Tales from a hunt for the perfect Baltimore home

Cindy Cowman is just the type of person Baltimore officials want to woo: an empty-nester living in the suburbs, looking for an urban lifestyle and willing to invest in an older home.

"I wanted to be in the city, with a high walkability score and a lot of foot traffic," said Cowman. "I wasn't afraid to be a little on the fringes, but I wanted to know that [the neighborhood] was moving forward."

Last month, she finished her months-long quest for the perfect home and settled on a rowhouse in the Patterson Park neighborhood. For her, the more-than-100-year-old home is just right.

But finding the ideal Baltimore location for the next phase of her life wasn't easy. She had to start over after disappointments, revise bad assumptions, and spend many days and nights getting to know a variety of neighborhoods.

Buying into Baltimore has unique challenges for people who don't know the city well, Cowman said.

"A lot of younger people I know will say, 'Oh, my God, that's awesome,'" said Cowman, 52, describing the reactions she's received to her decision to move from the suburban community of Nottingham, in eastern Baltimore County, into a dense neighborhood of attached homes. "Some people my age don't understand it. But they don't have the same lifestyle."

The people who have questioned her decision, Cowman said, have not spent time in the city and experienced its advantages — the vibrancy, the culture, the variety. Cowman grew up in a Baltimore neighborhood off Belair Road and was introduced to city life early.

"We used to take a cab downtown and have lunch at Read's," said Cowman, who works as a client relations manager for a financial planning firm in Towson. "I actually remember it before there was an Inner Harbor."

In spite of her long-ago experience with downtown Baltimore, she didn't know many of its residential areas well. With dozens of neighborhoods to choose from, it was tough to narrow her search. Baltimore is 81 square miles and 250 neighborhoods.

"That's a lot to absorb," said Steven Gondol, executive director of Live Baltimore, which helps orient newcomers to the city. The nonprofit was among the first places Cowman went for advice on buying a home in Baltimore.

Cowman definitely wanted a rowhouse — because it's the quintessential Baltimore home, she said — and wanted to be within walking distance of the waterfront. She also wanted to stay under $150,000 and was looking for a place she could substantially rehab.

"Federal Hill was completely out of the questions because of the prices," Cowman said, dismissing one of the most popular neighborhoods for Baltimore newcomers. She also wanted to stay out of Fells Point because of its younger, nighttime crowd.

In October, as she began her search in earnest, Cowman set her sights on Pigtown, a historic neighborhood in Southwest Baltimore close to downtown that is filled with rowhouses in her price range. As she drove through during the day, she saw properties that appeared to meet her needs and wants, she said.

"At night, it's a different animal," Cowman said. She didn't think she'd feel safe there, she decided, and went back to the drawing board.

On the opposite side of the city, Cowman started looking at Brewers Hill and Canton, but neither felt quite right. The rowhouses "seemed small for the price," and both neighborhoods have a "younger vibe" that didn't match the hopes she had for her future community.

"You're paying top dollar there," Cowman said. "In Canton, they wanted $150,000 or more for a home that needed to be almost completely gutted. ... It was cost-prohibitive."

Experience matters

It's common for Baltimore homebuyers to begin the process with one neighborhood in mind, only to find that it doesn't meet their expectations or is out of their budget, Gondol said.

The easiest way to identify potential neighborhoods is to start just the way Cowman did, he said: Identify the type of home desired, the price and commuting necessities, such as whether the home should be near Penn Station, Interstate 83 or the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

"We can then work with the buyer to narrow it down," Gondol said. If a Hampden home is out of reach, he said as an example, perhaps Remington — a nearby neighborhood that has similar homes — is a good alternative.