Category Archives: Green Living

Miami Real Estate Industry Willfully Blind to Sea Level Rise

fla hurricaneIt takes a writer from a British newspaper to point up the absurdity of human behavior in Miami, where despite obviously rising sea levels, “The local population is steadily increasing; land prices continue to surge; and building is progressing at a generous pace.” (See “Miami, the great world city, is drowning while the powers that be look away,” by Robin McKie, Friday 11 July 2014.)

Many Miami residents are apparently  living in a state of denial. And not just climate change denial, by the look of it. To deny climate change is, after all, primarily to deny that humans are the cause of changes in the environment.

No, in the case, we seem to be witnessing literal denial of what’s in front of people’s eyes: walls of seawater, increasingly regular flooding, shopkeepers who “keep plastic bags and rubber bands handy to wrap around their feet when they have to get to their cars through rising waters,” and homeowners who “have found that ground-floor spaces in garages are no longer safe to keep their cars.”

Yes, they’re building sea walls and other measures to hold back the waters, but scientists believe these measures will offer only short-term relief. And it’s not just a problem of occasional high waves. As McKie describes, Miami is “is built on a dome of porous limestone which is soaking up the rising seawater, slowly filling up the city’s foundations and then bubbling up through drains and pipes. Sewage is being forced upwards and fresh water polluted.”  Meanwhile, the cost of the stopgap measures is in the billions.

Just for fun, I took a look at some ads for Miami real estate, wondering whether the homes on higher ground would at least mention that fact — as would seem doubly important, given that the local architectural style seems to be one story, even if it’s a one-story sprawling mansion.

Nope, the real estate agents who write these ads have chosen to not breathe a word about threats from the elements. You might think the beach in Miami didn’t even exist. Most ads talk about local shopping, schools, and golf courses. Oh, but there was one that advertised, “All windows and doors hurricane proof. ”  So, at least one home seller in Miami is getting real! And getting out of town, I’ll bet.

Friday Real Estate Fun: Ideal House Features

kittyOne of the fun parts of shopping for a home is dreaming about all the great features you’d like to find there — and then maybe being surprised by a few that you didn’t expect or know existed. With that in mind, check out “27 Things That Definitely Belong in Your Dream Home.”

Me, I like the hidden room — it evokes childhood reading about castles full of secret passageways and oubliettes.

Of course, homebuyers will have to listen to the voice of practicality all too soon, and I’m not just talking about affordability. Look at how many commenters pointed out what the neighborhood cats are likely to do with the sandbox! For more on practical matters, see the “Choosing a House” section of Nolo’s website.


Will This Be Your Year for Home Improvements?

No points for originality will be awarded to anyone currently thinking, “Gee, we can’t afford to move, so let’s remodel or add on to this place.” The amount of spending on such projects is set to double in 2013, according to a report from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Homeowners are doing everything from retrofitting with the idea of aging in place to improving their homes’ energy efficiency. And some recent homebuyers or investors are finding that the distressed properties they now own will require some improvements, like it or not.

So, apart from their lack of originality, might home renovations be a good idea for you? Here are some issues to consider:

  • How will you pay for repairs? If you’ve got cash on hand, great. If you’ll be looking for a loan, and are underwater on your current mortgage, don’t bother. You will need equity to borrow against — 25-35% equity in your home, according to what Mark Yecies, an owner of SunQuest Funding in New Jersey, told The New York Times reporter Lisa Prevost.
  • Will the changes increase your home’s  market value? In the abstract, any home improvement should make your house more saleable, unless it’s truly weird, wacky, or suited to unique tastes and interests. But even sensible repairs with broad appeal don’t always cover their own costs when the homeowner sells, as described in Nolo’s article, “Do Home Improvements Add Value?
  • Will the costs reduce your capital gains tax bill when you sell? If your profits on an eventual home sale will take you over the $250,000 ($500,000 per couple) capital gains tax exclusion, it’s worth figuring out which of your renovations costs are considered “improvements” rather than mere “repairs,” and therefore which ones will raise your cost basis in the property (in effect, raise your purchase price and thereby reduce your profit). For more information, see IRS Publication 551, Basis of Assets, and look for the section on real property.

If all looks good, it’s time to start looking for a contractor. But get ready for some competition and possibly long waits. See “Hiring a Contractor for Home Improvements” for additional tips.


Maybe Money DOES Grow on Trees

Neighborhood trees have been getting a lot of good press lately. First there was writer Tim De Chant, who created an Internet sensation last summer after posting his “Income inequality, as seen from space” blog series. It showed satellite photos of rich and poor neighborhoods in various cities.

The contrast was stark, revealing in shades of green and gray that “rich people . . .  have a lot more trees than poor people.” That’s Tim De Chant talking to Matt O’Brien of the San Jose Mercury News, whose article “Gauge of Bay Area neighborhood wealth? Look to the trees” also quotes Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwel saying, “If you have a tree-lined street, property values go up.”

Next we have the October 2012 issue of Money magazine, in which Josh Garskof writes that a tree “may be contributing 8% to 10% [of] your home’s value, according to Scott Cullen of the Council of Tree and Landscape Appraisers.” Not only that, trees can save you money, as (Garskof continues) “a big shade tree will knock nearly $70 off annual air conditioning bills, says David Nowak of the U.S. Forest service, and a large evergreen that blocks winter winds will reduce heating costs by around $60 a year.”

Are we convinced yet? Of course, big trees can also be a source of worries and neighbor conflict. Nolo’s website offers a lot of useful guidance on legal matters relating to trees, in its “Trees and Neighbors FAQ” (with questions like, “My neighbor’s tree looks like it’s going to fall on my house any day now. What should I do?“) and the “Neighbor Disputes” section.

Unexpected Homebuyer Expense: New Cookware for Induction Stove

I thought I knew a thing or two about cooking, but when a friend told me that she’d recently bought a house with an “induction” stove, I had to ask, “What’s that?”

Turns out it’s touted as the hot new thing (or old thing, among cooking professionals); a method of cooking that’s not gas, not electric (or not exactly), but . . . electromagnetic. Instead of the traditional heat transfer from burner to pot of food, the burner/stovetop elements generate a field that causes the cooking pot to become hot on its own. Or something like that.

It’s fast, it’s precise, and no heat is wasted. Your kitchen doesn’t get as hot, and your cat can walk across the stove without suffering burnt paws.

But here’s the part of it that seems a bit iffy from a home-sales perspective. The seller didn’t tell the buyers about it in the disclosure forms, nor advertise it in the sales literature. My friend didn’t find out until the final walk-through, just before closing.

Which might not be a problem, except that guess what: You can’t necessarily use your normal pots and pans on an induction stove. You have to buy iron or steel ones that will do the right magnetic thing. Bye-bye aluminum, copper, or glass cookware.

“It was frustrating, because we’d just gotten married and had all this beautiful new non-stick cookware,” she says. “Our favorite pots and pans all gave us error messages when we tried them on our new stove. So did the new stuff that my husband laid out money for online, even though it had been advertised as induction-stove friendly. We’ve been eating a lot of microwaved dinners lately.”

How’s that for an unplanned budget item? (Or items, if you count all the prepared-food costs for nights of microwaving.) Sellers, I think buyers might want to know about this one — both because of the pros and the cons. While technically speaking, it might not fall within your disclosure obligations — which mainly include defects (and a high-tech stove can be seen as a property enhancement) — the old maxim about “When in doubt, disclose” seems apt here, if only for the sake of good buyer relations. For more information on what sellers must disclose, see Nolo’s article, “Required Disclosures When Selling Real Estate.”

How Do You Market One of the Greenest Homes in the World?

“You’ve only got one house renovation like this in your lifetime,” says owner David Gottfried of the 1915 Craftsman bungalow in Oakland that he and his wife Sara turned into an environmentally conscious gem. The renovation earned multiple awards and literally broke records, getting more “Build It Green” points than any previous home, and becoming (for a while) the highest rated LEED home in the United States.

The upgrades included things like redoing the kitchen and bathrooms with recycled glass tile and concrete counters; adding rainwater- and graywater-capture systems to irrigate the yard and use in the half-bath toilet; adding solar panels and a solar hot water heater; replacing the windows with double-paned glass and adding insulation; adding radiant heating and energy-efficient appliances; relandscaping with vegetables and native, drought-tolerant plants; and much more. Throughout the renovation, the Gottfrieds reused wood and hardware from within the house and from other sources.

Gottfried’s attention to detail is such that he went so far as to take each radiant heating unit (which come in white, white, and white) to an auto body shop and have it repainted to match the intended color of the room — and the rooms are, of course, painted with no VOC paint. (If you look closely, there’s a brown-painted radiant heating unit on the wall to the far right of the bed there.)

But now that Gottfried’s family needs more space, it’s time to sell the house. And that means having to somehow convey to buyers all the valuable work that went into it. “It has presented a challenge,” says Gottfried. One unusual step they took was to create a list of the home’s “Green Features,” to be passed out to visitors. But with 31 items on the list, buyers might not absorb it all, or realize what they were actually looking at while walking through, room by room.

So Gottfried came up with an additional idea — one I’ve never seen used anywhere else — to place small, elegantly fashioned signs in each room, explaining its particular green features.

To the left is the sign in the bathroom, for example, listing features like the recycled content steel bathtub, Energy Star exhaust fan, dual flush toilet, and so on.

Gottfried had also previously created a website for the home, “DAVID GOTTFRIED GREEN HOME,” which now mentions that it’s for sale. And of course, the selling agent has made sure to mention the LEED certification and other green features in the marketing materials.

Even if your home isn’t one of the greenest in the country, consider, when you sell, whether you can use some of these strategies to explain what’s special about the house — or what buyers might not notice without it being brought to their attention.

Real Estate Agents Developing Specialties

Just as with flavors and caffeine levels of soda pop, the choices to be made among real estate agents has expanded over the years — despite, or maybe because of, the down economy.

As Marilyn Kennedy Melia points out in her article, “1. Change, 2. Choices,” you can now find agents to help with short sales, foreclosures, buying or selling a “green” home, and more.

Meanwhile, other agents have (according to seemingly good authority within the article — namely me!) packed up their offices and headed for careers with less uncertainty and competition.

Marilyn also quotes me as saying it’s worth asking agents about their negotiating style before signing them up. Indeed, carefully observing an agent’s personal style and trying to get a handle on how he or she will represent you in front of the other party is particularly important for both buyers and sellers, because negotiations can get contentious.

Buyers have leverage in today’s market, and they know it. Many deal have fallen apart over amounts of money both large and small, for example because the buyer negotiated hard over repair costs after the home inspection. It’s all too common for either the seller or the buyer — or both — to start to “take a stand” on mere principle, forgetting that the ultimate goal is to transfer the house.

WIthout a skilled agent to smooth relations with the other party, not to mention provide a voice of reason when you yourself most need it, a deal that looked rosy one day can simply wilt and die the next.

By the way, I’ve got a whole list of other questions you might want to ask agents before signing them up — you’ll find it in the article “Choosing Your Real Estate Agent.”