Saturday, December 29, 2007

I Waved at My son on Google Street Maps and Yelled at Him to Put on His Shirt!

If you like this, you can see more of my articles here:
http://www.associatedcontent.com/user/106610/jcorn.html
Copyright: jcorn

Alerted by a neighbor, I went over to Google maps recently to see the recent updates there. This wasn't my first visit to the site. I'd seen aerial views of our home before, the kind you might see in a private plane or helicopter. They were kind of nice but not particularly detailed. I liked to look at them now and then, figuring that was as close to being viewed by celebrity photographers as our family was going to get, unless they had a slow news day. We don't sunbathe nude, abuse our kids or pose for photographers - or so I thought.

But I got a jolt when I saw our home this time around. Here's how I did it. First, I went to Google maps at maps.google.com and then I typed in our street address. From there, I got an approximate address. I then clicked on the street view screen which happened to go to a home only a few houses from our home. At that point, I went to the left side of the page and simply scrolled north and south to find our home. And there it was - at street level- in full detail. Not just one shot, either, but several photos, apparently taken from different angles and on different days. Gee, I guess we were more interesting to photographers than I thought.

I took a closer look. Wait a minute! Who was that person in our driveway?It was our son, no shirt on, looking directly at the cameraman (or woman). Yes, our driveway. Until that moment, I always thought street view meant "in the street." But apparently a street view means that Google can take a photo of our home and family members - as they did - as long as the person behind the camera is actually in the street.

If you feel confused by all this, you are not alone. I was so surprised that I actually tried to wave to my son and even made gestures to indicate that he should turn around, consider throwing on a shirt and not actually look as though he was posing for the camera. Yes, he was looking right into the camera with a puzzled expression. I know he had a puzzled expression because I asked him and he actually remembered seeing a stranger taking photos of him, not an everyday experience for us (as noted, we aren't famous).

I haven't been able to enlarge the photo more but I intend to, just as some other person might do while cruising on the internet, perhaps someone scoping out our neighborhood before buying our home. Call me odd but I wasn't exactly pleased that just. anyone could have seen that shot of my son, shirtless. I could decide to make a link to the actual image or page if I wanted and could even email that to anyone else. Gee, how....unprivate our lives suddenly seemed.

I'm not alone when it comes to feeling uncomfortable with Google maps. A neighbor wasn't too happy about the photo they took of her while she was gardening, not exactly dressed for company, with her backside bent towards the camera (she has lost weight since then but that shot wasn't the motivation). Now her "before" photo is there for all the world to see, not a pleasant experience for her, although it has helped her keep off the pounds. Even so, she isn't happy with the photos.

It could have been worse because she was wearing a swimming suit top that day, not a scanty one but still more revealing than she would have displayed to the internet or even while going shopping. She actually assumed she was in the privacy of her front yard in a quiet neighborhood with very little traffic...and it was a very hot day. She won't make that mistake again.

As I scrolled up and down the street using Google Street View, I realized that someone had taken not one shot but several photos of our home and of the neighboring houses. I knew this because our son was in all of the photos and in each one he had on a different shirt and pants. I know my son well enough to realize that he doesn't generally change into three sets of clothes in a typical day, especially not the bright, sunny days shown on Google Street View.

This was a bit more detail than I liked. Perhaps you feel the same. Another writer brought up the possibility of Google street maps and privacy rights as well as invasion of privacy. You can see that article here: www.associatedcontent.com/article/478511/is_googles_street_view_an_invasion.html. I highly recommend it as the writer brings up the various issues when it comes to privacy and security issues. When I read that article, our street hadn't yet appeared in such detail.

I have to admit it was one thing reading about the theoretical use of Google Street View and then seeing our own home - and son - in actual photos. I didn't like the fact that anyone could link to that page or email the shots. It creeped me out.

The result? When I'm outside in the garden this summer and hear a car drive by, I'll be wondering just who is inside it and whether or not that person has a camera. My private life suddenly seems a lot less private than it did before.

Real estate company going out of business

Check out this article:
http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/490039/what_to_do_if_your_mortgage_company.html

Writing credit:
Donna Talarico, Associated Content

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Will a poor housing market lead to an equally poor season for Christmas sales?

According to the latest news, including that at Bloomberg.com at there are indications that home prices seem to have dropped to there lowest point of the last six years.

Home values in 20 U.S. metropolitan areas slid 4.4 percent in the 12 months that ended in August, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home-price index.

Will consumers will put a brake on holiday spending this year (as their confidence is lower as well, according to the latest reports)? The latest news could trigger a recession or sharply increase the risk of one.

On a related note, while doing a report on holiday gifts and retail prices for another publication, I noted that stores seemed overstocked with items in my area (midwest) and prices were generally higher for holiday items than last year but sales weren't exactly brisk (yet). The International Council of Shopping Centers and UBS Securities LLC last week reduced their October chain-store sales forecast as merchants dropped prices to attract buyers.Target Corp. last week lowered its October sales forecast and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, cut prices on 15,000 items for the holidays.


As noted in the Bloomberg report, there are other factors at play when it comes to consumer spending and confidence in both the housing market and the general economy, including rising prices for fuel (ours jumped more than 50% last winter) and a decline in property prices. In Indiana, homeowners are reeling in the wake of a sudden and sharp rise in property taxes but that situation is still developing and being debated.

``Housing is clearly the root of the problem," as noted by Carl Riccadonna, an economist in New York at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. (Bloomberg report online).

Fed officials and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson aren't exactly optimistic, believing that the housing slump has further to go. Near-record inventory levels suggest sellers will continue to lower prices, posing a threat to consumer spending because homeowners will have less equity to borrow against.

Fifteen cities showed a year-over-year decline in prices, led by a 10 percent drop in Tampa, Florida, and a 9 percent decline in Detroit. The area showing the biggest gain was Seattle with a 5.7 percent increase.


``The outlook for sales heading into the holiday season looks gloomier than a year ago,'' said David Resler, chief economist at Nomura Securities International Inc. in New York. ``With the surge in oil prices likely to soon push up gasoline and home-heating oil prices, more consumers are likely to be forced to curb their holiday shopping.''

Saturday, October 20, 2007

How We Redecorated Our Kitchen for Less than $1000

Like so many, I've lusted after granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances but had to face the fact that we'd have to compromise, deeply, to get a temporary kitchen face lift. Our budget? A mere $1,000, an amount that is less than the price of many refrigerators or cooktops or ovens. But even on this relatively small budget our kitchen went from dark to dazzling, light and bright. People said it looked like a brand new kitchen. Best of all, the tips we used could work in nearly any home.

HERE'S THE TIME LINE AND COST BREAKDOWN:

STEP ONE: We looked at a ton of magazines to see what we liked and how much it cost. You can get current issues of magazines online or for free while browsing in the library. You can make copies of pages that appeal to you.
Cost: less than $10.00, thanks to some we purchased and some we got from friends after they'd finished looking at them as well as our public library, a great resource.

STEP TWO: We paid a home stager a mere $50 to suggest paint colors to replace the colors on the outdated wall coverings and cabinets. She even gave us actual paint chips and color names and told us how to rearrange our kitchen furniture, replace lighting and direct attention to the window and view of the woods outside (a major focal point). A home stager, by the way, is someone who generally helps prospective home sellers freshen up tired homes for very little money. We weren't planning to sell but we were on a tight budget so this worked out well.

Cost: $50.00 and worth every dollar.

STEP THREE: If you don't have a focal point in your kitchen, decide on one. Maybe it will be a great window view or simply an arrangement of paintings on the wall. But every room needs a focal point. The good news is that you don't have to spend a fortune to get one. A few inexpensive paintings or prints arranged artfully on a wall across from your kitchen table can be a good start. Or an attractive window treatment that draws attention to your window view.

Cost to decide on focal point: $0 plus the advice of the home stager.

STEP FOUR: Clear off all the shelves and get rid of all the clutter, if only "temporarily". You can't see the actual "bones" of your kitchen

Cost: our time.

STEP FIVE: We replaced our sink with a new sparkling one:

Cost : 190.00

STEP SIX - We stripped the wallpaper and painted the walls and cabinets ourselves:

Cost: less than $100.00 Bought wallpaper on sale, got paint on sale too. Yes, our time is worth money but we donated that to the cause :) But allow time for this. It took an entire weekend, from Friday night to Sunday evening.

STEP SEVEN: Laminate flooring - $300.00

STEP EIGHT: New accessories but only a few, Here is where the home stager came in handy again, suggesting the trends that would help us make the most of our limited budget. She found us trendy candles and new artwork and prints at a fraction of retail.

COST: Less than $50.00. We used what we had, mostly. We discovered that a plant and a bowl of fruit are very attractive as a centerpiece in any room, including the kitchen.

STEP NINE: We changed our habits. NO clutter remains for more than 24 hours (yes, that is hard to do). We keep the table set because it is pretty hard to pile up clutter on a kitchen table that is always set for meals. Plus, it simplifies things at dinner time. If you don't like the idea of having your plates sitting around all day, turn them face down till dinner time. No dust, no dirt to worry about.

Cost: An Attitude Change, not painless, but nearly so.

Final result? Better than we'd ever hoped! Gone were the dark wood cabinets, replaced by bright, glossy white paint. Along with the new flooring, sink and restaging of the room, we felt we had a brand new kitchen. We're still saving for those granite countertops and stainless steel appliances but we're more than satisfied by what we achieved within the limits of our budget. We expected a minor redo and got the look of a new kitchen.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Renovating? Live in a Home build before 1978? Protect Yourself against Lead Paint Exposure!

According to a study conducted by Angie's List (http://www.angieslist.com) in cities across the nation, 51 percent of poll respondents who were surveyed nationwide live in a home built prior to 1978.( leadsafety.angieslist.com/index.htm )They also contacted nearly 200 painters, remodelers and home improvement stores to find out if they offer proper advice and/or follow lead-safe work practices in homes where they're working. Roughly one-third gave info that could be harmful to children! That's right - one out of every three.

It is no secret that lead paint has been getting a lot of attention in the news these days, including recent articles about toys imported from China that made it into some major stores or other venues. But studies conducted by the company and others indicate that a significant number of people are not always aware of the continued and very real dangers of lead paint on the actual structure of consumers' homes (around windows, on walls, etc). But how many people realize that their own homes could be sources of lead contamination, no matter how nice the neighborhood?

What you need to know:

1. Determine for sure if you live in a house that was built before 1978 - or used paint or materials that were manufactured before then. Homeowners may know this information but if you rent, don't assume - ask. Also be aware that if you live in a home built before 1960, the odds are high that lead-based paint was used at some point and may still be lurking, perhaps under wallpaper or other coats of paint. Paint chips and flakes, so any lead paint on the walls poses a potential risk.

2. Be aware that those most at risk are younger than seven years of age. The risk of lead poisoning on developing brains is brain damage, permanent loss of IQ, learning disabilities and a possible link to lack of impulse control and violence. The damage to young brains can be permanent if proper treatment isn't given as quickly as possible. So be vigilant, informed and act on the information!.

3. Realize that the symptoms of lead poisoning are not always obvious. A blood test from your local health department or a trusted doctor can assess whether you or your child is at risk or has already been exposed to high levels.

4. Know what lead sources you are most likely to encounter and which are most likely to put you or your family at risk. These include lead dust in your home during renovations or stripping of wallpaper and old paint and lead in bare soil around older homes. Lead can remain in the soil and essentially be invisible. Unfortunately, children playing on floors can get lead dust on their toys, blankets, clothes and hands. The amount of dust considered unsafe for kids is very minute, about the size of a small packet of sweetener sprinkled over an area about one-third the size of a football field www.epa.gov/lead/pubs/leadinfo.htm#facts
The main sources of dust are deteriorated paint, most often found around windows and doors (areas of high usage and frictions) and lead soil tracked in from outdoors. Remodeling activities that disturb paint will create dust that will create a hazard for young children.

6. If you want peace of mind, the only way to know for sure if your house has lead hazards is to have a lead risk assessment performed by a trained and licensed professional, or a clearance examination after work that disturbs lead-based paint has been done. Otherwise, assume old paint contains lead and take precautions accordingly.

7. Never presume or assume that your contractor knows about the dangers of lead-based paint. If you are hiring a contractor to do work that will disturb paint, make sure to ask them what they will do to protect your family from lead dust. If they say it's not a problem, without giving valid reasons or if they are clueless about the ages and dates of homes that could be at risk, play it safe - don't hire them. Ask questions to make sure they know how to work with lead paint safely, and that they will have an independent clearance examination after the work is done to confirm that the house meets federal standards for lead.

8. Considering a DIY job (do it yourself)? Be sure to learn about and use the right techniques. You can get HUD's safety tips free at
www.hud.gov/offices/lead/training/LBPguide.pdf

9. Finally, don't break the law! If you are selling or renting your home, you must pass on to potential buyers or tenants any information you have about lead in your home.

Monday, October 8, 2007

When Your Home Doesn't Sell: Becoming a Landlord - One Person's Experience

(used by permission of the author Sherry W)
From Would-Be Seller to Landlord: How I Made the Transition
My husband and I recently found ourselves in quite the pickle. After spending six months crammed into our lovely, but small two-bedroom townhome with two growing (and noisy) children, we decided it was time to move. The little house is beautiful, - updated with granite, stone-tile flooring and shiny new fixtures - and our agent was confident that it would sell quickly whenever we were ready to make a move. We did some casual real estate shopping and were delighted to come upon something just perfect for our family this past February. We acted quickly, and within just a few days, secured financing. Just a short thirty days later, we closed on our new home and moved. That part of the process was simple, and we were delighted with how smoothly things had progressed. We stretched our legs in our new home and relished the extra space.

Then, we placed our competitively priced townhome on the market and waited for a bite. We waited, and waited, and then waited some more. Sixty days and one extreme low-ball offer later, we dropped the asking price and waited some more. No dice. Our agent held open houses, advertised in the local papers and made calls to friends, but nothing happened. I conducted a little research on my own, and determined that two bedroom units simply weren't moving in my area. So, we sighed, dropped the price yet again, and waited some more.

Unfortunately, the mortgage crisis hit, and within a month, the market here was flooded with bank-owned properties. I discovered that regular sellers can't hope to compete with bank-owned property sales, so my husband and I sat down one evening recently and weighed our options: Either drop the price to pull even with bank-owned offerings (which would have meant taking a significant loss), or offer the home as a rental property.

For us, the decision was a relatively easy one to make. Here are the reasons we decided to make our foray into the world of being a landlord:

Positive Cashflow
During the six months that our home was on the sales market, we suffered through paying a double mortgage. Although we've been blessed with the financial resources to afford such a predicament, our savings were on the verge of being sapped dry and the stress was becoming more than bothersome. Despite the fact that our tenants don't pay enough in monthly rent to cover our entire note, it's certainly better to have some money coming in than none at all. We get enough to cover our interest and HOA payment each month, and we absorb the principal and property tax portions of the bill. In addition, our tenants pay all of their own utilities, so we were able to stop picking up the tab for water and electric each month as well.

Vacant No More
Although our old home is located in a very good, low-crime neighborhood, we didn't like the idea of it sitting empty. Vacant homes tend to look less presentable than filled spaces, since regular weekly cleanings don't generally take place and cobwebs tend to show up and flourish.

Free Improvements
Perhaps our tenants are unusual, but they've taken it upon themselves to make improvements to the home without asking us for assistance. They've painted and put up new fixtures and shades, and are doing an excellent job of maintaining the yards. When we do attempt to sell again, their unsolicited efforts will go a long way toward helping us achieve a good sale price.

Of course, if you decide to go the rental route, you do have to be careful. Here are some tips that might be helpful.

Ask a pro
A lot of property owners try to save a few bucks by renting out their own homes, but it's not something I would advise. Work with an experienced real estate agent who specializes in rentals, or hire a property management company to handle the details. It'll cost you fifty to a few hundred dollars each month, but it'll also save you a few hundred headaches. Your agent or management company will handle the details for you, from showing the home to potential tenants, to checking references, to running credit reports, to taking care of the legal aspects of your lease. If you don't relish the idea of being awakened at 2 AM to fix a leaky toilet, definitely hire a property manager.

Check those references
If despite my suggestion above you're still planning to go the do-it-yourself route, be sure to check references. You'll want at least two personal references who can vouch for the prospective tenant's character, as well as the contact information for one or two former landlords who can tell you about their cleanliness and treatment of former homes. And of course, check credit, too!

Advertise, Advertise, Advertise
This should go without saying, but advertise! Many renters in my area find homes on Craigslist.org, so take a half an hour and write a good ad for your home, and then post it there.

Price Middle-of-the-Road
Think of the Three Bears: Too hot, too cold, and just right. If the price is too high, potential tenants will feel the burn and pass by your listing without a serious look. If the price is too low, they'll likely wonder what's wrong with the place, and they'll be more likely to notice each and every flaw when they visit. Do some research on similar rentals in your area, and go for a middle-of-the-road monthly figure.

Allow Pets
Many landlords won't allow pets, so people with furry friends have fewer options when it comes to potential homes. If your home is large enough and you're comfortable with it, allow dogs or cats. Be sure to collect a separate pet deposit if you do, though - you'll definitely want to professionally clean the carpets after your tenants move out.

We still hope to sell next year after our tenants' six-month lease expires, but I hope this advice is of use to someone out there.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Quick Way to Find Out About Potential Bad Neighbors

I've just discovered a new tool for getting the real scoop on who lives in the neighborhood and what their neighbors think of them. The site? http://www.rottenneighbor.com/
and I have to admit it is not only useful but actually intriguing.

It runs on a simple concept: provide an online site where people can tell the truth (in detail if they wish) about their neighbors. Prospective buyers or sellers can log on to the web page and see what those in the neighborhood think.

Here is a sampling of some comments I found for areas near us but not actually on my street (thank goodness):

"Their dogs bark ALL NIGHT LONG! I don't know how THEY sleep through it...My kids get so tired during the day from lack of sleep at night"

Here is another rather curious comment:

" If you don't mind them looking in your windows and underneath a partially opened garage door, then you'll be fine. They're a mess of Granny Gangstas!"

And finally:
"This kid is not a happy camper and his mom lets him cry it out all...the...time. "

This might be one of the few areas on the web where you can get the real lowdown on your neighbors and find out what truly lurks behind their seemingly attractive walls. I don't know about you but I'd prefer to steer clear of barking dogs and snooping old ladies and find a house a bit farther down the block - or even on another street.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Creative Home Buying and Selling Techniques - Think WAY outside the box!

If you think I'm about to tell you to do the usual thing to sell your house, think again. I'm not. You can go to any website and get that info, the same info everyone else has. This site and this article will be focusing on ideas and techniques that are either cutting edge or not the "same old, same old". Feel free to write me, chime in, share your experiences, too. Together we can maximize the savings in one of our largest investments, our home - and minimize the costs.

Okay, now to today's article, listing the potential benefits and risks of various home sale techniques:

As of this writing, home sales are in a major slump in my area, a city hit by a combination of soaring property taxes which were unfortunately assessed just as the housing market took a dive. Foreclosures are at record highs and the For Sale signs are sprouting quicker than weeds. And, of course, no one is buying, not when interest rates aren't as attractive as they once were. Homeowners are getting panicky. I know this not just because I keep up with the local market (as a homeowner; I'm not an agent) but also because I go to Open Houses regularly and I've seen homes drop as much as 200K in one month. Yes, that's right - home prices are dropping quickly, almost in the blink of an eye.


This is that perfect storm situation for many homeowners, some of whom got shaky mortgages, had less than stellar credit and have barely managed to hang on to their homes once their zero interest or other mortgages converted into higher interest loans. Others have gotten job transfers and are stuck between one city and another, renting or buying another home but not able to sell the one they have. Ouch. Then there are the retired or senior citizens who always got by - until their property taxes soared as much as 100% or more in less than five years! Double ouch.

So what is a homeowner to do when faced with the reality of trying to sell a home in today's market? Get creative, very creative and start thinking WAY outside the box. Sure, you can do all the usual stuff: slap on a fresh coat of paint, add some landscaping, maximize curb appeal and clear out the clutter on the inside. But the sad reality is that isn't often enough because everyone else is doing the usual stuff too. Apples are competing with apples when you want your house to stand out from the bunch already out there.

Here's a personal example of creative buying and selling:

When we bought our current home, it was a down market too. The sellers had let the home sit on the market for nearly half a year and it was long past the point of being stale and overexposed to potential buyers. It was practically dead in the water.

When we walked in the door we had no problem seeing why. They hadn't addressed even the most minor of home maintenance issues (tiny cracks in the wall) and the home was filled to the brim with furniture and collectables. You literally couldn't see the lines of the home, the appeal, the 3500 sq feet of space just waiting to be grabbed -which we did for a bargain price.

Which brings me to my first point:
1. If you are trying to buy or sell a house, you may be better off going directly to the seller or buyer and avoid the agent ( but see the potential risks of this below) We did a "handshake deal", negotiating our offer right then and there and, luckily, our seller stuck to the price until we could get everything on paper. Unconventional? Maybe. But it worked and the seller was as relieved as we, the buyers, were.

Potential Benefit:
A lower price, since the seller isn't going to be paying an agent to tout the home and may be willing to negotiate. If you are selling a home, you want it sold by yesterday and if you are buying one, try to find a home that is acceptable to you but being sold by what those in the trade call a "motivated" seller (sometimes known as a desperate seller). Find that perfect price that both buyer and seller can live with.

Potential Risk: Real estate agents do have pull, contacts, experience and knowledge on their side. If they've been doing it a long time, they know other agents and they share information about possible clients, working out commissions and other factors. They also know the ins and outs of home inspections, deal makers and breakers and more.


2. Consider a home trade or barter
At this point, you may think I've really lost it. People share meals, they trade their work for small items, etc. But bartering homes? Huh?! But I'm not the first one to think of this. Sometimes family members trade homes with one another, working out an agreeable (and low) price to make up for differences. On our street, one family downsized and sold their home to their offspring. Worked out great for both.
In another instance, two unrelated families in New Jersey swapped homes on the same street, one family downsizing and the other moving from their three bedroom home to a larger one. (Real Estate Journal.com, August 27). One family paid the other $150K to make up the difference in home value, contacted their lawyers, drew up the papers and the deal was done. So far, so good.

Potential Benefit: You get to stay in the neighborhood, may have been in the home many times, have gotten to see how well it has been maintained, perhaps on your daily walk (all those painters or landscapers you see outside the home every year).

Potential Risk: If you hate the home and regret your decision, you may end up mad at your neighbor. Sometimes it is better not to know the person who owns or trades a home. Don't be too trusting - or wary. Just make sure you do everything legally.

3. Don't overlook the possibility of Craig's list, local ads or even Ebay.
Yep, that's right - Ebay. If your home has a special feature, the benefits of getting it on a national site for relatively low prices is a major plus. If Frank Lloyd Wright designed the furniture or your home has a reputation for being special in some way or connected to a famous architect or once housed a noted author or politician, you have an edge. Even without these assets, you have the benefit of that extra exposure.

Potential benefit: National exposure and helping buyers and sellers reach people who might never know about the home. Again, if you've got special features like a historic home or one that was used for a particular movie, that may appeal to a certain buyer, even if he or she never sets foot in the home but buys it as an investment. It could happen.

Potential Risk: Buying a home sight unseen. Don't do it! If you are the seller, know your buyer.

4. Buy or sell the home that isn't officially listed for sale by checking out sites like Zillow, places where homeowners have "Make me Move" prices, some way overinflated and others right on the mark.

Potential Benefit:
Buyers can find a home that hasn't been listed and a seller who is willing to sell at a reasonable price.

Potential Risk: That part about the vastly overinflated prices, noted above? Know the comps (comparable prices) in the neighborhood.

5. Take a walk around the neighborhood and talk to the neighbors. Find out who is about to buy and/or sell and why. If you are a buyer, you can approach the "seller" and talk prices. They may not accept on the first go-round but if you leave your number, you might get a return call after their home sits awhile. If you are the seller, save the number of anyone who has expressed interest early on. You might need it.

Potential Benefit: Finding the home of your dreams before it hits the market or selling the house you are eager to unload before it sits on the market - or even officially gets there.

Potential Risk - Buying a home for more than it is worth or selling one for less than you could get. Know those comps!

So, there you have it. Five different ways to buy or sell a home by going beyond the norm. I do want to point out that these techniques may work better if you also clear out the clutter, slap that fresh coat of paint on your home and stage your home to look its best. The proven techniques do have their place. But you might not even have to get that far to have that home bought or sold.