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How to know more about security deposits than most Maryland landlords

April 28, 2009 by  
Filed under Quick

Comments Off on How to know more about security deposits than most Maryland landlords

Fells Point Door KnockerMaryland law has strong tenant protections, while also giving rights to the owner. As a landlord or tenant, knowing the law will reduce conflict and worry. The law sets down the rights and responsibilities of all parties. Following the rules makes everything easier. When people are treated fairly, and there are rules that set the ground rules of what is fair, there will be less misunderstanding and hard feelings. If you don’t know the rules, it is easy to break them. Breaking these simple rules can be costly.

This excerpt from should show you why visiting their site is a good idea: “The total amount of the security deposit may not be more than two month’s rent or $50; whichever is greater. If the tenant is charged more, s/he may recover from the landlord up to three times the excess amount and reasonable attorney’s fees. The tenant may demand refund of this excess at anytime while s/he lives in the rental property or within 2 years after s/he moves away.” Also keep in mind that “Any rent that is paid in advance is considered part of the security deposit and is subject to all the restrictions”.

The Washington Post also explains: “After the day your tenancy ends, your landlord has 45 days to return your deposit (plus interest), minus any costs incurred to repair damages.”

The Maryland State Law Library has details on the law written in plain language. It covers the security deposit topic, and many other topics of landlord – tenant law.

This information is not legal advice. For application of the law to your individual circumstances, you should consult an attorney. The information quoted here can and should also be verified by visiting Maryland State Law Library Sources of Maryland Law.

Immigrate to the United States by investing in real estate

April 18, 2009 by  
Filed under Quick

American Flag

Citizens of treaty nations with the United States may be able to get a visa and then Green Card for residency in the United States by investing in real estate. It is difficult to get permission to enter the US as an immigrant, but this looks like a strategy that people are using successfully. You would definitely want to get advice from an immigration lawyer before trying this. But here is the strategy as I understand it:

  1. Buy at least $100,000 of investment real estate in the United States
  2. Get an E-2 investor visa
  3. Travel to the US to manage your real estate investment
  4. You can continue to renew the E2 visa without limit.

But you cannot get a Green Card with an E-2 visa. There is more to the strategy, however, to solve that:

  1. While in the US with the E2 visa, open a company abroad and become an executive of that company
  2. Apply for a change of status to change your visa to an L-1 visa
  3. Wait a year
  4. Apply for an EB-1 Green Card as a manager of your company

There are technical requirements and restrictions that have to be met to make this work. Read more about this strategy at If you want to hire an immigration attorney for advice, you can try

E-2 visa Treaty Country List

  • Albania
  • Argentina
  • Armenia
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Azerbaijan
  • Bahrain
  • Bangladesh
  • Belgium
  • Bolivia
  • Bosnia & Herzegovina
  • Bulgaria
  • Cameroon
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • China (Taiwan)
  • Colombia
  • Congo (Brazzaville)
  • Congo (Kinshasa)
  • Costa Rica
  • Croatia
  • Czech Republic
  • Ecuador
  • Egypt
  • Estonia
  • Ethiopia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Georgia
  • Germany
  • Grenada
  • Honduras
  • Iran
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Jamaica
  • Japan
  • Jordan
  • Kazakhstan
  • Korea (South)
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Latvia
  • Liberia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Macedonia
  • Mexico
  • Moldova
  • Mongolia
  • Morocco
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Oman
  • Pakistan
  • Panama
  • Paraguay
  • Philippines
  • Poland
  • Romania
  • Senegal
  • Singapore
  • Slovak Republic
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sri Lanka
  • Suriname
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Thailand
  • Togo
  • Trinidad & Tobago
  • Tunisia
  • Turkey
  • Ukraine
  • United Kingdom
  • Yugoslavia

Real Estate Descriptions Decoder Ring

March 29, 2009 by  
Filed under Quick


Reading property descriptions can be confusing even for Realtors. The space allotted for the description is shorter than what we might have to say to glowingly talk about the home. So we shorten words, and create acronyms. There is no standard; we are free to invent as we choose. And in doing so, we make it hard for our target market to understand what we are saying. Over time, some of these abbreviations have become common. Others are never to be seen again. Here is the beginning of a dictionary to define these terms. If you see any new nonsense words that should be added to the list, or you would like to know what something means, then please send it to me, and I will define it for you.

  • EOG – End of Group. Usually a townhouse.
  • w/ – With. Saves space in the writeup.
  • LR – Living Room
  • DR – Dining Room
  • W/D – Washer and Dryer
  • LG – Large
  • SEP – Separate
  • MOD – Modern
  • APP – Appliances or Application
  • Appl – Appliances
  • INCL – Included
  • FPL – Fire Place
  • FP – Fire Place
  • f/p – Fire Place
  • CL – Closet
  • HOA – Home Owners Association
  • DBL – Double
  • MBR – Master Bedroom
  • MBA – Master Bedroom’s Bath
  • MBD – Master Bedroom
  • FMBA – Full Master Bedroom Bath
  • ATT – Attached
  • GAR – Garage
  • Avail – Available
  • FF – Fully Finished
  • Kit – Kitchen
  • Ex – Excluded
  • Dist – Distance
  • LL – Lower Level
  • L/L – Lower Level
  • w/o – Without
  • BR – Bedroom
  • SF – Single Family
  • TH – Townhome, Townhouse
  • EZ – Easy
  • BA – Bath
  • POSS – Possible
  • FLR – Floor
  • RM – Room
  • FB – Full Bath
  • HB – Half Bath
  • sqft – Square Foot
  • Sq. Ft. – Square Foot
  • SF – Square foot
  • Hdwd – Hardwood
  • Cath – Cathedral
  • FR – Family Room
  • Fin – Finished
  • K – Thousand Dollars
  • P/ – Per
  • Fin – Finished
  • Bsmt – Basement
  • CAC – Central Air Conditioning
  • HWH – Hot Water Heater
  • REO – Real Estate Owned which means Bank Owned
  • A/C – Air Conditioning
  • yrs – Years
  • Fam – Family
  • Opt. – Optional
  • isl – Island
  • bkfst – Breakfast
  • TLC – Tender Loving Care
  • Settle co. – Settlemant/Title Company
  • Tot Fin SF – Total Finished Square Feet
  • Lot AC/SF – Lot Acres and Square Feet
  • HOA/C/C – Home Owners Association or Condo or Coop

Photo credit, Daniel Lobo (modified).

Swoopo Warning. Not as it first seems.

March 25, 2009 by  
Filed under Quick

Win Big Prizes

I hesitate to write about Swoopo. They have apparently hit upon the recipe for making a lot of money on the Internet. They do this by taking advantage of the learning curve of many new “customers”, and perhaps compulsive gamblers. My fear is my blog post telling the story will also introduce new people to the slaughter. Think long and hard before you add your hard earned money to the torrent they appear to be raking in.

Your first impression when you see the ads for Swoopo, is it is an Ebay competitor. I clicked on an ad for “A New Asus Laptop for $55”, and was brought to an old “auction” page that showed someone in November of 2008 “won” a new Asus laptop for $55. My first reaction was that this is old. Maybe every four months someone gets a good deal. Next I noticed a current auction for an Acer laptop. Current “bid” was only $12.78 and there was only 5 minutes remaining in the auction. The recommended retail price is advertised as $899.99. A nice discount. How can they afford to sell this so cheap?

The site is well designed. The time and auction price is updated dynamically. You don’t need to reload or refresh to see the current “bids”. So I watched. The time advanced, and still no new bids. Now I am getting interested. Should I sign up and bid? There is a detailed graphic that explains how to sign up. There is mention of “Buy each bid for $0.75”. That sounds strange, but not too expensive. I figure I’ll make more sense of that later. There is also mention of “Each bid increases the bid price and the auction time.” That sounds fair. On Ebay, a common bidding strategy is to snipe. Ebay doesn’t change the auction end time with bidding. So sniping developed. This meant bidding in the last few seconds of the auction. This strategy still works, and is how I recommend you bid on Ebay auctions. You are keeping your interest in the auction a secret from the other bidders. Other bidders tend to bid in small increments over the current bid. Meanwhile you should bid the maximum you would want to pay for that auction. Ebay rules limit the amount you pay to one minimum bid increment over the next highest bid. You are likely to be the winning bidder, but only a couple of bid increments over the current bid price. The other bidders have a strategy that has failed them. They would likely have been willing to pay much more for the items they bid on. The strategy they use makes sense for a typical live auction where the auctioneer keeps the auction going until nobody wishes to raise the bid. On Ebay time is up, and they missed their chance to raise the bid. So now you see why Swoopo sounds better than Ebay. The auction doesn’t have a fixed end time. If there is interest in the auction, there is time to put in a new bid. That system sounds fair.

Carnival Horse Race

But is it? One other item the Swoopo graphic mentions is each bid “increases the bid price”. On further examination, you learn that the bid increment is very small, and you can’t bid by more than one increment! Most of the auctions have a 15 cent increment. The Acer laptop auction is a “Penny Auction”, with, you guessed it, a one cent increment. Every bid means one cent higher in price, and a few seconds longer in auction time. To accelerate the action, something called BidButler is advertised. Some of the bidders are using an automatic bidding rule on the site. As the seconds count down to below nine seconds, the BidButler bids step in. Multiple BidButler bids seem to be competing. The auction jumps by a few cents, and there is more time on the clock. This happens so fast, that it is not immediately clear what happened, or what it means. I have been writing the blog post for almost an hour since I looked at the Acer laptop auction. That auction is still going on! The current auction “price” is $16.04 with two minutes 19 seconds to “go”.

Let’s work backward, and figure out the story here. $16.04 minus $12.78 is $3.26. That is 326 pennies, or 326 bids! Remember, each bid costs the bidder 75 cents. A total of at least $244.50 was spent so far in bidding! And the auction isn’t over yet. This auction advertises that someone lucked out and recently bought the same model laptop on Swoopo for $74.86. Since this is the advertisement, I would guess that this is the lowest they have “sold” for. I didn’t see the start of the auction, so I don’t know what the starting bid was. But let’s err on the side of caution, and guess the starting price was $12.78. Although, it was probably lower. So $74.86 minus $12.78 is $62.08. 6208 pennies; 6208 bids; 6208 times 75 cents per bid; At least $4656 dollars was spent on “bidding” for that bargain.

Now you can see how they can sell a $899.99 laptop for only $74.86 plus $19.90 shipping. All the losing bidders are paying for it. To be fair, new registrants are given a $10 coupon. But that coupon is only valid for the winner. So the winner got the equivalent of $9.90 shipping.

Nothing is hidden. All the rules are printed. They even have a tag line “Entertainment Shopping”. It is entertaining. My eyes are glued to the site. I am watching in a combination of horror, disbelief, and fascination. This is a game of lottery chicken. Each lottery ticked is 75 cents. You win by being the last person to bid. So far, there seems to be an endless supply of bidders. I am starting to wonder if the auctions ever end. The Acer is up to $18.24 now with five minutes 12 seconds “to go”. Maybe November 2008 is when the last Asus auction ended? Actually that would be good news, because that implies a limit to how much money people have lost on this site. The $74.86 auction was four days ago on March 21st.

This site is disguised gambling. If you are going to gamble, there are places with much better odds than this. Don’t participate. It is a warning I hope everyone heeds. I don’t want to be contributing to the carnage by posting yet another advertisement for this site. The small print under the Acer laptop “auction” says “This auction will end latest on Apr-27-2009 at 07:10 PDT”. That is just over 30 days from now. And only Nine minutes 4 seconds until the auction is “over”.

If you want a low risk place to gamble, try

If you want to see the train wreck for yourself:

Update: The auction ended at $26.60. Sounds like a deal. But the starting bid was zero dollars. So $1995 was spent by all the people that lost. That is a pretty good markup on a $899 (suggested retail price) laptop. Most places have to discount when they sell.

Update: I just noticed a new aspect. When you look at a completed game, you can see a count of the number of “Placed bids” and “FreeBids”. These numbers look pretty low. They don’t seem consistent with the math I did above. That is until your realize they are only reporting the costs of the one person that won the game. There are many other bidders that lost, and they too spent money to lose. What was their savings? Also, “FreeBids” is a new word they coined. You have to win a game at some cost to get those “FreeBids”. Their true cost is also hidden. I don’t have a total cost, but they are not free. It is possible that the total dollars spent bidding on “FreeBids” can exceed their face value, just like the Acer auction/game did. The one example I looked at, did seem to cost less than this. I don’t trust it though. They have erased the bidding history. Not even the winners bids are showing up. If total dollars spent was less than face value, I would think they would highlight that, not hide it.

Update: Ok, so the bid history is blank. I forgot my own logic from above. A game for 300 “FreeBids” shows the winner placed 29 paid bids to win. His final price on a “Penny Auction” game is $19.29. He spent $41.04 for his 300 “FreeBids”. But the bidding started at zero dollars and increased by one penny at a time. So $19.29 means 1929 bids at 75 cents each. Total cost to everyone is $1446.75. 300 “FreeBids” would only cost $225 if just regular bids were used. Instead the bids are costing over six times as much. The lucky winner did well, but the crowd lost. Based on the costs to the crowd, each “FreeBids” cost $4.82 instead of 75 cents. Not a good deal. So the Acer laptop above might gross to Swoopo, not the $1995 I guessed, but as much as 2660 times $4.82. A total of $12,821. Of course, this assumes only “FreeBids” were used in the game. But the total could also be more if overpriced “FreeBids” were used to bid on the “FreeBids”. A truly astonishing multiply effect.

Update: The Coding Horror blog says
“swoopo is about as close to pure, distilled evil in a business plan as I’ve ever seen”

And the Freakonomics Blog tells us it is an all-pay auction:
Martin Shubik invented a famous game-theory exercise, sometimes called “the dollar auction,” where a teacher auctions off a $20 bill to the highest bidder. Bids have to be in round dollar amounts, but the twist is that both the highest and the second-highest bidder have to pay. When uninitiated students start to play this game, someone rushes to bid $3 or $4 dollars for the prospect of winning $20, and then other students respond by bidding up the price.

But then something amazing happens as the auction price starts approaching $20. The remaining bidders realize that they could end up having to pay a lot of money and not win the auction. Imagine that you had bid $19, and another bidder upped the ante by bidding $20. What would you do? Is it better to bid $21 for a $20 prize or to remain silent and pay $19 for nothing?

The auction tends to end around $30 dollars. The teacher sells the twenty dollar bill for about $60.

Another couple of interesting tidbits about Swoopo. A lot of people see the profits being made, and they want to duplicate the business plan. There are already a number of competitors. Some with even more confusing operations. There are lots of people online asking for Swoopo scripts. It is a buyer beware world on the Internet.

There are ebooks being sold that will tell you how to win at Swoopo. I have not bought one, but I gather they teach you to find the games that have fewer competitors. Avoid the front page games. Avoid the penny bid games. Play off hours. Bide your time. Somehow get a good deal on FreeBids. I still think you are going to lose in the end. And you are also out the money for the ebook. Off hours won’t work, because you are competing with Swoopo sites and players around the world. There is no down time.

Swoopo used to “sell” money. I think that was too obviously gambling, so they stopped it. Swoopo also used to have a “100% off” game. No matter what the price was at the end, you didn’t have to pay it. Your only cost was the bid fees. That was a game that could go on forever. That too made the nature of the gamble too obvious. It is a better money maker to start new auctions. If auctions never end, the bidders will get weary.

Wikipedia has a page on Bidding Fee Schemes.
The primary risk of the bidding fee scheme website is that it attempts to masquerade as a legitimate auction of goods. Unsophisticated participants will not understand the distinction between a true auction and a fee-to-bid auction-like game, and so might apply poor judgement to the auction-like contest.

On the Techcruch site, a person comments:
I am retired and on a fixed income and tried to win my granddaughter a Wii setup. I did not realize that Swoopo kept all your bid monies and when i lost the bid at $100 for a Wii, I was shocked to see that the whole sum was gone,just gone! I immediately wrote an email explaining that i apparently did not understand that they totally kept the $100 and asked to be contacted about this since it was all i had and now can’t bid anywhere. For all they brag about, they won’t even answer an email , and i have sent one two days in a row. I unknowingly made a bad move and you would think they would respect that or at least contact me about it. Call me stupid but i can’t read that well anymore. I guess if i hear nothing i will have to report this event to the BBB and all the blogs i can reach. Do they really want this? Or maybe they just don’t care. Thanks for listening

Update: The Central Gadget Blog says:
And, unfortunately, we found problems. Bids timed out many times we tried to lock in bids at the last few seconds. Of course, Swoopo will argue that waiting until the last few seconds of an auction is risky. However, that is a bit of a lie of omission. Chances are, if you don’t place a bid in the last few seconds, you won’t win an item. Your bid will accrue more time on the auction unless it is placed within seconds of the end. This gives people dramatically more time to “out bid” you.

Photo credits, John, Justin Henry.

How To Challenge Your Maryland Property Tax Assessment

March 13, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured

US Supreme Court

When property values were rising, local governments were loving the new higher property tax assessments that went along with that. Existing homeowners were protected from quickly rising tax bills by the Maryland Homestead Tax Credit. But, new homeowners aren’t immediately protected by the Homestead Tax Credit. Still, at least they know in advance how high their tax bill might be. Now that most homeowners have had their property values decline with the housing market and slow economy, assessments will lag behind. Maryland assesses property values every three years. So two thirds of the homes will not be looked at this year. For that one third it remains to be seen if assessments will drop. In the end the responsibility falls to each homeowner to make sure their assessment is fair.

So, how do I challenge my assessment? Property assessments are supposed to reflect property values in a theoretical arms length transaction. This means if a neighborhood house was foreclosed on, or sold to a family member, the transaction value does not impact assessments. If we have enough of these transactions, as we do in some neighborhoods, then regular sales values are affected. These regular sales can then be relied on as evidence of reduced assessment values. You can look up sold prices at the Maryland SDAT property tax search, or you can ask a Realtor for a report on recent solds. If you promise me you will spread the word to family and friends about the website and homes search, I’ll make you a report of the last 50 homes that sold within a circle around your home.

Read through the American Homeowners Association “Property Tax Reduction Kit“. This document is a good general guide to how to approach an appeal. It is not Maryland specific however. Next you might want to look over the Maryland Assessment Procedures Manual. Also, you may want to take a look at the updates. And SDAT has written a guide to the appeal process. For more background, here is an example worksheet for calculating the property assessment on a particular house. Everyone can order a copy of the worksheet for their house. If you are appealing then you have the right to order the worksheet for anyone’s house. Everyone is to be treated equally under the assessment process. You can use other peoples worksheets as a guide to how yours should be done. Each worksheet costs one dollar.

Armed with any factual discrepancies on your house, worksheets of similar houses, and sold prices in your neighborhood, you have a reasonable chance of reducing your assessment at an appeal. The first level of the appeals process is with the person that assessed your property in the first place. If you have an unfinished basement, but the tax records say it was finished, with proof, you will win this battle. Another avenue of attack is condition. The assessor has leeway to say the condition is less than 100 percent. This can translate into a percentage reduction in that portion of the value. The rest of your appeal will be more difficult. Your home has been categorized into very specific categories. If a neighbors home is a different style, then the assessor might not take it as evidence of inequity of treatment. If you can, get worksheets for homes styled like yours. The assessor will argue that you are protected by the Homestead Tax Credit, so you need not worry that the assessment seems high to you. Don’t let them get away with that. You could argue right back that since your tax is limited by the Credit, they might as well lower the assessment. A lower assessment could make it easier to sell your house, since the new owner will be taxed at the assessed value.

The next level of appeal is more formal than the first. Still, there are no fees, and you don’t need a lawyer. You can represent yourself. This appeal is before your county Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board. This is composed of three local residents appointed by the Governor. Be sure to request in writing at least 15 days before your hearing, a list of the comparable properties that will be used by the assessment office before the Board. Read over the rules for the board.

If you are still not satisfied with your ruling, you can appeal to the Maryland Tax Court. This too is made up of people appointed by the Governor. It is an administrative court under the Executive branch of government. It is still informal, but a lawyer might be wanted at this hearing. For any level in the appeals process, you might find it instructive to read some of the past rulings of the Maryland Tax Court.

Now that you have gone through channels, and used up your remedies within the Executive branch of government, your next option is to try appealing through the Judiciary court system. Another option, which a friend of mine succeeded with, is to petition the Legislative branch of government for a change of the law. This is another story, but in his case, the law did change…but this only benefits the rest of us. His case was still correct under the old law.

I am not a lawyer. I am only reporting my limited knowledge of the assessment and appeals process. If you have gone through this, or have any tips, please comment below.

Photo credit, dbking.

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