Tuesday, November 30, 2010

ENERGY EFFICIENT HOMES: Save Money with Energy-Efficient Window Coverings

Energy-efficient window coverings help reduce heating and cooling costs and may qualify for the federal energy tax credit.

Many of today’s window coverings are more than pretty—the shades, shutters, blinds, and films currently on the market offer homeowners a variety of sunning and shading options that make a room look nice while giving your heating and cooling bills an extremely green makeover.

Many energy-efficient window coverings have insulating values of R-2 to R-4, effectively doubling the insulating value of a standard, premium vinyl window with double-pane glass and a low-E coating. An average house featuring 15 windows outfitted with energy-efficient window coverings can achieve an annual energy savings of $150. Expect payback in about 15 years.

In addition to cutting energy costs, some window coverings qualify for the energy-efficiency tax credit. The tax credit offers a 30% rebate on the cost of the coverings, up to a $1,500 limit. The credit doesn’t apply to the cost of installation.

To qualify, download a certification statement from the manufacturer’s website. Note that not all window covering products qualify; you’ll have to research to find a manufacturer whose products qualify for the energy efficiency tax credit.

You won’t have to submit the statement with your tax return, but you’ll need it and a copy of the sales receipt for your records. File IRS Form 5695 with your tax return.

Honeycomb shades
If you’d like to combine privacy and energy efficiency, honeycomb shades are a good choice. These shades feature a layered design that traps air in individual cells. Because inert air is a poor conductor of heat, a honeycomb shade creates an effective temperature-transfer barrier between the window and the room.

Ann Werner, sales team supervisor for Houston-based Blinds.com, says a double-pleated honeycomb shade prevents energy loss as efficiently as a ⅛-inch sheet of rigid foam insulation. Most honeycomb shades have R-values between R-2 and R-5, although some manufacturers claim up to R-7.8.

The main drawback to most honeycombs and other energy-efficient shade systems is that when the shades are down and insulating your house, they’re also blocking light and preventing you from seeing out. One solution is to purchase translucent shades that let light in. But Werner cautions that if you go that route and turn on interior lights at night, the whole world will see the inside of your home as if you had no shades at all. She recommends using drapes to provide privacy when interior lights are on.

For a 3x5 window, a honeycomb shade costs $55-$250.

Plantation shutters
Plantation shutters are fitted to the interior side of a window, and usually are chosen for their aesthetic appeal. However, plantation shutters are also energy-efficient: The Smart Energy Alliance reports wood shutters offer R-values between 2.77 and 3.17.

Both wood and vinyl plantation shutters act as effective insulators, although wood is slightly better at resisting temperature conductivity. Because the shutters fit tightly in window frames, they also block the transfer of heat through air movement or convection, creating a barrier between outside temperatures and your home’s interior.

Purchase plantation-style shutters off the shelf, or custom-fitted. Expect to pay $165-$375 to fit a standard 3x5 window with off-the-shelf shutters. Double that price for custom work, such as fitting an arch-top window.

Homeowners usually think about drapes as interior decor statements. But Toni Prencipe Korby, a Centreville, Va., interior designer who specializes in window coverings, says the flowing fabric is a great option when you’re looking to up your energy-efficiency quotient.

Look for drapes with lining and interlining—blackout lining protects from summer sun and heat, while thermally lined drapes (which have interlining made of thick flannel or other heavy material) shut out the cold. Homeowners in climates that don’t often dip below freezing can skip the interlining and save a bit of money, since the drapes and lining alone should insulate effectively.

Like shades and shutters, draperies are only efficient when they’re closed. However, if they’re used in conjunction with another window covering, such as a honeycomb shade or a wood blind, you can let sun in during daylight hours and effectively shut out colder air at night. When fully closed, the R-values of thermally lined drapes range from R-3 to R-5, depending on the type of fabric and the thickness of the lining and interlining.

Monday, November 29, 2010

NEIGHBORHOODS: Does Walkability Raise Property Values?

Your property value will be higher if you live in a community where you can quickly and comfortably walk from your home to schools, parks, and stores, according to one study.

If you’re able to walk instead of drive to the store for a gallon of milk, you and your neighborhood home values may benefit from the exercise. A 2009 study sponsored by CEOs for Cities, a national consortium of civic and business leaders, found that homes in neighborhoods with good walkability are more valuable than similar homes in neighborhoods where residents have to drive to get to amenities.

Walkability raises home values
Walkability adds anywhere from $4,000 to $34,000 to home values, according to the study. The bigger, more urban the city (think San Francisco or Chicago), the bigger the boost in home prices walkability adds. Neighborhoods in cities with less dense populations like Tucson, Ariz., or Fresno, Calif., have the smallest boost in home prices from being walkable.

The availability of public transportation also played a role. The higher home values tended to show up in walkable neighborhoods near good public transportation where people could live without an automobile.

To reach that conclusion, the study looked at 94,000 real estate sales of comparable homes in 15 major markets. In 13 of those markets, the walkable neighborhoods had higher home values than further-out neighborhoods with similar homes.

Walkability: The closer, the better
The study also looked at home prices in relation to a neighborhood’s “Walk Score,” which measures how close the homes were to 13 amenities including restaurants, coffee shops, schools, parks, stores, and libraries. Homes within a quarter mile to one mile of the 13 amenities earned the highest walk scores and had the highest values compared with similar homes with lower walk scores.

The authors speculate that walking also has important social benefits—having a lot of people walking around signals that an area is safe, convenient, lively, and interesting.

Home buyers may also be putting a value on the time and money they’ll save by having nearby amenities, even if they drive the three blocks to have dinner at that nearby café, the authors say. It’s also possible that the serendipity of having a café nearby just adds value to your home. Maybe that $34,000 is based on the value of knowing that when you don’t feel like cooking dinner, the chef down the street does.

Sacha Cohen HouseLogic November 12, 2010

Read more: http://www.houselogic.com/articles/does-walkability-raise-property-values/#ixzz15eDyv4Cl

Sunday, November 28, 2010

SAFE NEIGHBORHOODS: How to Run a Great Neighborhood Watch Meeting

Not-to-be-missed neighborhood watch meetings draw more neighbors, boosting community morale and safety. Three ways to get more butts in the chairs at your next neighborhood watch meeting. Are your neighborhood watch meetings a little too same-old, same-old? Spice them up by inviting the police to visit, adding some party to the meeting mix, and luring powerful speakers.

Call the cops
Nothing beats a first-hand account of the crimes happening in your neighborhood. Get it by inviting the local police department to send its community outreach officer to your neighborhood watch meeting. The officer can share crime updates for your area and train everyone to use the weapons of choice—eyes, ears, and a phone—for the competent neighbor watcher. “Nothing is more hazardous to a criminal than a witness,” says Ted Cimino, a watch captain in Surprise, Ariz.

Why stop there? Tap the state police, sheriff, constables, district attorneys, and the local bar association for speakers, too.

Put the neighbor in neighborhood watch
You don’t want your neighbors to groan at the thought of going to some boring meeting after working all day. Keep your neighborhood watch meetings short (no longer than an hour), offer refreshments, and keep the discussion lively by getting people to honestly share opinions.

Controversy is interesting. So use meetings to air concerns. A Manassas, Va., watch group confronted police about a facility in their neighborhood that housed paroled sex offenders. “The police brought in their parole officer to show us how closely these people were being monitored, which put our minds at ease,” says Cindy Brookshire, a neighborhood watch captain in the area.

If your neighbors have a mix of different schedules, vary the times and days of your neighborhood watch meetings so that everyone gets a chance to attend.

Keep it spicy
It sounds simple, but the same old agenda will lead to dropouts. Pepper meetings with a variety of topics, speakers, and presentation tactics, like videos.

All watching and no fun makes for a tiresome neighborhood watch. Alternate formal meetings with casual block parties, potluck dinners, yard sales, or community clean-ups. Ask any local businesses that benefit from the neighborhood watch to donate food or door prizes.

Don’t get together too often. Some neighborhood watch advice suggests meeting only twice a year. But if your ‘hood is a big one, or you’ve got recurring problems, meet as often as it takes to keep everyone informed and get issues under control.

John Morell HouseLogic November 12, 2010

Saturday, November 27, 2010

LEGAL NEWS: Real estate attorney faces malpractice suit

Gertrude Banks, who lived in Washington, D.C., desired to take a loan out on a property she owned in New Jersey. She agreed in writing that she owed and would pay five relatives of her deceased husband $30,000 each out of the loan proceeds, according to court documents. None of the relatives lived in New Jersey.

New York attorney Jordan Kapchan handled the closing of the loan transaction, and also secured title insurance for the transaction from a New Jersey insurer.

Originally, Kapchan followed instructions to disburse $30,000 each to the five relatives, and cut checks to them, which were returned to him. With the returned checks, Kapchan received a letter from a woman named Vivian Prince, who claimed to be working on Banks' behalf, instructing him to cut a single check for $150,000 to Banks, which Kapchan did. Banks cashed that check, court documents state.

After closing, Banks defaulted on the loan and the lender commenced foreclosure proceedings. Her husband's relatives intervened in the foreclosure proceedings, claiming that Banks had defrauded them out of their interest in the property and not paid them their due. When the title insurer verified that the relatives had not been paid, the insurer paid each of the five relatives $30,000.

The title insurer, First American, then sued Kapchan in a New Jersey Superior Court for legal malpractice in not closing the transaction to professional standards and failing to disburse the funds in accordance with the HUD-1 settlement statement he prepared, which showed the $30,000 payments to each of the five relatives. Kapchan moved for the case to be dismissed, on grounds that the New Jersey court had no jurisdiction over him.

The trial court agreed with Kapchan and dismissed the case, finding that because Kapchan was a New York attorney and all the parties and funds involved were from states other than New Jersey, First American had not proven that Kapchan had sufficient contacts with the state of New Jersey for the New Jersey courts to gain jurisdiction.

First American appealed to the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court, which overturned the lower court's ruling. The Appellate Division clarified that First American was not claiming that Kapchan had sufficient contacts with New Jersey for the state to have general jurisdiction over him; rather, the title insurer argued that the specific loan transaction on a New Jersey property from which the matter arose endowed the New Jersey court with specific jurisdiction over Kapchan in connection with this transaction.

The court agreed with First American's rationale, holding that "the real estate itself provides a very tangible and central nexus between Kapchan, who prepared all or most of the transactional documents, including the HUD-1, and the State of New Jersey."

Additionally, Kapchan, by his own admission, acted as the closing agent for a New Jersey-based title company. As a result, it would not offend "traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice" for New Jersey courts to exercise jurisdiction over Kapchan in this specific situation. The trial court's ruling was reversed and the case sent back for further proceedings.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson Inman News November 10, 2010

Friday, November 26, 2010

LANDLORD INFORMATION: 5 need-to-knows for novice landlords; A guide to navigating tax breaks, maintenance, improvements.

It's an occasionally awkward fact of life in this American economy: Scores of people who never have been landlords suddenly find themselves in the position of collecting rent checks every month because they can't sell their homes and are installing tenants instead.

Then there are the owners of vacation properties who have turned their getaways into sources of income by renting them out.

The situation is sometimes awkward when both of the above categories of property owners find themselves running a business and struggling with the bookkeeping skills and the knowledge of tax-law basics the Internal Revenue Service expects, according to an expert on small-business tax considerations.

"Many novices fail to realize that when you put a place up for rent, you're in a business," according to Abe Schneier, senior manager in taxation with the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Washington, D.C. "You have to have a set of books and records that properly reflect your income and your expenses."

Five things for novice landlords to know about keeping their books in a way that will satisfy the IRS:

1. You really do have to keep books, period.

"You can't keep it on a scribble sheet," Schneier said. "When the IRS agent walks through the door, he's going to throw that back at you. It's not his job to do your bookkeeping."

But it doesn't have to be complicated, he said. "It can be as simple as using (an online spreadsheet system) or knowing how to keep a ledger sheet."

Whatever the system, it needs to be exactly that -- a system -- that readily separates income and expenses and clearly identifies and details entries in both categories. Plus, landlords have to retain and organize their receipts.

2. Deductibility can be a nifty thing -- maintenance, repairs and improvements that wouldn't be of any benefit (at least immediately) to the average homeowner can be write-offs for landlords, he said.

Examples of expenses incurred on properties that landlords can deduct from their income include: advertising, cleaning and maintenance, mortgage interest, insurance premiums, legal fees, utilities, property taxes and other costs.

The IRS also allows landlords to claim depreciation on their properties -- that is, that they "wear out" over the years, just as a manufacturer's equipment becomes used or is made obsolete over time. This can be a valuable deduction, but rules are complex. The government explains them at IRS.gov and in Publication 946, "How to Depreciate Property."

3. Landlords also can deduct the costs of traveling to their properties to collect rent or to perform work on them -- but only to a point, Schneier said.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

BUYING A HOME: Why you need a Buyer Agent; cutting costs could backfire

Today's buyers often don't feel flush financially and are looking for ways to cut costs. Shopping interest rates is one way. Buying below their means is another.

Some buyers try to make their home purchase more affordable by submitting an offer through the listing broker. This way the broker receives the entire commission at closing.

The brokerage fee, or commission, is usually paid by the seller to the listing broker. Typically, the listing is submitted to the multiple listing service where the listing broker discloses the fee that will be paid at closing to the broker that represents the buyer.

Suppose the commission is 6 percent of the sale price and the listing broker offers 3 percent of the sale price to the buyer's broker. If the buyers have their own broker, the listing broker receives 3 percent of the sale price.

A buyer who uses the listing broker to make an offer could make it conditioned on the broker reducing the seller's commission by 1 or 2 percent in return for not having to pay any of the commission to another broker. This would mean the seller could sell for a lower price since he'll be paying a lower commission.

Although this may sound like a good strategy, there are reasons why it may not be a good idea. Most states have agency disclosure laws that require real estate professionals to give their buyers disclosures that explain the different types of agency relationships.

If one broker represents the buyer and another the seller, this is single-agency representation. In this case, the broker owes a fiduciary duty to the client, which is the same relationship an attorney establishes with clients. A key part of a fiduciary relationship is that the broker owes loyalty to the client. In a single-agency relationship, the agent is the client's advocate.

When one broker represents both buyer and seller, it creates a split-loyalty relationship, which is referred to as dual agency. Dual agency is illegal in many states. In states like California that allow dual agency, it's legal only if both buyers and sellers agree to it in writing.

In some states, like Colorado, agents can work as transaction agents who don't have a fiduciary relationship with either buyer or seller; they can't advocate or negotiate for either party -- they simply facilitate the transaction.

HOUSE HUNTING TIP: A home purchase is one of the biggest transactions most people make. Even in states where dual agency is legal, ask yourself whether it's more important to have your own representative who will put your best interest above all others involved in the transaction, or save a few thousand dollars on the purchase.

That's not to say that all dual-agency transactions end in disaster. But there are limitations on what agents can do for the respective parties when they are representing both as a dual agent. They can't negotiate on either client's behalf. They become a conduit of information between the buyer and seller, which is not the same as working with an agent who represents you exclusively.

Most real estate agents aren't brokers, but work under the umbrella of a brokerage firm. Many brokers choose to work for other brokers rather than work on their own. Two agents that work for one brokerage firm, even if they work in different offices or counties, become dual agents when one represents the buyer and one represents the seller in a home purchase.

So, even though there are two agents involved, it's a split-loyalty situation and is legal only if agreed to in writing by both buyer and seller.

THE CLOSING: If two agents are involved in a dual-agency transaction, usually there's less likelihood that your confidential communications with your agent will be communicated to the seller.

Dian Hymer Inman News November 8, 2010

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Being green made easy

Book Review
Title: "Shift Your Habit: Easy Ways to Save Money, Simplify Your Life and Save the Planet"
Author: Elizabeth Rogers, with Colleen Howell
Publisher: Three Rivers Press, March 2010; 288 pages; $14

In my personal life (which, by the way, has about 80 percent overlap with my business life), I'm making a constant effort to evolve into a greener and greener life. I used to call myself "light green," meaning I drove my big old luxury SUV down the street to Whole Foods, all by my lonesome and on a regular basis.

If I had options, I'd choose the green one -- as long as it was no less convenient than the guzzly, "regular" way. Over the last few years, though, I've just started to, uh, give more of a crap about our planet. And I've found that oftentimes the green way to do things has turned out to be less costly as well. Bonus!

So, it was a surprise to me when, during a recent conversation about implementing some additional green living features in my home, a colleague exclaimed that he never bothered trying to green his home because it was just too expensive. What a difference a perspective-shift makes.

I was planning on building a recycling center and a compost area -- at negligible cost for the green and organizational upsides. He assumed that unless you were installing $20,000 worth of new dual-paned windows, you were out of luck in terms of greening your home.

Clearly, Elizabeth Rogers' new book, "Shift Your Habit: Easy Ways to Save Money, Simplify Your Life and Save the Planet," is overdue! Not only does it come just in time for my colleague, but also just in time for the many Americans who are currently undergoing perspective, mindset and habit shifts toward both economical and ecological conservation and sustainability.

In "Shift Your Habit," Rogers not only offers recommendations to readers -- she actually took them on the road, and worked with families coast to coast to implement at least 15 of what she calls "Super Shifts" per family, to provide case studies and reality-based money-savings estimates throughout the book. She defines these Super Shifts as "easy to incorporate," "universally relevant changes that would ... provide instant environmental and economic impact."

Exhibiting just how powerful she believes the Super Shifts are, Rogers sticks them right at the beginning of the book -- a powerful two-page numbered list of easy little tweaks to living, along with how much a household can save by making the change. Water filter on the tap -- almost $900 per year in bottled water savings. Yep -- meaty money savings, with a side order of do-goodism.

Outside of the "Meet the Shifters" features in each chapter, where Rogers tells the story of a family who implemented 15 of her Shifts, "Shift Your Habit" reads primarily as a collection of lists -- lists of well-organized small changes that save money and energy or water, reuse or eliminate waste or otherwise implement green values.

Beginning with Home and Garden, Rogers offers tips around lighting, space and water conditioning (heating and cooling), cleaning and tips for every room of the home -- from kitchen to bedrooms. She also offers useful charts illustrating the savings that can be had from various efficient appliances and recipes for homemade, organic cleaning products, before moving to exterior landscaping, pool area efficiencies and edible gardening. All told, Rogers estimates her shifts can save a household nearly $6,000 per year -- nothing to sneeze at.

From there, Rogers forays into green, money-saving strategies for eating and drinking both at home and in restaurants. My favorite: the section on extending the life of produce and other perishable foods. Savings? Over $9,000 for an average family, according to Rogers! Next? Kids and Pets -- Rogers educates readers as to how they can conserve cash and energy, while still feeding, clothing, educating and entertaining their children of all ages, furry and otherwise.

"Shift Your Habit" then covers how those who live green at home can live those values out at work, where they actually spend more of their time. From work to play, the book then shifts its attention to Electronics and Entertainment; Health, Beauty and Fashion; Transportation and Travel and Holidays and Celebrations. Throughout, Rogers offers helpful charts, tips, lists, savings estimates and anecdotes from her "shifter" families.

If you've been operating under the impression that living green requires a massive up-front investment of either time or money, "Shift Your Habit" is the perfect way to correct that misunderstanding and do your part for the earth and your own finances, at little or no cost.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson Inman News Nobember 8, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

ARCHITECTURE: A window into 'glass box' flaws. For occupants, form fails function test

In 1913, Walter Gropius completed an unusual shoe-last factory in the sleepy German town of Alfeld-an-der-Leine, and ever since, architects have been obsessed with building glass boxes. Alfeld is where glass-wall architecture quite literally turned the corner, dematerializing what had always been the most solid part of a building into ethereal lightness.

Gropius's factory wasn't the first glass box, of course. Long before came London's vast Crystal Palace, built at Hyde Park for the Great Exposition of 1851. Its designer, Joseph Paxton, was a landscape gardener already known for his innovative cast-iron framed conservatories.

With the exposition short on time, Paxton ingeniously conceived the 990,000-square-foot building as a gigantic prefabricated greenhouse.

Thereafter, others used glass in innovative ways. But it was Gropius who showed architects just how much fun they could have with it. Alas, the real brilliance of his design -- its elegant juxtaposition of solid mass and transparent membrane -- was lost on the many who simply declared glass the quintessential modern material and began using it by reflex.

The postwar era brought many more famous glass boxes. In Chicago, there was Mies van der Rohe's Lake Shore Drive Apartments of 1949, and nearby his Farnsworth House of 1951. There was Philip Johnson's own glass house of 1949 in New Canaan, Conn.

Glass boxes took commercial architecture by storm with two New York office towers, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's Lever House (1952) and Mies's Seagram Building (1958). Thereafter, it became the accepted norm that a modern high-rise building should be sheathed in glass.

The trouble is that, as much as architects adore glass boxes, they simply don't work as buildings. There are many subtle reasons -- privacy, maintenance, people throwing stones -- but the most obvious one is the sun, which rather unavoidably warms up our world in the daytime and lets it cool off at night. This makes it impossible to comfortably live or work in a glass box without having to pump in or out huge amounts of energy in the form of heating or cooling.

Ancient cultures, who lacked our modern expedient of mechanical air conditioning, had the good sense to design and orient buildings in passive synergy with the sun -- a basic intelligence that many of today's architects seem to lack. Flying in the face of the green movement, they remain obsessed with building glass boxes. What's more, computer-aided design has actually made the problem worse: Slick digital renderings of buildings with acres of sparkling glass invariably look stunning in renderings, where they're forever immune from the exactions of actual use. For eventual occupants, however, the reality is quite different.

Not far from my office is a civic building recently designed by a prominent modernist firm. It's yet another iteration of the tired glass-box formula, devoid of any architectural response to solar orientation or practical comfort.

The predictable result: On the south face of the building, hapless employees tape newspapers to the windows to avoid being broiled at their desks, while on the north side, which faces the street, they do the same to avoid being displayed like dummies in a shop window.

Modernism may claim the phrase "form follows function," but for any kind of life beyond the vegetal, the typical modernist glass box is the least functional form possible.

Arroll Gelner Inman News November 7, 2010

Sunday, November 21, 2010

LOCAL HOUSING NEWS: Archdiocese behind push on housing

The Archdiocese of Boston has made the north-of-Boston region a focus of its efforts to develop low- and moderate-income housing.

The Planning Office for Urban Affairs, the development arm of the archdiocese, recently completed the $20 million conversion of a former factory building in downtown Haverhill to 57 rental apartments, all but five of them affordable, and three commercial units.

The nonprofit also recently broke ground on an $8.3 million project to develop 41 units of affordable senior housing behind the Saint Theresa of Lisieux Parish, in Billerica.

The completion of the Haverhill development, Hayes at Railroad Square, and the start of the Billerica project, Rose Hill Manor, were the subject of separate recent ceremonies attended by Cardinal Sean O’Malley.

The Planning Office, meanwhile, received approval from the Salem Planning Board in September for a $20 million project to develop 76 mixed-income housing units, retail space, and a community center on the site of the former St. Joseph’s Church on Lafayette Street. Lisa Alberghini, president of the Planning Office, said the group intends to break ground next spring, provided it se cures needed state financing.

And last year, the Planning Office completed work on a 40-unit senior housing development in Lowell that it built for the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa adjacent to an independent-living facility and a nursing home that is also run by that group.

“Our objective on behalf of the archdiocese is to bring our social justice work to all regions of the archdiocese,’’ Alberghini said.

“We’ve focused on the North Shore to try to increase the affordable housing in that region, and it’s a deliberate strategy,’’ she said.

Financed through state and federal grants, loans, and tax credits, and a bank loan, the Haverhill project brought back to productive use an old factory building that has been largely idle for about half a century.

Alberghini said the 52 affordable units include 33 priced for households earning up to 60 percent of area median income, and 19 for those earning up to 80 percent.

Depending on market conditions, the 19 units may be converted to homeownership units after five years.

Haverhill officials say the project contributes to an ongoing revitalization of the downtown that the city sought to promote through adoption in 2006 of a smart-growth zone that encouraged residential and mixed-used development.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

LOCAL NEWS: Builders flocking to city parcels in Chelsea

A real estate firm, the Development and Marketing Group, is proposing to locate a 100-to-120-room national chain hotel adjacent to the Wyndham Boston Chelsea hotel in Chelsea’s Everett Avenue urban renewal district.

A Boston-based firm, Synergy Investment and Development, meanwhile, last month broke ground on One Webster, a $20 million project to build 120 units of market-rate rental housing and 5,000 square feet of retail on the site of two former industrial buildings at the corner of Eastern and Webster avenues.

And Boston-based Transdel Corp. is proposing to build 238 units of market-rate rental housing in the Everett Avenue urban renewal district, with plans for eventually constructing a comparable number of rental units in a future second phase.

Amid the gloom of a stagnant economy, developers are continuing to find opportunities to build in Chelsea.

“Chelsea’s proximity to Boston and Logan Airport and the track record of success we’ve had has meant that while projects are tougher to do because of the economy, they are still getting done,’’ said Jay Ash, city manager.

In other recent activity, AJ Wright, the Framingham-based clothing retailer, on Oct. 28 officially opened a new store on the former site of Market Basket within the Mystic Mall shopping center. The opening follows Market Basket’s opening last year of a 138,000-square-foot store — the largest grocery store in New England — on a different site within the center.

This past July, Mitchell Properties opened Atlas Lofts, a development of 53 loft-style apartments in a converted mill complex on Gerrish Avenue within the city’s emerging Box District.

Also opening over the past two years were Parkside Commons, a 248-unit rental development built on Stockton Street, and Jefferson at Admiral’s Hill, a 160-unit waterfront rental development on Commandants Way.

Chelsea-based Development Management Group recently reached a land-disposition agreement with the city’s Economic Development Board to purchase three former industrial properties within the urban renewal district and build a hotel there. The board oversees development within the 60-acre district. The Development Management Group is working with another firm, Chelsea Gateway Properties, on the project.

A new hotel would fit with the city’s strategy create a “hospitality node’’ within the urban renewal district “that travelers out of state would recognize as a place to stay when they are visiting Boston,’’ Ash said. He said the city believes the Wyndham would actually gain from a competitor hotel since “hotels can benefit by being identified as’’ part of a cluster.

Friday, November 19, 2010

MARKET TRENDS: Foreclosures rise in suburbs, rural areas. Latest wave of troubled loans blamed on job loss.

For the first time, more home foreclosures are taking place in the state’s suburban and rural communities than in long-troubled cities, according to a new study by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership.

The shift, which has occurred over the last year, shows that a persistently high unemployment rate and the stagnant economy have become major drivers of bank seizures in Massachusetts, the study found. That contrasts with the wave of foreclosures that first swept cities in 2007, a crisis largely sparked by high-interest mortgage loans, high-risk borrowers, and plummeting property values.

“What we are seeing is the long-term trend away from the inner city areas,’’ said Tim H. Davis, author of the report by the housing partnership, a public nonprofit group that works to promote affordable housing. “Subprime lending was the primary and early cause of lending problems and foreclosures in the urban areas. In the more suburban areas it is much more likely to be tied to unemployment and the general economy.’’

The study found that as of Oct. 1, Boston and 24 “gateway’’ communities including Worcester and Springfield, accounted for 49 percent of the state’s housing units either going through the foreclosure process or already seized by a bank — down from 54 percent a year ago. Gateway communities are defined as urban areas whose residents have lower than average incomes and education levels, the report said.

But now, the majority of distressed or bank-owned properties are located throughout scores of the state’s outlying communities. For instance, the rural towns of Winchendon, Ashburnham, and Athol have some of highest concentrations of foreclosures in the state, according to the report.

“This problem is affecting more than just the lowest income communities,’’ said Barry Bluestone, dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, who called the increase in foreclosures outside the state’s cities “dramatic.’’

Thursday, November 18, 2010

JUST FOR FUN: Breathtaking Grace

This performance - part dance, part acrobatics, part athleticism - gets more and more impressive. Somehow it makes a gym feel poignant:

LOCAL NEWS: Mass. housing market sagging. Analysts expect a slow recovery; Cite tight credit and joblessness.

Don’t expect the Massachusetts housing market to make a broad recovery anytime soon.

Home sales this fall are certain to be well below last year, analysts said, and the expiration of home buyers’ tax credits now leaves the market on its own to face the formidable headwinds of high unemployment and tight credit.

Although economists see another real estate crash as unlikely, the outlook remains distinctly unimpressive. Like the overall economy, housing is generally forecast to recover only gradually and unevenly through the middle of next year.

“We’re in the choppy bottom, improving, but at a slow pace,’’ said Rick Loughlin, president of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage New England, which has 70 offices in Massachusetts. “The real key issues are jobs and consumer confidence; when jobs come back, you’ll see more of a recovery in housing.’’

Home sales have plunged since June, when most of the purchases driven by tax credits closed, and most real estate agents expect them to remain below year-ago levels for several months.

The tax credits — up to $8,000 for home buyers — expired in the spring. Until then, they had sped up home sales, encouraging buyers to act.

Now, those buyers are out of the market, and even record-low mortgage rates have been unable to entice enough new buyers to replace them. At Fairway Independent Mortgage in Needham, for example, business is booming, but it’s nearly all refinancing, said branch manager Amy Tierce.

Of 100 loans slated to close this month, only eight are for home purchases; the rest are for refinancing, she said.

Meanwhile, home prices have stabilized. In August, the most recent month available, Greater Boston prices rose 1.5 percent, the ninth consecutive month of year-over-year increases, according to Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller Index, a widely respected measure of the housing market.

Single-family home sales from July to September fell more than 20 percent from the same period a year ago, according to Warren Group, a Boston real estate tracking firm.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

NEIGHBORHOODS: Downtown Crossing effort hits $1m snag. Big properties reject improvement group fees.

Some of the largest property owners in Boston’s Downtown Crossing are refusing to help fund a new organization created to improve the downtrodden shopping district, erasing about 25 percent of its budget for stepped-up maintenance, aesthetic upgrades, and public festivals.

The organization, known as a business improvement district, was approved by the City Council in August after dozens of business owners asked for permission to join together and pay extra taxes to help revitalize their neighborhood.

While more than 80 percent of the area’s property owners have signed onto the effort, the few holdouts own many of Downtown Crossing’s largest buildings and were expected to provide about $1 million in annual funding. Instead, they have notified the city that they will not participate, punching a large hole in the budget and angering Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

“It’s a little selfish,’’ said Menino, who has made revitalizing the historic shop ping district one of his top priorities. “To me, it’s not being a good neighbor.’’

The property owners declining to participate include Equity Office Properties, which owns five large buildings in the neighborhood, and Tishman Speyer, the New York real estate giant that owns One Federal Street, one of the area’s tallest office towers. Also refusing to join are three McDonald’s restaurants in the district and entrepreneur Steve Belkin, who owns an office building at 133 Federal St. and previously proposed construction of a 1,000-foot tower there.

Their refusals highlight a major snag in the effort to create the city’s first improvement district and to replicate it in other neighborhoods around the city. Unlike other states with such organizations, Massachusetts allows businesses within the district to opt out of paying the fees to support it. While those firms can still benefit from the improvements the organization provides, they do not have to share the financial burden.

“We’re the only state that does it this way,’’ said Rosemarie Sansone, executive director of the Downtown Crossing Partnership, a business association that has been organizing the effort. “I don’t think it’s fair that some people can opt out and others still meet their obligations and take responsibility for providing these resources.’’

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

MARKET TRENDS: Moving where the jobs are can be tricky. Housing crisis disrupts the way nation migrates.

Moving can be one of the most stressful events in life, although it can also be a great adventure. The option may seem especially tempting today, as some regions have much brighter job prospects than others amid the overall employment slump.

Indeed.com, a job search engine, compiles a list of the most and least competitive job markets. Out of 50 metropolitan areas, the ones with the fewest unemployed people per job posting are Washington; San Jose, Calif.; Baltimore; New York; and Boston. The areas with the worst job prospects are Miami; Los Angeles and Riverside, Calif.; Detroit; and Las Vegas.

But unemployed people in Miami can’t always just pack their bags for Washington. Even if they are willing to move for a job, many are unable to do so — especially if they are homeowners.

Relocation is down across the country because people simply can’t sell their homes, and employers are often unwilling to pick up the cost of a loss on a home, or even the moving expenses, said John A. Challenger, chief executive of Challenger Gray & Christmas, the outplacement firm.

In fact, the housing crisis has kept unemployment higher than it needs to be because it has curtailed the migration that helps keep the American economy strong, he said. People are also less trusting of companies today, he said — they are leery of taking a big step like moving when they are unsure how secure their new job will be.

As a result, he added, employers in certain industries are having a surprisingly hard time finding workers — for example, in the technology and engineering fields.

In the past, when men tended to be the sole breadwinners, it was much easier for a family to pick up stakes. Now a spouse’s or a partner’s job and job prospects make the moving equation much more complex. And, as always, there is the decision of whether to leave friends and relatives behind, and whether to wrench the children out of school and disrupt their social ties.

Challenger is seeing more people staying where they are — and commuting long distances. Some companies are mitigating this burden by allowing more telecommuting, he said.

More people are “living like a congressman,’’ said Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and author of “The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity.’’

Monday, November 15, 2010

HOME MAINTENANCE: A primer on exterior paint prep. Sanding, Safety, Aplication Tips

If you've let those exterior painting chores go all summer, now's the time to get to them. You don't want to leave any bare wood showing through fall and winter, where harsh weather can take their toll on siding and trim. Luckily this isn't too tough of a project, and if you get after it on Saturday morning, you'll be all wrapped up before the games start on Sunday.
The real key to getting that paint to blend in and stick is to prepare the surfaces correctly. That's going to take a little elbow grease and the right materials. But it'll keep you from having to do it again for several years.

First of all, you need to be sure that you've removed all of the old, peeling paint. It's obvious that since that layer of paint isn't stuck to the siding now, anything you put over it won't be stuck to the siding either.

You've got a couple of different options for removing the old paint. And quite honestly, none of them are particularly fun and exciting, but they have to be done. Try a few different methods, and see which one works best; you'll probably find that a combination of things is what does the trick:

•Hand scraping:  This can be done with a putty knife for very small areas, or with a paint scraper, of which there are several types available. Look for one that's comfortable in your hand, and that has reversible blades for more blade life. The ends of the blades should be rounded so they don't dig into the siding and gouge it.
•Sanding:  This can be done with a hand sanding block, or with an electric sander. Use an open-coat sandpaper, which won't clog up as quickly with paint particles. As you sand off the loose paint and get back into solid material, be sure to feather the edges of the solid paint so that your patched areas won't be as visible. There's also a tool made by Wager specifically for removing paint, called the Paint Eater, which uses a special 3M disk. It's more aggressive than sanding alone, and works well in combination with conventional sanding methods if you have a lot of paint to remove.
•Pressure washers: Using a pressure washer to remove paint was popular for awhile, but to some degree has fallen out of favor. The amount of pressure needed to strip paint can damage wood siding, and can also force moisture into areas where you don't want it.
•Chemical strippers and heat guns: There are a number of chemical strippers available that are painted onto the surface, allowed to sit, then hosed off or stripped off with a putty knife, taking the old paint with them. They can be useful in some smaller situations, but are also messy and expensive for larger jobs. Heat guns can be used to strip paint, but I strongly recommend against them for safety reasons.

Clean and prime

When you've removed the old paint from the areas where you need to work, you'll be down to bare wood. Next, you want to clean the areas so no dust remains. Again, you want to give the paint a solid surface to adhere to, and dust isn't that surface.

You can use a dusting brush, an old paint brush, a soft broom, or other tools to wipe down the areas and get the dust off. If you have a compressor, you can blow the dust off with air. You can also vacuum it off with a shop vacuum. The main thing is to get it clean and dust free. Check the area again and make sure all the remaining paint is solid, and the edges are feathered back.

All bare wood needs to be primed, which will do several very good things. The primer will seal the wood to prevent moisture from getting in, and it will seal things like knots and nail heads so they don't bleed through your finished paint. Primers also create an intermediate bond between the wood and the finished paint, which helps the two adhere to one another. That means that the finished paint will stick better and last longer over a prime coat than it will over bare wood alone.

Look for a primer that's compatible with the surface you're priming, such as wood, metal, etc., and with the type of finish paint you're using, such as latex. It also obviously has to be rated for exterior use. If you want to get things done quickly, look for a fast-drying primer, but you still need to be sure that it's completely dry before applying your top coat.

For the top coat, consider having a gallon of paint custom-matched to your existing siding, rather than rely on that old can of paint that's been sitting in the garage for 10 years. A fresh can of paint that's an exact match to what's on the house -- which is probably faded compared to what's in that old can -- will not only match better, it's going to last longer than the material in the old can that's lost a lot of it's usefulness.

Safety first

If your house was built prior to 1978, there's a good chance that you may also have some lead paint issues to deal with. Before doing any scraping or sanding of any old paint, check out the EPA's lead paint guidelines by visiting their website at www.epa.gov/lead, or contact the National Lead Information Center (NLIC) at 1-800-424-LEAD (5323).

Lead paint or not, when doing any sanding, grinding, scraping or other work, be sure you're wearing a dust mask or respirator, as well as some type of proper eye protection. When using chemical strippers, follow all of the manufacturer's specific safety instructions.

Paul Bianchina Inman News October 29, 2010

Sunday, November 14, 2010

JUST FOR FUN: "Inception" Animals

WASHINGTON — The nation’s homeownership rate remained at its lowest in more than a decade, hampered by a rise in foreclosures and weak demand for housing.

The percentage of households that owned their homes was unchanged at 66.9 percent in the July-September quarter, the Census Bureau said yesterday. That’s the same as the April-June quarter.

The last time the rate was lower was in 1999, when the rate was 66.7 percent.

For decades, 64 percent of American homes were owned by their occupants. That began to climb in 1995, with strong encouragement from President Clinton and later on from President George W. Bush.

Democrats, including Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, pushed for mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to purchase more loans targeted toward low-income Americans. Republicans encouraged subprime lending to borrowers with weak credit and fought off industry regulation, despite warnings that many of those loans had predatory terms.

A record number of foreclosures and tight lending standards are expected to keep pushing the homeownership rate down and it will eventually return to pre-1995 levels, said IHS Global Insight economist Patrick Newport

Associated Press November 3, 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010


After years of delay, the developer of a 26-story tower at the edge of Chinatown said he will begin construction next year, replacing the vacant Dainty Dot building between Chinatown and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

Developer Ori Ron said the new complex will transform the gateway to Chinatown and enliven a corner of the neighborhood that is largely devoid of activity after 5 p.m. His glass and stone tower will have 100 rental apartments and 100 condominiums, as well as four levels of parking and a restaurant on the ground floor.

“We want to bring people to this area and remove a building that’s been a blight on the neighborhood for 55 years,’’ said Ron, principal of Hudson Group North America, a Swampscott development firm. “This is another piece of the economic engine that serves Chinatown.’’

The $105 million project, at Kingston and Essex streets, was initially approved in the spring of 2008, but had been on hold because of funding difficulties and concerns about its design. Some neighbors also fought for preservation of the 121-year-old textile building that stands on the site.

The ornate structure, occupied in recent decades by the Dainty Dot Hosiery Co., was built in 1889 after the Boston fire of 1872 destroyed residences and many businesses. The nonprofit group Preservation Massachusetts has put the building on its most endangered list because of its location in a once-significant textile district.

However, it was denied landmark status in 2007 by the Boston Landmarks Commission, which noted its historic value was diminished when a portion of the building was lopped off in the 1950s to make way for the old elevated Central Artery.

During a meeting last month, the Boston Redevelopment Authority approved an array of changes to Ron’s proposal for the site, including the addition of 50 rental units, which will help make it more attractive to lenders. The project will also result in the development of 38 units of affordable housing elsewhere in Chinatown.

“The new housing in this project will serve as a fulcrum we can use to bring more development to this neighborhood,’’ said John Palmieri, BRA director. “It’s a very important location in the city, and this will help improve its appearance and vitality.’’

City officials have encouraged dense development in the area to turn it into a livelier, 24-hour neighborhood that will attract new residents and businesses. The project was hotly debated during community meetings, with some neighbors arguing the tower would be too tall for the neighborhood. Ron, who purchased the building for $9 million in 2006, initially proposed a 300-foot tower but agreed to reduce its height due to 270 feet.

Much of the debate focused on the project’s impact on the adjacent Greenway. But directors of the park system said it will add a 2,000-square-foot section to the park, and will also offer outdoor seating for restaurant patrons and park visitors. Ron will devote space for a Greenway maintenance room on the site and install laser-etched glass fins that will be accented with LED strips.

Ron said he intends to begin construction in the spring or summer of next year. The residences will range from studios to three-bedroom units, but he has not decided on rents or prices for the condominiums in the complex.

Casey Ross Boston Globe November 3, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010


A Boston developer is proposing to build a new hotel on Brookline Avenue near Fenway Park, scrapping prior plans for a lab and office building on the property.

Bill McQuillan, principal of Boylston Properties, filed a revised proposal with the Boston Redevelopment Authority yesterday that calls for a 183-room, extended-stay hotel and a ground-floor restaurant or retail store at 121 Brookline Ave.

The hotel would replace a one-story retail building that currently houses Ace Ticket.

The firm is the latest of several developers to propose a hotel or apartments in place of new office space, which has become harder to finance as rents fall in the current economy.

Boylston Properties received approval in June 2007 to build a six-story lab and office building at 121 Brookline Ave., but was unable to proceed with construction.

The revised plan still needs BRA approval.

Casey Ross Boston Globe November 2, 2010

Thursday, November 11, 2010

MARKET TRENDS: Condo contrasts: Prices downtown highest in decade, but sales are off

The median price of a downtown Boston condominium hit a 10-year high in the third quarter while the number of sales dropped to a new low for the decade.

That’s the conclusion of a housing report set to be released today by the Boston company Listing Information Network that shows the median selling price of downtown condominiums increased 9.2 percent to $475,000 during the third quarter of 2010 compared with the same period last year.

Sales volume, meantime, sank by 24.5 percent in the third quarter compared with the same period last year. Only 677 properties sold, marking the smallest number changing hands during the third quarter over the last 10 years, according to a decadelong survey provided by the Listing Information Network. The private company tracks condos sales in 12 Boston neighborhoods, including Beacon Hill, Back Bay, and the South End. It doesn’t include the more moderately priced areas of Allston, Brighton, Mattapan, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain.

The juxtaposition of lethargic sales and an increase in median price is an indication that many of the properties selling are in the upper end of the market, not that home values overall are on the rise, local real estate agents say.

Indeed, median prices in the luxury condo market — defined as full-service properties with valets, concierges, and other services — swelled by 16.6 percent to $680,000 in the third quarter compared with the same time last year. At the same time, sales volume fell less dramatically than the overall market — by 14.6 percent in the third quarter — with 135 units changing owners, according to the new data.

“The higher end has picked back up, which drags the median prices a bit higher,’’ said Michael DiMella, a managing partner at Charlesgate Realty Group in the Back Bay. “Buyers are being real choosy.’’

Debra Taylor Blair, president of Listing Information Network, said that the downtown market has largely held its values because of low inventory, which increases competition among buyers. There were 1,037 homes on the market in September compared with the 1,039 during the same month in 2009.

“We are not in a situation of [having a] glut of properties,’’ said Taylor Blair. “We are still in an appreciating market.’’

John Ranco, a Boston real estate agent, said that even if the number of condos for sale has not changed much since last year, buyers are finding fewer properties that they want to purchase. Many homes have been on the market for long periods of time and are overpriced, he said.

“There isn’t a great selection,’’ said Ranco. “What is out there can be very expensive and tends to sell at a higher price than you would expect in a down economy.’’

Jenifer B. McKim Boston Globe October 29, 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

JUST FOR FUN: Chart Of The Day

Franklin Veaux's map of non-monogamy with full explanations is here.

In real estate, it's the eternal question: What do "they" want?

"They" are the buyers who tromp through home after home, usually leaving little in the way of concrete feedback about what kinds of features and characteristics they're looking for and how much they'll pay to get them.

Well, here may be a few clues, via a recent study by American Lives, a consumer-research firm in Carmel Valley, Calif., that was conducted in collaboration with Builder magazine, a trade journal.

In May, American Lives polled 650 people who were touring builders' model homes or who had recently purchased homes in nine markets: California; Nevada; Arizona; Texas; Florida; North Carolina; Virginia-Washington, D.C.; Michigan; and Indiana.

Although company president Brooke Warrick said the study obviously focused on the attitudes of those who were shopping for new-construction homes, their survey responses are indicative of the broader market, as 60 percent of them said they had also looked at resale homes, foreclosures and/or short sales.

Five things to know about today's would-be homebuyers:

1. They're on the younger side (65 percent are under 45, with most of those in their 30s), and don't have big budgets because they don't have big paychecks (fewer than 20 percent had annual household incomes of more than $100,000, and more than half said their households earned $75,000 or less).

Most of them were married, though one-third were either single or in unmarried "partner" relationships.

2. Their interest in living a more frugal existence, as heralded by countless media reports, seemed genuine, according to Warrick, who explained that the home shoppers consistently indicated they were seeking a "simpler" lifestyle and staying closer to hearth and home.

Their new values lean on spending time at home with family and spending less money, he said.

" 'Simplicity' might be a better term (than frugality)," Warrick said. "Earlier this year, in another survey, we found that even when people didn't seem to need to restrict their purchasing power, there was a level of frugality present."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: "Spend Shift", A cure for overconsumption.

Book Review
Title: "Spend Shift: How the Post-Crisis Values Revolution is Changing the Way we Buy, Sell and Live"
Authors: John Gerzema and Michael D'Antonio
Publisher: Jossey-Bass, 2010; 288 pages; $25.95

Is there such a thing as a "triple entendre"? If so, the word "consumption" would pose one. An outdated definition of consumption is truly a disease, the colloquialism for tuberculosis around the time my great-grandmother succumbed to it in the early 1950s.

On the other hand, the two other meanings that come to mind for me are quite "au courant" (French for "up-to-date"): one implying the intake of food, the other implying purchasing behaviors and patterns.

It is the latter of these three meanings which serves as the subject of "Spend Shift: How the Post-Crisis Values Revolution is Changing the Way we Buy, Sell and Live," by consumerism expert John Gerzema and Pulitzer-Prize winner Michael D'Antonio.

More precisely, "Spend Shift" focuses on insights into how all sorts of American people and businesses have radically revised their values, their spending behavior and their companies' practices and offerings in the wake of the recession. The authors gleaned these insights two ways: via an extensive, longitudinal study into Americans' buying behavior which Gerzema runs, and on a post-bubble, coast-to-coast road trip.

The Introduction, Numbers and Their Meaning, drills down into a number of metrics quantifying the damage "The Great Recession" has wreaked on the American economy, and how many Americans qualify as Spend Shifters, defined by Gerzema and D'Antonio as "people who, in reacting to crisis, have subtly adjusted their lives to seek greater balance and a more fulfilling existence."

The authors go on to explore the values shared by these Spend Shifters -- who do make up the majority of Americans -- and how they break down generationally and in terms of their post-recession behavioral shifts. The authors end the chapter acknowledging that these numbers can only do so much in terms of illuminating this Spend Shift, and launch from there into a retelling of their road trip and real-world stories of real-life Spend Shifters.

Chapter One, The New American Frontier: Detroit, Mich., introduces readers to a few amazing small business owners who are pioneering a new economy and community in the otherwise "apocalyptic," economically destitute landscape of Detroit.

Monday, November 8, 2010

BUYING A HOME: Assemble your real estate A-team. Traits to look for in a buyer's agent, mortgage broker.

It has always been important to assemble a top-notch team of real estate professionals to assist you with a home purchase. Today, it's more important than ever.

One of the key players on your team is the real estate agent who will represent you and guide you through the process to a successful closing. The other is the mortgage broker or loan agent who will arrange financing for you unless you are paying all cash.

The Internet is a great resource for getting started on your home search and gaining general information about the market, past sale prices, active listings and local neighborhoods. However, the home-sale market is extremely localized. Neighborhoods within blocks of one another can have different pricing structures and demand levels.

HOUSE HUNTING TIP: Make sure you hook up with the best agent you can find who specializes in the neighborhoods where you want to live. Your agent should educate you about the idiosyncratic characters of various neighborhoods -- information that is difficult to glean from the Internet.

The National Association of Realtors reported in its 2009 NAR Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers that 90 percent of homebuyers used the Internet for their home search, up from 2 percent in 1995. Seventy-nine percent who used the Internet used a real estate agent to assist them with their purchase.

Only 37 percent of these buyers thought an agent's technology skills were important in selecting an agent. More than four out of five buyers thought knowledge of the process, honesty, integrity, responsiveness, communication and negotiation skills were very important.

You should not only work with an agent who embraces these characteristics, your agent should specialize in the kind of property you want to buy. If you're interested only in distressed sales (short sales or bank-owned foreclosure properties), work with an agent who has experience in this area.

These can be very difficult transactions. One-third of all short-sale transactions never close. Pick an agent who has experience working with this particular type of transaction and who knows how to navigate the process.

The mortgage business has changed dramatically in recent years. The approval process can be grueling and appraisals problematic. Find a good mortgage professional who has a good track record closing loans in the current lending environment.

Ask how many loans your prospective mortgage professional has closed within the last several months in loan amounts similar to the one you need. Your agent or acquaintances who bought recently can provide recommendations for the best person to work with.

A good mortgage professional will be able to look at your financial documentation and credit scores and determine in advance what a lender's underwriter will require from you in order to approve your loan -- perhaps additional documentation or paying down existing debt.

A good mortgage broker knows which lender to submit your loan package to in order to maximize approval. Underwriting requirements differ from one lender to the next. One buyer wanted to use a lender that offered the lowest rate. That lender, however, was a stickler about work done to the property without building permits.

Not only would unpermitted areas not be counted as livable square feet, thereby lowering the appraised value, the bank wouldn't loan on the property unless all power sources to these areas were ripped out so that the areas couldn't be used. The loan was submitted to another lender that didn't allow the unpermitted space to be used for appraisal purposes. But, nothing had to be demolished.

THE CLOSING: Remember that you are part of the team; in fact, you're the captain. You are the decision-maker. Never turn over important decisions to your agent, attorney or loan agent, even if you're busy and would rather have someone else take care of everything.

Dian Hymer Inman News October 25, 2010