Sunday, January 31, 2010

NEWS: Housing Momentum Builds but Perils Persist

There's new evidence the housing market is healing after a four-year slump, but the danger of further price drops remains amid persistent job-market weakness, according to The Wall Street Journal's quarterly housing survey.

Inventories of homes listed for sale are down sharply across the U.S. and have reached very low levels in some areas, including Boston and Sacramento, Calif. The decrease in supplies has sparked a return of bidding wars on lower-end properties in some neighborhoods, but the national picture is mixed.

Neighborhood Market Watch
Jobs and mortgage woes will help shape the housing market this spring, the busiest time of year for home shoppers. See how six locales are faring.

See housing data in 28 metro areas Fundamental market drivers look relatively strong in the metropolitan areas of Minneapolis, Raleigh, N.C., Dallas, Houston and Washington, D.C., where mortgage-default rates are below the national average and job markets are likely to outperform the U.S. as a whole, according to Moody's

But other areas look decidedly less hopeful. Miami, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Orlando, Jacksonville and Tampa, Fla., had the highest rates of defaulting borrowers among the 28 markets surveyed. The weakest job-market prospects this year were found in Tampa, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Detroit and Phoenix, according to Moody's

Jobs and mortgage woes will help shape the housing market this spring, the busiest time of year for home shoppers. Without a return to job growth, it will be hard to sustain demand and mortgage defaults will eventually lead to foreclosures, dumping more supply on the market.

Report Suggests Unsteady Housing Recovery
In the Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area, about 28% of mortgage borrowers are behind on payments or in foreclosure, according to LPS Applied Analytics, compared with 8.6% in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and 13.2% in the entire U.S.

Meanwhile, prices continue to stabilize in much of the nation. The S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city composite index in November edged up 0.2% from October on a seasonally adjusted basis. It was down 5.3% from a year earlier and was about 29% below the peak set in 2006. In Las Vegas, the index was up 0.1% from the previous month, but still down 56% from the peak in 2006.

"We'll probably be seeing a fairly strong spring selling season" in most of the nation, said Jody Kahn, a vice president at John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Her recent surveys of home builders across the U.S. showed shoppers have been out in greater numbers in recent weeks and seem more serious about buying. "Consumers are starting to feel a little more comfortable" that the worst of the job losses are past, Ms. Kahn said.
High-end homes remain hard to sell.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

BOSTON HOUSING NEWS: Hub gets $13.6m grant to buy foreclosed homes

Federal funding will help to renovate empty properties.

The city of Boston has been awarded $13.6 million in federal funding to help buy and renovate hundreds of foreclosed homes, part of $47.9 million in competitive awards issued in the state this week.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino yesterday said the money will boost the city’s ability to deal with the foreclosure crisis plaguing areas of Dorchester and Roxbury, where abandoned and deteriorating homes are common. Citywide, there are now 860 bank-owned houses.

Officials said they plan to use the grant to boost a two-year effort to help purchase and renovate properties in partnership with area buyers, organizations, and developers. To date, the city has bought 61 properties or is in the process of closing on them, scores more are in the pipeline. “We’re making important progress, but our neighborhoods are still in danger,’’ said Menino.

The grant is part of $2 billion in Recovery Act funding allocated this week by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to states, local governments, and nonprofit housing developers.

In addition to the city, the Massachusetts Housing Investment Corp., a private nonprofit lender that specializes in affordable housing, was awarded $21.8 million, and Community Builders Inc., a nonprofit developer based in Boston, is receiving $12.5 million to spend in Massachusetts, according to federal officials.

Willie Jones, senior vice president for Community Builders, said it plans to buy and fix deteriorating and abandoned multifamily properties in areas hard hit by foreclosures in hopes of improving apartments and increasing values of nearby single-family homes.

Friday, January 29, 2010

MORTGAGE & FINANCE: Video On New Mortgage Laws And Regulations

Ryan Raveis Of William Raveis Mortgage Explains The New Mortgage Laws And Regulations.

BUYING A HOME: DINKS - Double Income No Kids Makes Home Ownership a No-Brainer

A DINK household is one “in which there are two incomes and no children… DINKs are often the target of marketing efforts for luxury items such as expensive cars and vacations” as defined by

DINKs have a lot going for them. With two incomes and none of the expenses required to raise a couple of kids, they are commonly the consumers of the best things in life from the finest restaurants and fabulous travel to luxury labels and premium services. In fact, there’s a plethora of websites devoted solely to DINKs and a world of experts who are ready and able to help spend all that discretionary income.

The downside? If there is one, it’s that the extra income also means they are likely to find themselves in the highest tax brackets. That means that sheltering income is extremely important. In addition to 401K’s, IRA’s, tax-deferred investments and the like, home ownership is virtually a no-brainer.

One excellent web site, Dual Income No Kids Finance, affirms that buying a home offers significant financial advantages for DINKS. Sharing the title of “co-grand poobahs,” bloggers Miel and James provide lots of info, including the average net worth of DINK families:

Given such high average income levels, Miel and James strongly advise investing in a home:“If you don’t own your home, and are in otherwise in good shape, you should strongly consider buying a home. There are number of benefits to owning your own place. First, and foremost you have a tremendous tax advantages as the mortgage interest and property tax [for Condos or the tax deductable portion of Coop maintenance] payments can be written off your taxes. Owning real estate also provides important protection against inflation and housing can be an important asset when you reach retirement after the mortgage is paid off.”

By Bob Borger, for Real Estate Geezer

Thursday, January 28, 2010

FOR SALE: Now For Sale In Roslindale

Beautiful two bedroom condo with large heated family room in basement.

MORTGAGE & FINANCE: Cancel Your Private Mortgage Insurance

Private mortgage insurance is unavoidable for some homeowners, but don’t pay PMI premiums a day longer than required by your lender. 

Private mortgage insurance provides protection to a lender in case you default on your home loan. Unless you make a 20% downpayment on a house, you’ll most likely be required to purchase PMI. PMI premiums on a median priced home ($198,100 in 2008) can run between $50 and $100 per month, according to the Mortgage Insurance Companies of America.

PMI might be unavoidable, but it isn’t eternal. Knowing exactly when you’re entitled to cancel coverage can save you a bundle. If you own a median priced home, you’ll pocket between $600 and $1,200 for each year’s worth of premiums you can avoid. That extra cash can be used to pay down your principal instead.

When PMI is cancelled automatically
Though often maligned, PMI plays an important role. Many aspiring homeowners, especially first-time buyers, simply can’t afford to put down 20% on a house. Without the safeguard offered by PMI, lenders would be reluctant to extend mortgages to low-equity purchasers.

For many borrowers, the coverage is short-lived. The Mortgage Insurance Companies of America, the industry trade group, estimates that 90% of homeowners are done paying PMI premiums, which are tax-deductible for some, within five years.

If you purchased a house since 1999 and are still paying PMI, you probably fall under the Homeowners Protection Act (HPA) of 1998. Your lender is required to automatically cancel your insurance once you’ve paid down your mortgage to a 78% (0.78) loan-to-value ratio, or LTV. Put another way, once you have 22% equity built up. Many lenders will treat pre-HPA loans in a similar fashion. Call to confirm.

To calculate your LTV, divide the outstanding loan amount by the original price of your home. If you have a $190,000 mortgage on a house you purchased for $200,000, the LTV is 95%. You’d need to get the mortgage balance down to $156,000—78% of the original value—to qualify for automatic cancellation of PMI.

When you need to request cancellation
You don’t necessarily have to wait for automatic cancellation. When your LTV hits 80%, you can petition your lender to end its PMI requirement. The process can take several weeks. Your lender isn’t obligated to grant your request, but you’ll bolster your case if you have a good payment history.

Start by calling your lender, not the PMI provider. You’ll probably need to make a formal request in writing and pay out of pocket for an appraisal. The average cost of an appraisal is $362, according to a 2009 survey. Your lender will usually select the appraiser.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

INSURANCE: Create a Home Inventory for Insurance

Create a home inventory before disaster strikes to make filing an insurance claim a smoother process.

Experiencing a theft, flood, fire, or other casualty loss is devastating enough. Now imagine trying to list from memory for your insurance claim every single item that was damaged or destroyed. The task becomes less daunting if you create a detailed home inventory in advance and keep it in a safe place.

Creating a home inventory can be done with pencil and paper alone, but a digital camera and camcorder make the job easier. Set aside enough time to review your insurance policies, dig up receipts, document your possessions, and figure out where you’ll store your records. One day should be sufficient.

A home inventory is essential
From appliances, plates, and glasses to collectibles, rugs, and furniture, the average home is packed with an array of items collected over the years. And while you may be able to list many of them in a pinch, chances are you’d miss some important possessions if you ever needed to reconstruct your home’s contents from memory, says Mark Goldwich, founder of GoldStar Adjusters, a Jacksonville, Fla., claims adjusting firm.

“Home inventories are a must no matter what the value of the home’s items are,” says Goldwich. “If you’re going to insure your property and pay for that insurance, you really should be able to document the ownership and the value of the items that you’re insuring. If you don’t have proof of the items you owned, it makes filing your claim much more difficult.”

Your job doesn’t end once you’ve compiled a home inventory, a detailed list of everything in your household. Be sure to compare estimated values to your policy’s coverage to ensure that you’ll be able to replace your belongings in case of damage or theft, says Goldwich, who is the author of “Uncovered: What Really Happens After the Storm, Flood, Earthquake or Fire.” In some cases, he says, you can purchase additional coverage if the value of your possessions exceeds the limits on your homeowners, flood, or other disaster policy.

Take photos and video of possessions
Jack Hungelmann, author of “Insurance for Dummies,” says a picture can be worth more than just a thousand words—it can add up to thousands in cash if you ever need to file an insurance claim. Hungelmann recommends using a digital camcorder or camera to take pictures of each room to document your belongings. “I recommend that people open up their cupboards and drawers. Be sure you have a record of all the things you own,” he says.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

HOME & HEALTH: Simple Radon Test Can Protect Your Health

What is odorless, colorless and could be a serious health problem that may be right under your nose? The answer is radon, a naturally occurring gas that could be seeping into your home right now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says.

Although testing for radon is easy and inexpensive, only one in five homeowners has actually tested his or her home for radon. That figure is too low given that, each year, over 20,000 people die from lung cancer caused by exposure to radon. It is the leading cause of lung cancer deaths in non-smokers, EPA officials say.

January is National Radon Action Month, so the EPA and the Surgeon General are urging people to protect their health by testing their homes. If a high radon level is detected in your home, you can take steps to fix it, and protect yourself and your family. 

Nearly 80% of American homes have not been tested for radon, perhaps because you can’t see, smell, or taste it. Yet, it may be the most potent carcinogen in your home.

In fact, radon can build to unhealthy levels, especially during colder months when windows and doors are kept closed. The invisible radioactive gas can seep into your home from underground, and can reach harmful levels if trapped indoors.

For about $25, you can purchase a radon testing kit from their local hardware or home improvement store. The kits include a stamped, self-addressed envelope for sending the test canister to an authorized laboratory for analysis. Results are generally sent back to the homeowner within two weeks. If a problem is identified, contact your state radon office for advice on how to fix it. Most solutions are simple and relatively inexpensive, EPA officials say.

Source: U.S. EPA January 14, 2010

Monday, January 25, 2010

GREEN HOMES: Housing Has Been "Greenwashed"

Walk through any home-remodeling expo these days, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the entire industry has gone mad for green.

Everything from roofing shingles to basement wall-sealants seem to bear some kind of "eco" stamp lately, testament to manufacturers' determination to appeal to consumers' apparently heightened appreciation for sustainability, energy conservation and plain old earth-friendliness.

"If you actually took all the marketing claims at face value, then the environment should be in great shape," says Henning Bloech. "Everything is 'green.' "

Bloech spends a great deal of time contemplating such claims. He's the executive director of the GreenGuard Environmental Institute, an Atlanta-based organization that, among other things, independently tests chemical emissions of homebuilding products to certify that they meet indoor air-quality standards.

His group is one of a relative handful of so called "third-party certifiers" that set standards and verify manufacturers' claims of their products' environmental attributes. Bloech says that though many companies have earnestly endeavored to earn their eco merit badges, many others are just pretending -- making marketing claims that have become known as "greenwashing."

"It's extremely widespread," Bloech says. "It's everywhere."

And greenwashing manifests itself in myriad ways, experts say. TerraChoice, an Ottawa-based marketing company that describes itself as specializing in sustainable products, in 2009 tested 2,219 products in various categories that made about 5,000 "green" claims; it found that only 25 were not guilty of at least one of its "seven sins of greenwashing," which include making claims that are vague, lack proof, or are outright misrepresentations, among others.

"There is just a lack of standards on how to define what is green," agrees Christopher Nelson, director of corporate development for UL Environment, a recently launched arm of Underwriters Laboratories that will set environmental standards and vet environmental claims for manufacturers' products.

One of ULE's two programs validates environmental claims, he said.

"If a product says it's made with 'X,' 'Y' or 'Z,' we test whether that's true," he said. "We're not saying that's good or bad, just that you can trust that the statement is accurate."

The other program tests sustainability, "that you can trust that it has met certain environmental guidelines that have been established through a third-party process," he said.

Third-party certification is time-consuming and expensive, Bloech says. Typically, such processes are funded by licensing fees that manufacturers pay in exchange for the right to advertise that they've passed the tests. Some groups, however, solicit public donations.

In addition to manufacturers who tout their own green credentials, Bloech says "second-party certification" is another source of information for consumers; most often, these are tests conducted through trade groups, such as those representing cabinet or carpet manufacturers.

"There are a lot of second-party certifications, and that's not necessarily bad," he says. "Some have fairly stringent requirements, but they still remain industry programs, and that may be a little bit of a conflict of interest."

Bearing in mind that standards vary, depending on who's doing the certification and what their goals are, here are some online sources for consumers who want to check out homebuilding-related products and manufacturers:

Green Guard: Certifies products that have been tested for their chemical-emissions performance and their effect on indoor air quality.
Green Seal: The nonprofit says it evaluates products or services, many of them related to construction and remodeling, on a life-cycle assessment basis -- from material extraction though manufacturing and use and recycling and disposal.
UL Environment: verifies manufacturers' claims and separately certifies sustainability standards.
LEED: The United States Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design program provides third-party verification that buildings or communities are designed and built with the aim of improving energy performance, water efficiency, emissions reduction, indoor air quality, and stewardship of resources.
Scientific Certification Systems: certifies aspects of a product's environmental impact in such individual categories as recycled content and indoor air quality or overall life-cycle assessment.
Energy Star: A joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy that rates products on their energy-efficient products and practices.

By Mary Umberger for Inman News January 5, 2010

Sunday, January 24, 2010

MORTGAGE: Rate-Locks Do's And Don't's

Interest rates dropped at the end of November after creeping up over the summer. As of the beginning of December, 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with interest rates below 5 percent were readily available.

Mortgage interest rates change as often as two to three times in one day. Securing the lowest rate possible is every borrower's goal. However, it's impossible to time the finance market, just as it's impossible to predict exactly when the housing market will peak or slide.

In this low-interest-rate environment, many buyers are locking in a rate, either when they submit their loan application and purchase contract, or some time before closing. A lock-in is a commitment from the lender to hold an interest rate for a period of time. Points (the lenders original fees) can also be locked.

The length of the rate lock varies from seven days to 60 days and possibly longer. However, it's more expensive for a longer lock -- about 1/8 percent to 1/4 percent in rate or points for each additional 15 days.

Today, it's wise to lock in your rate for 45 days if you lock when you submit your package. With delays due to appraisal issues and lenders asking for additional documentation, it can take this long to close the loan.

There are advantages and disadvantages to locking in a rate. If rates fall after you lock, the lender probably won't give you the lower rate. If rates rise after you lock, the lender should honor the locked rate as long as you close on time.

Some lenders offer a "float down." This would come into play if interest rates were to drop between the lock data and the date your loan documents are drawn. The lender probably won't let your locked rate float down to market rate, but to something in between. A float down is a one-time-only option.

HOUSE HUNTING TIP: Because rate locks have an expiration date, it's essential to provide as much financial documentation needed to qualify you for the mortgage as soon as possible. This will speed up the approval process.

Lenders require much more personal financial information than they did several years ago. Ask your loan agent or mortgage broker at the time you submit your loan application what personal financial data the lender will require -- like pay stubs and information supporting your cash downpayment and cash reserves (in bank accounts, IRAs and 401Ks). If you're self-employed, you'll need to provide tax returns for the last two years.

After your loan package is submitted to underwriting for approval, there could be other conditions that must be met. If you drag your feet producing additional documentation, this could delay approval and jeopardize your rate lock.

Extensions of rate locks are sometimes granted, but don't count on it. If the delay is due to a slowdown in the lender's processing, the lender might agree to an extension, especially if interest rates haven't changed much. But, if the delay is due to your failure to provide the materials necessary to qualify you for the loan, don't expect a sympathetic ear.

Try to get the lender's rate-lock commitment in writing. Some lenders will do so, but many give only verbal agreements, which are hard to enforce.

Lenders often give processing priority to purchase loans over refinances. If you're refinancing and rates are low but threatening to rise, lock in for 45-60 days.

Now is a great time to refinance not only because interest rates are low, but because there will be fewer home sales during the winter months and less competition to worry about in terms of getting the loan closed on time.

THE CLOSING: Get a copy of the Federal Reserve Board's "A Consumer's Guide to Mortgage Lock-Ins" online.

By Dian Hymer for Inman News January 11, 2010

Saturday, January 23, 2010

THE MORTGAGE MELTDOWN: Judge Dismisses Landmark Lending Suit Against Wells Fargo

BALTIMORE—A federal court judge has dismissed a landmark case in which Wells Fargo was accused of causing millions in foreclosures in Baltimore through predatory and discriminatory loan programs.

The judge said it was “implausible” that Wells Fargo caused an economic decline in the inner city, given other issues in the city such as unemployment, poorly performing schools, irresponsible parents, drugs, and violence, The Baltimore Sun reported.

That’s what Wells Fargo officials have been saying since the suit was filed. “From the beginning, we have consistently maintained that Baltimore’s economic problems could not be attributed to the small number of foreclosures Wells Fargo has done in Baltimore,” said Cara Heiden, co-president of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. “We are pleased the court’s decision rejects the city’s claim and reflects this point of view.”

Baltimore can now appeal or narrow its complaint against Wells Fargo and return to court at a future date.

Similar suits filed by the cities of Birmingham and Cleveland have also been dismissed. Memphis and surrounding Shelby County, Tenn., filed a similar suit last month saying Wells Fargo violated the Fair Housing Act.

The Tennessee suit alleges that Wells Fargo targeted minority communities for predatory practices that have resulted in a disproportionate and unnecessary number of foreclosures in these communities.

“The most tragic aspect of this crisis is that it has hit minority communities the hardest,” remarked Shelby County Mayor Joe Ford. “Because of redlining practices, minority communities were excluded from prime lending and became vulnerable to reverse redlining, an illegal practice which targets these neighborhoods for risky and exploitative loans.”

In Memphis, this has been especially true in the African-American community, he charged. “The concentration of foreclosures in areas targeted for bad loans has resulted in extreme blighting, vacancies, reduced property values, and lower tax revenues. Wells Fargo foreclosures have also created tremendous costs for services such as housing code enforcement and fire and police protection.”

By Dona DeZube, January 7, 2010

Friday, January 22, 2010

BUYING: Do New Home Appraisal Rules Help?

Home buyers who take out federally insured home loans will soon find their mortgage brokers can’t select appraisers, part of an effort to ensure appraisers aren’t pressured to inflate home values.

Starting Feb. 15, mortgage brokers will no longer be able to order appraisals on loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). For consumers, that is supposed to mean home appraisals will more closely reflect a home’s value. The reason: Brokers who may profit from a loan being approved won’t also be choosing appraisers, who may feel pressured to declare a higher value.

But organizations such as the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) and the Appraisal Institute say the change, along with other efforts to reform the appraisal industry, is hurting consumers and appraisers.

They say new rules that swept through the appraisal industry in 2009—rules designed to ensure appraisals are impartial—are resulting in excessively low home values, because chosen appraisers aren’t as experienced or as familiar with local markets. They also say the appraisers take more time, causing delays in getting appraisals done.

“The appraisal must be completely independent of the lending side, but there are extensive time delays,” says Joe Ventrone, vice president for regulatory and industry affairs with NAR. “The values that come back are lower. A $300,000 house might come back (appraised) at $200,000.”

A changed business
The changes began in May when Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae adopted a code designed to separate loan officers from the hiring of appraisers. Since Freddie and Fannie account for nine-tenths of new home loan originations, it reshaped the business.

The code means brokers, real estate salespeople and loan-production staff—anyone who stands to earn a commission based on the value of the transaction—can’t hire an appraiser. Instead, lenders are turning to third-party appraisal management companies that typically hire appraisers on contract to do the job.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

NEIGHBORHOODS: A Cultural Remix In West Roxbury

For years, the new labels went to its neighbors. Jamaica Plain was the spot for young hipsters seeking a tolerant environment. Roslindale was the ethnic melting pot with blue collar roots that young families could afford. But West Roxbury? West Roxbury was what it always had been, a suburban enclave in the city where lace-curtain Irish had settled and never left.

Where outsiders saw dull, residents saw continuity and comfort.

But as expensive real estate has forced a steady migration from Boston’s core, the diaspora has reached this outlier neighborhood, carrying with it couples like Drew Bartley and Chris Norris, formerly of the South End.

“On one of our first days in the neighborhood, our neighbor, who’s been here forever, walks up to us,’’ said Norris, an affordable housing advocate who scooped up a four-bedroom Victorian with his partner Bartley, a genealogist, on a block where the number of newcomers rivals that of old-timers. “And she says, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood. Boys, don’t you worry about a thing. My daughter is a lesbian.’ ’’

The influx is not just a story of neighborhood change, but a period marker. West Roxbury was a vestige of an older Boston, a place where hundreds descended on the Irish Social Club every Sunday night for Irish step dancing, where candlepin bowling and Catholic Memorial School hockey games were part of the elemental framework of social life. The multitudes of police, firefighters, and other city employees who settled in traditional brick houses made it a stronghold of city politics, and a foil to the younger, more transient populations moving into other neighborhoods. Distant from the city center, lacking a T stop, and suffused with a brand of insularity, West Roxbury long resisted the change that enveloped other Boston neighborhoods.

There was Melinda Keehnle on a recent evening, walking home from Roche Bros. grocery store, as she has always done. The 50-year-old nurse can still be found at the West Roxbury Pub on Friday nights, leading karaoke renditions of old Irish songs, surrounded by the regular crowd.

But other nights, she samples her neighborhood’s new fare.

“I have seven restaurants within two blocks of my house,’’ Keehnle said.

“When I go out on my porch, I can smell Indian and Thai and fresh seafood and burgers. You name it.’’

Centre Street - once a strip of pizza joints and Irish pubs - is now a hub of ethnic restaurants including Lebanese, Greek, and Italian offerings. There is an upscale bistro, a trendy bakery, a gourmet sandwich shop. Gone is Fontaine’s, the fried chicken joint that boasted West Roxbury’s arguably most famous landmark, the 9-foot-tall neon chicken figure that flapped a wing over the VFW Parkway, supplanted by an Italian steakhouse, Sofia.

City Councilor John M. Tobin Jr., who grew up in West Roxbury and represents the district, says he knew something was afoot when the restaurant West on Centre, with its exposed brick walls and sleek gray banquettes, opened doors in 2004 on the previous location of Buck Mulligan’s, an Irish pub.

“I remember walking into the place, and it was breathtaking,’’ Tobin said. “It was just something you had never seen before in West Roxbury. It was something you’d see on Newbury Street or in the South End.’’

As other restaurants and stores followed, West Roxbury’s staid reputation began falling away, and soon, a pattern took hold - new residents craved the amenities of neighborhoods they had been priced out of, and more new businesses stepped into the void to supply them.

“There was no Indian restaurant in West Roxbury,’’ said Kabin Bhujel, manager of the Himalayan Bistro, a recently opened Indian and Nepalese restaurant. “That is why we came here.’’

Some of this new population is made up of parents seeking green space for their children and short commutes into the city - people like Judy Moroz and her husband, transplants from New York.

“I have family come to visit from more chichi towns and I am proud of the way that West Roxbury has some fun shops and some old shops,’’ said Moroz, on a recent afternoon, wearing unlaced Converse tennis shoes and chunky glasses as she pushed her daughter’s stroller into Centre Street’s Starbucks. “I like the way that it reflects the community.’’

There is also a growing number of gay and lesbian couples, like Bartley and Norris, who say the neighborhood additions - such as Centre Street’s newly opened Boomerangs, a resale shop that gives proceeds to the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts - have underscored its accepting atmosphere.

“AIDS Action in West Roxbury.’’ said Norris. “Who would have thunk?’’

Recently, gays and lesbians held a political fund-raiser for Tobin - the first gay and lesbian political fund-raiser ever in West Roxbury, Tobin said.

To be sure, old West Roxbury pokes out here and there. Centre Street is dotted with storefronts like Anna’s Hand Cut Donuts, famed for its chocolate glazed. A house’s location is often described by the its parish. A lifetime spent in West Roxbury is not uncommon; nor is a family that has been there for generations. The elderly are still well represented, making up some 20 percent of the population compared with Boston’s 10 percent. But as assisted living facilities have opened, seniors have moved from their longtime homes, freeing up properties that have been bought by newcomers.

For some, the changes have come too fast and furious.

“It’s just not like it was when we were growing up,’’ said Maura Shurtleff on a recent afternoon as she sat on the stoop of the house where she was raised and where she and her husband live with their children. “It makes me feel cautious.’’

But many say that even among newcomers, a sense of traditionalism pervades - a settled quality that breeds a kind of contentedness. The at-rest mentality has helped Manny Sifnugel cultivate loyal customers - residents who do not desert his restaurant’s tuna ceviche and Argentine steak and yucca fries in favor of newer hot spots.

“People in West Roxbury are not chasing anything anymore,’’ said Sifnugel, who opened Masona Grill after closing his Clarendon Grill in the South End.’’ Once they get here, they’ve got what they want.’’

By Sarah Schweitzer for Boston Globe

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

NEIGHBORHOODS: Kendall Square As A Home

Kendall Square has developed into a vibrant neighborhood with a farmers market, where people shopped 

Ijad Madisch is thrilled with his new neighborhood. It has restaurants, a riverside walkway, a skating rink, even a farmers market. He enjoys getting together with neighbors to barbecue, watch a movie, or just hang out.

But Madisch doesn’t live in the suburbs or even an established residential section of the city; he’s at home in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, best known as one of the nation’s prime biotechnology and research centers.

“Most of my friends live in Harvard Square and downtown Boston,’’ said Madisch, a 28-year-old entrepreneur. “But I love it.’’

For him and an increasing number of other people - mostly academics and young professionals - Kendall Square is becoming a place to live and play, as well as work.

In February, Madisch moved from Hannover, Germany, to become one of the first residents in an upscale 482-unit development called Third Square. He can walk to the offices of his start-up, - a professional network site for scientists - as well as to his job across the nearby Charles River at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Since 2006, more than 1,700 residential units have been built in and around Kendall Square, making it Cambridge’s fastest-growing residential area - albeit an expensive one - according to city officials. In addition to its glittering business towers, the area has long boasted access to public transportation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But in recent years it has been filling a noticeable gap by adding homes to the mix, mostly in luxury high rises where rents can soar above $4,000.

Across the street from Third Square, MIT professor Lawrence Susskind, 62, has watched a high-tech mecca blossom into a bona fide neighborhood. Weary of his commute from the western suburbs, Susskind moved into the luxury 23-story, 230- unit Watermark Cambridge building shortly after it opened in 2006. The 10-minute walk to work was key to Susskind’s housing choice, but he also likes the area’s burgeoning character.

“There’s lots of graduate students with little children. You get on the elevator and there are 10 languages,’’ he said. “It feels like a real place.’’

Tim Rowe, president of the newly formed Kendall Square Association, a community improvement group, said a place that was once a residential wasteland after work is showing signs of life around the clock.

“You can now walk through these well-lit areas where people actually live,’’ said Rowe, who is also chief executive of the Cambridge Innovation Center, which provides office space to start-up companies. “It’s really transformed.’’

Beth Rubenstein, Cambridge’s assistant city manager for community development, said Kendall Square’s residential growth has been “dramatic’’ in recent years, based on the number of new housing units, although there are no up-to-date population figures.

As more people choose to live in the square, a growing number of restaurants and other businesses are catering to their needs. For instance, the Hungry Mother restaurant is open until 12:30 a.m., and The Friendly Toast, which opened in late May, already has a line of customers for breakfast on weekends. Two new restaurants are expected to open on the first floor of the Watermark early next year, said Alex Twining, chief executive of Twining Properties, which owns the Watermark.

Last weekend, neighborhood residents gained a new way to access the Charles River, thanks to Charles River Canoe & Kayak, a rental company that opened at a boat dock off Third Street, at the foot of the Watermark building. The dock is adjacent to a waterfront walkway that opened in July, and a park that will be completed this month. Nearby on Athenaeum Street, an outdoor skating rink will open for its third year this fall, and a local farmers market just completed its third season.

All of this doesn’t mean Kendall comes close to rivaling the vibrancy of some of Cambridge’s better-known - and more eclectic - squares, like Central, Inman, and Harvard. With most of the new residential units considered upscale, many people who might want to move to the area can’t afford the rents, limiting its potential for diversity. To encourage diversity and provide opportunity, all new developments in Cambridge must have 15 percent of their units designated as affordable.

Then there is the problem of putting food on the table; Kendall Square still lacks a grocery store.

“We are working to make it more vibrant and interesting around the clock,’’ Rubenstein said. “The residential projects are quite new. We expect in the wake of those you’ll see more restaurants, coffee shops, and dry cleaners.’’

The effort to create a 24-hour environment in Kendall Square has been underway since the early 1960s when technology companies began to bloom, attracted by MIT and Harvard University, according to Robert Simha, an MIT professor and former director of planning for the school. Over the last 10 years, the city began to change zoning laws to mandate residential construction, he said.

In February, Cambridge approved zoning changes to allow California-based Alexandria Real Estate Equities to build a 12.6-acre biotech park that will include up to 1.5 million square feet of commercial and lab space, 220,000 square feet of housing, and a minimum of 20,000 square feet of retail, the city said.

“They were strongly encouraged to include housing and retail to ensure this will be a vibrant 24-hour neighborhood,’’ said Rubenstein. “The idea is not to have it become a traditional office park that is quiet at night.’’

Despite the buzz of activity, however, the area has not been immune to the recession. Twining Properties has delayed plans to build a hotel, Twining said, and Third Square’s developers turned a portion of the property into high-end apartments after an unsuccessful attempt to market them as condominiums.

Still, new resident Michael Reich is confident the area will develop more. Drawn to the area because of available start-up office space, Reich, 34, a Harvard Business School student and entrepreneur, said he is content in his home at the Watermark, which features a Zen garden and dramatic views of Boston.

Like Third Square, the Watermark’s pleasures come at a hefty price. Rents in the building range from about $2,000 to more than $4,000.

“I wouldn’t move away from here,’’ Reich said. “If you have to drive for grocery shopping it’s worth it.’’

Jenifer McKim for the Boston Globe

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

HOME MAINTENANCE: Freeze-Proof Your Pipes

As winter temperatures go down, the risk of a frozen pipe goes up. Pipes can freeze in homes of any age and condition, and no matter what type of material your pipes are made from. So don't make the mistake of thinking that because your house is new it's safe, or because your house is older the materials are somehow stronger. The only way to prevent a frozen pipe is to keep it warm, and luckily that's not too hard to do.

Pipes are vulnerable any time they're in a location where they're exposed to low-enough temperatures for long-enough periods that the water inside them can freeze. Once the freezing occurs, the water expands, rupturing the pipe, splitting the seam between the pipe and a fitting, or damaging components such as cartridges inside faucets. Once the pipes warm up and the ice melts again, the damage becomes evident -- often in the form of a flood inside the house!

Although a frozen pipe can occur just about anywhere, pipes in unheated attics and underfloor basements and crawl spaces are at the most risk. And ironically, the better you insulate the ceiling and the floor, the more you put pipes in those areas at risk. Heat that had been escaping from the house into those areas used to be keeping the pipes warm, so when you add insulation and stop heat loss from the house, the attic, basement and crawl space become colder, and pipes are more vulnerable.

Keep the water pipes insulated

Any water pipes that are not buried in your underfloor, wall or attic insulation need to be insulated. The easiest method for the do-it-yourselfer is to use a foam sleeve, which is pretty much like slipping a bun over a hot dog. The sleeves are actually long foam tubes, and are available with different interior diameters to fit different pipe sizes. The tubes are slit along one side, so installation is simply a matter of opening up the slit and fitting the tube over the pipe.

Monday, January 18, 2010

INSURANCE: Homeowner Insurance 102 - Condos

Condo homeowner’s insurance is a little different than insurance bought by the sole owner of a single or multifamily house. When you buy a condo, there is already insurance in place that you are, basically, stuck with. You sign onto the existing policy. After you buy, you can discuss changing it with your co-owners.

Condo insurance is not standard. You will need to talk to the insurance agent who is handling the current policy. The insurance may cover only the common areas “to the studs” of your unit. The insurance may cover your unit. The insurance may have liability that covers you sufficiently; maybe not. You need to know!

I recommend that you get any additional coverage from the same company. You do not want to have a loss where the inside and outside of your unit are damaged and the insurance companies are passing the buck.

The insurance agent will still need to send a binder to the closing attorney. However, with a condo, you don’t need to buy a year’s worth of insurance ahead, since the policy is in place. You just need to pay for any additional insurance your lender requires or you want, set to start in your name and your lender’s name on closing day. Then at closing, you will pay the seller back for insurance he/she/they have already paid for.

Some of my clients switch companies as soon as they can get their co-owners to OK it. Some are happy with the insurance that is in place. Like so many things in a condo, any change has to be discussed. Therein lies the problem for some. Anyone had ongoing discontent with homeowner’s insurance that they were stuck with because of their condo association.

Other sticky problems include co-owners that are doing things that are no-nos for the insurance company, like having a trampoline in the yard or an undisclosed pool. Remember that in a condo, your liability it their liability and vice versa. As Attorney Vetstein wrote, liability can be a tricky thing when it gets to the courts.

Do you feel sufficient covered in your condo insurance? Have you had a condo co-owner who made your fear for your liability?

By Rona Fishman for Boston Real Estate Now

Sunday, January 17, 2010

INSURANCE: Homeowner's Insurance 101

This is addressed to anyone who is looking to buy insurance for the first time:

Since your lender will own a large part of your home until you pay off your mortgage, they have a legitimate right to require that you to keep it insured. Homeowner’s insurance that the lender wants to see covers the physical house against damage. They are allowed to ask for “replacement costs” of the property; so, that is what they ask for.

Now that you are about to own, you need to look in the mirror and ask yourself how much additional coverage you want. The additional insurance that most people want is a rider to cover personal items in the event of theft, fire or water damage. (This is similar to “tenant insurance” that some buy while renting.) What’s new for renters-turned-owners is the liability coverage. Insurance is there to cover damages if someone is hurt on the property. There is also insurance which covers damage caused by equipment breakdown and insurance to cover mold and fungus damage. Two-family homeowners can insure against income loss if the rental is damaged. The chances of someone being hurt are, thankfully, pretty small. So are the chances of your boiler blowing up. But, you need to choose what risks you want to take.

That’s the insurance, what about finding an agent?

If you have a good relationship with the insurance agent who provides your car, life, business or other insurance needs, be sure to call him or her about homeowner’s insurance. If you are displeased with your current insurer, then find someone else to cover all your insurance needs. No matter who you ultimately choose, call several insurance brokers before signing up for a policy. Homeowner's insurance is not standardized, so rates vary by hundreds of dollars per year.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

LOCAL NEWS: Sale of office-retail complex may signal a market turnaround

An office-and-retail complex near Longwood Medical Area will be the first major property in Boston to be offered for sale this year, and brokers predict it will mark the beginning of a turnaround in commercial real estate after two straight years of sharply declining sales.

The owners of One Brigham Circle will begin soliciting bids for the 200,000-square-foot complex within days, an executive handling the marketing said.

Beyond being the first such sale of the new year, One Brigham is also one of only a few major properties put up for sale in recent months. The slow economy has virtually paralyzed the commercial real estate market.

But many specialists expect that to change this year, with investors looking for opportunities to spend the huge sums of money they stockpiled to buy properties following the downturn.

“When good assets are placed on the market right now, they are getting more attention than they’ve ever had,’’ said Robert Griffin, who is handling the sale of One Brigham for Cushman & Wakefield, a real estate services firm. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.’’

The pent-up demand is a result of the scarcity of buildings available for sale, which specialists say is causing more investors to bid on the few properties that are on the market.

In 2009, 12 commercial buildings changed hands in Boston, 92 percent fewer than at the height of the market in 2007, when 149 buildings were sold, according to the real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle.

Real estate specialists had expected the commercial property market to be in a more advanced stage of recovery by now. But with so few transactions to serve as a basis for comparing sales, buyers and sellers cannot agree on property prices; that, in turn, creates more uncertainty and even paralysis.

Another factor is the banking industry. Big institutions, already suffering from huge losses on residential mortgages and other loans, are saddled with nonperforming loans to owners and investors in commercial real estate. But given their precarious condition, the banks have not moved to foreclose on these loans because the resulting write-downs would further weaken their balance sheets.

That has meant fewer distressed properties being brought to market.

Many specialists expect that to change this year as banks and other lenders rebound and are able to foreclose on these loans, take the losses, and put the properties involved up for sale.

In most cases, an increasing number of foreclosures is seen as a bad sign economically, but in commercial real estate it can help fuel a recovery by bringing properties to a market hungry for buying opportunities.

“Those buyers will begin to get assets at very attractive prices,’’ said Scott Jamieson, managing director of capital markets for Jones Lang LaSalle.

Jamieson predicted there will also be more sales of desirable properties, such as One Brigham Circle, although not at reduced prices.

Located in a busy plaza across Huntington Avenue from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, One Brigham was built six years ago and is 98 percent leased. Tenants include Partners HealthCare, Bank of America, and Stop & Shop. Real estate specialists said they expect bids of $90 million or more.

“This sale is going to be watched very closely,’’ Griffin said. “There is an inordinate amount of cash out there right now to buy commercial real estate.’’

By Casey Ross for Boston Globe, January 6, 2010

Friday, January 15, 2010

NEWS: Energy-Efficiency Incentives Lauded

Home improvement chains and companies that make insulation are cheering federal proposals to give consumers incentives for making energy-efficient improvements to their homes.

But some Inland residents and business owners are reserving judgment until they hear the final details on what has been nicknamed “Cash for Caulkers.” Provisions are still being worked out by the White House and Congress.

Like last year’s “Cash for Clunkers,” which sparked auto sales in the fall with rebates up to $4,500 per vehicle, proponents say the home improvement incentives will help create and save jobs, as well as reduce energy usage and dependence on foreign oil.

In one proposal being considered in the U.S. House, about $20 billion from last year’s approved $787 billion stimulus package would go toward home improvement incentives—possibly ranging from $1,000 to more than $3,000. Supporters say about 5 million homes could be retrofitted, saving owners a total of more than $3 billion annually on energy bills.

Still to be decided is whether incentives take the form of rebates, coupons, tax breaks or a combination. Qualified projects would likely include installing insulation, sealing leaks and updating heating and air conditioning systems.

Already on the way is a national appliance rebate program, starting in March in California, which will give incentives, ranging from $50 to $100, for purchases of energy-efficient refrigerators, dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers.

Both of the energy-oriented programs, whose funding comes from last year’s economic recovery package, are expected to boost sales of eco-friendly products, though to what degree is yet to be seen.

Home improvement chains including Home Depot and Lowe’s, builder groups such as the California Contractor Exchange, and insulation makers including Dow Chemical have recently applauded plans for “Cash for Caulkers.” It is also backed by organizations advocating for low-income consumers, including the National Housing Conference.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

NEWS: Pending Home Sales Down from Surge but Higher than a Year Ago

Contract activity for pending home sales fell after a surge of activity in preceding months to beat the original deadline for the first-time home buyer tax credit but remains comfortably above a year ago, according to the National Association of Realtors®.

The Pending Home Sales Index,* a forward-looking indicator based on contracts signed in November, fell 16.0 percent to 96.0 from an upwardly revised 114.3 in October, but is 15.5 percent higher than November 2008 when it was 83.1.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said a drop was expected. “It will be at least early spring before we see notable gains in sales activity as home buyers respond to the recently extended and expanded tax credit,” he said. “The fact that pending home sales are comfortably above year-ago levels shows the market has gained sufficient momentum on its own. We expect another surge in the spring as more home buyers take advantage of affordable housing conditions before the tax credit expires.”

Buyers who have a contract in place to purchase a primary residence by April 30, 2010, have until June 30, 2010, to finalize the transaction to qualify for the tax credit of up to $8,000 for first-time buyers and $6,500 for repeat buyers.
 The PHSI in the Northeast dropped 25.7 percent to 74.4 in November but is 14.7 percent above a year ago. In the Midwest the index fell 25.7 percent to 82.0 but is 9.2 percent higher than November 2008. Pending home sales in the South fell 15.0 percent to an index of 97.8, but are 14.7 percent higher than a year ago. In the West the index declined 2.7 percent to 124.6 but is 21.4 percent above November 2008.
 Yun projects an additional 900,000 first-time buyers will qualify for the extended tax credit in addition to about 2 million who have already purchased; 1.5 million repeat buyers also are expected to benefit from the credit.

“Many trade-up buyers, who have historically timed their purchase based on school-year considerations, will have to accelerate their buying plans if they need the tax credit to make a trade,” Yun said. Repeat buyers do not have to sell their existing home to qualify for the credit, but they must occupy the home they buy as their primary residence.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

TERMITES: How To Protect Your Home

Termites can occur anywhere and are pretty common in the Northeast. This video will show you how they get into a home and how to guard against it. (WARNING: the footage is not for the squeamish)

Monday, January 11, 2010


Learn about the home styles in your market and beyond. Our Residential Styles guide includes illustrations, photographs, and detailed descriptions about popular styles. Plus, use our Home Features guide to learn about architectural elements such as dormers, roofs, and arches that make a property distinct.


Neoclassical homes exist in incarnations from one-story cottages to multilevel manses.

A forerunner of the craftsman style, you'll find rustic exteriors and sheltered-feeling interiors.

Cape Cod
A true classic, Cape Cod homes have gabled roofs and unornamented fronts. .

An offshoot of the Cape Cod style, it features a rectangular design and second-floor bedrooms.

Queen Anne
Emerging in the Victorian era, the style features inventive floor plans and decorative chimneys.

Unmistakably modern, this style has odd-sized windows and little ornamentation.

Ranch homes are set apart by pitched-roof construction, built-in garages, and picture windows.

Full- or partial-width porches are framed by tapered columns and overhanging eaves.

The style borrows the Georgian's classic lines, yet eschews ornamentation.

Dutch Colonial

German settlers originated this style, which features a broad, barn-like roof.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

REMODELING: Cost VS Resale Value Part II

Working with sellers who have some—but not unlimited—cash for upgrades? Here are budget-minded enhancements you can suggest to make their home stand out.

1. Tidy up kitchen cabinets.

"Potential buyers do open kitchen cabinets and look inside," says Morrissey. "Home owners can add rollout organizing trays so when buyers peek in, they feel like there’s lots of room for their stuff."

2. Add or replace tile.

"By retiling very inexpensively, you make a room look way cleaner that it was," says Javier Zuluaga, owner of Home Repairs and Remodeling LLC in Tempe, Ariz. "Every city has stores that offer $1 to $2 tile, so home owners have to pay only for the low-cost tile and labor to replace a dated backsplash or add a new one. We also use inexpensive tile to upgrade bathrooms."

3. Add a breakfast bar.

When a wall separates a kitchen from a family room, suggest cutting out an opening to create a breakfast bar. "In one home, there was a cutout in the wall between the kitchen and living room," explains Matthew Quinn, a sales associate at Quinn’s Realty & Estate Services in Falls Church, Va., who handles estate and real estate sales for family members whose loved ones have passed away. "We left the structure of the cutout, added an oversized granite breakfast bar, and put chairs in front of it. That cost about $600."

4. Install granite tile instead of a slab.

"Everybody is hot for granite kitchen countertops, but that can be a $5,000 upgrade," says John Wilder, a general contractor and owner of Fence and Deck Doctor in New Castle, Ind. "Instead, home owners can put in 12-inch granite tiles for about $300 in materials and get very high impact for little money."

5. Freshen up a bathroom without retiling.

"With a dated bathroom, I recommend putting in a new medicine cabinet for $100 to $150, light fixtures for about $100, a faucet for $50 to $75, and a vanity for $200 to $300," says Wilder. "And instead of replacing the tile, the existing grout can be lightly scraped and regrouted, which leaves a haze that can be buffed out and will make the tile look brand new. Also install glass shower doors. A French door adds a lot of panache and elegance for $250, and people will notice the door, not the tile. With all that, you’ve done a bathroom remodel for $1,000 to $2,000."

6. Freshen up the basement.

"If home owners have cement block or poured concrete walls in the basement, suggest they have a contractor fill in cracks with hydraulic cement and then paint with waterproofing paint," recommends Wilder. "They can then add a top coat to add color. They can also paint the basement floor with a good floor paint, which spiffs it up. The basement may not be finished, but it’s no longer a damp dungeon."