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Are renters getting priced out of the suburbs?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis September 21, 2012 06:33 AM

Rents are skyrocketing in the suburbs as well as the city.

And that's presenting renters with a choice buyers in perpetually-too-expensive Greater Boston have long faced, of either moving farther out in search of a better deal or paying up in order to stay closer to work.

In fact, many renters are in danger of being pushed out beyond 495 in search of a deal, a situation middle-income buyers have long faced in the Boston area.

The western suburbs are seeing some of the steepest rent increases in the country, while the northern burbs are not far behind.

Middlesex County, for example, ranks up in the top ten markets in the country experiencing the steepest rent increases, with a 9.6 percent increase in median rents in August, according to Trulia.

And many towns are seeing even bigger increases than that.

Meanwhile, renters north of Boston and in the Merrimack Valley are faced with a similar escalation, with an 8.9 percent increase from 2007 to the first half of 2012.


What does your real estate say about who you are?

Posted by Rona Fischman August 2, 2012 02:02 PM

I can’t get away from real estate, even when I try. My summer reading included a collection of short stories called Other People We Married by Emma Staub. In the story, this section hit a nerve for me. I have clients who think this way. I don’t think it is good for them. Do you agree with Claire? Do you think real estate is who you are?

… Before they moved to Cobble Hill, Claire and Matt talked about real estate as much as they talked about themselves. Who are they, they would ask: a one bedroom with an office. A half bath? Were they a decorative fireplace or a breakfast bar? When Claire got pregnant, things got more clear. They were a two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath co-op on the garden floor of a brownstone. Rosemary [the cat] could lie in the sun, the bricks baking her black fur. They were a family of four. Everything was going to be perfect, just like in a magazine: gloss and impossible.

This kind of thinking leads to trouble. No real estate makes life perfect. There is no single perfect place for someone. I do, however, agree that criteria changes dramatically when there is an expected or already-born infant in the picture. Did that happen to you? Did you suddenly turn into a “two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath…”?
In a general way, identity and real estate are connected. Density is a personal choice based on matters of personal space and privacy. Some people are “city” some “country.” There are beliefs imbedded in these decisions about living close to other people, about what children need, and about what city living means for opportunity and class status. Many of my clients have a hard time making the transition from city to suburban. Some have problems from suburban to city.


Green commuting, is it a trend?

Posted by Rona Fischman September 29, 2011 01:44 PM

Tomorrow is a last Friday of the month. That means it is Walk-Ride day. Initiatives like this are part of a growing consciousness about the use of automobiles. Are you more aware -- and care more -- about the amount of time you spend in your car and how much gas you burn?

In the past five years or so, I have had an increasing number of clients who bicycle commute to work. One of the features that is becoming do-or-die for my clients is an easy way to store bicycles on a daily basis. More and more of my client base are commuting by bicycle at least part of the year. When I started in real estate, it was rare for a condo association to have dedicated bicycle storage areas, Now, I consider it commonplace. Is bicycle storage a do-or-die for you? My clients want to get into the basement via a full-sized door, with a few or no stairs and no sharp turns. Garages are even better. Is that your criteria, too?

I also find questions about bicycle routes popping up about a third of the time, among my clients. An increasing percentage do not own a car. They get around via public transportation as well as bicycling and walking. Since the very beginning, I’ve always worked with an MBTA bus-route map handy. Now I keep bike maps, too.


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.


With house next door for sale, Carol's peace and quiet is out the window

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis September 7, 2011 09:28 AM

When the house next door gets foreclosed on, it can be an absolute nightmare for the neighbors.

Just ask "Carol." She lives in a neighborhood here in Greater Boston, a short walk from the ocean in a location that would not seem like a hot spot for distressed properties.

Yet Carol's life has been turned upside down since the bank seized the house next door.

For starters, Carol and her husband, having bought their house seven years ago, would like to move on to bigger and better things.

Yet the problem property next door - not to mention a tough market - have helped drag down the value of their home by a hefty $100,000. Among other things, the house next door is in need of repairs, while the yard outside is trashed.

So much for that idea.

But if Carol can't move, staying put is becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

There's a now a steady stream of occasionally rude bargain hunters gawking at the foreclosure special next door, including one couple who swung by at 10:30 p.m. one night for a quick peak.

Worse, despite exchanging words with Carol's irate husband, the couple was back the next day with their real estate agent.

If there is any etiquette related to how and when a house is shown, Carol would sure like to hear about it.


Do you trust your neighbors?

Posted by Rona Fischman September 1, 2011 01:56 PM

A study by Eileen Bjornstrom, an assistant professor of sociology in the Missouri University College of Arts and Science shows that people who trust their neighbors report having better health.

Do you trust your neighbors? Do you know them? Do you interact with them? Would you prefer to have nothing to do with them?
Do you remember your neighbors from where you grew up? Did they influence you, for better or worse?

Guess who distrusts their neighbors more, people at the financial top or the financial bottom of a specific neighborhood?

Dr. Bjornstrom’s study showed that people toward the top of the financial level of a neighborhood were less likely to respond that “their neighbors can be trusted.” If one is near the top, trust goes down. Is it that if your relative position is higher than your neighbors you fear theft? Is it that people who have more than their neighbors are more aloof and independent by nature?
The study also showed a correlation between rating low on “neighbors can be trusted” and reporting good health. In this study, it seems that harboring distrust wears on an individual’s sense of well-being.

Do you intuitively agree with this or not?


Moving out to the suburbs?

Posted by Rona Fischman July 14, 2011 02:05 PM

The ‘burbs, revisited
Doug Most shared his musings on the adjustment of moving from JP to Needham.

Many of my clients spend time musing over the same thing. Young adults often see themselves as urban people. They have come to enjoy the restaurants, shops, and urban lifestyle. Living in the city, especially one as studenty as Boston, is a fairly easy transition from a suburban adolescence. Many young adults come here for college and stay. They fill apartments in Boston, Cambridge, Brookline and Somerville. A few venture into Arlington and Watertown.

Yet, when they start to have children, many migrate toward the ‘burbs. Is it a notion based on their childhood, or maybe too many reruns of The Brady Bunch? Is it safety? Is it schools? Is it snob appeal?


Here's to the "red" in Red White and Blue

Posted by Rona Fischman July 1, 2011 01:43 PM

“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?


Gentrification in the suburbs: Who's next?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis June 24, 2011 08:06 AM

Arlington, Franklin, and to some extent Needham are all classic examples of blue collar towns that have gone uptown.

And let's not forget urban neighborhoods like Davis Square, the South End and now Jamaica Plain as well.

Time to get out our crystal balls and peer into the future here. If you are buyer looking to get in early on a town on the rise here in Greater Boston, where should you be house hunting right now?

Should you be hitting open houses in Watertown, which is basking in the heat of the Cambridge market, or Medford, which someday might get a green line stop or two?



Posted by Rona Fischman June 16, 2011 01:38 PM

I was asked by a friend of mine whether I would take a listing on a house with a level-three sex offender* next door. Since I don’t take listings, I got to dodge the question. Since then, I’ve been asking listing agents. Some say that the person next door has done nothing wrong. That owner should be allowed to hire help to sell his or her house. Some say, they couldn’t sell a house with an offender next door.

When a level-three sex offender is released from prison, neighbors in the immediate area are informed. However, there is no requirement for the police to inform people who subsequently move into the area.

What brought my friend to call me and ask such a question? There is a sex offender living around the corner from this friend. The house next to the offender is under agreement to a family with little girls. My friend was driving past when she saw the new buyers were at the house with their buyer’s agent, and the listing agent. The little girls were dancing around (apparently invited) on the lawn of the level-three sex offender.


One page about real estate, and he got it wrong

Posted by Rona Fischman May 11, 2011 01:43 PM

My last licks on How We Decide address the single page that is dedicated directly to real estate.It starts near the end of page 144. I think Mr. Lehrer and the psychologist he quotes got it wrong.

On page 144, Mr. Lehrer has just explained that emotion-based decisions are the best for things like choosing a poster or strawberry jam. Subjects who are asked to mentally evaluate their decision over-think it and choose one that is less satisfying. Lehrer writes:

The more people thought about which posters they wanted, the more misleading their thoughts become. Self-analysis resulted in less self-awareness. [Emphasis by Lehrer]… This isn’t just a problem for insignificant decisions like choosing jam for a sandwich or selecting a cheap poster. People can also think too much about more important choices, like buying a home.

Lehrer then quotes our friend, Dr. Dijksterhuis, who calls the act of concentrating on the wrong thing a “weighting mistake.” Lehrer writes:

"Consider two housing options: a three bedroom apartment that is located in the middle of a city, with a ten minute commute time, or a five bedroom McMansion on the urban outskirts, with a forty-five minute commute.”People will think about this trade-off for a long time," Dijksterhuis says. "And most them will eventually choose the large house. After all, a third bathroom or extra bedroom is very important for when grandma and grandpa come over for Christmas, whereas driving two hours each day is really not that bad." What's interesting is that the more time people spend deliberating, the more important that extra space becomes.

Suburban noise complaints

Posted by Rona Fischman March 31, 2011 01:44 PM

The noise issues in suburbia are nurture and nature. Nurture, taking care of things and people: transportation noises, lawn care, and child care.

The train blew its horn as it went over a bridge a little over a quarter mile from my childhood bedroom window. The horn blasted every two hours all night and hourly, or more, all day. I didn’t much notice it until I was a restless teenager, tossing and turning. When my parents bought that house, the train was a selling point. The train noise was never an issue. My friends a little closer to it, complained a little more.

Highway noise is a complaint I hear from buyers in many towns around here, where Route 2, I-95, 90 and 93 blast past residential neighborhoods. Around Logan and Hanscom and under their flight paths, jet noise is a significant disturbance.

The suburban noise I remember best is the lawnmower engine of my next door neighbor. He mowed around 7 on Saturday morning. My teenaged self was none too pleased. Since those days, yard care has gotten noisy year-round, with the advent of leaf and snow blowers.

Where I grew up, the houses were pretty close together. There is an illusion of privacy that was just not so. During the summer, we heard parents calling kids to dinner two doors down. Maybe, I was in a place of particularly noisy parents, but somehow, I doubt it. I could hear conversations next door, at night in the summer. Have you lived in a suburb like this?


Snow, snowbirds, and empty nests

Posted by Rona Fischman February 22, 2011 01:51 PM

After a couple of snowfalls, my husband and I didn’t much like owning a house. By Groundhog’s Day, the ice storm pushed us to the brink.
Scott wrote about snow damage and many of you responded. During the snow, it was about roof damage and ice. Now, during the melt, attention turns to the basements. From the first flakes until it is all gone, street and sidewalk ice has been a fact of life.

It is unusual for us to have weekly snow between Christmas and Groundhog’s Day. Intrepid souls -- like I am -- developed new muscles this year, shovel in hand. Those who are using blowers -- or hiring people to use blowers -- carried high expenses. Condo owners pay that collectively; house owners pay it all themselves. I saved a little money because I quit my gym on January 4th and haven’t missed it. But, I lost a lot of time. It seems that everyone’s schedules are haywire now, because of rescheduled events and missed time at work.

What about homeowners who leave town for vacation or longer winter retreats? They had the expense of hiring someone to clear the walks and also the worry of not being here to watch for damage.

Let’s face it. This is a tough winter. Will it push more single family homes onto the market this spring?


Overhousing and the suburbs

Posted by Rona Fischman January 11, 2011 02:07 PM

When I wrote about the choice between cities and suburbs, centerfielder wrote this:

…Without getting into much research on those various schools… I'm glad to hear that some of the surrounding towns are making strides towards a better school system. I hope Boston pays attention and sooner than later decides to do some something about the problems they have with their schools. In the end it benefits everyone directly and indirectly. It is probably for the most part, but not in every case, the advantage to living in the suburbs over the city.

This comment came in at the end of a thread; it needs some air! Are suburbs primarily about the schools? Really?

Don’t people want bigger houses, yard space, privacy, and peace and quiet that they can’t get in the city? Maybe they leave the city and head for the ‘burbs for the schools, but they stay there for the privacy, safety, and relative calm. If the suburbs were all about the schools, wouldn’t everyone move back to the city as soon as high school aged kids set out to college?

It just doesn’t happen. Every year I see houses being sold by sellers over 80, or their children, or both in tandem. Around Boston, there are large numbers of people from “The Greatest Generation” who are still living in the houses where the “Baby Boomers” and “Gen Xers” grew up.


Dodging cars in a winter wonderland

Posted by Rona Fischman January 7, 2011 01:40 PM

When I wrote about snow shoveling last week, Franksmartin found my blind spot. I was only thinking about the work of shoveling. Part of what blinded me is the sheer labor of manual shoveling. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking with it.

I said: “Some towns don’t have sidewalks. That’s another plus for homeowners this time of year.” I neglected the problems caused by lack of safe walking space.

franksmartin wrote:

"And, as far as not having sidewalks - we don't have sidewalks and it's impossible to walk down the street in the winter. The roads in my immediate neighborhood are narrow and winding and the snow is piled high. There isn't much room for cars; pedestrians risk their life and limb. I would happily clean a sidewalk to be able to venture out safely. "

Franksmartin is right that walkability is affected by lack of sidewalks. I talk about this with clients who are looking in places where there are no sidewalks. It is especially bad on hilly and winding roadways. I failed to consider the problem of no sidewalks when compounded by snow. I recognize my blindspot and will make an effort to keep both eyes open.

Is it better to have sidewalks or not?


We love our cars and subway stops, too

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

While I am on the topic of location, I want to mention location choices based on commute and travel distances.

One would think that the choice to be in or out of the city is the choice between daily mass transit use and walking versus daily car use. In dense cities, where parking is precious -- like Boston’s Back Bay, North End and parts of Brookline -- it is a major expense to keep a car. Other cities – with street parking—like Boston’s Jamaica Plain, Hyde Park, or Somerville and Cambridge, residents expect the best of both worlds. They want their cars, walkability, and mass transit, too.

My more urban buyers want to be a relatively short walk to the subway. Anything else is a compromise. Many of these buyers do not use the subway to commute to work. They drive. They also need parking for one to two cars. Many site resale concerns for their choice. Many are willing to pay more to live near the subway that they never use.

Buyers who move to the close-in suburbs, by and large own cars. This is true even if they use a bus to the subway or a commuter train to go to work. Cars seem necessary as soon as the dominant house type becomes single family. Places as close to the city as Arlington, Watertown, and Medford seem to be car-land.


Snow research for home buyers

Posted by Rona Fischman December 28, 2010 12:23 PM

While on break from shoveling, I reflect on snow emergencies as an opportunity for home buyers.

Snow days are a great time to meet neighbors or check out a neighborhood. I bought in the winter, so I practice what I preach. Back then, we had a snowstorm shortly after we signed the Offer. We dug out early and walked over to see how the new neighborhood looked.

We met our next door neighbor. He had a sensible attitude about shoveling and seemed easy enough to get along with. There were children on the street. There were elderly people who had sufficient help to get their walks cleared. All good. The snow piles were high, but people were not being territorial about where the piles were placed. Really good. Parking was tight, but serviceable for the street.

On a City level, the plow came by while we were there. The street was already passable and the snow had stopped by that time. We were moving to a street that the City didn’t neglect! Really good.

Our City has fussy snow-shoveling rules, with large fines. However, we were committed to living there, so that did not dissuade us. All-in-all, we were satisfied, as buyers, that snow conditions were acceptable at the new place.


Home for the holidays

Posted by Rona Fischman November 23, 2010 02:33 PM

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...”


Urban living versus suburban and rural. What’s your pick?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis November 3, 2010 06:58 AM

OK, time to detox from all the breathless election coverage.

Here's a quick recap on the real estate angle stemming from the voting action yesterday.

Barney Frank survived a pretty strong challenge by a Marine reservist Sean Bielat, who put Barney on the hot seat on whether he ignored early warning signs of the housing market fiasco.

And with a big boost from the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and a coalition of business, religious and housing groups, Question 2, which would have repealed the state's 1960s-era affordable housing law, went down to a resounding defeat.

Let me know if I am missing anything.

Here's a news flash: There's more to buying a home than price, even in Greater Boston, arguably one of the most overpriced markets in the country.

It's also a question of what you want to come home to at night - a condo in a funky city neighborhood, a house on an impeccably landscaped suburban street or a home tucked away in the woods off some dirt road in Podunkville?


Long commutes only for "chumps" now?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis October 29, 2010 06:31 AM

I was floored by all the great comments on my post yesterday on whether it's still worth it to embrace a long commute in order to get a cheaper home.

When I indulged in a little reminiscing about my father Lee's stoic approach to his long daily commute into Boston, I received a colorful retort from Lance. It made me chuckle, but it also gets at a key point - does it make sense for a family with young children and two working parents to settle for a long commute in order to get a less expensive home?

Here's Lance:


Have we become a nation of commuting wimps?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis October 28, 2010 06:44 AM

I recently got back a rash of complaints from hassled commuters.

I suggested that Rhode Island might be an alternative for buyers looking to beat Boston area home prices while still staying within commuting distance.

I was told very directly that driving in from Rhode Island is no picnic.

OK, point taken. But it did get me thinking about changing attitudes on commuting, and whether it's not just the mounting traffic that has soured attitudes, but a fundamental shift in expectations.


The greening of residential real estate

Posted by Rona Fischman May 27, 2010 01:48 PM

One of the features that is becoming do-or-die for my clients is an easy way to store bicycles on a daily basis. More and more of my client base are commuting by bicycle at least part of the year. When I started in real estate, it was rare for a condo association to have dedicated bicycle storage areas, Now, I consider it commonplace. Is bicycle storage a do-or-die for you? My clients want to get into the basement via a full-sized door, with a few or no stairs and no sharp turns. Garages are even better. Is that your criteria, too?

I also find questions about bicycle routes popping up about a third of the time, among my clients. An increasing percentage do not own a car. They get around via public transportation as well as bicycling and walking. Since the very beginning, I’ve always worked with an MBTA bus-route map handy. Now I keep bike maps, too.


Buying a "fear factor" house

Posted by Rona Fischman May 18, 2010 04:59 PM

This spring, clients of mine questioned whether they should avoid houses near TV towers. Was there a danger to them? Was there a problem with resale based on the perception of danger? A quick Google search led them to conclude that it was enough of a deterrent to skip houses close to towers.

Last week, I got an email with a similar question:

… I found a house in [deleted] that I really love. My negotiations with the seller have sort of stalled. Our counter-counter offers are about $12,000 apart… My family (mother & uncle, who won't live with me) are concerned about the home's proximity to two cell-phone towers (one is about 200 feet away, the other is about 1,000 feet away). Their primary concern is the difficulty of re-selling the house. The house has been on the market for about 3 months. When it was sold in 2001, it was on the market for 17 days… Would this be hard to re-sell?

When I repeat my clients’ Google search, I come to the same conclusion that my clients did: it is not a bad idea to avoid these houses based on how easy it is to find hysterical information about the danger. Try it yourself; put these words into your favorite search engine: “cell phone tower, danger.” You will quickly read “facts” like this:

…all of us MUST [emphasis his] keep in mind that the human affected by, outside RF energy fields that can promote unwanted nerve stimulation, cancer, heating effects, and many other unwanted effects… cell tower antennas which operate at power levels of about 10 watts FOR EACH ANTENNA [emphasis his]…

On the cusp of a new era of suburban doom?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis April 14, 2010 11:11 AM

OK, I will say up front I don't completely buy into it.

But University of Virginia Professor William Lucy, the latest prophet of doom when it is comes to the Great American Suburbs, certainly managed to get my attention.

I spent some time last night skimming through an electronic version of Lucy's Foreclosing the Dream on my laptop - what a miserable way to read a book. (Here's another review of the book that's worth checking out as well.)

For an academic, Lucy is a pretty lively writer - he's downright tabloid with his description of the outer suburbs as a "ring of death." It's a compliment - I worked as a business reporter for our local tabloid, the Herald, for years.

However, what really stuck out for me was Lucy's intriguing historical analogy.

Basically, we are at a tipping point similar to 1950, when the country was on the cusp of the great exodus from a host of aging industrial cities to the suburbs, he contends.

Except this time around, we are looking at a great migration back into many of the old cities our grandparents so eagerly fled out of out, Lucy contends.

His choice of 1950 is deliberate - it was a point at which many of the underlying factors setting the stage for the great urban exodus had quietly snapped into place.

Yet it was a period just before the dam broke when the trend, at least publicly, was still hard to spot.

And so it is the same today, Lucy contends, with many of the signs of suburban decay we are seeing now precursors to a monumental shift just ahead.


Should home listings include transportation costs?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis March 24, 2010 10:38 AM

Maybe you've dreamed of escaping the Greater Boston home price squeeze, of buying a nice house at a reasonable price in some little town beyond the I-495.

I certainly have at times, looking for any escape hatch I could find in this crazy, overpriced housing market of ours.

Nice fantasy, but the reality isn't so pretty. You may score a cheaper house, but if you are still stuck commuting to a job back in the Boston area, you could be putting yourself at greater risk of foreclosure, warns an influential Chicago-based research group.

The Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology has come out with a new study on true housing affordability, in the Boston area and across the country.

The message is simple. If you take into account car and gas costs, the second biggest item in most families' budgets, outer suburban towns with more affordable home prices don't look like such a bargain anymore.

In fact, CNT has previously done a series of studies in the Chicago area and other major markets that point to a correlation between escalating gas prices and rising foreclosure rates in distant suburbs.

More importantly, the group, which is working hard to get the ear of federal regulators down in Washington, is lobbying to require MLS systems in Massachusetts and around the country to disclose transportation costs on home listings.

It's certainly an intriguing idea - especially if you take into account the argument that transportation right now is a hidden cost most home buyers fail to fully vett before signing up for 30 years of mortgage payments.

Once transportation is taken into account, the number of neighborhoods across Greater Boston considered affordable to the average home buyer plunges to 52 percent from 64 percent, the group contends.


Middle class is about the schools, right?

Posted by Rona Fischman March 23, 2010 02:30 PM

In The Two Income Trap, one of the ongoing tropes is that the pressure to send one’s children to “good” schools underlies the competition for houses in well-regarded schools systems. Ms Warren and Ms Warren Tyagi explain that women in the workforce increased the spending power of the family. The extra income did not go to runaway spending on clothes and other consumer goods. They say:

“…families where swept you up in a bidding war, competing furiously with one another for the most important possession a house in a decent school district. As confidence in the school system crumbled, the bidding war for family housing intensified, and parent soon found themselves bidding up the price for other opportunities for their kids, such as s slot in a decent preschool or admission to a good college. Mom’s extra income fit in perfectly, coming at just the right time to give each family extra ammunition to compete in the bidding wars – and to drive up the prices even higher to for the things they all wanted.”

I have written about schools on this blog and I have heard how important schools are. In my entry Is living well about the schools? the short answer was “yes!” Even for people without children, "everyone knows" that the price of a house depends on the reputation of the school system.

In The Two Income Trap, the authors quote a study that confirms that

“school quality was the single most important determinant of neighborhood prices – more important than racial composition of the neighborhoods, commute, distance, crime rate, or proximity to a hazardous waste site.” [Emphasis theirs]


Day of the dead

Posted by Rona Fischman March 9, 2010 02:12 PM

One day, in two different towns with two different sets of clients, I saw two particularly nice houses for sale. Both had a prominent view of a cemetery. Now, this wasn’t Mt Auburn Cemetery which is more like a park; these were the flat type of cemetery.

What my clients saw was lawn, some trees, and headstones. In each case, the headstones were close enough and prominent enough that one could read the names without trying. One client wondered if he’d need to find out who Mr. M_____ was, since he’d be seeing the name every day. The other said, “It is good to remain aware of one’s mortality, but I can’t live there.”


Due diligence in a hurry

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

Markus wrote:

Rona, I think your advice to buyers on due diligence is always good, but frankly, reading it now is kind of a surreal experience. Homes that are selling now go off-market in days or hours. Buyers at most see a house once, sometimes not at all. No one has any idea what setback restrictions are, whether school buses go down the street, whether an addition is legal, or if the town's school system is running out of cash (Arlington). They know nothing about the house they are buying at all, and they don't care.

Many items on Markus's lists are things that a buyer can figure out before making an Offer to Purchase. Even if they are in a hurry-up Sunday afternoon craze.

I encourage buyers to choose a town based on services, density, commuter routes and schools before stepping foot inside any open house. Once a buyer has chosen towns, school districts, and neighborhoods, it is time to start going into houses.
Once in houses, there is a lot of due diligence possible in a fairly short time, even on a Sunday. Walking the neighborhood after an open house should reveal that school bus route Markus would hate so much. Take a walk, you’ll find some of the barking dogs, sloppy neighbors, rutted streets, and changes in neighborhood character (are the houses much bigger or smaller two blocks away?) Talking to a neighbor will help, too, to find out if street cleaning and plowing is efficient in the area, if there is cut-through traffic (there’s that school bus again!) or other lurking noisy problem that won’t show up on a Sunday afternoon.


Rentals, just the facts, m'am

Posted by Rona Fischman January 21, 2010 04:54 PM

Sometimes the facts of the matter are just not the facts of the matter. During the extended discussion about young families, our trusty Markus came up with some facts about Newton rental housing.

Markus wrote:

The facts are very different, however. 30% of Newton residents rent. So there goes that argument.

Later, Markus added:

Actually, I was addressing the notion that Newton does not have a large rental market. it does.

Markus’s facts may be correct, but those facts are totally irrelevant to young families looking for a rental. The kind of rentals that young families want and need are just not available. A very quick search of the Newton assessor’s database shows:


Alarming moments in real estate

Posted by Rona Fischman November 10, 2009 02:41 PM

House alarms cause me a lot of tension. On two occasions in my career, I have tripped an alarm and could not get it to go off. Once it happened because I couldn’t figure out the right series of buttons to push. (The code was obvious, but the set/go button was unmarked. Really!) Once I walked in to an alarmed house without foreknowledge that there was an alarm. Another time, I opened a porch door during an open house and the alarm went off.

Two out of three times, the police came. Both times, I gave them my business card and they left. That’s a thought for would-be house thieves…

This brings me to today’s topic. Home security.



Posted by Rona Fischman August 14, 2009 02:31 PM

Why Do Clocks Run Clockwise? by David Feldman (1987) was a popular book of questions and answers. I recently picked it up as a book that was good to read in short bursts. Of course, being me, I was attracted to the real estate stories found there. I grew up in a 1954 post-war development with houses that looked the same and tyrannical social norms around the state of the lawn. So, this question and answer struck me:

Question: Why do we grown lawns around our houses? Feldman answers (I summarize): 1. Lawns are pretty and people like them. They are a status symbol imported from Europe. 2. However, they are environmentally wasteful. Even in 1987 when this was published, lawns covered 25-30 million acres of America that could have been used for crop production. The average lawn, if used for fruits and vegetables, would yield two thousand 1987-dollars worth of crop. FULL ENTRY

Champagne living or a beer budget?

Posted by Rona Fischman July 20, 2009 02:53 PM

Sam Schneiderman, Broker-owner of Greater Boston Home Team continues his Monday series.

I was recently talking with an economist about helping him buy his next home. As we were discussing his wants and needs, of course the subject turned to price.

This gentleman, who we will call George (not his real name) has been around the real estate block a few times. He has lived in several cities and is now retired. We spoke about homes he has lived in over the years and he reminisced about his first apartment, a suburban single family home that worked well as he was raising children and the condo he is in now. Now that his children are grown, we discussed his desire to spend his retirement years in an urban condo where he can walk to most amenities.

As we discussed his targeted price range and condo fees, George shared his philosophy about home buying.


The town square

Posted by Rona Fischman March 12, 2009 03:34 PM

Last week, we talked about the perfect density for a home. Some tried to put a town name on the place. Remember, we are doing fantasy, not reality.

Today, we talk about what is in town when you go to town.
What is in your fantasy town center? Is there shopping? What kind of shopping? Does it have stores with everything and anything you want, big stores? Or are there Mom and Pop places with specialty items? Both?
Are there cultural venues like theater? Museums? Live music venues?
Are there places to go on a date? Restaurants? Movies?
Is there street life? Does the town hold farmer’s market or street vendor events? Is there a children’s recreation center?
What recreation is there, overall? Is there a municipal pool? A skating rink? Tennis courts? A track? Parks and wooded walking paths?
What annual events would you want to have? Fireworks? Parades? Races? Fairs?

Create your perfect town or city here.


Your fantasy home

Posted by Rona Fischman March 5, 2009 02:53 PM

Marcus asked:

Rona, do you ever ask your clients what their absolute fantasy neighborhood would look like? I'm not talking about picking from existing neighborhoods; I mean describing what you wish you could find--the type and size of house, the neighbors you'd meet, the amenities nearby, how you'd spend your time. It can be an interesting question, as long as you can steer discussion away from pure money per se.

OK, Marcus, you are on! I don’t ask my clients, but I will ask my readers…

Dear Readers,
If money were no object, where would you live? What would your house look like? What would be around it?

Today, let’s talk about density. How much crowding is too much crowding? How much space is too much space? If you could live anywhere, would you choose city life, or would you want 100 acres between you and the next house in town? Is suburbia to best of both worlds?


The city mouse and the country mouse in the snow

Posted by Rona Fischman January 6, 2009 03:43 PM

When house-hunting, I point out things about homes that will affect my buyers in the winter: lots of steps, steep steps, hills, low and shaded doorways, sunken driveways. However, by the time that we are house-hunting, my clients have already made the biggest winter decision: city, suburban, or rural.

Boston and the other cities of Massachusetts are relatively small cities. Massachusetts suburban life varies from homes on 3000 square foot sized lots -- where neighbors can easily get to neighbors -- to towns where homes have acres to themselves -- with gates, walls and total privacy.

Where you live depends on what you can and will spend for your housing. Within a price range, you made some choices about whether you wanted to be a city mouse or a country mouse.


Dashing through the snow

Posted by Rona Fischman January 2, 2009 03:12 PM

By law, everyone is supposed to clear their walks after a snowfall. This winter, that has been already created a lot of labor. Since we are in New England, you would think that we’d be prepared for some snow. But, every time we hit a snowy patch, I hear grumbling about those who don’t do their part, or those that do it poorly. Bad-will runs especially deep for businesses that don’t do their part.

In many towns, the fine for not clearing your walk is $25. Is that enough? Some people think it should be more, especially for businesses. One client of mine suggested that businesses that don’t clear their sidewalk should be closed until they clear, because they pose a hazard to public safety.


Home for the holidays

Posted by Rona Fischman December 24, 2008 01:22 PM

The cards started showing up about two weeks ago. Every year, I get cards with houses on the front. It’s not because I am a broker. I get the impression that lots of cards have peaceful, quiet houses which are covered with snow. I got a perfect example from Bob and Margaret. Great card!
Why is it that Christmas is associated with single family homes, snowy streets, and fireplaces? Is it like Thanksgiving, stuck in New England history? You know, “Over the river and through the woods” and all that. (You all know that the song was written about grandparents in Medford, right?)


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.


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.


How does your garden grow?

Posted by Rona Fischman December 5, 2008 03:18 PM

The New Republic column, “Firm Grasp on the Obvious,” cites this headline:

'Light' Meals are Lower in Fat, Calories
Huntington Herald-Dispatch

Equally obvious is this:

Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation study that found Suffolk County residents with the least access to fresh produce, safe parks, and affordable places to exercise were the least healthy.

Cities like Boston, Somerville, and Holyoke have been part of an effort to change this.


I don't want to live in a '60s sitcom

Posted by Rona Fischman December 4, 2008 03:31 PM

WS started a conversation about neighborhoods which got side-tracked to a conversation about the term he used to describe bland, homogeneous neighborhoods. He got some good answers. Are there more?

Where can a person find a neighborhood that is not bland? Where are the neighborhoods to find people of different ages, income levels, cultural backgrounds and family constellations? Where are places where the housing doesn't all look the same? There are a lot of people who prefer these areas to those that remind them of Leave it to Beaver. or Father Knows Best.


Will the rich towns escape?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis December 1, 2008 09:30 AM

So far the real estate downturn has hammered poor urban neighborhoods and middle class towns.

But will the tide of distress reach the golden shores of Weston, Wellesley and Brookline before it finally recedes?

It’s a fair question and one that has sparked a lively debate on the blog.

In one camp are the “location, location, location’’ devotees who appear convinced that no spate of foreclosure auctions will ever taint a Wellesley or Weston.


'White bread' is in the eye of the beholder

Posted by Rona Fischman November 19, 2008 02:45 PM

WSJevons wrote about his quest for a "not white bread" neighborhood.


Thanks for the info*. It is tough to find truly integrated communities in Boston.

Any readers (who are not real estate agents) have thoughts on communities that have a diverse mix of people?

* Is white bread a protected class?

Here's the answer I can give, as a broker. The rest is up to you, readers! Please! No bashing on anyone's race, religion or sexual preference!

These are the protected classes: Race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex (gender), sexual orientation, marital status, veteran status, disability (mental or physical,) age (except elderly retirement communities that meet certain standards.)
There are additional classes in regard to rental housing.

"White bread" is not on the list.

I trust that when WS says “white bread,” he does not just mean Caucasian. I wouldn’t define it that way. You can figure out the "white bread" factor for yourselves, based on your personal definition. Look at the businesses an area supports, what kinds of cars are parked around, what bumper stickers are on the cars, what size is the average home there...There are many things that are not directly related to the color of the skin, the ethnic or religious origins, or who your neighbors choose as life partners. Look around you, the signs are everywhere!


My home town is called...

Posted by Rona Fischman November 12, 2008 03:17 PM

My question today is about home-town identity. I would like to hear from some of the small-town readers, those who went to regional schools, those who went to small local schools. How does home-town identity shape you?

In tough times, should towns that have been sharing facilities merge? Is it worth the change in identity to streamline the services paid for by municipal tax? Wenham and Hamilton are discussing just that. They already share a library and a regional high school, so why not get married? Two can live as cheaply as one, my grandmother used to say.


Wanna take a walk?

Posted by Rona Fischman October 14, 2008 10:06 PM has a great new utility on its site. It’s from Walk Score. It ranks a home in relation to how conveniently located it is to grocery stores, parks, restaurants, coffee shops, parks, movies, bars, mass transit stations and more. Homes that score 90 or above are deemed a “Walker’s Paradise,” homes scored between 70 to 89 as “Very Walkable,” 50 to 69 as “Somewhat Walkable,” and 0 to 49 as “Car Dependent.”

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Scott Van Voorhis is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate and business issues.

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