Living with your house
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.FULL ENTRY
I'm a regular reader (and occasional commenter) of the Boston.com Real Estate Now blog, and I thought that you or your contacts might be best placed to answer a question that constantly comes up (in my own mind) when I'm looking at any kind of new or renovated condo development. Namely, why do the developers/stagers nearly always mount a flat-screen TV over the fireplace?
I used to live in DC, and in 2004-05, I looked at many, many condos in the District, including model units staged by developers building new buildings (or renovating older ones). In virtually every instance, if there was a fireplace, there was a flat-screen TV mounted on the wall above it. And now that I've moved to Boston and started looking around in preparation for an earnest house-hunt this coming spring, I see the same thing. And it just doesn't make sense to me, even though I briefly tried to do that with my TV in the last place I owned. When the TV was above the fireplace, I was scared to use the fireplace (which was gas) out of fear that heat would harm the TV. (And I would have been even more nervous if I was dealing with a wood-burning fireplace and I had to worry about smoke and ash.) But the biggest problem is that unless you have a really huge room, the viewing angle is horrible when the TV is so high. I took the TV off the mantel after just a few weeks because of the constant crick in my neck from looking up from my couch (which was a reasonable 10 feet away from the TV).
If the point of staging is to give potential buyers thoughts on how they could use the space, it seems self-defeating, since I've known only a couple of people who actually mounted their TVs like this. And while I know that I'm free to arrange the room any way I'd like, seeing that a stager has done this makes me feel like a very clever designer couldn't find a better place for the TV, which makes me think that my options will also be limited if I move in.
I'd love to hear your thoughts (or the thoughts of some of the pros you work with).
I understand parking a television over the fireplace in an older construction property where they did not build it to accommodate a large wall TV. It was a last resort to find the wall space. What are they thinking when they design a new construction living room where the only wall for a TV is above the mantel? I closed on a five year old condo last week where the TV and all the ugly jacks are right over the fireplace. There’s another huge wall in the room! My clients don’t seem to mind.
False burglar alarms are a huge problem for police departments. Home security systems are often set to contact the police. This is an emergency call that the police must respond to. However, the vast majority are false alarms. The report reads:
In the United States in 2002, police responded to approximately 36 million alarm activations, at an estimated annual cost of $1.8 billion. Most of these activations were burglar alarms … The vast majority of alarm calls—between 94 and 98 percent (higher in some jurisdictions)—are false. In other words, alarms’ reliability, which can be measured by these rates of false activations, is generally between 2 and 6 percent. Nationwide, false alarms account for somewhere between 10 and 25 percent of all calls to police.
Because owners of the alarms expect a police response, the police are on the hook to respond, even though most of the calls are not emergencies. When you were house hunting, did you consider an alarm a plus? When you bought, did you consider adding one?
Here’s what that same report says:
Studies from both the United States and the United Kingdom have shown burglar alarms to be among the most effective burglary-deterrence measures. However, a number of other measures that do not impose a substantial burden on police are also effective at preventing burglary. Occupancy, or signs of occupancy, is the biggest deterrent. In addition, closed-circuit television, window bars, barking dogs, nosy neighbors, and motion activated lights have also been shown to be effective. For the most part, burglars avoid alarmed premises because easier choices are usually available. Given the availability of non-alarmed premises and similarly unprotected targets (such as houses with open garage doors or windows), burglars may be deterred by the mere presence of an alarm company’s window sticker or yard sign. Do burglar alarms account for burglary declines in the United States? The U.S. burglary rate has declined steadily and substantially since the early 1980s. During the same time, the number of premises with alarms rose, but there is no evidence of a link between the two. During the 1990s through 2004, when alarm ownership experienced a steep rise, other types of crime declined just as sharply as burglary, suggesting that factors other than an increase in the number of alarm systems fueled the burglary decline.
Does this information encourage you to get an alarm system, or just make you appreciate your nosy neighbors and barking dogs because they protect your house from burglars?
As an aside, a while back, someone commented here that people use fake cameras. This is the kind of tactic as using an alarm company yard sign or sticker. My sense is that it deters amateurs (mostly young criminals) and not professional thieves. What do you think?
When I was writing at my desk at home one day, a car alarm went off a block or so away. From the sound of it, the car was on the next street, or maybe even the street beyond that. I started thinking about making a phone call about it. Then it stopped. The hesitation I felt, when I heard the alarm, is whether this is a 911 (emergency) call -- because a car is being stolen at this very moment -- or whether this is a 311 (non-emergency) call -- because I was hearing a nuisance alarm.
This summer, I had a long chat with a community policing officer about home security. She told me that using 911 for non-emergency calls will not only waste resources, it also will get a slower response, if it is not an emergency. The example she gave was calling the police about the creepy guy sitting in the car on a residential street. If you call 911, they will ask if he is doing anything threatening. (He’s not.) But, if you want to know if he has any business there, or if he is doing something not-legitimate, the place to call is 311 (or the police, non-emergency number.) The officer told me that most of the time, that person is working on a disability case or a divorce case and is hoping to catch a cheater.FULL ENTRY
I asked Missy Henriksen of the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) about how to prepare for autumn in regard to pest control.
The leaves will soon be turning, temperatures will be dropping and the smell of fall will be in the air. As people prepare for the weather ahead, so do a number of household pests, namely rodents, spiders, ants, stink bugs and cockroaches. These pests know the best way to survive the fall and winter is to find an overwintering spot where they will have access to food and water – unfortunately, all too often, these safe havens are our homes.FULL ENTRY
As pest entry points are usually small and sometimes difficult to detect (for example, mice can slip through an opening the size of a dime), homeowners should perform seasonal maintenance checks in and around their homes to minimize the chances of a fall and winter pest invasion.
Some may dismiss these pests as merely a nuisance, but it’s important to note that they can trigger allergies, spread disease and contaminate food. Not to mention that rodents inside a structure can create fire hazards due to their incessant gnawing of electrical wires.
Last week, I got an email because the comment feature was acting up. If you are having problems with comments, write me. I will forward your email to the tech folks.
Hi. I tried to leave a comment at the story, but seems to be a glitch there. But I just had to pass along a tip about getting rid of mice. As an animal lover, I simply could not stand the idea of a painful trap or poison. But I also knew I couldn't live with the many visitors that were coming in to the kitchen every night. (As an aside, I do not suggest asking the exterminator to set Have-a-Heart traps for mice; he thought I was nuts.) After a bit of research and trial and error, our house is mouse free. The answer is vinegar. Plain white vinegar puddles everywhere that they might step their little feet. I spread this all over the counters every night for several months (and around the stove where I think they were coming up from basement; also around the edges of the room). They showed up less and less over time. Finally disappeared. I haven't used the vinegar for several months now, and still no mice. The real test was when we went away for 2 weeks. I expected that they would have moved back in while we were gone. Nothing. I read that they perceive the vinegar as the markings of a predator. I have no idea if this is true or not. Just wanted to pass along.
Have-a-heart traps might work to trap a mouse without harming it, but then, what do you do with it? If you let it go outside, it will come back for dinner. If you drive it far away, what a waste of time! If you forget about the trap, the poor critter dies a slow death from dehydration. Do you use them humanely? If so, how?
In the entry “Little Furry Things” I mentioned that rats hate peppermint. Peppermint oil is used a rat-deterrent. Since then, I had first-hand confirmation that rats will avoid it.
Now, I learn that vinegar works as a mouse-deterrent.FULL ENTRY
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.FULL ENTRY
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.
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.
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.FULL ENTRY
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.FULL ENTRY
My general take on real estate around Boston is that there are many variations, but there at typical properties in each size/style range. There are many two-bedroom condos and three-bedroom houses. In some towns, four-bedroom houses are the norm. In some areas, everyone has two or more parking spaces. In some places, everyone has two garages. If you are looking to buy or rent something that is not unique, there are more choices.
But, how should you look at unique properties? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
Smaller than typical: There are fewer two-bedroom houses than three-bedroom houses. Two bedroom houses are unusual. They are also somewhat unpopular because anything less than three bedrooms is just too small for the typical house-buyer or renter. Unique, in this case, is a negative. The same negative holds true for one-bedroom condos outside of dense urban areas (where they are more common.) Scott published yesterday about the push for single-person housing. I am not keen on seeing those come up for sale, or resale.
The reason I bring this up is that I frequently get asked about whether is it a bad decision to buy a one-bedroom or studio condo or a two-bedroom house. The potential buyer thinks the space is enough for his or her lifestyle, but is concerned about resale.
Since demand is lower on houses with two bedrooms because people who want to be able to accommodate more than two people in the house prefer three bedrooms. People without children can use a house with two bedrooms, but having three is not a negative to them. Many people who buy houses want to have room for a hypothetical child or guest and still have an office/messy room. So, three-bedroom houses have a larger group of buyers. Buying a smaller house is cheaper, but the resale will also be lower.
My wife and I flew the American flag on our front porch for several years after we bought our Natick fixer-upper, a decade ago this summer.
The flag eventually had to be retired - a learning experience in and of itself given there is a specific protocol for respectfully retiring the stars and stripes.
My wife now puts bunting up around the Fourth - maybe someday we will get another flag.
I have great neighbors, but if someone was loopy enough to be offended by our modest, patriotic display, I could have simply told them to go pound sand.
But if I was retired living in an elderly apartment complex - or for that matter in many condo complexes - I could sadly find myself in big trouble if I displayed Old Glory without consulting some idiotic rules book.
Once you move into a senior apartment, you surrender your rights to free expression, as one irate World War II veteran in Wrentham just found out.
Several of my clients have jobs where they work one or more days at home. This creates a need for not only a pleasant place to park a desk, but also a good cell phone signal. It has become part of the checklist for buyers in the past couple of years. I don’t really want to get into which carriers are the best or the worst. I have found problems with every carrier one place or another within my real estate territory.
Dead zones are not necessarily just in remote areas. I used to work with a lawyer in Lexington center who reported that there was a dead zone there for a major carrier. He had to change his carrier, mid contract.
Did you check your cell signal before buying? If you didn’t, did you regret it? Where are the dead zones and with which carrier?FULL ENTRY
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.
As part of the “what else can go wrong” series, today I write about seller’s remorse.
Recently, I worked on a purchase where the seller delayed the Purchase and Sales Agreement for almost two weeks because, as her attorney put it, “this is emotional.” In the process of waiting for the seller to come to emotional terms regarding selling her big house and moving into something smaller, I thought a good bit about seller’s remorse. Because I only work on the buyer’s side, I don’t get to see seller’s remorse up-close and personally. I only see it second-hand. There are many reasons for seller’s remorse. It is occasionally financial, but the really bad cases seem to be mostly personal.
What is remorse and why does it happen? When someone makes a big sale -- whether it is selling a house, selling a car, or giving away favorite clothes that are past their prime – there can be a moment or two or three that one regrets losing the object. When the object is a family home (a house where a family lived for a long time), selling the house means losing the site of the family memories.
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.FULL ENTRY
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.
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 www.PestWorld.org.
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.FULL ENTRY
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 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.
When I was a child, we’d say “Good night, don’t let the bedbugs bite!” as if it was a joke. The Rolling Stones published “Shattered” in 1978; they say that in Manhattan there are rats on the West side and bedbugs uptown. But bedbug infestation is not a joke. I have a client who had, what he calls, “the world’s smallest bedbug infestation.” The exterminator found three of them. The house was treated. My client still wakes up stressed every time he feels a little itchy.
The problem is getting worse over the past few years. 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.
A bedbug infestation will force you to throw away every piece of cloth furniture in your house. Bedbugs have been tested and found to carry drug-resistant Staph infections, possibly MRSA. So, they could be a more serious public health problem than originally thought.FULL ENTRY
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.FULL ENTRY
Part I: Building the home music studio that won’t drive your neighbors crazy
My entry from Monday about my clients with pianos and drums brought me this email from M.R., a long-time reader:
I'm a landlord in Somerville (I have two 2-family houses), I'm a long-time reader of the Globe RE blog, and finally, I'm a basement drummer. I've spent a few weekends' worth of time sound-proofing the basement drum room in order to keep the sound from travelling to the 2nd & 3rd FL unit (we live on 1st-FL unit). I feel that windows are easily treated (which you mention in yr piece), but doors & walls are harder to treat, but are the larger problem. Especially if uninsulated, drywall or plaster walls w/ studs in between resonate like a snare drum itself & pass the sound very readily. Studio solutions to this are to double the drywall on a given wall (w/ butt-joints offset from on another), and to use "resilient channel" to hang the drywall (imagine a spring-clip to hold the drywall, rather than screwing it to the studs/joists). For doors, solid-core doors w/ weather-stripping compressable-foam around the jam is a good solution. Dense-packed cellulouse (as subsidized by Mass Save!) is a decent solution to deaden hollow cavities between drywall/plaster, where cheaper & easier-to-install fiberglass-batts can't be used (like in an attic or existing wall).
I spent small money (~$150) to drywall & insulate my basement room. There's much more that could be done for another $150 & a weekend's worth of work which would make drums on the 1st floor lightly audible, and completely inaudible on the 2nd/3rd FL. If a contractor was involved, I'd estimate a $2000 bill for double-drywalled-&-spackled 10x10 room w/ solid core door & fiberglass insulation. Attic? Due to difficult-to-drywall surfaces & spaces which take lots of blown cellulose... $8000.
Is there any other studio-building advice that you’d like to share?FULL ENTRY
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.
I frequently talk to young parents who are daunted by their inability to get into the real estate market. Even with dropping prices and low interest rates, the prospect of saving for a down payment and paying our still-inflated prices seems impossible. It shouldn’t be this way, they say, we are earning a lot of money, but it just doesn’t go far enough. They have a professional income, or two, but they feel far from rich.
Whether you are a renter or an owner, the greater Boston area is a very hard place to live, economically. Housing has a big part in that. What does it say about an area, when $91,600 is our area median household income (AMI)? What does it mean for people who are starting out? For those that are looking toward retirement? For those that find themselves unemployed or under-employed? What does it mean to you, in dollars and cents?
Crittenton’s Women’s Union has developed a tool to calculate what income a family needs to make ends meet. Around here, the Economic Independence level is rather high, compared with many places in the country. Try it.FULL ENTRY
Monday is Saint Joseph’s Day. He was the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus. He became patron saint of families and children, and by extension, the home. When you see him in paintings and statues, he is often with the baby Jesus or has lilies or carpenter tools in his hands.
Today, I am not here to give you a Catholic iconography lesson. I am here to talk about the intersection of personal property and style and house selling.
Recently a house buyer (not a client) told me that the sellers of the house were Jewish. I asked if she had looked them up in the public record. She said, “No, there was Jewish stuff all over the house!” (This buyer is Jewish.)
In the 1990s, I was in a house (in Somerville) that had a living room with life-sized icons of Mother Mary, Jesus, and Joseph. It wasn’t Christmas. They seemed to be there all the time. My client was freaked out by it; I merely found it curious.
No matter what your religious affiliation is or isn’t, some people will have strong reactions to religiously-oriented decorating. So, my question is:
Should a seller take down their religiously-oriented decorating before selling?
I have been sniffling for almost two weeks. Clients and friends have been reporting a “cold from Heck” making its way through offices, day care centers, schools and other public places in the area. When I am sick at home, I realize that my house is a great house to be sick in. How's yours?
When house hunters look at a place, the first thing that they’ll tend to notice is room dimensions and number or they’ll react to light or lack of light. This is probably a healthy way to get a first impression. The next level in inquiry has to do with function. It is on the function level that I think most mistakes are made.
Most of my clients can easily rule out a place based on room dimensions or room number that does not fit their criteria. With good listing sheets, they do it without stepping foot in the place. When the listing sheet “fudges” the numbers, my clients have to show up to rule it out.
Matters of light need to be seen to be appreciated or disliked.
Mistakes are made when a house hunter see cluttered, dirty, badly decorated or crowded rooms when it is really a perfectly nice room ruined by dirty laundry or piles of books, dark curtains, or bad wallpaper. Crazy, overcrowded open houses make hallways and stairways feel small when they aren’t. In these kinds of houses, a second showing may be needed to really see the place. It is relatively easy to discern the real character of the house by seeing it again under more civilized circumstances.
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…FULL ENTRY
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.
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:
Groundhog’s Day corresponds to the Pagan holiday of Imbloc. I enjoy thinking winter is half over. Have you noticed that there is daylight again at 5 PM? Happy Groundhog’s Day!
This time of year is high season for “cabin fever.” If you are unhappy with your living situation, this time of year, you are not alone. Sometimes the decision to move or not is not so simple. For those of you who are unhappy every winter, how can you know if the house is making you unhappy or the household is?
Here’s an example: Recently, I heard met a woman who recently bought another house and was selling her current one. She was surprised what went into choosing to sell her house and move to a quieter setting. She said something like this, “I liked my house but wasn’t content here. My husband and I had to figure out if there was something wrong with our relationship that we weren’t facing, or if we were just in the wrong house.”
If you find yourself unhappy when you get home, how can you figure out if it’s the house or the people in it? The key is thinking about whether you are annoyed when you are with people or when you are alone. The more you are annoyed alone, the more likely the problem is the house.FULL ENTRY
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.
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?FULL ENTRY
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.)
Hi honey, I'm home. And have I got a big surprise for you! Guess what I bought today?
Those words are just dandy if you are talking about flowers or a new set of golf clubs for that someone special.
But if the gift is 2,000 or so square feet and costs $2,500 a month to keep, you may have a world of trouble on your hands.
I recently observed, from a distance, just such a bizarre scenario playing out here in the western suburbs.FULL ENTRY
The family room is the holiday hotspot this year in my home.
My in-laws our in town for the week and the small but comfortable room just off the kitchen of my Natick fixer-upper is where folks are playing with the kids, reading and yakking.
By contrast, the more formal living room, which has the Christmas tree and some of the better furniture, such as a Victorian couch handed down from long-lost "Aunt Rachel," - who would be at least 140 years old if she were alive today - is respected but not particularly used right now.
Sad to say, the difference may be simply the location of our electronic hearth - the TV is in the back in the house in the cozy family room off the kitchen.
If you are curious what other families are doing this year, check out this holiday poll.FULL ENTRY
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?
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.FULL ENTRY
Happy Thanksgiving to you all. Some of you may find yourselves pushing and shoving through the Black Friday crowds. Others may be relaxing at home or back at your workplaces. Wherever you find yourselves today, I hope you all enjoyed Thanksgiving in good health.
When you think about yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, does an image come to mind as your mental picture of Thanksgiving? Does that image take place in a dining room? Is it a dining room you currently own or rent, or one owned or rented by someone you know? Or does Thanksgiving remind you more of outdoor activity or a living room full of football fans? Tell us what room you associate with Thanksgivings past and present.
Whether a dining room is “necessary” is part of the initial discussion that I have with my clients before we hit the road. This is not a solely urban-suburban question. There are city dwellers who demand a dining room and suburban ones who plan to use theirs as a playroom.
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?FULL ENTRY
Certain conveniences become more important when a family adds an infant. I have noticed that many couples who are still BC (before children) do not anticipate how much these conveniences may mean to them once the pregnancy is advances and in the first few years of their child’s life.
Here are a couple of the big ones. What would you add?
Good access to front door.
Houses or condos with a lot of stairs are inconvenient for everyone when snow is on the ground and whenever you are bringing things in and out of the house. One of my clients was sensitive to exterior access because in his current condo, he says, there are four doors between him and the kitchen. He finds it very annoying on grocery day. Stairs and multiple locked doors become more of a nuisance for women carrying a child late in pregnancy and for any adult carrying a baby or youngster.
Sometimes even beach reading is about real estate. This summer, I read Burglar on the Prowl by Lawrence Block. It’s mystery fiction. The viewpoint character is a mystery-solving bookstore owner who also happens to be a master thief. I was pretty interested when he started scoping out a residential burglary on page 27.
Here’s what the hero-burglar in the novel said:
Lighting: A dark house can mean that the occupants have gone to bed. Burglars are not interested in running into people. Whereas lights on at four in the morning means no one is home. Timers are the best bet to make burglars think you are home, since seeing the same lights every night could mean the occupants use lights the same way every night or use a timer.
When looking at the house itself, the first thing he looked at was the windows. The presence of the metal tape that indicates an alarm system – that’s a deterrent. He looked for tape one storey up, since sometimes that is not installed. In the book, there was tape there. (He said that sometimes people don’t alarm their second floor windows because they want to be able to leave them open. He also noted that some alarm systems have zones, so that the upstairs section can be turned off and the alarm set for the first floor.) Tape not installed on the third floor did not encourage him, since he could not climb that high without being noticed. There was tape on the basement windows; so that wasn’t his way in.FULL ENTRY
Katherine Metz answered my request for advice on how to live in the space you live in. Do you want to hear more about this topic from Katherine? Do you have questions about making the most of your space?
“Clutter” is as personal as the clothes you wear. What you buy, where you store it, and all the ways you resist getting rid of it, offer clues to your personality—as well as your skills, talents, and gifts. As we set aside judgment, we leave room to discover how we benefit from our stuff. Here’s a quick look from one perspective.FULL ENTRY
Some people are just moving too fast to clean up. Their commitment to many things is unrelenting. The clue is piles of unfinished projects. Very little is accomplished. Yet, in each and every pile is the seed of an idea. This person is an innovator, but needs people who will nurture, to maturity, the seeds that have been planted. Give this person an extra-large home office to house the helpers—leaving the pioneer free to create the next, new big thing. Keep things simple. Avoid multi-level homes. And, entice the adventurer into a beautiful home garden to pause, reflect, and rejuvenate.
Others save all things that “speak” to them—favorite things—things that tell a sentimental story. “Clutter” often shows up as a collection of things; Pez dispensers, Barbie dolls, or fifties gumball machines—and they can spread like wild fire consuming room after room. Asking one to “edit” can overwhelm the soulful storyteller. The fear is the loss of one’s self-expression, and one’s very self. If the home allows room for both the expansion and the containment of this dramatic expression, everyone will be rewarded with a powerful display of enthusiasm.
Pamlow thinks we spend too much time on this blog debating the dollars and cents side of home buying/selling/ownership. We are missing the bigger picture, she contends.
And frankly, I think she's right.
To boil it down to its core, buying and owning a home is part of the recipe generations of Americans have been following in their efforts to build a "nice life" for themselves, as pamlow notes.
Renting is fine, but it's still not comparable, especially for young families, when it comes to the much wider array of home sizes, styles and locations that are available on the for-sale market.
And guess what, the fast and furious romance with apartment living is already entering its final 15 minutes as landlords big and small scramble to jack up rents.
One of the biggest trends in real estate now is also largely one of the most under-reported as well.
As homeowners find themselves unable to sell and move up, they are staying put and fixing up instead.
The big renovation/remodeling indexes, typically focused on larger projects, have not really picked up on this.
But think about it, what are you hearing about when you chat with your neighbors or friends? I know I hear about practical, budget-friendly fix-ups designed to make a house more livable for the long-term, with resale value a secondary thought.
BuildFax is hoping to fill this info void, with a new index that tracks permits pulled.
I wear a bunch of hats and I don’t have a place to hang them all. Like most people, there is at least one room in the house that gets out of control. For me, it is my home office.
My home office that wears too many hats, too. My home office is the writing center for this blog, my company blog, and my book. My home office is also where I do some of my work as a buyer’s agent and as the owner of my real estate company. My home office is also where I find myself when I am planning things with friends and family, since I schedule out of my computer calendar. My home office is where the TV lives, so it is where movies are watched, yoga and fitness DVD are followed, and -- as of this week -- where football games are watched. My home office stores my books and my office supplies.
My professional office does not have this identity crisis: it is just a professional office.
The reason that I bring this up is because it is an issue for house buyers. It is a hard question for most:
Do you have too much stuff or do you have too little space?
Today, I want to outline some of the most common things that my buyers mention about their lifestyle and the house choices they make to accommodate their clutter weak-spots. Many focus on these things:FULL ENTRY
Today, Sam Schneiderman, Greater Boston Home Team asks; were you and your property really ready for what could have happened on Sunday?
We got lucky again, and Boston was spared nature’s fury for the second time this month.
Like many of us, I like to think that I was ready for the worst-case scenario. The more that I thought about it, the more I realized that my family isn’t ready to effectively deal with an evacuation of our house should it be needed. First, there are logistics to deal with. My wife and I were home. Our daughter is California. Our son was traveling home early Sunday morning. We have cell phones, but that didn’t mean that we would have service. Where would we meet? How would our daughter know we were OK? Where would we go? What about my mother-in-law in assisted living? Did we have a full tank of gas in the family car? Did that car need to be unloaded before we could reload it with supplies? Images of 9/11 survivors trying to find their families appear when I think of the worst-case scenario.
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.
Having financial stress is generally considered a cause of divorce. Yet the economic problems of the last few years does not seem to have hurt American marriage. The Marriage Project, at the University of Virginia found that hardship is leading couples to stick together.
In their study of over 1000 married couples, 18-45 years of age, they found that 34 percent were worried about paying their bills. 29 percent took a hit on their income, and 12 percent faced foreclosure. Yet when asked if they had considered divorce or separation, but put it aside as a result of the recession, 38 percent said they did just that.
The trend seems to be that couples are choosing to stay together and riding out the financial woes together. Do you know anyone who has done that? Have they put their marriage back on track, or are they treading water waiting for a time to get out of their house and marriage without going broke?FULL ENTRY
Today, I discuss kitchens. I have been seeing a lot of skinny kitchens. I have also been seeing expensive, and/or over-dressed kitchens that will be hard to cook in. Too skinny. Too rich.
Skinny kitchens, more commonly called “sleeve kitchens,” are an apartment feature found in condos and some houses. Most times, they have counters on both long walls and a dead end. Some have counter at the far end. Some have wall. Some have a window. On rare occasions, I have seen a door at the far end, so that there is a way in from both ends of the long counter. Frequently, there is an eat-in area at the front end of a sleeve kitchen. These kitchens allow for a lot of counter and cabinet in a small space.
The problems that I hear about are that two people cannot work in a kitchen like that without bumping into one another when they go to pass by en route to the stove or refrigerator. Without a window, the far end is dark. Some of my clients just hate that they are small.
Modifications that help:
1. Window or doorway opening at the far end.
2. Open wall into the next room (usually a dining room.)
3. Glass-fronted cabinets on an open wall into the next room.
4. Good lighting.
My very first solo apartment had a sleeve kitchen. It also had a skylight in the kitchen. I found the sleeve kitchen easy to work in and very easy to keep clean. When I didn’t cook alone, it wasn’t a problem because I had just fallen in love and didn’t mind being crowded. About three years later, I had another sleeve kitchen with room for a table at the front end. This was an improvement. I still didn’t mind the small space. Am I unusual in this regard?FULL ENTRY
“Leaves of three, let it be” is the reminder phrase about poison ivy. My client, M, is a gardener. She is also exceptionally sensitive to the oil that causes the poison ivy rash. She’s gotten very good at spotting it. Over the course of our house-hunting together, I have gotten much more familiar with the stuff.
Poison ivy is all over the place. It does better in wetter weather conditions, so this year it is having a field day. It needs some sun, but it loves fields, riverbeds and the edges of lawns and flowerbeds.
When you were house hunting, did you look for poison ivy in your flowerbeds? In many towns where I work, I see it -- thanks to M -- in the flowerbeds and in woodsy areas. I get the feeling that most people don’t know it is there until it is too late. What’s your experience with poison ivy and its fellow rash-making plants, poison oak and poison sumac?FULL ENTRY
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.FULL ENTRY
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.FULL ENTRY
Today, Sam Schneiderman, broker owner of Great Boston Home Team discusses how private property rights can be legally restricted.
One of the most important considerations that a buyer should factor into the purchase of their next home is what they want to do with the property during the time that they will own it. That is important because, contrary to what most people think, property ownership does not give owners the right to do anything that they please to their property. There are various ways that the use of private property might be restricted.
If a buyer has a buyer’s agent, the agent should be made aware of the buyers plans for the property before the offer is written. As a buyers broker, I’ve written offers allowing additional time to research potential restrictions. I’ve also advised buyers to walk away from properties that they could not legally modify to meet their future needs or expectations.
He are some ways that individual property rights might be restricted on individually owned property. Due to space limitations, next week I’ll discuss restrictions for situations where more than one party shares the use of the property:
Municipal zoning can affect an owner’s ability to modify or expand a home or other structures, add an “in-law apartment”, erect a wall or fence, build a patio or deck, or widen a driveway, among other things.
Thinking of buying a smaller home than you need and expanding later or tearing down and rebuilding a garage? Check with the building department and zoning code to be sure that you will be able to do what you want to do.
Before you even think about buying near a commercial property of any kind? Remember that today's office building or nursing home could become tomorrow's kennel or nightclub, if allowed by zoning in that area.
Last year, I had a client who wanted a condo big enough to fit a Super Bowl party. Last Sunday, I went to that party. Behind that request are two questions: “How big is a Super Bowl party room?” and “What does that room function as for the other 364 nights a year?”
For this client, having a fully open public space did the trick. His Super Bowl party room was his living room, dining room and kitchen – all in one Great Room. The rest of the year, there’s a dining room behind the living room couch instead of rows of folding chairs.
For some people, having a Great Room instead of three rooms -- living room, dining room, and kitchen – just would not work. Great Room living requires good clutter management and a tolerance for lack of sound separation.
Choosing the size and configurations of social space poses a bigger challenge than choosing private space. Social space needs to be large for guests, but not overwhelming or dysfunctional for everyday use. (Unless you are super-rich, you are not going to own a party room that holds 50 people, then rarely use it.)
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.FULL ENTRY
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.FULL ENTRY
To end the year on a positive note, I dedicate today’s entry to the “compelling personal need” to change housing situations. When a person has such a compelling need, his or her housing is no longer suiting his or her lifestyle.
When it comes to people who are in the position to buy, it is generally a move toward better, not worse. They have the option to buy or to rent a place that is better suited to their needs. As a buyer’s agent, I tend to see less of the painful side of housing loss due to divorce, unemployment, disability, and death. There is almost always an economic trigger to buy, such as securing a better commute to a job, low interest rates, the end of a lease and expected rent increase, change of personal status such as choosing to live alone instead of in group/grad student-type rentals. But, in many cases there is more to it.
Love is a huge factor in housing choices. I am not talking about love of the house – I am talking about love of another person or other people. People move so couples can move in together. People move so that a child can have her own bedroom or a yard to play in. People even move to get a better place for their dogs.
Our fold-out couch gets a lot of use this time of the year. So today, I want to mention the guest room.
For my clients, searches often start with a guest room on the list. That requirement often falls off the list, or morphs into a study/guest room. For some, it is not worth the extra money to have a room dedicated to someone who doesn’t live there. Even people who have a guest room find the room drifts into a guest room/crafts room or guest room/junk closet far too quickly.
Some people who have family who live far away look for not only a guest room, but an additional living room. Long-traveling guests stay for two or more weeks to make the long flight worth the trip.
Whether guests are in a dedicated guest room or a study/guest room, these are some qualities of that room that tend to be important:
1. The guest room does not share a wall with the hosts’ bedroom.
2. The guest room has good access to a bathroom.
3. The guest room does not inhibit the use of the kitchen by being too close to it.
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.FULL ENTRY
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.FULL ENTRY
OK, I have seen the future of home design and guess what? It's my spiffed up Natick fixer-upper!
Imagine my wife's surprise when I woke her up this morning with the news. Karen has come to like our much renovated and now modestly expanded village colonial a short walk from Natick center, but it's not her dream home either. Let's just say she was a bit skeptical. Who knew?
Alright, just kidding, mostly, though I did pester my groggy wife when I was writing this earlier. But check out Builder magazine's New Economy home. Looks like a dead ringer for a village colonial if I ever saw one.
Right now small is the new big in home design.
Attorney Richard D. Vetstein. writes today about the legal precedents regarding smoking in condos.
As anti-smoking restrictions become increasingly widespread, smokers find the last place they can indulge freely is within the confines of their home. However, the saying that a man’s home is his castle may not extend to condominiums where condo associations are enacting bans against smoking in common areas and even individual units.FULL ENTRY
In Chicago, the 1418 N. Lake Shore Drive Condominium Association recently banned smoking in interior common areas and inside the units. Smoking is permitted in a unit, however, if it is restricted to a single room that has been equipped with an association-approved, self-contained air-treatment system. Last year, a Cape Cod condominium considered a smoking ban in living areas.
I am in correspondence with a childhood friend. She grew up in a brick Cape Cod house on a busy street. I grew up in a wood Cape Cod house on a less-busy, but not entirely quiet, street about a mile away. We because fast friends in what was then called “junior high.” (The correct term for those awkward school years is now “middle school.”) We had a lot in common at 14 or 15. As adults, we both fled suburbia; me to the city and she to the country.
I envy her solitude and sometimes she envies my convenience. Her house is on a river. She can’t see her neighbors. Her dogs don’t wear leashes. She heats her house with wood. It sounds like year-round vacation… But the practical issues are many. For one, she heats her house with wood! She can’t use a cell phone there. And, most of all, she is miles and miles from people and things for sale.
She wrote, "if it weren't for the 6 month winters and the black flies, everyone would live here… I would add and the lack of tech connections. I try to maintain a somewhat purist approach that we shouldn't expect these things here. Meanwhile, my carbon footprint with the 100 mile commute each day...”FULL ENTRY
Yep, that's the weighty - or should I say smelly - question I am pondering over my morning coffee.
In fact, I can't get away from it. My elderly cat Teeney just strafed the carpet of my home office - again - a few days ago. Nothing like the scent of fresh cat urine to start off your day at 5:15 a.m. in the morning!
Anyway, my little family is at crossroads when it comes to pet ownership, with Teeney's long-time companion/foe, Keegan, having rolled over and died a few weeks ago, probably after downing part one of the tiny spider decorations we put out for Halloween. (Luckily, my three little ones, 6, 4 and 2, were all in bed.)
With Teeney now at least 17 years old, her time on the planet is probably limited here as well. And that, of course, has me wondering whether it will be worth it, when the time comes, to get another cat or even take a step on the wild side and get a dog.
By that, I don't mean the upkeep and the care - which are no big deal and especially good for children to learn.
Instead, I mean the impact on my now renovated and expanded Natick fixer-upper. Am I slowly stripping tens of thousands of dollars off the value of my house with my indulgent pet lifestyle?
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:FULL ENTRY
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.
Sam Schneiderman, broker owner of Great Boston Home Team (our Monday guy) writes today about home heating bills.
Many prospective buyers ask what the utility bills are.
That’s certainly something that any budget conscious buyer should do to get a rough idea of how energy efficient (or inefficient) a home or condo is, but buyers should realize that the life style of the current occupants could be very different from theirs. Personally, I think that a good home inspection will tell you more about a home’s energy efficiency, but having an inspection plus the past bills is obviously better.
The best way to get past utility bills is to ask the sellers. Unfortunately, not all sellers keep good records. You might think that it would be possible to call utility companies and ask for the bills, but that doesn't always work because utility companies don’t give out information about their customers.
While gas companies won't tell you what their customer’s heating bills are, they will often respond when asked; “if I buy this house, what can I expect to pay for gas on a “level billing plan”? (Gas companies offer “level billing plans” that allow customers to pay the same amount each month of the year to smooth out the highs and lows of the seasonal heating bills we experience here.) If all else fails the buyer can ask the seller to get a printout of past usage from utility companies.FULL ENTRY
I am hanging out at the hospital this morning with my 84-year-old mother, Nena, who is scheduled for leg surgery.
Anyway, it has me thinking about my parents - who I adore - but who have never been the savviest customers when it comes to real estate.
That's a long story, better told another time, or maybe not at all.
But one lesson I can take from their real estate misadventures is what not to do once you start putting together plans for that retirement dream home.
It's very simple: Don't build or buy anything with more than one story.FULL ENTRY
That's one of the findings of the latest survey on home design trends put out by the American Institute of Architects.
The once humble home office has become one of the most popular items requested now by clients, the AIA reports.
Thirty-one percent of architects survey pegged the home office as the most popular special function room in new homes or additions, compared to just 8.8 percent who listed the media/home theater room.
It is something I can certainly relate to - I am writing right now in my home office, which we put in as part of a new addition to our Natick fixer-upper two years ago. No afterthought, it's one of the most heavily used rooms in the house.
The emphasis on the practical over traditional splurge items in fact is pretty dramatic, the AIA survey finds.FULL ENTRY
We’ve had a lot of water in the wrong place this year. But, landlords complain about water in the wrong place, too. That place is coming out of the tap at their rentals. I hear complaints that tenants “take hour-long showers,” as if they are doing this just to hurt the landlord.
Water does not come cheap. Landlords are obligated to pay the water bill for their rentals. Tenants are not obligated to conserve water. The battle lines are drawn!FULL ENTRY
Just back from two weeks in the Netherlands with my wife Karen and our three little ones.
However, it wasn’t your typical vacation – we exchanged our Natick house with a Dutch couple and the wife’s sister. In fact, it ended up being a two-for-one deal for us. We spent the first week in Emmen in the country’s rural northeast in the sister’s house, followed by a second week in Gouda near Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the couple’s townhouse in the center of the famous cheese town.
Our new Dutch friends, meanwhile, had a ball in our Natick fixer-upper, making three trips into Boston, a couple more out to Western Massachusetts, and even scoring tickets to a Red Sox game.
As part of our exchange, they had full use of our car, of course paying for gas, while we were able to use their tiny French car to motor around Holland.
When Karen approached me last winter with the idea of setting up a house exchange this summer, frankly I was skeptical. Despite a bustling website with lots of exchange opportunities around the world, I was concerned there would be limited interest in our house. After all, Natick is not exactly the Back Bay.
It was a concern reinforced when I blogged about the idea, only to receive a couple negative comments from people who claimed to know arguing that Natick was not exactly a hot draw for house exchangers from Europe.
Thankfully, that turned out to be a red herring – the house is cute enough now to look good online and is close enough to Boston and other attractions. If the Dutch exchange had not worked out, we had at least two other potential exchanges to explore in France.
I thought I was being so smart when I told our builder to skip the central air.
But as I head off to Home Depot this morning to buy another air conditioner - the fifth so far this year - I am feeling dumb and hot right now. Not a good combo.
It would have been easy to install when our builder was grafting a two-story addition onto the back of our Natick fixer-upper back in the fall of 2008. After all, with a new, forced hot air heating system, all the ducts and pipes were in place.
But no, I was going to save a few bucks - another $5,000 or $10,000 - and muddle through with a few cheapo window units. After all, summers in New England are hot, but they are also brief, I told myself.
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.FULL ENTRY
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.)
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.FULL ENTRY
Here's another national crisis in the making - we are losing our lead when it comes to having the largest homes in the world.
No, it's not China that is serving up this latest humiliation, but rather pesky Australia, which, judging from the headlines Down Under, appears to be relishing this national victory.
"Aussie homes biggest in the world," shouts a headline from the Herald Sun.
While the average size of new homes in the U.S. has fallen to 2,065 square feet, it has ballooned to practically McMansion-style levels in the Australian state of New South Wales, where it now tops 2,800 square feet.
I guess it's just time to roll out a new tax credit for buyers of McMansions.
Seriously, it remains to be seen whether this trend has legs. The bad economy is surely playing a big part here, with builders scrambling to roll out smaller, more compact home designs to meet current budgets - and tastes.
But can it really hurt American homeowners to start thinking about whether bigger is always better?
Back in 2007, my client decided that he couldn't live with the kitchen torn up, didn't want to move into a rental, and an addition with a new kitchen and a family room would not solve his problem. The addition would let him use the existing kitchen during the construction and add the family room he wants. But afterward, the house would be too big. He said something like this: “It’s not about the amount of space; it is about the useful quality of the space.” The addition would make his house bigger, but leaves wasted space to be heated, maintained and cleaned.
You need to know how much and what kind of space you need. That takes some imagination. Here’s my advice for thinking this through:
Set your priorities: Which rooms do you spend the most time in? Seek a house that has those rooms the way you want them. If you need to skimp somewhere, do it on the rooms that you use less of your day.
Think into the future: If you family size is likely to expand or contract, imagine your space needs based on those changes. This could be as simple as choosing a level lot, so that you can fence it in for the safety of children and dogs. It can be as complicated as imagining the space needs of children who are not yet born in a house you want to stay in until they get out of high school.
Isolated or social space: Consider not only the room sizes, but also how the rooms connect. Isolated spaces are good for sleeping and working. Open spaces are good for social time. If you have enough of both, you can switch their use as the number of family members changes.
So what happened to that buyer? He and his wife went looking at trade-up houses. They got pretty frustrated.
Then opted to build a modular. I hope they live happily ever after; it was a lot of work and time to get where they are today.
Does this encourage you or discourage you from trading up? Why?
The weekend before Christmas, I didn’t work. I had a cold; not the flu, not the Black Plague. My absence went mostly unnoticed in the pre-Christmas season, when there are few houses to see and everyone has something better to do. Almost everyone. I answered email, which I can do without spreading germs. My agent, Dianne, showed property all day Saturday, allowing me time to languish in front of the TV.
I’ve noticed a cultural change in the workplace that encourages sick employees to stay home and keep their germs to themselves.
When I stay home, I notice ways that my house works for me, and how it doesn’t. There’s a topic there: what makes a house comfortable to be sick in?
I noticed these things when I was banging around the house between naps this weekend:FULL ENTRY