Saturday, April 30, 2011

BUYING & SELLING: 20 Incredibly Useful iPhone Apps for Homebuyers & Sellers

Thanks to Liz Nutt: for suggesting this article
Whether you’re buying or selling a house, there’s a lot to consider — what’s available, what your price range is, comparable sales, neighborhood information, and more. It’s a lot of work to gather all of this information, but using iPhone apps can make the process a lot easier. Read on to learn about 20 great apps for people engaged in a home sale.
  1. Zillow: Using the Zillow app, homebuyers can actually drive around a neighborhood and view values of all homes, not just those for sale. You can also check prices on sale properties, and check out homes on Google Street View if you’re not in the area.
  2. Walk Score: If walkability is important to you in a home, check out the Walk Score using this app. You’ll find out about nearby amenities and find the most walkable parts of the neighborhood.
  3. Open Home Pro: Open Home Pro is a must-have for real estate agents. You can use it to collect client information, publish real estate listings, and stay in contact with clients.
  4. AroundMe: Use AroundMe to quickly find out about what’s around potential homes. You’ll be able to search for banks, gas stations, hospitals, and other important businesses.
  5. Wikihood: Using Wikihood, you can learn about any neighborhood in the world. You’ll learn about people, culture, buildings, companies, geographical information, and more.
  6. Sketches: Use Sketches to jot down notes and illustrate ideas on your iPhone. You can even annotate pictures, making notes about items within a home.
  7. Evernote: Whether you’re buying or selling a home, keeping track of your notes, photos, and more is valuable. Using Evernote, you can create notes with photo, text, or

Friday, April 29, 2011

LANDSCAPING & GARDENING: 3 Gardening mistakes to avoid

Gardening is not rocket science: If you can dig a hole, turn on a spigot, and snip a dead flower off a vine, you can tend a garden.

Still, gardeners need to make judgment calls. How much water does this shrub need? Will that tree get enough sun? Is this hole deep enough? It’s easy to misjudge and make a mess out of the landscaping. Here are common garden blunders.

1. Too many changes too soon. The excitement of warm spring weather often creates a passion for yard work. But what looks like a spring weed might be a fall-blooming vine. Encourage buyers to: Live with their land for a year and observe how many hours of sunlight each part of the garden gets. Test the pH of the soil to determine if acid- or alkaline-loving plants will be happy in that particular patch of heaven.

2. Too much togetherness. Trees and shrubs that look properly spaced when you plant them will crowd each other and compete for water, sun, and nutrients in a few years. Encourage buyers to: Read spacing instructions. Give trees plenty of space—they can always fill in later. Stagger bushes and plants and create two rows, which will create more breathing room. The results will look absurdly sparse at first. But live with it. In a few years, shrubs will fill empty spaces without suffocating each other.

3. Planting without a plan. Planting new garden beds without a long-term landscape plan is like pouring a house foundation without blueprints. Encourage buyers to: Draw a simple sketch of their yard—what’s there now and what they might add later, including patios and pools. Learn about the trees and shrubs that grow best in their soil and climate. A professional landscape designer can create a starter plan for as little as $250 to $500.

To download this article for your customers or access more landscaping ideas, visit and click on Landscaping under the Improve tab.

You can contact the staff of REALTOR® magazine by e-mail at

Thursday, April 28, 2011

MAINTANENCE & HOME REPAIR: 6 Worth-the-Price Fix-Ups

Simple and affordable do-it-yourself projects can greatly increase a home's resale value, according to HomeGain's annual home improvement and staging survey.
April 2011

The marketing company surveyed nearly 600 real estate professionals to discover which DIY home improvement projects give sellers the biggest return for their buck. Here are six projects under $1,000 (amounts are estimated) that made the list.

1. Cleaning and decluttering. Remove any personal items, unclutter countertops, organize closets and shelves, and make the home sparkling clean.
$290 Cost
$1,990 Return

2. Brightening. Clean all windows inside and out, replace old curtains, update lighting fixtures, and remove anything that blocks light from the windows.
$375 Cost
$1,550 Return

3. Smart staging. Rearrange furniture, bring in new accessories and furnishings to enhance rooms, incorporate artwork, and play soft music in the background.
$550 Cost
$2,194 Return

4. Landscaping enhancements. Punch up the home’s curb appeal in the front and back yards by adding bark mulch, bushes, and flowers and ensuring current plants and grass are well-cared for and manicured.
$540 Cost
$1,932 return

5. Repairing electrical or plumbing. Fix leaks under the sinks, remove any mildew stains, and ensure all plumbing is in good working condition. Update the home’s electrical with new wiring for modern appliances, fix any lights or outlets that don’t work, and replace old plug points with new safety fixtures.
$535 Cost
$1,505 Return

6. Replacing or shampooing dirty carpets. Steam-clean carpets, replace any worn carpets, and repair any floor creaks.
$647 Cost
$1,739 Return

Excerpted from HomeGain’s 2011 Home Sale Maximizer Survey,
Realtor Magazine 4/2011

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

To celebrate Earth Day, try these six tips for incorporating “green” design into your next remodeling project.

Preparation—Before beginning a project, perform an “existing analysis” of your home. Gather information on water, gas, and electricity usage, and do an energy audit to pinpoint daily habits such as leaving lights turned on when a room is not in use.

Lighting—Replace incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient LED or compact fluorescent (CFL) lighting. If possible, take advantage of both natural lighting and shading to reduce energy consumption from heating and cooling a home.
Materials—Opt for paints and finishes with low or zero volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are harmful to the environment and one’s health. Choose designs that incorporate recycled materials, such as countertops made from recycled glass, or flooring made from repurposed wood.

Appliances—Swap in Energy Star-qualified appliances that use less energy, such as refrigerators and dishwashers.

Plumbing—Consider low-flow shower heads/faucets and dual-flush toilets to conserve water.
Insulation and Ventilation—An energy-efficient home requires both proper insulation and ventilation. Seal windows, doors, and pipes, but also ensure sufficient ventilation to allow water vapor to pass through and prevent mold.

April 18, 2011
Read more:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

TAXES: Watchdog faults IRS on home buyer credits

WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service has paid out more than a half-billion dollars in home buyer tax credits to people who probably didn’t qualify, a government investigator said yesterday.

Most of the money — about $326 million — went to more than 47,000 taxpayers who didn’t qualify as first-time home buyers because there was evidence they had already owned homes, said the report by J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration. Other credits went to prison inmates, taxpayers who bought homes before the credit was enacted, and people who did not actually buy homes.
“The IRS has taken positive steps to strengthen controls and help prevent the issuance of inappropriate home buyer credits,’’ George said. “However, many of the actions occurred after hundreds of thousands of home buyer credits had already been issued, including fraudulent and erroneous credits totaling millions of dollars.’’
The agency questioned some of the findings, but said it would follow up.

Boston Globe Associated Press April 16, 2011

Monday, April 25, 2011

REPAIR AND MAINTANENCE: Looking to Spend a Tax Refund? Consider Outside Projects

It’s that time of the year—what to do with the tax refund?

For home owners who want to spend part of their checks on home sweet home, the possibilities seem endless.

New floors or kitchen cabinets? Windows or granite countertops? What gives you the most return on your investment?

The answer might surprise you—what’s on the outside counts the most right now.
The latest figures from local and national real estate groups indicate that the best investment for your home is related to curb appeal.
“An entry door, the front door to your house, will get you the most return for your money,” said Mike Cotrill, chief operating officer for the Greater Tulsa Association of REALTORS®.
Cotrill said figures from the “Cost vs. Value” report, conducted by the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® and Remodeling magazine, show that upgrading or replacing a front door is more than worth the money.
“They’ll get 102.1% of that cost recouped,” Cotrill said. “And locally in our region, it’s 116%. It’s all about curb appeal, that’s the entry point to your home.”
According to the report, which received data from Realtors in 80 cities, the “big-bang projects” include garage door replacement (83.9% payback), siding replacement (80%), kitchen remodels (72.8%), and outdoor deck additions (72.8%).
“It’s interesting that the top three are all about the outside of your home,” Cotrill said. “On a kitchen remodel this survey says you’ll get about 73% of your cost recouped, so you’re not going to get every dollar back. And these are all midrange averages.”
And outdoor projects continue to be appealing to potential buyers, he said.
“The backyard, decks, or outdoor entertainment areas are becoming more and more popular. If you get that spring fever, go outside and do some landscaping,” he said.
To read the full report, visit

Inside out

Other home owners are interested in projects that will add value and save energy.
Upgrading or repairing fundamental areas of the home will save money in the long run, said John Madden, Green Building Council Chair for the Homebuilders Association of Greater Tulsa.
“Having your HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) serviced is the biggest thing,” he said. “It’s one of the most overlooked things that I think people should do every year, even on new houses. Your HVAC accounts for a massive amount of your electric bill.”

Sunday, April 24, 2011

MORTGAGE & FINANCE: Mortgage Rates Inch Lower

Mortgage rates were mostly lower, with the benchmark conforming 30-year fixed mortgage rate now 5.07%, according to’s weekly national survey. The average 30-year fixed mortgage has an average of 0.4 discount and origination points.
The average 15-year fixed mortgage ticked higher to 4.28%, and the larger jumbo 30-year fixed rate slipped to 5.55%. Adjustable rate mortgages were also lower, with the average 5-year ARM sinking to 3.83% and the 7-year ARM pulling back to 4.19%.  
The movement in mortgage rates has been tame in recent weeks. Mortgage rates have been range-bound, having remained within a one-quarter percentage point band over the past two months. Historically, mortgage rates and bond yields can show very little movement over an extended period of time but then move significantly in a relatively short period of time. If upcoming inflation numbers spook the markets, for example, that could be the catalyst for a sudden move in bond yields and mortgage rates. Mortgage rates are closely related to yields on long-term government bonds.
The last time mortgage rates were above 6% was Nov. 2008. At the time, the average 30-year fixed rate was 6.33%, meaning a $200,000 loan would have carried a monthly payment of $1,241.86. With the average rate now 5.07%, the monthly payment for the same size loan would be $1,082.22, a difference of $159 per month for anyone refinancing now.

Read more:

Saturday, April 23, 2011

ENERGY EFFICIENCY: Simple Kitchen Tips Can Mean Big Changes in Energy Efficiency

STAMFORD, Conn., Feb. 17, 2011 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE)—The phrase “home energy efficiency” causes most of us to immediately think about triple-paned windows and Energy Star appliances. Important energy savers, to be sure. However, as one energy efficiency expert counsels, not all changes have to be big or expensive to make a difference. Many of the small choices we make every day can impact our energy usage as well.

Daniel Lanzilotta, owner of The Mindful Chef and an executive chef/chef educator, offers these simple tips to ensure your kitchen is energy efficient.

Refrigerator tips:
 Check your seal. One of the most important factors in determining your refrigerator’s energy efficiency is the quality of its seal. Check the seal regularly to ensure it is not dried out and is still sealing properly. If it’s not, replace it. This inexpensive repair can make a big difference in your refrigerator’s efficiency.
Stop refrigerator gazing. We’re all guilty of standing mindlessly in front of the open refrigerator door, pondering what we should eat. Not only can this habit lead to poor choices, it also increases our utility bill as well. According to Lanzilotta, this represents one of the basic laws of thermo-dynamics—heat is attracted to cold—and gazing at an open refrigerator causes the hot air to rush in, raising the internal temperature of the appliance.
Allow food to cool. When you place hot leftovers directly into your refrigerator, you are forcing your appliance to work harder than necessary to cool your food and, in turn, the interior of the unit. By allowing your food to begin to cool naturally before placing it in the fridge, you’re increasing your efficiency and saving money and energy.

Sink and dishwasher tips:

Be mindful of water waste. By being aware and conservative when using water at the sink

Thursday, April 21, 2011

LENDING NEWS: Government Orders 17 Lenders and Servicers to Reimburse Home Owners

WASHINGTON —The federal government on Wednesday ordered 17 of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders and servicers to reimburse home owners who were improperly foreclosed upon.

Government regulators also directed the financial firms to hire auditors to determine how many home owners could have avoided foreclosure in 2009 and 2010.

Citibank, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo, the nation’s four largest banks, were among the financial firms cited in the joint report by the Federal Reserve, Office of Thrift Supervision, and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

The Fed said it believed financial penalties were “appropriate” and that it planned to levy fines in the future. All three regulators said they would review the foreclosure audits. Under the agreements reached, the lenders and servicers have 45 days to hire an auditor and will “remediate all financial injury to borrowers caused by any errors, misrepresentations, or other deficiencies.” There is no minimum or maximum dollar amount identified.

In the four years since the housing bust, about 5 million homes have been foreclosed upon. About 2.4 million primary mortgages were in foreclosure at the end of last year. Another 2 million were 90 days or more past due, putting them at serious risk of foreclosure.

Critics, including Democratic lawmakers in Congress, say the order is too lenient on the lenders. House Democrats introduced legislation Wednesday that would require lenders to perform a series of steps, including an appeals process, before starting foreclosures.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

BUYING A HOME: Choosing Your Dream Home

There's a lot to think about when it comes to buying your dream home. Every decision, small to large, is important! Let's look at a list of common issues that buyers face.

1. Neighborhood: Deciding on what neighborhood you desire is tricky. You must consider your wants and needs. They vary by person. Do you have children and need to live within the boundaries of a specific school district? You might want a short commute, a neighborhood with historic homes, or homes that are near night life and restaurants.

2. Square footage: What size of home fits your needs? The average home in the United States is 2,195 square feet. Thirty years ago the average size was just 1,645. The trend has been for larger and larger homes, with special purpose spaces, such as exercise rooms, offices, studies, and media rooms. This trend is now receding.

3. Floorplan: Architectural styles offer a wide range of choices! Open floor plans might appeal to you, with their great flow for entertaining. Or you may have a more traditional aesthetic, preferring cozy rooms. Think about how you live your life and what style best fits your needs.

4. Finishes: There are different grades of homes. Take your kitchen, for example. You can find a wide range of beautiful laminate counters, just as you can find a wide range of beautiful

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

BUYING A HOME: Power Saving For A Down Payment

Now more than ever, saving for a down payment is a crucial step to owning a home.

Right now on Capital Hill legislators, lobbyists, real estate industry experts and others are wrangling over Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

Among the most discussed provisions is one that would create a Qualified Residential Mortgage (QRM), one that will be viewed as a loan offering a lower risk of default.

Because of the low risk, borrowers who qualify for a QRM will pay less than for a mortgage that is not designated as a QRM, but it won't be easy to land the loan.

According to the proposed definition borrowers would have to:

• Put at least 20 percent down to buy a home.

• Have at least 25 percent in equity to refinance.

• Have at least 30 percent equity to do a cash-out refinance.

• Have house payments that don't exceed 28 percent of before-tax income, and total monthly debt payments (house, credit cards, auto, student loans) couldn't exceed 36 percent of before-tax income.

• Not have been 60 days delinquent on any debt payments in the last two years.

For many borrowers, the 20 percent down payment alone could be insurmountable -- without solid saving habits.

First you'll have to change your thinking. A down payment is much more than a quickly gathered percentage of the purchase price. It should be money you extract from existing savings, investments, assets or other savings gathered over time.

Even after you put money down, the lender will want to see that you have enough cash on hand to pay for homeowners insurance, property taxes, homeowner association dues and other costs of owning a home.

Here are some solid strategies to get you started.

• Create a budget. A budget doesn't just reveal where your money goes. It lets you see where you can cut back and divert money into savings.

• Organize. That's right. Sell all that stuff you never use. Sell all that stuff that won't be a good fit for your new home. Clear the clutter. An organized home, with everything in its place, is a time-saving home and time is money.

• Follow a routine. If your money is spent before you get it, you will be less likely to save. Have money deducted from your income and deposited in a savings account with the highest possible interest rate. Don't show favorites because your checking is with one bank. Shop around for Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insured savings, certificates of deposit (CDs), money market funds, and other savings or investment vehicles.

• Hoard windfalls. Stop spending tax refunds, holiday cash gifts, small lottery winnings and other forms of unexpected money. Save them.

• Withhold less. If you do get a tax refund, it may be time to adjust the money withheld from your paycheck. A tax refund is a free loan to the government. It costs you lost interest it could have earned in a savings account. Adjust your W-4 accurately to reflect your true tax liability. Use the Internal Revenue Service's withholding calculator to get it right.

• Cut back. Some debts are fixed. Others, including groceries, clothing, gifts, gasoline and utilities, are not. Brew your own coffee. Stop eating out. Drive to save gas. Buy generic brands. Get a better cell phone and cable TV plan. The list is endless.

• Dump credit. Likewise, don't live beyond your means. Save credit for emergencies only. Pay off debt. Reducing credit debt gives you money to save and it can boost your credit score.

• Liquidate assets. Saving for a home may be just the reason you've been looking for to unload model train, Beanie Baby, comic book, stamp or coin collections. What's collecting dust in your safety deposit box?

• Get a second job. A few extra hours a day, can earn you a few hundred dollars a month. Consider overtime at your present gig, flipping burgers, working retail during the holidays, working at home or otherwise finding an additional source of income solely for the purpose of saving for that down payment.

Broderick Perkins April 7, 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011

MORTGAGE: 20% down on homes may soon be norm

WASHINGTON — Most home buyers put down less than 20 percent when they take out a mortgage, a sign of how hard it has become to scrape together enough cash to purchase a house. Prospective home buyers may soon face a rude awakening.

Seeking to avoid a repeat of the foreclosure crisis, the Obama administration and regulators have proposed rules that are all but certain to boost the interest rates and fees on many low-down-payment loans. Only borrowers putting down 20 percent could get the best deals.

To buy a house for $170,000, the median national price, the borrower would have to come up with $34,000 in cash.

It takes the average middle-class family 14 years to save that much money and closing costs, according to the Center for Responsible Lending. That’s a steep hurdle, though 20 percent down was a common standard for most of an earlier generation.

Even with help from her parents, Julia Ziegler, 29, a social media specialist, would have to put down less than 20 percent on the $250,000 condominium she wants to buy in Washington.

“Coming up with $25,000 plus closing costs is tough, and I’m buying in the lower end of the market,’’ Ziegler said. “If I had to put down 20 percent, if I needed $50,000, forget it. I would have to save for a long, long time.’’

The federal proposal’s impact would extend beyond first-timers such as Ziegler to repeat buyers, who generally have counted on equity built up in one house to provide the down payment for the next.

Consumer activists and housing industry executives warn that the proposed rules would make homeownership much harder to achieve, particularly for first-time buyers and minorities, who have relied in great numbers on low-down-payment loans.

“Renters, by and large, have very little cash on hand, and minority renters have even less,’’ said Barry Zigas, housing policy director at the Consumer Federation of America. “Raising down-payment barriers to a level that history tells us is neither necessary nor appropriate will foreclose homeownership opportunities for millions of families.’’

In a recent report to Congress on the future of housing finance, the Obama administration said it was still committed to ensuring that Americans of modest means can buy houses. Although officials say they support some form of down payment assistance, they have yet to offer many specifics.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

BUYING & SELLING: Open house etiquette can help avoid many disasters

Knowing some basics can ease seller, buyer stress.

There was the one prospective “buyer’’ who, at open house in Pembroke, locked himself in the master bathroom and rifled through the medicine cabinet. At another open house the broker told the seller it might be a good idea to tuck away his prize possession, an autographed Babe Ruth baseball, for the day.

Another seller, in Abington, didn’t pay attention to the calendar and scheduled the open house for the same time as the town St. Patrick’s Day parade; hardly anyone could even get to the home.

Already fraught with tension for the seller, and anticipation for the shopper, open houses can turn into a disaster or flop on the smallest incident. To prevent that from happening, brokers say there is an etiquette that should be followed, by the seller and buyer alike, along with some plain common sense.

For sellers, brokers recommend the following etiquette essentials:

Set the stage. “Put away personal items and photographs. Buyers want to see the house as a blank canvas where they can envision living,’’ said Georgia Taft-Pye of Duxbury’s Buyer Brokers of the South Shore. Walkways should be clear and rooms open, not packed with furniture, and their uses should be well-defined.

De-clutter. Don’t jam things into the closets. “Storage is a big deal these days,’’ said Taft-Pye. “It’s important to show what storage the house has. Prospective buyers shouldn’t be bracing themselves for an avalanche when they open a closet. You need to get rid of clutter, rent a storage facility if you have to.’’

Remove valuables and prescription drugs. Like it or not, an open house can be a target by the

Saturday, April 16, 2011

MARKET TRENDS: Brokers expect competitive spring market

Looking to buy a house this spring? Join the (growing) crowd. Improving economy, low rates building up buyer demand

Motivated by the improved economy and a fear that interest rates will definitively head upward, more prospective homeowners are scouring listings and trolling open houses these days, real estate agents said.

But what would help kick the region’s key spring market into high gear is an ample supply of well-priced and attractive homes for sale.

“There is a lot of pent-up demand for the right properties,’’ said broker Gary Dwyer, the owner of Buyer Agents of Boston. With more buyers than sellers, Dwyer said, “It’s going to be a competitive market in the Greater Boston area. Properties that are priced accordingly are going to go quickly.’’

Until now, though, it’s been a slow start to the most active market of the year. Heavy winter snows helped slow the number of single-family homes sold in February by 15.7 percent, compared to the same month last year, according to Warren Group, a Boston company that tracks local real estate.

Friday, April 15, 2011

LOCAL NEWS: Herald site development is resuming

National Development is shopping a new plan to redevelop the Boston Herald property in the South End, soliciting major retailers to anchor a complex that would also include dozens of residences, the company confirmed yesterday.

The Newton real estate firm struck a deal with Herald owner Pat Purcell in 2007 to jointly redevelop the 6.6-acre site off the Southeast Expressway, but because of the credit crisis and recession they are only now preparing to move forward.

TJX Cos., the Framingham discounter that runs HomeGoods, Marshalls, and T.J. Maxx, is among the merchants interested in the planned project, according to people briefed on the discussions. Whole Foods Market Inc. had considered opening a store in the complex but is no longer interested and has since said it is planning a super market in Jamaica Plain.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

TAXES: Higher fees, taxes might fund center

Higher hotel taxes and tourist-targeted fees could help pay for a proposed expansion of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.

Tweet Yahoo! Buzz ShareThis A state panel that will make recommendations to the Legislature next month said tax and fee increases could be needed to cover debt payments. A near doubling of the center’s meeting and exhibit space has been suggested. Last week, consultants told the panel, known as the Convention Partnership, that annual debt costs could be between $78 million and $117 million for 30 years, depending on the project’s size, interest rates, and other factors.

Those costs would be in addition to about $200 million in public subsidies needed to help pay for a proposed 1,000-room hotel near the South Boston center. In all, the project could cost $2 billion.

Officials said just expanding the exhibition hall may require higher hotel taxes or other measures. The panel is exploring numerous possibilities, including a 1 percent increase in the hotel tax, to raise an additional $26.7 million per year; dedicating part of the hotel tax’s annual take to the expansion; raising tourist-related taxes and fees in the Boston area; and tapping an estimated $31.8 million in future city and state taxes expected to be generated by the expansion. The Legislature and governor have the final say.

Casey Ross Boston Globe March 29, 2011

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

LOCAL NEWS: Troubled developer sells W Hotel

$89.5m deal with Maryland firm will help pay down debt

Boston’s luxury W Hotel was sold yesterday, less than a year after its developer filed for bankruptcy protection because of slow sales of condominiums in the Theatre District complex.

Pebblebrook Hotel Trust, a Maryland-based investment firm, is buying the hotel from developer Sawyer Enterprises for $89.5 million. The transaction, disclosed in US Bankruptcy Court documents yesterday, did not include the 123 condominiums on the property, which will still be under Sawyer’s control.

The hotel will continue to be operated by an affiliate of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc., under the W brand.

The sale will help Sawyer repay debt related to development of the hotel and condominiums, which are contained in a 26-story tower at the corner of Stuart and Tremont streets that cost about $234 million to build. Prudential Insurance Co., which provided a $192 million loan for the complex’s construction, tried to foreclose on the property last month but was rebuffed by a US Bankruptcy judge, who granted Sawyer more time to reorganize its finances.

Pebblebrook, a real estate investment trust, was organized in 2009 to acquire upscale hotel properties following a recession that hit the hotel industry especially hard. Its other acquisitions include the Hotel Monaco in Washington, D.C., the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco, and the InterContinental Buckhead Hotel in Atlanta, among others.

The company did not return a phone call seeking comment yesterday.

The W is a striking building with a sheer glass face, accented by fluorescent backlighting.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

FOR SALE: Terrific Single Family in Roslindale

MARKET TRENDS: The tax riddle

How can real estate bills still rise even as values of homes fall?

Although home prices have yet to recover from what has come to be known as the Great Recession, property tax bills in Boston’s northern suburbs are on the rise as cities and towns struggle to maintain services residents have come to expect.

Across the state, property values tumbled an average of 8.1 percent per year between the onset of the recession in 2007 and July 2009, according to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. Since property taxes are based on value, homeowners might assume that lower assessments would result in lower bills.

Opening their tax bills will end that hope in a heartbeat.

“Even if the values go down, taxes go up,’’ said Bob Bliss, spokesman for the Revenue Department. “That’s the way the law works.’’

Under Proposition 2 1/2, the state’s tax cap law, communities are prohibited from increasing the total amount of property tax revenue they collect by more than 2.5 percent each year, plus tax revenue that is attributable to new growth.

To calculate the value of a property for tax purposes, local officials base their assessments on home sales from the previous calendar year. This year, for example, assessors are using sales data from 2009 to determine the “full and fair cash value’’ as of Jan. 1, 2010. To the

Monday, April 11, 2011

MORTGAGE & FINANCE: Downpayment Proposals Could Close Door on Home Ownership for Many

A proposal aimed at making banks more careful about the mortgages they make could end up forcing home buyers to come up with 10% or even 20% downpayments, some housing finance experts say.

“If the regulators impose a 20%—or even a 10%—minimum downpayment … hundreds of thousands of creditworthy households will be excluded from home ownership because of the dramatic increase in the wealth required to purchase a home,” the Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Responsible Lending, the Consumer Federation of America, the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, and the National Association of Home Builders said in a letter sent to last week to regulators.

A household earning the median U.S. income of $49,777 and saving 6% per year (about $3,000) would have to wait 14 years to save a 20% downpayment plus 5% for the closing costs needed to buy a median-priced home. With a 10% downpayment requirement, it would take 9 years, the letter said.

Finance reform
So far, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Federal Reserve have issued proposed rules based on the Dodd-Frank financial system overhaul Congress passed last summer. That law says banks must retain 5% of the risk of the mortgages they make and later sell to investors. The other banking regulators will also propose rules shortly.

Bank regulators will take comments until mid-June on the proposed rules and then announce a final rule.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

That nasty winter North Jersey endured took a toll on more than lower backs sore from shoveling and budgets strained from all the snow removal—it also punished homes and property.

Drenching rains this month on top of the seemingly endless snow of December, January, and February only added to the damage.

“[I’ve had] hundreds of phone calls inquiring about water from ice dams [buildups] leaking into homes and shingles blown off by the high winds,” says veteran roofer Stan Reczkowski of SR Roofing in Paramus and Hillsdale. He added that this winter “rivals the winters of 1986-87 and 1995-96.”

So it’s time to put away the shovels, survey the damage, and get to work on spring fix-ups and cleanups.


Anyone with water in the basement has company.

“We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of calls from customers,” says Bob Lindsay, president of Weather-Tite Waterproofing in Saddle Brook.

“Home owners are seeking a permanent remedy so that they never have to deal with this type of situation again,” he says, adding that standard insurance policies often do not cover waterproofing.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

INSURANCE: Ignorance is Not Bliss on Home Owners Insurance Coverage

Your home owners insurance policy probably isn’t something you review as often or as closely as bank statements or tax documents—but staying in the dark can cost you, experts say.

Nearly a third of consumers polled by MetLife last June didn’t know how much their home, condo, or townhouse was insured for.

Checking up on a home owners insurance policy isn’t typically on an average customer’s to-do list, but it doesn’t have to be hard, says Madelyn Flannagan, the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America vice president of agent development, education, and research. Insurers are required to send renewal notices each year, reflecting changes in coverage and premium charges. And insurance information often comes with annual interest statements from your mortgage company, she says.

“That’s a great opportunity to take a look at your home owners policy,” and can help determine if you need to adjust coverage to reflect changes in your home or lifestyle in the past year, Flannagan says.

Home owners need to track construction costs more closely than real estate values when determining how much to insure a home for, industry experts say. The price to rebuild has surged in the past few years due to labor, materials, and energy costs, while home values have fallen. Some consumers have mistakenly lowered the amount of coverage they’re buying for their home to reflect how much it would sell for now that the housing bubble has burst, leaving them underinsured. “It has been a trend in areas hit hard by a bad real estate market,” says Amy Danise, senior managing editor of consumer website

There are smarter ways to save on coverage, says Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president of public affairs at the Insurance Information Institute. “The biggest issue, I think, recently is that some people are very misguided and have thought, ‘Well my home is not worth so much anymore, I can safely drop or reduce insurance,’” she says.

The housing market has also pushed many home owners to build additions or make improvements when they can’t sell their home. Not getting this new construction added to insurance policies is a common error. “They get wrapped up in the remodeling and never even think of picking up the phone to let home insurance companies know,” says Danise.

The risk of disaster or insufficient coverage surges when those improvements take place in the basement, insurance experts say. Flood insurance doesn’t come standard with most home policies, and basements are also susceptible to seepage and pump backups.

If the new construction and possessions within, such as fancy TVs and furniture, aren’t covered, home owners will come up short in the case of a natural disaster or break-in. A finished basement automatically adds to the usable square footage of a house, affecting the cost to rebuild if home owners needed to start from scratch.

Consumers are particularly misinformed when it comes to knowing how much money they’ll get from insurers to replace belongings in the house, MetLife found. Close to half of those polled didn’t know how much their belongings were covered for, and nearly three-quarters said they would be reimbursed for the full cost to replace personal belongings in case of disaster.

The average home owners policy covers possessions at a fixed percentage (typically, 50% to 70%) of the value that the home is insured for, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Consumers should still pay attention to the worth of their belongs, though, as the allotted coverage for personal possessions can easily fall short if a house is a stocked with costly art, furnishings, electronics, and other valuables.

Home owners insurance typically covers inside possessions in two ways: replacement value or cash value. The latter takes into account how items such as furniture and electronics have depreciated, while replacement value gives you the money to repurchase an item at its current cost.

Cash-value insurance costs less in premium payments, but could leave home owners strapped if they’re forced to replace their goods after a fire, flood, or break-in. If you’re looking to save on monthly payments, raise the deductible rather than opting for the cash-value coverage, says Salvatore.

Experts suggest regularly photographing and videotaping possessions to know what you have and whether you’re coverage is sufficient. There’s an app for that. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners offers a free iPhone mobile application called myHOME for taking an inventory of possessions. The application lets users capture and store images, descriptions, and product serial numbers. It can sort the information room by room, and provides a backup file to be shared via e-mail.

John Waggoner’s column appears Fridays. E-mail: Follow him at

Erin Kutz, Special for USA TODAY (c) Copyright 2011 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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Friday, April 8, 2011

REVERSE MORTGAGE: National Council on Aging Offers Free Reverse Mortgage Counseling

As older adults continue to face financial challenges in the sluggish economy, the National Council on Aging will offer free counseling for seniors through its Reverse Mortgage Counseling Services Network.

RMCS counselors are waiving the usual $125 counseling fee in order to help more home owners understand how reverse mortgage loans, along with community programs and other options, could help them remain in their homes. Consumers age 62+ can schedule a free reverse mortgage counseling session by calling 1-800-510-0301.

“Many home owners are struggling in this economy, and with the looming budget cuts in senior services on Capitol Hill, it may make things more difficult for those in need,” said Barbara R. Stucki, Ph.D., vice president of Home Equity Initiatives for NCOA. “With this in mind, we are happy to offer free counseling so that older adults can learn how to make smart decisions about using their home equity at a time when other resources may be decreasing.”

Generally, RMCS counselors do not charge a fee for counseling upfront, only at the time of closing, if the client decides to take out a reverse mortgage. RMCS counseling is always free for clients with annual incomes of less than $20,000 for individuals or $30,000 for couples.

NCOA also offers a consumer booklet on reverse mortgages, Use Your Home to Stay at Home. March 29, 2011 Source: National Council on Aging
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Thursday, April 7, 2011

MORTGAGE & FINANCE: What You Should Know About Credit Scores

Too many consumers are confused about credit scores. Most did not know who makes credit scores available, what is a strong score, nor the financial cost of a poor score.

The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and VantageScore Solutions say on 22 credit score questions administered by Opinion Research Corp. to over 1,000 consumers late last month, on average, consumers answered only 60 percent correctly.

"The good news is that a large majority of consumers know the key factors used to calculate scores and the creditors who use these scores," said CFA Executive Director Stephen Brobeck.

(• Take the CFA/VantageScore Quiz to see what you do and don't know.)

Your credit score is a numerical rendition of your creditworthiness. It indicates how well or how poorly you'll repay a debt. The higher the number, the more likely you'll repay on time.

Credit scores are important, influencing whether consumers can purchase a wide range of important services and at what price, including mortgages.

What the survey found a majority consumers know is what all consumers should know.

• The three main credit bureaus -- Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion -- collect information on which credit scores are most frequently based (68 percent correct).

The survey also advises, an individual has many different credit scores, which are either generic or lender-based. Generic credit scores are available from many sources -- not just FICO and the three credit bureaus but also many other websites.

Most scores, however, are based on information in a credit report at one of the three bureaus, although some websites allow consumers to estimate their score by answering questions about their credit use, according to CFA and VantageScore.

• Most Americans have more than one generic credit score (71 percent correct).

• Three key ways to raise a credit score or maintain a high score are making all loan payments on time, for each credit card keeping balances under 25 percent of the card's credit limit, and avoiding opening several credit card accounts at the same time (69 percent correct).

• Many non-financial services -- such as cell phone companies (60 percent correct) and landlords (64 percent correct) -- use credit scores to determine whether to offer a service and/or at what price.

• A large majority of consumers correctly understand the following about scores: Missed payments (93 percent correct), high credit card balances (88 percent correct), and many applications for new accounts at one time (81 percent) are factors used to calculate credit scores.

It's a lot more difficult to raise your score than it is to lower it. Making a couple credit card or mortgage payments late may take a year of on-time payments to restore one's old scores.

• Mortgage lenders (86 percent correct) and credit card issuers (85 percent correct) use these scores to determine whether to extend credit and/or at what price.

The study also comes with some advise.

• Even if you have high credit scores, especially if you have lower ones, it is essential to comparison shop for credit. Major lenders use somewhat different criteria in their own credit scores, and even when they use the same score, they may assign different risks to it. For example, using the same score for an individual, one lender may place that person in a higher-risk subprime category while another lender may assign that person to a lower-risk (and lower cost) prime category.

• The value of credit repair companies is questionable. They often over-promise, charge high prices, and perform services, such as correcting credit report inaccuracies, that consumers could do themselves by just contacting the lender and the credit bureaus.

• You are entitled to one free credit report a year from each of the credit reporting bureaus -- Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion -- from the only federally-sanctioned web site for free reports Greater disclosures are coming for credit scores.

Broderick Perkins March 17, 2011