Sunday, July 31, 2011

MARKET TRENDS: June home sales continue slump; weakest in 14 years

WASHINGTON - People are buying homes at the weakest pace in 14 years.
Sales of previously occupied homes fell in June for a third straight month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.77 million, the National Association of Realtors said yesterday.

This year’s pace is lagging behind the 4.91 million homes sold last year - the fewest since 1997. In a healthy economy, people buy roughly 6 million homes per year.

Fewer first-time home buyers are entering the market. Many can’t obtain a loan or meet larger down payment requirements.

Another problem is that a growing number of contracts are being canceled before sales are finalized, many because of lower appraisals that are scuttling loans. And the slowdown in hiring is making people think twice about taking on extra debt.

High unemployment, millions of foreclosures, and tighter credit are likely to keep people from buying homes in the second half of the year, economists say. Even low home prices and cheap mortgage rates are unlikely to draw buyers to the market.

“Given the state of the job market, and some reluctance among banks to lend and households to borrow, this lackluster pace of sales is not too surprising,’’ said Alistair Bentley, economist at TD Economics.

First-time home buyers, who are critical to a strong and stable housing markets, have shrunk to 31 percent of sales. That’s the fewest since January 2010.

Normally, first-time buyers make up about half of all home sales. And their purchases of low- and moderately-priced homes allow sellers to move up to pricier homes.

But the sluggishness of the US economy appears to be weighing heavily on the minds of would-be home buyers, analysts say. In June, the economy created 18,000 net jobs, the fewest in nine months. The unemployment rate rose to 9.2 percent.

Home sales have fallen in four of the past five years, forcing prices down in most markets. Declining home values have made people feel less wealthy, and as a result they are spending less. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of economic activity.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

NEWS: Real estate site Zillow jumps on IPO

NEW YORK - Investors set aside housing market doldrums and rushed to grab shares of real estate website Zillow yesterday, valuing the company at as much as $1.6 billion.

Zillow Inc., which has never made a profit, is yet another beneficiary of strong investor demand for the latest crop of Internet stocks.

Many of the recent market debutantes provide social networking, online games, or search. Zillow’s shares tripled in their trading debut on the Nasdaq stock market. Zillow had set a price of $20 for its stock late Tuesday.

The weak housing market did not hurt Zillow’s initial public offering. Figures released yesterday show that Americans are buying homes at the weakest pace in 14 years.

Zillow’s IPO follows filings by high-profile Internet companies ranging from daily deals site Groupon Inc., the professional networking service LinkedIn Corp., along with Zynga Inc. best known for the online game “FarmVille.’’

Though these companies generate a lot of IPO euphoria, the attention they receive on their initial day of trading has not guaranteed success.

Pandora Inc., the online radio service, has seen it shares fluctuate wildly since going public on June 14. Pandora’s shares are now trading at $17.60, 10 percent above their offer price.

Founded in 2004, Zillow provides online listings for more than 100 million homes that are either for sale or for rent.

Associated Press July 21, 2011

Friday, July 29, 2011

NEIGHBORHOOD NEWS: Residents want more on Herald property site

New real estate projects are usually greeted by an instant chorus of boos and not-in-my-backyard rants from neighbors complaining that a proposed development is just too big.

But National Development’s effort to redevelop the sprawling Boston Herald site in the South End has triggered a different response: It’s not big enough.

During recent informal meetings and in comment letters to City Hall, neighbors and nearby businesses have told the developer and Boston regulators that National Development could do much more with the 6-acre site than its proposed low-rise complex that would include 262 apartments, restaurants, stores, and underground parking.

“I was a little disappointed,’’ said Kye Liang of the Chinatown Coalition, a community group of residents and business owners who met with National Development last week. “I think they can go higher. My first reaction was, ‘This is like Natick Mall.’ This seems like a development more appropriate for the suburbs instead of near the downtown, urban city.’’

National Development is proposing a building that would be 68 feet tall. The Boston Redevelopment Authority and community members would like the building to be as high as 150 feet on Albany Street, or the Interstate 93 side, and stepping down to 100 feet on the Herald Street front, according to the city. The current zoning on the property limits buildings to 70 feet.

Ted Tye, a managing partner at National Development, said that since it is early in the development process, the company’s plans are “very much up in the air,’’ and his staff has been listening intently to neighbors’ suggestions.

“People would like to see more rather than less on the site. They would like to see something that stimulates the development of the area, puts more density and puts more people on the street,’’ Tye said. “They would like to see some retail mixed with some residential. We don’t disagree with that.’’

Tye did acknowledge the unusual nature of the situation with neighbors. “It does run contrary to some other development situations,’’ he said. “It’s great to have a neighborhood behind us that wants to see something happen, because so do we.’’

Residents and city officials hope that the proposed redevelopment of the Herald property would help reinvigorate a section of the city where Chinatown, the South End, and South Boston meet.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

NEIGHBORHOOD NEWS: Air-rights lease at Copley roils critics

The plan to enlarge Copley Place with a 47-story tower that would be Boston’s largest residential building has again thrust the complex into controversy, with two lawmakers accusing Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Governor Deval Patrick’s administration of steamrolling the public review of the massive project.

This artist's rendering shows the proposed Copley Place expansion, a 47-story tower to the right of the John Hancock Tower. (Elkus Manfredi Architects)
The economic downturn caused many construction projects across the area to be put on hold. Fortunately, some of those developments are resuming.

State representatives Martha Walz and Byron Rushing, whose districts abut or include the project site, contend the Patrick administration recently violated a 1997 agreement by signing a revised lease with the developer before city and state regulators could review traffic, parking, and other issues.

Walz said Patrick’s top trans portation aide, Jeffrey B. Mullan, told her during a recent phone conversation that the administration was under pressure to sign the lease from Menino, who backs expanding Copley Place.

The lease gives Simon Property Group air rights over the Massachusetts Turnpike, where it wants to build a complex that would include 318 condominiums, a larger Neiman Marcus store, and a glass-enclosed garden with restaurants and shops.

In one section of the lease, the Massachusetts Transportation Department, acting as landlord, appears to sign off on the details of the developer’s plan for the tower: “Landlord has herewith given its approval to the proposed development plan for the project which is attached hereto as Exhibit H, which provides a clear and detailed written and, to the extent applicable, graphic description’’ of the size and design of the project, as well as saying how to mitigate its impact on the surrounding area.

Simon’s tower would sit across from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Back Bay Station, at the intersection of the Back Bay and South End. Residents of those neighborhoods have raised concerns about the wind and shadows thrown off by the skyscrapers in the area.

A transportation executive said the lease, by itself, does not grant the right to build, because the project still needs approvals from state environmental regulators and the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

“The lease amendments we made do not interfere in any way with the review process that’s in place,’’ said Peter O’Connor, head of real estate for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “All we are saying in the lease is that if you get permits from the city and [environmental regulators] we will not object, as landlord, if you build it on this land.’’

Walz and Rushing, however, said the administration’s action makes such approvals a fait accompli and appears to violate the 1997 city-state agreement concerning air rights projects over the turnpike. They cited a provision that the state “shall not lease any air rights for a project except in accordance with the BRA’s certification.’’

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

NEIGHBORHOOD NEWS: Downtown office tower proposed for garage site

The development team seeking to replace the Government Center Garage in downtown Boston last night fleshed out details of the massive complex it wants to build that include plans for a tower about 45 stories high.

The developer, HYM Investment Group LLC, wants to build a seven-building complex that includes office, retail, residential uses and a hotel that would total almost 3 million square feet.

The garage is in something of a no-man’s land between Government Center, North Station, and Quincy Market, but the sprawling development could turn the Congress Street area into an “active retail and pedestrian corridor,” its lead local developer said at a public presentation in Boston City Hall.

“It’s a place that people travel through but not a place that people travel to, especially after 5 o’clock,” said the developer, Thomas N. O’Brien, a former director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

The garage is on New Sudbury Street and is bounded by Congress, New Chardon, and Hawkins streets. On the Congress Street side, it fronts on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

NEIGHBORHOOD NEWS: Home, again in Roxbury

In Roxbury, $2.8m restoration of historic mansion to get underway

In its heyday, the mansion in Roxbury Highlands was a symbol of Boston’s growth following the American Revolution, a time when prosperity was washing across the city like a flash flood.

With his furniture business, Alvah Kittredge built the grand Greek revival home in 1836, establishing a neighborhood that attracted the likes of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and author Edward Everett Hale.

But over the ensuing decades, as Roxbury developed from a suburb into a teeming section of the city, the massive home on Linwood Street was forgotten - left to deteriorate into an amorphous white block with peeling paint and rotting columns.

Starting Monday, however, the home and its history will be the subject of $2.8 million restoration project that will result in apartments for five families at a property still very much rooted in its proud, if faded, past.

“We all know this is a beautiful and important house,’’ said Celia Grant, who has lived in the neighborhood, situated near Eliot Square, for 12 years. “It’s crying out to be lived in, and for a long time it’s been crying out to be saved.’’

The restoration is being spearheaded by Historic Boston Inc., a nonprofit group that preserves culturally significant buildings in neighborhoods across the city. On Monday the organization will host an open house, to be attended by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, whose administration took the property by eminent domain after its prior owner let it fall into disrepair.

“This is a historic part of our city, and we have to restore it,’’ Menino said, adding that his administration is working with residents to rebuild the nearby Alvah Kittredge Park. “You can build new sections of the city, but they won’t have the integrity that makes Boston what it is.’’

Historic Boston, which in August is moving its offices to the nearby Eustis Street Fire House, plans to divide the 6,400-square-foot home into five residential units, two of which will be designated as affordable housing. Because it is using state and federal tax credits for the project,

Monday, July 25, 2011

MARKET TRENDS: What Can Home Owners Learn From Case-Shiller’s Home Price Index?

The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index released its monthly report this week, with less than surprising results. April’s home prices for the 20 U.S. cities comprising the index dropped 4% year-over-year despite a slight 0.7% uptick from March to April. The uptick can be chalked up to the fact that April marks the beginning of the high season for home buying. It’s the first national price increase in eight months.

Financial markets rely on and respond to the data released by this index, for example crude oil prices moving higher yesterday in response to the latest report’s news. But how important is Case-Shiller’s price data to homeowners?

I’d argue not very, since prices reported in the index are well over two months old. In an uncertain housing market like this one, those prices change every month and there are more factors than ever contributing to them. So how does Case-Shiller’s data stack up against other home price indexes and what can homeowners glean from it, if anything?

“Barring the nuances of different methodology and data sets, the overall picture remains the same,” says Dr. Alex Villacorta, director of research and analytics at Clear Capital, a Truckee, Calif.-based real estate research firm. Clear Capital releases a Home Data Index that demonstrates price changes up to the week before the report is issued. When the company released its April data (in early May), they reported a 5% decrease year-over-year, compared to Case-Shiller’s 4% decrease.

One reason for the one percent difference is the fact that Case-Shiller applies a larger weight to more expensive homes and a lesser weight to less expensive homes; Clear Capital applies an equal wieght across all price points, assessing percentage changes regardless of price rather than looking at total property value. Another reason is the fact that Case-Shiller’s indices are 10-City and 20-City Composite Home Price Indices, meaning the report focuses primarily on the 10 and 20 largest U.S. metro areas. Clear Capital crunches data for several hundred metro areas as well as sub-zip code boundaries, meaning a much larger data pool.

Villacorta suspects Case-Shiller’s numbers, which also reflect the first month-over-month price increase in eight months, will reflect similar results to more up-to-date home price indexes as the summer months plow on: “We’re [Clear Capital] seeing overall prices level off and we’ve been

Sunday, July 24, 2011

It’s second nature for many consumers to research any big-ticket purchase online before they pony up their hard-earned money. So why should buying a house be any different?

Well, it isn’t. Online real estate listings have been common for years, but now an array of search tools and smartphone apps let buyers tap into a wealth of information on the fly.

Some brokers are using quick response codes - or QR codes - on their “for sale’’ signs and flyers. QR codes are the small square versions of a bar code that look like ink blots and they’re popping up more frequently in newspaper ads and other locations. Scan the code with a smartphone loaded with a QR app and it takes you directly to a website with photos, additional details, and in some cases videos.

Coldwell Banker has in the past two years encouraged agents to use video cameras to record home tours and clips of themselves offering advice.

The company has its own channel on YouTube and says it has about 70,000 videos posted, said chief marketing officer Mike Fischer. About 3 million views have been logged since the site was launched two years ago.

Videos are better than the traditional slide show because, for example, buyers can get a better sense of how the dining room flows into the living room, Fischer said. Video can also help provide context on where the home is in relationship to neighbors and show sights and sounds around the home. For example, the video of a beachfront home can show how close it is to the beach and demonstrate if the sound of the surf and seagulls can be heard from the deck

Saturday, July 23, 2011

ECONOMIC NEWS: US office market on the rebound drew attention from landlords in March when it leased most of a 36-story downtown Seattle tower built during the recession, a sign that technology job growth would help lift US office rents and occupancies.

“The reduction of big blocks of space is always the first indicator of recovery,’’ said Patrick Callahan, chief executive officer of Urban Renaissance Group, a Seattle-based commercial real estate developer and investor that manages about 2 million square feet of properties.

The US office market gained 3.7 million square feet of net occupied space in the three months through June, the third straight quarterly increase, Reis Inc. said last week. Vacancies fell or were unchanged in nine of the 10 largest office markets, and declined in more than half of the 79 metropolitan areas surveyed, the New York-based property-research firm said.

Demand for space from technology companies is leading a rebound in US office rents. Groupon, the Chicago-based coupon-website operator, in June signed a lease for a 40,000-square-foot building in Palo Alto, Calif., to house its growing Silicon Valley product and engineering staff. The building is more than triple the size of Groupon’s current space in the city, said Julie Mossler, a spokeswoman for the company.

Rising demand in large cities is helping to increase effective rents, or what tenants pay after such landlord concessions as rent-free months.

Effective rents rose in six of the top 10 markets last quarter, Reis said. San Francisco climbed the most, gaining 6 percent from a year earlier, according to the firm.

“Northern California in the last six months has shown tremendous strength,’’ said Frank Cohen, a senior managing director in real estate for Blackstone Group, whose Equity Office unit has stakes in 19 million square feet of office space in the San Francisco Bay area and Silicon Valley.

Demand from technology companies helped drive asking rents in San Francisco up to $40.06 a square foot in the second quarter, a 19 percent increase from a year earlier and the biggest advance in four years, according to Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. Net absorption totaled almost 1.3 million square feet in the 12 months ended June 30, making San Francisco the nation’s top-performing office market, the Chicago-based broker said.

New York, Boston, and San Jose, Calif., also were among the top 10 markets in effective rent growth in the second quarter, Reis said. Demand from financial services and media companies drove the gains in New York, while technology and life-sciences tenants buoyed the Boston area, Cohen said. Technology demand also is strong in Austin, Texas, he said.

Friday, July 22, 2011

As development booms across the harbor, boosters’ anxiety over languishing waterfront projects in East Boston rises

“I love my neighbors in South Boston, but it’s time the city looked at East Boston. It’s our time now,’’ he said.

LaMattina’s frustration echoes a common lament in East Boston; that all the action in waterfront development is happening across the harbor in South Boston. And despite having fabulous views from an expansive waterfront, and no shortage of big projects that would maximize Eastie’s vantage point, there is little sign that long-dormant development will pick up anytime soon.

With so much focus on the South Boston waterfront, “you feel like a stepchild here,’’ said Carlo Basile, the state legislator who represents East Boston. “South Boston is so hot, everyone wants to live over there, but we have a better view.’’

Four main projects - Portside at Pier One, New Street, Clippership Wharf, and Hodge Boiler Works - have languished for years. Most, like New Street, are fully permitted and awaiting financing.

“We didn’t think it was going to take as long as it took,’’ admitted Bruce Ohanian, who with his family owns three attached buildings on a four-acre waterfront parcel on New Street.

Ohanian started the development process 11 years ago and did not receive his final permit until this spring. His plan calls for 224 apartments and adding seven stories onto a nine-story building. At 16 stories, it will be the tallest building in East Boston. He is looking for a financial partner, a developer to run with the project, or an outright sale.

Some people have expressed interest, but “there is some pioneering that needs to be done. Charlestown has emerged, the North End . . . this is East Boston’s time now,’’ said Ohanian.

Residents have been saying that for years. LaMattina remembers first hearing talk of redeveloping East Boston’s waterfront when he began working for the mayor’s office in 1987. Twenty-four years later, LaMattina calls the inertia in his community, which has staggering views of downtown Boston, Bunker Hill, and the Zakim Bridge, “disappointing’’ and singles out choice weed-choked waterfront plots that have stood idle for years as “disgusting.’’

“When you hear ‘waterfront development,’ you think of opportunities for jobs. We need to do something,’’ said LaMattina.

In the past two decades, developers and private landowners announced plans to open residential buildings with restaurants, boat launches, harbor walks, and even a boutique hotel. One by one, they lost funding, scaled back, or just went away. The down economy and the arduous process of building along the water are culprits, but as South Boston rises with Liberty Wharf, the ICA, Louis Boston, and Fan Pier across the way, city officials and residents wonder: Why not Eastie?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Penthouse sells for record $13.2m as Hub’s high-end condo market picks up.

The prime penthouse at the Mandarin Oriental has again set a record for the most expensive condo sold in Boston, though the $13.2 million price was little more than what the sellers paid for it three years ago. And still it’s never been lived in.

The 6,829-square-foot unit, which has sweeping views of the city and more balcony and deck areas than most homes have living space, sold last month for only $100,000 more than what the seller bought it for in 2008 when the Mandarin had just opened.

“It’s the ultimate penthouse in the city of Boston,’’ said Tracy Campion, the downtown real estate agent who brokered the sale.

Wilbur Development LLC bought the penthouse three years ago for about $13.1 million as an investment, after a previous buyer, a Florida real estate developer, backed out of buying it for $14 million. That buyer said the unit had too little sunlight. Wilbur first listed the property for $16.9 million in October 2008.

It is possible Wilbur might have even lost money on the deal, although there is little information in public records about how the company financed the transaction and company officials did not return calls seeking comment. For example, condo fees for the penthouse run more than $10,000 a month, and Wilbur owned the unit for 33 months.

Right now it doesn’t have a stick of furniture in it. In real estate parlance, it is “raw’’ space, empty and unfinished, as Wilbur Development bought it as an investment and never moved in.

The new owner intends to be one of the first to live there, according to Campion. He is Henry

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Annual deck maintenance will forestall major repairs, protect your investment, and 

boost your enjoyment of your outdoor living space.

Because decks are exposed to the harshest elements, they require annual maintenance. Most decks should be cleaned and sealed every year to protect wood components; even decks made of composite or vinyl decking should be washed annually. Also, every deck should be checked regularly for signs of rot and to ensure structural integrity.

Because a deck is a particularly good investment—returning about 73% of its original cost, according to Remodeling Magazine’s annual Cost vs. Value Report—it’s a good idea to establish a routine of upkeep that’ll protect your deck and prevent expensive repairs. Here’s a simple maintenance schedule to help keep your deck safe, sound, and looking great.

Late spring: Wash the deck
Aside from general dinginess, one of the sure signs a deck needs washing is a film of mold and grunge. Left unchecked, mold and dirt and can trap moisture and cause rot.

Begin cleaning your deck by removing debris from between deck boards using a putty knife. (For a makeshift extension that’s a real knee-saver, try pushing the handle of your putty knife into a length of 1¼-inch PVC pipe. Some putty knives squeeze right in.)
Or, buy a pole-type groove and crevice cleaner. Pay special attention to the areas where deck boards cross the joists—the structural members underneath the decking. Thoroughly sweep the deck.

For a wood deck, use a standard deck cleaner—about $20 for 250 sq. ft. coverage. Or, make your own with a half bleach, half water solution. Choose a cloudy day when the decking is cool and the sun won’t evaporate the cleaner. Protect all shrubs and plantings with plastic sheeting. Apply the cleaner according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Once the decking is cleaned, tackle the railing. Working from the bottom up, apply the cleaner, scrub, and then rinse. Working from the top down splatters the cleaning solution onto dry wood where it can double-bleach the surface, leaving marks that don’t go away when the lower area is washed. Working from the bottom up means you’ll be splattering onto a wet surface where the cleaner is diluted, leaving no marks.

For composite decks, use a cleaner specifically formulated for use on composite material. Scrub with a soft brush. Do not use a pressure washer—it can permanently damage the decking and will void any warranty. Remove rust and leaf stains with a deck brightener containing oxalic acid. Attack grease and oil stains with a commercial degreaser and detergents. Mold and mildew can be kept under control with the use of a deck wash solution twice a year.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Adding a basement bathroom can cost $10,000. Is it worth the time and expense? These are the issues to weigh.

Adding a basement bathroom is a big and expensive decision. It may be desirable—who wants to run upstairs each time nature calls?—yet not practical, especially if gravity isn’t on your side. Here are the issues to ponder.
It’s easy to imagine putting a bathroom in your basement remodel. It’s harder to figure out how to get waste and sewer gasses out.

Just like bathrooms in other parts of your house, adding a basement bathroom means wastewater must drain to the existing city sewer or to an on-site septic system, and sewer gasses must be vented directly to the outside in compliance with building codes.
Create falling waters
In most basement bathrooms, you must create “fall,” or you must give the waste a push.

All this pushing and falling costs money: Adding a basement bathroom could add $10,000 to your basement retreat budget.

 Wastewater from your basement bathroom sink, shower or tub, and toilet must have enough slope (another word for “fall”) to drain properly and effectively.
Achieving proper fall may require removing and rebuilding a small section of the basement slab and excavation of the ground underneath. The process involves digging a trench for a drainage pipe to connect the new bathroom to your home’s existing sewer or septic system.
Installing basement toilets
To give gravity an extra push, install a pressure-assisted toilet ($150 to $800) with a pressure valve that forces

Monday, July 18, 2011

ENERGY EFFICIENCY: 10 Tips for Saving Energy in the Kitchen

Maintaining your large kitchen appliances is

part of a smart home energy efficiency plan.

Spending less money on utility bills doesn’t mean you need to rush out and purchase a whole new suite of Energy Star appliances. With occasional light maintenance and good habits, you can greatly improve the energy efficiency of your large kitchen appliances—up to about $120 annually—without sacrificing convenience.

Energy-efficiency experts tell us to focus our efforts on the biggest energy hogs in the house, and that definitely includes the fridge. Because it cycles on and off all day, every day, the refrigerator consumes more electricity than nearly every appliance in the home save for the HVAC systems. The average refrigerator costs about $90 per year to operate, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The good news is that a few simple adjustments can trim roughly $38 to $45 off those utility bills.

1. Adjust the thermostat. By setting the thermostat colder than it needs to be, you might increase your fridge’s energy consumption by as much as 25% on average. Adjust the refrigerator so that it stays in the 37-40 degrees F range. For the freezer, shoot for between 0-5 degrees F. You could save up to $22 per year. If your model doesn’t display the current temps, invest in two appliance thermometers (one for the fridge, one for the freezer). They cost roughly $3-$20 apiece at online retailers.

2. Clean the coils. As dust accumulates on the condenser coils on the rear or bottom of the fridge, it restricts cool-air flow and forces the unit to work harder and longer than necessary. Every six months, vacuum away the dust that accumulates on the mechanism. Also, check to see that there is at least a 3-inch clearance at the rear of the fridge for proper ventilation. This routine maintenance can trim up to 5% off the unit’s operating cost, says energy savings expert Michael Bluejay, saving you about $4.50 a year.

3. Use an ice tray. Automatic ice makers are a nice convenience, to be sure, but it turns out the mechanisms are energy hogs. An automatic ice maker can increase a refrigerator’s energy consumption by 14% to 20%, according to Energy Star. By switching off the ice maker and using trays, you can save about $12 to $18 off your annual electricity bill. Most units require little more than a lift of the sensor arm to switch them off. To reclaim the space remove the entire unit, a simple DIY job on many models.

4. Unplug the “beer fridge.” Many homes have an extra fridge that runs

Sunday, July 17, 2011

MOVING: Avoid Rogues Masquerading As Movers

Rogue movers want to take you and your belongings for a ride.

Peak moving season, Memorial Day to Labor Day, is underway. It's the period when more than half the nation's millions of households move every year and need moving services.

Fly-by-night rogues know the season well and are out in force making their own moves.

Rogue movers attempt to put the moves on financially struggling consumers who may have been crushed by the economy, are forced to move, but are short on cash. They are also after those who have to move quickly, for whatever reason, say to take advantage of a new job in another town.

Rogue movers prey on your vulnerabilities, your ignorance and your inability or unwillingness to take time to vet your mover.

Moving experts are warning consumers that disreputable movers often make it their business to lure you with low estimates. Later, those estimates can mount with exorbitant charges and the threat of holding your household goods hostage until you pay what amounts to a steep ransom.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

MARKET TRENDS: Homeownership Remains a Priority

The down market may have left depressed home values across much of the nation, but an overwhelming 72 percent of renters still say owning a home is a top priority. The National Association of Realtors'® (NAR) 2011 National Housing Pulse Survey revealed that homeownership, and access to it, are on the minds of renters.
"Despite the economic setbacks Americans have experienced in today's current climate, it is clear that a strong majority still believe in home ownership and aspire to own a home," said NAR President Ron Phipps, broker-president of Phipps Realty in Warwick, R.I.

One of the main obstacles to homeownership remains readily available credit and struggles to procure a down payment. The proposed Qualified Residential Mortgage rule, which would require a 20 percent downpayment, has raised concerns from many industry leaders.

The NAR survey revealed that 51 percent of self-described "working class" homeowners who currently own their homes said this new rule would have been a road block to homeownership for them. This same statistic applied to younger non-college graduates, African Americans, and Hispanics.

According to NAR, "Pulse surveys for the past eight years have consistently reported that having enough money for a down payment and closing costs are top obstacles that make housing unaffordable for Americans. Eighty-two percent of respondents cited these as the top obstacle, followed by having confidence in one's job security."

Some pundits argue, however, that unchecked lending to underqualified candidates is what led to the housing collapse in the first place. According to the National Bureau of Economics, only 51 percent of Americans could come up with $2,000 cash in case of an emergency. This begs the question, "What part of this 51 percent should be qualified for mortgages to raise homeownership rates?"

Friday, July 15, 2011

MORTGAGE & FINANCE: Mortgage Rates Remain Steady as Home Prices Improve

Over the past week, sparks of good news indicating a step in the right direction for the economic recovery kept mortgage rates steady and still at their lowest for 2011. For the first time in eight months, U.S. home prices showed a slight increase as reported by Case Shiller Home Price Indices.'s daily survey of wholesale and direct lenders show that there was little to no impact on mortgage rates this past week which are still at favorable levels. Current 30 year fixed mortgage rates are at 4.250%, 15 year fixed mortgage rates are at 3.500% and 5/1 adjustable mortgage rates are at 2.750%. With good credit and documentation to receive lender approval, borrowers can still obtain these low mortgage rates with 0.7 to 1% origination fee. It is still the best time in many years for consumers to choose home ownership before home prices begin to increase at a steady pace.

Following the trend, current FHA 30 year fixed mortgage rates are at 4.250%, FHA 15 year fixed mortgage rates are at 3.750% and FHA 5/1 adjustable mortgage rates are at 3.000%.

Down payment requirements for FHA mortgage loans are as low as 3.5% which is a bonus considering that FHA allows gifts and housing grants to be used by borrowers. FHA closing costs (APR) do tend to be higher because of the upfront mortgage insurance premium and other FHA fees. Considering all facts, FHA mortgages are still a good choice especially for the first time home buyer.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

MARKET TRENDS: Selling the Family Cottage to Your Children

When you're a kid, the family cottage means long, fun days playing outside during Canada's brief summer season. When you become a teenager you can invite friends and the cottage becomes party central. When you become an adult and your parents pass the cottage on to you and your siblings, it can become a battlefield.

If you have a family cottage, now is the time to gather everyone together to discuss what will become of it. Without financial planning, there's a real possibility that your children will have to sell the cottage to pay off the fees and taxes that will come due when you pass away. The other conversation must be about the lifestyles of your children and whether all of them (and their spouses) want to keep the cottage or sell off their share.

"Sentimentality around the family cottage or cabin doesn't have to calculate into stressful emotions," says Elaine Blades of Scotia Private Client Group. "There's no right answer here, so it's important to look at the destination. Look at what the family wants to happen and work backwards while working with an expert who can anticipate all scenarios to help get there. By starting the succession conversation, adult children often find they're doing their parents a favour. Have the discussion and have it now."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

MARKET TRENDS: Real Estate Outlook: State of Housing Recovery

Is the high price of gas, now near $4 a gallon average, taking a toll on the economic recovery? Recent statistics indicate downward trends in several sectors.

The Commerce Department reports that while consumer spending was unchanged in May, spending was at its weakest pace in 20 months.

Mortgage applications were also down, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Applications fell 2.7 percent from the week prior.

Mortgage loan limits are also garnering attention this week, as a drop in loan limits for both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac sponsored mortgages is scheduled for October 1st. Some experts are expressing concerns over this move. A recent study from the National Association of Home Builder (NAHB) indicates that this "will reduce housing demand and place downward pressure on home prices in major housing markets."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

NEIGHBORHOODS: Rethinking a hospital site

What to do with Medfield State Hospital? New ideas raised on how to reuse Medfield State as 80-acre cleanup nears end
Six years after an environmental cleanup began at the closed institution for mentally ill patients, 80 acres that are slated for redevelopment, about a third of the grounds, should be clear of contaminants this summer.

But state and local officials still do not agree on what should go there.

Some people suggest housing, others favor medical or research facilities. There are some who would like to see a college or university, and others who want nothing more than a riverside park there.

While new leadership at the state Division of Capital Asset Management has brought fresh energy to the process - a meeting with Medfield officials is scheduled at the State House next Monday - the future of the hospital grounds is still uncertain.

“What I’ve said to the selectmen is, let’s kind of start over and take a fresh look,’’ said Carole Cornelison, who took over as commissioner in March. “Let’s take a fresh look at what all of the possible options are, together. This is not a push-down, and it’s not a them-versus-us scenario.’’

Monday, July 11, 2011

HOME MAINTANENCE: From weather to mold, homeowners today face a host of modern challenges

The American dream can keep you up at night.

Beyond anxiety that your biggest investment may be losing value while you sleep, owning a home presents a host of challenges previous generations never pondered. From a rising potential for extreme weather to fears about toxic building materials, there’s plenty to disturb the modern homeowner’s rest.

Rising storm threats - Few home buyers would imagine when they’re signing a mortgage that climate change might threaten their personal castle.

But the rising frequency of storms and floods makes that a growing possibility. In the 1990s, there was an annual average of 46 federally declared disasters. That rose to 56 in the next decade. Last year, there were 81 disasters declared, and so far this year, 46.

Insurance companies paid out record amounts for claims related to storms and tornadoes in each of the last three years, and 2011 is expected to bring another high. Claims in the last three months alone are forecast to top $15 billion, more than twice the amount in the same period last year. Higher claims mean higher premiums. It is estimated that homeowners’ insurance rates rose between 4 percent and 5 percent in 2010. That’s compared with a more typical 2.2 percent in 2009.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

NEIGHBORHOODS: Fenway facelift continues

A proposed complex on Boylston Street would mix housing, retail, further contributing to a neighborhood’s transformation

Fenway Park may remain a fixture in time, but the neighborhood around it is finally completing its transformation to the modern world.

The sub shops, fast food outlets, and gas stations that used to dominate the outer stretch of Boylston Street around the ballpark have given way to sleek buildings, stylish restaurants, and a lively club scene.

And now a new addition to the neighborhood: Boston developer the Abbey Group yesterday proposed construction of a mixed-use complex that would replace a former McDonald’s with 210 apartments, offices, and retail stores.

In a filing submitted to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Abbey Group executives proposed a tiered complex that would be set back from Boylston Street, leaving room at street level for outdoor cafe tables and a small courtyard. The development, to be located at 1282 Boylston St. next to the Baseball Tavern, would be 16 stories at its peak and step down to four stories on the rear side facing the residential portion of the neighborhood.

“We’re trying to create a building that fits with the urban village objective and really targets a multigenerational group of people,’’ said David Epstein, president of Abbey Group. “We want to shape the building with varied heights and varied openings so it will present itself in a more pedestrian-friendly way.’’

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Neighborhoods: Trying every trick in the book to bring town centers to life

The years have not been kind to many traditional downtown areas in the suburbs south of Boston, where empty storefronts, bad lighting, and broken sidewalks, among other problems, do little to draw shoppers.

Some towns have hired managers, economic development specialists, and even started nonprofit booster groups to turn that around. Dedham, for example, is on the cusp of a $7 million-plus downtown improvement initiative in Dedham Square.

There, the rebirth comes with the help of town economic development professionals like Karen O’Connell and the five-year-old nonprofit Dedham Square Circle, which works with town officials, merchants, and residents to promote downtown businesses.

“This has been neglected for a long time, and it’s something we’ve been working toward since 2006,’’ said the group’s director, Amy Haelson. “People are craving a sense of community, and Dedham Square offers something authentic and unique that no mall can replicate.’’

But transformation isn’t as easy as it sounds, not with 675,000 square feet of competition around the corner at Legacy Place. Haelson and others lure shoppers through a variety of means, including a popular weekly farmers market, special incentive shopping days, and community celebrations and commemorations.

The group even helped boost the profile of the square’s longtime anchor, Dedham Community Theatre, by raising $60,000 to festoon the 84-year-old theater’s marquee with 2,300 light-emitting diodes.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Developers across the Boston area are moving forward with a number of large construction projects that were stalled by the recession, creating thousands of jobs and ending one of the state’s most prolonged building slumps.

At least nine major developments are under construction or preparing to begin, including two multibillion-dollar complexes in Boston’s Seaport District, the 60-acre Assembly Row project in Somerville, and a mini-city taking shape on the site of the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station.

Together, the projects promise to create some 4,000 construction jobs in coming months, with many thousands more possible as work escalates. The increased activity offers a measure of relief to an industry beset by extreme joblessness. At the height of the recession, labor leaders were reporting a 35 percent unemployment rate among construction workers, more than three times the rate of the broader economy.

The developments moving forward include office towers and stores that can help revitalize gritty urban neighborhoods, biotechnology laboratories that will host cutting-edge research, and thousands of apartments that will help curb the shortage of rental housing in the region.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

MARKET TRENDS: Local communities blessed with prime locations, new developments have seen their populations jump

MIDDLEBOROUGH - When they bought their brand-new home last year, the Pignets didn’t know they were joining a parade. They chose Middleborough because of the house, which was spotless and located in a 55-and-over complex in their price range, and situated between Boston, Providence, and Cape Cod.
Lots of other folks, it turned out, had the same idea. The Pignets became part of a little population boom in Middleborough, which grew by 16 percent over the last decade, one of the fastest growths south of Boston. A handful of other communities, including Hingham, Raynham, and Rochester, also added residents at double-digit rates, according to the latest Census data.

Unlike most people who move into age-restricted housing, Doug and Diane Pignet were upsizing, not downsizing. Married in 2004, they met online as cribbage buddies two years earlier. When Doug, a lifelong city dweller from Los Angeles, came east to be with Diane, they settled into her 900-square-foot townhouse in Halifax.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

MORTGAGE & FINANCE: Getting Mortgage Loans Has Gotten Harder

June 19 — Finding an affordable house used to be the toughest part of the equation.
Now with property values in Jackson County about half of what they were six years ago, and mortgage rates remaining tantalizingly low, the most rigorous part of the deal is obtaining the loan
While there is no way to escape the byzantine paperwork, there are plenty of financing programs for buyers who haven’t lost their homes to foreclosure or performed short sales since the real estate worm turned in 2005.

And yes, those ubiquitous radio, television, and online ads about credit scores have a point — your credit score does matter.

“It’s the single most important element nowadays,” says John Mafrici of Park Place Mortgage. “Anything you can do to optimize your credit score can save you a lot of money.”
If buyers can offer up a 720 or better score, they will avoid additional closing costs and long-term financial bleeds.

Conventional loans, where buyers have larger downpayments, cost more if the score is lower, Mafrici says.
“FHA loans are more forgiving with lower scores and that’s why we are seeing more FHA loans right now,” he says. “People don’t often find out their credit scores until they apply for a loan.”
Mike Towery, branch manager for imortgage in Medford, says Federal Housing Administration loans are at 3.5%. Veterans Affairs loans, providing 100% financing, are available for servicemen who were honorably discharged.
U.S. Department of Agriculture rural housing loans, covering 100% of financing with no mortgage insurance, are available anywhere outside the urban-growth boundaries of Central Point and Medford.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

NEIGHBORHOOD NEWS: Ambitious plan for Government Center Garage site

Vast project calls for shops, housing

The hulking Government Center Garage in Boston would be torn down and replaced with a massive complex of residences, offices, and stores under an ambitious plan made public yesterday.

The project — which, if approved, would be one of the largest to proceed in downtown in decades — comes from HYM Investment Group LLC, and would bring 2.4 million square feet of development to a key 4-acre plot between Boston City Hall, the TD Garden, and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. For 40 years the garage has acted as a wall between the area around Faneuil Hall and a reemerging neighborhood in the city’s West End.

“The proposed project will remove the unsightly barrier of the Government Center Garage from its current prominent position over Congress Street ,’’ HYM chief Thomas N. O’Brien, a former Boston planning chief, wrote in a two-page letter to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. The letter, released by the BRA yesterday, also said the de velopment would include a hotel, a “major residential component,’’ and retail stores that would complement a planned food market above the Haymarket MBTA station.

O’Brien has not said how tall the proposed complex would be. The current garage, which is topped by several floors of offices, is 11 stories.

Even at its smaller size, the development would be the largest in the current pipeline of construction projects in downtown Boston and would bring hundreds of new residents into an area of the city that goes quiet on nights when the Boston Bruins or Celtics are not playing at the nearby Garden. The project is more than double what another developer has proposed building on the site of the former Filene’s department store in Downtown Crossing.

The garage is located on New Sudbury Street and is bounded by Congress, New Chardon, and Hawkins streets.

Friday, July 1, 2011

NEIGHBORHOOD NEWS: Brookline residents puzzled as prime storefronts languish

Lawyer says he’s helping ill-prepared owners launch a turnaround

Brookline resident Jean Stringham often walks by a strip of vacant storefronts on the edge of the otherwise vibrant Coolidge Corner and asks herself, “Why is this allowed to look so bad?’’

The decaying 42,000-square-foot building has seven street-level storefronts — five of them empty. A sushi restaurant moved out months ago, leaving menus taped to the windows, debris on the floor, and soy sauce on the counter. Washers and dryers in an old laundry two doors down can be seen through a dusty window.

The degradation of the 1920s building — valued by the town at $4.1 million and a prime spot for redevelopment — has been a years-long headache for neighbors and town officials. But until now, its owners, Gladys Goldstein Vinograd and Joseph Vinograd, have been stubbornly resistant to change.

The couple could not be reached for comment for this story. But their attorney, Albert Kramer, told residents at a Town Hall meeting Tuesday that improvements are finally on the way. Kramer — who spoke by speaker phone during the meeting — said he will soon take steps to clean up the building and is talking with several developers about major upgrades. He said the owners, who inherited the property years ago, lack business acumen.

“We will improve the aesthetics of the property, we will have full tenancy, and we will generate better revenues for the people who own it,’’ said Kramer, a retired Quincy District Court judge, who used to live in Brookline. “I am now working at it. I’m dedicated to help.’’

The property — known as Durgin Garage — is a rarity in Brookline, where empty storefronts usually don’t stay that way for long and the median single-family home price tops $1 million. Despite the building’s condition, the landlords have paid their taxes and generally addressed public health concerns such as trash and broken windows, leaving the town with limited ability to take action, public officials said.

“The building is unsightly, it is a nuisance to the neighborhood,’’ said Jeff Levine, Brookline’s planning director. But, he added, “There is no law they have to rent spaces to tenants or make the building attractive.’’

The garage was designed in 1926 to provide long-term parking for nearby residents and is one of the town’s last intact garages built during that era, said Greer Hardwicke, the town’s preservation planner. It currently houses an auto body shop in the back of the building located at the tip of Pleasant Street, a busy thoroughfare that flows into Beacon Street.