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How to Properly Assess Online Photos

August 12, 2011 4:57 pm

With a large majority of real estate buyers starting their home search online, it is more important than ever for sellers and the agents representing them to be sure the photos they post online make a good first impression. The National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (NAEBA) warns that real estate images can be misleading, especially as home staging—the practice in which experts make the property attractive to the highest number of potential home buyers by enhancing its visual appeal—is becoming increasingly common. Taking the staging element to the dramatic editing of online photos is a relatively new tactic and can be misleading.

Today’s home buyer spends more time online when shopping for a home. The practice is growing and more popular than ever with the rise of smartphone apps that allow buyers to search property listings, calculate mortgages and more. Virtual showings are integral to the total home buying process and a large part of that is the ability to view the exterior and interior of a home before deciding to view it in person.

The following four tips will help buyers assess online photos in the proper context.

1. Pictures can look better than the actual home. Buyers should view pictures with that understanding and not make a sole judgment based on the photos.

2. Pictures may look worse than the actual home. Buyers may be discouraged by a poorly taken photo, yet the property may actually represent a good bargain.

3. Order and flow make a difference. It can be difficult to get a sense of the flow of the home from photographs. If the photos are not listed in order, try to do it yourself so that you can follow the path of the home from the front door through the rooms of the house.

4. Photos distort scale. It is difficult to get a good view of a whole room from a small picture. Rely on floor plans and room dimensions rather than photos to judge the scale of rooms.

Photos can provide additional information, but home buyers that rely solely on an image can miss out on a great home or be disappointed by an in-person visit. Buyers should assess all available information about a home. Use Google Street View to see the surrounding neighborhood, and Yelp to read reviews about local businesses and stores. A picture may not be worth a thousand words, but when added to detailed research, it can be very valuable.

For more information, visit www.naeba.org.

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5 Common Mistakes New Homeowners Make When Moving

August 12, 2011 4:57 pm

Now that you’ve found your dream home, be sure the actual moving process goes just as smoothly. Avoid these five mistakes when moving to your new home:

Getting a quote over the phone or Internet
A big mistake that consumers make when planning their move is obtaining a quote over the phone or the Internet. Any quote obtained in this manner is a non-binding quote. The only way to obtain a guaranteed or binding quote is to have a visual survey of your household goods by a reputable mover. If you choose to accept a quote over the phone or Internet you are setting yourself up for a nasty scenario when the mover shows up at your new home and demands more money.

Waiting too long to line up a mover
Allowing time for a visual survey, receiving a written and binding quote, and reserving a truck for your move takes a lead time of four to six weeks. Although moves can be arranged in a shorter period of time, many consumers find that their choices are limited by availability, especially in the busy summer months. In our current real estate market, many homes are taking longer to sell, but once sold are closing very quickly. The time to obtain estimates for your move is before your home sells so that you are prepared when it does.

Misrepresenting what you are moving
It is very important to show the surveyor or estimator everything you are planning to move. If you forget to show items in a basement, garage, attic, or off-site storage unit and then add those items at time of pick-up, your estimate will no longer be binding. In the same vein, if you commit to packing your own items but don’t have time to finish, the van line will pack your items and charge you for the service. If you are uncertain of whether you will be taking something, or are not sure if you will have time to pack everything, ask the surveyor to put the items or service in the estimate. If you decide not to take something, or do not require the packing, the cost will be adjusted downward.

Paying a deposit upfront
Reputable movers do not ask for payment upfront to reserve trucks or dates. This is a classic red flag in moving. A reputable mover will expect payment upon delivery.

Finding a mover based upon price rather than reputation and service
If a mover gives you a price that is significantly lower than other movers it is likely that you are being low-balled. If a surveyor has underestimated your weight in order to give you a lower price, you may find that the moving truck does not have enough room for your shipment. This is called an overflow. An overflow means that your items will not all travel together, will not all arrive at the same time, and will generally cause you a big hassle. Another way to lower costs is to compromise service. Look for a competitive bid from a professional mover who is certified and reputable. Although price is an important factor, don't base your decision on price alone.

If you are planning a move in the near future, be sure to avoid these five mistakes. By planning ahead and being honest with the movers about your plans and expectations, you can be well on your way to a smoother move to your new home.

Source: The Move Advocate

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Tips to Save Fuel This Summer

August 12, 2011 4:57 pm

By Ronnie Kweller

Don’t let today’s high gas prices keep you at home this summer or prevent you from driving to the beach. Nationwide, the average price for a gallon of unleaded gas is currently more than $3.80—that’s about a dollar more than last year at this time.

Those gas expenditures can add up.

“The average U.S. household will spend about $3,500 to power its vehicles this year – $800 more than last year," says Alliance to Save Energy’s President Kateri Callahan. "This means almost 7% of an average household's income is used paying for gasoline."

Paying thousands of dollars per year in gas can put a burden on many Americans. But simple fuel efficiency measures can keep more dollars in your pocket and even extend the life of your vehicle.

Smart Vehicle Maintenance
Tune up. Fixing a car that’s out of tune or has failed an emissions test can improve its gas mileage by an average of 4%, which adds up to savings of about $75 per year. Fixing a serious maintenance problem, such as a faulty oxygen sensor, can improve your mileage by as much as 40%!
Keep tires properly inflated to improve mileage by up to 3%, which means you can save $55 per year. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), under-inflated tires can lower gas mileage by 0.3% for every 1 psi drop in pressure in all four tires. In addition, proper inflation improves tire longevity – and your safety while driving. DOE cautions not to go by the maximum pressure printed on the tire’s sidewall, but to find the proper tire pressure for your own vehicle on a sticker on the driver’s side door jamb or in the glove box, as well as in your owner’s manual.
Use the manufacturer’s recommended grade of motor oil or risk lowering your gas mileage by 1-2%, which could cost up to $35 per year. For example, using 10W-30 motor oil in an engine designed to use 5W-30 can depress mileage by 1-2%; and using 5W-30 in an engine designed for 5W-20 can lower mileage by 1-1.5%. Look for the phrase “Energy Conserving” on the American Petroleum Institute performance symbol to ensure that the oil contains friction-reducing additives.
Get the junk out of the trunk. Avoid keeping unnecessary items in your vehicle. An extra 100 pounds in your vehicle’s trunk could reduce your mileage by up to 2% and cost around $35 per year. Enjoy golfing outside this summer or bringing chairs to the beach, but remember to take out the excess before driving around.
Avoid a loaded roof rack. It can decrease your fuel economy by 5%, which adds up to about $90 per year.

Smart Driving
Avoid aggressive driving. Speeding, rapid acceleration and rapid braking can lower gas mileage by 33% at highway speeds, which could cost about $900 per year. Even aggressive driving around town could lower gas mileage by 5% and costs around $90 per year.
Avoid speeding. Gas mileage usually decreases rapidly above 60 miles per hour. Each 5 mph over 60 is like paying an additional 24 cents per gallon for gas.
Avoid idling. Idling gets 0 miles per gallon. Cars with larger engines typically waste more gas at idle than cars with smaller engines.
Use cruise control on the highway to maintain a constant speed and, in most cases, save gas and money.
Engage the overdrive gear. With overdrive gearing, your car’s engine speed goes down, saving gas and reducing engine wear.
Plan your trips. Combining errands into one trip saves you time and money. Several short trips taken from a cold start can use twice as much fuel as a multipurpose trip covering the same distance when the engine is warm.
Beat the traffic. When possible, drive during off-peak hours to avoid stop-and-go or bumper-to-bumper traffic conditions, thereby reducing both gas costs and stress.

Smart Commuting
Consider alternatives to driving. Sharing driving duties with fellow commuters through carpools and ride-share programs can cut your weekly fuel costs in half and save wear on your car. Many urban areas allow vehicles with multiple passengers to use High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, which are typically less congested, further improving your fuel economy.
Consider using public transit if it is available and convenient for you. The American Public Transportation Association has links to information about public transportation in your state.

For more information, visit http://ase.org/.

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Five Tips to Better Navigate the Short Sale Process

August 11, 2011 10:57 pm

Unfortunately, with the economy’s slow recovery and still-high unemployment rates, many homeowners continue to confront difficulties in making their mortgage payments. If you’re one of these homeowners, know that you’re not alone and know that there are several options to explore prior to foreclosure, such as a short sale. A short sale occurs when the outstanding loan(s) against a property are greater than what the property can be sold for.

As you’ve probably heard, however, short sales can be a drawn out and complicated process. Here are five tips to help you successfully navigate a short sale:

1. Get comparable sale prices and an estimate of expected closing costs to help verify the current market value of your home.

2. Determine the amount of all loans against the property. Subtract the total amount you owe on the property from the estimated proceeds of the sale.

3. Contact your lender or lenders. Insist on speaking with someone in authority about a short sale. Remember that you are asking the lender to accept less than the total amount you owe, so be firm but cooperative.

4. Be prepared to submit the necessary documentation, including a letter of authorization giving the lender permission to talk with specific interested parties about your loan. Include your name, address, the loan number, and your agent’s contact information.

5. Include a hardship letter describing how you got into a financial bind, and provide proof of your assets and income. You also may wish to include recent bank statements, with an explanation of any unusual deposits or withdrawals, and your broker’s competitive market analysis.

Be sure to work with a real estate agent who has experience in short sales. Many agents have been through comprehensive short sale training and received special distressed property designations. Above all, the short sale process requires patience—even after you find a buyer. But for many homeowners, it was well worth it.

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Tips for Buying a Condo

August 11, 2011 10:57 pm

If you’re looking for a home in an urban area, condos are often a great choice. Keep the following in mind before buying your urban home:

Co-ops

In areas like New York City, cooperatives (co-ops) are often the easiest way to break into homeownership. If you don't have the cash to make a 20 to 25 percent downpayment, some co-ops will allow you to use gift money from your parents, while others will not.

Also, some co-ops require that you have a certain amount of cash reserves after the purchase—sometimes equal to the purchase price. Putting all your financial information on the table can help your broker find a co-op that's perfect for you.

Explore emerging neighborhoods.
You might be able to get a deal on an urban property in an up-and-coming area, but make sure the area is well on the upswing before you buy. An emerging neighborhood can take several years to redevelop. To make sure it's a good time to buy, investigate the area.

Investigate a potential building's financial condition.
When you buy a condo, loft or co-op, you're not just buying a property—you're also buying into the building or community. Homeowners associations (HOAs) govern condo communities, collecting dues and maintaining the common areas. A board of directors takes care of these tasks in a cooperative.

Hire an attorney to research the association's financial stability and its rules before you sign on the dotted line. Your attorney should look at the corporation's yearly financial statements to see how much money it has on hand.

You can also do some of your own investigating. Don't forget to find out about the surrounding buildings and their construction plans as well. You don't want to buy a home overlooking the water, then find out the week you move in that someone is building something taller that blocks your view.

Don't plan to buy a co-op as an investment property.
Multi-family homes can be great investment properties, but co-ops have very restrictive rules about renting.

While condos are typically much more lenient about rentals, be sure to check the property's covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) to make sure you're allowed to lease it to a tenant.

Source: FrontDoor.com

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HUD Secretary Announces Availability of 95 Million from Sustainable Communities Grant Programs

August 11, 2011 10:57 pm

Recently, U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan announced the availability of $95 million to support sustainable local initiatives through the FY 2011 Regional Planning and Community Challenge Planning Grant Programs from HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities. Awarded competitively, both programs work to expand housing choices, improve connections between employment centers and homes, and reduce barriers to achieving affordable, economically vital, and sustainable communities.

"This funding renews an important commitment the Administration made to American families with the announcement of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities in 2009,” says Donovan. "Connecting affordable housing choices with quality schools and jobs not only ensures families will be able to provide a safe environment for their children, but it also provides communities large and small with the resources they need to make a sustainable plan for their future.”

This year’s Regional Planning Grant program will encourage grantees to support regional planning efforts that integrate housing, land-use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure developments in a manner that empowers regions to consider how all of these factors work together to bring economic competitiveness and revitalization to a community. The program will place a priority on partnerships, including the collaboration of arts and culture, philanthropy, and innovative ideas to the regional planning process.

Recognizing that areas are in different stages of sustainability planning, HUD will establish two funding categories for the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant program.

Group 1 Funds: Can be used to support the preparation of Regional Plans for sustainable development.
Group 2 Funds: Can be used to support efforts to modify existing regional plans so that they are in accordance with the Partnership for Sustainable Communities’ six Livability Principles. Category 2 Funds also may be used to prepare more detailed execution plans for an adopted regional plan for sustainable development and limit predevelopment planning activities for catalytic projects.

The Community Challenge Planning grant program will be competitively awarded to state, local and tribal governments for efforts such as amending or replacing local master plans, zoning and building codes to promote mixed-use development, building more affordable housing, and the rehabilitation of older buildings and structures with the goal of promoting sustainability at the local and neighborhood levels. In addition, this year’s grant program will set aside $3 million for jurisdictions with populations under 50,000, and reward high scoring applicants with Preferred Sustainability Status (PSS), which will qualify them for several benefits, including access to capacity building resources and potential points in a number of funding opportunities managed by HUD.

Both programs, now in their second year build on the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, an innovative interagency collaboration, launched by President Obama in June 2009, between HUD, the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to provide more sustainable housing and transportation choices for families and lay the foundation for a 21st century economy. Guided by six Livability Principles, the Partnership is designed to remove the traditional silos that exist between federal departments and strategically target the agencies' transportation, land use, environmental, housing and community development resources to provide communities the resources they need to build more livable, sustainable communities. Last month the Partnership marked its second anniversary through a website, www.sustainablecommunities.gov, which provides a one-stop shop for best practices, grant announcement and accomplishments of the Partnership. This year’s grant awardees will join more than 80 communities around the country that have already used sustainable communities funding to plan their region’s future.

The Partnership’s interagency collaboration gets better results for communities and uses taxpayer money more efficiently by coordinating federal investments in infrastructure, facilities, and services that meet multiple economic, environmental, and community objectives with each dollar spent. The Partnership is helping communities across the country to create more housing choices, make transportation more efficient and reliable, reinforce existing investments, and support vibrant and healthy neighborhoods that attract businesses. At a time when every dollar the federal government invests in jumpstarting the economy is critical, the President’s plan ensures that all these agencies are coordinating efforts and targeting resources with precision. Community Planning Challenge grants will reinforce the principles of the Partnership, and provide the grantees with the necessary tools to build economic competitiveness in their regions.

For more information, please visit www.hud.gov.

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Address Foundation Problems to Make Your Home More Marketable

August 10, 2011 10:57 pm

Selling a house isn’t easy these days. There are a huge number of homes on the market, and buyers are easily scared off if they encounter problems that may negatively impact resale value. Among the many issues that need to be addressed in order to make a house more marketable, foundation problems rank near the top of the list, according to Walter Molony, an expert in statistics and research at the National Association of Realtors.

“Before a house is listed for sale, the real estate agent will work with the homeowners to make sure that the property is competitive with similar properties in the area,” Molony explains. “A little dampness in the basement or a small drywall crack are flaws that a potential buyer may be willing to overlook,” says Molony, “but a cracked or bowed foundation wall will be a major red flag. Since most home sales are contingent on a satisfactory home inspection, foundation problems are very likely to stop a home sale dead in its tracks.”

Home improvements vs. home repairs
In today’s tight economy, it’s understandable for homeowners to put off home improvements until they feel more financially secure. But it’s important to make a distinction between basic “feel-good” improvements (like painting a room or installing shelving) and repairs that correct safety issues or prevent a problem from getting worse. Fixing a damaged foundation definitely falls into this latter “must-do” category.

“It’s risky to put off fixing a damaged foundation,” says Dave Thrasher, an expert from a Nebraska-based foundation company. “If a crack starts to enlarge or a wall starts to buckle, you’re seeing a failure that is probably going to get worse,” Thrasher continues. “The longer you wait, the more extensive the problem becomes and the more expensive the repair is going to be.”

Foundation problems follow the building boom
Some foundation problems are obvious—cracks, tilting chimneys and bowing basement walls, for example. But there are other symptoms that may signal a settling or shifting foundation. For example, windows or doors can be racked by a shifting foundation and become difficult to open and close. Drywall cracks that extend from the corners of windows and doors are another telltale sign.

According to journalist M.P. McQueen, the decade-long building boom that began in the late 1990s “caused shortages of both skilled construction workers and quality materials. Many municipalities also fell behind inspecting and certifying new homes.” This perfect storm of poor quality control definitely took its toll. Research conducted by Criterium Engineers, a national building-inspection company, confirmed an uptick in the percentage of new homes with major construction defects.

Specialty foundation repair contractors have the right solutions
The good news about foundation problems is that most of them can be corrected, as long as the contractor has the training, tools and materials to do so. “We certainly get our share of calls from panicked homeowners,” says Thrasher. “By the time people call us, they’ve probably realized that local remodeling contractors can only temporarily fix cosmetic problems, but are unable to permanently solve the problem.

For more information, visit www.foundationsupportworks.com.

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Remodeling Activity Slows under Economic Uncertainty

August 10, 2011 10:57 pm

The remodeling market slipped under pressure from a sluggish economy according to the National Association of Home Builders' (NAHB) Remodeling Market Index (RMI), which dipped during the second quarter to 43.9 from the first quarter result of 46.5. An RMI below 50 indicates that more remodelers report market activity is lower compared to the prior quarter than report it is higher.

The overall RMI combines ratings of current remodeling activity with indicators of future activity, like calls for bids. Current market conditions for the second quarter of 2011 fell to 44.8 from 46.1 in the first quarter. Future market indications dropped to 43.0 from 46.8 in the previous quarter.

"Remodelers have experienced the same hiccup that has rippled through the U.S. economy," says NAHB Remodelers Chairman Bob Peterson, CGR, CAPS, CGP, a remodeler from Ft. Collins, Colo. "After picking up the pace early in the year, the calls from customers dropped off and remodeling slowed down."

Regionally, current market conditions shrank in two areas: the Midwest to 44.4 (from 47.1 in the first quarter) and the South to 42.9 (from 46.1). The West at 48.2 (from 46.1) and Northeast at 48.1 (from 46.1) both climbed modestly.

Two indicators of current market conditions dropped: major additions to 46.2 (from 50.3 in the first quarter) and maintenance and repair to 38.4 (from 39.5). A third indicator, minor additions, remained essentially flat at 48.5 (from 48.0). Future market indicators also descended: calls for bids to 49.8 (from 53.1), backlog of remodeling jobs to 45.7 (from 49.7), and appointments for proposals to 44.2 (from 52.4). The amount of work committed for the next three months stayed level at 32.3 (from 32.1).

"While the RMI indicates that the home remodeling market softened somewhat in the second quarter, this is still the second highest RMI we've been able to report since the third quarter of 2007," says NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "There are several barriers blocking the way to a stronger recovery. Home owners who may want to remodel still face stringent lending requirements, and uncertainty about the economy is making them hesitant to undertake major improvements."

For more information, visit www.nahb.org/remodel.

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The 8 Best Ways to Protect Smartphones

August 10, 2011 10:57 pm

Have you ever received repeated cell phone calls from an unknown number? Or opened a text message offering an update to a phone app you don’t even use? These are just a few of the situations that should raise security red flags, according to computer science and information technology students at the prestigious Information Systems and Internet Security (ISIS) Lab at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. The students offer tips on how they keep their own personal information safe and dodge traps set by clever hackers.

When using social networking sites from your phone, skip the native apps – which know far more about your life than web browsers ever could – and access the sites through your phone’s browser. Also, use a password-protected screen lock to keep your phone secure.

Beware the false “update” link for apps! Verify the link you’re using to download an app before you click on it, or go directly to the company’s site to download the update. Sending fraudulent “update” links is a common method for directing users to sites where personal information can be compromised.

Clean up your apps regularly, removing those you don’t use. Some apps may be able to monitor and access various types of data on your phone, including your contact list. And if your phone has a SIM card, set a PIN code for the card — if the phone is ever lost, nobody can use the card.

Read the reviews of apps before you download, and choose reputable apps. Apps without many reviews and those that have been recently uploaded to the app market or app store are more likely to contain privacy and security problems.

Don’t trust Bluetooth! If you use a hands-free device to make cell phone calls, always use a wired headset. Bluetooth devices can be compromised and your personal data can be accessed or corrupted. If you do use Bluetooth, protect the connection with a longer, more secure password instead of a short PIN.

Watch out for apps that ask for too many permissions – If you’re installing a calculator app and it requests Internet and contacts permissions, that’s a bad sign. One way cyber-thieves exploit smart phones is by creating a good app with some extra code and overreaching permissions.

Log out of all Web services every time you’re finishing using them, or you may stay logged in indefinitely – even to sensitive sites like banking and email. On desktops, there’s a timeout period if you remain inactive, but not always with mobile access. If the phone is lost, anyone can access the sites you’re logged into.

Think twice before answering calls or text messages from unknown numbers, especially if you’ve received a call more than once. Phishing scams are often initiated through cell phone calls or texts. Google the phone number that’s calling you, and see if anyone has reported it as linked to a scam.

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5 Home Security and Safety Tips for Seniors

August 9, 2011 4:57 pm

Americans who reach age 65 are living an average of 18.5 more years—a four-year increase from 1960—according to a recent federal Aging Forum report. Friends and family can’t always stay with individuals who remain at home and require caregiver help, so home security is of high concern for this growing segment of the population. Consider these tips to help keep seniors secure at home:

1. Light the outdoors: Motion-activated outdoor lights can discourage potential intruders and alert seniors to potential emergencies. Standard, constant lights should also be installed at home exits like porches and garage doors, and turned on each night.

2. Install a security system: Many home alarm systems offer remote access through key chains that allow seniors who have trouble moving around to arm or disable a system from any room in their homes. Make sure the chosen system covers burglary, fire and medical emergencies. Some providers also offer personal emergency monitoring systems that seniors can use to alert medical professionals in case of an emergency like a fall.

3. Check IDs: Scam artists may promise money and prizes in exchange for payment or personal information like a Social Security number. Ask for identification from anyone that comes to the door. Checking with the affiliated business before letting a service or delivery person in is also a good idea. The website Snopes keeps track of circulating scams and hoaxes. Police should be alerted to any suspicious individuals and activity.

4. Use locks on a regular basis: Existing locks on all entrances and exits of a home are useless if they aren’t routinely used. Make a habit of keeping them locked and replace any in poor shape. Locks should be accessible to seniors from the inside in case of an emergency.

5. Schedule routine check-ins: Whether it’s with a hired caregiver or a loved one, seniors should check-in at least once a day in person or via phone to ensure that all is well.

For more information, visit www.securitychoice.com.

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