Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Considering Shared Bedrooms

Ever notice that while the size of the average family is shrinking, the average number of bedrooms in a home is increasing? Granted, one bedroom is often earmarked for a home office, but I show a lot of homes, and I find that the goal for most parents is to have a separate bedroom for each of their children. I know that everyone wants their own space these days. Makes sense when you're a parent of both boys and girls, or if there is an enormous age difference, as can sometimes be the case. But, for those of you with children of the same gender and somewhat close in age, I encourage you to at least consider that they share a bedroom.

For a number of years in my early childhood, my older sister and I shared a bedroom. We were eventually separated because I would keep her awake at night, being too restless to go straight to sleep. As we grew older, we would periodically share a bedroom , mainly when guests arrived from out of town and were given my bedroom for their stay. I enjoyed those occasions with my sister, chatting about school, boys, and music before finally falling asleep. It was disappointing to me that those opportunities were few and far between, particularly since my older sister kept mainly to herself, as was her nature.

Some friends of mine who grew up sharing bedrooms with their siblings have said that, while they didn't necessarily enjoy sharing space with their brothers or sisters, they feel they grew up knowing more about each other. Despite the arguing that would undeniably occur, they had to figure out how to co-exist. This, some have felt, was good training for dealing with college roommates later on, as well as good experience for dealing with others throughout life. Conflict resolution skills cannot be overrated.

Another point I would like to make is that siblings are another protective buffer in this world. Granted, it's not a hard and fast rule - and by no means scientific - but, in general, no matter how much we may argue with one another, no one else is allowed to pick on our family members. But it's not just about protection against neighborhood bullies. It's shocking how easily people with poor intentions can infiltrate the lives of children. And, yes, teenagers are still children - with raging hormones, more freedom, and later curfews, which make them quite vulnerable. Siblings may be more likely to know what's going on with one another than a parent is, if they spend time together. And while it's an unwritten rule that sibling secrets are never divulged to parents, there are rare occasions when that rule must be broken - and mortal safety lies at the heart of such occasions.

Again, I know of no statistics on this subject, and perhaps it's just my own opinion - which is fine, because it's my blog. But it seems to me that "togetherness" comes from, well, being together - spending time, sharing space, working out differences. Some other things that may stem from togetherness - compassion, time management, communication and organizational skills, creativity, collaboration, and the list goes on... So, consider the gift of togetherness for your kids. I'm sure you can think of a million other uses for that extra bedroom.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Use Your Space

Square footage in a home is a valuable commodity, and yet it often goes underutilized. I've witnessed this to be the case whether a home is quite spacious or bordering on tiny.

A couple of years ago, I worked with a client in need of home staging services, as she prepared her home for sale. Like many people today, she and her family spent very little time at home, as work, school, and other activities occupied their time. After a thorough review of their home, their lifestyle and needs, it was clear that they didn't use half of the square footage they had. This was, in a way, tragic, as they were paying for twice as much home as they actually needed.

If you're currently considering a home purchase, be realistic about your lifestyle and your needs. Do not pay for space and amenities you really don't need or won't likely use. That money could be better spent pursuing your passions, saving for retirement, or countless other things.

Of course, many of us are trying to use all of our space, but we don't know how to arrange it. Much of residential construction over the last 15 years or so has focused on creating large, open, communal spaces - Great Rooms, as opposed to separate rooms for the kitchen, dining and sitting areas. The lack of interior walls can present challenges for homeowners, with regard to furniture placement, storage options, and noise control - particularly in homes with vaulted or cathedral ceilings. Consider incorporating some design and storage solutions that might be found in a loft, which is commonly a space with very few interior walls.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I've been in some very small homes that really want for closet space, or virtually any form of storage. Homeowners tend to gravitate toward these types of homes when they're first-time buyers or in a period of transition, as the price of the home often reflects its "shortcomings." But these homes could serve as much greater opportunities for building equity, if only their owners would pay a relatively small price for a little creative vision and a really good handyman, which could greatly extend their stay and satisfaction in the home.

There are numerous resources available for those seeking a little inspiration to help make the most of their small spaces. Online sources for HGTV and Better Homes & Gardens offer valuable advice and lots of photos.
Look closely at each of the rooms in your home. Determine what the space needs - what could make it much, much better? Make a wish list for each room, gather photos either online or in home improvement/decor magazines to be used as a visual aid, and then begin contacting insured, professional "handymen" for competing quotes on projects. Work quotes are typically free, though be sure to verify this with each professional. With work quotes in hand, you can begin to decide which projects you'd like to tackle first, according to both your budget and your needs.

The bottom line is simply this: Make the very most of all the space in your home. After all, you're paying for it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Breathe Easy - Clean Your Ducts

Here, in Wisconsin, summer is all too fleeting. October is just around the corner, and the cool, crisp air of autumn is soon to follow. It won’t be long before we seal up our homes and settle in for the long winter ahead.

Since many of us will soon forego fresh air for forced air, it’s important for those of us living with air ducts in our homes to have them inspected and cleaned. Improving your indoor air quality can go a long way toward improving your overall health. If you’re not breathing well, you’re not living well.

It’s recommended that air duct systems be cleaned no less than once every two years. If you smoke, suffer from allergies, have pets that shed hair or dander, or live in a high-traffic, high-pollution, or high-dust area, it’s recommended that you have your HVAC (heating ventilation air condition) system cleaned annually.

It’s also a good idea to have your system inspected and cleaned if you’ve just purchased a previously-occupied home, or your home is newly constructed or recently remodeled. Construction creates a great deal of dust, and it’s a bit unseemly to think of the dust, hair, & dander from previous owners being blown throughout your home and becoming the air you breathe.

When researching air duct cleaning companies, be sure to compare their scope of services. Some companies only clean the ductwork, which is only part of the system.

Pay attention to certifications, accreditations, and affiliations. You should be able to learn a great deal from their websites, regarding experience, training, services, processes, and answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs).

Many companies provide you with the opportunity to see what your ducts look like before and after cleaning, which may be an alarming, but helpful, visual. Service quotes should be free, and are typically available via phone or email.

Be sure to shop around, and ask friends, family, or co-workers for possible referrals. Here are a few links to various area service providers, to help get you started:

Dirty Ducts Cleaning
Stanley Steemer

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Poor Choices Can Blow a Deal

Buying a home is a personal choice, but it’s also a significant business decision - and buyers are wise to remember this. That is why it is critical to make good choices when selecting the key service providers involved in the transaction – the lender/mortgage loan officer, real estate agent, and home inspector. A poor choice in any of these three service areas can actually blow a deal for the buyer.

Timeliness, organization, effective communication, knowledge, and accessibility are key traits to seek in each of these professionals. If you were responsible for the hiring decisions at your company, which candidates would you bring back for a second interview? Consider the fact that you are actually the CEO of your own life, and your hiring decisions could impact the quality of your life for many years to come.

No purchase can hope to take place without the necessary funds. Make sure you have chosen a reputable lender, and not some institution that no one has ever heard of. Sellers are very wary these days when it comes to lenders, and rightly so. There are simply too many devastating stories of buyers and sellers sitting across the closing table from one another for hours, waiting for the funds to arrive via wire. Countless transactions have been delayed by days or weeks when one lender cannot close the deal and a new lender must be found to eventually save the day. Imagine that scenario as a first-time buyer when your apartment has new tenants arriving, and you’re now without a place to live - with all of your belongings loaded on a rental truck.

In addition to selecting a credible lender, it’s vital to receive a pre-approval letter. A pre-qualification letter is meaningless to sellers. They want to know that a lender has actually pre-approved you for financing. Offers with pre-approvals will likely be given much stronger consideration, and some sellers won’t even look at an offer without a pre-approval letter.

Be sure to receive a GFE (Good Faith Estimate) from your lender for all fees associated with the lender, loan program, and closing costs. You will want to have this information handy as you negotiate an Offer to Purchase. You must be aware of the money you will need to bring with you to closing, in the event that a seller does not agree to pay your closing costs, and you still want to proceed with the offer.

Dates and deadlines in an Offer to Purchase are critical, where time is often of the essence. The professionals you choose must be accessible, organized, and timely in the delivery of their services. Missing deadlines or waiting until the last minute to satisfy contingencies can have dire consequences. Remember that an Offer to Purchase is a legally binding document, and not to be taken lightly.

It is not your job to know the ins and outs of loan programs and financing options. It is not your job to know the laws that govern real estate transactions in your state. Nor is it your job to know if the property you wish to purchase is safe, structurally sound, or worth its listing price. It is your job to select the professionals who do carry those responsibilities and the proper credentials. Take time to research your options. Ask friends, family members, and trusted colleagues for referrals. Attend open houses or research real estate companies and agents online (see my post, “All Agents are NOT Created Equal.”)

Do your best to make wise decisions, but don’t beat yourself up if you wind up making a poor choice. A worse choice is to sit back and do nothing once you recognize the problem. Always remember that if you made the hiring decision, then you can also make the firing decision. You can choose a different lender or loan officer. Due to complexities associated with real estate law, you may need to take an extra step with switching agents if:
1. You signed a Buyer Agency Agreement,
2. You’re in the middle of a transaction, or
3. You plan to write an offer on a property that was shown to you by that agent.
If any of these situations apply to you, contact the agent’s broker, who will reassign and oversee another agent who will better meet your needs.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Relocating? Pack it Up!

With the economy being what it is today, competition for employment is fierce. More people are determining they’re willing to move wherever they can find a decent job and attempt to regain some stability.

If the new employer offers a relocation package, it’s typical that moving expenses are paid, but the movers only insure what they themselves pack. For homeowners who now need to sell their homes to relocate, they may be hesitant to box up anything themselves. This may be fine for décor and wardrobe minimalists, but few homeowners fall into that category.

So, if this scenario applies to you, congratulations on your new opportunity! Now go get some boxes.

It’s wonderful that someone else is going to do all of the packing and moving for you, but you likely still have some work to do to get your home photo-perfect and show-ready. If you don’t take the time to prepare your home for public viewing, you could be cheating yourself out of thousands of dollars of sale proceeds. It’s also unfair to expect your real estate agent to put all sorts of time and money into marketing efforts when you haven’t done your job as homeowner first.

Take a good look around your home, paying particular attention to areas that attract clutter – and that could be anywhere. Begin to edit furnishings, décor, collections, pantry items, and overstuffed cabinets and closets. Be careful not to over-edit – you don’t want to pack up items you’ll need to have accessible until you move, and you don’t want your home to seem cold or completely devoid of personality. You just want buyers to see the great space they’ll be buying, and that’s easier to see with fewer items to distract them.

Now, there’s no need to pay for boxes, since the movers will surely come with their own packing materials. Think back to your years of apartment dwelling – and moving. Call grocery stores and office supply stores to find out when they receive their shipments, and tell them you’d like to take some boxes off their hands. You just need to be timely in your pick-up, or else they’ll have broken down the boxes already.

Since the movers will need to properly pack the items you’re temporarily placing in mismatched boxes, you don’t need to be overly careful with your packing techniques. Begin with items that aren’t fragile – clothing, seasonal shoes/boots/coats, towels, blankets, linens, metal baking pans and cookware that aren’t often used, games, books, DVDs, CDs, toys, etc. Extra furniture might be shuffled to a less furnished room or storage space.

When it comes to breakables, consider moving them to another space that you’ve managed to empty of non-breakables – like a cabinet, closet, or even inside a piece of furniture that buyers won’t look in because it’s your personal property. You get the idea.

In this housing market, you can’t leave success to chance – and you can’t place all of the responsibility on the shoulders of your real estate agent. So, get crackin’ and get packin’!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Selling Point of Seasonal Photos

Spring has finally sprung in southern Wisconsin. Ask any allergy sufferer, and they’ll tell you it’s officially spring.

Now that the grass is actually green, the trees are budding, and tulips and other such perennials are in bloom, homeowners should be sure to take photos of their landscaping, as well as nice shots of the front and back of their home (be sure to get plenty of yard in the picture). This should be done in spring, summer, and fall – even winter, if your property looks particularly lovely covered in snow and ice.

Keep digital files of these photos, updating them every couple of years or when you’ve done something new to the landscaping or exterior of the property – whichever comes first. This will allow you to be prepared with excellent outside photos, no matter what time of year you eventually list your house for sale.

Those who have had to list their homes in winter can attest to the need for such photos. It’s no accident that most homes are listed for sale during the spring and summer months – at least in colder climates. Properties simply look more attractive when the landscaping is leafy, colorful and vibrant, and the home itself isn’t surrounded by several feet of snow.

But if you’re ever in the position of having to sell your home during the winter months, include spring and summer photos in your online listing. Also display these photos in your home for buyers to take a look at during a showing. Place them in a special photo album or spread them out on the kitchen counter or dining room table – a place where they can’t be missed.

Buyers can’t visualize how beautiful a property is when it’s covered in snow - unless they're buying a ski chalet. Give them every opportunity to view your property in its best light – or season.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Negotiating the Deal

In southern Wisconsin, as in much of the country, we are experiencing a buyer’s market. We simply have far more homes for sale than we have buyers buying.

We’ve seen housing prices fall, inventories remain high, interest rates drop to historic lows, and incentives offered to first-time home buyers to encourage them to buy.

Naturally, buyers are feeling confident when they enter into negotiations on a property. They’ve all heard stories from friends or family members that they can get properties for a steal. Play hardball, and the seller will break under the pressure. What else is he to do if he needs to sell his home?

Many buyers believe they can and should submit a lowball offer in order to secure the best deal from a seller. Here are some reasons why that’s not the best strategy:

1. Current home prices already reflect the drop in housing values. Buyers should ask their agents for a brief market analysis, showing sales and active listings for comparable properties in the area. They should also seek the sales history on the property they wish to purchase. This preparation will help them determine the appropriate price to offer for the property.

2. When presented with a lowball offer, sellers will often counter back higher than they would have if the offer was more reasonable. In a proper negotiation, both parties benefit. Anger is never good for a negotiation, so buyers are wise to remember that they are actually dealing with human beings on the other end of the transaction.

3. Price is not the only factor to consider when writing an offer. What else is the buyer asking for? Closing costs? Appliances? A home warranty? An allowance for new paint or carpeting? Is the buyer hoping to ask the seller to leave behind some of the personal property, such as the pool table, riding lawn mower, or outdoor furniture? Buyers are more likely to succeed in securing a lower price if they are not asking for more than that from the seller, AND if they bring something of value to the table: a quick closing date, pre-approved financing with a reputable lender, an amount of earnest money appropriate for the value of the property, and so forth.

4. REALLY IMPORTANT: Negotiations do not simply end with an accepted offer. Suppose the property inspections reveal that some major repairs are needed. Going back to the seller who was lowballed, to ask that he foot the bill for the repairs, may result in a lost deal. Yes, the seller will need to disclose any “defects” to future buyers that were found during the initial inspection. But that may not deter a seller from walking away from a deal that left him unhappy from the start. He may opt to make the necessary repairs and hold out for a better offer from a more reasonable buyer.

5. It often pays to be nice. Sellers are usually kind enough to provide buyers with information about the community, neighborhood, and unique workings of the property. This can be very valuable information to have – and is easy to obtain if the seller feels favorably toward the buyer. Another challenge that occurs more often than one might think: the closing gets postponed at the last minute, and now the buyers are homeless, with a truck full of belongings, and new appliances to be delivered that are already enroute. There are remedies to such situations, for which the seller may play a significant role. Power can shift in a transaction at any time.

It’s important to keep in mind that home sellers are neighbors. They are members of a community to which buyers hope to belong. Great deals can and should be negotiated where both parties walk away winners.