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Program lends helping hand to homebuyers

February 18, 2001

Program lends helping hand to homebuyers



By MARLO BARNHART / Staff Writer


A year ago, Bobbie Jo Whittington and her husband, Tim, weren't really comfortable letting their three children go outside their rental home to play unattended.

So when they started looking for a house to buy last summer, locating in a nice, quiet, kid-friendly neighborhood was high on their list.

With limited finances, the Whittingtons fortunately found their way to Pat Kauffman, director of Hagerstown Neighborhood Housing Services Inc.

The 6-year-old non-profit agency is dedicated to putting first-time homebuyers into stable, established neighborhoods in the West End.

"It was Dick Phoebus and the Greater Hagerstown Committee who came up with the idea seven years ago," Kauffman said.

Since its beginnings, the agency has placed about 45 families in homes scattered throughout the West End which is defined as bordered by West Washington Street, West Side Avenue and County Market.

Several banks and businesses contribute to a loan fund each year that is used to finance the agency's efforts, Kauffman said. Those banks include Home Federal, Hagerstown Trust, Waypoint, Chevy Chase, First United, Merchants and Farmers and F&M.

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Some money also comes from community block grant funds through the City of Hagerstown, she said.

The pool of homes includes vacant structures and those owned by absentee landlords. Sometimes the agency generates possible purchases for prospective home buyers and other times, the families come up with their own.

Phoebus and other community leaders convinced the Washington County Commissioners to come up with seed money to launch the agency in 1994.

The agency's mission is to help more people share in the American dream of home ownership.

"Usually our clients have been unable to get conventional loans," Kauffman said.

But through the agency, qualifying home buyers who have two months worth of house payments in the bank can get an 8 percent, 25-year loan with no down payment and no closing costs.

"Our house payment is just a little bit more than we were paying in rent but what a difference," said Bobbie Jo Whittington. "Each month, more and more belongs to us."

Before, Zachary, 11, Kendra, 8, and Megan, 6, were crammed into one bedroom in the rental house. Now there is a third bedroom in the basement as well as a family room and laundry center.

"We have a double garage and a nice big yard," she said. "It's a real friendly neighborhood with lots of other kids."

A 28-year-old housewife, Whittington said she is glad she and her husband, Tim, 38, a house painter, finally took the plunge.

"The Hagerstown Neighborhood Housing office was right down the street from where we used to live," she said. "So one day last June we called."

She said Kauffman gave them a list of houses to choose from and took them through the process, step by step.

"Everyone had told us what a headache it was trying to buy a house," Whittington said. Instead, they were put in touch with a bank and a real estate representative who also eased the way.

Within a month, the Whittingtons were in their new home.

"I'm the bridge to home ownership," Kauffman said. But her involvement doesn't end when the new owners sign on the dotted lines.

"I keep in touch to make sure they are still OK," Kauffman said.

From the beginning, a major component of the program has been required attendance at classes on how to be a good homeowner, conducted at The Home Store on East Franklin Street.

For more information on Hagerstown Neighborhood Housing Services Inc. at 451 Salem Ave., call 301-797-3310.

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