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  • REAL ESTATE: Builders must prove they have the water

    State lawmakers intended to prevent building beyond the water supply when they passed two “show-me-the-water” laws in 2001.

    Senate Bills 221 and 610 require that governments review water supplies before approving developments of 500 or more units and to verify there is sufficient water to meet the project’s needs for 20 years, including a multiyear drought.

    It’s hard to know how many projects across the state have been denied or redesigned because of the show-me-the-water laws, since there is no database.

    “It’s spotty, how it’s been complied with across the state,” said Mary Ann Dickinson, president and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency in Chicago.

    Her group issued a report in January detailing what districts have done so far with the two laws.

    Primarily, developers offset a project’s water use by retrofitting somewhere else in the community – sometimes at a ratio of two times the water used by their development – or they contribute money for the water district to use for conservation rebates, she said.

    Dickinson’s group is developing a template to help communities accurately calculate offsets, develop ways to verify implementation of efficiency measures and establish policies to ensure the reductions are permanent.

    “We just want new development to be water-neutral,” she said.

    In a review of 95 projects from 2002 to 2004, Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute, found that nine were initially deemed to have insufficient supplies. In seven of those cases, developers were asked to find additional water or scale back the projects. Two developments were rejected.

    A second survey by Hanak in 2005 found that only one project was blocked because of water supply concerns. Almost 30 percent of projects took measures to introduce conservation, use of recycled water and water transfers, she said.

    During the last drought in 2007 and 2008, Eastern Municipal Water District in Perris delayed certifying nine major industrial and residential projects because of supply doubts.

    Within months, however, the district agreed to issue “will serve” letters after determining that conservation measures and additional water resources could provide enough water, records show.

    One of those delayed projects was the 1.8 million-square-foot Skechers distribution center in Moreno Valley.

    Construction of the warehouse eventually was allowed to proceed after the developer, Highland Fairview, pledged to reduce water use at its previously approved 2,702-home Aquabella development by using water-efficient landscaping in the new homes’ backyards.

    That reduced the anticipated water demand at the tract from 1,939 acre-feet per year to 162 acre-feet per year, Eastern officials said. One acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons, enough to supply two families for a year.

     

  • 7 Ways to Keep Your Property Safe After Moving Out

    If you’re moving out while your home is still on the market, your vacant property could attract more than potential buyers—it could attract criminal activity.

     An unoccupied property is at risk for a break-in, and removing all your belongings doesn't mean you’re in the clear. Graffiti, damaged appliances, stolen copper wiring and broken windows can all add up to thousands of dollars in repairs.

    Remember, don’t forget to let a REALTOR® know your moving plans. Your agent will want to take extra precautions once your property is vacant, and to keep your investment as safe as possible, you’ll have to convince passerby the property is still occupied.

    Here’s how to pull it off.

    1. Ask for Backup

    When you’re moving out, tell your immediate neighbors, the head of your neighborhood watch and your local police department that your property will be vacant.

    With more eyes on the house, you’ll have a better chance of getting quick assistance if someone does break in.

    2. Maintain the Lawn

    An unkempt yard is a surefire sign a home is vacant. In the warmer months, make sure the lawn is mowed regularly, the flowerbeds are free of weeds, and there is no loose trash around the curb or driveway.

    In the cooler months, clean the rain gutters, rake leaves off the lawn and clear the driveway and walkway if it snows.

    3. Don’t Let Paper Pile Up

    As soon as you’re finished moving out, forward your mail and newspaper subscriptions to your new address.

    Ask a family member, friend or neighbor to stop by your home regularly to check for phone books, flyers and any mail that might have been accidentally delivered.

    4. Make Repairs

    A few times a month, check the outside of your property for any needed repairs. If you find any obvious problems, make repairs as soon as possible.

    A cracked window, broken porch railing or loose shutter are small problems—but problems a live-in owner would fix.

    5. Use Your Driveway

    If you have a driveway attached to your home, ask a neighbor to park a car there. Many families with more than one car will be happy for the extra space, and a car parked in the driveway is a great deterrent.

    6. Leave the Curtains Behind

    If at all possible, leave the curtains or blinds on the windows in the home when you’re moving out.

    Keep the curtains drawn and the blinds closed, even at the back of the house, in case a potential vandal hops your fence to see what’s inside.

    7. Keep the Lights On

    Purchase lighting timers, connect to inexpensive lamps and place the devices strategically throughout the house. Set the timers to go on and off in different rooms at the appropriate times of day or night.

    Some would-be thieves or vandals will watch a property for days before breaking in. If they see lights in different rooms, they’ll assume the property still is occupied. 

     

     

  • What Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s Fee Changes Mean to You

    Late Friday, mortgage-finance companies Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and their regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, unveiled changes to the fees they charge to back mortgages and disclosedfinalized capital requirements for private-mortgage insurers who want to do business with the companies.

    Both announcements might seem obscure, but they directly affect mortgage costs for thousands of borrowers. Here’s what you need to know.

    What are the fees and why should I care?

    Fannie and Freddie don’t make mortgages, but they do buy them from lenders, put them into securities and guarantee to make investors whole if the mortgages default. That guarantee is in part what enables 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages to exist in the United States, while they’re not available in many other parts of the world.

    But to make that guarantee, Fannie and Freddie charge lenders fees, based in part on the perceived riskiness of the borrower. For Fannie and Freddie, the fees offset expected losses from some borrowers defaulting, pay for administrative expenses and provide income to Fannie and Freddie. They would also help Fannie and Freddie build a capital buffer in case a more serious economic event caused a wave of defaults, but an agreement with the government sends most of Fannie’s and Freddie’s profits to the U.S. Treasury right now.

    Lenders pass the fees to borrowers in the form of higher mortgage rates. So when the fees go up or down, borrowers can expect rates also to change.

    What did they change this time?

    After more than a year of review, the FHFA basically decided to hold fees constant. Although some of the internal moving parts that make up the companies’ fees changed, the fees’ overall level was meant to stay steady.

    There are some exceptions for certain kinds of borrowers. Fannie and Freddie by Sept. 1 will raise fees on certain kinds of loans, such as those for investment properties, mortgages with secondary financing (a.k.a. “piggyback loans”) and cash-out refinances.

    On the other hand, fees will go down slightly for some riskier borrowers who make smaller down payments or have lower credit scores.

    The changes are so minuscule that you probably won’t even notice. Typical borrowers won’t see a break in their mortgage rates of more than 0.05 percentage point or a hike of more than 0.07 to 0.1 percentage point. That’s less than rates move in a week.

    So why are some people mad about this?

    In taking a middle route, the FHFA has likely angered parties on each end of the political spectrum. Affordable housing advocates, and some in the real-estate industry, had wanted to see a bigger break, especially for borrowers with low down payments and low credit scores. The Federal Housing Administration—a separate agency that also backs loans to such borrowers—cut fees by half a percentage point earlier this year, creating hope among some that the FHFA might also make a big move.

    On the conservative side, many will be disappointed that Fannie and Freddie aren’t going to raise fees. Under former leadership, the FHFA had raised fees several times with the idea of enticing more private investors to expand into the mortgage market. Those efforts so far haven’t worked.

    What does private-mortgage insurance have to do with this?

    On Friday, the FHFA also announced new capital requirements for private-mortgage insurers who want to do business with Fannie and Freddie.

    Borrowers typically must buy private-mortgage insurance when they make a down payment of less than 20%. The PMI protects Fannie and Freddie from some losses if a borrower defaults.

    During the financial crisis, losses from defaults proved to be more than some insurers could bear, throwing them into peril. The new, tougher capital standards are intended to ensure that doesn’t happen again and reduce risk for Fannie and Freddie.

    The FHFA thinks that even under the new standards, MI prices should stay about the same, but some insurers might charge more to meet the new requirements, which would mean higher costs for low-down-payment borrowers.

    If mortgage insurers do decide to raise prices, “taken together, the moves that FHFA has announced on pricing and the MIs will have almost no effect on the total cost of credit for most consumers,” writes James Parrott, a former Obama White House adviser and senior fellow at the Urban Institute.


  • Inland foreclosures reach 8-year low

    Foreclosure activity in the Riverside County region in February fell to levels not seen since July 2006, according to a new report from RealtyTrac.

    That time frame is significant because homebuilding and homebuying were in a frenzy about 8 1/2 years ago.

    RealtyTrac vice president Daren Blomquist said the country and the region have reached a major milestone because the pace of foreclosure activity is fading. Across the nation, foreclosure activity is on track to return to historic norms in 2015, and possibly will fall below historic norms.

    What did the February foreclosure picture look like in Inland Southern California?

    Total foreclosure filings – notices of default, auction or bank take-back – fell to 1,144 in Riverside County and increased to 1,246 in San Bernardino County, the RealtyTrac data showed.

    The filings are down nearly 5 percent from January and 12.5 percent over February 2014 in Riverside County. In San Bernardino County, filings are up nearly 16 percent from January and up 3 percent from February 2014.

    Blomquist, over many months, has warned that foreclosure activity would rise and fall month to month as banks and mortgage service companies push through the final remnants of distressed housing stock. That is what appears to be happening here.

    Michael and Monique Cabrera, a San Bernardino couple who have lived across the street from a rambled down home, say they’re glad to see banks take an aggressive role to push properties with mortgages in default through the system.

    “Morale is up,” Michael said. “Our kids are going for bike rides and playing outside again.”

    The Cabreras, who bought their home three years ago, said they’ve seen several potential buyers check out the home in the last few weeks. “It looks like good people coming in, families,” he said. “We’re happy about that.”

    The Inland region, with 1.5 million housing units, once led the nation in foreclosure filings. In February, the two-county metro region ranked sixteenth for overall foreclosure activity in the country.

    One out of every 630 homes received a foreclosure-related filing, according to the RealtyTrac report.

    For all of California, one out of every 1,190 homes received a foreclosure filing in February.

  • Tips on Applying for a Mortgage After a Foreclosure

    Recovering from a negative credit event like a foreclosure can take years—seven years in many cases.

    growing number of Americans are reaching that juncture after going into foreclosure early in the housing crisis.

    During that seven-year period, gaining access to loans is challenging, particularly in the first two to three years. Getting approved for a car loan or credit card is possible, though the interest rates you’ll be charged will be high. But finding a lender that will give you a mortgage will be a lot harder in most cases.

    Foreclosures stay on consumers’ credit reports with the three main credit-reporting firms—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—for up to seven years and are factored into their FICO credit scores for all of that period. The seven-year period also applies to short sales, settlements with credit-card companies or other lenders, and other negative events. Bankruptcies can stay on for 10 years.

    Millions of consumers are feeling the impact of the seven-year timeframe in the wake of foreclosures after job losses, pay cuts or other setbacks from the last downturn. To figure out when a negative mark is due to be dropped, borrowers can check their credit reports from each of the three firms, which they can do free once every 12 months atannualcreditreport.com. The reports will list the year the negative event was recorded.

    Here are some pointers on how to increase your chances with mortgage lenders if you have a black mark on your credit record.

    Be strategic about your timing

    People who have only a few months left before a foreclosure or other negative credit event gets removed from their credit reports could benefit by waiting it out before applying. When lenders check your credit reports, they won’t see that you went through a foreclosure—information that could make them second-guess approving an applicant or charge them a higher interest rate.

    However, if another year or so needs to pass until the black mark is removed from your credit reports, and you want to get a mortgage, waiting may not pay off, says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at CreditSesame.com, a credit-management site. Mortgage rates may be higher down the road. Even borrowers who don’t have the highest credit scores could end up getting a better interest rate now than if they wait until the foreclosure is removed from their report, he says.

    There are some caveats to be aware of. The application form that many lenders require applicants to fill out asks several questions about foreclosure, including whether they’ve ever been through one—information that could make a lender think twice about an applicant. Mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have their own waiting period, which is as long as seven years after the foreclosure has been completed—which could be a few years after it comes off your credit reports.

    Pay down credit-card debt

    One of the fastest ways to improve your FICO score is to pay down your credit-card debt, and, if possible, pay it off entirely. A comparison of this debt with the overall credit-card spending limits a borrower has contributes to a category that accounts for 30% of consumers’ FICO scores.

    The change can be reflected in your credit report within a month and will quickly improve your score, says Mr. Ulzheimer. FICO scores, developed by Fair Isaac Corp., are the credit scores used in most consumer-lending decisions.

    A Fair Isaac analysis of people who had foreclosure proceedings added to their credit reports between October 2007 and October 2008 found that 69% of those borrowers whose FICO scores had recovered and were at least 680 by last October had revolving debt, such as credit-card debt that equaled less than 30% of their total credit-card spending limits. None of them had maxed out credit cards

    Hold off on applying for other financing

    Signing up for car loans, furniture or appliance financing, and many other loans can hurt an applicant’s chances of getting approved for a mortgage. Lenders review borrowers’ debt compared to their income to determine whether they can get a home loan and its size.

    In addition, the FICO score factors in credit inquiries—when lenders check your credit when you apply for a loan or credit card—that are up to 12 months old. The applications you make within the year prior to applying for a mortgage could lower your score.

    Avoid other black marks

    Make sure to pay your bills on time and to not get into trouble with any loans. Otherwise, you’ll be at risk of starting the seven-year period from scratch and seeing your score drop again if a lender reports a negative credit event to the credit-reporting firms.


  • Southern California home prices and sales rise in March

    Some green shoots finally sprouted in Southern California’s housing market in March, as sales increased 11 percent from a year earlier and the median price hit its highest level in more than seven years, a market tracker said Thursday.

    Last month, sales of new and previously owned houses and condominiums in the six-county region rose from 17,638 in March 2013 to 19,603, the company said — a jump of 44 percent from February’s 13,650.

    “A surge in home sales between February and March is normal, given a lot of buyers and sellers return to the market in late winter, resulting in more deals closing in March,” CoreLogic analyst Andrew LePage said.

     

     

    “The bigger news is that sales increased year over year, which is something that’s only happened in a few months over the past year.”

    Southern California home sales have fallen year over year in 9 out of the last 12 months, CoreLogic said. March sales were 18 percent below that month’s average since 1988.

    Continued tight inventory, especially in the lower price ranges, has been putting a damper on sales, while rising prices and tough credit standards are making it tough for first-time buyers to crack the market, CoreLogic said.

     

     

    “Price gains over the past two years could trigger substantially more inventory in the months ahead, and that could support higher sales and tame home price appreciation,” LePage said, adding it will take several months to determine whether there will be an inventory response to buyers’ demand.

    “A lot of people hoped for that in 2013 and 2014 ... but that didn’t play out,” he said.

    The median price for all types of housing sold increased 6 percent — from $400,000 a year ago to $425,000 — over last month and 2 percent over February. The March median is the highest since it was $425,000 in December 2007, CoreLogic said.

     

     

    County sales overall increased 12.5 percent, from 5,915 a year ago to 6,653 last month. The median price rose 9.5 percent, from $435,000 to $476,500.

    In San Bernardino County, sales rose 12 percent, from 2,048 a year ago to 2,289. The median price increased 9 percent, from $230,000 to $250,000.

    Prices have been steadily rising as sales at the mid to high segments of the market increase, and foreclosures have retreated to pre-recession levels.

    For example, the number of homes that sold for $500,000 or more during March increased 14 percent from a year ago and accounted for 38 percent of all sales, CoreLogic said.

     

     

    Sales of properties under $500,000 rose by 2 percent, while sales below $200,000 fell 18 percent.

    Distressed properties — foreclosures and short sales — continued at a low level. Buyers who lost a home in the recession are eligible to get back in the market if their credit has been repaired.

    Foreclosure resales represented 5 percent market share in March, and short sales accounted for 6 percent. Both were just under their February and year-ago level, something Robert Kleinhenz, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., sees as a good sign.

     

     

    “There are things that could work in favor of the housing market in 2015, but we were disappointed the last couple of years and are approaching this season with a great bit of caution,” Kleinhenz said.

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  • What to Consider When Choosing a REALTOR®

    When you’re choosing a REALTOR® to represent your interests as a buyer, your choice should be based on strong recommendations from a reliable source about your prospective agent’s attention to detail and communication skills.

    You will likely rely a lot on your own instinct, too, to decide whether you are compatible with a particular agent and will feel that he is someone you can trust.

    One more step you can take is to understand your REALTOR®’s training. In fact, the first step is to check that your sales agent is indeed a REALTOR®, which means she is a member of the National Association of REALTORS® and therefore adheres to NAR’s code of ethics.

    Designations REALTORS® Hold

    While all licensed real estate agents must meet the minimum requirements of their state laws, you may also have noticed a string of letters attached to the REALTOR®’s name on a business card. These abbreviations mean that the agent has taken additional courses, has documented experience and has passed a test to earn a particular designation. The following list of designations shows the most common designations and what they mean to you as a buyer.

    ABR—Accredited Buyer Representative: As a buyer, you may want to look for someone with this designation since it means the agent has taken a course in buyer representation, passed the test and has extensive experience with buyers.

    ABRM—Accredited Buyer Representative Manager: This designation is for brokers, owners and managers who have documented experience and education managing agents who represent buyers.

    ALC—Accredited Land Consultant: If you’re looking for land to build a custom home, you may want to consider this type of specialist.

    CIPS—Certified International Property Specialist: If you want to buy overseas or you’re from another country and want to buy in the United States, a CIPS designation means the REALTOR® has specialized in the international marketplace.

    CRB—Certified Real Estate Brokerage Manager: This designation means that the broker or owner of a real estate company has completed advanced classes and has extensive experience.

    CRE—Counselor of Real Estate: Membership in this elite group of REALTORS® is by invitation only to professionals with extensive experience.

    CRS—Certified Residential Specialist: If you want a REALTOR® with more experience and access to a network of other highly successful agents, you may want to look for one with a CRS who therefore has advanced training as a listing agent and buyers’ agent.

    Green Designation: Buyers interested in finding an environmentally friendly home can work with an agent with a green designation who has more knowledge about this type of dwelling.

    GRI—Graduate REALTOR® Institute: Graduates of the REALTOR® Institute have received extensive additional education related to residential real estate.

    MRP—Military Relocation Professional: This certification emphasizes experience and education with current and former military personnel and their families.

    RSPS—Resort & Second-Home Markets Certification: If you’re in the market for a vacation home, look for an agent with this certification.

    SRES—Seniors Real Estate Specialist: REALTORS® with this designation have expertise meeting the needs of buyers and sellers over age 50.

    Your choice of a REALTOR® should be based on interviews and research, but you can also check on their designations to see whether their experience and education meets your needs as a buyer.

     

  • Are You Ready to Buy a Home?

    While it may be acceptable to snap up a pair of shoes on an impulse, the choice to buy a home requires thoughtful planning and decision making.

    Whether you’re becoming a homeowner for the first time or you’re a repeat buyer, buying a home is a financial and emotional decision that requires the experience and support of a team of reliable professionals including a REALTOR®, a lender, a lawyer and a range of other individuals.

    Why Do You Want to Buy a Home?

    The emotional part of the decision comes into play when you think about why you want to move. If you’re a first-time buyer, you need stability in your career and the desire to commit to living in the same community for five to seven years. You should want to establish roots in a neighborhood and look forward to decorating as you please without requiring a landlord’s permission.

    Purchasing a home is a lifestyle choice that requires you to think about how you like to spend your time and the type of community where you want to live—such as a rural area without nearby neighbors, a high-rise building in a city or a home within a planned community with recreational amenities.

    The more you understand your priorities for a home, the easier it will be for you to narrow your real estate decisions.

    Homeownership can also be a powerful way to increase your personal wealth for you and your family, since you’ll be building equity in your home as you pay off your mortgage.

    Are Your Finances Ready for Homeownership?

    While your dream home may not be within your reach right away, you can take steps to become a homeowner the moment you earn your first paycheck.

    In order to qualify for a mortgage to buy a home, you’ll need good credit, a pattern of paying your bills on time while still saving money and a maximum debt-to-income ratio—your gross monthly income compared to the minimum payments on all recurring debts—of 43% or less. Some lenders have stricter guidelines, so the lower your debt-to-income ratio, the better your chances of a loan approval.

    While loan programs are available with low down payments of 3.5% to 5%—and a few programs offer no down payment at all—you’ll still need some savings to pay for closing costs, moving expenses and an earnest money deposit on a home. It also is very wise to have cash reserves on hand after you buy.

    Saving money and preserving or improving your credit history are essential elements to homeownership.

    What Can You Afford to Buy?

    Housing prices and rents vary from one location to another, but you can use realtor.com®’s Rent vs. Buy calculator to estimate the difference between your current rent and buying a home. In some markets, buying a home can cost the same or even less than renting.

    Remember, when you’re a homeowner, you also need to includehomeowners insurance, property taxes and homeowners associationdues in your housing costs. You should use realtor.com®’s home affordability calculator to help you estimate what you can pay for a home.

    In addition, you should think about your plans for the future and how you spend your money—along with your comfort level with a mortgage payment. A lender will tell you how much you can borrow, but that lender won’t know how much you spend on travel or golf or your plans for potentially reducing your work hours when you have a family.

    Once you've thought through the emotional and financial aspects of becoming a homeowner, your next steps should be to find a reliable, experienced REALTOR® to become your partner in the home-buying process and to meet with a reputable lender who can discuss your options for financing your purchase. 

     

            
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  • Five tips on spring cleaning your financial life

    Who said spring cleaning has to involve manual labor? This year, why not focus on spring cleaning your finances?

    Local financial professional Cathy DeWitt Dunn from DeWitt & Dunn has some sprucing up you can do that doesn't involve a broom and feather duster.

    1. Do a Budget Inspection

    This can be an eye-opening activity. Take out your credit card bills from the last 6 months. Now get 3 highlighters. In one color, highlight the expenses that are necessary, like rent, utilities or groceries. In another color, highlight things you really want or use, like your Netflix subscription or a new vacuum cleaner. The third color is for the less thoughtful purchases, perhaps a daily cup of coffee, a round of drinks at happy hour or the clothes you still haven't worn. Cleaning out some of these unnecessary purchases will help you stick to your budget in the future.

    2. Declutter

    Debt can really clutter up your finances. Make a plan to reduce the clutter. I recommend my clients work on building momentum. Start with your smallest debt - put as much toward it as you can, while still making minimum payments on the other debts. Once you've paid off that one, turn to the next one. The rush you feel from cutting up each credit card is great incentive.

    3. Go Paperless

    It's time to embrace electronic billing. Not only will cut down on all that mail lying around your house, but it can also save you money. Many billers offer a $1 discount for going paperless because it saves them on printing and postage. That discount, plus the money you save on stamps, can easily add up to about $70 a year (according to a report by Good Housekeeping).

    4. Dust Off Your Tax Plan

    April 15th is around the corner. While you are working on this year's return, you should be considering changes you can make now to reduce how much you owe the government next year. You can make changes to your tax withholding at any timeduring the year by going to your payroll office and filling out a new W-4. If you decrease your holding, you won't get as big of a refund next year, but you will get more in each paycheck throughout the year. Ideally, you want to have just enough withheld so that the amount will come as close as possible to your actual tax liability for the year.

    5. Take out the Trash

    Now it's time to tackle those piles of financial documents you have laying around. A couple rules of thumb- you should hold onto pay stubs and bank statements for a year. Keep tax documents for 7 years. For a complete list of what you need to save, head to my website, womenmoneyandpower.com. And remember, shred- don't trash- all documents that include: account numbers, birth dates, passwords and PINs, signatures and Social Security numbers.

  • 7 Spring-Cleaning Tips

    If spring is in the air, don't let a musty house spoil it. Here are seven tips for giving the season the welcome it deserves.

    1. The best refrigerator cleaner is a combination of salt and soda water. The bubbling action of the soda water combines with the abrasive texture of the salt to make a great cleaner.
    2. The best way to get rid of lime buildup around the faucet it is to lay paper towels over the fixture, soak it with vinegar and let it set for an hour. The deposits will soften and become easier to remove.
    3. Clean screens with a scrap of carpeting. It makes a powerful brush that removes all the dirt.
    4. Clean windows with a rag and soapy water, and then dry them with another rag. You can also go to an auto-parts store and buy a windshield squeegee, which cleans very well.
    5. If drapes are looking drab, take them out of the window, remove the hooks and run them through the air-fluff cycle in the dryer along with a wet towel (to draw off the dust) for 15 minutes. Hang them back in the windows immediately.
    6. Clean the blades of a ceiling fan by covering them with a coat of furniture polish. Wipe off the excess and lightly buff.
    7. Sometimes comforters, blankets and pillows don't need to be cleaned, but they do need to be aired out after a long winter in your closed-up home. Take them outside and hang them on a clothesline for a day.
  • Front Entry Tips and Trends for Every Home

    Despite the increased prominence of back doors, mudrooms, and other alternative entryways, most visitors still enter a home through its front door. Here’s how you can help buyers and sellers set the stage for a gracious point of arrival.

    With pressure to justify every square foot of real estate and conserve energy, the larger-than-life front hall is undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s not disappearing, though—rather, it’s doing its job of welcoming in a more compact, efficient way.

    Design experts may use different terms to describe the space beyond a front door—vestibule, hallway, entryway, foyer. The terms are quite interchangeable with slight variations. A vestibule is generally a small, separate air-lock that stops cold and hot air from entering the rest of the house. A hallway provides entry but also links 

    spaces and rooms—at the front or anywhere in the home, says design guru Marianne Cusato, author of The Just Right Home (Workman Publishing). Of course there are dozens of other words you can use to describe this space. And whether you pronounce the foyer as foy-yay with a French spin or foy-er (rhymes with lawyer) really depends on how grand you or your home owners want the space to sound.

    Whatever you call it, it’s important to understand the potential impact the entrance to a home can have on a visitor’s first impressions, says Stephanie Mallios, e-PRO, salesperson with Towne Realty in Short Hill, N.J. “If there are too many shoes and coats strewn about and no place to put keys or gloves, many buyers will have a tough time imagining how they’ll live there,” she says.

    Study these eight design details to help your clients create a welcoming space that does its job well, both aesthetically and functionally—no matter what it’s called.

    Size, scale, sequence. Due to energy-efficiency concerns,an entry with a soaring ceiling and sweeping staircase is far less popular than it once was. Still, a modest entryway as small as 4 feet to 5 feet wide can convey a proper sense of arrival, says Cusato. More important than size is the scale (the space should be in proportion with the rest of the house) and the sequence (the rest of the home should flow out in a logical way), says architect Duo Dickinson, author of Staying Put (Taunton Press). Upon entering, people should be able to see other spaces and rooms and know where to go next, says architect Julie Hacker of Cohen-Hacker Architects in Evanston, Ill. In the best layouts, there may even be a view straight through to a backyard.

    Height. The number of levels or floors in the structure often determines this factor, though even two- and three-story homes are moving away from entries with soaring ceilings. The location of a stairway will hinge in part on square footage and what role an architect or builder wants the stairs to play. In smaller homes, it’s often part of the foyer but off to the side, and goes straight up—being purely functional. In larger homes, the staircase might occupy its own separate hall and curve gracefully to a landing, past a window or window bank, and up to the next level. To carpet or not is a personal preference, though bare treads can be noisy; a good compromise is a runner covering painted or hardwood treads.

    Millwork. To fashion a gracious entry, most design pros recommend a door that is at least three feet wide and 72 inches tall. The trend of pricey double doors is disappearing, according to Chicago-area builder Orren Pickell. Whether a door includes a glazed transom or sidelights should depend on how home owners feel about privacy and bringing natural light into the interior. The size of the glazing should be proportional to the door’s width and height. For baseboard and crown molding, simplification is the overriding trend, which keeps fussiness and costs down, except for the most traditional houses, says Cusato. Wainscoting is another way to add visual detail. Columns are helpful to screen off adjoining rooms without completely walling them off. Hacker uses two columns with space for books cut out on the back side of each on the living room side to separate areas in her home.

    Lighting. Good lighting is essential for safety, but it also sets a welcoming mood. A chandelier or large pendant is the obvious choice, while ceiling cans or sconces also work well. Whatever fixture home owners prefer, advise them to install dimmers. Not only will this allow them to save energy, but options for differing lighting intensity and color can also help set a dramatic mood for a party, a bright feel for an open house, and a low-light one for romance.

    Flooring. A visually rich, substantial looking floor will reward visitors, says DickinsonBut due to the wear and tear common for front entryways, it should also be practical. Slate, stone, and porcelain meet that criteria, though they can be cold on bare feet in winter. Avoid soft woods that may dent and scratch; don’t use carpeting since it will become too dirty with traffic; and avoid vinyl unless it’s one of the more expensive, newer-looking versions. Home owners may wish to set off the area in a different material than adjacent rooms and hallways. But choosing one common material for several rooms produces a feeling of continuous flow and makes smaller rooms appear larger.

    Furnishings. Depending on the entry’s size, home owners might consider adding a table to place mail, gloves, hats, and keys. Also, a mat or rug to wipe off feet and a chair or bench to put on and take off footwear can be helpful for maintaining tidiness. Finally, a mirror to check one’s appearance before heading out the door—or joining a group when entering—can be a welcome sight.

    Wallpaper vs. paint. This choice is highly personal. If home owners love color, they should go for the paintbrush, with the knowledge that darker palettes can add drama and romance. Of course, not all future buyers will have the same taste, but repainting is an easy home repair in smaller areas. If your clients are into patterns, the same rule applies, though today many wallpapers are quite easy to hang and remove. The key is for surfaces to appear clean and not look dated, which may mean banishing that old-school floral style.

    Bells and whistles. A coat closet is a nice extra, as is a powder room, though newer construction may feature such conveniences at the back of a domicile where they’ll be used most frequently. An umbrella stand can hold a variety of other items—canes, tennis racquets—neatly, and niches or shelves can display collectibles. A doorknocker outside, even if rarely used, is a classy touch akin to wearing one great piece of statement jewelry. It can really give the front door a Downton Abbey feel.

    If your buyers and sellers take away just one lesson from you, it should be that a well-planned front entrance—no matter the name, size, or style—will add value to their home. 

  • Loan Demand Is on the Upswing for Spring

    Mortgage applications for home purchases and refinancings continue to rebound, with volume rising 4.6 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis last week compared to the week prior, the Mortgage Bankers Association reports in its latest index reading for the week ending March 27.

    “This week’s mortgage application survey falls right into line with recent indications that home sales – new, existing, and pending – are on the rise, as is consumer sentiment,” says Lynn Fisher, the MBA’s vice president of research and economics.

    Broken out, loan applications for home purchases, viewed as a gauge of future home sales, increased 6 percent week over week. Purchase applications are 8 percent higher than year-ago levels. Refinancing applications increased 4 percent during the week. Refinancing applications are 44 percent higher than they were a year ago, according to the MBA.

    Federal Housing Administration loans, a big draw to first-time buyers, and Veterans Administration loans continue to post a strong performance with volume of these government-insured loans growing by 19 percent compared to last year.

    The average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage fell to 3.89 percent last week, from 3.90 percent the week prior, the MBA reports.

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