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Virginia Tech Tests Emergency Alert System

by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Hundreds of people reported they did not receive a message sent out during a trial run of Virginia Tech's expanded emergency alert system on Wednesday, though it was not clear whether all were signed up for the service, a university spokesman said.

The "VT Alerts" system sent text messages, voice mails, e-mails and online instant messages to the more than 18,000 people — about 60 percent of the university community — who signed up.

The Blacksburg school followed up with a campus-wide e-mail survey seeking feedback within hours of the test run and 711 people reported that they never received an alert, university spokesman Mark Owczarski said.

"It can be that they never signed up for it, or they signed up and they dropped out, or U.S. Cellular was having hiccups," he said. "It could mean a whole bunch of things."

The school already had been looking into expanding its alert system when student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and then himself on April 16. Plans began last fall, after an escaped prisoner accused of killing a hospital guard fled to the Tech area and caused the campus to shut down.

During the April shootings, the university relied mainly on e-mails, campus warning sirens and a message on Tech's Web site to alert students to the danger.

The expanded service gives subscribers the option of receiving their alerts by up to three delivery methods, and each subscriber designates a primary delivery method, such as a text message.

An analysis by a California provider of mass notification systems, 3n (National Notification Network), showed it took 18 minutes to send the test messages to all subscribers via their primary point of contact, and 31 minutes to send out alerts via all the contact methods, company spokesman Marc Ladin said.

There may have been external issues that delayed or prevented people from receiving the alerts, such as phone carrier delays delivering text messages, instant message systems that aren't configured to accept messages from the university and cell phone reception problems, Owczarski said.

Virginia Tech and 3n will review data from the test and the survey, Owczarski said. If there are problems within the system, adjustments will be made, he said.

"I would say that we're still learning," he said. "But it may just be that there is no such thing as a system that is perfect."

By KRISTEN GELINEAU

Surprising Demographic Changes That Will Impact Housing In the Future

by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI

The latest 1,200-table 2006 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates key changes in social, economic, and housing characteristics for the nation.

As part of the Census Bureau’s re-engineered 2010 Census, the data collected by the ACS helps federal officials determine where to distribute more than $300 billion to state and local governments each year. The 2006 ACS estimates are based on an annual, nationwide sample of about 250,000 addresses per month. In addition, approximately 20,000 group quarters across the United States were sampled, comprising approximately 200,000 residents. Geographic areas for which data are available are based on total populations of 65,000 or more.

Among the findings, which are designed to refresh the often out-of-date 10-year census data, are the following hot topics that will impact housing in the future:

Older Workers

Wages have not kept up with inflation, which is one of the reasons why nearly one in four people between the ages of 65 and 74 (23.2 percent) are still in the labor force (either working or looking for work) in 2006. That's an increase from 19.6 percent in 2000. States with some of the lowest rates of older workers in the labor force include West Virginia (15.7 percent), Michigan (18.8 percent) and Arizona (19.4 percent). Michigan and Arizona were not statistically different.

Some of the highest rates were found in South Dakota, Nebraska and Washington, D.C., all with about one-third of people in this age group in the labor force. Among the 20 largest metro areas, Washington, D.C., had the highest percentage of people in the labor force in this age group (31.8 percent). Others with high percentages include Boston (28.1 percent), Dallas-Fort Worth (27.9 percent), Minneapolis-St. Paul (27.4 percent) and Houston (26.5 percent), none of which were statistically different from the other.

Homeownership

Only recently has homeownership receded slightly, but it has increased overall since 2000, with more than two-thirds of all occupied homes (67.3 percent) currently owned by the occupant, compared to 66.2 percent in 2000. In 2006, the highest rates of homeownership were found in Minnesota (76.3), and some of the lowest were found in New York (55.6 percent) and Washington, D.C. (45.8 percent). Among the 20 largest metro areas, Minneapolis-St. Paul shared the top spot with Detroit (75.2 and 74.6 percent, respectively), with St. Louis ranking third (73.1 percent).

California and Hawaii were the two states with the highest median value of owner-occupied homes (more than $500,000). California cities Newport Beach and Santa Barbara had median home values of about $1 million.

More than half of California homeowners with a mortgage spent 30 percent or more of their household incomes on mortgage payments and other owner costs. Less than a quarter of North Dakota homeowners spent 30 percent or more of their household incomes on mortgage payments and other owner costs.

Non-English Speakers

In 2006, about 8 million more people spoke a foreign language at home than in 2000. Nationally, one in five (19.7 percent) over age 5 spoke a language other than English at home, compared to 17.9 percent in 2000. Among the states, California (42.5 percent) had the highest percentage in this category, followed by New Mexico (36.5 percent) and Texas (33.8 percent). About one in 10 California households were linguistically isolated, which means everyone 14 or older in those households had at least some difficulty speaking English.

Among the 20 largest metro areas, more than half of all people over 5 in Los Angeles (53.4 percent) spoke a language other than English at home. Miami ranked second in this category (48.6 percent), followed by San Francisco-Oakland and Riverside, Calif., where about four in 10 spoke a language other than English at home (not statistically different at 39.5 percent and 39 percent, respectively).

Married with Children

The percentage of households that were married-couple families with children under 18 decreased from 23.5 percent in 2000 to 21.6 percent in 2006.

All states, except Connecticut, saw a percentage point decrease in households in this category since 2000. In 2006, Utah had the greatest percentage of married-couple households with children under 18, at 32.3 percent. Other states with high rates included Idaho (25.5 percent), California (24.8 percent), Texas (24.7 percent), New Jersey (24.6 percent) and Alaska (24.3 percent), none of which were statistically different from each other. Florida (18.2 percent) and Washington, D.C. (7.3 percent) had some of the lowest.

Among the 20 largest metro areas, Riverside, Calif., had the highest percentage in this category (29.6 percent), followed by Dallas-Fort Worth (26.6 percent) and Houston (26.1 percent), which were not statistically different from each other.

The ACS estimates released are for the total population and, for the first time, include populations residing in group quarters.


Written by Blanche Evans

Homeownership Is Good For You!

by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI

Buying a home has gotten tougher in recent years, and finding affordable housing is an even greater endeavor, but the struggle is worth the effort.

The National Housing Conference's Center For Housing Policy and Enterprise Community Partners, two housing advocacy groups, say more than just a roof over your head, homeownership with solid neighborhoods in the mix can enhance the lives of families and their children and improve their futures.

A group of reports, "Vital Links: Housing's Contributions to the Nation's Health and Education Objectives," makes the case for affordable housing by revealing its benefits.

In short, the reports say, homeownership is good for you in a number of ways, including:

 

  • Affordable housing is good for your health because it frees up family resources for nutritious food and health care expenditures. Families paying a large share of their income for housing are left with insufficient funds to meet other essential needs, including nutritious food and health care.

     

  • Residential stability provided by affordable housing reduces stress and related adverse health conditions. Homeless children are more vulnerable to mental health problems, developmental delays and depression than children who are housed. Frequent moves, living in doubled-up housing, eviction and foreclosure are also related to elevated stress levels, depression and hopelessness.

     

  • Homeownership also contributes to health improvements by fostering self-esteem, better physical and mental health, lower blood pressure and lower levels of depression and alcohol abuse.

     

  • Green building and transit-oriented development strategies can lower exposure to pollutants by improving the energy efficiency of homes and reducing reliance on personal vehicles. Forty percent of the nation's energy use is consumed in households and private transportation.

     

  • Some affordable housing strategies help families move to communities with stronger school systems and more education-supported environments. While frequent moves appear to have a negative impact on educational achievement, moves to better school systems (or to communities that offer stronger support for education) may have an independent positive impact on educational achievement.

     

  • Children who experience homelessness face numerous educational barriers, including difficulties accessing preschool and Head Start programs, as well as after school care and obtaining personal records necessary for enrollment. Homeless children are more likely than their low-income peers to drop out of school, repeat a grade, perform poorly on tests and in the classroom and suffer from learning disabilities and behavior problems.

     

  • Children of homeowners do better in school, up to 9 percent better in math scores, 7 percent better in reading achievement and 1 to 3 percent lower in behavioral problems, than those who live in rented homes. Children of homeowners also stay in school longer and have higher high school graduation rates than similarly aged children living in rented homes, the studies reveal.


    Written by Broderick Perkins
  • Negotiators Miss Out By Accepting Deals too Fast

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI
    Most people even those who think they have great negotiating skills accept the deal too quickly, according to a study on how far both buyers and sellers are willing to go in a negotiation.

    ''Even experienced negotiators are not immune,'' says study co-author George Wu, a professor at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business. ''People almost always underestimate'' how far they can get the other side to go.

    Rick Larrick, associate professor of management at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and another co-author of the study, offers this advice for those who want to be a better real estate negotiator:
    • Weigh your alternatives. ''The only time you should be concerned about the other side walking away is when you don't have good alternatives,'' Larrick says. "If you're buying a house, you should know if there is another one out there that you would be happy to buy if you couldn't get this one at a certain price. If there is, you can make the other side sweat.''
    • Know the value. Whether you’re the buyer or the seller of a home, know the value of the property. "Look at everything in that range and know what else buyers interested in your home might be seeing,'' advises Fran Vernon, an associate with Dilback REALTORS® in La Canada, Calif.
    • Have patience. A buyer or a seller who is not in a hurry can rise above other buyers or sellers in the same price range.
    • Learn from your deals. Just because you walked away feeling like a winner doesn’t mean you were, Larrick says. Pay attention to subsequent similar sales, so the next time you can do better.

    5 Inexpensive Ways to Revitalize a Kitchen

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI
    Here are some quick, affordable ways to give your kitchen an update:
    • Replace the flooring. Install laminate floor over old linoleum, vinyl, or chipped tile. It costs just $1 to $5 a square foot and looks like wood, stone, or tile.
    • Replace the lighting. A new ceiling fixture costs less than $100 and will brighten up the place. Adding some under-the-cabinet lights will illuminate work surfaces.
    • Give the cabinets a new life. A coat of paint and new knobs is the cheapest way to go. If you’re able to spend $4,000 to $6,000 on the project, hire a refacing company to replace the doors and drawer-fronts.
    • Refinish the appliances. For a few hundred dollars, an appliance refinisher will re-enamel your stove, refrigerator, and dishwasher door in the color of your choice, including a stainless steel look-alike.
    • Update the backsplash. Replace the space between your cabinets and the countertop with fashionable stone or inexpensive wallpaper.

    Torn Between Two Houses?

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI

    As you find yourself heavily immersed in the house-hunting mode, you may encounter a situation in which you're torn between two houses. Perhaps you and your spouse each have a favorite, or perhaps you both like two houses equally - or think you do.

    Making a final decision and determining which house to make an offer on shouldn't be taken lightly. The decision should be made rationally and not guided by emotion.

    Of course, you may not have the luxury of taking your time on deciding which house you'd like to pursue. You may be in a market in which homes in your price range get snatched up as quickly as they go on the market, perhaps even attracting multiple offers.

    But in some situations, you may find yourself torn between two houses. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is take pen to paper and outline your family's needs, your budget, and the pros and cons of each house.

    Some things you'll want to compare include:

     

  • The neighborhoods. If the two final contenders are in different neighborhoods, evaluate the pros and cons. If you have kids and being close to a park is important, you'll want to consider that. How close are shopping, restaurants, church, and other services? Are the streets maintained? Do homeowners landscape and maintain their homes nicely? How long will your commute to work be?

     

  • The schools. If you have school-aged children, you definitely want to consider the reputation of the neighborhood schools. You can usually find general district information and state standardized test results online. But once you're this deep in the process, you'll want to visit the schools and receive the information first-hand from school officials. You should also talk to teachers and parents.

     

  • Crime. Go to the local police or sheriff department and ask about crime in your specific neighborhood. You might find theft or vandalism to be more prevalent in one area than another.

     

  • The houses compared to others in the neighborhood. While it may boost your self-esteem to have the biggest house on the block, it's typically a better idea to stay away from purchasing the neighborhood monster. When it comes time to sell you'll find that the lower value of your neighbors' homes will shrink your home's value.

     

  • Appreciation. If the two homes you're eyeing are in different parts of town or different neighborhoods, ask your REALTOR® to retrieve sales of homes in those neighborhoods over the past few years. If one neighborhood shows an annual average 8 percent increase and another is skyrocketing at 15 percent, you may have your decision made.

     

  • The sellers' situations. If you don't know already, ask your Realtor how long each home has been on the market. Usually the longer a house has been listed, the better chance the seller will accept an offer lower than asking price. Conversely, if the house has been on the market for just a couple days, the sellers will probably wait for a better offer if you offer less than the listed price. Your real estate agent might also be able to dig up additional information about the sellers, like why they're selling. If it's a job-related move or a divorce, the sellers likely want to move as quickly as possible, meaning you have a better shot at them accepting a lower price.

     

  • The houses themselves. If you haven't already, you should make a list of the amenities and attributes you want your house to have. If you want that first-floor home office, a large, open back yard for the kids, or a gourmet kitchen, be sure to include that on your list. Then, rate how each house measures up to each need on your list.

     

  • Drawbacks. Likewise, make a list of the cons associated with each house and determine how much of a negative impact each will have.

    As you carefully weigh all the factors, it might become clear that one house is more enticing than the other. Or, you may find the houses are still equally appealing. If that is the case, be sure you look at the homes more than once. You may notice something you didn't the first time around - something that could sway you one way or the other.


    Written by Michele Dawson

  • Memorial Day Greeting - Please View!

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI

    Please click here to view my special Memorial Day greeting - Thank You!

    Negotiating the Right Protection

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI

    During the home-buying process, there's more to negotiation than just price and terms. In the market of the past, buyers had nothing to go for except the highest price as possible, no home inspection, and a home warranty if they wanted to buy it themselves.

    Today, buyers have a lot more negotiation on their side, but even if the seller balks at some of your requests, it still makes sense to put certain protective clauses, warranties and insurance policies in place to protect your most valuable asset.

    Home inspections are the norm today instead of the exception to the real estate contract these days. Buyers seeking for a really good deal on short-sale or foreclosure properties, however, may have to sign multi-page addenda that take away any binding pre-settlement inspection of the property. While a property inspection may be allowed, foreclosure sellers don't want to fix anything found on the house as they are already losing equity because of the defaulting seller.

    Most lenders will request a termite inspection, but even if they don't require it, buyers should request it (at the seller's expense) to make sure you know what's behind the walls. Many times while training contract negotiation, I have found it interesting that new agents are fearful of asking the seller to pay for anything -- particularly the termite inspection. The rationale is that the seller's already "losing" money with the below-list sales price. That sounds "nice," but the buyer is paying the agent to negotiate in their best interest, not in the interest of the seller's bottom line.

    Radon inspections have nearly gone the way of the escalation clause -- never asked for and barely remembered. In many places around the country Radon -- a tasteless, odorless gas that can cause cancer -- is found in the ground below houses. A radon inspection doesn't cost that much and remediation is pretty affordable as well, depending on what is found.

    The home warranty is a no-brainer in my estimation regardless of what kind of market you're negotiating in. Even if you pay for it yourself ($299-plus for a year's coverage) the home warranty protects the new homeowner from any costly surprises. My clients have never complained about having one in place, but they sure get upset when something happens to the air conditioner or plumbing when they don't have it in place.

    Title insurance is usually required by the lender to protect its interest in the mortgage in case a previous owner can claim title to the property you live in. Believe it or not, in today's age of digitized and searchable land records, there are still plenty of cases each year where title problems cost lenders and homeowners financial headaches.

    While most transactions involve a title search to guarantee a clear title, sometimes a previous owner can come up with a title that no one knew about. If they can demonstrate that they are a true title holder of your property, then they can demand payment for the property – that's where title insurance comes in to pay off the lender. If the owner has a policy in place, they will also have their interest taken care of. Be sure the policy covers current market price, not just the mortgage amount.

    Don't forget the basic homeowner's policy. While most people have this in place, many times they find out (too late) that they don't have enough or proper coverage on the house and their personal property. Is it market value based or replacement? Does the insurance company pay you directly and with an estimate or do you have to go buy replacement products then show them the receipts to get reimbursed?

    Have you remodeled the house? Then be sure you have the policy updated. If the carpet is damaged by fire, for instance, did you have builder grade installed or was it an upgrade carpet? What does your policy agree to pay? Visual documentation is also a plus. With the advent of digital photography, this has become even easier to document and store. Be sure to store a CD in a separate place than the house, however, such as a safety deposit box at your local bank.

    Finally, in today's litigious culture, have you considered an umbrella liability policy? In case you're sued or someone is hurt at your home, the umbrella policy provides more protection than just for personal property.

    As with any type of financial decision, check with a professional to determine what you need to maximize the protection of your home and your family.

    Written by M. Anthony Carr

    How Much Earnest Money Is the Right Amount?

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI

    How Much Earnest Money Is the Right Amount?

    There isn’t any legal answer when it comes to deciding the right amount of earnest money. In general, the answer is whatever a seller is willing to accept. In some markets, the norm is to put down 1 percent of the total purchase price. For instance, for a $300,000 house, a buyer might be expected to put down $3,000.

    But if a buyer is bidding on a hot property in a great neighborhood, it could make sense to boost the sum to increase the odds of the sellers accepting the offer.

    10 lethal mistakes for real estate investors

    by Desi Sowers, REALTOR, ABR, GRI


    As the market starts to show signs of a rebound, investing in real property also becomes a more appealing idea -- either as a career or a great side job. Like any other endeavor, though, there's a right way and a wrong way to go about it.

    Bankrate spoke with established, full-time real estate investors and with professionals, such as bankers, to identify the types of traps into which real estate investors most often fall.

    1. Planning as you go. Andy Heller, an Atlanta-based investor and co-author of "Buy Even Lower: The Regular People's Guide to Real Estate Riches," says lack of a plan is the biggest mistake he sees new investors make. They buy a house because they think they got a good deal and then try to figure out what to do with it. That's working backward, Heller says. "First, you find the plan," he says. "Then you find the house to fit the plan. Pick your investment model, and then go find property to match that. Don't find the strategy after you find the home."

    The problem is that most people look at real estate as a transaction instead of as an investment strategy, says Doug Crowe, a Chicago-based real estate investor and speaker. "People fall in love with a property," says Crowe, who is managing director of Springboard Academy, the nation's only real estate academy for investors. "I say, 'Who cares about the property?' I fall in love with a motivated seller."

    The number is the number, and you don't go above that, he says. The best way to solve the problem is to have lots of activity and make offers on multiple properties. Then you don't care which one you get -- as long as the numbers work out in your favor.

    2. Thinking you'll "get rich quick." That kind of wrong-headed thinking is fueled by "these self-appointed gurus who have infomercials and make it sound so easy to get rich in real estate," says Eric Tyson, co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies." It's not easy. It's a good long-term investment, but so is putting your money in a mutual fund, which is a lot easier. "These gurus don't talk about all that hard work. You have to be smart, you have to be willing to work, and you have to understand your risk tolerance."

    3. Playing Lone Ranger. A key to success is building the right team of professionals. At the very least, you need good relationships with at least one real estate agent, an appraiser, a home inspector, a closing attorney and a lender, both for your own deals and to assist with financing for prospective buyers. In the remodeling and maintenance segment of the business, the team includes a plumber, an electrician, a roofer, a painter, a heating and air conditioning, or HVAC, contractor, a flooring installer, a lawn maintenance service, a cleaning service and an all-around handyman. You can't build a business as an investor if you're spending all your time fixing leaky faucets and putting up ceiling fans.

    4. Paying too much. Heller says the biggest reason investors don't make money is simple: They pay too much for the properties. "The profit is locked in immediately once the investor buys the property," he says. "Due to mistakes in the analysis, the investor pays too much and then is surprised later when he doesn't make any money." 

    5. Skipping homework. You wouldn't think you're qualified to perform open-heart surgery without years of education and training. Yet many wannabe real estate investors don't think twice about taking their financial lives in their hands without even cracking a book. Educate yourself before you put your family's financial security on the line. Read articles, check out books from the library and look for a local chapter of the National Real Estate Investors Association. Speakers at monthly meetings cover everything from buying foreclosures to screening tenants. If you can't find a local chapter, find out who owns a lot of rental properties in the area, call him up and offer to pay for an hour or two of his time to find out whether this is a good career for you.

    6. Ducking due diligence. Investors often have to move very quickly on their deals. That doesn't mean they sign a contract and write a check without plenty of research, though. That's where a lot of newbies trip up, says Houston-based real estate agent Laolu Davies-Yemitan. They don't do their due diligence about the deal, the costs or the market conditions, and they wind up draining their personal savings because the house needs extensive repairs or they can't sell it. "Sometimes, new investors are buying property just based on the idea that the property is going to appreciate," he says. "Usually, they don't have any information to substantiate that."

    7. Misjudging cash flow. If your strategy is to buy, hold and rent out properties, you need sufficient cash flow to cover maintenance. "People think they can get a property manager," Tyson says. But many have never interviewed a property manager and have little idea about how they work. Most managers, for example, are reluctant to take on one single-family home or a duplex, he says, preferring larger complexes, and fees of 7 percent to 10 percent of the monthly rent are common. "It's a huge expense," Tyson says. "I can put my money in a mutual fund and it costs a half-percent a year."

    Davies-Yemitan agrees. It's not uncommon for a property to sit on the Houston market for 90 to 120 days before it's leased, he says. Meanwhile the owner has to pay the mortgage, the taxes, the insurance, the cost of advertising and homeowner or condo association dues, he says. If the owner hasn't budgeted for that, an asset can quickly become a liability.

    8. Lowering the volume. If you're working on one deal at a time, Crowe says, you're doing transactions, not running a business. You need a steady pipeline of prospective deals; sufficient volume will weed out the marginal deals and let the good ones rise to the top.

    9. Painting yourself into a corner. Many people buy a property and get stuck with it because they only have one exit strategy. They're going to sell it or they're going to rent it out. What if it doesn't sell? What if the rental market stalls? Always have two, if not three, ways to get out of any deal. For example, if plan A is to rehab the house, put it on the market and resell it, then plan B could be to offer a lease-purchase to a buyer. Plan C might be to hold the house and rent it out. And as a plan D, there is the wholesale option, which would involve selling to another investor at a below-market price. Hopefully, you'll still make a profit, but at the very least, you'll cut the losses you're taking every month in carrying costs.

    10. Miscalculating estimates. Crowe tells his new rehabbers that after they've done their homework, they should double the amount of time and money they think it will take. If they can still make money then and they might be able to rent it out, it's a good deal.

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