely annoying and make someone ill, they’re almost never life-threatening.

What’s much more dangerous, however, is toxic mold—more commonly, the black mold stachybotrys. Shockingly, over 27% of homes in the U.S. contain black mold. Black mold, in smaller amounts, causes many of the same symptoms as allergic mold, but, in high levels or among people with preexisting conditions or compromised immune systems, black mold can cause neurological damage, causing debilitating headaches and even memory problems.

How do you find the mold in your home? Sometimes it’s easy—it may be right in front of you, or you’ll find it by its distinctly musty smell. Though it’s harder to find hidden mold, you can do so by looking behind and beneath fixed materials and appliances: refrigerators, dishwashers, sink cabinets, washer/dryers, carpets, vinyl flooring—anywhere near where water flows or where air doesn’t penetrate readily. Also, look for signs of discoloration on walls and ceilings; this can denote a moisture buildup behind which mold may lurk.

Once you find the mold, remove it with a store-bought anti-fungal solution, or get rid of it with a weak bleach solution—1 cup bleach in 1 gallon of water. (If mold exists in an area over 2 square feet, call a professional to have it removed). But even more important than removing it is eliminating as many of its causes and sources as possible.

Follow these 10 tips to drastically reduce the mold in your home: 

1. Call in a home inspection professional to assess water-damaged areas.

2. Keep humidity low. Humidity levels should be under 40% in order for mold to stop its forward march.

3. Replace any carpets and furniture that have ever been significantly damaged (i.e., saturated in water), even if they look OK on the outside.

4. Carpet in the bathroom or basement? Don’t even think about it. And if you have it, get rid of it.

5. Use an air-conditioner during the summer. We know it’s not cheap to run the A/C, but if it’s in the budget, even setting it to 80 degrees when it’s 90-plus outside, will help. Use fans to circulate A/C most effectively.

6. Dust and clean furniture regularly, and vacuum carpets at least once a week (make sure your vacuum has a HEPA filter).

7. Provide adequate ventilation in hot areas. The kitchen and bath are two of the highest-risk rooms for mold. Install exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathroom.

8. When you’re shopping for house paint for big or small painting projects, ask the sales rep about mold inhibitors you can add before painting.

9. Does your central air system have a fan from the Ford Pinto era? If so, replace it with a high-performance electrostatic air filter. Your local HVAC technician can help withy this.

10. Don’t neglect areas underneath the house—have a professional drain and ventilate all sub-basement areas, especially crawl spaces.

Charles Furlough is vice president of Pillar To Post Home Inspections.

Time, Effort Can Rebuild Credit After Foreclosure

If you've been through a foreclosure, you may wonder if there is hope for you to become a homeowner again.

"It doesn't mean you'll never be a homeowner again," said Linda Davis-Demas, director of housing at Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Dallas.

But you'll need to examine what caused you to fall behind on your mortgage and take steps to fix the problem.

"You have to look at what were the reasons you didn't make the payment," said Davis-Demas. "Was it budgeting? You can modify that type of behavior."

A foreclosure is a major hit to your credit history and stays on your credit report for seven years.

"Foreclosure is one of the FICO seven deadlies," said credit expert John Ulzheimer, referring to the dominant FICO credit score. "It's considered a major derogatory item, regardless of the back story"—whether it's a job loss, rate reset, underemployment or other reasons.

Your credit score will also suffer "the minute the foreclosure process begins," said Ulzheimer, founder of, a credit education website.

"It doesn't have to be completed for it to be very damaging," he said. "The damage will vary based on your scores, but it can damage the score as much as 200 points, especially if your scores are very strong to begin with."

So, after a foreclosure, your priority has to be rebuilding your credit. You'll have some time to do so, because mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac impose strict rules on how long it will take before you're eligible for another mortgage.

For example, borrowers with a prior foreclosure and extenuating circumstances—such as a job loss, divorce or medical issues—must wait three years before they can qualify for a Fannie Mae-backed loan, said spokeswoman Amy Bonitatibus. For all other borrowers the waiting period is seven years.

At Freddie Mac, those who can prove extenuating circumstances must wait three years before applying for a new mortgage; everyone else must wait five years. But that will change in February, when the waiting period for those whose foreclosure was caused by their own financial mismanagement will increase to seven years.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also have strict rules on the credit score and the size of the down payment required of borrowers with a prior foreclosure.

Here's what you need to do to rebuild your credit to qualify again for a mortgage:

PAY YOUR BILLS ON TIME: The FICO score, the dominant credit score used by lenders, gives the greatest weight to payment history, so make sure you consistently pay your bills on time.

"Stability is the key," said Craig Jarrell, president of the Dallas region of IberiaBank Mortgage Co. "Have you demonstrated that you are now capable of owning a home and paying the bills, and have recovered from whatever circumstance caused the original foreclosure?"

REVIEW CREDIT REPORT: You're entitled to a free credit report once every 12 months from each of the three national credit bureaus—Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. You should get a copy and check it for any inaccuracies.

To get your free credit report, go to Go to only this website, not ones with similar-sounding names.

"Make sure it is about you and only you," said Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "If you find errors, dispute them. If you discover old debts, it will weigh in your favor to satisfy them. Paid late looks better than not paid at all. Make sure that debts older than seven years have rotated off your report, as these could be dragging your score down unnecessarily."

CHECK YOUR MORTGAGE: You want to be sure that you don't still owe anything on your old mortgage. Sometimes proceeds from a foreclosure sale aren't enough to cover what's owed on the mortgage, which would leave you owing the difference.

"Make sure there is a zero balance reflected, and if you are responsible for a shortfall, make arrangements to repay the remaining balance," Cunningham said.

Many lenders are willing to settle that "deficiency judgment" for less than what's owed because "it's better than getting no money at all," Jarrell said.

APPLY FOR CREDIT: In particular, apply for different varieties of credit.

"Credit scoring models value having different types of credit," Cunningham said. "Having some revolving accounts, typically credit cards, and some installment fixed-payment loans, such as a car payment, can improve your score."

But don't apply for too much credit at once.

"This can appear as though you're desperate for credit and perhaps make lenders less inclined to extend credit to you," Cunningham said. "Further, too many credit inquiries can have a negative impact on your credit score."

DON'T FALL PREY: Watch out for credit repair companies that promise to clean up your credit report so you can get a car loan, a home mortgage, insurance, or even a job—after paying a fee for the service.

"The truth is, that no one can remove accurate negative information from your credit report," according to the Federal Trade Commission. "It's illegal."

Only the passage of time can assure that negative, but accurate, information on your credit report will be removed.

When it comes to repairing your credit, there are no quick fixes, the experts say. What lenders want to see is responsible financial behavior over time.

"Know that time is your friend, as the further you move away from the financial distress, the less negative impact it has," Cunningham said. "Follow with responsible behavior with your new credit, and you'll soon have a solid credit file."

If you've been through a foreclosure, there's still hope for you to become a homeowner again. Here are tips to make lenders want to take a chance on you:

—Save for a down payment.
—Clean up your credit. Pay off or pay down your debts and establish a record of consistent on-time bill payments.
—Get your credit score as high as possible.
—Show stability in your job.
—Monitor your credit report to ensure that your old loan shows up as closed and that you still don't owe anything else on it.

Source: Dallas Morning News research

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

10 Real Estate Predictions for the New Year

The start of a new year is often a time of reflection, as well as a time of anticipation for the future. It’s no different for real estate professionals, many of whom have weathered the recession and are now optimistic about 2011. From the return of new construction to the creation of healthier homes, the following are 10 residential real estate trends they see for the coming year:

1.) Building is back: After three years of little to no new development, John Wozniak of Wheaton, Illinois-based J. Lawrence Homes said the builder is excited about 2011. “After a couple of very challenging years, the market for new-construction housing is showing signs of life. Slowly but surely, homes are selling and new properties are breaking ground, such as the two communities we opened this year in Lynwood and North Aurora,” he said. “We’ve had encouraging sales and I believe they point to an uptick for 2011.” 

2.) Apartments continue to thrive: If there has been one bright spot over the past few years in the real estate industry, it has been the rental market. 

“People have realized the many benefits of renting, from having more flexibility with your housing commitments to a higher level of finishes and amenities. And, this demand will continue to outpace supply,” said Steve Fifield, president of Fifield Cos. “Appraisal Research reports that Chicago’s Class A downtown apartments are at a nearly 95 percent occupancy rate, and those numbers will continue to stay very strong for 2011.”

3.) Opting for established: The mega-communities in the exurbs are a thing of the past, said Brian Brunhofer of Meritus Homes. Instead, 2011 will see builders move toward smaller neighborhoods or pockets of homes in established communities. “Close-knit communities with respected homeowner associations, mature landscaping and neighbors waiting to greet you – that attractive quality of life is going to appeal to buyers much more in 2011.” 

Seconding the movement toward established communities is Jeff Benach of Lexington Homes. “Buyers are looking for a safer investment for their home purchase,” he said. “We won’t see them roll the dice like in the past on a fast-growing town in a far-out suburb. They want a proven area with access to retail development and employment corridors. They don’t want to wait for the surrounding area to be built. They want everything already in place,” he said. 

4.) Make it modern: Chalk it up to “Mad Men” or simply a pendulum swing in taste, but either way transitional and warm-modern design will be prevalent in 2011, said Brian Goldberg, a partner in LG Development Group. “Our clients are looking for a cleaner approach to the style of their homes – more mid-century and less traditional with a warm and tailored aesthetic,” he said.

Ray Hartshorne, principal of Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture, agrees. “From the single-family side, our clients are gravitating toward modern design instead of strictly traditional, that is simple, clean line exteriors and open floor plans that are comfortable for the family and versatile for entertaining,” he said. “In the multi-family sector, now more than ever, we are seeing an interest in contemporary-themed and luxurious interior design for lobbies and common areas.” 

5.) Buying for the long term: The Census shows the average person moves about 11 times, but Jim Chittaro, president of Smykal Homes, predicts that number will slowly decrease. “Thankfully, the idea of a home as a short-term moneymaker is essentially gone, so when people do buy, they’ll do it with the intention of staying put for closer to 10 years rather than two to three,” he said 

This means people will be studying floor plans more closely, to ensure the home will grow with them, Chittaro continued. “Buyers want to be sure the home will suit their needs not only now, but down the road, whether they plan to expand their family or prepare for kids to leave the nest,” he said. “Floor plans that can adapt to lifestyle changes with flexible features like second family rooms should do well in 2011.”

Brunhofer agrees that more buyers will be looking for a home for the long haul. “It’s not just floor plans that buyers are going over with a fine-tooth comb,” Brunhofer said. “Our buyers are very careful about school districts. They want to know they can send all of their children to a school with a proven track record and not have to relocate a few years down the road to ensure a good education.” 

The shift to long-term buyers will also put long-term builders in the spotlight. “People are hesitant to buy a home from a builder or secure a mortgage from a lender they don't perceive to be well-established,” said Benach. “Buyers want to know their builder is committed to them and the community, and that it’s not about making a quick buck or boosting a shareholder’s financial interest. That personal connection is really important.” 

6.) Upping the ante on amenities: In 2011, developers will continue to create new and exciting amenities to differentiate their properties and keep them relevant in the marketplace, said Tony Rossi, president of RMK Management Corp. “Renters are looking for something special, like an outdoor grilling area or special events like dance lessons,” he said.

But it’s not just enhanced outdoor spaces in apartments that will matter in 2011. Benach thinks condo and townhome buyers will also place a higher importance on outdoor space in the coming year, especially those who live in an urban setting. 

“People may realize they don’t need to live with as much square footage inside their home, so to compensate they’ll want a place to call their own outside their home,” said Benach. 

7.) High-tech takes over: Running your home entertainment system, appliances and lighting from a centralized control panel is old news. Going forward, we’ll see more homeowners want a smart phone app that can control their residence remotely, noted Goldberg. 

“Each year, the demand increases for home technology that makes homeowners’ lives easier,” he said. “We’ll get to a point, and some of our clients are almost there, where homeowners can leave work and by activating an app on their phone have all of their home electronics queued up when they walk in the door – the oven is preheated, lights come on and a TV show turns on when motion sensors recognize they’ve walked into the room. It may sound like a movie, but some of this technology we can build into homes now.”

8.) Smaller homes stay the course: The average size of a new home decreased for the first time in decades from 2008 to 2009, and that trend will continue into 2011, said Benach. 

“This trend is fueled by first-time buyers with smaller budgets, requiring smaller homes,” he said. “New buyers will have to be more conservative with their mortgages and will need to pay a higher percentage for a down payment, which means they’ll need a home with a smaller price,” he said. “People won’t be buying more than they need. So to meet their needs, we’ll see builders continue to trim the size of their homes and look for new ways to make square footage work harder.”

9.) Green and gorgeous: As the green movement continues to grow, high-end builders and developers have found ways to make homes both green and gorgeous. “The old mind set was that a green home couldn’t also be stylish and sophisticated. It was as if the two concepts were mutually exclusive,” said Hartshorne. “But new products and forward-thinking design have proved that today’s homeowners can have both. Also, building a green home doesn’t have to break the bank. We are constantly being introduced to attractive, sustainable building materials that are more cost effective than in the past.”

10.) Healthy homes: When you consider a study by the National Institutes of Health that found the number of people with allergies is as much as five times higher than 30 years ago, the trend toward building homes with a healthier environment will also gain ground in 2011, said Goldberg. 

“Indoor air quality, low VOC paints and adhesives, and all-around healthier materials are becoming more and more of a concern for people building homes – especially for those with children,” he said. 

Rick Croce, from Wheaton-based Smykal Renovations, said this trend applies to existing homes, too. “Due to the economy, many people have decided to stay put in their existing home, which means they’ll be investing in changes to make it look better and live healthier,” he said. “We expect to be pricing out more jobs that include installing HVAC systems with better filtration, using low-VOC materials and even replacing old doors and windows to safeguard against exterior pollutants.”


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Top 5 Issues Affecting Commercial Recovery

Here are the top five issues facing commercial real estate in 2011, according to consultant Deloitte LLP.

1. The market remains uncertain. The recovery isn’t following previous trends. While there is some indication that the worst may be over, some markets continue to decline.

2. Impact of "amend and extend." Some banks are recognizing that they will never recover full value on some properties and are willing to work with borrowers. This has made it more difficult to tell when the business has hit bottom.

3. High maturities remain a challenge. The high level of maturing debt over the next several years remains a significant barrier to recovery. In addition to commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS), loan delinquencies and commercial real estate loan defaults, there is also an increase in strategic defaults as more commercial borrowers make a pragmatic business decision to exit profit-draining investments in order to divert money to performing projects or shareholders.

4. The number of deals is increasing. A good sign.

5. The economy is recovering very slowly. This increases opportunities in distressed properties, but the overall market isn’t in a hurry to pick up.

Source: Deloitte

Monday, December 13, 2010

5 Predictions for 2011

1. Low mortgage rates. With Fed observers expecting the central bank to keep the federal funds rate at its current target range of 0 percent to 0.25 percent for most (or all) of 2011, relatively low mortgage rates will be a feature of the 2011 mortgage market. Thirty-year fixed-rate loans are likely to remain below 5 percent throughout the year, and initial rates of 5/1 hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages will likely remain below 4 percent in 2011.

2. Prices have hit bottom. House prices are likely to begin a gradual, but sustained recovery in the second half of 2011. 

3. Housing will remain affordable. With affordability high, many first-time buyers will be attracted to the housing market in the New Year, likely translating into more home sales in 2011 than in 2010.

4. Refinances will dwindle. Many eligible borrowers have already refinanced and the federal Making Home Affordable refinance program is expiring on June 30. While fixed-rate loans are likely to remain low, they will move up gradually, making it even less likely that refinances will be attractive to most home owners.

5. Delinquency rates will decline. Based on the last several business cycles, the share of loans that are 90 or more days delinquent or in foreclosure proceedings — known as the "seriously delinquent rate" — generally crests within a year of the start of the recovery in payroll employment, and this economic recovery appears to fit within that pattern. Payrolls began to rise last January, and by the spring the seriously delinquent rate had begun to fall.

Freddie Mac

November 2010 Market Report for Greater Albuquerque

• Closed sales for detached single-family homes in the month of November were at 469, up 2.85 percent from the previous month. This is the first time since 2005 there has been a positive increase in home sales from October to November.
• The median sale price for single-family detached homes saw a year-over-year increase for the 3rd consecutive month..
• NEW CHART on page 9. This chart identifies changes in the median and average sales prices over a ten-year period for the months of November.
Contact: Mark Pando, 2010 GAAR President, 505-249-0188

Friday, December 10, 2010

Mortgage Rates Up!

Mortgage rates jumped sharply this week, with the average rate on the benchmark conforming 30-year fixed mortgage rate rising to 4.89 percent, according to's weekly national survey. The average 30-year fixed mortgage has an average of 0.36 discount and origination points. 

To see mortgage rates in your area, go to

The average 15-year fixed mortgage zoomed upward to 4.26 percent, and the larger jumbo 30-year fixed rate did as well, settling at 5.39 percent. Adjustable rate mortgages were mostly higher, with the average five-year ARM climbing to 3.85 percent and the average 7-year ARM increasing to 4.22 percent. 

Mortgage rates have been on a consistent upswing, rising in four of the five weeks since the Federal Reserve's early November announcement of $600 billion in additional bond purchases to stimulate the economy. But the movement kicked into overdrive this week with the tax cut extension expected to generate hundreds of billions more in government borrowing. Bond investors haven't responded kindly to the prospects of additional supply, with bond prices falling and bond yields rising. Mortgage rates are closely related to yields on long-term government bonds.

The last time mortgage rates were above 6 percent was Nov. 2008. At that time, the average rate was 6.33 percent, meaning a $200,000 loan would have carried a monthly payment of $1,241.86. With the average rate now 4.89 percent, the monthly payment for the same size loan would be $1,060.24, a savings of $181 per month for a homeowner refinancing now.

Survey Results
30-year fixed: 4.89% -- up from 4.71% last week (avg. points: 0.36) 
15-year fixed: 4.26% -- up from 4.07% last week (avg. points: 0.36) 
5/1 ARM: 3.85% -- up from 3.74% last week (avg. points: 0.4) 

Bankrate's national weekly mortgage survey is conducted each Wednesday from data provided by the top 10 banks and thrifts in the top 10 markets. 

For a full analysis of this week's move in mortgage rates, go to


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mortgage Activity Surges in Florida and New York, Declines in SW

According to new consumer activity collected by between October 15 and November 15, 2010, the New York City metro area and cities in Florida saw overall increases in mortgage and refinance requests. Requests in Boston, Texas, and the Southwest were mixed.

While the New York City Metro area showed a 17% increase in overall request volume, Florida was the real winner with a 71% increase in refinance requests in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale and a 47% increase in Orlando.

"The dramatic increase in refinance activity in Florida markets suggests that home values may be stabilizing in many areas," says David Coster, residential lending expert at "Recent home price surveys, which do not look at secondary markets, have shown further value drops. Yet our site activity provides anecdotal evidence that may indicate more positive attitudes among Florida homeowners relative to their refinancing prospects."

The Boston metro area market showed a 32% increase in mortgage purchase activity, yet a 23% drop in refinance activity. "It is suggestive of a situation in which first time homebuyers, in-bound relocated employees, or investors are taking advantage of lowered home values," says Coster. "At the same time, existing homeowners are still struggling with homes that cannot be refinanced due to value, credit, or employment issues."

The Houston, Texas area saw a 17% decrease in overall requests. Other Texas and Southwestern markets also saw declines in refinance activity, including a 38% decrease in Phoenix, Arizona, a 32% decrease in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a 26% decrease in San Antonio Texas, and a 24% decrease in Fort Worth, Texas. 

The overall site activity at indicates a housing market that varies from market to market and from month to month. Still, signs of marginal improvement appear to be creeping into the data.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Sick of the Empty Houses Yet?

The abandoned rowhouse next door to Wendy and Brian Malaney has been a nightmare of a neighbor.

The rowhouse's roofing material blew off, and water seeped through the Malaneys' adjoining walls. Later the pipes burst in the neighboring property, flooding their basement. The air they and their two young daughters breathe is now heavy with the noxious stink of mold.

The Malaneys say they have no way to cover the thousands of dollars needed to repair their own home. The vacant property's owner has not stepped forward to fix the damage. Neither has the bank, which decided against foreclosing on — and taking possession of — the property. The Malaneys say insurance hasn't covered the cost of remediation — and now they are stuck.

"We have nothing without this house," said Wendy Malaney, 42, who lives in Baltimore's Wilson Park neighborhood. She said the damage has left her family with two choices: "living on the streets or waiting to get seriously ill."

After decades of population and job loss, Baltimore had 22 abandoned buildings for every 1,000 people at the end of the 1990s, according to a survey of larger cities done for the Brookings Institution. Only Philadelphia had a higher share at the time. Many of the other cities reported minimal problems.

Now, though, communities across the country are wrestling with mounting abandonment as the foreclosure crisis drags on. More homes are sitting empty. More neighbors are feeling the effects. And they can't necessarily appeal to the mortgage holder for help if the vacant properties deteriorate.

Repair work similar to what the city undertook in Wilson Park would eat up nearly $100 million if crews were sent to all 5,000 vacant properties located in largely occupied areas, and officials warn that the budget doesn't allow it.

"But we do do it on a case-by-case basis," said Michael Braverman, deputy housing commissioner in Baltimore.

Abandoned buildings are a perennial problem in Baltimore — a city where many residents share connecting walls. Nearly one-third of the city's 16,000 uninhabitable properties are near occupied homes, city officials say. And a key part of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's new plan to attack vacancies is ratcheting up code enforcement on blocks where many residents still live, issuing fines more quickly.

But as the Malaneys discovered, months of effort by code enforcers and multiple citations sometimes bring no results. The city went one step further on their block this month, spending $18,500 to replace the vacant home's roof and remove its mold-infested drywall, insulation and carpet to try to prevent more damage to the Malaneys' property a year and a half after their woes began.

Last fiscal year, the city spent about $435,000 to stabilize 13 abandoned homes to safeguard neighboring residents, and about $450,000 to partially demolish 137 homes with major structural problems.

Baltimore's count of abandoned buildings has remained fairly stable at 16,000 in recent years, despite rising foreclosures, Braverman said. But a home doesn't get on the list until the city determines that it is not only vacant but also uninhabitable. And it can take time for structural problems to set in.

So the number of abandonments could grow. Lenders started foreclosure proceedings on more than 6,200 Baltimore homes last year, according to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance. Some homes have since been sold. Others are sitting empty, either in foreclosure limbo or in a bank's inventory.

Joe Schilling, professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech, said some homes in weak markets are stuck in a "foreclosure limbo" — with the owner gone and the bank deciding that it doesn't want to take the property back at auction because it wouldn't be worth it.

"It seems there's an increasing number of what I'd call bank walkaways," Schilling said. "They are making an economic decision by ... not foreclosing on the property."

Abandonment is especially challenging in a city of rowhouses, said Dan Kildee, president of the Center for Community Progress, a "think and do tank" that focuses on vacancy issues.

"The physical damage that can occur when you have shared walls is pretty obvious," he said.

Water that got into the Malaneys' home via the rowhouse next door damaged ceilings and walls. It also made the property a breeding ground for mold. The air filters the Malaneys installed to try to protect their daughters, ages 2 and 4, are pitch-black.

Wendy Malaney thinks it would cost $10,000 to $15,000 to fix their home's structural damage and remove the mold. Her husband, Brian, makes about $19,000 a year as an electrician's helper and chimney sweep, so the expense would be more than they could hope to handle themselves, the couple said.

The Malaneys' problems began in February 2009 when a windstorm ripped off roofing material from the rowhome next door, leaving only exposed plywood, which let in rain. Then in January, they said, the pipes next door burst, breaking a hole in the shared wall and submerging the Malaneys' basement in three and a half feet of water.

The Malaneys' own insurer paid $1,300 after the initial problem with the roof but declined further claims, they said. A claims representative suggested in a letter that they seek city help to get the neighboring property fixed.

Wendy Malaney said she's grateful the city stepped in. The work that was done should cut down on additional water damage, she said. But it doesn't solve her family's problem.

"The bottom line is, who's going to fix my house?" she said.

(c) 2010, The Baltimore Sun.