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Blacksburg wins 2 state environmental awards

by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI, SRS, CRS

Two Blacksburg environmental projects have won the 2008 Governor's Environmental Excellence awards.

The awards were presented last week at the Environment Virginia Conference in Lexington to businesses and government agencies that strive for environmental protection and sustainability.

The town's electronic waste recycling program, established in 2006 through a federal grant program, won a gold medal in the environmental partnerships category. According to the town's award application, through Blacksburg's partnership with the YMCA at Virginia Tech, 85,176 pounds of electronic devices and 801 pounds of batteries that would have gone into landfills have instead been reused or recycled.

Sustainability Week 2007 -- an environmental awareness campaign and celebration put on by Virginia Tech, Blacksburg and numerous businesses, agencies and residents -- won a bronze award in the government environmental programs category.

The recognition is "a source of pride" for all the individuals and groups who have worked so hard to make these projects happen, Blacksburg Public Works Director Kelly Mattingly said.

Other winners included the city of Charlottesville, the University of Virginia and the Volvo Trucks North America plant in Dublin.

Written by Tonia Moxley

Roofing Projects Require Due Diligence

by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI, SRS, CRS

As the weather improves, homeowners start to tackle a major home improvement project: fixing or replacing their roof. Often this is a job that homeowners delay doing because it can be a pricey, tedious process.

"Some consumers are on top of it and start looking at new roofs well before the life span of their current roof runs out," says Steven James, VP Business Development for Eagle Ridge Construction & Roofing.

But that's not typical. Generally a problem such as a leak prompts homeowners to finally get around to checking out what's going on atop their home. Part of the reason homeowners procrastinate is because finding the right contractor for the job is a difficult process.

"Year after year, the Better Business Bureau consistently ranks roofing contractors as one of the top 20 most-complained-about businesses," says James.

In fact, in 2006, the latest statistics currently available reveal that the Better Business Bureau received 8,089 complaints against roofing contractors nationwide. "Out of 2,900 business categories, roofing contractors ranked 16th on the list of the most-complained-about businesses," says James.

But don't let that scare you into putting off your roofing job. Instead, use these helpful tips to select the best contractor for the job. At the top of the tip list, don't let price drive the deal.

Cheaper generally means compromise. "There's always going to be a lower price and usually the lower price reflects a shortcoming in the contractors insurance level because there are different insurance levels that they can have," says James. For instance, James says that general liability insurance isn't required by the state so some contractors don't carry it. That can pose a real risk to the homeowner because if something goes wrong, the homeowner can end up being liable for any damage during the course of the job.

He adds that "workers' compensation is required by the state by all contractors but some contractors use [Employee Leasing Plans] (which is kind of a way of getting around getting workers' comp insurance because the person who you lease the employees from is responsible for that), so you need to be cautious about the insurance that a contractor carries."

Compare apples to apples. "Generally a contractor will push a name-brand shingle," says James. But he says contractors may try to cut corners in other less obvious ways. James says that various less visible products that contractors use can be inferior, generic, or even second-hand materials. Make sure you compare apples to apples when deciding which contractor to use and be certain to inquire about all of the materials that are being used in your roofing project.

Find out how long a contractor has been in business. It's commonly known that most new businesses, regardless of the industry, fail within the first three to five years. "However, contractors and roofers generally fail at an even higher rate, so you have to consider that the warranty that you get from the contractor will only be as good as the contractors if they're still around. If they're not still around, obviously the warranty is worthless," explains James.

Use a certified expert. "Most of the name-brand shingles will certify contractors to install shingles according to their own specifications," says James. James adds that consumers should look for contractors who are certified by the shingle companies as "opposed to contractors who do use the name brand but are not necessarily certified by the manufacturer to install the shingle. An additional benefit to using certified contractors is that they are often able to offer extended warranties that are backed by the manufacturer.

Check your timing for your roofing project. Delays are common but a lot of people don't realize, especially during the winter months, that they're related to the weather. Any time you have even a chance of rain that means it's really risky to try to put a roof on and that's one thing consumers should be aware of," says James. He says often consumers see that it's currently sunny out and so they wonder why their roof isn't getting done. It could mean that the roofing company realizes that even a 20 percent chance of light showers could ruin the roofing project so the company is putting it off until better, safer weather conditions are predicted. "There are horror stories where there is a low chance of rain and so the roof is taken off and then the rain comes in and the house gets destroyed," says James.

Search for a contractor who is a member of industry trade associations. The National Roofing Contractors Association is one industry group that helps to educate and keep contractors informed about industry standards and changes. "The contractor receives unbiased product knowledge from the association as opposed to just receiving sales-type material from the manufacturer. So it's a second source of information about products and [it's coming from] a more neutral source," says James. The associations also provide ongoing safety training material for contractors as well as information to keep contractors informed about changing rules and regulations for construction.

Remember, what's atop your home protects all that's beneath it, so making sure you do your due diligence to hire the right contractor for the job can be the difference between a tedious or smoothly-run and completed roofing project.

By Phoebe Chongchua

Top 10 Best Cities for Home Sellers

by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI, SRS, CRS
Four factors are widely seen as affecting whether a housing market is a good one for sellers: job growth, amount of new construction, vacancy rates, and credit availability.

Forbes magazine used a variety of resources to determine how the country’s 40 largest metro areas fared according to these measures. The result is this list of top 10 cities for sellers.


San Jose, Calif. Because of a tough regulatory environment, new home construction dropped 63 percent last year.
San Francisco. When the conforming loan limit recently jumped from $417,000 to the maximum $729,750, that made credit much easier to get for many of the city's homebuyers.
Salt Lake City. The 3 percent annual job growth rate, paired with a declining inventory of existing homes and one of the nation’s sharpest declines in construction made this market a good one for sellers.
Austin, Texas. Texas is very affordable, plus the city has the nation’s fastest job growth at 4.1 percent.
Kansas City, Mo. The number of unsold, vacant houses dropped by 40 percent last year.
San Antonio, Texas. Jobs are growing by 3 percent and construction starts have dropped by 42 percent.
Denver. The 49 percent drop in construction starts paired with the 2 percent rise in new jobs are good news for sellers.
Providence, R.I. Vacancy rates at 1.6 percent combined with a 42 percent cut in inventory help sellers.
Charlotte, N.C. Moderate prices and strong job growth bode well for sellers.
Seattle, Wash. Strong job growth and a 42 percent decrease in new home construction are good news for sellers.

Source: Forbes, Matt Woolsey (04/07/2008)

Dems to Propose Housing Tax Breaks

by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI, SRS, CRS
U.S. House Democrats are drafting a plan for curing the housing crisis by offering tax breaks to home owners, first-time homebuyers, and developers of low-income housing.

The plan, which will be unveiled this week, deliberately snubs the struggling home-building industry.

"We need to provide relief to the buyers and families themselves, not just the banks and builders," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) said yesterday in a written statement. "The House bill will put families first."

The House proposal would create a temporary tax credit of as much as $8,000 for first-time buyers and increase tax credits for investors in low-income housing. It would create a standard deduction for property taxes, aiding those who don’t itemize on their federal returns. And it would expand the authority of state and local housing finance agencies to use tax-exempt bonds to refinance troubled mortgages.

This package, together with the previous package of housing bills created by the House, would be the most far-reaching attempt by Congress to address the mortgage crisis. House leaders plan to present it to the full chamber for a vote in the next few weeks, says Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "There's a determination to get this done," he says.

Source: The Washington Post, Lori Montgomery (04/08/08)

What Does The Economic Stimulus Package Mean To You?

by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI, SRS, CRS
 

Since passed by overwhelming Capitol Hill majorities in January, there has been much talk regarding the economic stimulus package. Yes, it will cost $168 billion, but what does it actually do for individuals?

The stimulus package is designed to help the country moderate the worst effects of a slowing economy and perhaps even avoid a recession. The idea is to encourage spending and with more spending to increase economic activity. While the theory looks good on paper, it will likely take months or years to know if it actually works.

From a personal perspective the January stimulus package has five major components that will immediately impact individuals with an interest in real estate.

1. Checks from Uncle Sam: According to the White House, taxpayers can receive rebates of up to $600 for individuals and $1,200 for couples. A minimum of $300 per person and $600 per couple will be available to those with at least $3,000 of earned income. This relief will be available to everyone with adjusted gross income less than $75,000 for singles and $150,000 for married couples filing jointly. The rebates will be phased out for taxpayers above those income thresholds.

2. Additional rebates will be mailed out for those with children. Everyone eligible for a rebate would also receive an additional $300 per child. For example, this would mean up to $1,800 of tax relief for an eligible couple with two children.

3. Reduced Income Taxes for Low-Income Wage Earners: The legislation says that 2008 taxes will be eliminated on the first $6,000 of taxable income for individual taxpayers and the first $12,000 of taxable income for couples. The tax rate used to be 10 percent on such income.

4. FHA mortgage loan limits will more than double in some cases. The usual limit in high-cost areas in the lower 48 states will rise from $362,790 to $729,750. Such financing allows buyer to purchase homes with 3 percent down.

5. Conventional loan limits will increase. The maximum size of a "conforming" loan will go from $417,000 to $729,750.

While the benefits for individuals look good, there are some caveats to consider.

First, those rebate checks are a one-time deal. While the government hopes that individuals will use the money for spending, many recipients will use the cash to pay down debts. Paying off bills can be a good use of your cash because it can mean lower monthly costs and better credit scores, thus lowering interest costs when you borrow to finance a home or car.

Second, if you want to buy or refinance with the new class of "conventional jumbo" mortgages, be aware that the FHA and conventional loan limits have only been raised for 2008. It's possible that the old limits will be reinstated in January 2009, so if you want a larger mortgage start planning now.

Third, while the conventional loan limit applies nationwide, the maximum amount you can borrow under the FHA program varies by location. In other words, the biggest loans will not be available everywhere. For specifics regarding your area, please speak with a mortgage counselor.

Is Your Credit Score as High as You Think?

by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI

It is common to assume that paying bills on time automatically means having a high credit score. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. There are many misperceptions about how scores are calculated -- and yours could be lower than you might expect.

Credit scores are used by financial institutions to determine whether they should lend money to a potential borrower and, if so, what interest rate should be charged. A higher score means an applicant is statistically less likely to default on the loan so they get a lower interest rate.

Ignoring your credit score could be a costly mistake. As an example, let's say you bought a $400,000 house with a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at a 6-percent interest rate. Over the term of the loan, you would pay interest charges of $463,354. If, however, you had a lower score and your bank bumped your interest rate up to 8 percent, you would pay interest charges of $656,619. That's a hefty difference of $193,265.

There are many credit scoring systems available to lenders, but FICO scores are by far the most commonly used. The system was developed by the Fair Isaac Corporation back in the 1960s. Technically, you have three different FICO scores -- one for each of the three major credit reporting agencies.

Knowing how FICO scores are calculated can help you make better decisions about your credit. At a minimum, you should be aware of some of the most common misperceptions:

I always pay my bills on time so I must have a high credit score.

Paying your bills on time is clearly a critical factor, but it only accounts for 35 percent of your overall FICO score. It also looks at four other components: the amount of debt you owe (30 percent), the length of your credit history (15 percent), the number of credit accounts you've recently opened (10 percent), and the types of credit you use (10 percent).

Consolidating multiple credit cards will increase my score.

Consolidating credit cards could make it easier to pay down debt, but your FICO score could actually decrease if you consolidate to fewer accounts with balances that are closer to the maximum available credit. FICO considers you a lower risk if you have multiple credit accounts, keep the payments up-to-date, and maintain balances between 25 percent and 35 percent of the available credit.

I don't have any credit cards or other major debt so I can't have a low score.

Your FICO score doesn't take into account your net worth or your income level -- it only looks at your past borrowing history. Your FICO score will be lower if you haven't established a long-term borrowing history with multiple creditors.

Closing a credit card is better for my score than keeping it open.

Closing a credit card will not necessarily hurt your score in the short term, but you will eventually lose the positive effects of the long-term credit history that you've established with that lender.

I shouldn't shop around for a mortgage or other large loan because credit inquiries hurt my score.

A large number of credit inquiries will lower your score, but FICO is smart enough to know when you are rate shopping. Inquiries for similar types of credit are bundled if they're made within the same 14-day period.

I shouldn't check my credit report more than once a year because credit inquiries hurt my score.

Checking your own credit report does not affect your score, so feel free to check it as many times as you'd like.

If you want to learn more about how FICO scores are calculated, visit Fair Isaac's web site at www.myfico.com. They offer a host of informational materials and credit score tips. And while you're at it, you can also order your three scores for a small fee.

Becoming more knowledgeable about FICO scores could help you to keep those pesky interest rates at a minimum. With just a small investment of time, you will be able to make smarter credit decisions and take proactive steps to increase your score.

Displaying blog entries 1-6 of 6

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