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  1. Seven Steps To Earthquake Safety
    Wednesday, April 02, 2014
  2. What Can You Expect?
    Thursday, February 27, 2014
  3. Negotiate Repairs
    Tuesday, February 25, 2014
  4. Free service
    Friday, February 21, 2014
  5. Priced Out
    Wednesday, February 19, 2014
  6. Underfunded US homeowner associations get heavy
    Monday, February 17, 2014
  7. Why 2013 Might be Housing’s Best Year Ever
    Thursday, February 13, 2014
  8. Burglars use social media
    Tuesday, February 11, 2014
  9. What Kind of Showing Was It?
    Friday, February 07, 2014
  10. Can You See the Savings?
    Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Seven Steps To Earthquake Safety

When it comes to disaster, there are simple things you can do to make yourself safer. The information on this page is designed as a step-by-step guide to give you details on what to do before, during, and after an earthquake. Start with the simple tips within each step so that you can build on your accomplishments.

An example of this in Step 1 is moving heavy, unsecured objects from top shelves onto lower ones. This will only take minutes to complete and you are safer from that hazard!

The information in the steps linked below will help you learn how to better prepare to survive and recover, wherever you live, work, or travel.


Before the next big earthquake we recommend these four steps that will make you, your family, or your workplace better prepared to survive and recover quickly:

Step 1:
Secure your space by identifying hazards and securing moveable items.
Step 2:
Plan to be safe by creating a disaster plan and deciding how you will communicate in an emergency.
Step 3:
Organize disaster supplies in convenient locations.
Step 4:
Minimize financial hardship by organizing important documents, strengthening your property, and considering insurance.


During the next big earthquake, and immediately after, is when your level of preparedness will make a difference in how you and others survive and can respond to emergencies:

Step 5:
Drop, Cover, and Hold On when the earth shakes.
Step 6:
Improve safety after earthquakes by evacuating if necessary, helping the injured, and preventing further injuries or damage.

After the immediate threat of the earthquake has passed, your level of preparedness will determine your quality of life in the weeks and months that follow:

Step 7:
Reconnect and Restore
Restore daily life by reconnecting with others, repairing damage, and rebuilding community.


What Can You Expect?

crystal ball 2.pngThe two most frequently quoted constants in life are death and taxes.  Two more things would-be homeowners can expect in the near future are increases in mortgage rates and housing prices.

Interest rates have been kept artificially low for several years by the Federal Reserve in an effort to strengthen the economy. Policy is shifting to allow them to seek their own natural level and that will surely result in higher mortgage rates.  Rates on 30 year fixed mortgages are up over 1% from January, 2013.

Foreclosure activity is down, new home starts are up and prices have been increasing in most markets for two years.  Most experts agree that the cost of housing is going up.

If the price were to go up by 2% and the mortgage rate by 1% while a buyer is “sitting on the fence” making a decision, the payment would go up by almost $175.00 each and every month for the term of the mortgage.  Even if a person can afford to make the higher payments, what could they have done with that extra $175.00 a month?  Buy furniture?  Car payment?  Principal reduction?  Retirement contribution?  Save for a rainy day?

Click here to determine what the cost of waiting to buy will be using your price home.

cost of waiting to buy.png

Negotiate Repairs

Most would-be buyers and sellers believe the real estate “deal” is negotiated at the signing of the contract. By that point, the counteroffers have been made and the back and forth has happened, so it’s easy to assume that the deal will go on auto-pilot until closing.

The reality, though, is that in many cases, the deal-making and negotiations only start at the contract signing. Even in more competitive real estate markets, negotiations still happen once in escrow.

For example, if you’re a buyer, the property inspection or sellers’ disclosures — maybe the HVAC system has some issues — may prompt you to seek a credit. But where do you go from there?

Here are three tips for negotiating repairs after a home inspection.

1. Ask for a credit for the work to be done

The sellers are on their way out. If the property is moving toward closing, they’re likely packing and dreaming of their new home. The last thing they want to do is repair work on their old home. As a result, they may not approach the work with the same conscientiousness that you, as the new owner, would. They may not even treat the work as a high priority. If you take a cash-back credit at close of escrow, you can use that money to complete the project yourself. Chances are you may do a better job than the seller, too. Finally, if you get the credit, there will be less back and forth to confirm the work has been done.

2. Think ‘big picture’

If you know you want to renovate a bathroom within a few years, then you likely won’t care that a little bit of its floor is damaged, that there’s a leaky faucet or that the caulking needs to be redone. These things will get fixed during your future renovation. However, the repairs are still up for negotiation. Asking the seller for a credit to fix these issues will help offset some of your closing costs.

3. Keep your cards close to your chest

A good listing agent will walk the property inspection with you, your agent and the inspector. Revealing your comfort level with the home or your intentions, in the presence of the listing agent, could come back to haunt you in further discussions or negotiations.

For example, if you mention you’re planning a gut renovation of the kitchen, the sellers will certainly hear about it. And they’re going to be less likely to offer you a credit back to repair some of the kitchen cabinets. Also, if the listing agent hears you tell the inspector that you love the home so much you don’t mind replacing the HVAC system, the agent will surely let the sellers know about that.

Eyes wide open

A word of caution: You should never complete the original contract assuming that you can negotiate more as a result of the property inspections. If it’s a competitive market and the property inspection comes back flawless, there’s nothing to negotiate. If you attempt to negotiate anyway — to recoup what you lost in the initial contract negotiations — you risk alienating the sellers and possibly giving them an incentive to move on to the next buyer.

You need to go into escrow with your eyes wide open. A real estate transaction is never a done deal until all the money has been wired in and the deed transferred. Prior to signing the real estate contract, your main concern is that you may be competing with other buyers. Once you’re in escrow and doing inspections, however, it’s just you and the sellers. Stay on your toes. Otherwise, you may risk losing out on further viable negotiation opportunities, which could lead to buyer’s remorse.

Free service

Imagine how great it would be to have a telephone that didn't accept those annoying and illegal commercial robocalls.

Hermann Wolz of La Conner, Wash. doesn't have to imagine. He's one of 25,000 people who now use Nomorobo, the free service that spots robocalls, blocks them and automatically hangs up.

"It's easy to install and it works real well," Wolz said. "I noticed a change right away."

Nomorobo launched about three months ago by Aaron Foss, a Long Island software developer. The cloud-based technology works for people who have Internet-based VoIP phone service. Last year, Foss won the Federal Trade Commission's Robocall Challenge, which came with a $25,000 cash prize.

He promised his call-screening service would work, but there was no way to be sure until it went public.

"We are now blocking 48,000 robocalls per week and getting tons of positive feedback," Foss said. "The demand has been absolutely amazing."

How does it work?

Nomorobo uses a service called "simultaneous ring" that is provided by most VoIP phone companies. This feature allows customers to have numerous phone lines ring at the same time.

If your phone company offers simultaneous ring and you sign up for Nomorobo, all of your calls will also go to Nomorobo's computers. The company uses caller ID and call frequency information to screen them.

When Nomorobo decides a call is a robocall, it hangs up after the first ring. That's how you know a call was blocked.

"The phone rings once and then it just magically stops," said Eric Giers, a business owner in Milford, Conn. "And then you just smile and say, 'I got ya.'"

Giers has four business phone lines. Before Nomorobo, they were constantly ringing with robocalls. Not anymore.

"It's incredibly peaceful here," he told me. "It's like a gift from heaven."

You don't need to have caller ID on your phone for this to work and Foss promises the information he collects is anonymous to protect subscribers' privacy.

There are currently 1.2 million phone numbers in the company's database of blacklisted phone numbers. These known robocallers come from complaints filed with state and federal regulators.

The system isn't perfect. Robocalls do slip through. Foss encourages subscribers to report those numbers so they can be added to the list. It's crowd-sourcing to stop illegal telemarketing.

Nomorobo expanding ... sort of

Anyone with phone service from Comcast and Time Warner Cable can now use Nomorobo. The two cable giants started offering Nomorobo a few weeks ago because they know their customers hate robocalls.

"We are excited about providing our customers with another alternative to block telemarketers and robocalls," said Patti Loyack, vice president of broadband voice for Comcast cable.

Jeff Lindsay, general manager of Home Phones at Time Warner Cable, said, "The last thing we want is for someone to have their enjoyment of our service affected by these nuisance calls."

Nomorobo still does not work with any traditional landline phone service because they don't offer the simultaneous ring feature it requires.

The landline companies say they support Foss, but are limited by their older technology.

"It would be like trying to provide digital service on an analog TV. It just can't be supported," said Kevin Rupy, director of policy development at the United States Telecom Association (USTelecom).

He said traditional phone companies have to be very careful about how they address the robocall issue, because they are governed by regulations that do not apply to cable companies and other VoIP phone services. For example, the FCC requires them to complete all calls and specifically prohibits them from blocking any calls.

"We're not kicking the can down the road, we're not punting on this issue, but we have to be very cautious about how we implement any type of service like this," Rupy said. "It's an extremely complex technological and legal issue."

The industry is making a massive and expensive switch to Internet-based voice technology which would support a Nomorobo-type service. Rupy points out that many phone companies that offer VoIP service (such as AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS) are already compatible with Nomorobo.

He said phone companies are working to create standards that would solve the robocall problem for all types of telecommunication networks. "There is hope" for people with landline phones, he said, but a solution is probably one to two years away.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, doesn't want to wait that long.

"It's time for the telecom industry to do its part to help combat illegal robocalls," McCaskill said in a statement. "Nomorobo and other technologies offer consumers greater options to combat this problem, and it's disappointing that these solutions have not been embraced by our phone companies."

McCaskill said it's become clear that Congress must act to "provide regulators with a robust set of tools to fight these fraudsters." She plans to introduce legislation to do that in the coming weeks.

Note: Nomorobo does not work for wireless phones, but there are a number of robocall blocking apps are available for Android devices, such as PrivacyStar, mrnumber and Blacklist Plus.

Priced Out

Home, Sweet Unaffordable Home

Home, Sweet Unaffordable Home

Higher mortgage rates and home prices are conspiring against potential homeowners. To see where consumers may be priced out if rates hit 5 percent -- or 6 percent -- real estate information website Zillow Inc. screened 100 major metropolitan markets, using the average percentage of monthly income going to mortgage payments from 1985 to 1999 as a base figure for affordability. 

Here we highlight 10 places where 5 percent mortgages, which Zillow expects we'll see by year end, would push that percentage of monthly income (based on income and wage growth data from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics) furthest above the average. We include Zillow's median home values as of September 2013 and its forecast of values a year from then, which go into affordability calculations, as well as analysis of each market by Zillow chief economist Stan Humphries. We order cities by their distance above the average. We then do the same for 10 cities where a 6 percent rate would hurt the most (there's some overlap). Californians, we feel for you. 

Underfunded US homeowner associations get heavy

For six years, Ingrid Boak, who travels a lot for work as a racehorse trainer, ignored mail from her homeowner association.

Boak, of Lexington, Kentucky, says the letters were requests for $48 in annual fees for upkeep of the tidy neighborhood of one-story brick homes. Because she didn't use the clubhouse or pool, or participate in social activities sponsored by the association, she didn't think she needed to pay. Last September, while she was away, a neighbor called to tell her about a handwritten sign tacked to her front door. It said her house had been sold.

Masterson Station Neighborhood Association had foreclosed on her $120,000 home because she had $288 in unpaid dues, according to the association's lawyer, Nathan Billings. Boak was sent nearly 30 notices before her property was foreclosed on, he said; the dues were mandatory association fees.

Boak says she does not remember seeing a foreclosure notice, and no one served her papers in person. She likens the experience to her father's in East Germany, where the communist state took away property rights. "Now I'm 75, and the same thing is happening to me, in America," she says. With her once-good credit damaged, she is unable to buy another house, and now rents her old one from the new owner for $900 a month.
The Community Associations Institute, an advocacy group for homeowner associations, says foreclosures are a last resort, but also a matter of fairness: Neighbors who pay shouldn't be penalized by neighbors who don't. "It's a community, but it has to be run like a business," says spokesman Frank Rathbun.

Fewer potholes, fewer rights

Homeowner associations first took off in the 1970s as local governments looked for a way to offload costly services, such as snow removal and road repair. Municipalities have encouraged their growth since through tax incentives and zoning laws.

Today some 63 million Americans live in homeowner associations, up from 2.1 million in 1970. Four out of five buyers of new homes, including condominiums, end up in such communities.

Supporters point out that they provide services and amenities that preserve the community's character and property values. Some 70 percent of residents say they have a positive experience living in them, according to the Community Associations Institute.

"I live in a community association that provides a wonderful home for me and my family, a wonderful neighborhood and community pool, and that's the way many Americans feel," says Robert Nordlund, a resident of Calabasas, California, and founder of Association Reserves, which helps associations with budget and operational issues.

But people who buy houses in an association often don't bother to read the agreements that spell out what covenants owners are obliged to observe. They may unknowingly forfeit the right to fly a flag in the front yard, let a shrub grow any old size, or allow their kids to shoot hoops in the driveway. Homeowner associations typically have the right to place liens against wayward residents. Either through a court or state-regulated process, they can then foreclose on houses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars even for a few hundred dollars of unpaid debt, much like a municipality can for unpaid property taxes or a bank for a few missed mortgage payments.

Failure of funding

Foreclosures on delinquent properties by homeowner associations were almost unheard of before the financial crisis of 2008. Now lawyers and real estate researchers say they are becoming more common as association funding bases shrink because of previously foreclosed homes' standing empty.

About 70 percent of association-governed communities are underfunded, up 12.5 percent from 10 years ago, according to Association Reserves. The average association has financial reserve accounts—the amount required to maintain infrastructure and common areas—that are only funded at 52 percent, down from 60 percent a decade ago, its research shows.

Tyler Berding, an attorney whose firm is consulting with a San Francisco condo homeowner association, suggests the problem is one of governance. "It's very much akin to the public pension crisis," he said. "Homeowners' associations are simply not putting enough money away to make the repairs and replacements they will have to make over time." The condo in question is having to levy a $70,000 special assessment against each resident to restore the building.

Dog DNA testing

Another reason for underfunding is the inexperience of administrators, often volunteers from the community itself who possess some of the same powers as banks and governments but operate with little of the oversight. Even though these board members oversee what are often multimillion-dollar operations, they require no licensing or training to do their jobs.

Without that discipline, many are now responding to the homeowner association funding crisis by aggressively going after residents for unpaid bills and penalizing them for infractions that would have been overlooked in the past.

Brian Hanrahan of Columbia, Md., had a truck that was running fine. But his condominium association board, believing otherwise, towed it away, using a rule that allowed the removal of inoperable vehicles. The association slapped him with a $200 bill for the towing, which Hanrahan decided to fight in court.

The ensuing litigation cost the association about $175,000. In court documents it said about $70,000 of that was Hanrahan's responsibility because of what it spent "enforcing the governing documents."

Hanrahan won the case and subsequent appeals in a Maryland court. According to his lawyer, Larry Holzman, the case was settled for an undisclosed sum. Holzman has since been hired by the association and declined to comment on its behalf.

Another association, the Villa Medici Condominiums in Jacksonville, Fla., decided to cancel its dog-waste removal service to save money and force errant residents to comply with community rules. In November the board instituted mandatory, $35 DNA testing for all dogs by a company called PooPrints, as a way to identify members who do not pick up after their pets. Delinquent owners face a fine of $100 a day, which can eventually rise to $1,000 for repeat offenders.

"People are furious," said Gunilla Craven, a resident and former board member.

The association did not respond to requests for comment.

Pushing back

Residents can fight something like a foreclosure notice by hiring lawyers, but not everyone wants to take on expensive litigation the way Hanrahan did. Boak, who lost about $30,000 on the value of her house because of the foreclosure, said she didn't want to lose any more on a lawyer.

Over the past decade, a citizen movement has grown to curb the power of homeowner associations, which remain largely unregulated. Nevada is just one state that has appointed an ombudsman to field complaints from homeowners; California and others have passed statutes limiting the assessment increases boards can make without consulting homeowners.

Boak's local Urban County Council member, Shevawn Akers, is pressing Kentucky state government to draft legislation that would prohibit a homeowner association from foreclosingor at least from doing so before it proved that the homeowner had received written notice. State politicians have yet to take up her proposal.

"This is just beyond overboard," Akers said.

Boak isn't the only one who paid a price for ignoring her mail. For four years, Colorado's Woodmen Hills Filing Number 11 Design Review Council sent Christopher Wright notices for late payments that eventually reached $900, said the homeowner association's attorney, Jerry Orten. But Wright, who told southern Colorado NBC affiliate KOAA that he thought the notices were fines for keeping his kids' bikes outside, never responded.

Wright, who could not be reached for comment, was served in March with paperwork to foreclose. His $350,000 house recently sold at auction for $10,900.

Why 2013 Might be Housing’s Best Year Ever

After nearly a decade of disaster that reached levels of despair not seen since the Great Depression., 2013 was more than a turnaround year. Within its short life, it changed housing from a liability to an asset so favorable that it had to power to take the rest of the nation’s economy along for its ride upward, in the eyes of the Bernankes and Obamas.

In some ways, it changed the housing economy for years to come. Like a human life, it’s true place in history won’t be known until it is gone and some time has passed, but it will be hard to argue with the hard numbers of what was achieved in 2013.

Some examples:

  • Home prices are rising faster than they have since the housing boom. The S&P/Case-Shiller index of property prices in 20 cities released today climbed 13.6 percent from October 2012, the biggest 12-month gain since February 2006, after a 13.3 percent increase in the year ended in September.
  • Annual existing home sales should reach 5.1 million in 2013, the highest total in seven years, according to NAR. That is 10 percent higher than 2012′s total of almost 4.7 million.
  • New home sales are on pace to reach 435,100 new homes sold this year, the most since 2008, according to Bloomberg. In November, purchases of new U.S. homes exceeded projections, holding near a five-year high and showing the housing recovery was gaining momentum even as mortgage rates climbed.
  • Through the third quarter of 2013. more than 3 million homeowners returned to positive equity and homeowner equity increased by $33 billion. Some 7.1 million homes, or 14.5 percent of all residential properties with a mortgage, were still in negative equity at the end of the second quarter of 2013. This figure is down from 9.6 million homes, or 19.7 percent of all residential properties with a mortgage, at the end of the first quarter of 2013, according to CoreLogic.
  • By the end of October, homeowners in 55 of the nation’s 100 largest markets have now recovered more than half of the equity they lost in the housing crash. Of the 84 all markets that achieved more than a 100 percent rebound in November, 58 were midsize. Additionally, 58 midsize markets (28% of the U.S. midsized markets) now have fully recovered prices.
  • Mortgage rates rose about one full point during the year, which made buying a home more expensive for many. But at long last lending standards have begun to loosen up, perhaps because many originators are shifting from refinancing to purchase loans. Median FICO scores, for example, were at 729 in November, down from 750 in November 2012. Closing rates were 53.1% compared to 52.3% in 2012.
  • Consumer confidence in housing significantly widened in 2012, The share of consumers who believe it’s a good time buy a house declined to 65% – an all-time low – while the number of those who believe mortgage rates will go up in the next year fell to 57%, according to Fannie Mae’s latest monthly survey.

Was 2013 a good year for you? What are you hoping 2014 will bring? Here’s wishing that 2014 brings you even better returns than the year past.

Burglars use social media


Q. I read that burglars use social media to target victims. How do they do it?

A. Criminals only need a rough idea of where you live — and access to Google Street View — to start casing your home. Using check-in apps and posting vacation photos broadcasts to the world that you're not at home right then. Be sure to check your privacy settings — and wait until you're safely home to share vacation stories.


Q. I keep hearing about new identity-theft scams. What are they?

A. Identity thieves are using public hotspots to set up fake Wi-Fi networks. So, you might think you're logging onto public Wi-Fi, but end up signing onto a hacker's network instead. If you're in a café or restaurant, ask and make sure you're joining a legitimate network. Medical identity theft is another fast-growing threat. It happens when a thief uses your name and information to receive medical services.


Q. I travel for business, which means I have a lot of airport downtime. Do you know any apps that will help pass the time?

A. Word Search is a digital version of those classic word-search books. It's fun, addictive and gives your brain a good workout. Trivia hounds will love QuizUp. Or pass the time by enjoying a free and uncut movie on the Crackle app.


Q. I want to take home videos with my digital camera. Any tricks or tips?

A. Avoid over-using the digital zoom feature on your camera — your crisp images will become blocky and fuzzy. Be sure to use multiple angles. Start with a wide shot to establish location, then slowly zoom in on interesting faces and details. Invest in a cheap tripod — it's an easy solution to camera handshake.


Q. I still use my checkbook to pay bills. But my wife wants to switch over to online banking. What do you think?

A. Online banking is convenient, simple and often free. You can monitor accounts and pay bills from pretty much anywhere in the world. The downside is even bank-level encryption can't protect you against a major security breach. And, of course, no matter how easy online banking is, there are times when you will want to talk to a real person.

What Kind of Showing Was It?

Types of Showings.png
One of the most frequent calls from homeowners to their agents is about the listing’s inactivity due to the lack of showings.  The homeowner commonly believes that the home is shown only when a buyer walks through the house with an agent.

Today’s buyers are more sophisticated than in the past due to the abundance of information available to the public on the Internet.  There are seemingly inexhaustible sites with homes for sale, valuation estimates and virtual tours.  There are extensive mapping sites with satellite images, traffic conditions, entertainment, shopping and other points of interest.

There are actually three legitimate types of property showings.  A knowledgeable buyer can view a home for sale online and make a reasonable determination of whether the home will fit their needs.  Occasionally, buyers will drive by a home to get a feel for the home and also the neighborhood which might cause them to eliminate any further examination or consideration.

The third type, the physical showing, certainly gives the buyer the opportunity for the closest scrutiny but is generally reserved for properties that have passed the inspections of at least one other type of showing.

Sellers should be aware of the different types of showings and that a sales agent’s job is to help the buyer find the right home.  The listing agent’s job is to market the home so that the right buyer finds it either through their own efforts or that of the buyer’s agent.

Can You See the Savings?

LED 200.jpgIf you’ve considered changing your light bulbs to energy-saving LED bulbs but decided not to make the investment because the prices were too high, you might want to investigate again.  The prices have come down considerably.

An initial investment now will generate immediate returns through energy costs and because they last longer, you won’t need to replace them for years.

The life of LED bulbs is projected to be from 35,000 to 50,000 hours compared to an incandescent bulb at 750 to 2,000 hours.  For normal home use, a LED bulb could last more than 20 years.

80-90% of the energy used by fluorescent and incandescent bulbs is wasted by the heat generated.  In contrast, cool LED bulbs converts 80% of the electrical energy to light energy.

• The color of LED lights is bright white, more like daylight, instead of the warm yellow of incandescent or the greenish tint of fluorescent bulbs.

• LEDs light up instantly instead of building to their intensity like some of the fluorescent bulbs.

• LEDs are more durable because they don’t have filaments or thin-glass bulbs like incandescent and fluorescent bulbs.

Shop around to find the best price on LEDs. If the LED only lasted 20,000 hours, you might have to purchase 20 incandescent bulbs during that same period of time.  Using the chart below, you can see that the LED uses about 10% of the wattage without compromising on the brightness.

Watt comparison.png