Sunday, February 28, 2010

LOCAL NEWS: Tax credit gives boost to home sales

The housing market north of Boston is on an upswing, real estate agents say, but it’s not time to strike up a chorus of “Happy Days Are Here Again’’ just yet.

“We’re seeing a lot of activity. The buyers are out there,’’ said Mary Holmes, an agent with Century 21 Heritage Realty and president of the Greater Newburyport Association of Realtors.

“I think we’re through the worst,’’ said Richard Tisei, an agent with Northrup Associates and president of the Eastern Middlesex Association of Realtors. “Houses that are priced correctly sell. We’ve had instances of multiple offers.’’

December sales in Essex County were up 4 percent from a year earlier, and up 2.5 percent in Middlesex County; statewide, the change was 3 percent. Many if not most of those buyers are taking advantage of the government’s $8,000 first-time home-buyer’s tax credit, now scheduled to end April 30 after a November deadline was extended, and a $6,500 incentive available to some others.

“That’s generated a very positive feeling,’’ Holmes said. “In fact, inventory is starting to get low. Back in October, we had 135 single-family homes on the market in the Newburyport area . . . and now we have 87.’’ For condos, there were 279 on the market in October, down to 207 at the end of January, Holmes said.

Most of the upswing seems to be in the less expensive homes, too, from $200,000 to $400,000, agents say, which supports the idea that first-time-buyer tax credits are powering much of the business. “On the high end, there’s not a lot of buyers,’’ said Bert Beaulieu, another Northrup agent, who is president of the North Shore Association of Realtors.

Median prices remain on the downswing in many communities. Newburyport saw a jump in single-family sales from 10 in December 2008 to 17 in December 2009, but also saw the median price drop nearly 20 percent, from $447,500 to $360,000, according to the Warren Group, a Boston real estate publisher. Measured year to year, the drop was still 12 percent.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

NEWS NOTE: Loan delinquencies up

The percentage of homeowners late with mortgage payments hit another record during the last three months of 2009, and the pace at which they fell behind took a turn for the worse, a new report says.

For the fourth quarter, 6.89 percent of mortgage payments were 60 or more days past due, according to credit reporting agency TransUnion. That’s up from 4.58 percent in the final three months of 2008.

The previous record delinquency rate was 6.25 percent in the third quarter of 2009.

The latest report marked the 12th consecutive quarter - equal to three full years - that delinquency rates have risen from the previous year.

More worrisome was that the quarter-to-quarter trend swung higher after declining in each of the previous three quarters.

Associated Press February 17, 2010

Friday, February 26, 2010

NEWS: Mall giant bids $10B for bankrupt rival, Faneuil Hall lease

Faneuil Hall merchants, who have not always been happy with how the Boston shopping mecca has been managed, expressed concern about a possible change in control. Simon Property Group, the mall giant with 14 Massachusetts properties, launched a $10 billion hostile bid for General Growth Properties, the bankrupt operator of Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

“The shop owners are worried that any new owner understand Faneuil Hall’s vision and why it was given a generous 99-year lease,” said Carol Troxell of the Faneuil Hall Merchants Association.

Troxell, who runs several food shops including Maggie’s Sweets, said the long-term lease was meant to provide a home for small, local entrepreneurs in New England. But Faneuil Hall has been flooded with national chains.

Last year, after Chicago-based General Growth filed for bankruptcy, the merchants created “Friends of Faneuil Hall” and started raising money in a bid to take control of the operation. Troxell said yesterday that the group now has $30 million in pledges.

The city of Boston, which owns the property and leases Faneuil Hall Marketplace’s three retail buildings, has criticized General Growth’s maintenance record.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

JUST FOR FUN: A Brief History

A 2100 page-long flipbook by art student Jamie Bell containing a brief history of pretty much everything.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

BOSTON HOUSING NEWS: For sale, but not for long

Demand is up, supply is down, and time is short for hopeful Mass. home buyers seeking tax credit

Karen Daly headed out Sunday to tour a renovated Natick house, confident she would be one of the few home hunters on a cold afternoon during which people were prepping for Super Bowl parties.

But when Daly arrived at the three-bedroom, $449,000 Cape, she found herself among a half-dozen other disappointed prospective buyers who learned that the seller had already accepted an offer. It wasn’t Daly’s first real estate letdown. Last month, she bid more than $20,000 above the asking price for a house in Framingham -- and lost out.

“If you are a buyer, you have to be very decisive, you can’t hesitate,’’ said Daly, 55, who sold her house in two days last summer and has been renting in Newton. “You are looking at very low inventory and very steep competition.’’

After years of waiting on the real estate sidelines, many are ready to buy a home, hoping to take advantage of depressed prices, low interest rates, and a federal tax credit that expires this summer. But many would-be buyers are facing unexpected concerns: not enough homes for sale and high demand for many that are available. Properties below $600,000 are hardest to find, and the most desirable of those, in good condition and reasonably priced, are generating multiple bids within days of going on the market, real estate agents and buyers say.

Unlike other parts of the country, Massachusetts did not overbuild during the housing boom. While sales have been on the increase since July, the number of single-family homes on the market fell to 21,743 in December, marking 21 consecutive months of inventory decline compared with the same month a year before, according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. December’s figure was a nine-year low for the month.

“You have a fairly perfect storm, increased demand and decreased supply,’’ said Alex Coon, a Boston manager for Redfin, an online real estate brokerage. “You can find people out there who are getting frustrated.’’

The buying intensity is a shock to people who have been hearing for years about the Massachusetts housing slump. Home values have dropped by about 15.6 percent since 2005, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Prices Indices.

Lily Robles and her husband, Mike Brink, were stunned when their offer on a $469,000 ranch in West Roxbury last week was trumped by a buyer willing to pay more than the asking price on the first day it was shown. “It is kind of crazy that you don’t have even one day to think about it,’’ said Robles. “It was supposed to be a buyer’s market.’’

For years, real estate agents have tried to convince prospective buyers to sign deals rather than wait to see if prices slide even lower. But now that many buyers seem to be gaining confidence in the market, sellers are in short supply. That’s because homeowners who don’t need to move are waiting for the market to turn and drive up prices.

Monday, February 22, 2010

BUYING: As New Home Sales See Renewed Activity,Buyer “Wish Lists” Shrink in Size, But Not Quality

Emerging from the economic slowdown that began in 2007, the new home construction sales market in the Northeast has turned a corner. Although signs of stabilization vary widely by region, and even by town, there are clear signals that the rate of decline has largely leveled out and is paralleling the turnaround in existing home sales.

In Connecticut, for example, 2009 building permits should settle in the 3,000 range by year’s end. While still far short of the more than 11,000 permits issued in 2005 or the 7,746 permits issued in 2007, the slowdown may have reached its end.

High Levels of Affordability Drive Home Sales

The good news for buyers is that housing affordability is currently at one of the highest levels that we’ve seen in nearly 20 years, driven by attractive mortgage rates and adjusted home values. New levels of affordability are motivating buyers to re-enter the housing market so they can take advantage of unusually low pricing levels throughout much of the Northeast.

Sales data in some areas confirms that buyers are indeed becoming more active. The number of existing home sales in Massachusetts that were pending (or put under agreement), for example, was up 27% in October 2009 for the fifth month in a row, compared to October 2008. And both single family home sales and condominium sales were up 17% in October from a year ago, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors reported. Massachusetts realtors attribute the spike in sales, which has been more apparent at the lower price ranges, to the $8,000 federal tax credit available to first-time homebuyers.

A similar trend is apparent in neighboring Connecticut, where sales of single-family homes and condominiums rose by 11.5% and 10%, respectively, in October.

The $8,000 federal tax credit has been extended through June 2010 and the income limits for eligible homebuyers has been raised, enabling a greater number of buyers to quality for the credit. We believe that the extension of the first time homebuyers’ tax credit will continue to help drive buying activity, as will the new $6,500 tax credit for step-up buyers who wish to trade up. (“Step-up” buyers are those who have owned and occupied a residence for at least five of the past eight years.)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

JUST FOR FUN: A Digital Playground

A digital playground:

Vanishing Point from Bonsajo on Vimeo.

Vanishing Point from Bonsajo on Vimeo.

HOME MAINTENANCE: Essential Heating System Maintenance

Getting your home’s heating system professionally serviced every year will keep it running smoothly and help keep heating costs under control.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is usually a good rule—except when it comes to your heating system. Even if it’s humming along just fine, having a technician take it apart once a year to clean the lines and filters and give it a thorough inspection is absolutely essential. Regular servicing reduces the risk of breakdowns and prolongs the unit’s life. Plus, it saves you money: For every year of maintenance you skip, energy bills jump 5% to 10% because of reduced efficiency. Here’s the lowdown on heating system maintenance.

Who does the job?
The simplest way to get the work done is to hire your fuel company to do it. Oil companies and gas utilities usually provide this service, or you can hire the contractor who installed the equipment. Also, some plumbers handle heating systems.

What is involved?
The technician will clean soot and corrosion out of the combustion chamber where the fuel is burned, and check it for leaks or damage. He’ll inspect the flue pipe for open seams, clogs, or corrosion that could cause carbon monoxide to backdraft into the house. He’ll replace the filters on oil and forced-air systems. Finally, he’ll test the exhaust from your cleaned machine and use the information to adjust the burner for maximum efficiency.

How much will it cost?
You’ll pay between $100 and $180 for the service, depending largely on whether you have a gas system, which is easier to maintain, or oil, which requires a fair amount of soot removal. Usually the cost is covered by an annual maintenance contract that also provides 24-hour emergency service. While the technician is there, he should also service your water heater, assuming it has a separate oil or gas burner.

When is the best time to do the work?
Ideally, have your system tuned up in the fall so it’s in top shape for the start of the heating season. Of course, that’s when technicians are the busiest, so if you can’t do it when you want, do it when you can—as long as your system is serviced once a year. And don’t expect your provider to call to remind you that it’s time. Even if you subscribe to an annual service plan, you still need to call to make an appointment. Call in the spring or summer to be sure of getting on the schedule in the fall.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

MORTGAGE: William Raveis Mortgage Now Has Conventional Financing 97% Loan To Value Ratio Loans

William Raveis Mortgage is re-introducing conventional mortgage insurance to 97% loan-to-value. This non-FHA program enables us to qualify those buyers who have minimal down payment, and it expands the underwriting criteria which will enable us to finance a larger pool of buyers. William Raveis Mortgage is one of the only lenders in the country who has access to this product.

Rolling this program out is an honor that comes in tandem with our ranking in the top 1% of all FHA lenders in the country.

SELLING YOUR HOME: Home Staging Tips

Home Staging Tips

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Most Popular Real Estate Web Site


HOME ORGANIZING: Organization is more than just appearances

Having a place for everything isn’t just about aesthetics. Being unorganized, especially with bills, can create extra work and subject you to late fees. The following strategies will help you bring order to your paperwork.

Create a command center. Ideally, this area - a desk or another dedicated workspace - should encompass an ample surface, a computer, in-boxes for unpaid bills, files for long-term storage, a paper shredder, and office supplies. Other essentials include a comfortable chair and an appealing setting, because if you don’t want to sit there, chances are you won’t want to work there.

Navigating bills
There are two phases of dealing with bills: paying and storing. If you’re able to submit payment the moment you receive a bill, the first isn’t an issue. But, most people must coordinate due dates with their paychecks. The most straightforward approach is to label two in-boxes with the dates of upcoming paychecks (for example, the 1st and 15th). As soon as you open a bill, put it in the appropriate box.

To keep track of bills after they’ve been paid, store them in file boxes or accordion file folders, organized by month rather than by type of bill.


The essentials of an organized desk include a filing cabinet, paper shredder, in-boxes for unpaid bills, and a bulletin board. (Kate Mathis)                      
Reducing receipts
Many people don’t know which receipts they should keep so they hold on to all of them. You can, however, get rid of many of these receipts immediately, rather than stuffing them into your purse, wallet, or desk drawer. Think about which receipts you really need to keep. If you find you always eventually toss receipts for everyday, non-tax-deductible items such as groceries, get in the habit of throwing them away immediately. Save the ones you need to hold on to - for items you may want to return, appliances, medical expenses, and home improvements - in a separate accordion file, also organized by month. To minimize paper clutter, scan your receipts and save them digitally (see “Going Paperless,’’ below).

Saving selectively
The beauty of a 12-month system is that at the end of the year, you can mark the year on the file, and place it on a shelf.

Monday, February 15, 2010

GREEN BUILDING: How ‘green’ is their valley?

A UMass exhibit explores sustainable architecture

Meg Vickery wants to dispel the notion that you have to be a “tree-hugging, granola person’’ to invest in green, environmentally sound architecture.

“Green houses can be really attractive and exciting,’’ said Vickery, curator of “Greening the Valley: Sustainable Architecture in the Pioneer Valley,’’ a new exhibition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s University Gallery. “You can incorporate green elements into existing Colonial- and Cape-style houses. I wanted to show people that green is accessible, that down the street is an architect who can help you make your home more sustainable.’’

Vickery, an Amherst resident and architectural historian, dreamed up the idea for the exhibit two years ago, inspired by a spate of architectural projects around the Pioneer Valley.

“Sustainability has really come to the forefront with abundant examples here,’’ she said. I wanted to spread the news about intelligent, elegant examples of green design in our local communities.’’

University Gallery director Loretta Yarlow jumped at Vickery’s proposal to curate the exhibition, which opens next Wednesday and continues through May 9. “We have this remarkable blossoming of green architectural projects in our community,’’ Yarlow said, “and the urgency of these issues is more timely than ever.’’

The exhibit showcases sustainable structures, ranging from large-scale university and commercial buildings to private residences and low-income housing designed by locally and nationally recognized architects. Highlighted with photographs, videos, models, and virtual tours, the projects feature natural and recycled materials and finishes and incorporate green elements such as geothermal heating and cooling, tight insulation systems, low-wattage lighting, green roofs, and water-saving devices.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

LOCAL NEWS: With spotlight on quakes, region looks at risks

Building fixes and education are key, seismologists say

WESTON - In a one-story brick building built on bedrock, John E. Ebel monitors the size and heft of small earthquakes that rattle parts of New England every year.

For three decades, the Boston College professor and seismologist has recorded quakes around the region, sticking red pins into a large map that displays tremor clusters from Maine to Rhode Island. He distributes the information to a network of seismologists worldwide and worries, always, about what could happen if a damaging earthquake strikes New England.

“We definitely have the potential,’’ said Ebel, 56, director of Boston College’s Weston Observatory, a geophysical research laboratory. “We don’t know when the next earthquake will strike.’’

The earthquake that devastated Haiti Jan. 12 has provided Ebel the spotlight to tell anyone who will listen that such an event - although rare - could also hit this part of the United States. He’s part of a growing group of researchers, emergency management specialists, and structural engineers readying for such a local catastrophe and debating how much realistically can be done to reduce risks.

Like Ebel, they wonder what a substantial jolt would do to the region’s many old brick buildings - including schools and fire stations - which were not built to modern seismic codes and, in many cases, are sited on old landfills that amplify ground vibrations.

“A small shake is fine. If there is anything of serious seismic intensity in the range of 6.0 or higher on the Richter scale, we’ll have havoc around here,’’ said structural engineer Mysore Ravindra, president of LeMessurier Consultants in Cambridge.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

JUST FOR FUN: Her Morning Elegance by Oren Lavie

REMODELING: Window trim: from boring to bold

3 basic themes, dozens of possibilities

If you look closely at homes with beautiful windows, you'll typically find one thing in common: wood trim. No matter what the style of the window is or what material it's made out of, a painted or stained wood surround enhances the beauty of the window far more than the inexpensive "drywall wrap" that's common on a lot of today's homes.

Creating wooden surrounds for your windows is enjoyable, fairly inexpensive, and can be done by anyone with a few finish carpentry skills. And you can do one or two windows at a time, which is a lot less invasive to your home life than a lot of remodeling projects.

First, a couple of definitions

In the world of finish carpentry, there are a couple of terms that are helpful to know:

Window surround: A window surround consists of the four pieces that wrap the inside of the window frame, between the face of the window and the face of the wall.
Stool and apron: A window stool is the same as a window sill. It's the horizontal board at the bottom of the window surround. The trim board beneath the stool, which covers the joint between the bottom of the stool and the face of the wall, is the apron.
Drywall wrap: A type of surround in which all four sides of the surround are done with drywall instead of wood.

Three ways to trim the window
There are basically three options for how you can trim out a window with wood. The simplest is to wrap the two sides and top of the window surround with drywall, and then install a stool and apron at the bottom. The drywall pieces are installed first and finished, prior to installation of the stool. If you already have drywall-wrapped windows, all you need to do is remove the bottom piece of drywall from the surround, to expose the rough framing underneath.

The stool is cut from finish-grade lumber. You can use oak, maple, fir or other clear grades of wood if the wood is to be stained. If you'll be painting the stool, consider poplar or medium-density fiberboard (MDF), both of which paint out very nicely. The stool is typically ripped to a width that's 1 inch wider than the distance from the face of the window to the face of the wall, and 1 inch longer than the distance between the two side pieces of the surround.

Friday, February 12, 2010

LOCAL NEWS: Hanover Mall auctioned for $37m

Lenders for the beleaguered Hanover Mall in Hanover bought back the property yesterday at a foreclosure auction for about $37 million.

There were multiple bidders competing for the enclosed mall and free-standing buildings located on the property, according to Jeffrey Mann, a senior vice president at auctioneers Paul E. Saperstein Co.

The auction notice indicates the roughly 700,000-square-foot regional mall is about 93 percent occupied with anchor tenants including Sears, Macy’s, and Wal-Mart. Mall manager Ed Callahan did not return calls seeking comment.

In December, another regional shopping center, Westgate Mall in Brockton, was sold back to its lenders for about $51 million at a foreclosure auction.

By Jenn Abelson for Boston Globe February 5, 2010

Thursday, February 11, 2010

TAXES: Tax Deductions for Vacation Homes

A vacation home offers a break from the daily grind, but it can also offer a break from taxes. The IRS allows most owners to lower taxable income by taking tax deductions for vacation homes. What’s deductible depends on a number of factors, especially how often you visit and whether you allow renters.

Don’t limit your notion of a vacation home to a beach cottage or a mountain cabin. Even RVs and boats can count, as long as there are sleeping, cooking, and bathroom facilities. Tax deductions for vacation homes are complex, so consult a tax adviser.

Is your vacation home a vacation home?
If you bought your vacation home exclusively for personal enjoyment, you can generally deduct your mortgage interest and real estate taxes, as you would on a primary residence. Use Schedule A to take the deductions.

The IRS even allows you to rent out your vacation home for up to 14 days a year without paying taxes on the rental income. You might be able to deduct any uninsured casualty losses too, though you can’t write off rental-related expenses. (More on those below.) If the home is rented for more than 14 days, you must claim the income.

Now, if you own what you consider a vacation home but never visit it, or only rent it out, other tax rules apply. Without personal use the home is considered an investment or rental property by the IRS. Time spent checking in on a house or making repairs doesn’t count as personal use.

Tax deductions for rental owners
As an exclusive rental property, you can deduct numerous expenses including taxes, insurance, mortgage interest, utilities, housekeeping, and repairs. Even towels and sheets are deductible. Use Schedule E. You can also write off depreciation, the value lost due to the wear and tear a home experiences over time.

Treat the rental property like a business, says Mark Steber, chief tax officer at Jackson Hewitt Tax Services. Keep detailed records and maintain a separate checking account. Figure you’ll spend a couple of hours a week, on average, over the course of the year managing the property.

To maximize deductions you need to be actively involved in the rental property. That means performing such duties as approving new tenants and coming up with rental terms. You also need to own at least 10% of the property. See IRS Publication 527 for details.

If your adjusted gross income is $100,000 or less you can deduct from your taxable income up to $25,000 in rental losses—that is, the difference between your rental income and your rental expenses. The deduction gradually phases out between an AGI of $100,000 and $150,000. You may be able to carry forward excess losses to future years, or use losses to offset taxable gains when you sell.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

JUST FOR FUN: I Gotta Feeling

COMMUNITY ORGANIZING: Stop Drivers From Speeding in Your Neighborhood

Afraid to let your children play outside because of the drivers who barrel down your block? Take action by exploring traffic calming tactics that’ll keep your street from becoming a speedway for rushing commuters and harried deliverymen. Communities across the nation have been able to affect change by installing everything from raised speed humps to traffic circles designed to slow speeders. All it takes to get started is a bit of grass-roots organizing.

Begin by doing some consensus-building among neighbors. A united front can go a long way in getting the attention of the local government officials who you’ll need on your side. Just don’t expect change to happen overnight. Depending where you live and how quickly the wheels of bureaucracy turn, you could be facing a wait of six to 12 months, or more. In some jurisdictions, you may even need to dip into your bank account to help pay for traffic calming measures.

Get your campaign started
Rallying fellow residents around your stop-speeders cause is critical. A petition is a good to start. Get signatures from as many people on your street as you can. In Abilene, Texas, for example, a written request to city officials for a speed hump must come from at least five residents; 70% of the homeowners on the street must ultimately sign off on the measure. Make sure your neighbors understand that the process is a long one that can include a financial commitment.

Procedures vary by state or even community, but in general the next step is to contact the local director of traffic or transportation. If you live in a private community, reach out to your homeowners association first. Try to do legwork beforehand by writing down the dates and times you typically see speeders. Send a detailed letter outlining the problem to your HOA board or transportation director. Copy your elected officials on the letter as well.

Once the transportation director is notified, a survey is usually undertaken to determine whether a speeding problem exists. If it does, officials will develop a traffic calming plan. Public meetings may be held, so make sure to attend. Affected residents may be polled to confirm support of the plan. Once approved, the plan is implemented. In some cities, like Tuscon, Ariz., residents foot all or part of the bill. A speed hump can cost $1,500 or more.

Speed humps are tip of the iceberg
Traffic calming devices come in all shapes and sizes. The most recognized are speed humps

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

GREENING YOUR HOME: Green Cleaning Products for the Kitchen

Some of the most eco-friendly kitchen cleaners may already be in your pantry. Going green in the kitchen doesn’t mean going broke as long as you choose the right green cleaning products for your countertops and appliances.

From meat juices to milk spills, the kitchen can be a messy place. But don’t reach for caustic cleaners or synthetic air sprays to give your countertops and appliances a fresher feeling. Many green cleaning products are just as effective at sanitizing your kitchen as conventional cleaners, and they get the job done without relying on harmful chemicals.

Not too long ago you had to scour the backroads of the Internet to find non-toxic alternatives, but no more: Many green cleaning products are now available at mainstream retailers. Looks for brands such as Method, Seventh Generation, and Holy Cow. What’s more, some of the greenest of green kitchen cleaners can probably already be found in your pantry—and cost a fraction of what you’d pay for commercial cleaners, whether conventional or eco-friendly.

Toss out those anti-microbial wipes and sprays when you’re cleaning your countertops. Most contain chemicals like sodium hypochlorite (bleach) or ammonium chlorides, which are listed as hazardous to the health of humans and pets by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says Gary Pien, an allergist and immunologist with Summit Medical Group in Berkeley Heights, N.J. “These chemicals can cause eye and skin irritation on contact, and if mixed with other cleaning products, can release toxic gases,” Pien says.

Combine equal parts vinegar and tap water to make your own non-toxic mix. Warm it in a glass bowl in the microwave to boost cleaning power. A 64-ounce bottle of food-grade vinegar costs about $4, so it’ll set you back a buck to stir up a 32-ounce batch of homemade countertop cleaner. You won’t have to dip too far into your pocketbook to buy a greener all-purpose cleaner. A 32-ounce bottle of Seventh Generation’s kitchen cleaner costs about $5, while the same size conventional cleaner costs about $4.50.

If you have a stainless steel fridge, add a few drops of a natural dishwashing liquid such as Mrs. Meyer’s ($4.49 for 16 ounces) or Method ($4 for 25 ounces) to warm water to wipe off greasy fingerprints instead of shelling out the $7-$10 a store-bought stainless cleaner will cost. And when you’re wiping, remember stainless steel has a grain, just like wood, and you need to clean in the same direction it runs, says Mary Findley, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Green Cleaning.”

On the inside, use the tried-and-true remedy for foul fridge smells: a box of baking soda. It costs about $1. Save even more by buying baking soda in bulk: a 12-pound bag costs about $7. For sticky spills, a vinegar and water mix should clean it right up, Findley says.

Sinks & drains
Liquid dishwashing soaps with bio-based ingredients like aloe and essential oils are a good

Monday, February 8, 2010

JUST FOR FUN: Western Spaghetti by PES


THE GOODS A sprawling urbane suburb mostly organized around walk-to commercial districts, Brookline has long been a bastion of good homes, good schools, good eats, and lively politics. Its retail heart is Coolidge Corner, where the sidewalks are crowded with shoppers and browsers, and the auto traffic is intimidated into submission by fearless pedestrians. Small restaurants offer a variety of international cuisines, and the Coolidge Corner Theatre and Paperback Booksmith across Harvard Street from each other are anchors of the town's spirited cultural and intellectual life. Other districts, including Washington Square and Brookline Village, offer similar versions of eating options and unique retail operations. The schools are Brookline's pride and joy, closely followed by its sprinkling of parks, including a municipally owned golf course.


Median prices Single-family homes, $1,142,500; condominiums, $450,000

Residential tax rate $10.18

Average tax bill Single-family homes, $11,001

Choice location Larz Anderson Auto Museum. After going to a few car rallies here, the old sedan just won't feel the same.

Cocktail party nugget Founded in 1882, The Country Club was the first privately organized club of its kind in the United States.

SOURCES: Warren Group, Massachusetts Department of Revenue, Town of Brookline, The Country Club

PROS The housing stock is varied, and much of it of the bragging kind. Long stretches of Beacon Street and secondary roads are lined with elegant prewar low-rise apartment buildings with spacious units, many of which now form the basis of a vast condominium market. Neighborhoods such as Cottage Farm, Fisher Hill, and the old estate area south of Route 9 offer the kind of showstopper manses that only the captains of modern industry can afford. Even the more densely packed blocks in North Brookline and Brookline Village sport one pretty Victorian after another. South Brookline near the West Roxbury line has younger, simpler housing stock that offers entry-point homes. The town's close proximity to Boston and its reputation for very good schools helps support high property values.

CONS Buying here is neither for the faint of heart or wallet. Prices can be extremely high, and Brookline's proud support of municipal services translates into some pretty stiff tax bills, too. Much of the community is built out, and a general civic caution about new development means there isn't a lot of supply flooding the market.

JOHN ELLEMENT, © Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper

Sunday, February 7, 2010

FOR SALE: Mission Hill Condo at a Price You Can Afford

Mission Hill affordable condo for sale with income and asset guidelines. Call Roberta at 617-233-3448 for a full packet and an appointment to see this great unit.

BOSTON HOUSING NEWS: Pending home, condo sales up in Jan.

The number of Bay State single-family homes put under sales agreement in January was up 8 percent over the same time last year, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors said yesterday.

“January marks the seventh straight month that the number of both single-family homes and condominiums put under agreement had increased over the year before,’’ the association said.

The group said 2,791 single-family homes were put under agreement last month, up 8 percent from 2,576 homes in January 2009 and up 1.7 percent from 2,743 homes in December 2009. According to the realtors, pending sales provide reliable information about where the real estate market is heading in coming months, and January’s figures show that the local housing market continues to move in a positive direction

Boston Globe February 3, 2010.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

JUST FOR FUN: Strange Maps - Distilled Geography: Europe’s Alcohol Belts

From Strange Maps:

This map shows Europe dominated by three so-called ‘alcohol belts’, the northernmost one for distilled spirits, a middle one for beer and the southernmost one for wine. Each one’s existence and extension is determined by a mix of culture and agriculture.

NEWS: Home builder confidence drops

WASHINGTON - Confidence among US home builders unexpectedly dropped this month to the lowest level since June, a sign the housing recovery might stall in coming months.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo index of builder confidence decreased from 16 to 15 last month, the Washington-based group said yesterday. Readings below 50 mean most respondents view conditions as poor.

The report showed traffic slowed to a 10-month low, indicating the government’s extension and expansion of its first-time buyer program so far has not drawn new demand. A projected record 3 million foreclosures this year could also pressure prices, making it more difficult for homebuilders to turn a profit.

“Builders are still competing against the flood of foreclosures coming back to the market,’’ Russell Price, a senior economist at Ameriprise Financial in Detroit, said before the report.

The builder confidence index was forecast to increase to 17 this month, according to the median forecast of 45 economists. Projections ranged from 14 to 18. The index averaged 15 last year.

The builders index of single-family home sales fell from 16 in December to 15 in January.

The gauge of buyer traffic dropped from 13 to 12, the lowest level since March. A measure of sales expectations for the next six months held at 26.

“Factors beyond our control, including consumer concerns about job security and competition from foreclosed homes on the market, are still impeding demand for new homes at this time,’’ said Joe Robson, the group’s chairman and a builder from Tulsa.

All four regions showed a drop in sentiment, led by the West, which fell from 19 to 16. In the Northeast, confidence decreased from 23 to 22, in the Midwest it fell from 12 to 11 and from 17 to 16 in the South.

The confidence survey asks builders to characterize sales as “good,’’ “fair,’’ or “poor,’’ and to gauge prospective buyers’ traffic. It asks participants to gauge the outlook for the next six months.

By Bob willis for bloomberg News, January 20, 2010

Friday, February 5, 2010

NEWS: Year’s end lifts sales of condos in Boston. But for all of ’09, fewer sold in the downtown areas

Buyers increasingly jumped off the sidelines of the downtown Boston condominium market in the last months of 2009, pushing up sales and prices, according to data released yesterday.

2009 condo sales in BostonSales were up 20.4 percent during the fourth quarter, compared with the same period in 2008, according to Listing Information Network, a private company that tracks real estate data in downtown Boston.

Median selling prices also increased, by 4.2 percent, for the first fourth-quarter gain since 2006.

The data provide some long-awaited upbeat news in Boston’s downtown condo market. The financial crisis that started in late 2008 hit the luxury market especially hard, stalling sales and depressing prices.

Despite increased buying in the fourth quarter, though, sales for the entire year dropped by 16.5 percent, according to the listings network.

The luxury market, including full-service buildings with a concierge, fared worse, with sales dropping 35.3 percent in 2009 and median selling prices dropping about 11 percent.

While home prices statewide began to drop in 2005, prices in the downtown condo market kept climbing slowly through 2008 before falling 6.11 percent in 2009, according to the listing network. The number of sales had begun to slow earlier, in 2005, as buyers backed off and sellers chose to wait out the national housing downturn, rather than cut their prices.

Now, real estate agents say they are seeing a jump in interest as more prospective buyers become convinced that home values have hit bottom. In addition to taking advantage of low interest rates, many condo hunters hope to receive the federal tax credit for first-time buyers, which is scheduled to expire later this year.

“Consumer confidence levels have returned, and people are believing that perhaps now is the right time to buy,’’ said Joseph Laurano, director of operations for ResMark, a subsidiary of Berkeley Investments Inc., a Boston developer. “There might be a sentiment that the worst is behind us.’’

Thursday, February 4, 2010

NEWS: Foreclosures in state fall 25%

Analysts say figures are encouraging but warn crisis isn’t over

The number of foreclosures in Massachusetts dropped more than 25 percent last year compared with 2008, to 9,269 from 12,430, according to data released yesterday by Warren Group, a company that tracks local real estate.

But the state’s foreclosure crisis is far from over, many economists and housing advocates agree. Nearly 28,000 homeowners last year were slammed with foreclosure petitions, the first step in the process, representing a 28.1 percent jump from the year before, Warren Group said. That means more people had trouble making their mortgage payments.

In addition, a small but increasing number of foreclosed homes in affluent communities, including Concord, Winchester, and Weston, reflects how even some of the state’s highest-paid residents are becoming financially crippled because of the recession. Indeed, the costly island of Nantucket experienced the steepest percent increase in foreclosure deeds in Massachusetts - a 733 percent rise - from three in 2008 to 25 in 2009, according to Warren Group.

“The good news is that not as many homeowners lost their homes to foreclosure in 2009 as they did the prior year,’’ said Timothy M. Warren Jr., chief executive of Warren Group. “The bad news is that more people faced foreclosure, as they struggled with unemployment and other economic hardships.’’

Foreclosure data for December largely mirrored year-end statistics. The number of foreclosure petitions swelled to 2,060 during the month, a 26.8 percent increase from the same period in 2008. But the number of homes taken back by lenders in December - 857 - represented an 8.4 percent drop from the same month in 2008.

The decrease in foreclosure deeds, the final step in the process, is partly because of a Massachusetts Land Court decision last year that has prompted lenders to slow the process so they can clean up faulty paperwork. Others say lenders are increasingly helping distressed homeowners modify their loans to more affordable payments, even if it only postpones a foreclosure.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

NEWS: Turnaround On The Sales Front?

A spurt in home sales in 2009, aided by low interest rates and the first-time homebuyer tax credit, has led some economists to forecast a turnaround in the housing market this year. Other forecasters feel this is too optimistic a projection.

Among those who see improvement in the 2010 market is Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Yun hopes that the extension of the first-time homebuyer tax credit will provide a new pool of buyers to absorb the additional foreclosures that will hit the market this year.

He expects existing-home sales to rise 13.6 percent in 2010; home prices should go up 3 to 5 percent, with wide geographic differences. The average rate on 30-year fixed mortgages will range from 5.3 percent in the first quarter to 5.8 percent by year end. This forecast assumes there will be no major economic surprises. The weak job market remains a concern.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) has a slightly different take on the 2010 housing market. MBA predicts existing-home sales will increase approximately 11.2 percent. Interest rates should be about 5.6 percent by the end of 2010. The unemployment rate is expected to peak at 10.2 percent and gradually decline in 2011. National average home prices should stop sliding during the first part of the year and stabilize, depending on area and price range.

The November 2009 Economic and Housing Market Outlook from Freddie Mae expects there will be an increase in foreclosures and short sales this year, even though foreclosures declined significantly in some of the worst foreclosure markets (like Las Vegas) at the end of last year. RealtyTrac reported that foreclosures nationwide decreased 8 percent in November 2009.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

REMODELING & SAFETY: New deleading rules seen raising renovation time, costs

New rules for lead paint removal go into effect April 22, adding a bit more time and cost to some home renovations.

The Environmental Protection Agency will require all contractors be certified to take out lead paint. Previously, no certification was required and homeowners could “opt-out’’ of lead-safe practices if no children under 6 years old or pregnant women lived in the house.

The EPA estimates the new rules will add an hour to project cleanup and add just under $100 per job for most renovations. EPA estimates about 38 million homes and apartment units, or 40 percent of the housing stock, contain lead paint.

“It’s more protective for everyone: the residents, their children, and the workers,’’ said Maria Doa, the EPA’s director of national program chemicals division.

Lead paint is toxic for young children and can cause brain damage; behavioral, learning, and growth problems; hearing difficulties; and headaches. Adults aren’t immune either. They can suffer from reproductive problems, high blood pressure, nerve disorders, muscle pain, and memory problems.

Monday, February 1, 2010

NEWS: Massachusetts Home Sales Have First Yearly Rise Since ’04

Sales of single-family homes in Massachusetts rose 3 percent in 2009, marking the first year-over-year increase since 2004 and offering more evidence that the state’s housing market may be climbing back from its steep fall.

Prices also are showing signs of improvement, with the median home price in December at $295,000 - up 10.4 percent over the same month in 2008. It was the first year-to-year increase since September 2007, according to data released yesterday by Warren Group, a Boston company that tracks local real estate data.

“The trend is clearly upward and up very dramatically since the end of last year,’’ said Alan Clayton-Matthews, a professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University.

But housing industry specialists and economists said the positive numbers were probably sparked by an $8,000 home buyers’ tax credit and historically low interest rates, raising questions about whether the market will recede once those incentives go away.

The federal tax credit, which was expanded and extended last year, is scheduled to expire this summer, and the Federal Reserve plans to stop buying mortgage-backed securities - an effort designed to keep interest rates low - by the end of the first quarter.

“What happens if the housing finance market loses its life support?’’ said Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. “Will the government continue its substantial intervention in the spring and if not, is the recovery strong enough to be sustainable without government capital?’’

Even with the boost from the federal government, Massachusetts’ housing recovery is so far modest at best. Although median home prices increased in December, it was not enough to reverse a downward trend for the year. For all of 2009, median prices fell 6.6 percent to $285,000, compared with $305,000 in 2008, according to Warren Group. The annual decline, however, was less dramatic than the 11 percent drop in 2008 and the 10.6 percent tumble in 2007.

“The latter part of 2009 gave us some clear signs that the housing market is stabilizing and heading for a recovery,’’ said Timothy M. Warren Jr., chief executive of Warren Group, who predicted a year of increased sales and flat prices.

Last month, the number of home sales in Massachusetts increased 16.8 percent to 3,350, up from 2,868 during the same month in 2008, the sixth straight month of increases. Condominium sales surged by 28.9 percent in December, the fourth consecutive month of increases.

But for all of 2009, condo sales were off by 6.8 percent and prices fell 8.4 percent, to a median of $252,000 compared with $275,000 in 2008.

Adding to challenges facing the fragile housing market is the shortage of available homes for sale. Inventory of single-family homes was down 14 percent in December compared with the same period 2008, according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, which also released data yesterday. December marked the 21st straight month of inventory declines, compared with the same month the year before, the association said.

With fewer choices for buyers, homes sold faster in 2009 than they did the previous year. Single-family homes stayed on the market an average of 136 days last year compared with 144 days in 2008, the realtors’ association said.

“We need more homes on the market if we are to keep prices stable,’’ said Kevin Sears, co-owner of Sears Real Estate in Springfield and president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. The Boston-area market led the nation with its housing market collapse in 2005 and could be one of the first to recover, said Karl E. Case, cofounder of the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, a measure based on repeat home sales that is widely considered the best indicator of home values in the United States.

Case-Shiller, which also released data yesterday, showed Boston-area home values declined 0.5 percent in November compared with the month before. But values are still 5.6 percent higher than they were in March, when housing specialists believe the local market reached its bottom. Nationwide, home prices increased by 0.2 percent in November.

Case, a recently retired Wellesley College economics professor, said the extent of activity in the spring will indicate whether the market is truly on the mend.

“There are a lot of risks,’’ said Case. “If the spring market develops and expectations start to turn and people start coming out of the woodwork and rates stay down, you could see the market picking up on its own. It’s like breathing without a machine.’’

By Jenifer B. McKim for Boston Globe January 27, 2010