What really happened this spring in the real estate market?

inventorySo much has been written about what happened this spring. Most of it is about prices going up, bidding wars and the lack of inventory. Now that the summer is a few months behind us, and most properties that went under agreement by the end of the summer have closed, we can look at what actually happened. I have analyzed the numbers that I think matter most.

Downtown
An analysis of the closed sales of all the more upscale downtown Boston neighborhoods, from Charlestown to South Boston to Jamaica Plain, show that the median price of a residential home, including condominiums, single families and multi-families, rose about 10% in 2013 from the same time in 2012. In 2012 it was up about 6% from 2011. The recent figures are substantial, but not mind-boggling. The mind-boggling numbers are the average “days-on-market” statistics. In 2011, average days-on-market was 97. That figure fell 17% to 76 days in 2012, and then fell another 47% to 40 days in 2013. Surprisingly, the inventory has been fairly consistent. The number of homes sold fell 20% from 2011 to 2012 but then stayed about even for 2013.

Cambridge
Cambridge’s value numbers are more dramatic. Up 6% from 2011 to 2012, and then up another 17% from 2012 to 2013. Days on market fell 28% from 72 in 2011 to 52 in 2012, and then another 35% in 2013 to 34. I would consider this number for days on market in the ‘mind boggling’ category.

Brookline
Brookline’s value numbers are quite different. Values actually fell about 1.5% from 2011 to 2012, and then rose 14% from 2012 to 2013. dns database Days on market fell about 27% from 82 in 2011 to 60 in 2012, and then another 38% to 37 in 2013. Here again, the days on market falls in the “mind boggling’ category.

High End Suburban snapshot (Lexington, Wellesley, Weston, Winchester)
I thought it would be interesting to look at the numbers of these 4 “high-end” suburbs considered together. Here is what I found: prices increased 2% from 2011 to 2012, and then went up 13% in 2013. Days on market stayed flat at 107 from 2011 to 2012, but decreased by 35% to 70 for 2013.

All in all, it was one hell of a spring.

What Condo Association Budget?

condo-budgetCondominium association budgets come in all shapes and sizes. If, like me, you live in a very small association with 2 or 3 units, it may be questionable whether an actual written budget even exists. Large associations, made up of hundreds of units, often have detailed budgets prepared by professionals. In either case, when you went to sell your condo in the past, only the prospective buyer cared about and reviewed the budget. In today’s lending climate, it is standard practice for the buyer’s lender to review the budget. Fannie Mae, the quasi-public company through which most mortgages pass, does not require a written budget for 2–4 unit associations, but does require it on associations of 5 or more units. Many lenders also have an “overlay,” which is essentially an additional requirement that 2–4 unit associations have a written budget. The bottom line is that it is a good idea to have an actual written budget, because it is likely that the lender will ask for it when someone goes to sell a unit in the association.

The lender reviewing the budget will want to see a line item for a 10% reserve. 90% of the annually collected fees must account for all of the regular recurring expenses, and 10% must be saved as reserves. According to the lenders I work with, it is unnecessary to have a separate reserve account. Be careful, however, as buyers looking to get mortgages guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration (known as FHA mortgages) require condominiums associations to meet stricter requirements.

Most condominium budgets can be set up to show a 10% reserve. All obviously recurring expenses, like insurance, water and sewer, the common electric bill, and all clearly recurring maintenance (snow removal, for example) must be budgeted for in a line item. I also recommend some money be put in a line item labeled “maintenance,” because not having any money for general maintenance is not realistic or credible. Expenses that do not come up every year do not have to be budgeted for in advance and can come out of reserves. For example, if your association plans to spend $10,000 in the upcoming year on a new walkway, the budget can still show a 10% reserve for the year that you build the new walkway. The following year, when you produce a “budget vs. actual” report, you would show that you spent the money out of reserves.  As a matter of fiscal prudence, your association may still want to raise fees or collect money via a special assessment, but that is a different conversation.

I always enjoy a good conversation about condominium association budgets, so please don’t hesitate to contact me or write a comment and tell us about your condo association budget.

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What is ENERGY STAR?

Energy-StarENERGY STAR is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy designed to help consumers save money, and protect the environment through energy-efficient products and practices.

In 1992, the (EPA) introduced ENERGY STAR as a voluntary labeling program designed to identify and promote energy-efficient products to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Computers and monitors were the first labeled products. By 1995, the EPA had expanded the label to residential heating and cooling equipment. The ENERGY STAR label is now on major appliances, lighting, home electronics, and has been expanded to cover new homes and commercial and industrial buildings.

Whole Home ENERGY STAR Rating

For an entire home to be labeled ENERGY STAR, it must be built by an ENERGY STAR builder-partner to meet strict guidelines for energy efficiency set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These homes are at least 15% more energy efficient than homes built to the 2004 International Residential Code (IRC), and include additional energy-saving features that typically make them 20–30% more efficient than standard homes.

The ENERGY STAR label is rapidly becoming more of a selling feature. Home buyers are now very conscious of a potential home’s energy efficiency. The Multiple Listing Service has specific sections where ENERGY STAR rated systems and appliances can be highlighted so that buyers can easily determine if there is ENERGY STAR rated equipment in the home they are considering. However, as the whole-house Energy Star rating is fairly new, it doesn’t yet appear often.  As more and more homes get the designation, you will see it more often and consumers will look for the whole home rating.

The ‘No Cost Energy Assessment’ & Benefits

Locally, the ENERGY STAR program is partnered with a program called Mass Save. This initiative is sponsored by several local energy companies and administered by a company called Conservation Services Group. Through Mass Save you can schedule a no-cost “Energy Assessment” on your home or even your rental property. Depending on the results, homeowners are then eligible for an instant rebate of up to $2,000 for 75% of the cost of installing insulation, and a zero percent interest loan on new heating equipment. The website also contains a wealth of information on saving energy as well as information like current tax credits available for energy efficient home improvements.

As energy costs continue to rise, taking advantage of the Mass Save program, and looking for ENERGY STAR rated appliances will not only benefit you in the short term, but add value to your home when it comes time to sell.

Resources:  www.masssave.com, www.energystar.gov

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Is Your Painter Lead-Paint Certified?

Lead Paint RegulationsOn April 22, 2010 Massachusetts adopted a lead paint law that  likely affects you if you own a house built before 1978. Previously, you could hire anyone,  to paint anything  in your house. Not anymore.  The “Renovating, Repair and Painting Rule” (RRP) requires that for home improvement projects that will “disturb” more than 6 interior square feet of paint or 20 exterior square feet of paint, your painter must be certified by the EPA.  The only exceptions* to this rule are if:

  1. Your house was built after 1978
  2. The house or “components” of the house have been tested as lead free by a Certified Risk Assessor, Lead Inspector, or Certified Renovator
  3. You do the renovations yourself.

Fortunately, professional painters can become certified relatively easily by taking a one day course and paying a fee of $375. Painters who are not certified face fines of up to $5,000, license suspension and can be subject to a “cease work” order by any number of public health agencies, including  possibly, the local building inspector. The “cease work” order/penalty is the major risk to a homeowner. There is no provision in the law for any other type of penalty against a homeowner.

Initially, a Boston Globe article reported that there were concerns that the certification requirement would make hiring a painter more expensive.  However, almost 2 years after the law went into effect, I couldn’t find any evidence of increases in the cost of hiring a painter. Although the time and expense of obtaining certification are relatively minor, there are real expenses associated with properly managing work sites that contain lead dust. Costs will likely rise, but worksites should be safer and ultimately homes will be safer as well.

If you decide to undertake a do-it-yourself renovation or painting project where there is any possibility of creating dust and you might have lead paint, I highly recommend you  learn how to properly handle and contain the dust from your project. Most of it is common sense and merely requires a high level of preparation and care. A good resource is the Renovate Right pamphlet that lead-certified contractors are required to provide to consumers.

The laws around lead paint are extensive here in Massachusetts. If you have information or expertise you would like to share, please comment, or contact me.

Other helpful resources are:

*The question arises that if you hire a general contractor who is lead-paint certified, and he sub-contracts out the painting work, do those painters have to be certified? The answer is complicated. There are rules about who has to be certified on a job site, and when a “non-certified” painter can be on the job under the supervision of someone who is certified. As a general rule, if you are hiring a general contractor make sure he really understands the lead laws and fully intends to follow them.

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Converting to Investment Property

Sell or Rent HouseRenting Your Home vs. Selling Your Home

Many of the sales I handle are in urban neighborhoods where people consider keeping their condominium as an investment property instead of selling it. This is more common lately as many homeowners become painfully aware that they cannot sell their home for the price they want. They naturally consider holding and renting the property until the value of their home recovers. However, if a home’s value is much higher than what was paid for it, this strategy has serious tax implications.

Capital Gains Tax Rules  – The Basics

According to Federal and State (Massachusetts) tax rules, gains in value are tax free up to certain limits for people who lived in the home as a primary residence for two out of the last five years. A gain of up to $500,000 for a couple or $250,000 for an individual is tax free when you sell the home. Basically, if you rent your home instead of selling it right away, you have a three year window to sell and avoid paying capital gains tax. Gains on homes not sold in the three year window are taxed at 15% Federal and 5% State. Another option is to keep the property for life and pass it on to your heirs. A discussion of this option is complicated and beyond the scope of this post.

The Three Year Plan

If you hold onto a property and rent it, you will have to deal with one unpredictable variable – tenants. In my experience, the presence of tenants usually compromises your ability to get the highest possible price for the property. Tenants are not usually the best decorators and may not have the highest standards of cleanliness. Plus, it is extremely difficult to make improvements with tenants in the unit. To get the highest possible price, you may have to wait for the tenants to leave, make improvements, and then thoroughly stage the unit starting from scratch. With tenants in your unit, you could get anywhere from 3 to 5% off the highest possible price. The discount may be even greater if the home shows badly, or the tenants make showings difficult or are problematic. Being a landlord carries significant risk.

These costs and headaches must be considered against any expected future increase in the value of your condominium. If you decide to sell immediately, many of these costs can be avoided. There is no danger of a tenant causing wear and tear or making showings difficult. If your home is in good condition and well-decorated, you can probably prepare it for sale without making costly cosmetic improvements and can stage it using many of your own furnishings. Ultimately, you may decide to rent your condominium, but it’s important to be aware of what you’re getting into.

Ask The Tough Questions!

Real Estate ConceptThis week’s post is courtesy of negotiation consultant and blogger, Chad Ellis.

During a recent family visit my father reminded me of an unusual house near where I grew up.  It was a lovely house with a good-sized yard next to a pond.  Perfect for a family, and many families happily bought it.  In fact, the house was bought by a new family almost once a year, for what always seemed a bargain price.  Most families sold the house within a year of moving in.

Nothing was wrong with the house, per se.  The problem was that the yard and pond were the summer home for a large flock of geese.  During the warm season they would arrive and spend the next few months defecating all over the yard, turning what looked like a dream into something quite less pleasant.  When the geese had gone, the new owners would look at their mess of a yard, clean things up as best they could, and put their lovely house on the market.

In my last post we discussed the importance of information.  Clearly the buyers of this home lacked a key piece of information.  But why?  Buying a home is a big deal — for most of us it’s the biggest purchase we’ll ever make.  Paying 10% more than you have to is a huge loss as is buying a house you decide you can’t keep.  Even without the Internet making research fairly easy, it would have been relatively easy for home buyers to learn about the history of the Goose House.  So why didn’t they?

In my experience, there are two reasons people enter negotiations without key information.  First, we don’t make a list of what information we’d like to have.  Second, we become extremely reluctant to ask questions.

If anything, this problem escalates with major purchases.  The same person who will check movie reviews before putting $10 and an evening at risk will do little or no preparation when buying a house or negotiating salary at a new position.  Having more at stake sometimes makes us less willing to prepare, perhaps because it’s more frightening to admit a lack of knowledge when it comes to something important.  If this sounds like you, make extra certain that you commit to asking the sorts of questions we discussed last time.  Then, when you consider about how you might go about acquiring that information, be aware of the options that make you uncomfortable — and spell out the costs and potential gains of that option.  An experienced buyer’s agent you trust can help you to identify the tough questions you need to ask and will know how to ask and where to look to get the answers.

If the buyers of the Goose House had done that, they might have learned about the house’s history…and avoided a costly mistake.

Chad Ellis
Check out my Negotiations Blog:
www.negotiatewithchad.blogspot.com

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A Tale of Three Roofs

In the course of a day or a week, how many houses do you think you pass and observe? Homes can be unique in their style and architecture, but roofs generally fall into one of three broad categories: gabled, hipped and flat.

The type of house usually referred to as “Gambrel” or “Dutch Colonial,” is a prime example of a house with a gabled roof. The gabled roof is characterized by two or more sloping planes supported at each end by triangular wall extensions, known as gables, which occur at varying angles. The actual “gable” is the part of the wall between the sloping roof lines.

Side Gable Roof
Cross Gabled Roof
Front Gable Roof

 

The key to recognizing a hipped roof is that all the roof surfaces slope downward to the walls.  It usually results in the roof having a pyramid-like appearance.


A hip roof on a rectangular plan

A square hip roof (also known as
a “pyramid roof”)

Flat roof with parapet walls

 

The last major type of roof is the flat roof.  This roof is fairly self-explanatory and is evident in so many of the triple deckers found locally. Flat roofs are normally built with parapet walls or eaves. A parapet wall is a continuation of the side walls, or a separate structure around the perimeter of the roof that rises higher than the roof.

Italianate eave with brackets

Eaves are simply that part of the roof that over hang the supporting walls:

Although there are many variations and combinations of these three roofs, if you look closely at any building, you can easily deduce the basic roof type from which it originates.

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Home Inspections – A Context Shift

inspectionIn my experience, the home inspection is at the fulcrum of the residential real estate transaction. If a deal is going to sour, it is likely due to the home inspection. Although not required by laws or regulations, home buyers in Massachusetts almost always have a home inspection and the right to cancel the transaction if they are dissatisfied with the results.

Most buyers start the buying process thinking that the home inspector will find all the issues including what is not functioning properly and what may need attention in the near future. Buyers assume they’ll have the agent negotiate with the sellers to fix the problems or compensate the buyer in some way.

Sellers usually have a different perspective. They often feel that the issues are to be  reasonably expected given the age and general condition of the home or should have been obvious to the buyer from the start. In the sellers’ minds, the house comes “as-is” and the price has already been negotiated. After all, the sellers have lived with the issues for some time.

These very different approaches can make for difficult negotiations over issues that actually don’t involve a great deal of money. The solution is a different context for the home inspection.

Buyers will benefit most by using the home inspection to determine whether the home generally meets their expectations and if they want to proceed with the purchase. It is best if buyers focus on specific problems that were unknown prior to negotiating the sale price.  What doesn’t function properly given the age of the renovation, or the home, and the general condition of the house? Reasonable wear and tear is to be expected.  If an item is past its life expectancy and still works, then it is actually functioning better than expected.

The buyers and their agent should present the seller with a reasonable dollar amount for fixing the problems (I generally recommend against asking the sellers to make repairs because the buyers will have to inspect the work and this opens up a new set of problems). The sellers ought to approach the buyers’ requests essentially the same way. If the buyers could reasonably have expected the item to function properly, and it doesn’t, then the buyers request for compensation is reasonable.

There will still be complicated issues to resolve around what is reasonableness. However, if buyers and sellers approach the home inspection from the same context, those issues should be easier to resolve.

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Making The Most Of Your Real Estate Agent

chalkI recently spoke with a man whose parents owned a residence in Boston. His parents were considering selling their home and he indicated that, once they made a decision, they would contact me. This approach is a great example of a missed opportunity. If his parents already have a relationship with an agent they trust, they have an excellent opportunity to get some high quality free advice and consultation. If his parents don’t have an agent, they can evaluate the agent’s services on a trial basis and possibly get free advice and consultation.

The greatest value of having a relationship with a real estate agent you can trust is that you can consult with him or her regarding major real estate decisions. For a seller, what decision is more important than the initial decision to sell? Even a seemingly simple situation can actually be quite complex. For example, suppose you are transferred to the west coast. Do you need the equity out of your home so you can purchase in California? Should you rent out there first? What are the implications of renting your home here? How solid is the current market and how confident are you that the real estate market will get better for sellers, stay the same, or get worse? And how does all of this factor in to your decision?

Consulting with an agent regarding your decision to sell reveals the ability of your agent to objectively analyze your situation and offer sound advice. A good agent with a consultative approach can assist in fully analyzing and synthesizing all the different factors to help you make a powerful choice that furthers your goals.

Many people, however, make these decisions without expert advice, because they are uncomfortable bringing in an agent to help them. This is understandable. They don’t have a real estate agent they can trust. Because agents work on commission, they naturally have a bias in favor of wanting you to sell. It is difficult for them to be completely objective in their analysis and advice. However, at some level, almost all professionals have a personal financial bias. It all comes down to trust. Can you trust that your real estate agent has enough integrity to keep your interests truly in mind and be as objective as possible?

Your agent’s trustworthiness will be put to the test by consulting with him or her regarding the decision to buy or sell. The primary piece of information that you probably need, if you are thinking of selling, is an accurate picture of the value of your home. Most agents offer this analysis without charge. Not surprisingly, the raw data is subject to interpretation and the final value is more art than science.  Agents are often overly optimistic about the value of your property. You want the home to be worth as much as possible, and the agent wants the business. An experienced agent, who understands the market, and is good with the numbers, is the starting point. Only an agent you trust, and one who really understands the value of a long term agent-client relationship, can give you a truly honest appraisal of your home’s value. If you already have an agent you trust then this information will be very valuable. If you are working with an agent who is new to you, vigilantly check your agent’s references and consider how much you trust the agent before making any decisions. If you feel that the agent has genuinely assisted you in the decision-making process, and there is a foundation of trust, even if you decide not to sell in the current market, you have found the right agent. {Please Comment Here}

Inspirational Design Meets the Accessibility Challenge

This week features my friend, guest blogger and fellow Rotarian,  Karl Damitz, Principal Architect and owner of FourFold Design.

Over the past 10 years of my professional practice working as an architect in and around Boston, some of my most challenging and rewarding projects have involved clients with physical disabilities. The integration of thoughtful design solutions that address the specific needs of a client with limited mobility can have a profound impact on his or her life.

The Americans with Disabilities Act has proven to be an important step in creating more equality for people with disabilities. The act mandates that all public buildings be designed for ease of use by persons with many kinds of disabilities. However, it has also created a stigma around accessible design. The design quality of many, if not most, public accessibility projects is very poor. When considering accessibility for a private residence, the design challenges are completely unique, with little relationship to the ADA guidelines that have been laid out for public work.

In residential design, the challenges of designing a space that meets these far more specific set of challenges and conditions very often means that traditional solutions and guidelines are ineffective. Products and standards that are marketed for accessibility uses are typically more clinical in nature and reflect a ‘hospital surplus’ aesthetic that has little relevance in the realm of residential design. For the residential market, a sterile and clinical renovation that simply addresses accessibility from a functional perspective could result in a reduction of property value and turn off potential buyers, ultimately limiting the pool of potential buyers.

The key to a successful residential design project that accommodates and supports a homeowners’ physical needs, while maintaining or increasing market value, is the integration of specific, design-focused solutions that emphasize the owners’ personality and style, rather than emphasizing their disability. A purely functional and prescriptive approach often results in a space that fails to engage the homeowner and, instead, becomes a constant reminder of their physical limitations. The true value of great design work—the key to a successful, accessible residential project—is to deliver a product that addresses the practical needs of the homeowner, without revealing or highlighting this need to the casual visitor.

This shower is barrier-free (no curb) and has a removable shower head whose anchor can double as a grab bar.

Achieving truly exceptional design in this arena requires a process that considers every component for its practical and aesthetic value. A ramp should no longer be viewed as a functional element that connects two different levels, but as part of the experience of moving through the house. It should fit comfortably and flow naturally.

In the end, the best design solutions for an accessible home must meet the functional design requirements of the project.  The most successful project is one that seamlessly integrates design solutions and emphasizes the identity and style of the homeowner far more than the disability that it has been designed to accommodate.

Learn more about FourFold Design.

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