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Ready, set, buy

photo Three-year-old Jasmine Green peeks out the front window of what will be her family’s new home in Largo. Jasmine’s room will be “a Barbie room,” her mother, Kenya Collins, says.

[Times photo: Kinfay Moroti]

The annual HOPE Expo teaches would-be homeowners the ins and outs of purchasing a house and introduces them to programs designed to help.

By JUDY STARK, Times Homes Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 1, 2002

A month from now, Kenya Collins of Clearwater and her children -- James Green, 2, and Jasmine Green, 4 -- will move into the new home they're building in Largo. Collins, who turns 22 on Wednesday, had never owned a home, but she was determined to get out of subsidized housing and fulfill a dream of building a place of her own. "I had no idea what that would take," she said, and she needed some help.

On April 27, Martha McCarroll, 58, moved into her condo at the Mainlands in Pinellas Park. Although she'd owned two other homes up north and had been a real estate agent and an appraiser, she'd been out of the business for a long time and didn't know what was involved in buying a house in Florida.

Michelle Mack, 29, thought she was "just looking" at the house on N Greenwood Avenue in Clearwater last winter. She wasn't going to buy. But of course she fell in love with it and quickly scrambled to learn what to do to become a homeowner.

[Times photo: Kinfay Moroti]
Kenya Collins visits the construction site of her new home on Taylor Lake Place in Largo, where she’ll move in next month. “I wanted to build for my kids,” says Collins, the mother of James and Jasmine Green, 2 and 3 respectively. “I wanted to know that I did it on my own.” With help from the Community Service Foundation, she qualified for $17,000 in down payment and closing cost help from a Pinellas County program.

These new homeowners, and dozens more like them, found the information and guidance they needed through the nonprofit Community Service Foundation of Clearwater at its annual HOPE Expo and its home ownership classes. HOPE stands for Home Ownership for People Everywhere.

The free daylong expo offers a class in home ownership and dozens of tabletop exhibits from nonprofit agencies and businesses involved in the home-buying industry. This year's expo -- the 10th annual -- is June 8.

"Last year we had so many people" -- 370 -- "we had to bring in more chairs," CSF spokeswoman Pat Garst said. McCarroll recalled that she arrived at last year's expo at 7:45 a.m., "and I wished I had got there earlier. The turnout was phenomenal."

photo Kenya Collins’ house has three bedrooms and two baths in about 1,600 square feet. She is paying $90,400 for house and land. The builder is Wilks Construction.

[Times photo: Kinfay Moroti]

The homeowner class, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., covers everything from checking credit reports and cleaning up problems to determining how much mortgage money participants can qualify for to discussions of sources of down-payment and closing-cost funds. Those costs are often the biggest stumbling block to buyers of modest income: They can afford the monthly mortgage payment, but they don't have the upfront money to close. Collins is buying her new home, priced at $90,400, with $17,000 in down-payment and closing assistance from a Pinellas County community development program.

The expo's organizers encourage participants "to get financially fit" long before they start looking at houses, by cleaning up any credit problems and becoming preapproved for a mortgage, Garst said.

The program walks participants through the buying process: what to look for, questions to ask, how to negotiate, how to apply for a mortgage, how to understand the paperwork, how to choose a real estate agent and lender, the importance of inspections and what to expect at closing.

Ed Adams, 53, who works in the city of Clearwater's engineering department, moved in December into a home on Saturn Avenue in Clearwater with his 17-year-old son, Eddie. "There's a lot of things that happen, even at closing, that you're unaware of, and things to look for or at while you're looking for a home," the first-time buyer said. "By taking the class it makes you quite aware of some of the things you need to know. Things like inspections. I originally would have just come in here" -- the house he eventually bought for $85,000 -- "and looked and said, "Oh, that's nice."' His house, recently renovated by the Community Service Foundation, passed an inspection easily.

Collins, an office specialist with the Pinellas County social service department, has no credit cards ("I stay away from those!") and worried that her lack of a credit history might make it hard to obtain a mortgage. When she took a CSF homeowner class, she learned that lenders will consider other bills that show a credit history: rent, utility bills, cable TV.

She worried, too, that her age might work against her but found "if you qualify, age doesn't matter. If you're approved, you're approved. Some people think young people don't have a lot of responsibility. I wanted to show that I did." When she was approved for her loan, she found "It makes you feel good that you passed all those tests. They're giving the loan to someone who is trustworthy and capable of paying them back."

Mack, the single mother of daughters Tyra, 5, and Jadan, 1, talked about the sacrifices and cutbacks she made to afford a house. "We like to eat out; I have a big family and we're always saying, "Let's go out to dinner and take the kids.' I had to say, "Look, we can't go."' She and the girls moved in with her parents to save money. They like to go to the mall on the weekends, but they learned to put the brakes on their spending: "I felt, I work hard every day" -- she is a title examiner at First American Equity Loan Services -- "and I should be able to buy me this and buy me that." Now that she's in her home, "I realize, I did buy what I wanted: a home." She got $7,000 in down-payment and closing-cost assistance through a city of Clearwater program.

McCarroll, the new Mainlands resident, learned at last year's expo about bond programs that provide upfront money for buyers, mortgages that wrap in home-improvement money, home inspections and home warranties. She became a good negotiator, ultimately persuading the sellers to pick up $1,885 in closing costs on the condo for which she paid $71,500.

She also learned about the Home Buyers' Club, another nonprofit organization that helps people clean up their credit and learn about the home buying process and has a long history of success in helping people who thought they'd never become homeowners.

Would-be homeowners are often downright frightened at the prospect of buying a house. These successful buyers acknowledge they felt that way too. "If you have a burning passion that this is what you want, you can make it happen, and it's so much easier than anyone dreams it would be," McCarroll said. "Home ownership is possible for just about anyone that wants it badly enough."

She added, "There could not be a better name" than HOPE Expo. "It gives everyone the hope that "This too can be me. I can own a home' -- and it gives you the road map on how to do it."

Advice from the new homeowners

Work with a real estate agent who regularly handles homes in the price bracket in which you are looking and who is familiar with home buyer assistance programs. Find a lender who deals with these programs.

Be prepared for things to move fast. Michelle Mack started her home-buying process two weeks before Christmas and closed in February.

Yes, it's frightening. (Several of these new homeowners acknowledged "a lot of tears" and "a lot of prayers.") But they also spoke of a deep sense of pride at what they accomplished on their own. "If I could do this much," Mack said, "I could do a whole lot of other things and not have to depend on anybody else."

Don't take no for an answer. One lender didn't want to talk to Mack because she had one late payment on her credit card. She took the class, found another lender and is now a homeowner.

Prioritize. If she had it to do again, Collins would hold off on buying a new car, which she purchased in February 2001. That debt reduced the amount of mortgage money for which she could qualify. On the other hand, her steady, on-time record of car payments boosted her creditworthiness.

Pay bills on time. "People think, "Oh, if I'm renting, who cares if I pay this bill late," Collins said. "Well, that can help or hurt. Pay your bills, even the ones that don't show on your credit report."

Don't get discouraged. Buying a home is a high-stress process (comparable to divorce or death of a spouse). "There are always huge boulders and little pebbles in the road," but you do get to your destination, McCarroll said. "Ask for guidance and it comes."

Attending the expo

What: HOPE Expo 2002, free daylong home ownership exposition presented by the Community Service Foundation.

Where: Largo Cultural Center, 105 Central Park Drive, Largo.

When: June 8. Registration begins at 8:15 a.m. The Homebuyer Workshop runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Those who complete the class will receive a certificate required by many lenders to participate in down-payment assistance programs. Exhibit hall, open 8:15 a.m.-1 p.m., offers displays from 35 lenders, nonprofit agencies, real estate agents, title companies and other housing-industry businesses.

To register: (727) 461-0618. After 5 p.m. and weekends call (727) 481-4500. E-mail: Deadline is Wednesday; seating is limited.

Also available: CSF offers home buyer and budgeting classes periodically throughout the year. Last year more than 900 people attended those classes. Call the numbers above for information about those classes.

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