Monthly Archives: October 2015

Spent Your $20.34 on Halloween Home Decor Yet?

pumpkinThat’s how much the National Retail Federation (NRF) says each of the two-in-five Americans planning to decorate their home this year will spend, on average. (The figure is based on a Consumer Spending Survey it commissioned from Prosper Insights & Analytics.)

When you add up all this spending, you get a total of $1.9 billion. That’s a lot of styrofoam tombstones and hay bales!

With all this home decorating, will extreme displays become the next big grounds for neighbor disputes and lawsuits? Winter holiday lights displays always seem to engender their fair share.

Legally speaking, a display that’s so extreme that it affects others’ enjoyment of their home–perhaps due to light, increased traffic as people drive by for a look, or incessant sounds of creaking doors and “Mwah hah hah hah” laughter–can, in theory, provide grounds for a nuisance claim in court, just as with holiday lights displays.

Courts are, however, reluctant to interfere with people’s property rights, and worried about placing unconstitutional restrictions on free speech. So a display would have to be pretty egregious before a court would order a change (leaving aside the fact that Halloween will likely be over before you can get into court).

One wonders what the court would have said about the Parma, Ohio family who made the news this year (even being written up in the U.K. Daily Mail!) with a Halloween display that caused children to become scared and start crying as they walked past on their way to school.

The display reportedly includes multiple and highly realistic human bodies: a crucified man upside down, a child with a knife in its throat, and a body, wrapped in plastic, hanging headfirst from a tree. (Ick. I don’t recommend looking at the photos.)

City officials refused to step in, on grounds of freedom of expression. But after public complaint and concern, the family seems to have taken down the display on its own.

Do You Really Want to Know Whether Someone Died in the Home You’re Buying?

deathbedGuess what? You can now find out whether a death took place on a particular property, thanks to a website called (With thanks also to Amy Swinderman of Inman News for pointing this website out.)

The service is not free, however. Obtaining this little tidbit of knowledge will cost you $11.99 for a single search, with discounts for multiple searches (most likely to be used by real estate agents).

This raises the question: How badly do you want the information?

First off, in some states, a prospective home buyer has other ways of obtaining information about deaths on a property. Home sellers in California, for example, must by law disclose in writing any deaths that occurred on the property within the last three years.

And even in states without such a legal requirement, you can, as a prospective buyer always ask the seller whether anyone has died in the house. Sellers might not be legally required to answer this particular question, but they can’t lie, either. (Outright lies are considered fraud in every state, providing grounds for a lawsuit.) Then again, sellers might not know about deaths that took place before they bought the house.

How about a Google (or similar) search using the property address or the owners’ names? This won’t bring up every death, but it will bring up the ones you’re probably most worried about–violent or especially tragic deaths. It might even bring up reports of hauntings!

These may be significant when assessing the home as an investment. A property where a notorious death has taken place might be “stigmatized,” and therefore hard to sell when you’re ready for your next move.

Before going too far down the rabbit hole of online and other searches, however, consider that before World War I, most deaths took place at home. If you’re buying a historical house in America, you should simply expect that someone has died there at some point–and perhaps think of it as the natural completion of a life cycle rather than as a manifestation of the macabre.

California Becomes a “Right to Dry” State!

photo (7)Good news for Californians who want to save energy by hanging their laundry outdoors on a clothesline or a drying rack: Governor Jerry Brown recently signed AB-1448, a law prohibiting both homeowners’ associations and landlords from placing unreasonable restrictions on hanging clothes out to dry.

“I didn’t even know hanging laundry was illegal before!” is a comment I’ve heard from some in response to this new law. Well, it wasn’t. And if no one has ever stopped you from hanging laundry, then the bill won’t likely change your life. (Unless you someday move, or downsize to a condo . . . .)

Two groups of people are greatly affected, however. These include:

  1. People who live in condominiums, townhouses, or homes built in common-interest developments and under the governance of a property association or homeowners’ association (HOA). Members of such communities are routinely covered by rules and restrictions (often contained in a document called Covenants, Conditions, & Restrictions or CC&Rs). In some cases, these rules are part of the appeal of living in a planned community. They make sure that one’s neighbors can’t leave trash in the yard or paint their house in camouflage or rainbow tones. But if you wanted to hang laundry in your back yard, and were in a community where the rules said, “No go,” you were forced to run your dryer. (If you don’t have a back yard, however, the new law might not help you. You still can’t hang your clothes in a common area if the rules forbid it.)
  2. Tenants whose landlords forbid hanging laundry. They can now use a clothesline or drying rack, if approved by the landlord and placed within the tenant’s private area, and so long as the line or rack doesn’t interfere with property maintenance.

The new law doesn’t create a laundry-hanging free-for-all. Homeowners’ associations as well as landlords may still set reasonable restrictions, including on the time and location of hanging laundry.

But it’s an important start, especially given that, as the bill drafters noted, the California Energy Commission has found that “Clothes dryers can be one of the most expensive home appliances to operate, using approximately 6 percent of a home’s total electricity usage.”

Frankly, I’m not sure what all the fuss was about in the first place. As California author/illustrator Constance Anderson has noticed, a line full laundry swaying in the breeze can be beautiful. The image above is borrowed from her children’s book about people hanging laundry around the world, Smelling Sunshine

Constance further explains that in preparing the book, she drew upon her childhood experience of hanging laundry in southern California with a busy mother. “When we hung laundry together, we slowed down to take in the sights and smells and sounds of the world around us, which brought us closer. Then, at the end of the day, I would pull up the covers and that wonderful smell of the outdoors and its memories, what I call the smell of sunshine, was in the sheets.”

Millennial Homebuying Trends

desmoinesDon’t be put off by the apparent regional focus of NPR’s October 13, 2015 news story, “Why Are Millennials Buying So Many Houses In Des Moines?” It’s packed full of interesting information about the home-buying  habits of young-ish people (born between 1982 and 2004) nationwide.

Much of the information is provided by Elora Raymond, researcher for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for, and Rachel Flint, Vice President of Suburban-Des Moines-based Hubbell Realty. These guests point out, for example, that:

  • The youngest first-time homebuyers tend to have the strongest credit rating, despite carrying a lot of student loan debt.
  • One thing that helps millennials’ credit rating is that they avoid credit card loans.
  • Another thing that helps their credit rating is that they avoid car debt; in fact, they aren’t big on car-buying at all, favoring homes in walkable areas, about a mile closer to city center than is typical for other buyers.
  • Some save up to buy a house while living in their parents’ basements.

My favorite point from the report, however, was the trend-bucking comment of recent homebuyer Dani Ausen, who says that the bold interior paint colors (orange, red and dark turquoise) “kind of sold the house to me . . . Seeing it not, like, painted all white or beige was very helpful.” So, mea culpa, I’ve repeated the industry wisdom of painting one’s home in neutral paint colors many a time.  And it’s still good advice . . . except when it isn’t!

California Passes New Equal Pay Law

The gengavel over money istockder gap is alive and well in California. According to a 2014 study by the National Women’s Law Center, a woman working full time in California still earns only 84 cents for every dollar that a man makes. For women of color, the gap is even more significant. For example, a Latina woman earns only 44 cents for every dollar that a white man makes.

On October 6, 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Fair Pay Act into law. The new law, which goes into effect on January 1, 2016, expands on California’s Equal Pay Act of 1949 and makes it easier for women to challenge discriminatory pay practices.

California employers have long been required pay to men and women equally. However, in the past, this rule applied only when the man and woman performed “equal work” in the same location. The new law relaxes this requirement, requiring equal pay for “substantially similar” work, even if the employees work in different offices or locations. The new law also encourages an open discourse about wages: Employers are not allowed to prohibit employees from discussing their wages or retaliate against them for doing so.

Another significant change is that the law shifts the burden of proof to the employer. Once an employee challenges an unequal pay practice, the employer must prove that the difference in pay is due to a legitimate factor other than gender—such as seniority, qualifications, or the quantity or quality of work. If the employer isn’t able to meet its burden, the employee can recover the difference in wages plus interest, an equal amount in liquidated damages, and attorneys’ fees and cost.