Wednesday, May 30, 2012

INSURANCE: Save big on homeowners insurance

5 steps to save on homeowners insurance premiums and avoid grief in the event of a disaster.
5 steps to save on homeowners insurance premiums and avoid grief in the event of a disaster.
(MONEY magazine) -- Reviewing your homeowners policy may not rank high on our annual home-maintenance checklist. Yet following the five steps below will save you big bucks now and a lot of grief down the road.
After the recent slew of natural disasters, average annual premiums are expected to surpass $1,000, with some owners likely to see double-digit rate hikes.

Step 1. Measure how much coverage you need.
Haven't taken a close look at your policy lately? Then dust it off and make insurance your next project.
Your No. 1 priority must be the house itself. "Possessions, living expenses and liability should all be secondary," says Amy Bach of United Policyholders, an insurance advocate group.
Don't base your coverage level, though, on the home's appraised value, which includes land costs. Instead, says Kevin McCarty, president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, use the recent per-square-foot replacement costs in your area, available from your local homebuilders association. The difference can be sizable. In New York state, land makes up 9% of the average home's value, according to the Lincoln Institute. In Hawaii, it represents more than half.
Is your area prone to natural disasters? Price out extended or guaranteed replacement policies, which protect you from inflated labor and material costs following such catastrophes.
Step 2. Inspect what's not covered.
Don't assume that all "perils" are covered. As homeowners learned the hard way after Hurricane Irene last August, standard policies exclude damage from flooding, not to mention earthquakes and landslides. "Most people aren't aware of what their policy does and doesn't cover until they file a claim," says Deeia Beck, executive director of the Office of Public Insurance Counsel, a state consumer agency in Texas.
If you live in a high-risk area for floods, you may be required to add supplemental coverage, which can cost $1,700 to $3,300 on a $150,000 building and $50,000 worth of contents.
Also, take note of common exclusions, such as those on mold and even broken pipes owing to lack of routine maintenance. You know which nuisances your home is susceptible to. Use that knowledge to beef up coverage by adding so-called endorsements.
Step 3. Recheck the deductible.
It may not be the same as it was a year ago. Many insurers are retooling deductibles from set dollar amounts to percentages, which can often represent a substantial change.
In general, you want to go for the highest deductible you can afford to lower your premiums. Beware, though, that not all insurers that are making this switch from dollars to percentages

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

MORTGAGE & FINANCE: 30-year mortgage rate hits another record low

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Buying a home got even cheaper this week as interest rates on the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage set a record low for the fourth week in a row.
The 30-year fixed mortgage, the most popular mortgage product, dipped slightly to 3.78% from 3.79% last week, according to a weekly survey by Freddie Mac. Last year, 30-year loans averaged 4.60%. The new low can save borrowers $48 a month for every $100,000 borrowed. Over a 30-year term, that comes to $17,217 compared to last year.

Affordable mortgages
, combined with much lower home prices, should help to bolster the housing market, according to Freddie Mac's chief economist, Frank Nothaft.The 15-year fixed mortgage, which is popular among those looking to refinance, held steady at 3.04%, according to Freddie Mac's survey. That's down from 3.78% a year ago.
"Mortgage rates were virtually unchanged this week with fixed-rate loans remaining at record lows and helping to drive homebuyer affordability," he said.
In fact, buying a home has reached its most affordable level in more than two decades, according to a recent report from the National Association of Home Builders and Wells Fargo.
Rates are almost half what they were at the peak of the housing bubble in mid-2006. At the

Monday, May 28, 2012

HOME IMPROVEMENT: Energy Star Appliances

Does it really pay to shell out all that cash for new appliances? Let's consider an Energy Star rated clothes washer for starters. An Energy Star qualified washer uses 30 percent less energy and a whopping half the water compared to a traditional washer.

Clothes washers and dryers are some of the biggest energy users in a home, so 30 percent less energy usage is a big deal. You'll literally see a noticeable reduction in your monthly energy bill.It's not just those fancy front-loading machines that give you energy savings anymore, either. There are plenty of top-loading varieties that give you plenty of savings.

Buying a new energy-efficient appliance may not pay for itself in the first month or year, but it will save you money over time. "On average, a new ENERGY STAR qualified clothes washer uses 270 kwh of electricity and costs $60 to run, each year," says the Energy Star site.

For areas that need to conserve water, these appliance upgrades are a real blessing. According to, "A full-sized ENERGY STAR qualified clothes washer uses 14 gallons of water per load, compared to the 27 gallons used by a standard machine. That's 50 percent less water, per load. Over the machine's lifetime, that's a savings of 43,000 gallons of water!!"

Imagine if every household in a drought-ridden area was able to go green and use new energy-efficient appliances? This would relieve a huge burden. If everyone in the entire nation used this type of clothes washer, it would be the equivalent of saving 32 billion gallons of water and individual energy bill savings of $350 ... every year.

If you want to take your environmental consciousness a step further, be sure to use perfume

Sunday, May 27, 2012

MARKET TRENDS: Existing-home sales and home prices ticked up in April

Sales of existing homes rose in April and remain higher than a year ago, while home prices continued to climb during the month, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Association of Realtors.
The uptick in sales and the higher home prices are the latest in a series of signals that the nation’s housing market might be inching toward recovery. But perhaps more encouraging than the numbers was the fact that the improvements “were broad based across all regions,” the report stated.
(The Washington Post/National Association of Realtors) - TK
“It is no longer just the investors who are taking advantage of high affordability conditions. A return of normal home buying for occupancy is helping home sales across all price points, and now the recovery appears to be extending to home prices,” Lawrence Yun, the NAR’s chief economist, said in a statement. “The general downtrend in both listed and shadow inventory has shifted from a buyers’ market to one that is much more balanced, but in some areas it has become a seller’s market.”
Total sales of existing homes increased 3.4 percent in April, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.6 million — 10 percent higher than a year ago. The total inventory of existing homes in the country rose in April to 2.5 million, a seasonal increase that represents about a six-month supply at the current sales rate. But the inventory of listed homes remains far lower than a year ago, when there was a nine-month supply.
“A diminishing share of foreclosed property sales is helping home values. Moreover, an acute shortage of inventory in certain markets is leading to multiple biddings and escalating price conditions,” Yun said, citing the Washington area among others. “We expect stronger price increases in most of these areas.”
The median existing-home sales price rose in April to $177,400, marking the first time that sales prices have risen in consecutive months since the summer of 2010. Yun said he expects home prices to increase modestly this year, with “stronger improvement” coming in 2013.
Tuesday’s numbers offered the latest sliver of encouraging news for the nation’s battered housing market, which has been weighing down the broader economy for half a decade.
The recent good news has come in part because of modest improvements in the nation’s job market, which means fewer people are falling behind on their mortgages and would-be homeowners are becoming more confident about buying.
Mortgage rates remain historically low. Housing inventories have shrunk in some areas, as real estate agents report increasing demand. Some lenders have shown a willingness to loosen up

Saturday, May 26, 2012

MARKET TRENDS: Aging Baby and Echo Boomer to Impact Housing

The demographic shift of the aging baby boomer generation will soon have an impact on the nation's housing market.

It's not all aging baby boomers either. Their echo boomer children will also significantly impact trends.According to the National Association of Realtors researchers and the new report "Demographic Challenges and Opportunities for U.S. Housing Markets," the next two decades will see a surge in our nation's senior population by 30 million. We are an aging nation.

The echo boom generation includes nearly 65 million people born between 1981 and 1995. NAR's analysis illustrates the potential impact of economic and housing policy on this generation's demand for housing as they come of age.

How this will affect housing is simple. The report indicates that as adults enter their sixties, the pace of household dissolution begins to exceed that of creation. This mean more homes saturating the market. "It will also swell the number of dwellings released into the housing market over the next four decades, creating new challenges and opportunities for housing policy."

Two regions are predicted to feel this pressure more acutely. "The Northeast and Midwest are most likely to see a large number of older homeowners selling their homes to younger homeowners as the baby boomers age," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "This increased supply could mean additional buying opportunities for echo boomers. That generation will absorb 75-80 percent of the available inventory of owner-occupied housing by 2020."

While this may be the case, the report also indicated that echo boomers have suffered

Friday, May 25, 2012

THE ECONOMY: Recovery News: U.S. Home Sales Up 3.4% in April

RISMEDIA, Thursday, May 24, 2012— Existing-home sales rose in April and remain above a year ago, while home prices continued to rise, according to the National Association of Realtors®. The improvements in sales and prices were broad based across all regions.

Total existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, increased 3.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.62 million in April from a downwardly revised 4.47 million in March, and are 10.0 percent higher than the 4.20 million-unit level in April 2011.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says the housing recovery is underway. “It is no longer just the investors who are taking advantage of high affordability conditions. A return of normal home buying for occupancy is helping home sales across all price points, and now the recovery appears to be extending to home prices,” he says. “The general downtrend in both listed and shadow inventory has shifted from a buyers’ market to one that is much more balanced, but in some areas it has become a seller’s market.”

Total housing inventory at the end of April rose 9.5 percent to 2.54 million existing homes available for sale, a seasonal increase which represents a 6.6-month supply at the current sales pace, up from a 6.2-month supply in March. Listed inventory is 20.6 percent below a year ago when there was a 9.1-month supply; the record for unsold inventory was 4.04 million in July 2007.

“A diminishing share of foreclosed property sales is helping home values. Moreover, an acute shortage of inventory in certain markets is leading to multiple biddings and escalating price conditions,” Yun says. He notes some areas with tight supply include the Washington, D.C., area; Miami; Naples, Fla.; North Dakota; Phoenix; Orange County, Calif.; and Seattle. “We expect stronger price increases in most of these areas.”

The national median existing-home prices for all housing types jumped 10.1 percent to $177,400 in April from a year ago; the March price showed an upwardly revised 3.1 percent annual improvement. “This is the first time we’ve had back-to-back price increases from a year earlier since June and July of 2010 when the gains were less than one percent,” Yun says. “For the year we’re looking for a modest overall price gain of 1.0 to 2.0 percent, with stronger

Thursday, May 24, 2012

MARKET TRENDS: Real Estate Sale Prices Impacted By Gender, Attractiveness And Race (STUDY)

The economy may not be the only thing determining your home's sale price. According to a new study, how attractive your real estate agent is can have a serious impact as well.
The research, published last month in the journal Applied Financial Economics, looked the personal characteristics of real estate agents, including looks, gender and race. The study's authors then compared those characteristics to the prices that houses sold for and the amount of time they stayed on the market. The size, location and quality of each property was controlled for, news site Big Thinkreported. Even with those factors controlled for, the researchers found that looks and gender mattered -- a lot. The researchers found that it can pay -- literally -- to hire a female real estate agent. According to Big Think:
Both male listing agents (those acting on behalf of the seller) and male selling agents (those acting on behalf of the buyer) are associated with lower house prices than their female counterparts.
The gender of the agents did not, however, have any impact on the length of time a house stayed on the market.
In contrast, the level of attractiveness impacted both a property’s selling time and its price point. Good-looking agents tend to sell their properties for more money -- especially attractive listing agents -- but these properties also tend to be on the market for a longer period of time. Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart believes that this discrepancy makes sense, writing that:
humans are visual creatures, and if some polished, pleasing-to-the-eye power broker who looks like a million bucks tries to sell on something worth a million bucks, we're probably going to agree to the price. That's just how sales works! The pretty people in Prada have known this for years.
This the latest in a series of studies to find that there are advantages to being conventionally

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

SELLING YOUR HOME: 5 steps to picking the right agent to sell your home

If you're selling a home, a good real-estate agent will help you set the right price, market the home professionally, qualify the buyers and expertly negotiate and finalize the deal.
A great agent has long experience with recent sales and can walk a tightrope, balancing optimism with realism and diplomacy with brutal honesty. You'll pay big bucks for an agent's service — an average of 5.3% of the sale price in 2011, according to Real Trends, a real-estate consulting company. So you owe it to yourself to interview more than one agent. (Bing: What makes real-estate agents mad?)
1. Round up good prospects
To identify prospective agents, you can ask for referrals from neighbors or friends or use the search tools on the websites of the National Association of Realtors or the Council of Residential Specialists.
On our blog, 'Listed': Realtors rally to 'protect the American Dream'Try to limit your search to agents with credentials that match your needs. For example, on the CRS website, you can search for agents who specialize in the sale of single-family houses, condos and luxury or resort homes, as well as short sales (selling a home for less than the owner owes on a mortgage) and assisting seniors.
Leigh Brown, an agent with Re/Max in Charlotte, N.C., says you want someone who is on his game. Although many half-hearted agents left the business after the housing bust, she says some of those who remain live under a black cloud, having lost a lot of income and confidence. Not only will you feel that lack of passion, but it may alienate prospective buyers. You want someone who will work assertively on your behalf but won't come on too aggressively, like a used-car salesman. That will turn off the buyers' agents, too.
2. Ask tough questions
You want an agent who is "intimately and passionately" familiar with your neighborhood, says agent Cotty Lowry of Keller Williams in Minneapolis. But, Lowry says, the agent with a lot of signs in your neighborhood may not be your best choice, either. "If a prospective agent has little constructive input about price and condition for you, be curious: Do they want to help you sell your house or do they just want to put a sign in your yard to bring in buyers?" he says.
Before you start interviewing, check out Questions to Ask a Real Estate Agent and How to Choose a Listing Agent by's Elizabeth Weintraub.
Article continues below
Sell Your Home with an Agent or Sell It Yourself?
Date:11/4/2011Duration: 003:007Video By: Kiplinger's Kip Tips
Should you use a real estate agent to sell your home or try selling it yourself? Kiplinger has the answer.
Each agent you interview should offer a comparative market analysis (a comparison of recent and pending sales of homes similar to yours) and know enough about the neighborhood and

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

MARKET TRENDS: A housing rebound? More like ricochet

New-home sales tick up; still worst March ever

By David Streitfeld

New York Times / April 26, 2011
NEW YORK — The market for new homes is so depressed that even a rebound last month did not keep it from being the slowest March on record.

Buyers signed contracts in March at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 300,000, an 11 percent increase from the month before but down from 384,000 in March 2010, the Census Bureau said yesterday.

In March 2005, when a lack of sufficient income or savings was no deterrent to getting a dream home with granite countertops and a walk-in pantry, families and investors flocked to real estate at an annual rate of 1,431,000 houses.

The millions of homes built during the boom have created a drag on the current market as owners surrender them to foreclosure.

Builders cannot compete against relatively new construction offered by banks for large discounts.

The March sales numbers modestly exceeded analysts’ expectations but nevertheless did not impress.

“Still miserable,’’ said Joshua Shapiro, chief US economist for MFR Inc.

While February sales were revised up to 270,000 from an initial 250,000, it was still the lowest of any month since records were first kept in 1963.

Builders told potential buyers in March that they might want to make a deal before new rates kicked in from the Federal Housing Administration, which guarantees many loans. That probably contributed to the rebound.

In a separate report issued yesterday, the HousingPulse Tracking Survey indicated that nearly half of the housing market is distressed properties.

Because banks generally pulled back on foreclosures over the past six months, the survey underlined the long-term pressures facing the market.

If the banks start processing foreclosures faster, that will further stagger the housing market. A coalition of state attorneys general and the Obama administration is negotiating with the lenders to persuade them to do more loan modifications instead.

Home prices have been falling for the past six months, and the release today of the Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller Home Price Index for February is expected to show another decline.

Before that release, Morgan Stanley lowered its forecast for prices by an additional 4 percent. Morgan Stanley analysts now say prices will drop 6 percent to 11 percent from their levels at the end of last year.

The drop in home construction and sales is in some ways good news for would-be sellers, because it means supply is not being added to a market that already has excess inventory. But lackluster construction is a drag on the larger economy, contributing to high unemployment and weak consumer spending.

No relief is in sight.

“Sales remain very low by historical standards and, considering that a number of home builders reported large drops in orders recently, there is likely more weakness ahead,’’ wrote Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.

Monday, May 21, 2012

SELLING: Spring Cleaning Checklist

With spring selling season arriving, take the time now to polish your home to perfection.

1. Let the sun in. Make any room look brighter with clean blinds and windows. Mix a solution of one part white vinegar to eight parts water, plus a drop or two of liquid dishwashing liquid, for a green window cleaner. Spray on and wipe with newspaper to avoid streaks. (Washing on a cloudy day also reduces streaking.)
Showing tip: Replace heavy drapes with lightweight shears during warmer months to give a room a brighter, lighter feel for prospective buyers.

2. Sniff out smells. Check the drip tray underneath your refrigerator and wash out any standing water from defrosting. Remove inside odors by washing the inside of the fridge with a baking soda and water solution. Boil lemon juice in your microwave and add it to your dishwasher to eliminate bad smells. Also, put the lemon rinds down the disposal. Add activated charcoal in the fridge to keep odors at bay.
Showing tip: Make the fridge smell fresh instantly with cotton balls soaked in vanilla extract or orange juice.

3. Make your bed better. Vacuum mattresses and box springs, and then rotate and flip over. Do the same for removable furniture cushions. This is also a great time to wash or dry-clean the dust ruffle and mattress pad.
Showing tip: Add new loft to a lumpy comforter by having two people vigorously shake the quilt up and down to redistribute stuffing.

4. Clean those coils. Improve energy efficiency by vacuuming grates, coils, and condensers in your furnace, stove, and refrigerator (either underneath or in back). If a vacuum won’t reach, try a rag tied to a yardstick.
Showing tip: Shut some air conditioning vents on the first floor or basement so that more air will reach and cool the second floor. Reverse the process in winter for heat vents.

5. Wash the walls. Grease, smoke, and dust can adhere to walls and make even the best decorating look dingy. Wash walls using a general-purpose cleaner with hot water. Start at the top of the wall to avoid drips and in a corner so that you wash one wall at a time. Rinse the mop head frequently in clean water. And don’t press too hard because flat latex paint won’t absorb too much water.
Showing tip: Resist the temptation to spot-clean walls since it will make the rest of the wall look dingy.

Realtor Magazine 2009

Saturday, May 19, 2012

NEIGHBORHOODS: Walk Score wants to get you on your bike, too

Walk Score -- the Seattle-based developer that helps homebuyers and renters find "walkable" and transit-friendly communities -- is celebrating Bike to Work Week by expanding its scope to include "bikeability" ratings. 

The new Bike Score -- which is based on the factors like bike lanes, hills, road connectivity, and the percentage of people in an area who bike to work -- is initially available for what Walk Score has identified as the nation's "top 10 most bikeable cities."
Bike Score generates a rating of 0-100, with cities with scores of 70 or higher considered "very bikeable," those with scores between 50 and 69 "bikeable," and those with scores below 50 "somewhat bikeable."
Top 10 Most Bikeable Cities 
1. Minneapolis (79) 
2. Portland (70) 
3. San Francisco (70) 
4. Boston (68) 
5. Madison (67) 
6. Washington, D.C. (65) 
7. Seattle (64) 
8. Tucson (64) 
9. New York (62) 
10. Chicago (62)
Source: Walk Score
Bike Score "heat maps" are also available for 10 of the largest Canadian cities, including Toronto, Montreal and Calgary.
Walk Score said it will compute Bike Scores for 10 more cities receiving the most votes from May 14 to May 31. CEO Josh Herst said in a blog post that the company developed the Bike Score methodology in collaboration with professor Meghan Winters of Simon Fraser University, and professors Michael Brauer and Kay Teschke of the University of British Columbia, under a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
Brauer said Bike Score will help cities measure and improve their cycling infrastructure -- a key to increasing ridership. Surveys showing bike commuting increased 43 percent between 2000 and 2010, but that 71 percent of Americans say they would like to bicycle more than they do now.
Walk Score says it delivers more than 6 million scores for apartment and home addresses per day across a network of more than 15,000 real estate sites, including and Windermere Real Estate.
Several multiple listing services (MLSs) have integrated Walk Scores into listings. Metrolist, a regional MLS in Colorado, was one of the first MLSs to integrate Walk Scores into its public-facing website,, in 2008. Visitors to the site can search for properties by Walk Score.
Another Walk Score MLS partner, San Diego-based Sandicor, also displays Walk Scores on its public listing portal. Lisle, Ill.-based Midwest Real Estate Data LLC (MRED) integrated Walk Scores into listings in February.
Walk Score announced in January that it had raised $2 million from investors. Chief Technology Officer Matt Lerner said at the time that Walk Score aims "to build another great Seattle real estate company" like Zillow, Redfin and Windermere Real Estate.

Friday, May 18, 2012

MARKET TRENDS: Rethinking the 55-Plus Market

SOME would-be buyers who visit Villagio, a 55-plus housing development in South Brunswick, think they’ve arrived at the wrong place.
To members of a market segment said to avoid stair-climbing, second-floor bedrooms are not the only surprise. Villagio has a basketball court and a jungle gym, but at least so far, it lacks a clubhouse, which at a typical development of this type is usually among the first elements built.
“This is not your father’s adult community,” Mr. Gueyikian said during a recent tour of the development, a 100-acre property punctuated with 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot stucco houses painted in shades like amber, rose and terra cotta (although elevators are an option for their buyers). “The thinking was in the senior market that you sell your house and downsize, but some people don’t want to go to a smaller house. They want a new home with bragging rights. Today’s people are looking for the Porsche S.U.V., they’re not looking to buy a van.”
The 55-plus market was especially hard hit by the downturn in the housing market — so much so that in 2009 New Jersey passed a law allowing such communities to convert to serving the general populace. In any case, said Tim Touhey, president of the New Jersey Builders Association, “there’s been an evolution in the health and conditions of families.”
“Some 55 and older are still working and want office space,” he said. “Some may have adult children living at home. They want more variety and choice. And the development community is driven by what the market wants.”
In other words, Mr. Gueyikian may just have hit upon something. After several years in which, he said, buyers seemed to lose interest, Villagio is building seven houses, adding to the 43 that went up in late 2007. Long-range plans call for 210 homes.
A builder of million-dollar-plus houses in Holmdel, Marlboro and Colts Neck, Mr. Gueyikian said he identified an interest in his vision of 55-plus housing when meeting with a group of homeowners at his development in Ramapo, N.Y., which has retirement-age buyers living in $2 million to $3 million

Thursday, May 17, 2012

MARKET TRENDS: Home Prices Rise in Half of U.S. Cities as Markets Stabilize

Prices for single-family homes climbed in half of U.S. cities in the first quarter as real estate markets stabilized.
The median sales price increased from a year earlier in 74 of 146 metropolitan areas measured, the National Association of Realtors said in a report today. In the fourth quarter, only 29 areas had gains.
A development in Oswego, Illinois. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
May 7 (Bloomberg) -- Michelle Meyer, a senior economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, talks about the U.S. economy and real estate market. She speaks with Tom Keene on Bloomberg Television's "Surveillance Midday." (Source: Bloomberg)
The U.S. housing market is showing signs of bottoming as improving employment and record-low mortgage rates boost demand while inventories of available properties tighten. At the end of March, 2.37 million previously owned homes were available for sale, 22 percent fewer than a year earlier, the Realtors said.
“The housing market is still depressed but it had a good quarter,” Patrick Newport, an economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts, said in a telephone interview today. “We’re on the mend but it’s still something that will take two or three years before we’re back to normal.”
The national median existing single-family home price was $158,100 in the first quarter, down 0.4 percent from the first three months of 2011, according to the Realtors group.
The best-performing metro area was Cape Coral, Florida, where prices increased 28.1 percent from a year earlier. Prices rose 19 percent in Grand RapidsMichigan; 16.9 percent in Palm Bay, Florida; and 16.6 percent in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Biggest Declines

Kingston, New York, had the biggest decline, with the median selling price tumbling 22 percent in the quarter. It was followed by Stamford, Connecticut,