Has your home’s value decreased? Buy a more expensive one!

trading-upIf your home has decreased in value and you are thinking about selling it, it’s hard to see any silver lining. However, if you have other resources and have been thinking about buying a larger home, this is, surprisingly, the best time to “trade up.”

Here’s why…

I recommend that homeowners consider home ownership a long term investment in the residential real estate market. Most people plan to “stay invested,” buying and selling several homes in their lifetimes, or stay in the same home for decades. Most people enter the residential market when they first buy a home. They leave the market when they sell their last home or leave their last residence to heirs. People might trade up into a more expensive home or make a lateral move or two to something of similar value before downsizing in retirement as “empty nesters.” If you don’t sell your home and completely step out of the housing market by renting for a long time or traveling the world for few years, you stay invested. Similarly, you are no longer invested if sell your home and move to a completely different market, like moving from Boston to Florida. In these cases, you might want to carefully consider your relative position in each market.

Here is an example of how trading up could look when the value of your home is down:

2006: The value of your home (either just purchased or not) – Home A: $500,000

2012: Your home has decreased in value 15%. Current value Home A: $425,000

2012: You purchase your dream home – Home B: $750,000

2027: 15 years later the market has recovered and gone up a total of 30% since 2012

The value of your home – Home B: $975,000

The value of your old home – Home A: $552,500

You benefit in the long run, because you purchased the more expensive home in a lower market. Your home is down today, but the more expensive home is down more!

The point is that it doesn’t make sense to put off selling your home, because you can’t get what you want for it. Sell when it makes sense in your life to be in a different home. Your investment in the residential real estate market will take care of itself in the long term.

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Inspecting Your Home Inspector

inspection2In my last post, I recommended a useful context to make home inspection issues easier to negotiate for both parties. Buyers, however, still need to make sure that they get a thorough and fair home inspection. Home inspectors are subject to a license requirement, a code of ethics, and standards of practice from the Board of Registration of Home Inspectors, but their results still vary widely. In my experience, multiple home inspectors inspecting the same property are likely to find very different issues. How can you assess your home inspector?

Home inspectors often fall into three different categories. First, there is the highly critical inspector. Real estate agents often refer to these inspectors as “alarmist,” while many consumers merely consider them “tough.” A highly critical inspector can be a good choice if the buyer can maintain perspective. If you are somewhat savvy about home construction issues and not easily alarmed, this type of inspector may be fine for you. However, be wary of the home inspector who thinks it is his or her job to be negative. A home inspector who tells you the roof is “fully depreciated,” but fails to give you an opinion on its condition given its age, is doing you a disservice. A roof that is past its normal life span, might still be in reasonably good condition and last a few more years.

The second category of home inspectors falls on the opposite end of the spectrum.  These inspectors tend to minimize issues and accentuate the positive. Real estate agents often regard these inspectors as “easy.” Beware the inspector who just gushes nice things about the home. He is mostly trying to stay in good graces with the real estate agent and doesn’t want to offend anyone.  If you find yourself in the middle of a home inspection with this type of inspector ask him to be more critical and to provide you details and specifics about the systems he is inspecting.

The vast majority of home inspectors fall into the last category. These are the home inspectors that real estate agents regard as “fair.” They will give you a reasonably balanced assessment of the home as whole, yet still uncover critical issues. The key to getting the most value from this type of inspector is twofold. First, ask a lot of questions and figure out what the inspector knows and doesn’t know about the systems he is inspecting, and his experience with those systems. Second, if he finds any issues of more than minor concern, hire a true expert to take another look at those issues. For example, if the inspector raises concerns about the roof, hire a roofer to look it over.  This last tip is important no matter which category your inspector falls into.

Never stop being a good consumer. Hire a home inspector who comes referred by someone you trust, ask lots of questions, and don’t forget to actually read the report.  If you don’t understand something about the report, ask more questions. For more information about home inspectors, click here.

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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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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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Feng Shui – One Agent’s Perspective

A few weeks ago I was walking along Osborne Street near my home in Brookline. I looked up and noticed this large house facing me from the end of Osborne Street.

While the house itself looks great, I particularly noticed how amazing it felt to look down Osborne and see this magnificent house sitting handsomely at the end. It occurred to me that having one’s entrance looking down the street would be considered excellent Feng Shui. I remembered that the developers of the Mandarin Hotel and Residences in the Back Bay had, at great expense and at the last minute, situated the Hotel entrance to look down Fairfield Street in order to improve its Feng Shui.  They even had to move the street lights to make it all work. See this Boston.com article to read the full story.

Feng Shui, literally translated as “wind-water” is an ancient Chinese system of aesthetics  that uses various principles of energy, design, architecture, and other disciplines that work together to improve life. In the context of residential real estate, it is mostly an art related to improving design and function. It is not really about aesthetics (although aesthetics still play a role), but rather about energy and balance so that one’s life works better. In my experience selling homes, I have had clients with varying degrees of concern for and knowledge about how a potential home measures up according to Feng Shui principles. I have also had a couple of clients hire Feng Shui consultants to evaluate their potential home, and I hired one myself to suggest improvements to my last home. I have learned a few things in this process. These are NOT in any way any kind of basic principles but rather just some interesting odds and ends I have picked up.

  1. Real estate agents are generally not that happy when their clients want to evaluate a home’s Feng Shui. They often see it as just another obstacle that may have to be overcome. Fortunately, this is not my perspective.
  2. Rectangular construction is good.  Corners are good. Anything curvy can be problematic. The reasons for this are somewhat complicated and are related to energy and balance.
  3. When you are considering a condo or apartment on more than one floor you should be concerned if your upper floor is not situated entirely over your lower floor. A floor plan that falls into this category is known as the “Philly Duplex.”  These homes occupy half of one floor and then all of an adjacent floor.  The reason for this concern relates again to balance and also to healthy boundaries between your home and your neighbor’s.
  4. Bed placement is crucial. Make sure you place the bed so that you can see the entrance to the bedroom from the bed, but it is not directly in front of you. I did not adhere to this principle at one point and my bedroom always felt wrong – now I know why.
  5. Many, if not most, “problems” can be mitigated enough to alleviate major concerns without reconstruction or spending a great deal of money. You can vastly improve the Feng Shui of your home working with the right colors, proper furniture placement, plants, screens and mirrors, as well as just de-cluttering. There is also a huge amount of information out there and it is fairly easy to find and understand.

Do you have any good Feng Shui stories or principles you would like to share?
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Please Don’t Make These Mistakes…

Someday, somewhere, you will probably have to do some work in your home.  If you remember just a few brief words of advice, your home will be just that much nicer for both you and anyone else who may ever live there.

Early in my real estate career, a very wise and experienced real estate professional told me that when you are doing a renovation you ought to spend as much as you can on the parts of the house you physically interact with the most. He was referring to the things you actually touch like door handles, faucets and railings. However, much to my chagrin, many builders seem to subscribe to the opposite philosophy – put in the cheapest and ugliest fixtures you can find.

My number one pet peeve here is the Symmons brand ‘shower exchanger’. This is the device that diverts the water in your tub/shower combination to either the tub or the shower. I am sure you have seen it a thousand times. If you own one, please don’t be offended. I am the proud owner of several of these in my rental properties, although I didn’t install them.

Click image for product details

It is actually fairly solid and reliable. If you are renovating a rental property and you really don’t want to have to worry about having to replace it for a long time, it might not be a crime to put it in. At about $112 for the whole set (valve and trim kit) it is inexpensive. It is also, in my humble opinion, just plain ugly. For only a little bit more (about $130 – $150) you can get a high quality Kohler fixture that looks pretty good, for example:

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and

Click image for product details

You can find these and others at http://www.faucetdirect.com/shower-valve-trim/c241

If you are only shopping for the shower valve, you can do even better for about the same money because you won’t need a tub spout and an exchanger. This leads to my next subject – the walk-in shower versus the shower/tub combination.  I am sure my opinion on this will lead to lots of controversy and contentiousness.  You will, however, have to check back in two weeks to see what all the fuss is about.

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How Small Is Too Small?

After writing about enormous over-the-top penthouse condos in the city, I thought it might be nice to mention the other side of living in the city.

“Micro Condos”

I have sold some pretty small (but still nice) homes in my time.  My personal record is a 330 square foot studio apartment at 56 Commonwealth Ave. in the heart of the Back Bay that I sold 3 times as follows!

October, 2002         $229,000
July,  2004               $214,000
August, 2006           $245,000

A 340 square foot renovated studio on the third floor of 56 Comm. Ave. just sold for $281,000 in case you wondering how much it might cost you to own one of these babies today.

The most amazing micro-condo that I could find is in Hong Kong.  It is 344 square feet of hip environmentally friendly space that transforms through the use of sliding walls and slide-out furniture:

“Tiny Houses”

While I have never sold one of these, I recently learned that there is a new movement dedicated to living in exceptionally small houses.  These are not mobile homes but real houses that are typically between 100 and 130 square feet in size and are very often illegal because they are not even large enough to meet local building codes.  In Massachusetts, for example, a home that houses one person must have at least 150 square feet of habitable space.

For a fascinating and detailed discussion of tiny houses, check out this article from a recent New Yorker.

And if you still want more, go to Tinyhouseblog.com

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