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Building and Repairing

Turning up the heat

Posted by Rona Fischman October 11, 2012 02:11 PM

In the summer, I keep my thermostat set at 55. Occasionally, there are fluky nights in August when it gets cold. If the house gets below 55, I’ll wake up in search of an extra blanket and I will not be a happy camper. This Monday night, it became "autumn." The temperature seemed cold enough, when I came home, that the heat might kick on. So, I looked at my thermostat. Yep. 55. I kicked it up to 61. It didn’t go on overnight.
It made me wonder, what an ideal temperature? I tend to like it a little on the cool side, unless it is damp. So, we keep the thermostat on 61 at night and up to 67 in the daytime, when we’re home. I know some people like it warmer. What do you set your thermostat at?

My buyer-clients tend to be rather energy conscious, so they tend to notice when there is only one zone in a big house. It's a good idea to have this in mind all year, but, more people notice this time of year.

Zoned heating, if you operate it in a way that avoids waste, can significantly reduce your heating costs. Zoning makes it possible to avoid running bedroom heat when no one is in there all day or running living room heat while everyone is sleeping is a waste. With programmable thermostats, using zones is pretty easy.


National Radon week

Posted by Rona Fischman October 10, 2012 02:10 PM

The Surgeon General Health agencies throughout the United States have declared October 15-21 National Radon Week in 2012. They say that Radon gas is the leading cause of lung cancer for non-smokers. The American Lung Association, Centers for Disease Control, and National Cancer Institute all agree that radon is a National health problem and encourage radon testing during the October awareness drive.

Most of my clients will discuss whether to test for Radon with their home inspector. The home inspectors can set up tests for you and discuss the results. House buyers can instead purchase a kit at the hardware store and do-it-themselves; It is not all that complicated. For buyers, there are compelling reasons to test. It isn’t expensive, and it uncovers a health threat that can be successfully mitigated. Radon gas screening tests, at least the initial tests done by prospective house buyers, are 48 hours air tests. They require that the house have windows closed overnight before the test as well as for the duration of the test.

There are two kinds of test devices: passive canister or continuous monitor test. The passive canisters can be bought at hardware stores all over the area or a home inspector can bring them and set them up, for a fee. Some of the hardware store brands have the lab fees included and some don’t, so read the package before buying. With my clients, I prefer these because the lab is in Massachusetts, so we get the results quickly and reliably. The continuous monitor tests are more expensive, because you are renting the machine and using the tech’s time to set up and pick up. The up side is that you get the readings almost right away.

The only reason not to test is if you cannot get a reliable reading because of the people living in the house or condo. I sometimes have a situation where there are tenants or uncooperative sellers who will not agree to keep the windows closed. In that case, the readings will be inaccurate.


Renovation cost vs. value

Posted by Rona Fischman October 1, 2012 03:52 AM

After blogging weekly here at BREN for three years, Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team, now posts here on the first Monday of each month. Today, Sam discusses the return on the investment in home renovations.

There are lots of ways that home and condo owners can spend money improving their property. Some will be smart investments and others will never return the investment.
Many owners think that when the time comes to sell they will recoup all of the money that they put into renovations and upgrades, but that is not often the case.
I categorize renovations and upgrades as follows:

- Energy efficiency upgrades and/or replacements that will reduce utility bills (i.e.boiler/furnace replacements) or enhance comfort (i.e. insulation). Replacement windows enhance comfort in addition to conserving energy. These improvements make a home’s resale more appealing and begin to pay back their cost almost immediately. There are also rebates, tax credits and incentives available from time to time.

- Cosmetic upgrades (i.e. paint, siding or hardwood floors) that are often done when ongoing home maintenance is required, but just as often done to personalize the property to the owner’s taste. When done as part of the maintenance cycle, some of these projects don’t cost as much out of pocket and some of them (i.e. paint or siding) prevent potential damage.

- Lifestyle and convenience modifications and additions (i.e. adding bathrooms, closets or living space) often done to better suit the lifestyle or needs of homeowners. These are often big ticket items that might not pay back all of their cost unless they are done to correct a deficiency in the property (i.e. adding a first floor lavatory in certain markets).


Additions that just don't work

Posted by Rona Fischman September 24, 2012 01:50 PM

“I am SO confused” That’s what a buyer (a stranger, not my client) said as he went down a spiral staircase into another finished room in the basement of a house extension. Really. Verbatim. He said: “I am so confused.” I generally don’t talk to other buyers at open houses, but I was in a mood. This was the last house of five that I showed this Sunday. I said, “If you think this one is weird, you should see [name withheld.]” The stranger said he drove passed it.

I wrote about this before, in 2008. Those houses are still out there, obviously. And I’m still seeing them.

I see strange layouts mostly in older homes. When homeowners make changes, it is generally an improvement for them, so they don’t always notice how awkward the end product is.

When a room is added or a porch converted, doors get stuck in odd corners, hallways get maze-like or there are sudden steps up or down. Then there are those “captured rooms” where you cannot get to the room without going through another room. It’s particularly odd when you must pass through the bathroom to get to a bedroom or to the basement or into the house from outside.

Then there are the non-room rooms. These are “bedrooms” too short to put a bed into. Attic “rooms” with doors, but ceiling heights about five feet – these are sometimes called “study nooks” when they should be called “storage.”

These houses are sometimes called “Frankenhouses.” They are not normal because parts are added willy-nilly, like this.


How long do the parts of a house last?

Posted by Rona Fischman September 20, 2012 02:03 PM

Paul Morse made a career of renovating old houses. Some have problems that come as a surprise to the homeowners. Today, he tells you about a few of the most common ones.

Buying an older home is a lot like buying a used car in a private sale. You can have it checked out by an expert, but there are no guarantees that something won’t wear out or malfunction – and no warranties if they do.

I’ve worked with homeowners who bought homes with leaks that were temporarily hidden by paint, insulation that had settled so much that it was virtually nonexistent, and basements that turned out to have serious water problems. The prior owner or home inspector may know of and disclose the potential for future problems. When the seller doesn’t know or doesn’t tell, the new owner is in for an unpleasant surprise.

A few years ago, the National Association of Home Builders conducted a study on the life expectancy of home components. Here are a few highlights:
• A foundation should last forever, but termite proofing will only last about 12 years
• HVAC systems last an average of 15-25 years with proper and regular maintenance
• A slate roof can last 50 years or more; a roof made of asphalt shingles lasts an average of 20 years (although it may be less with the tough Boston weather)
• Wood windows last longer than aluminum – 30 years versus 15 to 20
• Stairs and custom millwork should last a lifetime
• Kitchen faucets should last about 15 years, but a whirlpool tub could keep going as long as 50 if you don’t use it much
• Decks could last 20 years, depending upon the materials used


What does an inspector see that you don't?

Posted by Rona Fischman September 4, 2012 02:00 PM

A while back, we were discussing home inspection. Lance and nZone disagreed:


"The best time to do inspection is before the drywall goes up. Anything after that is just 'opinion' and 'speculation'."

Lance wrote:

Not true. Most contractors are consistent in their work (either consistently sloppy or consistently meticulous). The workmanship found outside the wall is usually similar to that found inside the wall. A discerning eye can draw informed conclusions about what is hidden by examining related items that are visible. This is what separates an excellent inspector from the average drone.
Bad inspectors offer opinion and speculation... Good inspectors point out subtle details you might have otherwise missed and help you connect the dots.

What are some of the outward signs that a good inspector looks for?

Lance mentioned the pattern of workmanship. I agree, yet slightly disagree with him on this. He is right that bad workers or bad supervision leave their mark on a property that can be seen by a discerning eye. However, in most renovation projects, I find that the builder “cheaps out” someplace. It is sometimes a glaringly obvious choice of materials, like cheap doors in an otherwise expensively appointed project. Sometimes, a different contractor did one part of the project; that part is significantly better or worse than the other work.


Another danger from uprooted trees

Posted by Rona Fischman August 27, 2012 01:52 PM

I asked Missy Henriksen of the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) about what pest problems we might have in New England that we could overlook. In other parts of the country, she has been advising about drought-related pest issues.

As a result of a series of strong summer storms, Boston area residents may be seeing a number of uprooted trees in their neighborhoods and around the region in general. While falling trees present a danger to people and property, their horizontal, carcass-like, trunks and roots tend to look unsightly in the aftermath of a storm. However, many people may not be aware of the fact that these uprooted trees can quickly become mosquito breeding grounds.

Trees that are uprooted by storms, for the most part, leave deep depressions in the soil that collect rainwater and underground seepage. The water collected in these holes can become stagnant, thus giving mosquitoes a perfect place to breed, hatch and develop. Since mosquitoes need only about half inch of water to breed, even a brief rain shower could deposit enough water into these holes to give the mosquitoes a head start.

After female mosquitoes lay eggs in standing water, larvae hatch within a few days and can develop into adults in just 10 to 14 days, so it is important to fill in the holes left by uprooted trees as soon as possible. Additionally, if trees have fallen across rivers or creeks and interrupted or caused a blockage of water, they should be removed as soon as possible so water can flow freely.

Besides being a typical summer annoyance, more importantly mosquitoes are known as vector pests, spreading diseases such as West Nile virus, encephalitis, dengue fever and malaria. In the United States, West Nile virus is of most concern, which is why most municipalities monitor and sample mosquitoes and treat known mosquito breeding areas.


10 fixes for small kitchen problems

Posted by Rona Fischman August 21, 2012 02:03 PM

Paul Morse of Morse Constructions has renovated a lot of small, outdated kitchens in the 35+ years that he has been doing business in the Boston area. He returns today with some tips to make a small kitchen look more spacious and function more efficiently.

If you plan to stay put but don’t want to add on, you can make your kitchen appear bigger and function better without gutting the space and starting over (although you can certainly do that too).

Here are 10 ways to make the most of a small kitchen:

1. Install frameless cabinets – Traditional cabinets have a frame. The doors and drawers fit within this frame, leaving a border around the functioning part of the cabinetry. Frameless cabinetry is built as a box. A cabinet door will completely cover the box, eliminating the need for spaces for framing between each cabinetry unit. Frameless cabinets add space to drawers and ease access to deeper spaces.

2. Expand work space – Tuck microwaves, coffee makers, knife racks etc. off the counter to maximize useable counter space and reduce visual distractions. Hang knives on metal wall strips, tuck the microwave under cabinetry and considering creating a breakfast bar with the coffee maker and toaster in an adjacent room. If the kitchen doesn’t have room for an island, invest in a rolling kitchen cart that can be brought out whenever extra work space is needed.

3. Flood the space with light –
Natural light is best, but great overhead and task lighting can make a small kitchen feel more spacious. If you can’t sacrifice wall space by creating or enlarging a window or pass-through to another room, be sure your kitchen feels bright through strategic artificial light.


Little furry things

Posted by Rona Fischman August 20, 2012 02:04 PM

I frequently run into buyers who cannot abide mice. Just the thought that a house may have mice is enough to send them scurrying away. (The people, not the mice.) Field mice are a nuisance, for sure, when they get into your food. They pose a bigger problem if they chew at your electrical wires.

I frequently see mouse traps or what is euphemistically called “mouse dirt” or “mouse droppings” in basements, garages, and attics. The little furry guys like to nest in fiberglass insulation. (You’d think they’d get itchy from it.) When I see the little tunnels in the insulation, I point it out.

I also see mouse-prevention measures in houses. People put steel wool in openings where mice are coming in. I remember that remedy from my childhood. (We had mice two or three times that I remember.) Sometimes I still see the steel wool fix under sinks or in corners near where heating pipes come up.

Mice are fairly easy to get rid of with traps or poison. It is also important to figure out where they are getting in and seal it up. However, if you see one mouse, there are more. If you ignore them, there will be even more.

If you think mice are cute. Think again. One may be cute, even two of three. But mice reproduce at a rate of 5-10 litters a year with an average of 6-8 little ones per litter. Getting rid of mice early is the most humane thing to do.

Exterminators say that the presence of a cat does not deter mice. The wild mice have figured out that domestic cats do not pose a threat to them, if the cat is not the mousing-type. I don’t know how they know (the exterminators or the mice.)


Home remedies

Posted by Rona Fischman July 31, 2012 02:00 PM

In the course of being in people’s houses, I have seen a lot of odd things. My clients, invariably, ask “Why did they do that?” There is usually a functional or decorative reason that people make changes to their house. When it has a function, I find it curious what people do. Most of the time, I can figure out the logic for things that are not merely decorative. I am sometimes stumped. Sometimes I find it ingenious; sometimes I don’t. What do-it-yourselfer fixes do you recommend?

I have seen all of these things in garages:
• A box extending beyond the back wall that is about three feet high and six feet wide and four feet deep.
• A tire nailed to the back wall of a garage.
• A tennis ball suspended from a string at about a four foot level.
• Carpet covering the center Lally column in a two-car garage.

All of these things are there to protect the car from the garage or to protect the garage from the car.


How my fixer-upper almost killed me

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 31, 2012 09:05 AM

We've dodged a number of bullets since my wife Karen and I bought a decrepit village colonial near Natick center a decade ago this summer and began renovating it.

First off, we managed to avoid an electrical fire, a miracle given the knob and tube wiring in the house was so archaic the lights in the house would dim when we turned on our small toaster oven.

We also lucked out and never fell through to the basement while using the bathroom, a real possibility given how soft and rotten the flooring around the toilet was.

And thankfully no one was working in the yard when an old and defunct chimney tumbled down into the yard from its ungainly perch atop what was then the bump-out kitchen.

The worn wiring, creaky bathroom and other unpleasant features of the old house are fast becoming distant memories now, with Scott, our trusty neighborhood builder having overhauled and added onto our old house a couple years ago.

But in a blast from the past, the last piece yet to be revamped, the garage, came close to doing me in last night.


Bathrooms everyone can use

Posted by Rona Fischman July 26, 2012 01:52 PM

Paul Morse, owner of Morse Constructions Inc returns today. He is a Universal Design Certified Remodeler and an Aging in Place Specialist as well as an experienced general contractor.

Universal design doesn’t mean institutional bathrooms
When you walk into a beautiful bathroom with a wide entrance, large shower with multiple shower heads, wall mirrors extending all the way to the sinks and adjustable cabinetry, I’m willing to bet that “universal design” is not the description that pops into your head. Most people seem to equate universal design with accommodation for physical disabilities, which, unfortunately, often seems to mean an institutional look to many people.

Myth #1: Universal Design is just for people with physical disabilities or for aging in place.

Universal design is the art of creating environments that are usable by all people without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Universal design concepts are used to create living spaces that work well whether you are short or tall, young or old, healthy or sick. It could mean creating a bathroom where a stool for a child to reach the sink is built toslide out of the way when not in use. It could also mean using adjustable cabinetry so a very tall person doesn’t have to stoop over while washing his or her face.

Myth #2: Universal Design is ugly
When people think of universal design, they often have images of ugly grab bars stuck in their head. In reality, many of the bathrooms that people admire may have subtly incorporated universal design principles. Consider these universal design elements in the bathroom:


Housing for people with mobility impairment

Posted by Rona Fischman July 24, 2012 01:46 PM

Thursday, July 26, is the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I have long been a supporter of universal design and regularly work with disabled home-buyers as part of my real estate practice. I have been frustrated in my efforts not only by the older housing stock, crowded neighborhoods and lack of land for building. I also fume over the new developments that I see popping up which lack access for disabled buyers.

People with mobility impairments (this includes people who use wheelchairs, have cardiac or pulmonary disease, as well as people with arthritis) are all ages, races and classes. Not all of them want to live in tower-style condo buildings. Some would prefer condos in small associations where they can enjoy a yard and a neighborhood. Some want single-family homes in established neighborhoods.

Look around where you live. See how many places built after 1990 could be home to someone with mobility impairment. Even now, new construction is rarely universal design unless it is a big multistory development.


At what price, green?

Posted by Rona Fischman July 23, 2012 02:05 PM

I get a lot of press releases that are advertisements for products or services. I pay attention to only some of them. Most of them, I ignore. I saved this one because it was a great example of the sales pitch for efficient building. I don’t know anything about these condos beyond this release and a glance at the MLS sheets.

(West Roxbury, MA) June 22, 2011- The Mayo Group, developer of energy efficient Gordon's Woods, located in West Roxbury, MA has gained Energy STAR certification after extensive testing by the United State Environmental Protection Agency. Kerri Bonarrigo Residential Sales Director for The Mayo Group, Developer of Gordon's Woods, says, "Gaining Energy STAR certification has been extremely important to this project. The air quality and overall indoor environment within our buildings is much healthier compared to non-certified residences. In addition, our residents will save significantly on monthly utility bills and HOA fees while the building itself will retain greater value over the long-term." Energy STAR certification means that Gordon's Woods conforms to strict rules for energy efficiency that make the condominiums at least 15 percent more efficient compared to homes built according to the 2004 International Residential Code. Energy STAR certified homes include additional features that conserve 20 to 30 percent more energy than the average home. With 42 unique units...

The trend toward energy efficiency is here. Over the next ten years or so, I expect that we will see more and more properties advertised as energy efficient or fully insulated, or otherwise touting their smaller energy footprint. But how well is it really selling? Although my clients care about efficiency, they aren’t willing to pay extra for ultra-efficient new construction. Unless the place is great in other respects, the place gets rejected on price.


Mircobursts and tree damage, what’s a home owner to do?

Posted by Rona Fischman July 19, 2012 01:47 PM

Last night a microburst passed through east Arlington. A microburst is a storm with intense down drafts and high winds. It came during rush hour. It was a mess. Trees came down in large number, blocking Mass Ave and some side streets. There was flash flooding, and power was out for some. For access to first-hand accounts, The Patch has them.

I was writing at my desk when it hit. The heavy rain was pelting my windows horizontally. Some tree limbs in my yard came down. It only lasted 15 minutes or so. I read later that a large tree came down a couple of blocks away, blocking the road.

It is a coincidence that just yesterday, Attorney Vetstein wrote a blog entry here about trees. Last year, he wrote one about insurance and tree damage, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

The insurance summary is this:

The short answer is that, legally speaking, your neighbor is not liable for a healthy tree falling down during a major storm event. That is considered an “Act of God” for which no one is legally liable… So, you will have to make a claim under your homeowner’s insurance policy for the damage caused by the neighbor’s tree.


Air conditioners and noise

Posted by Rona Fischman July 5, 2012 01:53 PM

In single family houses, the air conditioner compressor can be a problem for you or for your neighbors, depending on where you place it. If it is your machine, your windows will be closed when it is running, so it has to vibrate a lot before it will get on most people’s nerves.

Where houses are fairly close together, the next door neighbors may need to close up because of the racket caused by your condenser. That doesn’t lead to neighborly relations in the heat of the summer.

I had a client who had a fairly major confrontation with his neighbors over the condenser. Next door, there lived a child who was sensitive to vibrational noise. The machine was interfering with her sleep. Her mother promptly went to war (as mothers will do to defend their children.) My client felt like a heal for causing a problem for a young child, but how can a house get air conditioning without making a bit of noise? It ended up involving the town officials. He ended up spending a good bit to reduce the noise. This was about ten years ago.


Catch the multi-generational housing wave

Posted by Rona Fischman June 18, 2012 01:52 PM

I invited Paul Morse, owner of Morse Constructions Inc., to write about his ideas about housing in our area over the next generation. As a builder, he is seeing a change in the kinds of changes people are making to their houses. Do you think he is spotting a trend?

Multi-generational housing is hot. You’ve probably seen the statistics – between 2000 and 2009, multi-generational households increased by 30 percent. Since then, the percentage has been on the rise as adult children move home in a tough job market and longer life spans increase the number of elderly parents living with children. As long as this trend holds, homes that can be adapted for multi-family living will be particularly valuable properties. Even better, homes that have already been renovated to provide private, yet connected, living spaces will have selling features that will appeal to a growing market.

The homes that are best suited for multi-generational living offer:

Privacy with Proximity – Successful multi-generational living requires a fine balance between private and communal spaces. Separate entrances, morning bars or kitchenettes in bedroom suites, and sitting rooms provide much-needed privacy. A large, open kitchen/eating/living area is ideal when the family comes together.

Flexible Spaces – Flexible spaces can be easily transformed to function for different purposes and ages. For example, an underused living room and sunroom may transition into a home office, then an in-law suite, then a space for an adult child who moves home, then an entertainment area.

Universal Design -- Universal design works hand-in-hand with flexible spaces to create environments that are usable by all people. Hallways that are wide enough to accommodate a wheel chair and zero entry thresholds are classic examples of universal design features.


Bed Bugs: the summer vacation souvenir no one wants

Posted by Rona Fischman June 14, 2012 02:06 PM

Two weeks ago, I mentioned the opportunity to learn about bed bugs at a local conference. On June 15, you have the opportunity to learn all you need to know about bedbugs, and more. The event is sponsored by the Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS) in collaboration with Cambridge Health Alliance.

Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association writes today about how bed bugs get into a house. The NPMA, a non-profit organization with more than 7,000 members, was established in 1933 to support the pest management industry's commitment to the protection of public health, food and property. For more information about pests and prevention tips, please visit

Imagine coming back from your summer vacation, relaxed and recharged, but within days of your return you wake up with red bumps on your legs and arms. Maybe you even notice pepper-like flakes on your bed sheets and you quizzically wonder what could it be? Unfortunately, the answer may be bed bugs, the vacation souvenir no one wants to bring home.

So, what’s a vacationer to do? According to a 2011 National Pest Management Association and University of Kentucky survey 80 percent of pest professionals have treated bed bugs in hotels and motels. Although bed bugs are found in numerous places other than hotels, most travelers will stay in a hotel at one point or another during their vacation, putting themselves at risk of picking up these hitchhiking bugs.


I smell gas

Posted by Rona Fischman June 8, 2012 01:51 PM

I can’t get away from learning things about houses. I had the long Memorial Day weekend off. But, it was punctuated by a Sunday morning emergency in my house.

I went to the basement to put something away and smelled gas. I called NStar and the dispatcher made me a little paranoid. She said we had to leave the house. Don’t turn on any lights, don’t hang up the phone, don’t open or close any doors or windows. I had to knock on my tenant’s door (since I couldn’t use the doorbell.) Then we waited for the NStar repair guy. The NStar guy came rather quickly!

Recently, NStar replaced gas lines on our street, including the one to our house. He found the source and fixed it. One of the new fittings was leaking. Then he said that I had some other little leaks. He sealed them for me, but I need to look into them.


Bugs and your house

Posted by Rona Fischman May 25, 2012 01:43 PM

Recently, a married couple that I am working with disagreed about whether a peach tree on the property was a good thing or a bad thing. Why would a peach tree be a bad thing? You may ask; I did. I found out that my client (she) had a phobia about worms. If a peach tree is not tended carefully, it will attract worms. He liked peaches and promised to tend it. Since the tree could be cut down if the problem occurred, the presence of the tree was not a deterrent to them making an offer. Are you grossed out by worms enough to cut down a fruit tree?

Little ants, indoors, are looking for your food or looking for water. It is common to find ants in a bathroom or laundry room as well as in the kitchen. A single ant may be seen scouting for her nest, but ants live in colonies, so if the scout likes your kitchen, her whole family is invited to join her. Some people are phobic about little ants. Infestation from little ants can be solved by using either baits or gels. If you use both, use the gel where they are coming in and the baits near where they are going. Get rid of damp areas they are attracted to, if you can. Seal up where they are coming in, if you can find it.

In my real estate experience, it is the bigger ants that frequently freak people out. Big ants can be carpenter ants. They come inside during the late winter and spring. Outside, you may see sawdust that a human didn’t create; that could be from the carpenter ants digging a nest in the wood of your house or other damp wood. They eat your food, but they nest in your wood. Therefore, take them seriously. You may need the help of an exterminator to treat your house.


I hate a wimpy shower

Posted by Rona Fischman May 21, 2012 01:58 PM

For people who love their morning or evening shower, a wimpy spray can ruin their day. Are you someone who loves a strong shower? I, too, hate a wimpy shower. I owned a good shower head, even when I was renting. This entry is dedicated to Bruce, Sandra, and all my shower-loving clients.

When house-hunters turn on showers to check the pressure, they often do not get the information that they need. Poor water pressure can be caused by the fixture, the plumbing leading to the fixture, the volume of the water coming into the house, or more than one of these. Turning on the shower will not give you the complete answer. It is just a waste of water.

When a house hunter turns on the shower, he or she could get false evidence of wimpiness because the shower head is clogged, while the pressure is fine. If he or she buys the house, cleaning the existing head or buying a new one will fix the problem at minimal expense a bother.

He or she may also get false evidence of a wonderful shower because the head is good, but the volume or pressure in the whole house is insufficient. The shower could flow great until someone else turns on a faucet, runs a dishwasher, or flushes a toilet. Water pressure problems show up when there is more than one draw on the system.

Turning on the shower alone does not diagnose those problems.
Service Magic explains it this way:

Low water pressure usually results when you've been forced to turn on two different plumbing fixtures at the same time, whether they are the outside garden hose, the kitchen/bathroom sink, the toilet, or even the shower. Although your water pressure may be sufficient when only one fixture is operational, you'll definitely notice a drop in water flow when the second fixture comes into use.


Tracking utility costs. Improving energy use.

Posted by Rona Fischman May 10, 2012 01:50 PM

Around the end of February, this year, I brought a discussion about propane fuel heating to BREN. The data I was missing was a way to calculate energy costs that accounted for the difference in the severity or mildness of a given winter or summer. I also had a personal agenda for finding a way to track energy costs that calculated for temperature. Last year, I took advantage of the MassSave program for wall insulation and air sealing. Because it was such a mild winter, I wasn’t getting any obvious bang for my buck.

I was lucky to find the answer at MIT early last March, at a workshop for landlords. Dan Teague led a workshop where he walked us through the software product developed by Wegowise. It answered a need that I had because the software calculated for degree-day variations.
It took a little fussing around to get both units of my two-family house into the database, but now it’s working fine. (They promised me that they are doing an upgrade that will make this easier.) I recommend the software to everyone, not just landlords. It will help you see, over time, how the changes you are making toward efficient energy use are paying off (or not.)

Even if you have a single family home, you can benefit from tracking your energy use. Wegowise goes back one year of your energy bills from NStar or National Grid. It has automatic feed from some water departments. You can manually add your oil or propane bills.


Radon 101

Posted by Rona Fischman May 4, 2012 01:45 PM

Over the past month, I have had an unusually high number of radon tests conducted by my clients that have come in over the EPA limit of 4.0 pci/l.

First definitions:
What does “pCi/l” mean? Pci/l means picocurie per liter of air. It is a measure of radioactivity of the air. That radioactivity has been linked to lung cancer.

What is radon? Radon is an odorless, radioactive gas that comes from the breakdown of uranium found in soil, rock, and water under houses. The house traps radon inside, where it can build up. It gets in through cracks or air gaps under the house. The highest levels will be found in the basement, then be present at lower levels as you go up into the other floors. Most household radon comes from rock and soil, and not from well water or building materials.

Second, a bit of house history:
The better insulated a house is, the less the house “breathes.” The improvements in insulation contribute to indoor radon. When we all had air leaking from our closed windows all winter, there was less chance for radon to build up in houses.

However, it is not a foregone conclusion that any house will have, or not have, an elevated radon reading. There are older houses with older windows that have a radon problem and new houses that don’t. It is also not a foregone conclusion that if the neighbors all don’t have elevated radon readings, your house won’t. One of the houses that had a very high reading recently (24 pCi/l) was next door to a recently sold house with a normal reading.


Where’s the heat?

Posted by Rona Fischman May 1, 2012 02:09 PM

Now that spring is upon us, it is easy for house hunters to overlook something that they’d notice in a heartbeat come next October: where is the heat?

Over this past weekend, I saw houses with these situations:

No heat in every bedroom.
In particular, I saw second floor bedrooms and third floor bedrooms that had no radiators or duct openings. One had a huge radiator in the upstairs hall, but no heat in two bedrooms.

No heat in the kitchen.
This is common in older houses. Back in the day, the old stoves had a little space heater on the side that took care of the kitchen heat. That stove is long gone. So is the kitchen heat.

Electric heat.
Electric baseboard heat is an alternative heating source for rooms that don’t have a radiator, forced hot water baseboard or forced hot air ducts that are part of the central heating. Some of these are on thermostats, some have knobs on each baseboard.


Is a 1985 house old?

Posted by Rona Fischman April 19, 2012 01:52 PM

Today, I am not so much writing about the late 1980s bubble and subsequent crash, but about the properties left behind.

For those of you who were not there, here’s some history: In the late 1980s, there was a housing bubble which led to a housing crash. Many houses and condos were renovated for resale. Some were just turned over, as is. There was a lot of new construction, especially condo buildings. And, there were lots of people stuck at the top. I was working in human services at the time of that bubble. I remember the rhetoric that I should buy something, live there for a couple of years, then sell it to gain a 20 percent down payment on a house. I didn’t buy it, literally. The teacher-friend who pushed the hardest that I should buy subsequently “bought and bailed” on her condo purchase.

Are properties built or renovated in the 1980s old properties?

Structurally, they are much younger than the average housing stock around Boston. If the 1985 place has an original boiler it is beyond its expected life-span. Some are on their second roof layer, which is getting old, too. Yet, 1985 construction has grounded outlets (not to GFI or GFCI standards), no lead paint, and many have double-paned windows and some wall insulation.

We have a big stock of houses built between 1900 and 1930 here. A lot of that property aged very nicely. Housing built since 1950 or so does not seem to maintain its grace as well. Do you agree, or is it me?


A grant to help houses of worship become more energy efficient

Posted by Rona Fischman April 6, 2012 01:55 PM

For Christians and Jewish people, this is holiday season. Many churches, temples and synagogues in the Boston area are in old buildings. Most of those old buildings are energy pigs. The decorative windows do not keep out the cold, the walls are not insulated, they use a lot of lighting, and they have high ceilings. This does not jibe well with the responsibility placed on Jews and Christians in Genesis. Religious congregations housed in old houses of worship are carrying high energy costs as well as failing to be a living example of a congregation that acts as guardians of the planet.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. Genesis 1:26 American Standard Version

Some strange bedfellows: Joe Lieberman and William Bennett put it this way:

Polluting the planet is antithetical to all major religions since they teach caring for creation. Also huge energy bills can financially cripple the congregation, radically reducing the services they can deliver through the house of worship to the community. (93% of the U.S. houses of worship provide community services, such as food pantries, and homeless shelters, which help on average four people outside of the congregation for every person helped in the congregation.

HEET and Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light MIP&L have just received a two-year grant from the Barr Foundation to help thirty-five houses of worship in Cambridge, Boston and Somerville reduce their energy bills and planetary impact.

How it works: Members of the congregation will earn money toward the efficiency upgrades at the house of worship based on the energy upgrades done at their private homes. (If the Smiths put in solar panels at home, the church gets funds toward work at the church.) The more energy and money the congregation saves in their homes, the more money raised for the house of worship upgrade.


Burned by a bad contractor?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 16, 2012 07:06 AM

Check out the consumer complaint numbers for Massachusetts - home improvement contractors are No. 3.


Seriously though, there were 3,200 complaints about home improvement contractors last year, behind only auto insurance, which generated 8,300 complaints and health insurance, which weighed in with 6,500, the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation reports.

One of the more eye-catching complaints to come to light is the case of a Watertown contractor who hired a contractor for $50,000 to shore up the retaining walls around his home.

The contractor got part way through, then vanished, leaving behind a pile of half-finished, shoddily performed work.

And that's clearly just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to complaints about contractors.


Sam’s spring time-change maintenance reminders

Posted by Rona Fischman March 12, 2012 01:55 PM

Today, Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team has a few home maintenance reminders to keep us safe and help keep our property in good condition.

After you adjust your clocks, there are still a few things to do to keep your home safe and well maintained:

- Test smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Replace batteries. Replace old detectors.
- Check the batteries and reset set the clocks on your setback thermostats.
- Test the circuits on your GFI outlets (in bathroom, kitchen, laundry & outside) by pressing test buttons on outlets.
- Have fireplaces and/or wood stoves checked and cleaned, if needed.
- Have chimneys inspected and cleaned every couple of years.
- Vacuum radiators and/or heat/air conditioning vents thoroughly.
- Move furniture and drapes away from radiators for good heat and air conditioning circulation.


Some points from a propane pro

Posted by Rona Fischman March 2, 2012 02:01 PM

My entry about propane heating last week drew an email from a propane heating pro. Since I had someone to ask, I asked him this:

Can you explain, in 500 words or less, how propane heat compares, dollar for dollar, with oil or natural gas (using the same level of boiler efficiency)? Can you explain how to calculate heating costs from one year to the next, when temperatures are not the same (Everyone is spending less this year.)

Chris Kowalski answered:

I wish I could give you a simple straight answer, but you can’t compare apples to apples. Here is my best shot…

If a customer has natural gas available, the question is whether or not to convert from oil. It would not make sense to go propane instead of natural gas. Essentially propane goes where the natural gas mains don’t.

As for comparing British Thermal Units (BTU’s), we don’t get into that argument because it is deceiving. A gallon of Propane has 35 percent fewer BTU’s than a gallon of oil.
However, a typical 15 year old oil boiler only has an Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) of 59 percent.

Here's some supporting info. And some more.


Nightmare neighbor has Sherry desperate for advice

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 1, 2012 07:01 AM

Just call it yet another example of small condo association purgatory.

If you have a three-unit condo association, and one member is a belligerent jerk, you may just be stuck up a creek without a paddle.

That's the dilemma "Sherry" and her husband find themselves in as they try to repair their condo building near Boston.

The lady in the unit next door is on board, but the gent who owns the remaining unit is a problem. Instead of forking over his share of the repair bill, he's turned out to be a rogue handyman, trying to fix things himself and instead making a complete hash of things.

How lovely.

Sherry is tearing her hair out and is looking for some good advice.


A different type of tear-down

Posted by Rona Fischman February 29, 2012 01:52 PM

Attorney Richard D. Vetstein writes about a court case that ended with a wrecking ball with someone's name on it.

After a 16 year long saga, wealthy Marblehead mansion owner Wayne Johnson’s battle to save his house from a court-ordered wrecking ball has come to an end. The underlying legal saga is convoluted and complicated, but the end result was swift and destructive — the million dollar mansion is now rubble.

Johnson’s battle started in 1995 when he recorded a plan dividing his land into two lots. One lot contained an existing single-family dwelling. The second lot contained a garage. The house lot complied with all zoning dimensional requirements, but the garage lot didn’t comply with lot width requirements. The Building Inspector incorrectly determined that the garage lot complied with all applicable zoning requirements.

Johnson’s neighbors appealed the Building Inspector’s decision, arguing that the new house would greatly diminish their valuable ocean views. The local zoning board allowed the issuance of a building permit. After the building permit issued, the plaintiffs filed an appeal in Land Court and asked for an injunction to prevent construction on the garage lot.

The Land Court judge warned Johnson that proceeding with construction was at his peril. In a decision by another judge in May, 2000, the court ordered the building permit to be revoked. However, the court ruled that the house could remain in place while Johnson attempted to obtain appropriate zoning relief.


Sustainability and the business of being a landlord

Posted by Rona Fischman February 28, 2012 02:14 PM

Last week, I wrote about how increased rental cost has created greater hardship for area renters. With roughly one out of four households spending half of their income on housing, we have a lot of people finding it hard to live here.
Yes, we are in a wealthy area, with an Area Median Income of $91,600 for big chunks of eastern Massachusetts. People earning 50 percent of AMI are earning $45,800. If that person is a single parent, things are tough.

As rental costs go up, more tenants are being stretched to cover their basic life costs. These costs are: housing, utilities, food, transportation, child care, personal and household needs, health care, taxes, (less) tax credit.

This burden of high rent, which causes people to stretch to spend more than 30 percent on housing gets that much worse when they rent an apartment that is a heating fuel hog.

Now a word to the landlords out there:


Going green; How much is worth?

Posted by Rona Fischman February 27, 2012 01:48 PM

Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team is our Monday guy. Today he discusses replacement windows.

Today’s topic is replacement windows. Cost vs. return on investment, plus aesthetic considerations. Take this quick survey about your opinion.

I am going to use my own house as an example. I live in a house that was built around 1920. Most rooms on the first floor have natural woodwork. My windows have multiple panes and they match the woodwork perfectly. They are probably the original windows. Storm windows do a good job of keeping out drafts, but there is a slight draft noticeable if you put your hand near where the upper and lower windows meet and the rope that connects to the pulleys passes through a groove in the lower window. Otherwise, the windows keep most drafts out and my rooms are comfortable. We heat the house on the warm side and the bill is not unreasonable for a home of similar size.

I expect to sell within the next 5 years,. Meanwhile, I like the ambiance of the older windows and I doubt that I can get newer windows that will blend as well with the older wood trim. I like the look of the older windows and I am happy to get the small amount of fresh air that seeps in. Vinyl replacement windows are out of the question because they would cheapen the look of the house.

There are 6 windows on the first floor. Each would probably cost about $500-600 to replace with a decent quality wood replacement window. Going with $500 per window, that is a cost of $3,000 to the first floor windows.


Propane or oil for central heating?

Posted by Rona Fischman February 23, 2012 02:17 PM

Last week, I got an email from one of my client who owns a house in Arlington. She asked:

a wild question....we are thinking of changing our (functioning) 60+ years old oil boiler + super-inefficient electric water heater.
only options we have:
a new efficient oil boiler + indirect water heater
a very efficient propane gas boiler with water heater
both J. and I much prefer gas (natural gas is not in our little private and dead-end street) but are a bit concerned about the fact that propane is not so common in Arlington and surrounding area from a resale value point of view. your opinion? have you seen any propane heated houses around here?
Thanks! A&J

In general, people are getting to really hate oil heat. I see propane for home cooking all the time, but don’t see a lot of propane for the house. Whole-house heat on propane is rare in this area, but not unknown.


Heat still rises

Posted by Rona Fischman February 3, 2012 01:58 PM

The discussion about the heating system in one of my client’s condos brought an email about a different configuration.
Here’s a configuration in a newly rehabbed condo that caused problems for the people living there:

The furnace is in eaves on top floor.
Top floor vents are on ceiling.
Lower floor vents are also on ceiling.
The return vent is on top floor, on ceiling above stairway. (So heat goes from first floor ceiling directly up the stairs without reaching warming the lower level.)

There is one zone. The original thermostat is located on an exterior wall at the base of the stairway from lower to upper floor. This gave very false readings. The owners bought a wireless/portable thermostat that they keep downstairs in the winter and bring upstairs in the summer.

The condo downstairs has her heat vents on the floor so the upstairs owners don't get the advantage of her heat rising to heat up our floor.

The problem they experience in winter is that it is cold downstairs and then very hot upstairs. To resolve this, they partially close the upstairs vents in the winter to minimize the heat in the bedrooms. They had to add electric baseboard on the lower level.
In the summer, they open the vents fully to get the AC upstairs.

The other question I have is whether I should remark on solutions, like the electric heat. Is that a solution or is it a sign of a problem? I have a similar question about sump pumps. Are they a solution or a sign that there is a problem? I have concerns that some clients will rule out any house with a sump pump. This could be a mistake, since sometimes a sump pump is a solution and a house without a sump pump could have a water problem, unsolved.


Does Cape mansion really deserve the wrecking ball?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis February 3, 2012 06:50 AM

Bet the owners of that $10 million Truro mansion are having some big regrets now as town officials ready the demolition crews.

If you haven't already, check out this Globe story on that spanking new Truro mansion that now faces the wrecking ball after infuriating neighbors and allegedly violating town building rules.

At least from the photos, the 8,333 square foot sprawling, two- story structure looks several cuts above the typical ugly McMansion. But its location may be its undoing - perched on a dune overlooking the Atlantic on a landscape made immortal by painter Edward Hopper.

OK, the owners may have taken some liberties here, and then some - the permit was for an "alteration" of an existing house. The end result was a new home on the site four times the size of the old one.

But is a virtual death sentence - demolition of the entire home - warranted?


How small is too small?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis February 2, 2012 06:49 AM

Extra space comes at as premium here in Greater Boston, a market dominated by older, smaller homes.

The vast majority of homes inside the I-495 beltway were built before the 1970s, when families were bigger and home sizes were typically smaller.

Homes built in the first few decades after World War II are likely to fall in the 2,000-square- feet-and-below range - I am thinking of all those vast tracts of 1950s capes and ranches.

My Natick village colonial is not even 1,800 square feet - and that's after an addition and renovation.

Yet maybe the problem isn't the size of the housing that's out there, but rather our attitude towards it. Even in a modestly-sized house, most of us can point to space we don't use and if push comes to shove, would be hard to justify, at least on a utilitarian basis.


A random neighbor problem

Posted by Rona Fischman January 27, 2012 02:09 PM

My friend Kathy, in Philly, sent me this CBS news link about a woman whose Prius was being damaged from her neighbor's energy efficient windows. Since I have a Prius, high efficiency windows, and I am a real estate nerd, my friend knew I'd like the article. And I do. It gives me a chance to talk about things that affect the neighbors that one wouldn't expect to be a problem. Like new windows.

The window thing is weird. But I have seen this problem before. I saw a house where windows damaged the neighbor's vinyl siding. Generally, when I see melted siding it is in a patch roughly the width of the family grill. (People who place their grills too close to their siding find out that vinyl siding melts.) But at this Cambridge house, most of the wall was melted. It looked like a vinyl-covered house that was next to a burn-out. The agent said it was caused by the neighbor's new windows. He pointed through the treeless back yard to the house behind and its row of new windows.

Studies are still going on to prove or disprove that some replacement windows are sending hot light onto plastic surfaces in the neighborhood and whether that light is actually causing damage. There are no building codes or zoning laws prohibiting these windows due to this problem, yet.

So, if your house siding melts, whose fault is it? Do you have recourse? Not yet. Have you seen this problem? Have you heard of ways to mitigate the hot glare?


Winter house hunting

Posted by Rona Fischman January 24, 2012 02:13 PM

Saturday was the first snowy showy day of the year. Roads were not so bad away from town, but Arlington, Cambridge, and Somerville were pretty miserable. One agent (Arlington) bailed out of her appointment with us (we saw it Sunday.) I moved an office discussion meeting to Davis Square because I was unsure my office parking lot would be clear enough to use.

Generally, I think showing property in dismal weather is a waste of time. Safety should be first and foremost. If it really dangerous on the roads; stay off them. From a purely real estate perspective, it is hard to judge a house in poor natural light conditions. You cannot get a good sense of a house in poor natural lighting. In the middle of a storm, you don?t get to see how a house handles the storm either; that happens later.

If you are picking through the winter leftovers, there are things you can see now that you may not notice in the spring. There are also things you cannot see.

Some things to look for after the storm:

Walkways: Look for places where melting water will puddle and refreeze along walkways. These will need your attention anytime there is snow on the ground. Also notice how much sidewalk needs to be cleared. This time of year, that house on the hill is much less attractive with its 32 steps! Also corners are a lot of work.

Landscaping: snow-cover covers flaws in landscaping. You need to look more carefully, and study snowless pictures, to avoid surprise craters and rocks. An extreme version of this is a story I heard recently about an abandoned car being left on a property. The property closed during last winter and the new owners discovered the abandoned wreck after closing. (I am not sure that one passes the smell test, but it is a great image.)


Retaining walls

Posted by Rona Fischman January 23, 2012 02:20 PM

Today, our Monday guy, Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team, discusses discusses retaining walls.

It's not uncommon to see brick or stone walls around the outside of homes. When the walls are holding up part of the yard, they are known as retaining walls.

I have seen all types and sizes of retaining walls. They range from low walls that create terraces for landscaping to the 20 foot tall by 130 foot wide stone wall that I saw last week. That one held up the entire back yard of the house (including a tall old tree.) That wall is the inspiration for this post.

When a retaining wall is located at the front of a house, it makes sense that the owner of the house owns the wall. It gets more interesting when a retaining wall is located at the side or back of the lot.


New law requires oil heat system upgrade

Posted by Rona Fischman January 18, 2012 01:47 PM

Attorney Richard D. Vetstein explains the law developed to prevent oil spills from residential heating oil tanks.
As a buyer's agent, I have been aware of the addition of the protective sleeves on oil lines. I have been seeing more and more of them, as time goes on. (They are easy to spot, since many are bright blue or orange.) Are you still seeing out-of-compliance oil systems?

Under a new Massachusetts oil heating law which went into effect on September 30, 2011, every homeowner with an oil heating system is required to install an oil safety valve or an oil supply line with protective sleeve in their system. The cost is approximately $150 to $350 depending on the system. The required upgrade is to prevent leaks from tanks and pipes that connect to your furnace. The upgrade will reduce the risk of an oil leak so by making a relatively small expenditure now, you can prevent a much greater expense in the future.

Who Must Upgrade?
Owners of 1- to 4-unit residences that are heated with oil must already have or install an oil safety valve or an oil supply line with a protective sleeve. Installation of these devices must be performed by a licensed oil burner technician. Technicians are employed by companies that deliver home heating oil or are self-employed. It is important to note that heating oil systems installed on or after January 1, 1990 most likely are already in compliance because state fire codes implemented these requirements on new installations at that time.


Homeowner diaries: cellulose insulation of exterior walls

Posted by Rona Fischman January 13, 2012 02:07 PM

The insulation done at my house was blown-in cellulose. It is made of old newspapers which have been treated so they can go in the walls and not catch fire like crazy. In most cases, exterior wall insulation is blown in from the outside.

I saw an exception to that rule. It was house with Hardie Board that had to be done from the inside. (It would sustain too much damage, so it was better to damage and repaint the interior.)

I considered insulating the ceiling and floor between me and the tenants, but decided to do it another time. If you insulate between the floors, it is done from the inside, too.

The cellulose is blown in through holes about the size of a vacuum cleaner hose. My house took five days. They also did air sealing around the perimeter of the basement and added a big mushroom vent on the roof.


Homeowner diaries: Mass Save and insulation rebates

Posted by Rona Fischman January 12, 2012 01:54 PM

Mass Save -- which is one of the advertisers you may see to the right of this entry – offers rebates on air sealing and wall insulation projects for houses in Massachusetts. The one that I benefited from gave us up to $2000 off, per unit, of a full wall insulation and air sealing project on my two-family house. I still spent several thousand dollars on the insulation. Low income homeowners who can’t afford insulation have a different, income-limited program they can apply for. It is called WAP.

A Mass Save audit is a smart thing to do. The company that does this work is Conservation Services Group. An auditor comes to your house to do these things:
• Screening for eligibility for the ENERGY STAR® refrigerator rebate
• Air Sealing and Insulation specification, if applicable
• Infrared Testing, if applicable
• Combustion Safety Testing


Follow the money theory in contracting

Posted by Rona Fischman January 10, 2012 02:11 PM

Jima knows that I was ripped off. He tells me that “simple internet research” would have kept me from being ripped off when I rewired the overhead fixtures before doing my insulation project last year.

I know more about houses that the average Joe. And I don’t know if I was ripped off or not. But, if I could walk into a rip-off, then some of the readers here are even more vulnerable to bad information given by contractors. How can a homeowner protect himself or herself from getting too much or too little work done, when hiring out for a home repair? Like all homeowners, the contractor who is telling me what I need is also the one getting paid to do the job. “Follow the money” theory says I am bound to be ripped off.

I understand how electric wiring works, how plumbing and heating systems work, and how a house works like an integrated system. I watch when a contractor does exploratory poking around. I get multiple opinions and bids before doing work. I check references. Yet, I still get bad service from contractors.

Today I am relying on some of the commenters who know more that I do. Part of what is valuable about this blog is that there are some real experts writing in here. So, thank you in advance.

Here’s the details:


Heat rises

Posted by Rona Fischman January 3, 2012 01:57 PM

I met with returning clients who plan to trade up in 2012 to begin the planning. First, I reviewed their last purchase. Did they like the property? Was there anything there that they would like to avoid in the future? Did they like their team: the inspector, the lender, the attorney?

Kudos for the condo. It served them well. It was a new reconstruction. The quality has held up well, with one exception. They blame the inspector, not the builder, for their unhappiness. Here’s what happened:

During the home inspection, the inspector noted that the hot air heating system also ran the air conditioning. The ducts were near the floor, upstairs, on the bedrooms level. The ducts were in the ceiling on main floor. The furnace was in the eaves on the top level. Because heat rises, the main level could be drafty in the winter, the inspector said. He suggested that fans might help.

My clients were never happy with the heat on the main level of the condo. Fans didn’t help. Although the inspector identified the problem, they think that he under-reported it. When they buy again, they will be using a different inspector.

I am curious about whether you agree that the inspector made a mistake by not stressing more about how the heating system, as designed, would be drafty.


Homeowner diaries: the insulation project

Posted by Rona Fischman December 29, 2011 02:06 PM

My New Year’s resolution for 2010 was to get the wall insulation done in my house before the end of 2010. Oh well. My New Year’s resolution for 2011 was to get the wall insulation done in my house before the end of 2011. We started this in May, 2009. I finished the project on December 14, 2011. The final task was to fully insulate the bathroom pipes that run through the now ventilated (and cold) attic. It took fifteen minutes – once I got the materials – and feels like the end of an era.

I own a two-family house with wonderful tenants. One of my wonderful tenants started this process in May 2009. She didn’t tell me about it until July, 2009. Getting an energy audit for our unit went on my to-do list. I got that done.

Scheduling the insulation job was complicated by a piece of paper saying that we need an electrician to certify that there is no knob and tube wiring in the house. (There was an abandoned knob in the basement. Once upon a time, the knob and tube was used here.) I didn’t know about this until after our audit (an omission by the tenant.) This created the need for a full electrical inspection to find and replace all unsafe wiring. Owner paralysis set in.

My first electrician came in the summer of 2010 and he screwed up. The hunt continued and the electrical work was done in the tenants unit by the end of 2010. Owner paralysis set in again. The second wave of electricians -- in our unit -- came through in the spring of 2011. The upshot about knob and tube is that there was none in the house -- just a lot of old, cracked cloth-covered stuff that needed to be retired.

The next set of delays were not owner paralysis, they were paperwork delays. Our energy audits went out-of-date once, the tenant names changed, and so forth. We needed to redo the audits. The work was cleared for scheduling in September or October and done in November.


Warm wishes for the holidays

Posted by Rona Fischman December 22, 2011 02:01 PM

The nights are about as long as they get. It has just started to feel like winter. Today, I bring a review of the pluses and minuses of heating systems commonly found in New England. I asked James Morrison to write up a primer on heating, for those who don't know a furnace from a boiler:

Understanding what you’re looking at will help you recognize the practical implications of the heating system in a house you may want to buy. Here are the basics:

How they heat:
Boilers send hot water or steam through pipes to radiators in each room.
Furnaces send hot air through ductwork to registers in each room.

What you see in the rooms:
Radiators hold steam or hot water. Those big old honkin’ cast iron radiators might do either, -there are lots of permutations like: baseboards and fancy-pants towel-warming racks.

Vents distribute hot (and sometimes cool) air from furnaces throughout the house. Look for rectangular, or square, or circular openings in heated rooms.

Pros and cons:
Hot water- This is the preferred and most common heating system found in New England. It is considered the most comfortable way to heat. It is also fairly versatile and relatively easy to add onto.

Steam- Steam is also comfortable, but less so. We stopped installing steam heating systems in structures just after WWII. Adding onto these old steam heating system can be (though it isn’t always) complicated. Since trapped steam bangs, it takes skill to add on correctly.

Also, the radiators get pretty hot, so some folks install radiator covers on them. Radiator covers retard the convective process, so they reduce efficiency and raise operating costs.
In most residential steam heating systems, the air vents on the radiators will hiss intermittently when the system is operating. That’s normal, but it annoys some people.

Hot air - Benefits include: the registers don’t take up space like radiators, the same ductwork can often be used for air conditioning systems, and the installation and operating cost of the equipment is low. However, the heat is appreciably less comfortable than forced hot water systems in our climate.


What doesn’t belong in the walls

Posted by Rona Fischman December 21, 2011 02:07 PM

I did wall insulation this year. So did a number of my clients. Through this, I was reminded that of something that should not be in house walls.

A hidden hazard is sink vent pipes that are vented within the wall, not out of the house. The vent should go up above the roof line, so the sewer gases are vented into the wide, wide world. A vent in the wall, however, lets the sink water flow fine, but it is not safe. Because the sink works correctly, the occupant of the house may be unaware that the vent was not done correctly.

When done wrong, sewer gas rises from the sewer stack and goes in the wall. Sewer gas is more than unpleasant: it can be dangerous. Sewer gas, generally, is a mixture of ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and a little sulfur dioxide. Some of the gases are poisonous. It frequently smells like, um, sewer gas. It sometimes smells like rotten eggs (sulfur compounds.) If you’ve smelled this in your house, read more.

I learned the principle behind plumbing vent physics when I was in elementary school. Here’s an example. If you hold a bottle full of liquid vertically, so that the liquid fills the whole opening, no air will get in to replace the liquid and the liquid flow will be impeded. The pouring water flow will go “glug glug” or is will splash, as air tries to get into the bottle. Why is this happening? It has to do with air pressure. As the water goes out, it creates a weak vacuum in the bottle. “Nature abhors a vacuum”: remember that? So, if the liquid fills the bottle opening, air fights to rise to fill the vacuum in the bottle.


Homeowner diaries: the lucky discovery

Posted by Rona Fischman December 15, 2011 02:03 PM

I had some homeowner good luck that I want to share with you today. During Hurricane Irene or one of the thunderstorms this summer, the flashing on my chimney came off. That’s good luck? No. The good luck is that I found out before there was a leak.

I am a big fan of doing seasonal walk-arounds of my house. I do it at least every three months and sometimes more often. I want to see whether trash has blown into corners, whether anything has come loose or if something has fallen off. Maybe I am a pessimist. Then again, maybe I am a realist.

In any case, early in the Fall I had someone in to look at the gutters in anticipation of the autumn clear-out. He found the flashing in the gutter. My walk-around failed me. I can’t see my chimney because of other houses and trees. I also couldn’t see the flashing that was in the gutter. When was the last time you saw your chimney?


About condos and the blog entry that never dies

Posted by Rona Fischman December 2, 2011 01:48 PM

I seem to have authored the blog entry that never dies. I am confounded by why it was on the “most emailed list” earlier in November, 2011; I wrote it in November, 2010. I found it back on the “most emailed” list again on this Wednesday. It is generating a lot of email to me and hits to my website.

Among the email was a question from DM. Since his question is rather complex, and I don’t have all the details, I sent him to Community Association Institute. They are a great resource for people working with condo associations.

DM also asked me if I would also throw it out to my audience, since there are some experienced people there.


In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene

Posted by Rona Fischman November 29, 2011 02:22 PM

An Inn owner in Western Mass told me her experience after Hurricane Irene. What she found out was that due diligence is hard to do when you approach septic systems as a newbie. On my beat, close to Boston, I rarely work in towns that don’t have public sewers. What would you add to the list of things to look out for when considering a property with a private septic system?

As a veteran of seven years of country-home-ownership as well as Hurricane Irene, the best advice I can give anyone looking to buy a country home is: learn everything you can about septic systems before you even start to look. Next to the house structure itself, the septic is the most expensive piece of the real estate that you will own, and, if it fails for any reason, repairs are costly.

In our case, Irene tore the above-ground cover off our pump, destroying the pump and filling the tank with sand and rocks. Not all systems have pumps, and most with pumps do not have above-ground covers, but only after the storm did our septic engineer reveal that he had gone with this particular system—one every installer I talked to considers peculiar in the extreme—in order to save money. (Because of the nature of our agreement with the homeowner regarding the cost of installing the system, it had been their money, not ours, that was saved.) Clueless about septic systems at the time, I was in no position to evaluate or argue about the plan, and no one put any choices in front of me.


Being thankful

Posted by Rona Fischman November 22, 2011 02:06 PM

On Saturday, I was house-hunting with some clients in a suburb of Boston. It was an area that experienced power outages and major tree damage in both Hurricane Irene and the Halloween snowstorm.

In a small development, we rounded a corner to see a large tree. Its trunk was about 30” in diameter and would have stood about 40 feet, if it was standing. It was roughly horizontal. It spanned across the front yard, with branches about a foot from the front door. Out of my mouth came, “Wow! They were lucky.”

I was humbled by the power that could take down a tree of that age and size. It made the house behind it look small and vulnerable. My clients and I talked about it, briefly, as we left the house we viewed on that block.

The people who live in that house were lucky that the tree missed their house. Had the tree fallen on the house, people could have been hurt. The house could have sustained major damage. But, were they really lucky?


Fall home maintenance essentials

Posted by Rona Fischman November 7, 2011 02:00 PM

Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team provides us with a list of essential home maintenance items to get our homes & condos ready for the fall and winter season.

Now that you set your clocks back, there are still a few things to do to ensure that your home is ready for the rest of the fall and the upcoming winter season. Here is a list to help you get ready:

- Test smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Replace batteries. Replace old detectors.
- Replace the batteries and reset set the clocks on your setback thermostats.
- Install automatic setback thermostats if you don’t have them.
- Drain exterior water spigots as needed.
- Have fireplaces and/or wood stoves checked and cleaned as needed.
- Have chimneys inspected and cleaned every couple of years.
- Make sure all of your window locks are tight to keep the cold out.
- If you have storm windows, put them in the proper position for winter.


After low-ball appraisal, Larry is steamed at his bank

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis November 4, 2011 12:18 PM

Larry bought and renovated an old Victorian in a town north of Boston.

Now, just as he was about to close on a new mortgage that would cover what he paid originally and the couple hundred thousand he just put in, a big problem has popped up.

Suddenly unhappy with the first appraisal, Larry's bank brought in another appraiser to review the first valuation. Basically, she looked at the comps again and decided Larry's practically new, rebuilt Victorian has been overvalued.

The result is the bank is reducing the amount it will lend from over $500,000 all the way down into the $400,000s, a cut of nearly $100,000.


Act of God, you and the trees

Posted by Rona Fischman November 2, 2011 01:43 PM

Trees are today’s topic for Richard D. Vetstein. He is in the no-power zone and wants you to know about the laws regarding trees:

Given all the trees and branches which fell across New England this weekend, the pressing question of the day for me has been who is responsible if my neighbor’s tree or tree branch fell on my house, car, shed, patio, grill, etc. during the storm?

The short answer is that, legally speaking, your neighbor is not liable for a healthy tree falling down during a major storm event. That is considered an “Act of God” for which no one is legally liable (except God of course, but I think he enjoys some type of legal immunity–I’m not sure, I’ll have to research that one). So, you will have to make a claim under your homeowner’s insurance policy for the damage caused by the neighbor’s tree..


I’m dreaming of a white Halloween

Posted by Rona Fischman November 1, 2011 02:36 PM

I’m dreaming of a white Halloween. Well, it is a nightmare for those who took the brunt of the early snowfall in the northeast.

Trick-or-treating was cancelled in Lexington this year because of the snowstorm. I first heard of this on Sunday afternoon when a FaceBook friend mentioned it. Schools were closed for Monday, so Halloween was cancelled, too.

Is this good public safety? Does trick-or-treating create more cars on the roads? Should families without power be exempt from candy-giving?

My first impression was that cancelling trick-or-treating was overkill, but then I drove around Lexington. I was working in Lexington on Monday and was detoured off a main road (Pleasant Street) because trees or tree-removal equipment was still blocking the road. I passed several clusters of tree-removal trucks. There were branches all along the roadways on many streets.


Home inspections: trick or treat?

Posted by Rona Fischman October 31, 2011 01:50 PM

It's Monday! Happy Halloween. Today, Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team
discusses how different agents view inspection reports.

During the course of a recent transaction in which I represented the buyer, the listing agent called me to tell me that she did not want me to send a copy of the inspection report to her the next time that I represented a buyer that was buying one of her listings. She went on to explain what I already knew; if she received a copy of the inspection, she was obligated to disclose that information to other potential buyers if she had to put the property back on the market. The problem, she explained, is that two different inspectors might come up with two different sets of findings on the same property. I presumed that to mean that it was possible that a second inspector might not find some of the problems that the first one found or that it is possible that the first inspector might have found “defects” that are not really defects at all, so why open up a can of worms by disclosing the results of the first inspection?

During the same week, I received an offer on one of my listings from an agent in one of the big franchise offices. That offer included the franchise’s inspection contingency clause, which stated that if the buyer terminated the agreement based on an adverse inspection, that the buyer should send only the relevant portions of the inspection report only if requested by the seller.


Looking for new construction in Greater Boston? Good luck

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis October 26, 2011 06:11 AM

After a modest rebound in 2010, new home construction is plunging again across the Boston area.

The number of building permits issued by local cities and towns is set to sink below 4,500 in 2011, the worst showing in more than two decades and apparently eclipsing even 2009, according to a new report out by the Boston Foundation.

Not that 2010 was any great shakes. While an improvement over the Great Recession year of 2009, the number of homes built, even amidst the home buyer tax credit frenzy, was just half of what it was in 2005.

And guess what? Not even 2005 was all that great - even during the bubble years the number of new homes built across Greater Boston had fallen to just a  fraction what was put up during the 1980s.

Now of course housing construction does drop during hard times, but our declines are part of a longer, systemic problem that now spans decades.


An autumn stroll I recommend

Posted by Rona Fischman October 13, 2011 02:05 PM

Last winter, we had icicles hanging off our house, like most people. We were lucky that no water came into the house, unlike some people. Last winter was perfect weather for growing ice dams; who knows what this year will be like. We promised ourselves that we’d get the gutters in better working order before this winter. We interviewed a couple of gutter repair people, but hadn’t chosen one. With the changing of the season to autumn, we got in gear. Our house weathered Irene and the various thunderstorms of the summer fine, we thought. The gutters were firmly attached and the downspouts were all in place. But, the gutters are dirty and no longer pitched so that they drained easily. It was time to act.

I recommend that every homeowner take a critical walk around the house once a season. While we were getting an estimate from a new contractor, we did just that.
This year, we had one surprise and one more thing to add to the “keep an eye on” list. The surprise was that there was a chunk of lead sheeting in the gutter. It was the width of our chimney. When the gutter guy went up to look at the gutter, he confirmed the lead sheeting was flashing that had torn off our chimney. I am pleased that I found out by finding the flashing, not by finding a leak. (The roofer will be over to replace it.) It might have come off during Irene, or maybe one of the thunderstorms that rolled through this summer.

The “keep an eye on” is some rotting trim on the front porch. So far, it looks like it is limited to the trim work, but it is creeping near the structural columns in two places. This looks like a job for next spring.


Can she buy without having to go to the boondocks?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis October 7, 2011 06:24 AM

Allison Oropallo may be poised to make a big splash this Sunday during the season finale of HGTV’s “All American Handyman.”

An Arlington middle school teacher, she is the only woman in the show’s seven year run to make it to the last stage of a grueling, months-long competition that involves, among other things, building an Adirondack Chair in 90 minutes.

And if she can smoke the show's other three male finalists in the last big challenge - building a shed, followed by redoing a kitchen in five hours - then HGTV should rename the show, which does seem a bit dated.

“It’s absolutely insane,” Allison says of the challenges she faces on the show.

But in real life, she faces an equally daunting task ahead as she contemplates someday buying a home in still ultra pricey Greater Boston on a teacher’s salary.


Do we need that garage?

Posted by Rona Fischman October 6, 2011 02:00 PM

I got a phone call from a client of mine. He wanted to know what to do about his garage, which was destroyed by a tree on the day Irene blew through. Is it better to replace it with a garage or, instead, put up a shed for the bicycles and enjoy more yard space? Does removing the garage put a ding on the property value for potential resale?

Here is the information he told me:

The property had a metal pre-fab garage that was rusty and in poor condition since before they bought it, nearly ten years ago.
They have a three-car wide driveway in front of it.

Additional information:
The house is a two-family building located in Somerville, north of Porter Square. Their lot is about 6000 square feet. The back yard is tiny. The house is long and thin and sits to one side of the lot, making most of the potential yard on the side of the house where the garage is.

Here is what I answered:

You called about the question of what is the best economic decision to make about the garage. I have to give you a non-answer answer, unfortunately. There is not clear economic advantage either way. Here’s why:

An appraiser may calculate the value of the house based on the garage being there or not, but the buying public is likely to see the garage as equal value to the bigger yard. In my experience with buyers in towns near Boston, I frequently hear buyers wish the garage was not there, since it ruins the yard space. Some people do want garages, but just as many want a good yard.


Contractor’s estimates and quotes

Posted by Rona Fischman October 3, 2011 02:06 PM

Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team discusses the difference between the ways that contractors price jobs and how uninformed consumers can end up paying more than expected..

If you’re a homeowner or buyer trying to find out how much it will cost to fix something, you will probably ask a contractor for an estimate, but that may not always get the answer that you want.

When you hire contractors, it’s important to know that there are two ways that they can price jobs: estimates and quotes. Knowing the difference can save you thousands of dollars and a lot of headaches.

Although sometimes the terms are used interchangably, technically there is a difference.

An estimate is a contractor’s best approximation of the cost to do the job. It could be higher or it could be lower.

A quote is the price that a contractor will actually charge to do the job.

I always ask a contractor that gives me a price on an estimate form to write clearly that he/she will do the work for that amount, if that is the intention.

In either case, there are often unanticipated items that can come up while a contractor is working, especially if the work is being done on an older structure. Those unexpected items can legitimately add to what you expected to pay and what the contractor expected to charge. Then the question becomes: how much should they add?


Why did they do that to the house?

Posted by Rona Fischman September 30, 2011 01:58 PM

In February, 2008, I wrote about my all-too-common experience of seeing a house with an addition or change that only made sense to the people who did it. I was reminded of this when I showed a house last week that had an unusual quirk.

This house had too many outlets. What’s too many? The first place we saw it was in the living room. There were 4 along the fireplace. We noticed it. My client and I guessed that they do a lot of electrical decorations at Christmas. It made sense.

However, when we got to the attic room (about 14 X 14), there were 17 outlets along the three usable walls. What could they be doing in a room that size that needs 34 places to put an electrical plug? We left the house still stumped. Do you have any guesses?

Here is what I wrote in 2008:


Money down the toilet?

Posted by Rona Fischman September 22, 2011 01:42 PM

I have always thought that kitchens renovations are the most invasive for people who can’t move out for the duration of the construction. Kitchens are central to the house and it is hard to get through a day without using it. In the past month, I’ve seen two households come to the end of their rope regarding bathroom renovation. One had another full bath. The other had only a half bath in addition to the one being rebuilt.
One of my friends was at it for two months when she blurted out to me:

Are all contractors pathological liars?

That’s a real quote (Like Dave Barry, I can’t make up stuff like this.) The contractor promised a one-week job. He gave them dimensions for the fixtures to buy. Every measurement was wrong. Every fixture had to be re-bought. Two months in, the bathtub was just getting installed.

I saw her this week, and now they are rounding the corner to three months. By now, she says, they are resigned. At least it will be nice when it’s done.


Sewerage systems

Posted by Rona Fischman September 19, 2011 02:03 PM

Today, Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team discusses the types of sewerage systems that buyers might find, depending on where they are looking to buy.

Most City Slickers rarely think about the sewerage system in their home or condo. Their waste water just goes down the drain and disappears into the city/town sewer system unless the toilet or pipes get clogged or break. Homeowners pay the city/town sewer bill and enjoy almost no sewerage system maintenance hassles.

On a rare occasion, I run into a private sewerage system in a city. (I’ve seen them in some parts of Newton and the Boston neighborhoods of Hyde Park and Roslindale.)
Those that are moving to less densely populated communities may find that homes in some of those communities or neighborhoods are not connected to city sewers. Instead, they may find private sewerage systems on the property like septic systems or older cesspools. (There are also some newer innovative and alternative technologies, but I have yet to see them installed.) When working properly, private systems don’t usually require much maintenance and there is no sewer bill to pay.

As technology has advanced, municipalities have adopted strict rules for the installation of private sewer systems, particularly when they were in close proximity to drinking water wells or other water (ponds, lakes, underground streams, etc.) In Massachusetts, private sewerage systems are now subject to specific regulations
and must pass a Title 5 test before any property can be sold.


After the deluge

Posted by Rona Fischman September 15, 2011 01:53 PM

Dana Hollish Hill, a fellow buyer’s agent from NAEBA, wrote this as her FaceBook status this week:

How I love seeing homes after a huge rain.

There is a lot to be learned about a house if you see it just after bad weather has rolled through. Here are some things that I look for. What would you add to the list? Some of these may turn out to be easily fixed. However, you would not get the same warning if you saw the same house during a dry spell.

Bad signs:
If you see a wet vac (shop vac) plugged in and looking recently used it could be a bad sign. Did the owners need to vacuum up water during or after the storm? This is a red flag that needs to be investigated.
Damp marks on the exterior walls or floor show that water was able to get in during the extraordinary conditions.

A damp smell or seeing damp wood still in basement is a bad sign. Owners need to be careful to dry out any wood that got wet to avoid mold. Anything that is porous that got wet should have been thrown out by now.

Buckling vinyl or wood parquet floor tiles can happen over a long period of time or can happen suddenly from standing water. Either way, dampness is getting in.


What's your long-term housing plan?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis September 2, 2011 09:38 AM

Here's my long-term real estate strategy, and it's pretty simple - buy and hold. My wife Karen and I spent roughly $200,000 renovating and putting a modest addition onto our Natick fixer-upper.

We have young children just starting school, we like our town, and we have no plans to move until retirement, or, more likely, we get too old to work anymore.

Is my house underwater? Who knows, but frankly, I don't really care much either. A lot can happen in thirty years and it seems unlikely that Greater Boston is going to morph into Detroit.

If anything, maybe the bubble and now the crash will bring back the old buy and hold mentality that our grandparents had.

To me, that wouldn't be such a bad thing.


If a tree falls, and there is no one to hear it….

Posted by Rona Fischman August 31, 2011 01:47 PM

Trees are today’s topic for Richard D. Vetstein

Given all the trees and branches which fell across New England during Irene, the pressing question of the day for me has been who is responsible if my neighbor’s tree or tree branch fell on my house, car, shed, patio, grill, etc. during the storm?

The short answer is that, legally speaking, your neighbor is not liable for a healthy tree falling down during a major storm event. That is considered an “Act of God” for which no one is legally liable (except God of course, but I think he enjoys some type of legal immunity–I’m not sure, I’ll have to research that one). So, you will have to make a claim under your homeowner’s insurance policy for the damage caused by the neighbor’s tree.

As the court stated in the 1983 case of Ponte v. DaSilva:
The failure of a landowner to prevent the blowing or dropping of leaves, branches, and sap from a healthy tree onto a neighbor’s property is not unreasonable and cannot be the basis of a finding of negligence or private nuisance. Of course, a neighbor has the right to remove so much of the tree as overhangs his property. To impose liability for injuries sustained as a result of debris from a healthy tree on property adjoining the site of the accident would be to ignore reality, and would be unworkable. No case has been brought to our attention in which liability has been imposed in such circumstances


If Irene had body odor, it would smell like mold

Posted by Rona Fischman August 29, 2011 12:03 PM

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, today is the day to dry out the interior of your house. We are not expected to see rain for the rest of the week, so you have a good opportunity to get your house dry before mold gets a chance to grow.

Fish and visitors stink after three days
-- attributed to Ben Franklin. So will your house, if you let mold start to grow. Don't let Irene leave her smell behind.

More reflections on Hurricane Irene from Sam later today. I am adding this entry early, because tomorrow is too late to start preventing mold from this storm.

The EPA says:

When water leaks or spills occur indoors - ACT QUICKLY. If wet or damp materials or areas are dried 24-48 hours after a leak or spill happens, in most cases mold will not grow.

If the inside of your house got wet, then yesterday was the day to start drying it out (as soon as the rain stopped.) If you didn’t start yesterday, start today.

Mopping-up standing water is just the first step. You need to get all the wood, plaster or wall-board in your house completely dry. You need to throw away or completely dry any porous material that got wet (this includes paper, fabric, cardboard… anything that is not metal, plastic or glass.) If the surface of non-porous material is dry, you can leave it.

Do not just “air dry” areas that got wet in the hurricane. Open the windows. Run fans. Run dehumidifiers when the windows are closed. Don’t stop until it is dry all the way through, not just on the surface.

If you are still bailing out from major flooding, I am sorry for your misfortune. When you get the water out, don’t neglect this final step. A fully dry house is your best defense against mold.

If you are still without power at home, open the windows and take wet items (like curtains and suitcases) outside to dry. Begin the drying-out as best you can.

Good luck everyone. Don't let the mold win!

Blow the house down?

Posted by Rona Fischman August 25, 2011 01:49 PM

I am not a typical real estate agent. The thing that sets me apart more than anything else is that I do not subscribe to the tactic of selling homes. I work with people who buy houses. There is a lot to this distinction.

People who own (or rent) houses (or apartments) make them into homes. People sell the homes they have made out of condos and houses. Buyers walk into someone else’s home and want to buy it. On closing day, that home has reverted to its natural state; it is a house or condo. Then, the new owner has the job of making it a home, or not. I have seen million-dollar houses that are not homes and small apartments that are homes.

The bottom line is that a house is a box where you keep your stuff and live your life. There are many houses that will work for a buyer. There is no perfect house or dream house. Even if you have a romantic notion about a particular house, you could find the same utility elsewhere. If you are inclined to make a home, you can make it in any private dwelling. Being in love with a house is a choice.

A home is a place integrated into your life. The physical house becomes the backdrop for your sense of self and memories. I frequently hear buyers say that their current apartment will always be “the place where my daughter was a baby,” or “the first place we lived together.” Sellers are often even more attached to their house than a renter to their apartment, since owners tend to live in the house longer and made more physical changes to it.

Mother Nature has been busy reminding us that a house is a box where you keep your stuff and live your life. A house is vulnerable. If the house gets destroyed, you can lose your home.


Own a house, be a general contractor?

Posted by Rona Fischman August 16, 2011 02:04 PM

If you own a house in the greater Boston area, you are likely to be in the majority who own an old house. If you own an old house in the greater Boston area, you are likely to be in the majority who have a house that needs some kind of repair or updating every year or so. If you have some kind of repair or updating to do on your home every year or so, you are an occasional general contractor.

The problem is that owning a house does not qualify one to supervise contractors. If you hire a general contractor, it may or may not solve the problem; you still need to communicate effectively with the general contractor, who supervises the workers.

I personally prefer to work directly with the contractors, and not with a general contractor. The reason for this is that I prefer to communicate directly. My experience with general contractors is that it’s like playing telephone. I say, “I want the drafts on the floor sealed up.” I go over some options and chose one. The general wrote it down. Granted, I didn’t write down the specifics in a contract (a mistake I won’t make again.) I had the general’s notes. I don’t know if the plan was explained right or if the workers were banking on me not crawling under the porch to see what they were doing. I insisted on the insulation that I was paying for and got it only because I was watching. Have you had to supervise workers this closely?

Security is an issue, too. If I couldn’t stay home, I would need to leave the door open or give someone a key. Both of those things make me uncomfortable. Then there is the time expense. My rule of thumb is that it costs about an hour of owner time for every three hours of contractor time. That is time setting-up the job, checking the work, and keeping an eye on getting them in and out. Since I can write at home, I am pretty lucky that I don’t miss as much work time as people in traditional offices.

How do other owners manage it? Am I the only one who goes crawling under the porch?

Living area and permits revisited

Posted by Rona Fischman August 15, 2011 01:57 PM

Today, Sam Schneiderman, broker owner of Greater Boston Home Team addresses a reader's questions about building permits in his weekly Monday blog post.

Last Monday, we discussed Living Area calculations for single family properties. I focused on how appraisers calculate single-family lower level finished space for mortgage purposes. (Condo and multifamily calculations often vary from the way that single-family living area is calculated.)

Readers asked lots of good questions about how living area would be calculated in different situations. For those interested in learning more about how various areas of single family homes are calculated, I suggest an excellent article written by my client and friend, Maria Lando, a/k/a “The Math Mom”.

Now, on to the business at hand:
Last week, Lisa53 wrote:

“We hired a licensed contractor, electrician and HVAC person but did not go the permit route because we plan on staying a while (esp in this market) and weren't looking to increase our property taxes. Our contractor gave us the choice. Everything is code and we even ripped down a bunch of the work done by the previous homeowners, who did it themselves, and badly. I was a little hesitant about skipping the permits, but time will tell.”


A stitch in time saves nine

Posted by Rona Fischman August 11, 2011 02:13 PM

My rental focus this week turns to larger condo associations. Landlords who rent their condos in larger condo associations are often plagued by special assessments (additional fees for maintenance and repair.) These costs get added to rental fees as time goes on. It is in the interests of would-be tenants to pay attention to whether the building is being taken care of before big-ticket repairs are needed. It is also in the interest of non-occupant owners to encourage their management to be pro-active about building exterior issues.

Mediate Management published a blog titled The 3 Biggest Deferred Maintenance Mistakes That Condominiums Make

Here is my take on their list:

I have written about deferred maintenance. It costs more, a lot more, in the long run. Mediate gets specific:

You need a maintenance plan that the association must stay devoted to…here are the 3 biggest maintenance mistakes you should try to avoid:

1) Neglecting your roof until it leaks or endlessly patching to avoid a replacement
2) Neglecting your masonry and not making regular annual inspections
3) Neglecting paint and exterior wood repairs

Exterior leaks cause more damage than most people realize. A little drip can be the source of wood rot, termite or carpenter ant infestation, plaster damage and mold. Because water works its way down through whoever’s unit is below it, a condo association can waste a lot of time and money chasing down leaks, patching them, repairing the interiors, and doing it all again when the next little leak begins to show itself.

Mediate management recommends

... A proactive tip is to schedule annual inspections by your roofing vendor. They will survey the structure, clean out gutters, clear drains, and patch or repair vulnerable areas. They will also inspect and repair copper downspouts and detailing, roof flashing, and other metal finishes that may deteriorate or leak over time. Regular visits from the same vendor will become an excellent resource for planning out the expected life span of your roofing materials.


What is in the attic?

Posted by Rona Fischman August 3, 2011 01:46 PM

Today, I am writing about unsafe conditions I have seen in attics (and basements.) Paying attention to this counts as both a rental issue and a buying issue.If you have any additional questions this rental season, write me.

I am not so naïve as to think that all workers do house renovations to code. Many renovations are done by homeowners or their paid help that are way-way-way out of code. The attic is a place where I’ve seen some whoppers.

Absolutely the worst:
Early in my career, I saw this: The seller had put paneling (the 70s kind) along the walls and the sloping roof line all the way to the peak. What was he thinking? Well, he was thinking he wanted more ceiling height and the wood going across the attic at about 5 feet up was in the way. He (or she, but this was probably a he) didn’t do any checking to find out why the roof framing was built that way to begin with. He removed the wood that was in his way.

When I showed this house, the ceiling paneling was bowing in. When we went outside, the exterior walls were bowing out. What was going on? The owner had removed the collar ties that support the roof. Years later, that roof was collapsing.

More common mistakes:
In our old housing stock there are lots and lots of “finished” attics that have bedrooms in them. Even if they have been bedrooms since the 20s, it doesn’t make them safe bedrooms. I frequently see personal belongings that show that people have been living in these rooms for many years. They were lucky that no one was hurt in the time they used those rooms. Neither owners nor renters should have been sleeping there.


Replacing the roof

Posted by Rona Fischman July 28, 2011 01:53 PM

Like windows, the roof seems like a straight-forward thing, but as soon as you start to talk to a contractor, the lingo begins and the add-ons add on.

Since most homeowners replace a roof once or twice in a lifetime, here are the basics:

A roof can have two layers. After that, it is too heavy. It costs extra to strip a roof.

It takes longer to put roofing on the valleys near a dormer or other roof angle. The more valleys, the more it costs to re-roof.

Unventilated or poorly ventilated roofs wear quicker. Unventilated or poorly ventilated roofs with incorrectly laid or insufficient insulation can lead to ice dams. There need to be two places for ventilation – one for the air to get in and one for it to get out. The openings can be at the soffit (bottom), gable (wall) ridge (peak). Ventilation is an add-on cost to your roofing job.

A protection against ice dams is to install an ice and water shield or barrier when you install a new roof. Also, an add-on cost.

The more horizontal the roof surface, the less it will shed water and ice. Flat roof surfaces should not be shingled. They should have rubber membrane roofing. Some people use rolled asphalt, but this does not last as long as rubber.


Renovating before moving in

Posted by Rona Fischman July 25, 2011 01:46 PM

Sam Schneiderman, broker owner of Greater Boston Home Team brings you a must-read for anyone planning to buy and renovate.

It's not uncommon to buy a home and do some renovations before moving in. Many buyers do cosmetic updating like paint and/or floor sanding, but when improvements are more extensive and delay occupying the house, buyers need to make sure that the house is properly insured and that their loan allows them to delay occupancy.

Recently, I helped buyer-clients purchase a home that they intended to renovate extensively before moving in. Planning and renovating would take between two and four months before they could occupy.

They purchased with a typical mortgage for owner-occupants. Knowing that the home was going to be unoccupied for a few months, their insurance agent obtained a construction policy to cover the vacant renovation period.

Unfortunately, there are problems with that strategy.


New windows

Posted by Rona Fischman July 22, 2011 01:48 PM

I know you are not thinking about heating costs right now. But, maybe you should be. Summer is a good time to do renovations that will conserve your house’s heat next winter. This year, I am getting to it.

Window replacement is pretty expensive and it doesn’t yield a lot of savings on your energy bill, dollar for dollar. Insulating your attic or even your walls is a much better deal, for money conservation. I am doing it for my creature comfort, with only a side benefit of burning less fossil fuel over the next twenty years. Good windows are a pleasure. Bad windows are a trial. After many years of struggling with badly fitting storms and screens and drafty windows, it is time to treat my house to an upgrade.

For those of you who are considering windows, here is some advice:

Know the lingo. The salesman is going to try to baffle you just how complicated a window can be. Pay attention to how you are going to get a window that is airtight around it’s edges and how insulated the glazing is. Everything else is, umm, window dressing.

The add-ons are going to add up. Be clear about what you want ahead of time, so you can compare apples to apples when you choose your window.
Insulation around the window.


If you want to buy, start saving now - for repairs

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 12, 2011 06:00 AM

There's no point scrimping and saving to buy a house only to get sunk after you move in and the roof starts leaking.

In fact, the biggest challenge of homeownership may come after you sign your life away on the mortgage - it's the job of keeping your house in livable shape without getting into a financial jam.

It's a theme that should resonate here in Greater Boston, where first-time home buyers too often stretch to get buy some older, overpriced home in need of work. Little do they know what they are getting into.

I recently took a look at this for Bankrate - here are some tips I came across.


Are you afraid of termites?

Posted by Rona Fischman June 28, 2011 01:50 PM

At a recent home inspection, the inspector found signs of a previous termite treatment. They are not so hard to find, if you know what you are looking for: termite treatment involves injecting chemicals into the soil all the way around the parameter of the house. When a treatment has been done, there are little circles in the basement slab at regular intervals. That is the scar of the hole that the chemicals went into.

Once the inspector saw the treatment mark, he set out to find out what the critters ate. He found a repaired section of sill. The termites came in from a basement window frame to the main sill of the house. The window frame showed marks of the tunnels termites make. If you see brown muddy streaks about the width of a pencil on a foundation or along a wood surface, think termite. The sill above the window frame was replaced with pressure-treated wood. The house sill is the big piece of wood that sits on the foundation and supports the wood framing of the house.

Termites really scare people. The idea of bugs that do nothing but eat wood seems like the ruin of a good house. What I have been told by home inspectors and termite inspectors is that these buggers eat very slowly. They are simple creatures. They don’t do much besides eat and reproduce. They can’t see, so they smell wet wood and eat the nearest wet wood they can find. Your job, as a homeowner, is to avoid being the owner of that wet wood.


July home and condo maintenance tips

Posted by Rona Fischman June 27, 2011 02:19 PM

Today, our Monday guy Sam Schneiderman, broker owner of Greater Boston Home Team, is back with summer home and condo maintenance recommendations.

I can’t say it enough; homes and condos don’t maintain themselves. If you own a condo, don’t just leave troubleshooting to the trustees or management. Here are a few things that home and condo owners should do to prevent small problems from becoming major expenses.

Many people use the July 4th weekend to get a jump start on their July home maintenance. Here are a few a few things that should be done around your home or condo in the next month. Take some time now to plan and prioritize summer projects and line up the contractors you will need between now and the fall.

- Recent rains have left the earth saturated with moisture. Earth and mulch around foundations should be graded so that water flows freely away from the foundation to reduce the potential for water in the basement. Check the earth and the mulch around foundation perimeters to be sure that they are not in contact with wood.

- During moderate to heavy rainfall, go outside and make sure that the gutters are not overflowing and water is flowing freely from downspout extensions. Downspout extensions should extend at least 3 feet away from foundations.

- Thoroughly clean all ceiling fan blades. Oil the motor, if needed.

- If you have a sump pump, make sure that it works. Be sure that the backup battery (if any) still works, and make sure that water is discharged at least 5 feet from the foundation. Check the discharge hose for leaks.


If you are going to build, why not go modular?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis June 10, 2011 06:43 AM

Let's face it, modular homes have an image problem. For years they have been confused with the old cheapo manufactured home on cinder blocks popular in poverty stricken rural hamlets.

Of course, these are two entirely different animals.

Modular homes are made of wood - and it's hard if not impossible to tell them apart from any other suburan home. But instead of being built on site by your local contractor, the individual sections are hammered out in a factory and then assembled on site in day or two.

Hoping to get the word out about modular homes, Westchester Modular Homes of Greater Boston has built a modular home/showroom, perched on the northbound side of Route 1 in Saugus. The showroom is a 2,900-square-foot "Bostonian," one of a number of different home designs the company is offering.

A relatively new company, Westchester was launched a year ago by a local North Shore home builder who for years had also offered modular construction, but had never particularly focused on it.

That said, there are a number of pros and cons for a home buyer to consider before going modular.


Memorial Day weekend chores

Posted by Rona Fischman May 23, 2011 01:45 PM

Today, our Monday guy Sam Schneiderman, broker owner of Greater Boston Home Team, is looking forward to Memorial Day!

Most people don’t think about home maintenance when they buy a house or a condo. In fact, condo buyers rarely think about maintenance in my experience.

The reality is that neither homes or condos maintain themselves. Even though the condo association’s management or board members often deal with exterior maintenance concerns, some basic maintenance is needed on the interior and systems.

Memorial Day weekend marks a change in seasons and with that change there a few things that should be done around your home or condo:
- When the temperature is regularly above 65 degrees, basement windows should be kept closed and dehumidifiers should be running. Every New England basement should have a dehumidifier to inhibit mold and mildew growth. If you have a basement level garage, a humidifier is a big plus. When they wear out, old dehumidifiers should be replaced with energy star models.

- Screens should be inspected for damage and repaired as needed. (Most hardware stores repair screens.) If you have storm doors or windows, install the screens in the correct position. Lubricate storm window spring catches. I use WD40 if they are stuck and graphite if they are not.


Getting a handle on the cost of maintaining a house

Posted by Rona Fischman May 19, 2011 01:28 PM

Whether it is a house or a condo, owning a structure is going to cost CatB money to maintain over the years. I am not going to throw figures around today, except in the most general way. That is because it is way too easy to be wrong, when getting specific about repair costs. When a problem begins, it is much cheaper to repair than the same problem left for years to get worse. Deferred maintenance costs roughly five times more to repair than if a problem is solved when it begins.

The general rules:
The most expensive things to repair are on house features which must stand up to the elements. The exterior of the house -- from the roof to the foundation -- have the hardest job and need to be tended most. Expect that replacing a roof, re-siding, replacing windows, rebuilding foundations and waterproofing basements are your biggest ticket items. Expect that most of your 5-figure repairs will be to exterior features of a house.

After that, any repair or change in design which takes more than one type of worker will cost more, per labor hour, than something a single type of worker can do. For example, kitchens and bathrooms need electricians, plumbers and carpenters. They need to coordinate their schedules and share space and responsibility. Because of this, the cost goes up astronomically. Whereas, one or more carpenters can come in to change every interior door for less than the cost of a new bathroom.


The lead paint dilemma

Posted by Rona Fischman May 9, 2011 01:39 PM

Today, Sam Schneiderman, broker owner of Greater Boston Home Team discusses the dilemma regarding lead paint laws, disclosure, and what is happening in the real world of home ownership, buying and selling.

The following language is included in the Property Transfer Notification Certification, most commonly know as "The Lead Paint Form":

"Every purchaser of any interest in residential property for which a residential dwelling was built prior to 1978 is notified that such property may present exposure to lead from lead-based paint that may place young children at risk of developing lead poisoning . ……….. The seller of any interest in residential real property is required to provide the buyer with any information on lead-based paint hazards. A risk assessment or inspection for possible lead-based paint hazards is recommended prior to purchase."

When the law came into effect years ago, many people felt that over time a significant number of homes would be tested for lead paint and hopefully deleaded. Despite the fact that the lead paint laws have been around for years, the majority of sellers claim to have no knowledge about the presence or absence of lead paint. To make matters worse, when researching whether to test for lead paint, they learn that they will be required to disclose the results of lead paint testing to potential buyers of their home when they sell. As a result many buyers or owners decide that they would rather not test for lead paint.


Books about real estate

Posted by Rona Fischman April 29, 2011 01:31 PM

Next week, I'll be discussing How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. I hope you have picked it up and read it. From my very first blog entry here, I have kept an eye out for ideas that help people buy and sell better. Like the study on EBay buying behavior, many of those resources for consumers are not aimed at real estate consumers. Lehrer’s book is case in point; it has two pages that are indexed as “real estate shopping.” I see the book as being all about how to buy and sell anything better. Please join the discussion.

Besides the announcement of the upcoming book discussion, today, the topic is children’s books.

Last week, one of my clients had the experience of seeing a house go under agreement on MLS before she could see it in real life. She panicked. Then she apologized to me for acting like “Chicken Little.” There is great power in the cultural stories that we read to our children. Chicken Little is a modern myth about jumping to conclusions that the worst is happening. I immediately understood her emotional state when she called herself “Chicken Little.”

I countered her Chicken Little with, The Little House. I was introduced to this book by the late Hilda Silverman, who was an agent I worked with. She was a native of Gloucester; so was the author. It’s a wonderful book about a house that gets encroached upon, over and over, until it finally gets moved to a place where is can regain its former happiness. It is a book about the expansion of cities and towns and its effect on housing.

I refrained from using The Little Engine that Could. It is not my style to be that rah-rah.

My personal favorite children's real estate book is Creaky Old House. It’s a book about how one house repair leads to another, and another.

Do you have a favorite children's book that embodies the market, your buying experience, or your selling experience?

Earth day tips

Posted by Rona Fischman April 26, 2011 01:45 PM

I’m a little late for Earth day, which was last Thursday, but the beautiful weather on Sunday inspired me to mention these spring energy tips for home buyers.

The energy costs of a house can’t be determined by size alone. The two factors that affect it the most are personal usage and the efficiency of the house itself. Usage depends on you. Efficiency can be modified once you own it.

I frequently have buyers who get stuck in the details of energy costs and miss the big picture. A low annual energy bill (given by the happy sellers) may reflect a winter when they were in Florida and the thermostat was set at 45 degrees. If a buyer depends on that figure, the buyer must also know the typical usage of the current residents.

Buyers, these are the things to watch for when house hunting in the spring and summer:


How much of a premium would you pay for new construction?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 25, 2011 11:55 AM

Here's a startling figure: New homes still carry a more than 23 percent premium over their competitors.

OK, it's all relative - both new homes and existing homes are locked in a race to the bottom right now when it comes to prices and sales.

Still, the disparity continues - the median price nationally for a new home is now $202,000, compared to the $157,000 for a home that is being resold.

If anything, the premium placed on new construction is even higher here given the dearth of meaningful home building across the Greater Boston area.

Frank, our frustrated first-time home buyer, may just have a point when he fumes about the new colonial that hit the market in Woburn for $480,000.

Now I come to the debate having long been a big fan of older homes. REMaven keeps trying to convince me I should torn down my early 1900s Natick fixer-upper and hired her to put a modular special.

Thanks but no thanks to that. Go ahead and call my Natick fixer-upper a tear down - to me it has stood the test of time and that means something.


Chat with HGTV's Mike Holmes today at noon

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh March 18, 2011 11:00 AM

Mike Holmes, host of the HGTV series "Holmes on Homes," is a home repair and renovation expert, in addition to new home construction. He is currently working on a development of eco-friendly homes in Alberta, Canada. Send him your questions now and he'll take them at noon.

Want more advice? Check out our special Spring Cleaning and Home Repair section.

Home safety warning systems revisited

Posted by Rona Fischman March 14, 2011 01:53 PM

Sam Schneiderman, broker owner of Great Boston Home Team asks if you remembered to check or replace your home’s most important safety warning devices this weekend. He also offers some advice on how to comply with the most recent Massachusetts smoke and carbon monoxide regulations.

Replacing smoke and carbon monoxide detector batteries is advised when clocks are set forward or back for daylight savings time. If your smoke detectors are over 10 years old or your carbon monoxide detectors are over 5 years old, they should be replaced. It’s a good idea to update to more modern technology and bring your home into compliance with the latest regulations and help minimize annoying false alarms.

If you need some instruction on how to change your detector’s batteries, here’s a video that might help:

As I show property around Greater Boston, it’s not uncommon to see missing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors or detectors with batteries that have been removed. Often, they are removed because they trigger nuisance alarms as a result of being installed in the wrong locations.


Rona in the basement, again

Posted by Rona Fischman March 11, 2011 02:06 PM

Last week, I thought I was all talked-out about wet basements. Here I am, again, in the basement.

With the snow melting, buyers are in the perfect position to discover wet basements. It is hard to hide a leaking basement during peak leaking season. Last weekend was peak. A combination of rain and melt made it a perfect storm for making indoor puddles. As a buyer’s agent, I am happy to see how basements hold up, or don’t, against the tide. I saw lots of damp spots, and some puddles. I heard sump pumps going. I also saw sump holes that were dry.

First, a little basic science. Water can pass through porous, but hard objects. Water, under enough pressure can pass through rock. Water is lazy; it goes where it flows easiest. Therefore, it takes pressure to make it flow through concrete or mortar into a basement. If it has an easier route away from where it is trapped, it will go there.

Frozen ground, rocks under the surface and other geological features trap water near basement walls and floors. Trapped water can gather enough pressure to pass through the concrete slab in a basement, or the mortar of a stone or concrete block foundation, or a crack in a concrete foundation. The result is wet basement. Also, low basement windows can become waterfalls for puddles that collect outside of them.


How to revamp for the spring market, on the cheap

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 11, 2011 09:10 AM

Can a thousand dollars be the difference between a house that sells and another that languishes?

Sounds like small money, but the irony is that making changes that have the biggest visual impact can often be the least expensive.

The Herald's Paul Restuccia offers a primer on how to make your $240,000 condo look like a million bucks - and still have money left to grab coffee on the way to work.

Probably the biggest bang for your buck - you guessed it - is a decent paint job.


Cesspools to septic systems

Posted by Rona Fischman March 9, 2011 02:15 PM

We hear from Richard D. Vetstein about another problem homeowners face during the spring thaw.

With the massive spring thaw and snow melt, and resulting high water tables, I think we are going to see a fair amount of septic system failure this spring. Thus, I thought a refresher question and answer session on Title V regulations were in order.

I am selling my home. What is the first thing I must do with my septic system?

The first thing that must be done is to have a Title V inspection, completed by an inspector who is licensed by the state and your town board of health. Here is a Board of Health roster for Massachusetts.

Sudbury Real Estate Agent, Gabrielle Daniels Brennan, advises that unless you have a very recently installed system, do not hire a company who also repairs and replaces the systems to conduct your Title V inspection. Such a company may be more interested in seeing that your system requires a complete overhaul than more minimal maintenance and repair.

The septic inspector will determine whether your system “passes,” “fails” or “conditionally passes” (i.e., requires repairs).

How long is the Title V inspection valid?
A Title V inspection is considered valid for 2 years. However, if the homeowner has his septic system pumped every year, it is valid for 3 years.

My septic system Title V failed. What do I do now?

If the inspection fails, your septic system must be repaired or replaced. If ownership of the house is not being changed, the homeowner may have up to two years to complete the repair. However, if the Health Agent deems the failure to be a health hazard, the homeowner can be required to begin the process of repairing it immediately.


Sump pump with whistles and bells

Posted by Rona Fischman March 4, 2011 01:42 PM

While I am on the topic of sump pumps, I want to talk about professionally-installed systems. They can be very expensive, easily $5000 and sometimes over $10,000 for a normal-sized residential house.

Professionally installed systems usually have a trench dug around the inside of the foundation so that water is collected all around the basement and channeled by tubes into the pit. The tube that pumps the water out is usually PVC pipe, not a hose-like tube. The pit has a cover. Many have a “check valve” which holds the last bit of water, so it doesn’t flow back into the pit at the end of the pump cycle.

Then there are the whistles and bells. Many sump pumps are fitted with an alarm that will sound if the pump fails. I see many systems that have two pumps, one for back-up. Some systems have battery back-up in case of power failure during a storm. I have even seen a system with three pumps: a main pump with a back-up in the same pit and another pump in a pit in the corner diagonally across the basement. Both pits had battery back-up.


To pump or not to pump

Posted by Rona Fischman March 3, 2011 02:37 PM

Gutter problems, ice dams, and roof problems were the concern of homeowners during the heavy snows of January. Since then, we had a week of melting and some rain. Homeowner and homebuyer attention turned toward basements. From what I have been seeing, basements have been handling the brief melt well. We seem to have lucked-out by having a short melt, then a refreeze. Are you seeing wet basements? I have only seen a few; much better than I expected.

This may be because more and more homeowners have added sump pumps -- or even better -- sump pumps with perimeter drains.

My clients have a mixed opinion of sump pumps. Some want to rule out any house with a pump because, they think, it means the house has a problem basement. Others see a sump pump and a drain as a solution, not a problem. Which side do you take on that?

For those of you who don’t know how sump pumps work, here are the basics:

A hole is dug under the slab of the basement to form a pit. Water collects in the pit, well under the slab (sometimes as much as 3 feet down, sometimes less.) A pump is set in the middle of the pit, with a switch that goes on based on the rising water level (like a toilet float.) When the ground water rises, the water in the pit gets pumped out by a tube to the outside. When it works right, the water is pumped out and the basement floor no longer gets wet.


Walking the ‘hood. The houses.

Posted by Rona Fischman February 25, 2011 01:56 PM

Today, I write about what the houses looked like in that in an urban neighborhood. What a buyer should be looking for are signs that the neighborhood are doing their best to take care of their property.

Exterior condition says a lot about a homeowner. Generally, the most expensive repairs are on the outside. So, people will delay repainting, deck repair, and window replacement as long as they can. The cosmetic look of a house fails long before the exterior begins to functionally fail, in most cases. So, deferred maintenance on the outside means that the sellers either don’t care how it looks or don’t have the money to repair simply because it looks worn.

Paint: In this location, exterior upkeep was spotty. Some houses had mono-colored exteriors with no shutters or contrasting trim. Others had high-end 3-5 color custom paint jobs. One custom paint job was peeling; many simpler paint jobs were peeling, too. About three-quarters of the exteriors had paint that looked recent-enough.

Wood and decks: We saw fancy Japanese-style decks, old porches, and wooden archways. Again repair ranged from recent to falling apart. Recent and acceptable were the norm.

Windows: there were high numbers of double-pane replacement windows on the block.


Missing permits and your insurance coverage

Posted by Rona Fischman February 14, 2011 02:08 PM

A while ago, Sam Schneiderman, broker owner of Great Boston Home Team wrote about building inspectors. Today, he picks up the tread in light of recent storm damage.

In 2009, I shared what happens when projects are completed without permits, including having the inspector sign off on the permit after completion. When this blog’s software was updated, the comments were lost, but I remember some of our readers voicing their skepticism about getting involved with building inspectors.

Many homeowners don’t want to bring in building inspectors because they fear that their property assessment and taxes will go up when the town’s property files are updated to reflect the improvements. Many contractors don’t like to bring in the inspectors because it slows down the job and they have to charge more plus add the cost of permits to the job. In the end, pulling a permit holds the contractor accountable to someone that knows more about the building code than the homeowner and often the contractors. I am not sure how that can be a bad thing.

I recently came across an old house that had an attic converted to a master bedroom suite about 20 years ago. Lack of a fire escape and several other things made me wonder if the work was up to snuff. A trip to the building department confirmed that there was no permit for the renovations. When I calculated the square footage of the house against the building code’s allowable living area for the home’s lot size, I discovered that the attic expansion created a violation of the building code; the new finished attic plus the home’s original living area now exceeded the allowable living area for the lot.


What rooms would you add or ditch in your home?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis February 14, 2011 07:52 AM

When it comes to new homes, small is beautiful right now. Ditto for retro designs – village colonials and wrap around front porches come to mind.

As they struggle to survive in one of the worst markets in generations, that’s one formula an increasing number of builders have settled on.

If you are a fan of the 70s' style modern home, with its collection of sharp angles and broad windows, well it looks like you are out of luck right now.

Still, while the classic look is in, some dramatic changes are being made when it comes to interior design. Let's just say once you step through the door, it's not your grandfather's village colonial.

Among other things, great rooms are here to stay, while sun rooms, hobby rooms and even living rooms are on the chopping block, according to local home marketing and research firm, PrimeTime Communities.

Basically, hello great rooms and goodbye traditional living and dining areas. Florida living in New England – yuk!!!


New construction and the quest for a perfect house

Posted by Rona Fischman February 11, 2011 01:55 PM

New construction is not a ticket to a trouble-free, perfect property.

Recently, I showed a newer-construction house (built in the last 6 years) that showed signs of settling. Even my relatively untrained eye picked up the cracking plaster on the third floor, followed it down to the gaps along the baseboard trim on the second floor to the twisted center beam in the basement.

Houses, inspectors tell my clients, frequently begin to settle soon after completion.

Inspectors also discuss modern wood quality in disparaging tones. Wood used in modern construction is from new-growth forest. Older trees, which have more time to grow, are more rot and insect resistant. Buyers of new construction need to be meticulous about keeping the exterior trim painted and caulked. It is prone to rot. In modern condos, keeping the balusters on exterior stairs from rotting is a Sisyphean task.


Are secondary inspections worth it?

Posted by Rona Fischman February 10, 2011 03:18 PM

When I wrote about buyers walking away due to major defects, Lance commented:

REALmaven's comment [about sellers who deny inspector’s results] brings up a great point. Many sellers convince themselves that there is no problem and therefore no need to disclose. Some may go so far as to hire experts (i.e. shills) to corroborate their story…
As a buyer, good luck going after sellers for undisclosed defects after closing. Sure, you may have the legal right to sue. But get ready for a time consuming, expensive headache... One which is seldom cost effective (the lawyers are usually the only winners in these cases).
The best advice is to thorough due diligence on the property you are considering, ask probing questions (in writing) to both the REALTOR(TM!) and the sellers, and treat the sale as final. Buyer beware.

Last Sunday morning, before I set out to parking-Hell called “winter open houses,” I saw this in my email. Inman News writer, Barry Stone wrote about undisclosed house problems. Mr. Stone lays out who carries the blame, but doesn’t tell the new homeowner how to get a good outcome.

The best defense is a good offense (OK, I wrote this on February 6.) The goal is to find the big-ticket problems before you purchase a house. The typical home buyer will need help.


What's your winter damage?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis February 8, 2011 07:35 AM

Until the Ice Age hit in December, I had a special contempt for local weather forecasts.

In winters past, every flurry was a potential Blizzard of ’78, with on-camera reporters hustling out to Worcester so they could do stand-ups by the highway showing the first flakes falling.

What nonsense, I would mutter at the screen, we live in New England. It snows!

OK, now I am paying a little more attention to our local weather forecasters – and a lot more attention to the toll storm after storm has taken on my Natick fixer-upper.


Insurance claim considerations

Posted by Rona Fischman February 7, 2011 02:11 PM

Today, Sam Schneiderman, broker owner of Great Boston Home Team discusses something that many homeowners are either doing or thinking of doing as a result of the extreme weather that we’ve been having.
Challenging weather conditions often lead to property damage and insurance claims.

Some property owners are reluctant to make a claim because it might increase their insurance premiums or get their insurance canceled. Others are afraid that if they even ask about putting in a claim, it might end up on their C.L.U.E. report, so they avoid making the claim. Others don’t really understand what is and isn’t covered or how their insurance deductible affects them.

Occasional claims for valid casualties are usually not cause for rate increases or insurance cancellation, according to the insurance agents that I spoke with.

C.L.U.E. stands for Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange. The CLUE database is a claims history database that many, but not all, insurance companies subscribe to. It allows them to review a consumer’s claim information when they are considering providing insurance and decide what price to charge for that coverage. Information on losses is stored in the CLUE database for up to 7 years.


Western Mass a home sales hot spot?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis February 2, 2011 12:56 PM

Interesting breakdown of the latest Bay State home sales numbers by Banker & Tradesman.

While homes sales - not prices, mind you, which went down - were up in December, it was no thanks to Greater Boston.

Most of the activity was found far from the Hub, in Franklin and Berkshire counties out west and Bristol and Dukes counties to the southeast.

By contrast, home sales in Greater Boston were a big drag.


Carbon monoxide dangers increase with snowfall

Posted by Rona Fischman January 31, 2011 02:25 PM

Today, Sam Schneiderman, broker owner of Great Boston Home Team tell homeowner and tenant alike how to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

Gas, oil or wood that is burned for heating, hot water, cooking, or clothes drying produces carbon monoxide that needs to be properly exhausted from homes, especially in winter.

Most homeowners are not aware that the risk of hazardous or lethal carbon monoxide poisoning in their home increases dramatically when we get significant snowfalls.

Here is what you need to know:
Carbon monoxide is exhausted from homes through chimneys and exhaust vents. When snow gets deep, drifts or is shoveled up against a building, it can cover exhaust vents, and hazardous levels of carbon monoxide can back up into the building. This is more common today because the exhaust vents of newer “direct-vented” furnaces, boilers and hot water heaters are often placed below the height of some of our deeper snowfalls or snow drifts.

Please accept today’s challenge:
Walk all the way around your building looking for exhaust vents for heating equipment, dryers, water heaters, etc. Make sure that they are not covered and that there is enough room between the current pile of snow and the exhaust vent to accommodate more snow. Make sure that the vent is not iced over. Clear the area of snow and ice as needed.

Check your carbon monoxide detectors (and smoke detectors, too). Recent regulations require at least one carbon monoxide detector on each level of a home, including the basement, unless there is no fuel burned in the home (i.e. a totally electric home). If you don’t have carbon monoxide detectors, please get them. Plug-in detectors install easily and are available at hardware/home improvement stores and online.


For the average buyer, fixing it up makes more sense than tearing it down

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis January 20, 2011 06:52 AM

I'll be honest here, I have a beef. Every time I mention my Natick fixer-upper, I get bulldozed by some contractor on the comment boards telling me I should have torn it down and built a new house.

But it does bring up a larger question here. Is buying an old house, tearing it down and then building something new a viable strategy for the relatively average buyer in the Greater Boston market?

Here's what Jima had to say:

"Scott - Hopefully people have learned something from your project.I think that the lessons learned were pretty clear.
1. It does not make financial sense to do a major expansion of a fixer upper in this market.
2. It is more cost effective to tear down and rebuild rather than to remodel and expand a fixer upper.
3. It will cost more money and time if you use the neighborhood handyman to do the work rather than a professional building company."

Sorry Jima, but I don't think we are on the same planet.


Are you looking at renovating, expanding your home? Well I want to hear from you

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis January 17, 2011 07:01 AM

A new Harvard report predicts a big jump in home remodeling - and with markets like Greater Boston that have lots of older homes leading the way.

After double digit declines come off the bubble years, Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies contends we are headed back to modest growth in the renovation market of about 3.5 percent a year.

The report's title just about says it all: "A Decade of Growth."

"Metropolitan areas with rising house prices, older housing stocks, higher incomes and home values, and a larger share of upscale remodeling expenditures, such as Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, are well-positioned for an upturn in remodeling activity," said Eric Belsky, managing director of the Joint Center, in a press statement.

Fair enough. While the economy and the job market is slowly improving, home prices and sales are not likely to bounce back dramatically anytime soon. Instead of moving up, more homeowners may opt to fix up instead.

OK, now its time to take this thesis coming out of the ivory tower at Harvard and put it to the acid test - how it fares on the comment board here at Boston Real Estate Now.


Will they ever learn? Real estate industry trips over its rosy projections

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis January 13, 2011 10:59 AM

The home sales industry has untold millions to blow on self promotion.

Yet it's amazing how seeming lacking in savvy the industry's marketing is in some cases, particularly when it comes to market forecasts.

A case in point is the National Home Builders Association annual meeting.

The confab down in sunny Orlando is generating a gusher of stories about the trade group's predictions of a rebound in new home sales and construction this year.

OK, the economy is improving. But a 21 percent jump in new home construction and a 26 percent in sales for 2011? That seems like a stretch, especially given how the trade group's predictions for 2010 fared.

Instead of 610,000 new housing starts, after the numbers are fully counted, we will likely end up with 475,000, a number The Wall Street Journal, to its credit, notes in its story on the builders' convention.


Tis the season…. to be warm & comfortable

Posted by Rona Fischman December 20, 2010 01:24 PM

Sam Schneiderman, broker owner of Great Boston Home Team (our Monday guy) pays attention to home heating.

It’s that time of year again. We want to be warm and comfortable without going broke. Our heating systems need attention.

Even if your heating system is putting out heat, these tips could help you improve its efficiency and/or the quality of the heat that you get.

There three types of common fuel that might power your heating system; gas, oil and electricity. If you have oil, your system should be serviced annually. If you have a gas system and smell gas, it should be serviced immediately, otherwise maintenance service every couple of years is usually adequate. Electric system requires no special maintenance other than listed below.

It's not difficult to get the most from the whatever type of heating system that you have:

Forced Warm Air systems recirculate air in homes. You need to locate the vents that blow warm air into your rooms as well as the wall or floor openings where air re-enters the system. They should not be blocked by furniture or covered with rugs. Vacuum them several times during the heating season to ensure efficient airflow and cleaner air. Ducts should be professionally cleaned every two to three years and blower motors should be oiled annually. People with dust sensitivities clean ducts annually. The furnace filter should be changed or cleaned once a month during the heating season.

Baseboards or Radiators with Forced Hot Water are not efficient unless they are “bled” regularly of any excess air that gets trapped in the radiators. Just Google “bleeding radiators” for instructions.


Mr. Clean doesn’t live here

Posted by Rona Fischman December 2, 2010 02:01 PM

Not everyone is Mr. or Mrs. Clean. Not everyone is good at taking care of their houses. That is one of the reasons that sellers give for hesitating to put their houses on the market. It is too much work to get it cleaned up, keep it clean, and to face all the criticism for repairs not done and repairs not done well.

A friend of mine says his goal was to “buy a nice house and turn it into a fixer-upper.”

What’s in your basement, or attic or garage? For that matter, what’s in your closets? Are these skeletons the reason you hate the idea that, one day, you are going to sell your house?

I don’t do any listing business. When one of my clients wants to sell a home, I refer them to a listing agent that I think takes good care of their clients. I judge good listing agents as those who didn’t tell me confidential things about their sellers, worked to negotiate the best deal for their sellers, and took care of the details that he/she is responsible for.

Frequently, the better listing agents will help a seller prepare the house for sale. Sometimes, it is a lesson in de-cluttering, sometimes it’s a suggestion to put in brighter light bulbs or paint the front hallway a cheerful color.


A tale of two inspectors

Posted by Rona Fischman November 30, 2010 02:19 PM

One of my clients bought a rather expensive house that was a few years old. He chose to have two home inspections. This was very educational for him, and for me.

The first inspector spent four and a half hours at the house. He came up with a number of problems. The biggest one was that the framing wood was not removed from the fireplace. That’s flammable material in the firebox. It has got to go!

He spent a long time explaining the drainage system of the house. Being new construction, it was built to modern standards. This inspector thought that the sump pump was set wrong. He explained that it did not go off soon enough and should be set lower, near the current water level. He also said the toilets were set wrong so that they drew too little water to do their task. He mentioned cosmetic concerns (like sheet rock that needed to be re-taped before repainting.)

Inspector number two spent two and a half hours at the house. He found the fireplace problem. He disagreed about the sump pump and toilet. The sump pump, he said, should not be set closer to the natural water level; that makes the pump run all the time, since the water will keep refilling to the natural level. (Setting it that low was like trying to empty the ocean with bucket.) The sump pump should be set below the slab to avoid water in the basement, no lower. The toilet was set normally for its type. Inspector number two also found a section of roof that wasn’t attached. He found a gutter that wasn’t attached.


Hurt by negligence

Posted by Rona Fischman November 26, 2010 02:55 PM

On a Sunday afternoon I found myself face-down in the grass in front of my clients. What happened? While walking into a house for sale, my left foot found an 8 or 9-inch-deep hole. With that foot stuck, I fell forward with my next step. Luckily, I landed basically in one piece.

“Talk about homeowner liability!” says my client. He’s right. The hole looked like it was made for a fence post in the grassy area next to the curb. Maybe the sign-setters changed their mind and then forgot to fill it in. This accident is a pretty clear bit of negligence. Yet, I find it funny how people think: Accident… person hurt… who can be sued?

Fear of liability claims motivates some people to stay away from home ownership altogether. But liability comes up most often for people who are thinking about buying rental property. Why is that? Are we more afraid of legal tangling with a tenant than we are about hurting someone in our family? Surely not!


Landlords, what repairs are too silly?

Posted by Rona Fischman November 19, 2010 01:53 PM

Every landlord needs to find his/her own balance. If the rent is competitive and the apartment is nice, a landlord can choose from a larger pool of tenants. That increases the odds of getting a tenant who reliably pays the rent, takes care of the place, and is not high-maintenance. Slumlords get slummy tenants and no one is happy. But how many tenant requests is a landlord required to do?

P. asked me:

What to do when tenant wants a repair when you think the repair is silly (one loose tile in 100 sq ft of tile)?
What happens when appliances fail in the rental (frig, dish washer etc)?

Like all things in landlord-tenant relationships, there should be room for discretion and negotiation. There is a lot of variation in expectation based on whether the rental is expensive for its type, competitive, or cheap.

The tenant is not being high-maintenance if the tenant is paying through the nose. If the apartment is top-of-the-line and is drawing a top-of-the-line rental charge, then that tile better be fixed. You, as a landlord, are collecting rent on luxury and need to provide luxury.

For a place with a moderate rental fee, if the kitchen looks fine -- except if you get on your hands and knees and stare at the floor – that’s different. It is reasonable to expect moderate rent-payers to accept imperfection until you get around to making cosmetic changes. If it really bothers them, you might do it to feel on the side of the angels. Do beware of the unintended consequences: once you do a silly repair, you may open the door for more silly repair requests.


Greater Boston home prices at elevated risk of decline?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis November 18, 2010 07:12 AM

OK, I am just the messenger here. But that's the assessment of mortgage insurance giant PMI.

The Boston area has a greater than 63 percent chance of seeing home prices wind up lower two years from now, PMI's latest market forecast finds.

That puts us near the top nationally, below only a tier of hard-hit Sunbelt cities that have been ravaged by foreclosures after rampant overbuilding during the boom years.

Some of those cities - Las Vegas, Miami, Phoenix and Los Angeles - are rated as having a well over 90 percent chance of further declines.

By contrast New York and Washington have about a 50 percent chance of a further fall in home prices.

So how much more damage are we looking at here?


Go for it Julie D

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis November 16, 2010 06:22 AM

That is the rough consensus of the blog regulars and not so regulars who weighed in yesterday on Julie D's renovation dilemma.

Julie D bought a Cape in Billerica a year ago for $370,000, but, in a market that appears headed south again, now wonders whether to put any more money into her home, which had been previously expanded and partially updated.

She wants to make some basic updates - a revamp of her home's 1960s bathrooms, new, energy efficient windows, a garden shed and even dormers.

But Julie D wonders whether it would be smarter to sock away any extra money and possibly scoop up an even nicer home at a better price five years from now.

Most of the comments on yesterday's post weighed in, albeit cautiously, on the pro renovation side of the debate.

In fact, Kermit Baker, a senior research fellow at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies offered a similar take.


Julie D's dilemma: To renovate or not to renovate

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis November 15, 2010 08:56 AM

Julie D, as we shall call her here, shelled out $370,000 a year ago for an expanded, 2,200-square foot Cape in need of a little work just inside the 495 beltway.

There are many things she likes about her new home, which is in a 1960s-era subdivision with lots of colonials and split levels. It sits on a large lot with lots of nice old trees on a quiet street with "no line down the middle,'' she notes.

Yet given the renewed turmoil in the housing market, Julie D has a few nagging doubts about whether it's really worth it to redo those irksome, Brady Bunch-era bathrooms, among other modest renovations.

Some homes on her street have recently gone for as low as $280,000, though these were significantly smaller and in need of a lot more work. One house, probably more comparable, fetched $340,000, though it has just a single bath, three bedrooms and a one car garage, she notes.

Given the uncertainty, Julie D wonders whether it is worth it putting money into more upgrades. After all, maybe she could hit the market again in five years and get a better deal on an even nicer house.


Landlord tax deductions, for beginners

Posted by Rona Fischman November 12, 2010 02:33 PM

There are significant tax advantages for a landlord. In contrast, single family and condo homeowners who are not landlords can deduct the interest paid on their mortgage.For the owner-occupant, that’s all the tax advantages that currently exist. All owners should keep track of expenses in caring for the home. Those costs come off any profit made upon sale, for tax purposes. (Capital gains limits are high, so this doesn't come into play much.)

Landlords run their rentals as a business. The business of being a landlord has its own tax schedule, Schedule E.

These are the records a landlord needs to keep for their accountant or tax preparer:
1. Total rent income.
2. Repair expenditures, detailed with date, who was paid, and what was done.
3. Maintenance expenditures, which include cleaning costs, trash pick-up fees and such.
4. Total property insurance.
5. Interest payment on the mortgage.
6. Property tax payment for the property.
7. Total water bill. If the landlord pays utilities, then utility bills, too.
8. Incidental bills related to renting, like fees for credit checks, bank fees, tax preparation, fees for management, fees for expenses to collect the rent, legal fees.


Home heating for buyers

Posted by Rona Fischman October 28, 2010 01:45 PM

Even though it got warm out again, we know that the cold weather is on its way. I asked James Morrison to write up a primer on heating, for those who don't know a furnace from a boiler:

Understanding what you’re looking at will help you recognize the practical implications of the heating system in a house you may want to buy. Here are the basics:

How they heat:
Boilers send hot water or steam through pipes to radiators in each room.
Furnaces send hot air through ductwork to registers in each room.

What you see in the rooms:
Radiators hold steam or hot water. Those big old honkin’ cast iron radiators might do either, -there are lots of permutations like: baseboards and fancy-pants towel-warming racks.

Vents distribute hot (and sometimes cool) air from furnaces throughout the house. Look for rectangular, or square, or circular openings in heated rooms.

Pros and cons:
Hot water- This is the preferred and most common heating system found in New England. It is considered the most comfortable way to heat. It is also fairly versatile and relatively easy to add onto.

Steam- Steam is also comfortable, but less so. We stopped installing steam heating systems in structures just after WWII. Adding onto these old steam heating system can be (though it isn’t always) complicated. Since trapped steam bangs, it takes skill to add on correctly.
Also, the radiators get pretty hot, so some folks install radiator covers on them. Radiator covers retard the convective process, so they reduce efficiency and raise operating costs.
In most residential steam heating systems, the air vents on the radiators will hiss intermittently when the system is operating. That’s normal, but it annoys some people.

Hot air - Benefits include: the registers don’t take up space like radiators, the same ductwork can often be used for air conditioning systems, and the installation and operating cost of the equipment is low. However, the heat is appreciably less comfortable than forced hot water systems in our climate.


Measuring the cost of home heating

Posted by Rona Fischman October 26, 2010 02:39 PM

For the past couple of weeks, my buyers are more interested when I note rooms with electric baseboard heat, rooms without heat (usually in the attic), unheated stairways, and lack of insulation. ‘Tis the season.

I use this nifty tool on the NStar site to calculate the fuel consumption based on the house, appliances and temperature settings. For my house, NStar expects my gas bill to average $112. They actually average $82. What’s your house score? How does it match your actual bills? If it’s wrong, what accounts for the discrepancy?

One problem is that the calculator assumes that you keep the house at one temperature day-in day-out. Many of us don’t do that. My house has two zones and programmed thermostats. My guess is that it would be far too complicated to ask for “night temperature, how many hours” and “day temperature, how many hours.” Maybe putting in your best guess of day and night settings is the way to go there.


Buyer wants to know "what is normal?"

Posted by Rona Fischman October 21, 2010 02:31 PM

Tuesday, I wrote about conflicts of interest, based on Ethan’s email. Today, I answer another question that came up for Ethan:

I wish we had more advice as to what are common allowances to sweeten the deal (outside of negotiating the price) and what always needs to be strictly adhered to in legalese.

I can speak from an agent’s experience on this. I’m not qualified to discuss legal practice and contracts.

What should be in writing? As much as humanly possible! In my practice, we keep notes on what is agreed to, and we give all the conditions to the attorney for the Purchase and Sales Agreement.

Purchases are based on price and terms. Those terms are everything that is not price. That includes when the loan closes, what is included in the sale, what condition the house will be in when it closes, how many times you can go to the place to bring contractors before closing, what happens if the appraisal comes in too low, what happens if the seller can’t get a clear title…

Here are the common things that happen:
1. Inclusions and exclusions get muddled. Anything attached to the house with a nail or bolt or wire is real estate; anything hanging from a hook or plugged-in is personal property (sometimes called “personalty” or “chattel.”) Buyers frequently ask for chattel, such as refrigerators and large mirrors over the mantle. Sellers frequently want to keep custom lighting fixtures and stained glass. There is a place on the Offer form where this information goes.

2. Seller’s private “yard sale.” Sometimes the seller agrees to leave furniture, lawn mowers, snow blowers and such, at a minimal price, to sweeten the deal. I think getting the leftover stuff does not benefit the buyer as much as a cash refund, so I separate the discussion about these items until the Purchase and Sales Agreement is signed. If you do get additional chattel, make a list!


Landlord-tenant: What to do about the chill in the air

Posted by Rona Fischman October 15, 2010 02:09 PM

Last winter, I asked about whether gas was the strongly preferred heating fuel in New England. At that time, DotGirl3 made a comment that belongs in our landlord-tenant series.

dotgirl3 wrote: … it is nearly impossible to rent an oil heated home compared to gas heat. For most renters coming up with a big lump sum at an arbitrary time to fill the tank can be a budget buster. I do have gas and prefer gas, I can do direct vent and I have a gas-fired tankless hot water heater that is awesome. A property would have to be pretty spectacular for me to consider oil…

There are still large areas that have no gas service. So, oil remains a major heating fuel. If you are in a place where there is a choice, what did you choose and why? Tenants, do you consider the heating fuel when you are shopping for an apartment? Is the lump-sum cost of oil by the tankful a deal-breaker?

Landlords, did you feel a need to convert to gas to make your apartment more attractive to tenants?


Do you want to be the landlord of a three-family house?

Posted by Rona Fischman October 1, 2010 02:08 PM

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how the numbers don’t work for two-family home ownership around Boston, these days.

Shiplesp commented:

How does the price of a three-family unit compare to two-family? One advantage of a three-family is that you rarely have both units vacant, so you always have some income.
The "rule of thumb" that I followed when I bought my three-family is that the price of the house should be paid for by the rents in 7 years. That was possible 10 years ago, I'm not sure it is now.
Anyway, it works out for me because the rents of the other two units cover my mortgage, taxes, insurance, and common utilities.

Prices of two-family homes and three family homes vary very dramatically across the Commonwealth. When I look at Massachusetts, the median cost of a two-family house is $215,000! The median three-family house is less, $200. But that is, obviously, not a good indicator. Multi-family housing stock varies so much, these numbers are meaningless.

The local figures, for my area* are more real to me: $512,000 for two-family homes and $600,000 for three-family homes. Using the $600,000 median, which does match my experience of the past 6 months, here are the same numbers I did before to show how the additional rental unit changes the picture:

Sale price $600,000. Three-family house with 5 rooms, 2 bedrooms downstairs and 6 rooms, 3 bedrooms upstairs and 6 rooms, 3 bedrooms on the third floor. Downstairs rent about $1300. Upstairs rent about $1400. Third unit rent $1400.
Down payment: 25 percent (required for conforming loan) = $150,000
Principal and interest = $2416 at 5 percent interest
PITI about $2900
Gross income about $4100
Return on the $150,000 investment is approximately $1200 per month.

That is assuming no vacancies and costs do not include all the costs we discussed in the last two weeks. The water bill and normal maintenance are not going to be the killer expenses here. We all know that repair and updating is where the money will go.

Ignoring the expenses, do the gross rents pay for the house in 7 years? $4100 X 12 X 7 = $344,400. Not even close.

So Shiplesp, small property ownership -- even with a three family home -- still doesn’t add up. Just like video killed the radio star, condos killed small property ownership around Boston.

Shall we continue on the topic of landlords and tenants? If so, what do you want to know more about?

*my area: Acton, Arlington, Bedford, Belmont, Brookline, Cambridge, Concord, Lexington, Medford, Natick, Needham, Newton, Somerville, Sudbury, Waltham, Watertown, Wayland, Wellesley, Winchester. Data past 6 months from MLSPIN.

Landlords, an ounce of prevention

Posted by Rona Fischman September 24, 2010 01:59 PM

Last week, I wanted to discuss the mortgage finance end of small-property land lording. The conversation quickly morphed into a discussion of the other expenses. So, I trashed the entry I wrote about what I spent on my house (which mirrored Grasshoppa’s list.)

Today, let’s define those derogatory terms “slumlord” and “slum.” Slummy houses do not have to be in overcrowded, nasty buildings in overcrowded nasty neighborhoods. Slums happen one unit at a time. There are two-family houses that are slums. There are slum units in two-family houses where the owner's unit is nice. I know. As a buyer’s broker, I have seen them.

I also want to define the opposite of slum and slumlord. IMHO, the best bet to not being a slumlord is to have an annual maintenance budget and to practice preventative maintenance.

Your annual budget should include per-year costs on the big components of the property. That way, a $10,000+ electrical upgrade, like mine, doesn’t blindside you. Heating systems, hot water heaters, roof components, exterior siding, and other big ticket items all have a normal life expectancy. Be prepared to replace something important every five years or so.


That sinking feeling

Posted by Rona Fischman September 9, 2010 02:05 PM

For many of my clients, crooked floors are a deal-breaker. Correcting a sunken house is just too hard. Best you can do is keep it from sinking more. Can you live in the incredible sinking house?

Old housing stock is not the cause of warped floors. It is the excuse. If there is not enough framing and foundation under the house, gravity finds the weak spots in the first five years or so. Therefore, that “charming” old house has been crooked since 1910.

Not all settling is that way. Some houses age slowly and gracefully later in the house’s lifetime. They were built solidly, but are aging. If the house is sinking to the foundation, water may have damaged the foundation or sill. Wood-boring pests may have chewed into the sill, since they like it wet. The compressed sill takes the floor joist downward as it sinks.


If you are looking at renovating, you are not alone

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis August 11, 2010 10:43 AM

The glory days of home remodeling are not coming back anytime soon.

But with the real estate market stuck in neutral/reverse right now, fixing up what you already own as opposed to trying to sell and move up may turn out to be an increasingly attractive option over the coming months.

In fact, Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies is seeing a pickup in home renovations and remodeling. The Harvard center is predicting a sharp increase by the fourth quarter, leading into a 12.4 percent jump in the first three months of 2011.

That would effectively end a years-long renovation slump.

"The recovery in home improvement activity appears to be moving beyond simple replacement projects and energy retrofits to broader remodels and upgrades," said Kermit Baker, director of the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies, in a press release put out by the center.

OK, but there's reason to be a little skeptical here as well too.


Remember that electrician?

Posted by Rona Fischman August 10, 2010 02:37 PM

About a month ago, I had an electrician tell me that the wires in my rental unit were too old and dried-out to leave there and insulate over. That made my thrifty wall insulation project into a total rewiring job, plus a now-less-thrifty insulation project.

That was not the end of my punishment.

When the tenant came back from vacation, she reported to me that the electricity in the living room and dining room was not working. I found a flipped a breaker, which I reset and didn’t think of it again. A week later, I got an email asking when the power would be restored to the living room and dining room. As the kids say, “my bad” for not going into the unit to check.

Fast call to the electrician! He first denied any responsibility for creating the problem. He gave me an appointment for five days out. I reminded him that the power loss was coincidental to his inspection and estimate – was there anything that he could have turned off that is on the line with these rooms? He said "no, no, no." I said,"I'm not blaming you, but I needed it fixed ASAP. Five more days of waiting, after several weeks of no electricity, is too much to ask my tenants….” “Oh yeah!” says the electrician. “I opened the junction box in the living room. I bet that’s the problem. I’ll be over today.”


When to inspect and why

Posted by Rona Fischman July 26, 2010 02:24 PM

Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team (our Monday guy) looks at the timing of a home inspection.

Most buyers order professional home inspections of properties that they are considering. Inspections can include structural, mechanical, radon, lead, water quality, air quality, mold, well, and septic system or cesspool inspections. Inspections are limited to whatever the buyer and seller agree to in the offer.

I’m amazed at what good inspectors discover. Even in new homes, inspections typically reveal some items of concern.

If properly negotiated and written, the inspection clause should allow a buyer to negotiate for repairs or cancel a transaction (especially on an “as-is” purchase) if inspections are unsatisfactory and get the deposit back.

In some states, sellers have their homes inspected before they go on the market. Often, they’ll do repairs and provide a copy of the inspection and repair receipts to the buyer(s). The mindset seems to be that things will move along smoother with no unpleasant surprises or re-negotiation after the offer has been signed.


No good deed goes unpunished, II

Posted by Rona Fischman July 15, 2010 02:04 PM

Have you noticed that no good deed goes unpunished when it comes to home repair? I changed some doorknobs this weekend because I had to feel accomplished about maintaining my house.

Here’s what drove me to it:
I intended to insulate my walls this year, since the rebates are great until December. I had the energy audit. The National Grid guy found an old disconnected knob from knob and tube wiring. I know there is no knob and tube, but the electrician came last week and found brittle old wiring that he thought was unsafe to insulate around.

Yeah, he’s right. I can’t insulate until I bring the wiring into the 21st century. It is infinitely easier to rewire before I insulate. So, that $2000 I was about to save on insulation just turned into a high 5-digit (correction: I meant to say 4-digit) electrical upgrade. There goes my repair budget for 2010… Anyone who owns a house has had an experience like this. What’s yours?


New lead paint removal rules

Posted by Rona Fischman July 14, 2010 02:30 PM

Attorney Richard D. Vetstein. is here today with a legal look at lead paint removal.

Under the new federal Lead Paint Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule (RRP), most home improvement projects on homes build before 1978 will require certified lead paint removal contractors to follow strict lead paint removal precautions. To comply with the new regulation, those working on older sites will need to invest in lead-testing kits, plastic sheeting, respirators, protective clothing and other lead-safety materials.

These rules will really impact Massachusetts because its housing stock is much older than other states’. According to a recent Boston Globe article, home improvement costs will no doubt rise due to the new rules.

The threshold for the new rules is whether the home improvement project will disturb more than 6 interior square feet of paint or 20 exterior square feet of paint. This extremely low threshold will cover virtually any home improvement project involving cutting into any wall or ceiling.


During the deluge

Posted by Rona Fischman July 13, 2010 01:52 PM

How much does the infrastructure around your house go into your thinking about buying a house? Do you look at the topography to consider how vulnerable your property may be to flood? Are you concerned about buying into a future flood zone? Will flood insurance be available?

I was showing property during the freaky flash flooding in Somerville and Cambridge last Saturday. It was both exhilarating and terrifying to be in the middle of it. The rain had just started when my client and I went into a property on the Watertown/Cambridge line. The home was nice, but the basement was leaking after about 15 minutes of rain.
We had a gap in the schedule, so we went over to Sofra for a bite to eat and a conversation. While there, the sheets of rain pelted the big glass window and we watched cars splashing through 3 or 4 inches of water. We decided to leave early for the next stop, since it would be slow going.


Don't like the neighbors? Put up a good fence

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 6, 2010 10:30 AM

It may seem like a hostile act, basically fencing out a particularly irksome neighbor.

But it does not have to be that way. In fact, a good fence may simply be in everyone's best interests.

My wife Karen and I certainly agonized over whether to put up a six-and-half-foot fence to screen out one neighbor whose lifestyle is a bit different than ours.


Sam writes about home improvement

Posted by Rona Fischman June 14, 2010 02:00 PM

Today, Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team shares his thoughts about home improvements and how much value they really add to a property.

Strategic home improvements, planned and well executed, can add value to a home or condo. Many home improvement salespeople would have you believe that you’re likely to get back the cost of the improvements. That may or may not be true. Based on my experience as an appraiser and broker, I think that the return on the improvement at resale really depends on a combination of factors and the market when the property is sold.

There are “improvements” that enhance an individual owner’s lifestyle. Homeowners that build a first-class climate controlled wine cellar in their basement (that can cost over five figures) are unlikely to recoup their cost. A swimming pool is another example of an improvement that adds liitle value and can even create resale challenges in New England.

There are home improvements that are required to upgrade a property. These days most buyers prefer hardwood floors over wall-to-wall carpeting. Pink, gold and green bathroom tiles don't have much market appeal these days no matter how pristine the condition of the tiles. Energy-efficient windows and heating systems are big pluses that enhance the marketability of a property but are unlikely to recoup their full cost.


What you don’t see can hurt you

Posted by Rona Fischman June 11, 2010 01:42 PM

Home inspectors inspect what they can see. They also check function, which sometimes is felt and smelled. For the most part, the inspectors I work with find problems that involve water penetration and leaks, structural weakness which causes sagging, old-style wiring (knob and tube), and insufficient ventilation and insulation and general aging. There are a myriad of problems that inspectors won’t notice that can use up a Sunday afternoon. One of my clients wrote me about one of them:

T.B. wrote:

We're very happy with the house, and gradually getting around to taking care of things. Recently the loose carpeting on the stairs has been getting dangerous, and a few half-hearted tacks didn't help for long. On further investigation of the worst step, I realized the little plywood strip of with 45 degree nails on the step that should have been stopping the carpet sliding forward was installed backwards, facing forward instead of back, so wasn't doing anything at all. Today we pulled the carpet up, and found every single one was backwards. The best bit is, they have little arrows on them showing which way they go. I can see getting one or two backwards out of carelessness, but getting them all wrong would take a special sort of thoughtlessness.

Love trees, but really don't want one flattening my house

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis June 7, 2010 09:59 AM

Just recovering from several hours without power. Yesterday’s flurry of lightning and wind storms downed trees across the western suburbs, taking down power lines and creating a big mess.

I am definitely a modern wimp – my grandmother grew up on a farm in northern Vermont with no electricity during much of her childhood. Anyway, my four-year-old daughter was perplexed when the lights went out – my explanation that it was just like “olden times’’ simply deepened her confusion.

Anyway, I would say I lean towards being a tree lover – one great thing about our Natick fixer-upper has been a nice, shady lot. When it’s hot outside, it’s cool inside.

I really don’t want to lose that. Yet it takes only one good-sized tree crashing onto your roof to ruin your day. And that has me looking at some of the leafy green friends that tower over my house in a new light.


How's your marriage?

Posted by Rona Fischman June 1, 2010 01:45 PM

I get two kinds of clients: those who are terrified at the idea of a kitchen renovation and those who are excited by it. Most of the excited kind also have strong opinions about how to design a kitchen.

A while back, a contractor told my clients a startling “fact.” He said that homeowners who renovate their kitchen while living there have a 50 percent higher divorce rate than normal. I scoured the internet a couple of times trying to find documentation for the figure about kitchen remodelers. No dice. But, you know, it sounds true enough to be an urban myth.


Springtime and a young ant’s fancy turns to…

Posted by Rona Fischman May 21, 2010 01:56 PM

During reproductive season, ants and termites “swarm.” There is a short period of time during their short lives when they have wings to fly. They swarm, then a new queen goes house hunting for herself and her thousands of worker-children. Let's hope she doesn't pick your house.

An inspector told me that carpenter ants tend to swarm on a warm day. So, when the temperature goes up suddenly, a homeowner is more likely to see a swarm.

This spring, I have seen two swarms. Both were on exterior walls, once in a screened porch and once in a finished, heated porch. Because I had just seen it and had recently looked it up, I was right when I thought the second swarm was carpenter ants and not termites.


Freeloaders move in

Posted by Rona Fischman May 20, 2010 02:48 PM

During the spring, there is increased outdoor activity of the wildlife. Some animals are better at picking their real estate than others.

One Sunday, I was writing an Offer to Purchase with one of my clients on his front porch. A sparrow flew by and crawled under the deck of the second-floor open porch next door. Clever, I thought. The nest is under the decking. It’s well protected, yet ventilated. Sure beats a tree in terms of staying away from predators.

My neighbor has starlings in his exterior wall. How’d that happen? When my neighbor had insulation work done, they made holes under his shingles to blow in the insulation. The shingle in front of the hole cracked; the starling moved in. Also, better than a tree.


What happens at a “walk through”?

Posted by Rona Fischman May 11, 2010 02:17 PM

The walk through is the last thing that the buyer does before closing. The buyers, plus the agents, walk through the empty house to check that it is in the same condition as inspection day -- except that the seller has moved out. I advise clients to do it immediately before closing. This gives the seller the most time to move out properly.

What can go wrong?

Planning: Sellers often underestimate the time and energy required to get everything out of the house. Then, as the deadline arrives, they get sloppy. The result is that the seller leaves a mess behind. Commonly it’s something like a pile of debris left in the basement, or some piece of furniture falls down the stairs and makes a hole in the plaster.

Here are some unusual ones:


Sam asks….can you really buy a perfect home?

Posted by Rona Fischman May 10, 2010 01:55 PM

Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Teamlooks at what it would take to make a house perfect, and how so few really deserve that description.

Sometimes I wonder if there’s such a thing as the perfect home (or condo). Let me explain.

Whether buyers see a home online or in an ad, many get really excited when they see pictures of a home that appeals to them. They have to run out and see the property immediately because they figure that it’s probably too good to last long on the market.

When they get there, usually they find out that the home is not quite all they were expecting. Maybe the floor plan is awkward or the rooms are too small. Maybe it’s on a main street or backs up to a bar. There are lots of ways that homes might not measure up to expectations. If you’ve looked at homes for sale, you already know that.

Sometimes a buyer makes an offer on a property that looks perfect, only to learn that it needs a lot more work than he bargained for.

In the Greater Boston area, most homes are more than 15-20 years old. That means that even the best maintained homes are likely to have heating, air conditioning systems or roofs that are getting close to the end of their life spans. Kitchens and baths are likely to be at least somewhat “dated” in appearance. Since many of the homes in our area are over 50 years old, they are likely to show signs of water, termite and/or structural damage.


Water, water, everywhere. And not a drop to drink.

Posted by Rona Fischman May 7, 2010 01:52 PM

The water line break on Saturday reminded me that crises of neglect have happened before, in my time here at Back in 2007, I wrote about how a bridge collapse in Minnesota reminded me of an important lesson for home buyers about neglect and its cost.
David Westerling and Steve Poftak defined “the rule of 5s” this way in a 2007 Globe article:

Part of the reason early investments in maintenance are cost effective is the so-called "rule of fives." If maintenance is not performed, the ensuing repairs are likely to be about five times the cost of maintenance. If repairs are not completed, rehabilitation will be five times more expensive than repairs.

Now, think about that old house you’re considering buying…


New EPA guidelines about lead paint went into effect April 22

Posted by Rona Fischman April 29, 2010 02:17 PM

I wear a lot of hats in my personal and professional life, like most people. Therefore, I have to look at events from conflicting angles. Here’s a case in point:

As of April 22, 2010, EPA regulations go into effect requiring that contractors treat surfaces painted before 1978 as if they have lead paint, unless they are tested and shown safe. Lead-painted surfaces must be handled in a way that minimizes lead dust exposure for workers and the environment.

Hat #1: I have sat on the Somerville Lead Paint Task Force since the 1990s. There, I have learned about how lead paint can permanently harm children and adults. The adults who have neurological damage are mostly workers who regularly scrape or remove wood that is covered with lead paint, and members of their family who are exposed to their lead-paint-dusty clothes. (This is also true of workers who were exposed to asbestos and radioactive dust in unsafe ways.)


Sam asks: do good fences make good neighbors?

Posted by Rona Fischman April 19, 2010 02:25 PM

It's time to get out in the yard, maybe put up a fence. It's not always as easy as it ought to be. Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team tells you why.

There’s an old saying that “good fences make good neighbors”. Is that true?

At a recent seminar, the attorney/lecturer told stories about calls that he’s received from clients whose neighbors have put up fences and the disputes or bad will that followed. I found that interesting because when I’m brokering a transaction and there’s a fence on the property, buyers are normally happy about it. If it was there before the sellers bought the house, they usually don’t even know whether they or their neighbors own it. That also means that they don’t know the exact boundaries of their property, nor has it been a problem for them over the term of their ownership.

Something special seems to happen when a neighbor decides to erect a fence. Over the years I’ve also received calls from clients whose neighbors want to erect a fence. The big question is always “what if it’s on my land?” If the fence is already up and they think that it’s on their land, the question becomes “what do I do if I think that the fence is on my land?”


I came to bury granite, not to praise it

Posted by Rona Fischman April 16, 2010 02:04 PM

Last weekend, I worked with buyers who are real cooks. They want a cook’s stove and a great kitchen. And they said, “we don’t want to pay for a useless granite kitchen.” It reminded me of an entry I wrote a while back. In the estimation of some agents and some consumers, granite was getting trite, late in 2008. I wrote that I was pleased with the demise of granite. Well, reports of its death were premature. I’m a big girl and can admit when I’m wrong. A year and a half later, I am still seeing granite as the most common choice for a new kitchen. Is granite ever going out of style? Is it like hardwood floors or is it like stucco interior walls?

Here’s what I wrote about it October 27, 2008:

I am pleased to see the death of another house-furnishing fad. As of this summer, sales of granite are down. I have been waiting for this...granite is out! I have to admit, I have never liked granite, but for a while, my clients wanted it. Then about a year ago, I started to hear “granite, blah, blah...” or “I am so sick of granite and stainless steel.” I think granite has died a natural death, gone the way of harvest gold bathtubs, paneling and Navaho White paint.


Raindrops are falling on my head and other woes

Posted by Rona Fischman April 8, 2010 01:56 PM

Twice in the past few weeks, the area has experienced an unusually high water table that has led to a lot of wet basements. The heavy rain has led to a lot of wet everything.

Leaking windows were a problem in the first storm. Because the wind was blowing the rain sideways, the rain found its way into two of my client’s homes. Both needed window repair, then wall repair and repainting.

Frequently a roof leak is really a flashing failure near the chimney or plumbing vent. Then again, an old roof starts leaking sometime and this was a good time to start.

Water gets into basement through a variety of paths: up through the floor, down through the window, straight through the foundation, down through a pipe that used to connect the downspout to the sewer line which was disconnected and not capped, up from the drains under the slab.


Sam in the basement

Posted by Rona Fischman April 5, 2010 01:55 PM

Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team doesn't take the horror-movie advice "don't go in the basement!"

Believing that a basement will stay dry is like believing in the Easter bunny.

Most Greater Boston homes are old. Their basements weren’t designed to keep water out in the first place. Many were built with mortar free stone foundations and dirt floors that absorbed water seepage. Yesteryear’s basements were drafty. They breathed and dried naturally; a far cry from today’s tight homes that need mechanical ventilation and dehumidification to remain healthy and comfortable.

Keeping water out year after year requires consistently paying attention to a building’s exterior systems. Since the average owner doesn’t do that, they are just one clogged gutter, disconnected downspout or mole hole away from getting basement water, even if they’ve had a dry basement in the past.


Bailing out the cellars

Posted by Rona Fischman March 16, 2010 02:31 PM

In the spring and the fall, we get a spate of wet weather, here in metro Boston. Since the snow melt a couple of weeks ago, I have been seeing wet basements. Every year or two I hear about the “extraordinary conditions” which led to the wet basement I am standing in.

Sometimes, I see seepage (that’s when the concrete is damp to the touch because there is enough water pressure to have water forcing its way through the concrete.) I’ve seen little waterfalls coming through foundation cracks and gaps between stones. And I’ve seen puddles.


I bought a home, not an investment product

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis February 26, 2010 08:39 AM

I like my Natick fixer-upper, defects and all.

And, no, I don't regret the $200,000 or so my wife Karen and I put into it either.

As stated above, I bought a home, not an investment product.

And with all things real estate, the only judgment on success or failure that really matters in the end rests with the one who is paying the mortgage.

Sorry if I am testy - I may sound that way - but I'm not. But some of the comments on my post earlier this week - "For Greater Boston buyers, renovation mindset needed" - got me thinking on how we now value homes and real estate.

REALmaven, as always, challenged me with a thought provoking comment.

"Scott - I think you should step back and take a broader look and honestly evaluate your project. I think that your saga would be a classic what not to do, and should be used by others to avoid getting over their heads."

Really? Well why should I?


Some houses stink

Posted by Rona Fischman February 25, 2010 02:15 PM

We’re in the smelly time of the year. In the heat of the summer and the most closed-in part of the winter, houses smell. Sellers, don't think that using perfumed candles, or sprays, or baking cookies helps. You only add a new smell to the mix. It is sort of like using deodorant when you haven't showered since last week.
We are now at the end of the winter. These are the common smells my buyers and I wrinkle our noses at: houses where a family member smokes, has dogs, has cats (and their litter boxes), where people let laundry collect, where people don’t take the trash out often enough.

Buyers, learn the difference between smells that are part of the house and those that are part of the family. Most family smells leave with the family. Family smells include: dirty laundry, dog beds, cat boxes, "science projects" in the refrigerator, smoking, diaper pails, trash bins...
House smells include: damp basements, leaking waste pipes, leaking oil tanks or fittings, mold, mildew, urine outside of toilet or cat box...these are much harder to remove.

As we learned last week, smoking smells in condos can come from another unit, so can foul cooking smells and other family smells listed above. If you are buying a condo, whiff around the halls a couple of times before you buy. Some hallways get very stale, musty, moldy or smoky during the smelly times of the year.


For Greater Boston buyers, renovation mindset need

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis February 24, 2010 07:44 AM

Recessions come and go, but one thing is not about to change about the Boston area's housing market - the lack of decent inventory.

I'll skip banging the drum for more new construction. Sure, if prices recover at some point, more people will put their homes on the market.

In fact, the number of homes for sale soared during the bubble years - and so did prices. After years of little new single-family construction within the I-495 beltway and beyond, there simply wasn't enough to pick from.

Anyway, it's a problem that appears to be intensifying again, albeit thanks to the wave of artificial demand created by the tax credit.

The fact is, unless you are loaded, you may face the prospect of stretching to pay more than you really should to buy a half decent home, or buy a fixer-upper with potential.

Faced with those two choices, my wife Karen and I picked the handyman route back in 2002, just as the real estate price insanity was kicking in. And while I am still OK with the path we took, I am here to tell you it's a lot trickier than you think.

On the plus side, we figured - correctly - that we could handle ourselves many of the cosmetic improvements that were sparking inane bidding wars over cramped Capes with fresh coats of paint.

But in retrospect, when we bought our Natick fixer-upper, we also really sorely lacked a strategic plan for our then evolving real estate needs.


Oil heat? Natural gas heat?

Posted by Rona Fischman February 11, 2010 01:42 PM

I got a call from one of my clients asking my opinion about the marketability of a condo in regard to its heating system. This client owns a condo with an oil-fired steam boiler which is on a fast-path to the boiler cemetery. She has natural gas in the house; should she do a quickie conversion to natural gas? The short answer is that she doesn’t have enough time for a conversion, because the natural gas company can’t respond before she finds herself with no heat at all. Conversion -- with whatever special give-away the natural gas company is offering -- requires extra steps and extra time.
Also this week, I received an email about new legislation regarding oil-heated houses that becomes effective this July. The legislation requires two important things:
1. Homeowners must install either an oil safety valve or an oil supply line with protective sleeve on systems that do not currently have these devices; and
2. Insurance companies must write homeowner policies to offer coverage for leaks from heating systems that use oil.

I’ve been seeing these protective sleeves for years now, and they do seem to work. I have also seen and smelled lots of basements with leaky oil lines. Kitty litter under leaky fitting just doesn't solve the problem!The homeowner cost to do the upgrade is small compared to the potential clean up. The new law makes homes insurable for spills. I see this as a good thing. Does this overcome your objections to oil heating?


I wish I grew up in this house

Posted by Rona Fischman January 26, 2010 01:46 PM

I have mixed feelings about a “happy” house. In some ways, it is good for buyers to see one or two. But it is easy for buyers to get swept up by one and make a big mistake.

First, I’ll define it: A “happy” house is one that affects a would-be buyer personally. The buyer walks in and thinks, “if I lived here, I would be happy.”

Now, an example: In a period a couple of weeks I saw two houses of the same construction period both in need of renovation.


No return to home renovation madness

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis January 25, 2010 07:00 AM

OK, maybe Harvard is right in calling a bottom to the battered home renovation market.

In case you missed it, the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies contends home renovation spending will finally bottom out this quarter after a brutal, years-long decline.

That's a news flash. After all, it does not seem like it could get any worse.

But the center's predictions of a modest rebound in home renovation spending later this year seems increasingly like wishful thinking.

And you can be positively sure we won't be seeing a return to the home renovation frenzy that marked the bubble years.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that much of this spending was based on homeowners cashing in on inflated home values in a bid to transform average homes into mini showcases.

The obsession with the perfect home seems more and more like a cultural point in time that has come and gone.


How an “aughties” house works

Posted by Rona Fischman January 7, 2010 02:24 PM

I’ve seen thousands of homes in “the aughties,” so I notice what has changed since January 1, 2000. There are some things that are new; some things were available in the 90’s, but became common in the new millennium. There are some old, outdated things that are (finally!) being removed from homes.

I postulated in June 2008 that there was a “tipping point” where something new becomes expected (like double paned windows) and something old becomes unacceptable, like knob and tube wiring. (Last month, we discussed knob and tube wiring. It was pandemic and insurable in the 1990’s. Now, it is being removed, house by house, as a requirement of homeowner’s insurance companies.)

The most obvious functional changes involve energy consumption. Energy features, like storm doors and attic and floor insulation, are common now; they have come to be expected. In the next decade, I expect wall insulation and programmable thermostats to be added to that list.


Renovations, new additions, don't come cheap around here

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis December 29, 2009 09:00 AM

Sticker shock comes in many forms in the high-cost Boston area.

Homes cost a small fortune around here, even after a years-long decline in prices. General all around living is expensive, from groceries to gas to electric bills.

And you can definitely put the cost of renovations and new additions to this list of Boston area budget busters.

A couple comments by readers grappling with the cost of a big renovation or home construction project got me thinking on the subject again.

I am no pro at this, but my wife Karen and I just completed a year-long addition and renovation of our Natick fixer-upper. While manageable, it certainly cost more than we initially planned on paying.

If you are planning a significant addition or renovation, better be prepared to shell out a couple hundred grand, at least.


A knobby repair topic

Posted by Rona Fischman December 18, 2009 02:41 PM

Given the discussion that popped up on yesterday's entry, I moved this entry to today. Knob and Tube wiring is a problem for home buyers. (I will get to insurance problems in condos another day.) Here's my take on old wiring:

I had the same problem two transactions in a row: the seller installed a new circuit breaker box in preparation for sale. Both sellers had advertised an updated electrical system. But, both had their new boxes connected to old knob and tube wiring. One seller immediately gave my client a price reduction to offset the cost of removal; the other got indignant that she “took excellent care of this home” and threatened to go to cancel the transaction. In the end, both of my clients bought a home with a price reduction to offset removal of the knob and tube.


New smoke detector regulations

Posted by Rona Fischman December 16, 2009 02:15 PM

If you are the kind of cook who remembers that you have toast toasting when the fire alarm goes off, then this entry is for you. Attorney Richard D. Vetstein.explains the changes to the smoke detector law effective in January.

Whenever a home is sold in Massachusetts, the smoke detector law requires that the local fire department issue a certification that the smoke detectors are working properly and are in the correct location. Effective January 1, new smoke detector regulations go into effect. The new regulations require that certain properties be equipped with the latest photoelectric smoke detectors which are not as prone to false alarms as older ionization based detectors.

Currently, there are two primary detection methods used in modern smoke detectors:
photoelectric and ionization. Ionization detectors are often faster to alert than photoelectric detectors. But they are prone to false alarms such as when steam from a shower or other source interrupts the current. Photoelectric detectors emit a beam of light. They are less sensitive to false alarms from steam or cooking fumes but can take longer than ionization detectors to alert.


Why home inspectors don’t give estimates.

Posted by Rona Fischman December 15, 2009 02:18 PM

One of the things that frustrate my clients about home inspections is when the inspector tells them that he can’t give an estimate for the repairs. The reason he (or she) can’t is that the licensing laws in relation to inspectors forbids giving estimates. Here’s the line from the law:

266CMR 6.06: (6) [prohibited from] Determining the cost of repairs of any item noted in their Report and/or inspected by them and/or their firm.

Why is that rule there? Does it make sense to have it?

There’s an inspector in British Columbia who wishes Canada didn’t allow estimates. He was fined $192,000 for grossly underestimating a problem.


Doing a good job

Posted by Rona Fischman December 1, 2009 02:25 PM

Recently, I wrote about homeowners who were at the mercy of contractors when they needed home repairs. Since most homeowners don’t know what fixes are good for the long haul, many projects get done wrong and need to be redone, or redone with additional cost for damage caused by the repair.

This kind of mistake is a loss for any homeowner. But what happens when repairs go wrong for low and moderate income homeowners? If that owner is in Cambridge, he or she can call Homeowner’s Rehab. Their Home Improvement Program (HIP) provides below-market-rate loan and/or assistance in submitting a loan application to a local bank for financing and can, in some cases provide a deferred payment rehab loan.


Beating up the house

Posted by Rona Fischman November 20, 2009 02:08 PM

This is not the first time, and I regret to say, it will not be not the last… I just saw a house that was in foreclosure. We went upstairs first. The walls, and windows and fittings were all modern and pretty good. It was a nice, but not fancy, apartment. The back door had been opened with a crowbar. There were personal items left behind, sort of sprawled around the floor. There were a couple of pieces of furniture, too.

It looked like a police raid had taken place in the apartment. I was feeling pity for the people who were evicted. There were children’s things left behind along with adult clothes and books. I created a story in my head about how they were tenants who were up-to-date on their rent and losing their home because the landlord defaulted on his mortgage.


Selling by the “list it and hope” method

Posted by Rona Fischman November 19, 2009 01:50 PM

Friday was a lousy day for me. It ended with the flooded house I'll tell you about someday. It started with yet another house that is on the market, but not really.

This one is not a foreclosure or a short sale. It is merely a house where the absentee landlord is sick of being a landlord. It’s fully occupied. The agent gave me the lockbox code and confirmed the showing. She told me to knock on the doors. She didn’t call the tenants.

My client and I met some lovely tenants. They were polite and the apartments were clean. They spoke only Spanish. They didn’t laugh at my accent, but then again, I am not sure they understood what I was saying, either.


Insulation nation

Posted by Rona Fischman November 13, 2009 02:17 PM

What is that stuff in the attic floor bays?

If you are lucky enough to have insulation in the floor bays of your attic, what is it made of?
If you are really lucky, you could have cellulose – stuff made of old newspapers. Cellulose insulation looks like dirty cottony paper-pulp. You are also lucky if you have fiberglass (that pink cotton-candy-looking stuff.) These, fortunately, are the most likely things you will see in your attic floor, besides dust.

You might find one of the older insulating materials, UFFI. If you see it in an attic floor, it looks like gray Styrofoam. UFFI (Urea formaldehyde foam insulation ) does a great job of insulating. But, when it was put in houses in the 1970s, it was found to out-gas enough formaldehyde to make people sick. It was outlawed in the 1980s. That was long-enough ago that the offending gas has dissipated. So, if you had UFFI in your house in 1985, you were pretty unhappy; now, it is a good thing.


No good deed goes unpunished.

Posted by Rona Fischman November 6, 2009 02:38 PM

One of my clients and I were talking about his house. He’s owned it for almost a decade and has done some improvements over that time. He’s really annoyed. One of his improvements has done much more harm than good.

Here’s what happened: My client hired a firm to increase the insulation in the attic and to also install baffles for ventilation. The insulation job led to mold growth in his attic. Now he needs to get a mold clean-up.

The task: Roof shingles last longer if there is good ventilation in the attic. It’s a good thing that most old houses don’t have. Heating costs and fuel waste are kept down by good insulation of the attic. It’s also a good thing that old houses don’t have. These two good-house-care items are at war with one another. If too much insulation is installed, it can shift over and block the ventilation. Then, the damp air from the house (caused by people breathing out, showers, and cooking) condenses in the cool surfaces in the attic. Without ventilation, the dampness can’t get out. This provides a happy environment for mold.


Lead paint in the laundry room

Posted by Rona Fischman November 5, 2009 02:34 PM

One of the differences between print media and on-line media is that topics I raise live on -- through the joy of search engines -- long beyond when we here at have forgotten about them. Here’s a questions that came to me long, long after the June, 2008 entry. JZ asked about the specifics of the lead paint law when it comes to condos associations:

1+ year later, if anyone can confirm the specific laws one more time, I'd appreciate it. I have searched on the Internet and haven't found anything more specific.

This is specific to Massachusetts. Does the law state that the condo association/condo trust is responsible and will pay for all common area deleading that is required, including both interior common areas and exterior of the building, if currently only one unit has a child under 6 years of age? The interior of the condo unit with the child would of course be the responsibility of that condo unit's owner. The question is for the rest of the building which is all occupied by owners of the condo units (Condo Trustees).

This one is easy. Very easy! If you want to know anything about lead paint, contact Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. You can write them or call them, 800-532-9571.


Green living or extreme living?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis October 26, 2009 10:32 AM

With a chill in the autumn air, the Globe’s story on a Roxbury couple who believe they have designed the ultimate in green homes is an eye catcher, to say the least.

I had to read it twice to make sure I wasn’t missing some hidden catch, such a furnace in the cellar all ready to be fired up should Simon Hare and his wife, Damiana relent in their determination to get through a New England winter without heat.

I hadn’t. Rather, Hare and family are confident that their super insulated, energy efficient, paragon of green building design will do the trick.

After attempting to salvage a cottage from the 1850s, the Hares instead built their own, 750 square foot home at the same site, but one with the latest in green insulation.

Instead of a furnace in the basement, the Hares are counting on, among other things, super crazy insulation, and, incredibly, their own body heat.

It should be one interesting experiment, to say the least.


Looking inside with James Morrison

Posted by Rona Fischman October 8, 2009 03:04 PM

Today, Jim shares a couple of his tips for looking around inside your house:

The use of electrical extension cord feeds and electrical receptacle adapters is the cause of many fires. If you see a lot of these in the house, then you’ll know that you’ll need to hire a licensed electrician to install new electrical receptacles and fixtures as needed.

It sounds funny, but I also look for price tags, particularly on the electrical and plumbing components. This is almost always a sign that a homeowner did the work instead of a qualified, licensed professional. If you see price tags and the work appears sloppy, you should check to see if a building permit was obtained.

Look at the insulation on the heating system and pipes or ducts. If it is white and looks similar to a plastered cast, it could contain asbestos. To know for certain, it must be sampled and tested in a laboratory (though some manufacturers boldly brag of the asbestos content on the label if you can find one). If it does contain asbestos, any friable asbestos pipe insulation should removed or encapsulated by a Massachusetts-certified professional, which will be expensive.

If the house has central air conditioning, you should ask the current owners of the property how old the system components are. The average life span of the outdoor condenser unit it typically 15-20 years and the average life span of the interior air handler is typically 30 years or so.

Shine a flashlight inside the heating or cooling ducts and look around. Chances are, the interior will be coated with dirt. You should strongly consider having the interior of the air ducts and the air handler professionally cleaned before moving into the house, especially someone in your family has allergies. For more information about indoor air quality, visit this web site

Inside the house, turn every light switch on and off to make sure they work. You should also try to open and close every window, checking for broken glass, broken sash cords, fogged double paned glass, and loose windows. Operate every faucet, run the shower and tub and flush all toilets looking for leaks at the appliance. When you have operated every plumbing fixture in the house, go back down into the basement and check for leaks.

You should also be looking for water stains on the walls and ceiling which indicate a past or current leak. Notice the pattern of the cracking in the walls and ceilings. It’s hard to find a house with no cracks at all, and cracks are not necessarily a sign of a structural problem. However, certain patterns can tip you off to a settlement problem that will require further investigation.


In home renovations, extravagance is out, practicality in

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis October 8, 2009 09:00 AM

Goodbye monster three-car garages, au pair suites, media/home theater centers and kids’ wings. Not to mention “pet rooms’’ and dual master bedrooms.

And, especially in the case of the oversized garages – and I guess kids’ suites and pet rooms, though still not sure what those are – goodbye and good riddance.

At least until the next housing boom/bubble hits.

Anyway, these intriguing trends come from the American Institute of Architects Home Design Trends from the second quarter.

And as the focus fades on upscale amenities, there’s also rising interest in more practical home renovations, finds the survey of 500 architects across the country.

For one, home offices are now the most popular special function room, according to 40 percent of the architects surveyed.


Inspection: looking at the exterior

Posted by Rona Fischman October 1, 2009 02:48 PM

In the course of doing my real estate business, I have worked with lots of different home inspectors. Today, I introduce James Morrison. His father, Allan Morrison was also a home inspector, so Jim comes by it honestly... Morrison’s slogan is “Each house tells a story. We write 'em down.”

Today, Jim writes on home exteriors:

A home inspector’s job is to diagnose and document major problems in houses. Most of the time, the people who live in these houses are unaware that the problems exist, making our job more difficult. It’s analogous to a physician trying to diagnose an illness in a patient who has no complaints. You have to look closely to pick up on the symptoms and exercise judgment based on your experience in order to figure each puzzle out. It’s even harder for the average person to recognize signs of trouble. Whether you are looking to purchase a new house or you’re just trying to maintain the house you live in, here are some things you can look for to flesh out potential problems that are not always apparent.

Here’s three tips I picked up during my first year in the house I lived in two houses ago: 1) That long circular driveway that I thought would be great when we have parties seemed twice as big when it came time to shovel! 2) For every minute I spent in the nice weather playing fetch with my black lab in that enormous back yard, I spent an hour marching behind a lawnmower, and who do you think is going to do all that raking? 3) Apple trees add a lot to the landscape, picking apples up off the ground before mowing the lawn each week does not. Keep all seasons in mind when looking at the yard.

Most of the time you won’t be able to see the roofing material up close, but you should ask the owners if they know how old it is. Most homes in our area have asphalt shingles on their roofs which can be expected to last a total of about 20 years. If you are able to see the shingles up close, check the south and west facing exposures because they wear out sooner due to increased exposure to the sun. Some signs that a roof may need to be replaced include: loss of shingle grit in the spaces between the tabs, curling, cracking, and missing shingles.


That lovely shakedown cruise time in a new/renovated home

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis October 1, 2009 09:35 AM

This spring, our builder completed months of renovations, complete with a new addition, to our Natick fixer-upper.

But that does not mean we haven’t been busy over the past few months.

There’s a get acquainted period when you move into any house, including new construction, when you start to discover its quirks and those things that need to be fine tuned.

Kind of like a shakedown cruise for a new ship.

And while we did not do a tear down, in some ways it’s been like moving into a newly built home, with all that implies.

We basically added a new, modern half to the back of our hundred-or-so-year-old house, with a new kitchen and family room downstairs, and a second bathroom, two bedrooms and an office upstairs.

The old half got a thorough upgrade as well, with new electrical system replacing 1920s-era wiring and fancy new, code-approved fire alarms.

The good news is the big things work just fine, with no leaks, faulty floors or other horror stories.

Our builder knows what he’s doing. But that does not mean there haven’t been some kinks to work out, either.


Commercial buildings going green

Posted by Rona Fischman September 11, 2009 03:36 PM

Since the discussion about appraisal last week turned into a discussion of the value of “green,” here are a few tidbits about green commercial buildings to chew on:

The Fireman’s Fund made a statement this week saying that for commercial buildings, being not green will be a liability in the future. They offer a 5 percent reduction in insurance for green buildings.

Green buildings can boost real estate owners’ bottom line by protecting and building net operating income, attracting and retaining quality tenants and improving the environment. Simply put, green buildings create a triple net effect, benefitting [sic] the owners’ bottom line, its tenants and the environment,” said David Cohen, senior director of real estate, Commercial Insurance at Fireman’s Fund.

The Fireman’s Fund states these risks for non-green buildings:


Honoring the house that was

Posted by Rona Fischman September 4, 2009 02:30 PM

Yesterday, I wrote about my clients who bought land, torn down a house and put up a modular. They thought long and hard about how to honor the family that lived there before them. Not only did my clients choose a home that fit into the neighborhood, but they also chose one that looks a good bit like the original house with an addition. The main part of the outside of the new house still resonates with the family home it replaced. (This inside works a lot differently, thus the need for the modular house.) They also communicated with the family about their progress. Surprisingly, the seller (a younger relative who did not grow up there) came to see the new house setting. She seems reconciled, according to my client.

It has been a difficult process for the members of the extended family who had memories in that house. The couple who lived in this house was at the center of a large, extended family. One neighbor-relative said he will always remember the matriarch of the family sitting on the front porch. He said something like this: “She’s gone. Now the house is gone. Leaving the house there won’t bring her back.” Another neighbor, who wasn’t a relative, remembers both of the owners. “They were really nice people. Both of them.”


Waiting for the other house to drop

Posted by Rona Fischman September 3, 2009 02:19 PM

This spring, my office had two client-households close on homes that they planned to tear down and replace. Both went modular. I wrote about the first one, when it landed in July. The second one just landed.

This house is twice as big as the one that landed at the end of July.
Because of its size, I learned something new about modular design: thirteen feet is the magic number for room width. A room can be as long as you want it, but width beyond thirteen feet takes a little extra work. My client’s master bedroom is more than thirteen feet wide. Part of it was in one box and part of it is in the other. Their family room was too wide, too, so it had to have a police escort from New Hampshire for highway safety.

The land these clients wanted had a house on it. The house was much loved by an extended family. It was outdated, but still very serviceable as a nice family home. It had a new bathroom, lots of nice woodwork and wood floors, some good light fixtures, sinks, and appliances. This created an ethical dilemma for my clients: How to mitigate the waste of good house materials.


Mending wall

Posted by Rona Fischman August 26, 2009 03:51 PM

Most people expect wood to decay, they assume stone will last forever. Stone buildings are subject to the same detrimental effects of weather and other environmental factors that can damage wood and other siding materials. Shorter, more exposed, stone boundary walls need regular maintenance. I learned that from Robert Frost, when I was in school. Remember Mending Wall?

Stephen Roberts , from Housemaster Home Inspections, explained it to me less poetically:

Water is almost always the source of the problem. Moderate exposure to rainwater is inevitable and, to some extent, beneficial as it helps clean exterior surfaces. But damage occurs with cycles of heavy saturation and drying. These cycles may be caused by seasonal weather factors, leaking gutters, ineffective cornices, blocked drains or clinging vegetation.

The most common causes of stone deterioration include:



Posted by Rona Fischman August 7, 2009 02:25 PM

Recently, I showed a house that had a very odd pattern of damage. There were water marks that were not coming from the roof, or the bathrooms, or the kitchens. We found the source of the water in the attic. There were signs of a fire there; the water was from the fire hoses. A Google search yielded the date of the fire (a couple of years back) and the number of the fire report at the town fire department. The fire department had more information.

My client lost interest at that point. The house has some fire repair, but there was still tons of work to do. The project was over his head.
Had he been interested, the next step would have been to purchase a CLUE report. This Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange report covers the last five years of insurance claims on a property. This is a handy tool, but it doesn’t go back long enough to help with most of the fire and flood damage that I have seen in my career.

Older fire records are not so easy to find. Many towns file their fire reports by date. So if you do not know the date of the fire, you are out of luck.


New York vs. Boston

Posted by Rona Fischman August 6, 2009 03:00 PM

In honor of the Red Sox playing them this week, The Red Sox are in New York, so let's enjoy a little local real estate. Today, I share with you another reason why Boston is better than New York.

In New York, interior decoration shows love of their transit system. It's New York, so of course, it's over-the-top.

I really love the Red line. I use it quite a lot for someone with a car-centered job. I always stop to look at the tiles in Davis Square or the gloves in Porter. But I wouldn’t design my house to match it. Would you?


The house has landed

Posted by Rona Fischman July 31, 2009 03:00 PM

A year ago, I had clients who got fed up with bad designs in expensive new construction. Instead, they set out to find land to put a modular home on. When they looked at what modular homes had to offer, they were pleasantly surprised. Since then, two of my clients have chosen the modular route to a new home. Both, as it turns out, ended up with the same builder.

A lot of my old opinions were replaced by moderate curiosity and later a favorable opinion. Today, I am a true fan. Last Thursday, I attended my first “house setting.” It was really fun. My clients were there, cameras in hand. Neighbors came to watch. A week before, the land was a pile of dirt! Now a new house has joined the neighborhood.

The house came down on two trucks from New Hampshire. A crane put the first half on the foundation. (I’ve never seen a half a house swing around on a crane before; it looked like a doll house because the cabinets and plate rail were already installed.) Then they nailed plastic on the marriage wall of the second half and swung it into place. A little ratcheting to tighten them together and voila! The house is set. The roof was flat for transport, but it folded up to a peak. By early afternoon, both halves were set and connected. The roof was up. By the middle of the afternoon, the house was ready for our rainy summer.


An attorney thinks about construction

Posted by Rona Fischman July 23, 2009 03:01 PM

Richard Vetstein is a real estate attorney in Framingham. In a recent blog entry, he wrote about a topic near and dear to my heart (and Scott’s heart, too): home repair and construction.

Since Richard is an attorney and thinks like an attorney, he has an attorney’s take on how to handle contractors. He writes:

Sign A Written Construction Contract In Compliance With Massachusetts Home Improvement Law (General Laws Chapter 142A)

The Massachusetts Home Improvement Law provides the bare minimum of what is required to be in home improvement contracts over $1,000, but most contracts supplied by the contractor are non-compliant and terribly one-sided.

Here’s what you need in your home improvement contract:
1. The home improvement contract must be written, dated, and signed by both parties…
2. The home improvement contract must provide the start date of the work and the date of “substantial completion.”
3. The home improvement contract must provide a detailed description of the work and materials involved. I suggest incorporating that detailed estimate provided by the contractor… (You can attach it as an exhibit or addendum to the end of the contract).
4. The contract must detail the scope of work, being as specific as possible. I cannot emphasize this enough. Itemize the exact type of materials involved (Andersen windows, California paint, Italian ceramic tile, etc.), and work to be performed (full kitchen remodel with installation of new flooring, appliances, etc.). If you are not specific in the contract, and there’s a problem later, your claim will be severely weakened, if not dead on arrival.
5. The contract must provide the total contract amount and the timing of progress payments…


The challenge of taming a backyard jungle

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis July 21, 2009 09:00 AM

It’s amazing how much damage years of simply neglect can do to a house.

That is what my wife Karen and I found out when we bought our Natick fixer-upper back in 2002.

The seller, a retired railway worker, didn’t hold big beer bashes or keep a houseful of mangy cats. Yet there is little evidence much got repaired or replaced during the 30 years he lived at the cut but rundown little village colonial on Marion Street.

The toilet in our new home’s single bathroom was in danger of plunging into the basement, the lights dimmed when you turned on the toaster, and the patterns were hard to make out on the wallpaper beneath the nicotine stains.

Those days, though, are happily history now, with a local builder having just finished putting a new addition on the back and renovating the older half.

Yet as bad as the house was, the real surprise how much work it has been to tame our jungle of a yard.


Keeping up with the Van Voorhises

Posted by Rona Fischman July 10, 2009 02:53 PM

There are two kinds of homeowners: the ones who buy fixer-uppers and the ones who create them. Then again, there are people who fixer--up the same house more than once. Reading about Scott and his Natick home inspires me to give some advice based on my annual “what does the house need now?” project.

When we bought our two-family fixer-upper, there was a long list generated by our home inspector. Some of the projects at the top of the “to do” list were cosmetic, some were not. Some things that we expected to fail soldiered on, some did not.

Tip #1: Review your inspection report annually. Add in some of those recommendations as you do other improvements.

In the last few years, our home improvements have been about insulation, ventilation and temperature control. This year, we tackled my home office. (Am I being too competitive, Scott?) My home office is in an extension built in the 1960s. This year we added insulation in the floor, resided the walls and insulated around the (good, but poorly installed) windows.


An ounce of prevention

Posted by Rona Fischman July 9, 2009 03:08 PM

Following up on what Steve sent me yesterday, this is the worst of the silly little things that lead to fairly serious damage to homes.

The worst case of a tiny neglect that led to big damage was in a house I didn’t see myself. New clients of mine reported this. An elderly gentleman lived alone in this house for many years. My clients described this: “The old fellow must have missed the toilet every day for years. It smelled of urine and there was a ring of rot around the bottom.” My clients may have been right about the ring of rot and the smell, but they were wrong about the gentleman’s aim.

The cause of this problem is a loose toilet. Over the years, the two screws that hold the toilet to the floor will loosen up. Then, every flush allows a couple of drops of toilet water to leak through the wax seal inside the toilet. Drip, drip. Many years later, rot around the toilet and a urine smell.

Simple problem. Simple solution…But wait! There is also a simple catastrophe if the rush in to fix this. Tighten those toilet screws slowly. Maybe a quarter turn at a time, then go to the other side. Toilets are surprisingly easy to crack. So, a little bit…switch sides…a little more until it is snug.


Give the do-it-yourselfer the day off

Posted by Rona Fischman July 8, 2009 02:30 PM

Stephen Roberts reports his impressions of DIY gone haywire. Steve says:

Every Dad loves to tinker around the home, after all, his home is his castle. I can attest, some tinkering can lead to more costly repairs in the long run.
The handiwork of many do-it-yourself dads has created some of the most interesting discoveries for home inspectors hired to root out structural flaws and other defects in homes. Many homeowners get in over their heads with home improvement projects. Many mistakes start with well-intentioned homeowners who put too much emphasis on home improvement rather than home maintenance The current trend in home improvement often stems from the desire to add value to a home. However, a home’s value begins at its core with a healthy structure. Adding a new kitchen or bathroom to a home that has foundation or moisture issues is not necessarily the best investment. While modern amenities are attractive to potential homebuyers, cutting through a major floor joist to update a home’s plumbing may be the quick and easy way, but it can create more negatives than positives. Amateur power tool users often get into trouble by cutting before thinking. Many do-it-yourselfers have cut or nailed through old pipes in a wall during a home improvement project, leading to water damage and major repair issues. Even outdoor projects run the risk of breaking through a gas or water line. Collateral damage caused by such mishaps often show up on a home inspection report once the house is up for sale. And the next buyer seldom wants to inherit a fix-it list spawned from do-it-yourself projects gone wrong. So many houses look great on the surface, but the home inspection business has grown from the need to look past the surface and uncover less noticeable defects. Savvy homeowners are getting annual home maintenance inspections to stay up-to-date with maintenance requirements and keep ahead of major repair expenses. Smart homebuyers always get a professional home inspection before purchasing a home. FULL ENTRY

Getting the home office right

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis June 30, 2009 09:00 AM

I’m still getting used to the feel of my new and improved Natick fixer-upper.

We moved into the new addition back in early May and while the furniture is in and the carpet is down, there is still a lot to be done to make it homey.

One of the nice surprises, though, has been the home office.

It’s the smallest room in the house and the one that I probably gave the least thought to beforehand.

Of course it is also where I now spend the most hours in any given day.


Do my trees have to die so my yard can live?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis June 25, 2009 09:00 AM

That roughly what my newly hired landscaper has told me, in so many words.

First, let’s bring things up to date. My wife Karen and I recently wrapped up work on a two-story addition to our Natick fixer-upper.

OK, so my house looks great, but the yard is a war zone, a sprawling mud patch torn up by tired tracks and littered with unearthed rocks and old bottles from old trash heaps.

Anyway, we’ve hired Joe, a local guy with a landscaping business on the side, to whip our yard into shape.

After taking a look around, Joe came to the conclusion that was both unsettling and logical: If we want a lawn instead of a mud patch, most of the trees that ring our yard will need to go.

While his assessment makes sense, I have mixed feelings.


My next home improvement project - landscaping

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis June 18, 2009 09:00 AM

There’s one simple truth about buying a fixer-upper – the home improvement fun just never ends.

That’s what my wife Karen and I are finding out now we have completed a renovation and two-story addition to hundred-year-old village colonial near Natick Center.

We just converted the construction loan we took out last fall into a permanent, 30-year mortgage, even managing to snag a low, 4.6 percent rate. Our debt load is now $412,000, a combination of the old mortgage and the $152,000 we financed for the project.

The low rates were a pleasant surprise – not a development I envisioned when we closed on our construction loan two weeks before the bottom fell out of the stock market last September.

I was questioning my sanity back then.

Anyway, the closing of the loan – and the completion of our addition - warranted lunch out and five minutes of celebrating.

When we bought out fixer-upper back in 2002, it was a glorified camp-ground shelter. The dingy, nicotine stained wallpaper dated to the 50s, the single toilet was in danger of falling into the basement, and the electrical system was so crude that all the lights in the house dimmed when I put the toaster on.

So now we have functional house. But the yard, or what’s left of it, is one big rock-strewn, ugly mess of a mud patch.


The hat for most homes: asphalt shingles

Posted by Rona Fischman June 4, 2009 03:20 PM

Inspectors tell me to look at the individual rectangle of the roof shingle. If the edge is clear and discrete to the eye, then the shingle is newer. The fuzzier the line, the older the roof. This rule of thumb seems to work. Now, let’s hear from someone who can tell you more. Inspector Steve Roberts joins us again. Today, he is starting at the top.

Asphalt shingles are the most commonly used type of roof covering for pitched roofs on homes. The overlapping design of the installed shingles provides a double layer of protection as the water flows down the roof slope to the roof edge. Asphalt shingles, also known as composition shingles, are so widely used because of their moderate cost, light weight (compared to many other roofing products), durability, and ease of installation. Asphalt shingles are surfaced on the top side with mineral granules to provide protection from the elements and a level of fire resistance.

Asphalt shingles are available in a variety of colors, weights and patterns. Regular weight asphalt shingles generally have an economic life span of 16-20 years; heavyweight shingles are sold as 30-50 year shingles. Exposure to the sun will tend to shorten the lifespan.

The installation of an asphalt roof involves more than just the roofing itself. A water-resistant saturated felt underlayment is typically rolled out over the sheathing before the shingles are applied. In New England, a special rubberized membrane is installed along the eave to provide extra protection from ice dams and water backup. Eave or gable edge flashing is also used.


The incredible, shrinking home renovation project

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis June 4, 2009 10:30 AM

Small, cosmetic changes are in when it comes to home renovations, and big is definitely out.

That’s the take from a couple of new surveys on home remodeling trends that find while the sector is certainly down, it’s not entirely out either.


Eyes into the world

Posted by Rona Fischman May 28, 2009 03:25 PM

When I ask a prospect what they want in a home, the answers vary regarding the number of rooms, bathrooms, the yard size and such. But, they almost always say “I want a lot of light.” In order to get a bright house, you need big windows.
Bad windows are a problem that is expensive to solve. It is literally a pain in the neck to have a window that doesn’t close or open easily. It is a waste of energy to have a drafty window. Controversy abounds about replacement windows. Many think that vinyl is the answer; others say the wood frame is the way to go. Choose carefully.
Inspector Steve Roberts joins us again. Today, he describes windows found in New England.

Windows are like the eyes to the outdoors, they allow us to see what is happening outside, and at the same time they provide safety and protection from the elements. There are many different window types, and in New England the ages of these window units can vary from new to several hundred years old.

As an inspector, we come across all makes and models of window units. Some are top of the line and others just barely shelter you. With this in mind, I’d like to describe the different types of windows.

Aside from storm windows and screen windows, there are six basic styles found in residential construction. The different styles are:


From a wet basement to a dry one

Posted by Rona Fischman May 20, 2009 02:57 PM

Stephen Roberts is a home inspector with more than ten years experience. Write me if you have questions for the inspector. He agreed to take a crack at answering questions here for home buyers and owners.
Today, Steve of HouseMaster Home Inspections describes what you need to do to turn a wet basement into a dry one.

Here's Steve:

What I tell all my clients is "a basement is nothing but a hole in the ground. Water (as we all know from science class) seeks its lowest level. Therefore, every basement has the potential to develop water issues." It doesn't matter if the home is 200 years old, or brand new, water is its enemy.

Several years ago we had a very wet spring (remember the Mother's Day rain?) The Boston area received an unusual amount of rain, and there was a tremendous amount of basements that were flooded. The phones at basement water proofing companies were ringing off the hook. It was certainly a good time to be working in that business.

Most of my clients understand that there is a level of risk in purchasing a home, and if they plan on finishing the basement, it's advisable to install a basement water proofing system. These systems are designed to move any ground water away from the living area and to pump it to the outside. A properly designed and installed system should be able to handle any ground water issue and keep the living space dry.


How should a landlord prepare for spring?

Posted by Rona Fischman April 22, 2009 03:24 PM

I have been holding Wednesdays to talk about landlord-tenant issues. Is my audience still there? What do you want talk about or learn about? Let me know.

Today’s topic: normal seasonal maintenance. What needs to be done and who does it?

My tenants had to wait until mid-April before we got to clear the front yard. (We keep it covered in mulch over the winter. It looks normal in the winter, but begins to look shabby when the flowers come up.) Our poor spring bulb plants struggled through it and so did the tenants. We take care of all the common space at our rental. Is that what your landlord does?


Don’t flush that!

Posted by Rona Fischman April 15, 2009 03:30 PM

The crux of the issue between landlords and their tenants is defining normal wear and tear, normal maintenance, and improvement. Today, let’s talk about plumbing. Should landlords expect tenants to flush only the most flushable things? Should tenants be responsible for clogs they make through normal usage? What about hair clogs in the tub? Food clogs in the disposer or dishwasher?

PC asked the un-PC question that plagues many a landlord:

… how do you tactfully tell women they can't flush tampons/pads down the toilet?

I found the answer to that one pretty easy. We have a clause in our lease about care of the plumbing. It includes a statement that nothing may be flushed down the toilet except human waste and toilet paper. No tissues, face-wipes, “flushable” cleaning and hygiene items.


Our color quagmire

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis April 14, 2009 09:00 AM

My wife Karen and I are finally wrapping up work on a two-story addition to our Natick fixer-upper.

We’ve been pretty darn lucky. No major budget overruns and everything just about wrapped up a year after we began serious planning.

But, ironically, one of the toughest things we have faced is picking out the colors for the new half of our old house – two new bedrooms, an office, a new kitchen, a second bathroom and a small family room.

We painted the office and first bedroom on our own, picking, without much problem, light green and a deep blue respectively.

Then help arrived, in the form of a friend who runs his own painting shop. He’s providing the labor to finish up the remaining rooms - all we have to do is pick out the colors.
What could be easier, right?

Wrong. We picked an reddish orange for what will be our master bedroom, but settling on a color for our new kitchen/family room has been entertaining, to say the least.

We thought we had settled on a color, a light shade of purple. Once it got on the wall, it looked like a day-glow shade of lavender you might find on an old set of Miami Vice.

Just call it our color quagmire.


The Town Building Inspector Is Your Friend

Posted by Rona Fischman April 13, 2009 02:21 PM

Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home team continues his weekly series:

Last week, I discussed renovating my first single family with my fiancé. Like many renovators, we did most work without permits except the kitchen installation, which we understated on the permit to save a few dollars on fees.

I was still a real estate dummy and thought that permits were a formality that allowed the city to track improvements and increase my taxes based on those improvements. Now, after 25 years of brokerage and appraisal experience, I have a very different perspective:

Over the years I’ve seen numerous sales either that cost sellers money or fell apart due to lack of permits. More than a few wood stoves were removed due to hazardous installations. Countless decks have separated from buildings because they were attached with nails instead of bolts. Water damage is common when flashing is not used properly. (In one case, the entire corner of a building, including porches and walls suffered extensive structural damage because flashing was poorly installed.)

Another seller had to cut two feet off a deck before the town inspector would sign off on the permit so they could sell. The worst situations occur when bedrooms are added without adequate emergency exits and there is a fire later or when improperly installed heating systems leak deadly exhaust fumes into living spaces.


Sam's money pit

Posted by Rona Fischman April 6, 2009 02:45 PM

Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home team continues his weekly series:
Last week, I explained how my fiancé and I bought a single family after our three family purchase fell apart: a decision based heavily on emotion. We were desperate for a home and liked the idea of renovating and living in an “affordable” single family. We bought an ugly duckling that had nothing but upside potential. It was 1984; we were young, naïve and had “vision”.

There were no home inspectors yet, so we hired a pest inspector. The rest was up to us. The house obviously needed a kitchen, bath and “heavy cosmetics”. Every interior inch needed serious help.

During the hot, humid “dog days” of summer, the smell of cigarettes and the seller’s filthy dog would haunt us, hastening our desire to get the walls and floors refinished faster to seal out odors. Over the next few years, we methodically finished one room at a time when we weren’t working to earn money to put back into the house.


Some very angry architects

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis April 3, 2009 09:00 AM

Little me, I had no idea the hornets’ nest I was stirring up with my recent post on architects.

To be more exact, “Some good reasons to ditch the architect,’’ laid out my reasons for not hiring an architect before pushing ahead with a two-story addition to my Natick fixer-upper.

The response was quite interesting, to say the least. I had more than one architect write to accuse me of either harboring some secret hatred or grudge against the profession, or of trying to stick it to the field and rob honest practitioners of work during the worst downturn since the Depression.

“It sounds to me like you got burned once, are blaming the architect and have decided to extend that blame to every member of the profession...”

Wow. I guess no one read my opening line, “Don’t get me wrong, I love architects.’’

And I do, really. I stand by my story. But while I may have hit a nerve, let me explain my reasoning for skipping the architect.


Some good reasons to ditch the architect

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 23, 2009 09:00 AM

Don’t get me wrong, I love architects.

Having reported on commercial real estate for years for one newspaper or another, one of the really fun parts of the job has been following what various marquee architects dream up for the Hub’s skyline.

But when it came time to put on a two-story addition to our Natick fixer-upper, my wife Karen and I decided to skip the architect and have our very capable builder/contractor do the design work.

It was not a decision that was without controversy for us. My wife from time to time wondered whether it would have been better to start off with hiring an architect to do the plans. She likes order and following directions, and to her, it seemed like we skipped a few chapters and dove straight into the book.


My contribution to economic recovery

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 16, 2009 10:06 AM

Some days I feel like I am running a one-man stimulus program for the Natick area.

My wife Karen and I closed a construction loan on a two-story addition to my Natick fixer-upper just two weeks before the stock market implosion back in mid-September.

Now we are about a week away from being able to move into part of it – though there’s still a lot of pesky painting to do.

As the new addition to the back of our house has steadily taken shape, the economy has gone from bad to worse. And it’s become pretty clear that for some of the tradesmen and women working on various parts of our home renovation/expansion, this is one of their top sources of income right now.

That brings me back to the painting. A scruffy fellow with a bulldog tucked under his arm appeared at my front door one day last week. Living on a side street a few blocks away, he had noticed all the work on our house and wanted to see if we needed any help.


Looking for home renovation payback? Good luck

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 4, 2009 09:00 AM

OK, so I must be smoking something. I mean my wife Karen and I are in the final stages of putting a two-story addition onto the back of our Natick fixer-upper and we have yet to consult Remodeling Magazine’s latest “cost versus value’’ report.

Maybe if we had, we wouldn’t have gone ahead with all our big plans. After all, we would have found out we’ll only get 80 percent back of what we spent if we sell someday, though that’s a bit better than the relatively paltry 76.2 percent such additions recouped for their owners back in 2007.

Go figure. The endless debate over how much bang for a buck you can get with common renovations and additions is certainly fun, but I am not sure how useful it is.


Sam's first renovation, 1981

Posted by Rona Fischman February 23, 2009 03:11 PM

I welcome back Sam Schneiderman. Sam is a colleague and native Bostonian who will share his experiences and lessons learned during his journey from first-time buyer to home owner, renovator, landlord/investor and successful broker. He is president & principal broker of Greater Boston Home Team. And now, Sam's story, part 2:

When we concluded last week it was 1981 and I had just closed on my first condo in Cleveland Circle, a well-worn student ghetto with weekly apartment break-ins. I bought an unrenovated 1929 studio with the original bath and kitchen that featured oversized orange, green and white flowers on the kitchen wallpaper. Every inch of the place needed serious help!
Sure that I had just made a huge mistake; I started removing layers of wallpaper. My vision of converting that dark studio into a bright open plan kitchen/living area with a breakfast bar, double bed sleeping alcove (stolen from part of the kitchen) and foyer/dressing area with a 7’ closet began to invigorate me.

With six weeks of free rent in another apartment before starting to pay rent PLUS mortgage payments, I was focused on sticking to my five-week rehab plan. When the developer learned that I was removing five feet of wall, he made me hire a structural engineer that took a week to write a one-page report before I could proceed. Kitchen cabinets arrived late, installers rescheduled and flooring finishers never showed up.


Lessons learned on the home renovation front

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis February 23, 2009 09:00 AM

I talk a lot about my Natick fixer-upper.

It’s become a pretty big part of my life since my wife Karen and I decided to build a major addition nearly a year ago.

With three small children and a cramped and creaky old house, it was either build on or move. And, as anyone can figure out, moving in this market is just not much of an option.

Now, as that anniversary approaches, I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The two-story addition on the back of my roughly 100-year-old colonial is roofed and insulated, the wiring and plumbing is mostly complete, and there is a coat of plaster on the walls.

I can walk over into the new addition on the second floor now, with the empty rooms providing some great winter time running around space for my three children, all five and under.

One of the first lessons, though, is my work is just beginning as my builder wraps things up.


Good news for those who don't shovel snow

Posted by Rona Fischman February 9, 2009 02:37 PM

If you walk passed Liz’s house, watch your step!
For those who don’t know Liz, she is the poster-child for people who don’t shovel their walks. Followers of Liz can use fear of litigation as a reason to make things harder for their neighbors.

According to some legislators, as the law stands now, if you don’t shovel your walk, you are not liable if someone walks through the snow and falls. If you shovel your walk, you are liable if someone slips on a spot that has refrozen. A bill to change this was not signed by its deadline by our governor. Some of you wrote in to say that the legislators misunderstand the current law. Well, apparently, the governor agrees with you.

We’ve talked this one to death. This was just an update.

Now for the broker angle on the snowy winter:

Because we have not had a long enough thaw to melt the snow-cover, I am hearing more debate about what is “normal maintenance” in regard to snow shoveling. A seller is responsible to continue normal maintenance of their home until closing. Lawyers can get more specific, but the gist is that if something breaks, fix it; water and mow the grass so it doesn’t die. Does it mean shovel the snow?


Going online for a contractor

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis February 9, 2009 09:24 AM

Is there a market for an eBay for homeowners looking to hire contractors?

That is what entrepreneur Andres Torrubia is looking to find out with his newly launched FIXR, which allows homeowners to field bids from contractors for all manner of home improvement and renovation projects.

The on-line site recently launched in the Boston area, with Torrubia and his Spain-based team hoping to roll out the concept across the U.S.

So far, about 500 contractors have used the site, with some jobs getting 10 to 15 bids. The biggest project bid on so far has been a new garage in Littleton.

It’s certainly an interesting concept. One of the biggest obvious advantages, of course, is the ability, in theory anyway, to get a range of bids on work you plan to do around the house.


Sick of sky-high home prices? Go prefab

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis February 2, 2009 09:00 AM

My wife and I spent $280,000 to buy our Natick fixer-upper back in 2002.

It was our first home and at the time it seemed like a pretty steep price to pay to enter the world of homeownership.

It still does.

We’ve spent the last seven years fixing it up and are just about finished with a major addition, one that will add a couple bedrooms, a second bathroom and a small family room.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always loved older homes and I love ours, a simply built, early-1900s village colonial.

But what if we could have spent just $100,000 to buy our first home? Maybe not the old home I would have liked, but a sleek and stylish modern home?


Going wild with green renovating

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis January 21, 2009 09:00 AM

If I had an extra hundred grand to spend on my house, you won’t catch me blowing it all on insulation.

I mean that sounds pretty extreme to me, but then again I’m not on the green bandwagon yet. I’m barely recycling, to tell you the truth.

But not so to Arlington homeowner Alex Cheimets. He’s shelled out $100,000 to encase his two-family condo building with four inches of foam board insulation. Plus another six inches on the roof.


Outfoxed by a squirrel

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis January 19, 2009 09:00 AM

My house is no longer my own. At least that is how I have been feeling lately after a posse of much too friendly neighborhood squirrels have become squatters in my attic.

When I last let loose on the ongoing saga of my hapless efforts to wrest back control of my attic, months of frustration over the midnight antics of these furry nocturnal visitors had boiled over.

Trying to wish the problem away hadn’t worked. So finally I broke down, rented a trap, and set it up under the eaves with a wad of peanut butter on a piece of bread as the bait. No dice. When I checked in the morning the bait was gone alright, but there was no sign of a squirrel.

While disappointed, I was still not worried. After all, my wife and I are renovating and adding onto our Natick handyman’s special, a project that includes all new siding. And soon after the trap fiasco, the final strips of white siding were hammered into place, seemingly covering up any small squirrel holes leading into our warm attic.


Johnny gets his hammer

Posted by Rona Fischman January 15, 2009 03:00 PM

Remember John Dough? You met him on November 6. He bought a bank-owned property with the intention of finishing the renovation and selling it for profit. You heard about his private financing on November 18th. Now, John has a loan, he has a deed, he has a budget. He's picking up his hammer and getting to work.Here’s John in his own words:

Getting to Closing in One Piece: It’s been awhile since I last commented on our progress so here is an update. After we secured our financing we had about three weeks until closing. It was pretty uneventful. Title was clear, taxes were owed, and the water/sewer bill had to be paid. The bank owning the unit agreed to pay the taxes, but would only pay a 1/3 of the water/sewer. So we had to pay the balance, which wasn’t much ($400 or so) and we also had to insure the property which meant that we’d be paying for the share of the other condos in the building that were bank owned. That cost was about $1200 for a half year master insurance policy. We plan to recoup 2/3 of that cost when the banks try to sell their units. With all that going on, we closed about a week later than expected but we weren’t subject to the usual fees that banks invoke when you don’t close on time. We now owned the condo.


Help! My attic is a wildlife sanctuary

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis January 13, 2009 09:00 AM

We’ve spent years fixing up our 100-year-old fixer upper in Natick.

My wife and I are halfway through a major addition that includes some significant upgrades to the older half of my house, including new windows and siding.

But the toughest problem to date hasn’t been the bank or my builder, who is awesome, but rather a posse of unruly squirrels that set up camp nightly in my warm attic.

If they were to just squeeze in through whatever hole they’ve found for a little shut-eye, I guess that would be one thing. But being squirrels, they like to scamper, wrestle and run about at all hours of the night.

It sounds like a gym meet is taking place over my head, all at 3 a.m.


Home improvement, then refi

Posted by Rona Fischman January 12, 2009 03:11 PM

N. sent me an email about her improvement plans:

Hi … I am going to be doing a renovation on my current home located in…. It’s a… I am adding 680 sft. which includes a family room downstairs off the kitchen… a deck and a master bedrooom upstairs with master bath and kids bath. As well as a new 1/2 bath downstairs. I checked to see what we are appraised at currently____.

I am trying to get an estimate of the new value , so I can re-finance when its done as we currently have a adjustable mortgage. With the zillow estimate is estimates our house at $___ per sft, although we bought at the height of the market 6yrs ago. Is this a reasonable sft price to use to calculate the new value?

What about the new bathrooms(one is new not included in the original ___sft) how are these calculated. In addition I plan to install a new kitchen.

.. we cannot get a loan to do the project, because of the credit crunch so I have to pay cash. … so I am trying to see if my projected numbers are about right, to see if I can re-finance once w e have the equity and take some can out to finish the kitchen. I am the general contractor on the job…I can do the whole project for $100,000, so I would double my investment. Are my estimates correct for the new value?


What a time to be building

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis January 2, 2009 09:00 AM

I’ve got a couple condo developments under construction a few blocks from my house in Natick.

One sits near the train station, overlooking the police station and its picturesque parking lot on one side, the tracks to Boston on the other.

Condos were listed there recently for nearly $600,000. Most, so far, are unsold.

The other project features townhouse-style units in the $400,000-$500,000 range grafted onto one those castle-like, former National Guard armories built in the early 1900s. Work is still going on there.

Have I missed something, or aren’t we in the middle of one of the worst real estate markets since the Great Depression? New home starts have hit their lowest point in sixty years.

Not to single out anyone, though. There are a trio of new luxury towers well underway in downtown Boston. Sales have slowed for some of these developers as well.


The joy of a crackling fire

Posted by Rona Fischman December 23, 2008 03:02 PM

Starting with the winter solstice, the days get longer from now until June. That’s not such a warming thought, since the winter is just beginning. So, what do you need? Light! Fire!

Today, let’s talk about fireplaces. Do the short days of the year make you yearn for a roaring fire? Do you have an opinion about which is better, wood-burning or gas?

For some of my buyers, fireplaces are a must. Some don’t care. Some don’t like them. Homeowners, did you want a fireplace? Did you get one? Do you use it?

If you are part of the fireplace-less majority, there are alternatives. In 1966, WPIX in New York began airing a film loop of a crackling fire, called The Yule Log. It was a hit in the New York metropolitan area.


Safe at home

Posted by Rona Fischman December 22, 2008 03:15 PM

Did you go home early on Friday? Or did you work from home? Not everyone can stay away from their job. For some, their jobs are more critical in bad weather. Staying home is just not an option.

In the spirit of the holiday season, I would like to commend all those who have jobs which took them onto the road during this spate of wet weather. You know who you are. You are the plow drivers, truckers, fire fighters, police, bus drivers, heating and plumbing contractors, medical workers, and, of course, public utility repair personnel.

Also out there were those who added to our convenience. These workers include taxi drivers, food delivery people (from meals-on-wheels to pizza,) those who staffed grocery stores and convenience stores. The mail came. So did the newspaper. The Patriots played at Foxborough.

Thank you all.


Christmas lights, bah, humbug

Posted by Rona Fischman December 19, 2008 03:22 PM

During the energy crisis, then President Jimmy Carter told Americans to cut down on their Christmas lighting. He thought that a simple candle in every window is a beautiful way to express the season. Not so wasteful. The argument that we are wasting a lot of electricity is back in recent years.

The environmentally friendly answer is that you can spend money on new LED nights. So can your town.

The word is that it will cost some to upgrade, but they will be worth it in the long run by lasting longer and saving on your bill. They are safer; they burn cool. You can recycle your old lights, too.

I think the stress around holiday lighting goes beyond that. Since September, we have been reeling from bad news after more bad news on the economic front. Energy prices are down; that’s the only good news. Does that make it OK to light up the streets for Christmas? People are concerned about losing their jobs, retirement funds have been flattened, and foreclosures are up. Is it insensitive to make merry with bright lights?
Or do you just dislike Christmas lights?


To deck or not to deck?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis December 18, 2008 09:00 AM

My builder wants to add a deck to the new addition he is grafting onto the back of my Natick fixer-upper.

But I didn’t bite. First, I have three small children and a tiny backyard, so it takes away from precious play space. Second, I had my own theory that decks were going the way of the backyard swimming pool. You know, cool once, now more likely to viewed as a giant, expensive pain that you will have to shell out big money to make go away.

But if you believe the 2008 Remodeling Cost vs. Value Report, spending money on a wood deck is one of the best home renovations that you can make. That and new siding and windows as well, according to the annual survey, a joint effort of Realtor magazine and trade publisher Hanley Wood LLC.


Hope you are safe and warm

Posted by Rona Fischman December 15, 2008 03:22 PM

The ice storm on Thursday night was the worst since 1990. I wish a quick recovery to everyone in the path of this storm.

Where I lived it poured, it was windy, but it didn’t all freeze until later. I drove on Thursday night. I drove on Friday morning. I had power and heat at home. This weekend I saw some damp basements, including my own. I saw sump pumps running, including my own. I saw sump pump run-off freezing on the sidewalks and streets, including my own. I got off lucky.

In my memory, black-outs, snow and flooding became an opportunity for neighbors to band together. City dwellers (and some suburbanites) have strength in numbers. When power is out or streets are impassible, neighbors find neighbors. As a child, blackouts meant ice cream binges. Barbeques were fired up to save the meat. Neighbors with gas stoves cooked other perishables, those with candles and extra blankets shared them, and the neighbors with camp heaters housed the little children overnight. During the flood after a hurricane, my father ran important errands in his truck. To the kids, disaster meant no school. It was a party. I think the grown-ups had a fairly good time, too.


It's a tradition in my house

Posted by Rona Fischman November 24, 2008 03:45 PM

If it hasn’t been done already, Thanksgiving weekend is the time when I get around to getting the house ready for winter. This year, it’s a little late, since we have already had a hard freeze.

When I was a kid, this was the weekend that the storm windows went up and the heavy curtains came out. My parent’s bed moved to the other wall (farther from the window) and the couch and chairs in the living room flipped position (I never knew why.) The hoses came in; the spigot got turned off. The bicycles were hung up and the junk got moved to the back of the garage to make room for the car. We all had to chip in for one last raking of the yard. It was tradition.


Gambling on a down market

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis November 21, 2008 06:00 AM

It feels lonely out here on the renovation frontier.

There’s a big hole where my ramshackle one-story kitchen once stood at the back of my creaky Natick fixer-upper.

My friendly neighborhood builder, after a little too gleefully tearing off the back end of my house, is now pouring a foundation for a badly needed new addition.

And I can’t stop thinking that I may be committing an act of financial madness.


At the foundation

Posted by Rona Fischman November 7, 2008 03:00 PM

One of the things that I dread during a home inspection is when an inspector suspects a foundation problem. In most cases, it is the end of the transaction. But that’s OK. It’s when the buyer still wants the house, that the fun begins! ...Sigh...

House 1. This one was a big, beautiful old thing with a foundation that was about two feet thick. It was made of rubble. It badly needed pointing. It had shifted again, and again, from the look of the multiple lines of re-pointing at the corners. The engineer was called. He said that the whole foundation had to be pointed by hand and could be damaged if done wrong.
Mason 1 said the pointing job would be some 5-figure amount, done by hand. Mason 2 would do it for something under $5000, but would power wash it first to get the majority of the loose stuff off (which was wrong, says the engineer.)
My buyers walked away. The sellers then had a <$5000 estimate to show to future buyer prospects.


Don't look under the stairs! A scary story.

Posted by Rona Fischman October 31, 2008 04:26 PM

Happy Halloween.
This is a scary story. Yesterday, I got a panicky phone call from one of my “happy homeowners.” He has owned since 2001. He has an emergency. He needs a carpenter immediately.

What are your carpentry emergencies? This is his:

He had a mason to the house to do some work to the front steps. The mason came, tore out the steps, and... (Do you know what he found? I did.)


Granite is out? What's in?

Posted by Rona Fischman October 27, 2008 03:08 PM

I am pleased to see the death of another house-furnishing fad. As of this summer, sales of granite are down. I have been waiting for this...granite is out! I have to admit, I have never liked granite, but for a while, my clients wanted it. Then about a year ago, I started to hear “granite, blah, blah...” or “I am so sick of granite and stainless steel.” I think granite has died a natural death, gone the way of harvest gold bathtubs, paneling and Navaho White paint.


Encore: The decline of two-family home ownership

Posted by Rona Fischman October 8, 2008 03:58 PM

This is an encore blog entry, first posted on August 10, 2007. Since then, I have had two more two-family buyers. The good choices for two-family homes have been few and far between. Both houses I have worked with were old, solid, but needed extensive updating.

I had buyers close on a two-family home last week. They had a long and hard search because there were so few nice options. I am glad to have them join the dwindling ranks of two-family homes owners.

The mass conversion of two-family homes into two-condo associations has reduced the supply. The steep increase in sale prices without a proportionate rental increase made the economic benefit of owning a two-family less appealing.


Autumn guests

Posted by Rona Fischman November 4, 2007 11:17 AM

Last night, about 11 P.M., my cats informed me that we had a guest. He was welcome by the cats, as a toy. He was unwelcome by me. My cats chased our guest around the house, on and off all night. He was smart enough to elude capture and find small places to safely hang out. At 8 A.M., I saw him run under the sofa bed in my office, cat close behind. I was not amused.

About boston real estate now
Scott Van Voorhis is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate and business issues.

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