Monday, February 28, 2011

NEIGHBORHOOD DEVELOPMENT: Franklin Street tower undergoing a makeover

For decades, the Art Deco tower at 185 Franklin St. was the domain of one company, a place most people did not enter unless they worked for New England Telephone and Telegraph Co. or its successor, Verizon Communications Inc.
Franklin Street tower undergoing a makeover

But with most of Verizon’s employees gone after a real estate consolidation, the so-called wedding cake style building is about to undergo a dramatic change. Its new owner begins a $35 million renovation next month that will add a large glass lobby on one side, and on the other, outdoor seating and space for restaurants and stores overlooking the park in Post Office Square.

“Our goal is to reintroduce a building that has been closed off for 50 years,’’ said Richard Galvin, president of Commonwealth Ventures, which was part of a group that bought the tower for $192 million in 2008. “Its front door is on one of the greatest public parks in America, and we want to celebrate that.’’

Galvin hopes the changes will attract tenants to fill the 400,000 square feet of office space left vacant by Verizon’s departure. The communications giant still leases space on the lower floors, but most of its employees moved out in November, opening space on floors 7 through 18.

In addition to its architectural style, the Franklin Street building was known for the striking 160-foot mural in its lobby, which pays homage to telephone operators who toiled there for decades. Verizon removed the mural at the owner’s request and is consulting with museums and other institutions to find a new location to display it.

Preservationists who initially raised concerns about the illustration’s removal say Galvin has worked closely with them to craft a renovation plan the emphasizes the building’s history.

“It’s one of the best examples of Art Deco that we have in the city,’’ Tony Fusco, president of the Art Deco Society of Boston, said of the tower. “It was built as a corporate headquarters for a historically important business in the region.’’

New England Telephone & Telegraph constructed the building in the late 1940s. In 1984, the company became Nynex. In 1997, it merged with Bell Atlantic, which eventually joined with GTE to create Verizon.

Commonwealth Ventures will rename the building 50 Post Office Square.

Galvin said many of the building’s original features will be preserved, including its high ceilings and the Maine granite that lines many hallways. Some of the elements sure to go are the floral drapes and orange carpeting that decorate the 18th-floor offices, which also contain fireplaces more typical of a country home than a downtown office tower.

The most significant changes will occur on the ground floor. A new exterior glass lobby designed by Elkus Manfredi Architects will replace a loading dock on High Street. The Franklin Street entrance will be fitted with large glass windows; this side of the building will also host two restaurants and a retail store. Tenants have not been named but the owners expect a financial services firm to occupy the retail space.

The renovation will add a 110-space parking garage in the basement and new lights to emphasize the wavy metal grillwork at the building’s apex.

Galvin’s primary challenge will be to find new office tenants in a sluggish real estate market. Demand and rents are on the rise, but nearly 20 percent of the office space in the Financial District is vacant, meaning he is competing with other landlords.

The building is being marketed by FHO Partners.

“I think we offer something different,’’ Galvin said, noting the building’s array of floor sizes could cater to large law firms or smaller financial companies. “The city does not have that many Art Deco buildings. It’s a design that inspires people.’’

Casey Ross Boston Globe February 24, 2011

Sunday, February 27, 2011

ARCHITECTURE: Out to save the modern home

Showing their age, distinctive structures at risk of being torn down.

Houses sprawl across most of Belmont Hill bedecked in carved wood and ornate fireplaces, their roofs peaked and their staircases winding. But on this side of the hill, they cling to the rocky ledge, their roofs flat and their lines clean.

In Boston and its suburbs, a region that helped give birth to Colonial architecture, lie some of the most celebrated developments of a radical design: the modern house.

The five original homes built in 1940 along Snake Hill Road in Belmont became one of the world’s first developments of modern homes. A few miles away, Lexington boasts several modern developments, created by architects associated with MIT and Harvard who would become famous.

“We think of Boston and we think of old architecture and the home of the Colonial tradition,’’ said Nichole Bookwalter, a real estate agent who lives on Snake Hill Road, “but there actually is a tremendous amount of midcentury-modern work that’s now between Concord, Lincoln, Belmont, and Lexington.’’ And yet these houses, small by more recent standards and starting to show their age, are seen as at risk of getting torn down.

Bookwalter and her fiancé, Alan Savenor, live in a 1,697-square-foot house that they wanted to expand. Some advised them to tear down the 70-year-old house and start over.

“It made perfect sense and it would be cheaper,’’ Savenor said. “But for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.’’

Instead they will add two wings and create a new house that is 3,500 square feet. They will replace the spacious windows, which provide stunning views of the Boston skyline but spark $4,000 annual heating bills. They are also adding a new geothermal heating system.

Their decision will be welcome news to modern-house enthusiasts, who often battle on behalf of these properties.

David Fixler, a Weston resident and president of the New England chapter of DOCOMOMO, an international group that works to preserve modern architecture, often sees these struggles.

“It’s a growing area of concern, not only to larger associations like DOCOMOMO but to local historic commissions,’’ he said.

Fixler and Sally Zimmerman, manager of historic preservation services at Historic New England, estimate there are between 1,500 and 2,000 midcentury modern homes in Massachusetts. Like those on Snake Hill Road, they were built with modernist ideals, little adornment, open floor plans, and respect for the natural landscape.

The most famous modern house in Massachusetts is the property built in Lincoln in 1938 by Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus movement. Historic New England owns the house and offers tours yearround. Many of the other important modern-house communities were developed along the West Coast.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

MARKET TRENDS: Housing sales rise, but prices fall

Mass. data for January suggest the recovery will happen slowly.

The Massachusetts housing market continued its struggle to gain traction as January sales rose solidly from a year earlier, but prices fell from their 2010 levels for the second month in a row.

Massachusetts single-family home sales jumped 5 percent last month, the best January in four years, the Warren Group, a Boston real estate tracking firm, reported yesterday. The median sales price, however, declined nearly 7 percent from a year earlier, to $270,000, following a nearly 6 percent year-over-year decline in December.

It was the fifth consecutive month that the median price remained below $300,000.

The Massachusetts Association of Realtors, which tracks a slightly narrower swatch of the housing market, reported similar results in January. The realtors said single-family home sales rose 13 percent last month from the same time last year, while the median price fell 5.2 percent from year ago to $284,500.

The state’s housing market has improved since hitting bottom in 2009, economists said, but activity remains only slightly above those lows.

Karl Case, an economics professor emeritus at Wellesley College, said the mixed message of rising sales and falling prices shows a robust recovery has yet to materialize.

“It sort of looks to me like it’s bouncing around the bottom, trying to finish this down cycle off,’’ said Case, one of the nation’s leading housing experts and cocreator of the widely followed S&P/Case-Shiller index, which tracks national and metropolitan home prices.

Home values in Greater Boston are down 16.4 percent from their peak in September 2005, and just under 1 percent from a year ago, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller index for December. Average home values in the 20 metro areas tracked by the index have declined about 31 percent since their peak.

In Massachusetts, the rising sales and falling prices could indicate that sellers — many weary of waiting for the market to get better — are starting to give in and take offers from bargain-hunting buyers, economists said.

“This may reflect the fact that people are coming to grips with the new home price realities and are agreeing to sales that they might not have six months ago,’’ said Barry Bluestone, an economist at Northeastern University. “Sellers will hold out for a while, but when they come to the conclusion that home prices will only rise very slowly, it makes sense for them to make deals. And that seems to be what has happened here.’’

Patrick Newport, an economist with the Lexington forecasting firm IHS Global Insight, agreed.

“For buyers, it’s a good time. For sellers, there’s nothing you can do about it,’’ Newport said. “Eventually, they come to the realization that things aren’t going to get better [quickly].’’

Impeding the housing market’s recovery are high unemployment rates, which hold back the income growth that people need to buy, and undermine confidence, said Alan Clayton-Matthews, an economics professor at Northeastern University. Despite improvement in the job market, the state unemployment rate remains above 8 percent, nearly double the rate before the recession.

“That said, [sales] have picked up in the past couple of months,’’ Clayton-Matthews added. “There are so many mixed signals.’’

Laurie Cadigan, president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, said she hoped that last month’s gains in sales signal a solid spring housing market is coming. It’s the most important selling season for real estate agents.

“In spite of this miserable January, weather-wise, people are still out in full force because they’ve seen prices come down,’’ Cadigan said. “We’ll have to see how the season goes, but we’re pretty optimistic about it.’’

Erin Ailworth Boston Globe February 23, 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

NEIGHBORHOOD NEWS: Chinatown complex gets green light from city

After a two-year delay, a development team is moving forward with a towering housing and retail complex on a vacant parcel in Chinatown, adding to the slew of residential properties about to undergo construction in Boston.

The development team of New Boston Fund Inc. and the Asian Community Development Corporation won city approval last week for a revised plan for 295 rental apartments, 50 condos, retail stores, an underground garage, and a park.

A prior version called for 325 residences, most of them ownership.

The $130 million project will be built at Hudson and Kneeland streets, at the fringe of Chinatown and downtown Boston, in an area now marred by concrete highway ramps. One of the two buildings in the complex is a striking 20-story apartment tower that would be easily seen from Interstate 93 as it approaches the city.

“It will be an iconic building that signals you’re entering Boston,’’ said Kirk Sykes, who runs a New Boston real estate investment fund. “We want to create vibrancy and activity where there’s just dirt at the moment.’’

The complex also includes a six-story residential building, a community center, and a 13,000-square-foot park.

Construction of the project is scheduled to start in the first half of 2012. Other residential developments also slated to get underway soon include a 200-unit complex at the Dainty Dot building on Kingston and Essex streets, 395 units at the former Gaiety Theatre on Washington St., and 265 units on the site of a parking lot across from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Towers.

The Hudson Street developers said their project is distinct from the others because more than 40 percent of its units are priced as affordable, including 95 rental apartments and all 50 of the condos. The average price of a two-bedroom condo will be about $175,000, while a two-bedroom apartment will rent for $540 to $1,170 a month to qualified tenants. Project executives said they will seek city and state housing subsidies to help finance the work.

“We want Chinatown to stay diverse,’’ said Janelle Chan, executive director of the Asian Community Development Corporation. “The last several years a lot of luxury housing has come into the neighborhood, and we want it to remain welcoming and accessible to low-income and working-class families.’’

The project will restore housing and storefronts to a section of the city that was razed in the 1960s for a ramp to the old elevated expressway. The ramp was subsequently relocated during the Big Dig, allowing the land on Hudson Street to revert back to housing use.

A group of 15 Chinatown community organizations advocated for years for the redevelopment of the property, prompting the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority in 2006 to select New Boston Fund and the Asian Community Development Corporation to spearhead the project.

“This mixed-income development will provide much needed housing while restoring a neighborhood which existed on Hudson Street more than 45 years ago,’’ Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in a statement.

Casey Ross Boston Globe February 18, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

JUST FOR FUN: What We Say And What We Mean

A fantastic animation of a Stephen Pinker talk on language:

TAXES: Money-Saving Tax Breaks Could Inspire You to Get Your Taxes Done

When it comes to tax filing season, there are two kinds of people: those who file their tax returns right after they receive their W-2s, and those who toss their tax documents into a drawer, quietly hoping that a jolly old accountant will slide down the chimney on the night before Tax Day and complete their 1040s.
If you fall into the second group, you have even more reason to dither this year. The deadline for filing your tax return is April 18—three days later than usual because Emancipation Day, a holiday in Washington, D.C., will be observed on April 15.
In addition, the IRS announced earlier this year that it wouldn’t process returns from taxpayers who claim itemized deductions until mid-February. The IRS said it needed time to program its systems to accommodate several tax breaks included in the tax compromise bill signed into law late last year.
Now, though, that reason for procrastination is gone. The IRS started accepting returns Monday from taxpayers who itemize. Here are some money-saving tax breaks that could give you the nudge you need to get started:
Adoption tax credit. The health care reform act increased the maximum adoption tax credit to $13,170. The tax credit is refundable, so if the amount of the credit exceeds your tax bill, you’ll receive a check for the balance.
The amount of the credit is limited to the cost of adopting a child, up to the maximum credit. Eligible expenses include adoption fees, court costs, attorney fees and travel expenses, including meals and lodging.
Taxpayers who claim this credit are required to attach documents certifying the adoption, such as a court order or decree, to IRS Form 8839. Because of that requirement, taxpayers who claim the adoption credit must file a paper return, says Barbara Weltman, author of J.K. Lasser’s 1001 Deductions and Tax Breaks.
Deduction for corrosive drywall damage. Thousands of home owners have filed complaints with regulators because their homes were built with Chinese-made drywall that emits corrosive sulfur gases. Last year, the IRS issued a special ruling that allows taxpayers to deduct the cost of repairing the damage to their homes or appliances as a casualty loss.
Ordinarily, taxpayers can’t deduct a casualty loss unless it’s caused by a “sudden disruption,” such as a fire or tornado, says William Massey, senior tax analyst for Thomson Reuters.
“Damage or loss resulting from progressive deterioration of property is not considered a casualty loss under traditional rules,” he says.
You can’t claim the loss if your insurance company has reimbursed you for the cost of repairs. If you have a pending claim, you’re eligible to deduct 75% of the amount you spent on repairs last year. The ruling is limited to defective drywall installed between 2001 and 2008.
You installed energy-efficient windows or doors, or bought a new furnace or air conditioner. If you made your home more energy efficient last year, you may be eligible for a tax credit for up to 30% of the cost, up to a maximum of $1,500. A tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in your tax bill, making a credit more valuable than a deduction.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

INSURANCE: 13 Tips for Coping with Winter Storm Damage and Insurance Claims

A winter storm like the one we’ve had this week can cause significant damage to your home, ranging from roof collapse to downed trees and flooding. To get what you’re owed from insurance, try these tips from the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America:

Stay away from downed power lines, even if they do not appear to be “live.” Call the power company to report any outages.

Generally, damage to refrigerated food caused by a power failure that originates off the residence premises would not be a covered loss.

Damage to trees, shrubs, and other plants during an ice storm is not covered under the standard home owners policy. However, insurance may pay to remove the debris from a fallen tree if it caused damage to a structure covered by insurance.

If your tree damages a neighbor’s property, he or she should file a claim with his or her own insurer.

If the tree falls on your own house, damage to the house is covered. Many policies cover the cost to remove the tree from the house. However, if the tree or branch falls and does no damage to a covered structure, you’re probably not covered.

If your property does sustain damage, take the following action:

Report all damage to your insurance company or agent as soon as you can in order to settle your claim more quickly and accurately.

If it is safe to do so, take steps to protect your property from further damage and theft by making emergency repairs. Use plywood, tarps, and other materials to cover openings in roofs, walls, and windows.

Keep receipts for anything you buy so you can submit them to your insurance company later.

Inventory all damaged property, take pictures of the damage, and check with your insurance company before throwing away any damaged property. Identify the structural damage to your home and make a list of everything you would like to show the adjuster.

To settle your claim more quickly and accurately, prepare as much information as possible about your damaged possessions when your insurance adjuster comes to look at your property.

Talk with your agent about what your deductible will be for the storm damage. The deductible can be either a flat dollar amount or a percentage of the home value.

Many standard home owners policies provide for reimbursement of additional living expenses if your home is so damaged that you can’t live in it. This coverage typically is limited to 20% of the value of the home or 40% of the personal property limits of the condominium or rental property.

Source: PCIAA
Read more:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

GREEN HOMES: Some People Resist New Bulbs

Faced with a U.S. phase-out of incandescent light bulbs starting next year, some consumers are taking preemptive steps: They’re stockpiling the bulbs.

Under a 2007 energy law, manufacturers must start phasing out incandescent bulbs in favor of more efficient bulbs such as compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs.

While CFLs use at least 75% less energy, some consumers complain the lighting is dimmer, doesn’t look as warm, and doesn’t come on right away. Some also worry about the disposal requirements because of the bulbs’ tiny mercury content.

The American Lighting Association’s Larry Lauck hasn’t seen “statistical signs” of stockpiling but has heard anecdotal reports.

Ilse Metchek of Los Angeles tried to convert to CFLs but was so unhappy she squirreled away about three dozen incandescents, so “I will be able to read in bed without squinting.”

Most Americans plan to switch to more-efficient bulbs, according to a recent survey by lighting company Osram Sylvania. Yet, given that cheaper incandescents are still in plentiful supply, some consumers can’t resist stocking up.

Sue Larkin of Tulsa has hundreds: “I can’t see a thing with the new bulbs and can’t afford them anyway.”

Says Susan Drake of Marietta, Ohio, “I have stocked up on enough incandescent bulbs to last for the next 50 years.”

Such reports are common whenever a new standard is introduced, says the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Noah Horowitz. He says consumers will still be able to buy incandescents, but new ones will have more-efficient halogen capsules.

“Unless you prefer paying higher electricity bills, there’s no reason to hoard old incandescent bulbs,” Horowitz says.

About 13% of Americans said they would stock up on 100-watt incandescents and continue using them after they are phased out in January, says the Osram Sylvania survey. The 75-watt version will be phased out in 2013, and the 60-watt and 40-watt in 2014.

Home Depot stores in California, where 100-watt incandescent bulbs were banned Jan. 1, a year ahead of the national schedule, has seen an uptick in sales of incandescents. But CFLs are selling better, too, thanks to increased awareness, says spokeswoman Jean Niemi.

Those disappointed with CFL lighting might prefer the 72-watt halogen incandescent that Horowitz says will give off the same light as the old 100-watt bulb. He says they cost about $2 each but can save $3 in electricity over their 1,000-hour life span. Another option, he says, is the LED (light emitting diode), which lasts even longer than CFLs and uses less power. He expects high LED prices to fall dramatically.

Jayne O’Donnell and Wendy Koch
(c) Copyright 2011 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

LOCAL NEWS: End of grand Greenway vision

Y cancels plans, leaving city a space without buildings

The state’s drawn-out effort to bring cultural and community institutions to the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway can now be declared dead, with the YMCA of Greater Boston becoming the last of four selected builders to cancel plans for a facility on the downtown park system.

The Y’s board of directors voted last Thursday to abandon a proposed $70 million community center on the Greenway near the North End, citing the expense of building over the underground highway.

That decision concludes a slow unraveling of the plan to add cultural institutions to draw crowds to the Greenway and to cover the unsightly ramps along the 13-acre strip of parks. Other groups previously dropped plans for a so-called Garden Under Glass, a center for arts and culture, and a museum focused on Boston history.

City and state leaders yesterday said the YMCA’s decision provides the finality needed to move beyond an original vision that many acknowledged was not working. Some officials said they have come to appreciate the Greenway as an open space without buildings, adding that it might need only minor changes to make it more popular and active.

“The notion that this could be one continuous space, and not subdivided by buildings, is a powerful realization,’’ said Kairos Shen, the city of Boston’s chief planner. “The question now is, how do we make sure there are enough activities on or around the Greenway to bring more people down there?’’

The nonprofit conservancy that manages the Greenway said it has numerous efforts under way, including doubling the number of food vendors in the parks to 12 and hosting a large outdoor art exhibition. The conservancy is also trying to raise money for a tree nursery on a parcel near Faneuil Hall that is broken up by ramp openings.

“We know much better than we did 10 years ago how this civic space works,’’ said Nancy Brennan, the conservancy’s executive director. “This gives us a fresh opportunity to ask what is the right combination of public art, programming, and structures to make the Greenway the place everyone envisioned.’’

Saturday, February 19, 2011

MARKET TRENDS: More Home Buyers Sticking To Single Story

Feb. 11—Monika and Daren Jordan gladly gave up a little yard space and a second floor when they bought a new home last year.

Although their young children like to play outdoors, the Jordans figured that moving from a two-story house would make it easier to keep an eye on the little ones’ foot traffic. It would be less of a chore to clean and more comfortable for grandparents visiting overnight.

The couple, both 40, also had an eye toward their next upgrade. Monika Jordan said she’s betting that aging baby boomers will increase the market for single-story homes like hers.

“We’ll have more of an audience,” she said. “Older people who don’t want to navigate two stories.”
She’s on to something. After declining steadily for more than three decades, the percentage of single-story homes in the U.S. has risen steadily in the past few years.

Builders in the Houston area and nationwide agree that the boomers are driving some of the trend, but they say it’s not just empty-nesters and retirees looking for one-story homes. They’re introducing new plans in response to demand from young families and single professionals who aren’t necessarily sacrificing space for convenience.

In 1973, fewer than one in four U.S. homes were two or more stories. But a National Association of Home Builders study last summer found that changed dramatically over the following three decades, until the multi-stories made up 57 percent of the supply in 2006.

Since 2006, however, these trends have reversed. The share of single-family homes increased to 47 percent last year, while the share with two or more stories dropped to 53 percent.

At Cross Creek Ranch in Fulshear, where the Jordans moved last year from Richmond, half of the sales since the neighborhood opened in 2008 have been one-story houses. The couple paid $245,000 for their 2,600-square-foot home, which includes three full bedrooms and bathrooms.

“When I saw the neighborhood I fell in love with it,” Monika Jordan said. “We have a smaller yard now because a one-story takes up more of a lot, but I really like the open floor plan.”
She also likes the easier maintenance.

“I don’t have to lug cleaning supplies up and down the stairs anymore,” she said. “That was such a pain for me in our other home.”

Friday, February 18, 2011

FINANCE: Explaining Credit Scores

Have you ever wondered what makes up your credit score? The three major credit reporting agencies, Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax, use a number of factors to calculate your score.

Credit scores range from 300 to 850 and are a buyer's key to attaining loans. From cars and homes to everything in-between, if you need a loan, you need good credit. The way it works is simple. A high score is a door to lower interest rates and larger sums of credit. The higher your score, the less of a risk your pose to a lender, and therefore the more likely they'll be to approve you for a loan.

The score is compiled by analyzing the following:

1. Length of Credit History: The longer you've had credit the better. The agencies will be looking at the time that's passed since accounts were opened, the time since account activity, and then the time passed since accounts were opened based on what type of accounts (

2. Payment history: Do you make your payments on time? Have you missed payments or filed for bankruptcy? If you've defaulted on an obligation, your credit score will drop. On the other hand, if you pay faithfully each month, your credit score will rise to reflect it!

3. Percent of Credit Used: Think of it this way. You have two lines of credit open with credit limits of $5,000 each. That means you are able to use a total of $10,000. If you have a $2,000 balance on one card and $3,000 on the other, you are using 50 percent of your available credit. The smaller percentage you are using the better. Fifty-percent is very high.

Many people ask if they should close an unused card. If you are paying monthly or yearly usage fees to the credit card company for a dormant card -- then the answer is probably yes. But keep in mind, if you close one of those $5,000 credit limit cards, your new credit limit is just $5,000. If you now are using $3,000 of your $5,000 limit, you are using 60 percent of your available credit. This is bad news for your score.

And on top of this, how much do you owe total? If you are carrying a large amount of debt, banks and lenders may see you as at risk for default. This means no new loan for you.

4. New Credit: Have you recently opened several new accounts? This is a red flag of risk to lenders. They'll wonder if you're on a spending spree and about what other lines of credit you'll be opening alongside theirs.

5. Types of credit: According to some experts, it is good to have more than one type of credit open. This means to have some credit cards, a mortgage, and installment loans.

6. Settlements: Did you default on a loan? Have you filed for bankruptcy or foreclosure? Did you reach a settlement with a credit card company? These factors will lower your score dramatically, as they show you are a risky borrower.

7. Errors: From identity theft to clerical errors in reporting, mistakes on your report can cost you. You are allowed to view your report three times a year at Check it often to ensure accuracy.

Will a low score haunt you forever? Have no fear, your credit score changes over time. It will rise if you are a responsible spender and make your payments on time. Your credit score truthfully reflects your credit history. So, the power to change it is in your hands.

Carla Hill Realty Times February 16, 2011

Thursday, February 17, 2011

MARKET TRENDS: States Take Lead in Efforts To Fight Climate Change

Now that 2010 has gone down as one of history’s hottest years, many states are choosing not to wait for Congress to tackle global warming and are taking their own steps to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

States are increasingly adopting stricter, energy-saving building codes; spending more money (partly federal) on energy efficiency; and prodding polluters to cut heat-trapping emissions.

“This is groundbreaking work the states are doing to provide leadership,” says Kevin Kennedy of the California Air Resources Board, a state agency that approved rules in December to cut the state’s carbon dioxide emissions 15% by 2020. This month, California began to require new TVs be more energy efficient, to phase out incandescent light bulbs (one year ahead of the national phaseout) and to enforce a green building code.

These efforts come as last year’s Democratic-controlled Congress failed to approve a climate change bill and the new Republican-led House of Representatives seeks to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating emissions.

States nearly doubled their spending on energy efficiency from 2007 to 2009, and twice as many—now at least 20—have proposed or adopted energy-saving building codes since 2009, according to a study in October by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a non-profit group.

States are acting individually and collectively:

Massachusetts announced last month that it will cut greenhouse gas emissions 25% from 1990 levels by 2020. “It’s very doable,” says Richard Sullivan, the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs. “When you focus on energy efficiency, you can go a long way.” This year, the state will help fund ultra-efficient retrofits for some homes and give them a miles-per-gallon type of efficiency label. It’s working to allow auto insurers to base their rates partly on a car’s annual mileage.

MARKET TRENDS: William Raveis launches customized CRM - Customer Relationship Management System

 Agents can manage contacts, access MLS
Northeast real estate brokerage William Raveis Real Estate has teamed up with data firm CoreLogic to launch a customized customer relationship management platform, the brokerage announced earlier this month.

The Agent Dashboard is a CRM, business management and marketing tool, the company said. It allows agents to monitor their social media accounts, implement targeted marketing plans, manage contacts according to what state of the buying or selling process they are in, track leads through analytics, get neighborhood profile information, and send clients listing notifications.

The system is also integrated with each agents' multiple listings service, the company said.

"This idea was founded on the principle that agents need a more efficient system to manage their daily business, whether they be sitting at a desk or quickly sifting through data on a mobile device," said Bill Raveis, the brokerage's chairman and CEO, in a statement.

"The Agent Dashboard will help them lead the industry in effective business management and in maintaining client relationships, pre- and post-closing," he added.

The foundation for the Agent Dashboard is CoreLogic's Web-based CRM AgentAchieve. The Agent Dashboard is provided at no cost to the company's 2,700 agents, the company said. The company has 75 offices throughout the Northeast.

William Raveis was ranked the 11th largest real estate brokerage in 2010 by sales volume, according to a survey report by REAL Trends.

Inman News February 16, 2011

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

NEWS: Bank returns seized homes to military families

WASHINGTON — JPMorgan Chase & Co. has returned 10 homes to military families whose properties were seized when they should have been protected a by law designed to shield service members from financial stress, a bank executive said.

The properties were among 18 found to have been improperly taken by New York-based JPMorgan, said Stephanie Mudick, the bank’s head of consumer practices. Two other homeowners got unspecified settlements, and six cases remain unsettled.

“We will attempt to make the remaining borrowers whole as quickly as possible,’’ said Mudick, who added that the bank is continuing its review.

JPMorgan, the nation’s second-biggest bank by assets, said last month it would return money to families who were overcharged on mortgages or lost their homes after the company was accused of violating the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. The bank has begun paying back $2.4 million to about 4,500 service members, Mudick said. The median payment is $70 plus interest.

The law restricts the ability of lenders to foreclose on homes owned by military service members who are on active duty or recently returned. It also caps mortgage interest rates at 6 percent during active duty and for 12 months afterward.

Bloomberg News February 10, 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

LOCAL GREEN NEWS: Castle Square upgrade

South End apartments built in 1960s to get green makeover

The Castle Square Apartments building was never a showcase. Built in the 1960s, the 500-unit low- and moderate-income apartment complex on Tremont Street offered its South End neighbors a bland brick-and-concrete exterior. Inside, the smells of cooking would spread among units.

But by the end of this year, the structure will sport a new, more appealing exterior, units will be sealed more effectively, and energy bills for residents will be lower — a lot lower.

Castle Square is undergoing a renovation designed to update the building’s aesthetics and achieve radical energy savings — a 72 percent drop from current consumption. Key to the project is a new “skin,’’ a 1-inch super-insulated shell that will be laid over the building’s dated facade.

The revamped look of the building is a point of pride for members of the Castle Square Tenants Organization. “People coming off the highway, this is one of their first impressions of the city,’’ said Tony Stark, a resident and a member of the association’s board.

Deborah Backus, executive director of the tenant group and a former resident, said the new shell “is going to bring the building’s look into the 21st century,’’ a goal echoed in the efforts to reduce energy consumption at the complex. In addition to the external insulation, the building will get solar-heated hot water, energy-efficient appliances and lighting, and new windows.

“We wanted to create a precedent that showed how to create dramatic carbon savings in existing buildings,’’ said Heather Clark, an energy efficiency consultant who is working on the project.

Green renovations typically result in an energy savings of around 20 to 30 percent, according to Clark. “At the scale we’re at, there’s no other building in the US that’s saving the type of energy we are at Castle Square,’’ she said.

The project also brings quality-of-life upgrades for residents. Every apartment will get a new kitchen and bathroom, as well as an energy-efficient window air conditioner. The complex is also getting a new community center, and workers are sealing air leaks between apartment units and on outside walls. That is expected to go a long way toward improving air quality.

As it is, residents can smell the food when neighbors cook, and “if someone is smoking in their unit, the person next door can smell the cigarette,’’ said Backus. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will analyze asthma rates before and after the project to see if the air sealing has an impact on residents’ health.

Most residents will continue to occupy their units during the renovation, with workers out of the apartments by 5 p.m. each day. Stark, however, will have to leave his unit for another within the complex. He uses a wheelchair and his apartment is being renovated to make it more accessible — the sink will be lowered, for example, so he can reach it more easily.

The project is a partnership between the Castle Square Tenants Organization, the majority owner of the building, and the Boston-based WinnCompanies, its minority partner.

“It’s kind of an unusual role for a developer not to be in the driver’s seat,’’ said Lawrence H. Curtis, president of WinnDevelopment, a division of WinnCompanies.

Curtis said a chief reason for the renovation was to keep the housing units affordable. “Higher utility costs mean higher rent for residents, the proverbial money out the window,’’ Curtis said. “It truly has, we believe, a meaningful impact on the lives of all these families.’’

Calvin Hennick Boston Globe February 5, 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011

NEIGHBORHOODS: Long-stalled residences back in play

The developer of Hayward Place in downtown Boston yesterday said he intends to begin construction of a residential building on the property this summer after a delay of more than four years.

Anthony Pangaro, principal of Millennium Partners-Boston, submitted a revised application to the city for a 15-story building with 265 units of rental and ownership housing, and 12,000 square feet to ground-floor retail space. An earlier plan for the property, now a parking lot across from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Towers, called for 188 residential units.

The project, initially approved in October 2006, has been on hold during an economic downturn that dried up funding for many of the city’s largest development projects. Pangaro said in a statement yesterday that he wants to begin construction this year “in spite of the still somewhat unclear economic climate.’’

“We are grateful for the opportunity to complete our work here and believe that it will become a key additional part of the city’s forward looking effort for downtown,’’ he said.

The site occupies the city block defined by Washington Street, Avenue de Lafayette, Harrison Avenue, and Hayward Place.

The BRA still must approved the revisions to the project, but Mayor Thomas M. Menino yesterday offered strong support: “This project represents a dramatic $200 million private investment that will be a tremendous boost for Downtown Crossing and the Theatre District,’’ Menino said in a statement.

The project is being designed by Handel Architects of New York, which also designed Millennium’s One Charles condominiums in the Back Bay and the recent addition to the Boston Conservatory of Music on Hemenway Street in the Fenway.

Casey Ross Boston Globe February 4, 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011

TAXES: 10 Common Errors Home Owners Make When Filing Taxes By: G. M. Filisko Read more:

As you calculate your tax returns, consider each home tax deduction and credit you are—and are not—entitled to. Running afoul of any of these 10 home-related tax mistakes—which tax pros say are especially common—can cost you money or draw the IRS to your doorstep.

Sin #1: Deducting the wrong year for property taxes
You take a tax deduction for property taxes in the year you (or the holder of your escrow account) actually paid them. Some taxing authorities work a year behind—that is, you’re not billed for 2010 property taxes until 2011. But that’s irrelevant to the feds.

Enter on your federal forms whatever amount you actually paid in 2010, no matter what the date is on your tax bill. Dave Hampton, CPA, tax manager at the Cincinnati accounting firm of Burke & Schindler, has seen home owners confuse payments for different years and claim the incorrect amount.

Sin #2: Confusing escrow amount for actual taxes paid
If your lender escrows funds to pay your property taxes, don’t just deduct the amount escrowed, says Bob Meighan, CPA and vice president at TurboTax in San Diego. The regular amount you pay into your escrow account each month to cover property taxes is probably a little more or a little less than your property tax bill. Your lender will adjust the amount every year or so to realign the two.

For example, your tax bill might be $1,200, but your lender may have collected $1,100 or $1,300 in escrow over the year. Deduct only $1,200. Your lender will send you an official statement listing the actual taxes paid. Use that. Don’t just add up 12 months of escrow property tax payments.

Sin #3: Deducting points paid to refinance
Deduct points you paid your lender to secure your mortgage in full for the year you bought your home. However, when you refinance, says Meighan, you must deduct points over the life of your new loan. If you paid $2,000 in points to refinance into a 15-year mortgage, your tax deduction is $133 per year.

Sin #4: Failing to deduct private mortgage insurance
Lenders require home buyers with a downpayment of less than 20% to purchase private mortgage insurance (PMI). Avoid the common mistake of forgetting to deduct your PMI payments. However, note the deduction begins to phase out once your adjusted gross income reaches $100,000 and disappears entirely when your AGI surpasses $109,000.

Sin #5: Misjudging the home office tax deduction
This deduction may not be as good as it seems. It often doesn’t amount to much of a deduction, has to be recaptured if you turn a profit when you sell your home, and can pique the IRS’s interest in your return. Hampton’s advice: Claim it only if it’s worth those drawbacks.

Sin #6: Missing the first-time home buyer tax credit
If you met the midyear 2010 deadlines, don’t forget to take this tax credit into account when filing.

Even if you missed the 2010 deadlines, you still might be in luck: Congress extended the first-time home buyer credit for military families and other government workers on assignment outside the United States. If you meet the criteria, you have until June 30, 2011, to close on your first home and qualify for the tax credit of up to $8,000.

Sin #7: Failing to track home-related expenses
If the IRS comes a-knockin’, don’t be scrambling to compile your records. Many people forget to track home office and home maintenance and repair expenses, says Meighan. File away documents as you go. For example, save each manufacturer’s certification statement for energy tax credits, insurance company statements for PMI, and lender or government statements to confirm property taxes paid.

Sin #8: Forgetting to keep track of capital gains
If you sold your main home last year, don’t forget to pay capital gains taxes on any profit. However, you can exclude $250,000 (or $500,000 if you’re a married couple) of any profits from taxes. So if you bought a home for $100,000 and sold it for $400,000, your capital gains are $300,000. If you’re single, you owe taxes on $50,000 of gains. However, there are minimum time limits for holding property to take advantage of the exclusions, and other details. Consult IRS Publication 523.

Sin #9: Filing incorrectly for energy tax credits
If you made any eligible improvement, fill out Form 5695. Part I, which covers the 30%/$1,500 credit for such items as insulation and windows, is fairly straightforward. But Part II, which covers the 30%/no-limit items such as geothermal heat pumps, can be incredibly complex and involves crosschecking with half a dozen other IRS forms. Read the instructions carefully.

Sin #10: Claiming too much for the mortgage interest tax deduction
You can deduct mortgage interest only up to $1 million of mortgage debt, says Meighan. If you have $1.2 million in mortgage debt, for example, deduct only the mortgage interest attributable to the first $1 million.

This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but is not intended to be relied upon by readers as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Readers should consult a tax professional for such advice, and are reminded that tax laws may vary by jurisdiction.

G.M. Filisko
Read more:

Saturday, February 12, 2011

SAFE HOMES: Winter Storm Safety

Winter weather can be relentless. Ice, snow, and sleet in their many forms mean homeowners can find themselves homebound.

Outlined below are ten easy steps that can help your family make it through a winter snow-in.

1. Keep warm: Temperatures can drop well below zero during major winter storms. If your electricity fails, do you have a backup plan to keep warm? Blankets, warm clothing, and firewood are all great things to have on hand.

2. Water: We can survive on limited food, but we and our pets must have water. Have bottled or jugged water on hand in the case of emergency.

3. Non-perishable food: If you go without electricity, you may find yourself being unable to store food. Stock up on non-perishables before a big storm. And then buy plenty of fruits and vegetables that can keep without refrigeration.

4. Crank radio: You may need to listen to emergency announcements. Crank and battery-powered radios are an essential.

5. First-aid kit: Alcohol, bandages, anti-bacterial ointment, burn salve, and basic pain killers (aspirin and acetaminophen) are staples of a well-stocked first-aid kit. Also be sure that prescriptions have been filled prior to any big storm system.

6. Sidewalks: Be sure to have a snow shovel and a bag of sand on hand before any big storm. You'll need to clear your driveway as well as sand your walkways. There is nothing worse than taking a spill on ice.

7. Candles and lighter/matches: If lights are out, you'll still need candles or a flashlight to find your way around. Plus, candles offer a great ambiance, even when you're stuck inside!

8. Entertainment: Movies, cards, board games, and books can all make the time pass quickly.

9. Sleds: Okay, this isn't a necessity. But nothing brings out the wish for a sled more than a perfectly snow covered hill. Plan ahead and you'll be ready for some great family bonding.

10. Travel: If you must venture out, be sure you have a full tank of gas, a blanket/sleeping bag, water, and kitty litter. Why kitty litter? If you get stuck, kitty litter may offer enough grit for tires to gain traction.

Use these simple tips to make your next snow day successful. And above all else, be sure to stay off icy roads and inside your home when weather is bad.

Carla Hill Realty Times February 3, 2011

Friday, February 11, 2011

MARKET TRENDS: Consumer Confidence Rises in January

Anticipation of improved conditions in business and the job market caused consumer confidence to inch up in January.

Lynn Franco, Director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center, reports that “consumers have begun the year in better spirits. As a result, the Index is now near levels not seen since last spring (May 2010, Index 62.7). Consumers rated business and labor market conditions more favorably and expressed greater confidence that the economy will continue to expand and generate more jobs in the months ahead. Income expectations are also more positive. Although pessimists still outnumber optimists, the gap has narrowed.”

What is consumer confidence? It is measured in terms of the public's optimism about the economy. Consumer confidence is also measured in part by how much people are spending and saving.

Each month The Conference Board surveys 5,000 U.S. households. The survey asks for rankings on:

Current business conditions
Current employment conditions
Projected Business conditions
Employment conditions for the next six months
Total family income for the next six months
In January, consumers' short term outlook was higher than the month prior. According to the Conference Board, "Those anticipating an improvement in business conditions over the next six months increased to 19.0 percent from 16.8 percent, while those anticipating business conditions will worsen decreased to 11.3 percent from 11.8 percent. Consumers were also more optimistic about the job market. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead increased to 16.0 percent from 14.2 percent, while those expecting fewer jobs declined to 17.5 percent from 19.2 percent. The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes rose to 11.4 percent from 9.9 percent."

Consumer spending also rose in the latest survey, as reported by the Commerce Department. This was the sixth month of gains, and the highest it has been in four years, according to Business Week.

Unemployment, however, remains high. In the last monthly report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment is 9.4 percent nationally. This is a slight decline of .4 percent from December. Rises in employment were seen in the healthcare and leisure and hospitality industries only.

"There are definitely hopeful signs of sustained recovery in 2011,” Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Dennis Lockhart said yesterday, “That said, I believe it is a bit early to declare victory, and, to be sure, employment is nowhere near acceptable levels.”

Repair to the ailing job market should have far reaching effects, namely on spending and the housing market.

Carla Hill Realty Times February 1, 2011

Thursday, February 10, 2011

JUST FOR FUN: What States Are Worst At

NEIGHBORHOOD DEVELOPMENT: Concord; Work on 350-unit complex begins

Affordable units help town plan

After plodding through years of planning, public hearings, and financing issues, developers are breaking ground on a 350-unit apartment complex in West Concord.

Crews started demolishing two industrial buildings last month, and site work is scheduled to start next month.

“We’re very excited to have finally started after all this time,’’ said Robb Hewitt, who is overseeing the project for Mill Creek Residential Trust. The project’s name has changed from Alexan Concord to Longview Meadow.

The start of construction is good news for Concord officials, who have long supported the affordable housing project because it will ultimately allow for more control over its future residential growth, according to the town’s planning director, Marcia Rasmussen.

The project, built under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable-housing law, will put Concord over a state threshold for affordable housing units. Of the 350 apartments, most of which will have one or two bedrooms, 25 percent would be set aside for lower-income renters, but as rental units all of them qualify for the Chapter 40B requirement. As a result, at least 10 percent of Concord’s housing stock can be considered affordable, meeting the state’s threshold.

Many communities frown on Chapter 40B projects because it allows developers to bypass most local zoning regulations as long as they set aside a percentage of the units as affordable. But with the new apartments under construction, Concord will be able to say no to projects that don’t fit in with its planning goals.

“It’s great because this particular property has been on the table for about four years,’’ said Selectman Jeffrey Wieand, chairman of the Concord board. “It allows us to comply with the state housing statute.’’

The project is being built on a 30-acre parcel on Old Power Mill Road in the town’s southwest corner bordering Maynard, Acton, and Sudbury. Traffic would enter and exit the property through Acton, and the apartments will be adjacent to a Sudbury neighborhood.

When the project was proposed, Acton and Sudbury residents raised concerns about the traffic and density of the project.

But there have been no issues since construction started, officials said.

“We haven’t had many concerns or complaints from neighbors,’’ said Jody Kablack, Sudbury’s director of planning and community development. “For now, we have an open line of communication, and nothing has been flagged yet for an issue.’’

On the site, there will be 11 three-story buildings, each with 28 units, and 42 two-story town house units. In addition, the project will include a 6,000-square-foot clubhouse with pool, fitness center, and other amenities.

Hewitt said the timing for construction isn’t ideal, but the company is trying to get as much done as quickly as possible. Construction is expected to take about two years, though the company plans to start leasing the units in about a year. He said there would be a lottery for the affordable units.

Hewitt said he’s hopeful that the housing market will have rebounded by then.

“It’s poised for a recovery,’’ he said. “Very little has started over the last couple of years, so we think we’ll be in a good position.’’ Concord approved the project’s Chapter 40B comprehensive permit in the spring of 2008, and Acton approved its permit in November 2008.

Concord was allowed to count the unbuilt units toward its affordable-housing stock as long as the developer obtained a building permit within a year. However, the year passed and the developer was unable to obtain financing so a building permit was not issued. As a result, the town had to take those units off its affordable-housing inventory, Rasmussen said, leaving the town once again vulnerable to other 40B projects.

But Rasmussen said the company was able to work out the financing last fall, and returned to Concord for the building permit. Now that it has been filed, Rasmussen said, the town can add the units to its affordable housing inventory.

Rasmussen said she’s relieved that no other developer proposed projects in the meantime.

“I don’t have to hold my breath any longer,’’ Rasmussen said.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts Boston Globe January 27, 2011