Housing recovery hinges on mortgage supply

Markets are very quiet despite the usual first-week-of-month flood of new data. In the last week the 10-year T-note has not traded above 1.63 percent nor below 1.58 percent, and mortgages are holding just below 3.5 percent depending on borrower and property.

The November payroll survey estimate arrived with a 146,000-job gain. That’s better than forecast but garbled by Sandy, and we cannot know whether up or down. The unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent, but may have been more distorted by Sandy than payrolls: The percent of unemployed fell because the surveyed workforce shrank.

"I’m calling from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you are not at work, do you still have a job but just can’t get to it? Have you quit looking for work because you’re demoralized, or because a tree fell on your car? Hello? Hello? You’re too cold to talk? You don’t seem to understand how important this call is to the nation. Hello? Is your phone out? Yes, I know that if it were we wouldn’t be talking. No need to be insulting."

The Institute for Supply Management ("Purchasing Managers" in old days) takes two surveys at the end of each month. The manufacturing survey for November dumped two points from October to 49.5, the worst since 2009. The second one, for the service sector, rose to 54.7 from 52.3 in October. Tend to trust the manufacturing number: It has longer history, four decades versus one.

This morning the University of Michigan released its consumer confidence survey for December. It had been on a rising trend since late summer, up to 82.7 last month and was expected to stay there or higher, and instead tanked to 74.5. Economy rolling over? Republicans who just discovered who won in November? Nobody knows.

Intermission for Fiscal Cliff. The election has brought order to Republicans, most of whom understand they could have had a better deal in 2011. House Speaker John Boehner fired two unruly Tea Pots from their committee posts, and South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint resigned altogether, headed for the Heritage Foundation, where he can screech in its phone booth undisturbed.

President Obama has less feel for his tax base and the economy than Mitt Romney for the people, but this time might not overreach his way out of a deal in plain sight. I think chances have reversed two bad weeks and improved now.

Back to reality. Each quarter the Fed releases Z-1, describing the movement and landing place of every buck in the financial system. Some new numbers are striking.

The net worth of U.S. households in the last 90 days rose by $1.7 trillion. Feel that?

Didn’t think so. A mere wobble in a base of $64 trillion. Which by the way is not a shabby net worth. Over the last year the wobbles have combined for genuine progress, a gain of $4.5 trillion.

The Fed estimates recovery of $1 trillion of the $7 trillion in home equity lost since 2006, a long way to go but moving. The other $3.5 trillion gained is in financial assets, most buried out of sight in pension funds, insurance company reserves, and retirement accounts, slow and quiet, but real.

Included in Z-1 are mortgage accounts. Yesterday’s release shows a pickup in post-Bubble plodding in some places, but a total stall in another. The overall figure contains both the good and the troublesome news: Aggregate U.S. residential mortgages have fallen by $88 billion in 90 days, $289 billion in the last year, and are now below $10 trillion for the first time since 2005 (from the $11.2 trillion peak in 2007).

Some of the overall decline is from overdue write-offs. Loans also disappear via sales and refis, but there is little of that in the worst stuff. The trash in private-label MBS is down to $936 billion from $2.2 trillion in 2007. Home equity loans (including seconds) from a same-year peak at $1.13 trillion have fallen to $790 billion.

The bad news: Without added mortgage supply, a genuine housing recovery lives only in the minds of the Pollyannas. The nation’s sole supply of new mortgages, Fannie-Freddie-FHA-VA, has been the same since 2009, about $5.8 trillion. All other sources, the "private" dreamland of government-haters, are just as inert as they have been since 2007.

When these mortgage aggregates begin to rise, then we’ll know that housing really is healing, and the economy with it.

Thanks to Bill McBride at www.calculatedriskblog.com, and his best-in-biz charts. He is more optimistic about today’s employment numbers, but I can’t see any of the "sustainable" progress here that the Fed is looking for, and expect them at their meeting next week to continue and even amplify QE3.


Graph via Calculated Risk Blog.

Lou Barnes is a mortgage broker and nationally syndicated columnist based in Boulder, Colo. He can be reached at lbarnes@pmglending.com.

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Open Home Pro now available on iPhone

Open Home Pro — the developer of an iPad app that helps real estate agents capture and manage open house-sourced leads — has launched an iPhone version of the app today that features the near-instant ability to post and share new listings.

"We tried to think of something different (for the iPhone version of the app)," said Andrew Machado, founder and CEO of Open Home Pro.

The $2.99 iPhone app allows agents to snap unlimited photos of their properties, which are automatically uploaded to Open Home Pro’s servers. After adding details about a property — like number of bedrooms, bathrooms, square footage and price — they can then share a new listing via Facebook, Craigslist and HTML-enabled email.

Creating a listing on the app also automatically creates a standalone mobile-optimized listing webpage, hosted on Open Home Pro’s servers, that makes it easy for viewers to contact the agent via email, "like" the listing on Facebook, tweet it to their followers on Twitter, and "Pin" it on their Pinterest page. Users can also comment directly on the Web page using Facebook and view the listing’s photos via a swipeable slideshow.

The iPad version has similar capabilities, but new and exclusive to the iPhone edition, in addition to streamlined photo-uploading, is a mini-social network for agents who can follow one another’s listings and find out when their colleagues have new listings, open houses and have made a sale.


Agent profile screen view in Open Home Pro’s social network.

The Open Home Pro social network profile view shows agents’ headshots and the location where they operate, how many active listings they have, the number of agents who follow them and how many agents they follow. Below that brief intro, the agents’ listings show up as image blocks that each link to the property’s Open Home Pro Web page.

The Open Home Pro iPhone app is available in the Apple Store for $2.99. The Open Home Pro iPad app, launched in 2010 and an Inman News Innovator award finalist this year, is available in the Apple Store for $11.99 and currently has 27,000 registered users, Machado said.


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5 tax tips for giving to charity

In a previous column we covered the tax ramifications of making holiday gifts to clients or other business associates.

Of course, you’re not limited to making gifts to people you do business with. You can also give to family, friends and charity. Gifts to family, friends and other individuals are never tax deductible. Gifts to charity can be deductible — but only if you follow the rules.

Rule No. 1: You must itemize to deduct charitable deductions

First, you’ll benefit from a charitable deductions only if you itemize your personal deductions on your income taxes. Itemized deductions are deductions taxpayers are allowed to take each year for certain personal expenses, such as mortgage interest, property taxes, state income taxes, certain medical expenses, casualty and theft losses, and charitable contributions.

Individual taxpayers have the option to either itemize their deductions or take the standard deduction that is set by the IRS each year. In 2012, the standard deduction is $5,950 for single taxpayers and $11,900 for married taxpayers filing jointly.

Only taxpayers whose total itemized deductions are more than the standard deduction will itemize their deductions. Taxpayers who don’t itemize get no deduction for their charitable contributions (or any other itemized deductions). Thus, from a tax standpoint, charitable contributions are useless for people who don’t itemize.

This rule applies whether you make your contribution as an individual or through your business. Unless your business is a C corporation, charitable contributions typically "flow through" the business and are claimed as deductions on the individual tax returns of business owners. This is so whether your business is a sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability corporation, or S corporation.

The fact that you don’t itemize doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make charitable contributions. You just won’t get tax deductions for them.

Rule No. 2: Only contributions to qualified charities are deductible

Only contributions to what the IRS calls "qualified organizations" are deductible. These consist mainly of public charities — organizations that come under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. These are the myriad nonprofits that engage in charitable, religious, scientific, literary, or educational work. If a nonprofit has obtained a determination letter from the IRS recognizing its status as a 501(c)(3) public charity, then it is a qualified organization and donations to it are deductible.

Ask the charity about its tax-exempt status. You can also visit IRS.gov and use the Exempt Organizations Select Check tool to check if your favorite charity is a qualified charity.

Rule No. 3: You can deduct money or property

You generally can deduct your cash contributions and the fair market value of most property you donate to a qualified charity. Special rules apply to several types of donated property, including clothing or household items, cars and boats.

Rule No. 4: You must keep records of all donations

You need to keep a record of any donations you deduct, regardless of the amount. You must have a written record of all cash contributions to claim a deduction. This may include a canceled check, bank or credit card statement, or payroll deduction record. You can also ask the charity for a written statement that shows the charity’s name, contribution date and amount.

Rule No. 5: You must contribute by year-end

If you plan to take an itemized charitable deduction on your 2012 tax return, your donation must go to a qualified charity by Dec. 31. Donations charged to a credit card by Dec. 31 are deductible for 2012, even if you pay the bill in 2013. A gift by check also counts for 2012, as long as you mail it in December.

Stephen Fishman is a tax expert, attorney and author who has published 18 books, including "Working for Yourself: Law & Taxes for Contractors, Freelancers and Consultants," "Deduct It," "Working as an Independent Contractor," and "Working with Independent Contractors." He welcomes your questions for this weekly column.

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Agents with ‘cloud-based’ brokerage eXp Realty get access to meeting spaces

How can "cloud-based" real estate brokerages provide agents with a brick-and-mortar space to meet with clients or call home while on the road?

Bellingham, Wash.-based eXp Realty says it’s meeting that need by providing its brokers and agents with free access to Regus Business Lounges in more than 1,200 locations in 550 cities and 95 countries around the world.

In the U.S., Regus Business Lounges are located in 41 states and Washington, D.C. The lounges include administrative support, and are fully equipped with Wi-Fi meeting rooms, day offices and video communications. The lounges are also a good place for agents to network, eXp Realty said in announcing the partnership.

An international, full-service brokerage, eXp Realty currently operates in 29 states.


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12 fire safety tips to heed during winter

A cozy fire in the winter is something we all enjoy, but only when it’s confined to the fireplace. The U.S. Fire Administration reports that winter residential building fires result in approximately 945 deaths and 3,845 injuries each year, along with an estimated $1.7 billion in property damage.

We’re closing our homes up for the winter. We’re cooking indoors more, and using fireplaces and heaters with greater frequency. Holiday decorations are going up. The potential for a fire in your home is no joke, especially this time of year. And statistically, the peak occurrences for residential building fires in the winter comes between 5 and 8 p.m., so it doesn’t take a lot of reading between the lines to visualize the human error factors at work.

There’s a lot you can do to keep your home fire-safe this holiday season and all winter long. Since most of it’s simple common sense, you’re probably going to want to skim over the rest of this. But please don’t.

In several decades as a contractor, I’ve seen and worked on dozens of residential fires, and their aftermath is nothing short of tragic; preventing one is the best home improvement project you can ever undertake.

Simple awareness is the key

Extension cords: Don’t use them if you can avoid it. Be sure they’re of the proper wire size for the item being plugged into it, and don’t ever exceed that. If what you’re plugging into the extension cord has a grounded plug, then the extension cord needs to have a grounded plug also; don’t ever alter or defeat the grounding leg on the cord. Don’t put cords in front of fireplaces, heaters or cooking appliances, and don’t drape them where they can fall down onto something hot.

Candles: Candles have a dangerous open flame, so be careful where you set them. A candle on a window sill can set a curtain on fire if a breeze pushes the curtain over the flame. Candles can ignite paperwork or books on shelves, or other nearby flammables. Always burn candles on a candle holder, not directly on a flammable surface. Jar candles are safer since the flame is contained, and the lid will completely snuff out the flame.

Holiday decorations: Water your Christmas tree regularly. It’s no joke — those dry needles will go up with incredible speed and burn with fierce intensity. Pay close attention to where the tree and other decorations are placed so that they’re not too close to sources of ignition, such as a fireplace or a heater.

Hot ashes: Fireplace ashes are hot long after the fire has gone out. If you’re going to clean out your fireplace, don’t put the ashes in a paper bag, cardboard box, or plastic garbage can. Put ashes only in a metal can with an airtight lid that’s approved for that use.

Space heaters: Be very careful with the use and placement of space heaters. Never point a space heater directly at anything flammable, such as a pile of newspapers or clothing. Never use a space heater with a worn cord, a missing safety guard, or a model that lacks a safety shutoff that automatically shuts the unit off if it gets tipped over.

Combustible materials: Having a stack of newspaper near the fireplace for starting the fire is an accident waiting to happen. Store newspapers, kindling and firewood a safe distance away from the fireplace. The same goes for other combustibles, such as clothing, dog beds, etc. If you have wall heaters, never allow clothing, cardboard boxes, newspapers or other combustibles to build up in front of them.

Leaves and needles: Don’t let dry leaves and needles build up on your roof, especially a wood roof. Make sure the spark arrestor on your chimney is in place as well.

Preventing tragedies

Beyond these acts of simple awareness, there are some other things you need to be aware of when it comes to preventing a tragedy in your home.

Smoke alarms: Beyond the obvious of making sure you have an adequate number of smoke alarms and checking the batteries twice a year (daylight saving time is an easy reminder), remember that smoke alarms have about a seven-year life expectancy, and should be replaced periodically. The other issue with smoke alarms is that people tend to disconnect them due to nuisance alarms, such as those caused by cooking. Never disconnect your smoke alarm; instead, if nuisance alarms are an issue, consider upgrading to a new generation microprocessor alarm, such as the IoPhic Smoke and Fire Alarm. These types of alarms respond better to slow, smoldering fires and also virtually eliminate most types of nuisance alarms.

Never create a sleeping room that doesn’t have egress: It might be easy to convert a room in the basement or perhaps an attic into a sleeping room for a temporary occupant, but if that room doesn’t have an emergency exterior egress, then don’t use it! In the event of a fire, it can become a literal death trap.

Have an escape plan: During the heat, smoke and chaos of a fire it’s easy to become confused and disoriented, especially at night. Everyone in the family needs to know and practice an escape route from each room all the way to the exterior of the house. Once outside, have an agreed upon meeting spot safely away from the house, such as the end of the driveway or perhaps a neighbor’s.

Have an escape ladder: If you have a multistory house, have an escape ladder for each sleeping room on the upper floors. The ladder needs to reach from the egress window all the way to the ground, and every family member needs to be trained on how to deploy and use it.

Renters insurance: Finally, if you or someone you know is a renter, get renters insurance immediately. It’s inexpensive insurance against losing everything you own in the event of a fire, and it’s simply foolish not to have it!

Remodeling and repair questions? Email Paul at paulbianchina@inman.com. All product reviews are based on the author’s actual testing of free review samples provided by the manufacturers.

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Private club provides access to luxury vacation homes

Laura Welch of Kansas City recently visited New York on a business trip. She stayed at the Trump International Hotel & Tower where she paid just $495 for five days. Not bad, considering that when I last checked the cost of a basic hotel room at the Trump International Hotel it was a minimum $895 a night.

How did she do it?

The secret is, Ms. Welch belongs to a private club called 3rd Home, which is about the best vacation home concept I’ve come across — and that’s a serious statement considering I have utter disdain for almost every other vacation home scheme I’ve ever seen, from time shares to fractionals to condo/hotels and beyond.

Unfortunately for middle-income folks like you and me, 3rd Home is not available. This terrific little program is only for those who reside in the high-income world of Mitt Romney and his ilk.

Here’s the way it works: If you own a luxury second home and if you don’t mind others who own luxury second homes elsewhere in America or around the world staying at your place when it would otherwise be empty, you can join 3rd Home and place your property into a pool of residences available to others.

"We are not a rental company, we are not a management company," explained Wade Shealy, who founded the company in Nashville. "Simply put, we are a private club that allows people who have homes that qualify a chance to travel to other luxury homes around the world."

Other programs usually require a direct, simultaneous exchange, which means finding a willing trader with a desired property on the exact dates required. But, with 3rd Home every property listed is available to club members.

And what properties they are! As a company release states: "We are very selective and only accept properties, resorts and locations that are among the most desirable in the world. We pre-screen our members for home quality and personal character before admittance, solicit review from hosts and guest for every stay, and require good standing in order to remain in the 3rd Home club."

If you’re thinking entry into this private club for the wealthy is going to cost a king’s ransom, then you would be wrong. This was one of Shealy’s masterstrokes. The cost is a mere $495 for a two-year membership (plus your home has to qualify). Then there is the transaction fee; private club members pay $495 for a week’s stay somewhere that would normally cost, who knows, anywhere from $3,000 to $30,000 for a week.

"Once you are in and approved, you deposit weeks into the club and in return you get ‘keys,’ which are the currency that everyone uses in the club," Shealy said. "The keys in your account allow you to go to another member’s house whenever, wherever, you might want to go, independent of who might come to your house."

Welch, who put her Aspen, Colo., second home into the 3rd Home pool for summer and winter use, told me she has been in the program since Shealy came up with the concept in the summer of 2009.

"We really liked the concept of being able to extend the value of our property," she said. "We feel like we have many homes. This allows us to choose different places where we want to go on vacation. This winter I will be using keys for New York again. We have also been to Costa Rica for two weeks, and last January we were in Brazil and used out keys for that as well."

Asked if there were concerns about having strangers in her expensive Aspen home, she said her experiences have been exactly the opposite.

"One couple left us a gift certificate for our favorite restaurant," she said. "When you sign up for a property, you are immediately connected to that homeowner. Every single person that has contacted me has been very gracious. Each said the same thing: ‘We will take care of your home as it was our own.’ That has been our experience."

Currently, 3rd Home has 1,100 members featuring more than 1,300 properties that are worth an average of $2.25 million and many are worth in excess of $4 million. These homes are spread over 66 countries and consist of everything from expansive log cabins in premier ski locations to luxury apartments in major global cities.

3rd Home has been particularly successful in bringing in iconic developments such as luxury condo/hotels and resorts, one of which is the Trump International.

Doug Russell, who is a board member at Trump Tower, said the board there decided to allow the introduction of 3rd Home because it saw the program as a perk for owners, who know there are certain times of the year when residences are quiet. Of the 150 to 160 owners, 10 have signed up to be part of 3rd Home, including Russell.

"I put my residence up and someone immediately contacted me and rented my place for a week," he said. "I have a million-dollar property at Trump, so I get two keys. We are trying to figure out how to get four or five keys, which means I have to put my residence in the pool for at least another week. We have friends who want to go to Italy for the summer and we would like get a house to stay in."

He added, "There is a whole lot of down time in second homes. If all I have to do is pay $495 to have a week in Italy or Bermuda where I would normally be paying $1,000 a night, this works."

Shealy pointed out that if folks with a luxury second home wanted to rent that residence for a week at $10,000 they would typically use a property management company that is going to take about half that revenue for managing and renting the property. Then on the remaining $5,000, the tax would be about 40 percent, netting the homeowner about $3,000.

"With us, if you put your property up, you can stay in another $10,000-a-week property equivalent," he said. "For those people who don’t rent their property all the time, there are weeks it is sitting empty, so this value proposition is very high."

Obviously, this program is out of my league, but I thought I would bring attention to it because it was well-conceived, which is more than I can say about most other vacation home, money-making schemes.

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer in Arizona and author of several books. His latest book, "The Death of Johnny Ace," is now available for sale on Amazon.

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Trulia adds 3-D map view in upgraded Android apps

Real estate marketplace Trulia’s free Android phone and tablet apps now offer 3-D Google Maps display and integrate neighborhood information like crime data, school information and nearby amenities in map view.

With the update, Trulia Android app users will be able to see crime data via heat maps, school attendance boundary zones, and other information like nearby restaurants for the first time, said Steven Yarger, director of mobile at Trulia.

The upgrade, which utilizes, and coincides with, a Google Maps software platform update, will allow users to toggle between standard, angled and "satellite" map views in the apps and between 2-D and 3-D.

The 3-D map views, Yarger said, are similar to those seen in Google Earth (a 3-D map system from Google), and can be rotated by users using their fingers. The update also allows users to access indoor maps of locations like shopping malls, where they exist, he said.


Angled map view showing homes for sale in Trulia’s updated mobile apps.

Users of Trulia’s iPad app, Yarger noted, already had access to some of these features like neighborhood data, but the 3-D feature is new to all Trulia apps and exclusively for Android as of now.

The new Android apps also integrate tools from Trulia’s mortgage center, which allow users to see mortgage rates from a variety of lenders via a link directly from a property view in the apps. IPad and iPhone users can access the tools, too, but they’re in stand-alone apps, not integrated into the main Trulia app, Yarger said.

In May, Trulia debuted a mobile ads program that allows five agents per ZIP code to advertise on the map views of the company’s mobile apps.

Trulia currently has 12 mobile apps that cover general real estate (6), rentals (4), agent needs (2), and consumer mortgage tools (2).


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RES.net lets buyers search for ‘prelisted’ homes

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that only Professional and Premium users are listed in RES.net’s agent directory. RES.net offers trial Professional memberships that are free for 30 days.  

RES.net, a real estate transaction communication and listing platform that once focused only on distressed properties, now allows homebuyers search for properties not yet listed for sale in a multiple listing service (MLS).

About 20 percent of the 85,000 listings in the RES.net network are exclusively "prelisted" on the site by its 200,000 users, said Todd Mobraten, president and chief operating officer of RES.net.

"By adding prelist inventory to our Buyer Portal we are giving homebuyers the opportunity to easily view properties not available on other buyer or real estate websites, allowing them to get a head start contacting agents and preparing offers," Mobraten said in a statement. 

All of the roughly 17,000 prelisted properties on the site — those that may have a sales agreement, but aren’t necessarily ready for market — are exclusive to RES.net, and are advertised and marketed by agents Mobraten said.

About half of the site’s users are agents, and the rest are mortgage servicers, settlement service companies, valuation groups and other real estate players, Mobraten said.

As soon as the prelisted properties — which are categorized as bank-owned (REO), short sale or resale — enter an MLS, they are listed on RES.net with their full addresses and other information, like other MLS-listed homes in the system, he said.

For an annual fee of $700, agents can sign up as "Professional" users, which gives them access to the site’s transaction management platform and deeper access to its inventory, about two-thirds of which is made up of distressed properties. A more limited set of tools is available to "Premium" subscribers for $300 a year.

Only Professional and Premium users are listed in the site’s agent directory. RES.net offers trial Professional memberships that are free for 30 days. 

The site also caters to consumers, both buyers and sellers. Homeowners can list homes as short sales or traditional re-sales, and choose an agent. Buyers can search for homes and agents for free, but must pay $29.95 a month to access the addresses of prelisted homes.

Critics of off-market listings say sellers’ listings may not receive as much visibility as they would if they were listed in an MLS. Some brokers oppose the practice, saying it increases the likelihood that a brokerage will close both sides of a deal and win associated work, like mortgage and title business.

Last month, some Ohio agents called attention to the increasing practice of agents in their area keeping listings in their "pocket" and selling homes without listing them in the local MLS.

In October, Zillow rolled out free detailed listing information, including addresses, on 1.2 million U.S. homes that are in some stage of the foreclosure process or have been repossessed by lenders but not yet listed for sale.

RES.net might give some of these homes an off-market outlet. However, the company is focusing on growing in the traditional real estate transaction space, Mobraten said, and is touting its transaction management system that’s designed to streamline a sale from start to finish and was forged in the complicated distressed home transaction space.

RES.net was founded in 2003 and is a wholly-owned subsidiary U.S. Real Estate Services Inc., which provides REO valuation and other REO-related services.


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Get the upper hand on clutter

I have spent a lot of time in the past year getting rid of stuff. By stuff, I mean things that I bought or was given that I no longer use, or never used at all.

There is a lot less stuff in my home now than there was at the beginning of the year. The less I have, the more convinced I become that having less is better.

Most people have clothes that they have outgrown, knickknacks that they hate, and items that they bought for the kitchen that just didn’t work out. Friends and relatives give us gifts that we don’t know what to do with. But we can’t bring ourselves to get rid of them, and over the years it accumulates. We own things that we have forgotten about.

Connecticut real estate broker, trainer and Inman Real Estate Connect ambassador Linda Davis started a group on Facebook for people who want to de-clutter. As a Realtor, Linda worked with people who have to deal with a lot of stuff when they move. The experience started her on a journey to get rid of clutter.

Davis encourages people to remove a little clutter from their lives each day. Hundreds have joined her group, actively participating and encouraging each other to keep going. The group has changed lives. Each day Linda photographs something that she got rid of, and asks us what WE got rid of. Just one thing at a time makes the process less overwhelming.

My life experience had been different than that of many of my friends, family and clients. I have lived on the same block for 31 years and in the same house for the last 23 years. If we had moved more, maybe some of our stuff would have gotten lost.

In those 23 years the kids have moved in and out a few times, leaving some stuff in the basement. Other family members have downsized and dropped stuff off. Then of course there is the stuff we accumulated all on our own.

Most of us don’t even realize that we struggle with stuff everyday. It is in our way and on our minds. We work around it and mostly stop noticing it. It takes up space, and we tend to pay for bigger spaces so that we have a place for it all. It is a distraction that takes up mental and emotional space in our lives.

I have watched my clients struggle with excess stuff when it’s time to move, and it isn’t a pretty picture. They put it in boxes and haul it with them to a bigger house which they now need because they have so much stuff.

Have you ever tried to sell a house that is full of stuff? I have worked with seniors, some who have lived in the same homes for more than 50 years. The stuff they couldn’t part with ends up in basements and attics until it is time to move and then it ends up being given away.

The process is painful for them as they resent the disruption in their lives. Even though they have not seen or used an item for 20 years, they are often reluctant to part with it.

We all think this will never happen to us, but it does — consistently and predictably. How many things can we enjoy, store or keep track of? There are limits.

I don’t want more, I want less. Most days it seems that I am fighting against a kind of natural flow as I try to reduce the amount of stuff coming in the house, and get more stuff out of the house.

Every month this past year I brought stuff to the local thrift shop. I send stuff to the recycle center, and what they won’t pick up I can usually drop off. I have been able to sell a few things here and there, and being the wonderful mother that I am, I even managed to send a few things home with my children.

I am becoming an expert on the most responsible ways to get rid of stuff. I know that there are people who can use my stuff, and I am better able to help my clients and make recommendations regarding unwanted stuff.

Nothing creates clutter like a real estate office in the home. New technology makes what used to be state-of-the art equipment obsolete. I found boxes full of stuff that I’ll never use again. I even found old carbon real estate forms and business cards with out-of-date contact information on them. Not to mention the Palm Pilot that I have no use for, or my very first cell phone.

Having empty drawers in my office is very cool. Being able to put everything away means that there are no more stacks on the floor. I have room in my file cabinets and even on my desk and no plans to fill the space with new stuff.

Having less in my office makes for a better and more organized work environment. I resist the urge to bring anything into my office that I don’t need, and I am still finding items that I need to get rid of. Why do I have three staplers? I can not remember the last time I used a stapler.

If you have too much clutter in your life — or maybe just in your office — spend 2013 dealing with one item at a time until you have an empty drawer or two of your own. It is very rewarding and maybe even life changing.

Teresa Boardman is a broker in St. Paul, Minn., and founder of the St. Paul Real Estate blog.

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Government’s MBS purchases keep lid on mortgage rates

Mortgage rates stayed at or near record lows this week, as the Federal Reserve continued a program to buy up $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac each month.

The government’s open-ended MBS purchases — part of a third round of quantitative easing ("QE3") announced by the Fed on Sept. 13 — have helped push mortgage rates into record low territory. Most members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee are expected to vote to maintain those purchases when they meet next week.

But it remains to be seen whether the Fed will extend what’s been dubbed "Operation Twist" — monthly swaps of $45 billion in short-term Treasurys for long ones. Those purchases are scheduled to expire at the end of the year, and some Fed officials are pushing for them to be scaled back or eliminated.

Some analysts think ending or scaling back Fed purchases of long-term Treasurys could dent economic growth and have repercussions for stock market investors. But such a move would not have a direct impact on mortgage rates.

Rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.34 percent with an average 0.7 point for the week ending Dec. 6, up from 3.32 percent last week but down from 3.99 percent a year ago, Freddie Mac said in releasing the results of its latest Primary Mortgage Market Survey. Rates on 30-year fixed-rate loans hit a low in Freddie Mac records dating to 1971 of 3.31 percent during the week ending Nov. 21.

For 15-year fixed-rate loans, rates averaged 2.67 percent with an average 0.6 point, up from 2.64 percent last week but down from 3.27 percent a year ago. Rates on 15-year fixed-rate loans hit a low in Freddie Mac records dating to 1991 of 2.63 percent during the week ending Nov. 21.

Rates on five-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) loans averaged 2.69 percent this week with an average 0.6 point, down from 2.72 percent last week and 2.93 percent a year ago. That ties a low in records dating to 2005 last seen during the week ending July 19.

For one-year Treasury-indexed ARM loans, rates averaged 2.55 percent with an average 0.4 point, down from 2.56 percent last week and 2.80 percent a year ago. That ties a low in records dating to 1984 last seen during the week ending Nov. 15.

A separate survey by the Mortgage Bankers Association showed demand for purchase loans essentially unchanged during the week ending Nov. 30, with applications up a seasonally adjusted 0.1 percent from the week before, and down 0.1 percent from a year ago.

The Fed’s quantitative easing programs are intended to stimulate economic growth by reducing the cost of borrowing. While it’s generally agreed that the Fed’s MBS purchases have helped push mortgage rates down, the benefits of the Fed’s long-term Treasury purchases have been the subject of debate. In the long run, both MBS and Treasury purchases could spark inflation, critics say.

Richard Fisher, the president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, has questioned the effectiveness of QE3 and would like to see the Fed discontinue both MBS and Treasury purchases, the Wall Street Journal reports. Fisher does not have a seat on the Open Market Committee.

James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank and an alternate member of the Open Market Committee, has proposed reducing the Fed’s purchases of long-term Treasurys to $25 billion a month, Jonathan Spicer reports on the Reuters blog MacroScope.

In a speech last week, Federal Reserve Board Member Jeremy Stein said that by reducing the cost of mortgage borrowing, the Fed’s MBS purchases could be allowing households to spend more — either on a home purchase, or by using proceeds from a refinancing to meet non-housing needs.

But there’s reason to think that future rounds of Fed Treasury purchases will have diminishing returns, at least in terms of corporate investment, Stein said.

"The bottom line is that I suspect that mortgage purchases may confer more macroeconomic stimulus dollar-for-dollar than Treasury purchases," Stein said. "This is of course, not to say that Treasury purchases have no effect on the real economy; research has found that in addition to moving bond prices, they are associated with increases in stock prices, which in turn can have wealth effects on consumption and investment."

Stein, who also has a seat on the Open Market Committee, said the Fed’s Treasury purchases may also have "something of an unintended benefit for financial stability" if they reduce the reliance of corporations and financial firms on short-term debt.

Stein said he supported the Open Market Committee’s decision in October to continue with MBS and Treasury purchases until there is "substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market."

Fannie Mae economists project that because of the slow pace of the recovery, the Fed will keep buying MBS through all of 2013.  


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Compensating for tenant-repairman injuries

Q: When I rented the house we live in from the landlord, I agreed to do certain repairs if needed. Last week, a windstorm broke a window, and I said I’d replace it. While removing the old glass, I accidentally cut myself and had to go to the emergency room for stitches. The bill is several hundred dollars — shouldn’t the landlord pay for it? I don’t want to make a claim on my own insurance policy. –Dave R.

A: It’s not unusual for landlords to offload some repair responsibilities to tenants in single-family rentals. Several states provide for this, but require that any agreement be entered into "in good faith." This is to prevent landlords from foisting repair duties onto unwilling tenants.

Some states do not allow landlords to assign repair jobs that are needed to cure housing code violations. But even in states that address the tenant-repairman scenario, you won’t find statutes telling the parties what should happen if the tenant is injured while undertaking the repair.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could be reimbursed by a willing and deep third party such as an insurance company? How about your own renters insurance policy? Alas, that won’t cover you — it applies to loss of your own property (the "property" portion of the policy) and your liability in case your carelessness injures others or damages their property (the liability portion of the policy). Renters insurance won’t step up when your own mistakes have injured you.

So, how about the landlord’s policy? The landlord, too, has a liability policy (called "comprehensive general liability") that protects him when his carelessness causes injury to another. So, for example, if the landlord had left a broken window pane unrepaired for several days, and you were injured when it cracked and fell, you could make a claim on his policy, based on his carelessness in not repairing the window or at least temporarily securing it with cardboard or tape.

But that’s not what happened here — the landlord had no part in the window’s breaking, and was not negligent in failing to repair it; nor did he cause the accident that resulted in your cut. I doubt that his policy would step up in such a situation.

But that’s not the end of the matter, as far as the landlord is concerned. We do know that if, for example, you were the landlord’s employee, he would have to maintain workers’ comp insurance, which pays medical bills incurred by employees who are hurt on the job. Landlords who fail to maintain workers’ comp policies end up paying out of their own pocket for tenant injuries, and incur fines as well.

Is there a sense in which you are an "employee" of the landlord, even though neither one of you intended that you be classified as such? That depends on the degree of control that the landlord had over the way you went about your duties to repair certain aspects of the house. If you were left to your own devices — by furnishing all tools and materials, and performing the job as you deemed necessary — it’s not likely that your state would classify you as an employee, for whom the landlord should have procured workers’ comp insurance.

It’s more likely that from the law’s point of view, you were an independent contractor, who agreed to perform services in exchange, presumably, for lower rent. If that’s the case, then your medical bills are yours to deal with. No law requires independent contractors to have medical insurance that covers injuries on the job, but of course most workers who earn their living as independent contractors maintain such policies.

I’m betting, however, that your health insurance is either procured through your work (furnished by your own employer) or a policy that you’ve bought on your own. You’ll need to look to your own policy to cover this expense, and hope that you don’t encounter probing questions on how this accident happened (it’s doubtful you will, because the amount is quite small).

The insurance company’s response could be different, however, if your accident resulted in a major injury and a huge claim. Insurance companies are always on the lookout for ways to deny big claims, and arguing that you were really an employee who was entitled to workers’ comp might be just such an argument.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord’s Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide." She can be reached at janet@inman.com.

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3 considerations before liquidating a rental property

Q: We have a house we need to put on the market. It’s a ranch house, built in 1964, about 3,000 square feet. We don’t live in it now, but we did for 10 years. We are going over today to patch the holes and prep to paint the entire upstairs, but it needs a ton of work and it seems insurmountable. Where do we even start? We’re novices at this.

We thought maybe having a rental for extra income when we’re retired would be great. The issue is that we’re not great landlords … we just don’t know what we’re doing. We do have a standard rental agreement drawn up by our lawyer, but I think our plan now is to just get rid of it. I hesitate to sink money into it, but I know a real estate agent is going to tell us we have to. Someone may rent it in its current state, but we would take a bath if someone bought it like this.

A: It sounds like you have at least two or three different issues here. Pulling them apart might help you feel a little less overwhelmed, so you can begin to address them systematically.

You’re really dealing with multiple decisions here — most importantly, whether to sell the place or not. If you do decide to sell it, then you have a decision to make about how much money and work to invest in it before you do. Here are some key inputs and considerations you should factor in as you make these decisions.

1. Talk with a real estate attorney or an accountant before you sell. I don’t have a strong, professional opinion about whether it’s best to sell the place or rent it. I believe in the long-term appreciation trajectory of real estate investment properties, but I also know that they can be an enormous amount of work — work it doesn’t sound like you have enjoyed doing.

If the ultimate aim of retirement is to enjoy yourself more than you did when you were working, then having an investment that puts you to work and diminishes your enjoyment is counterproductive, in my humble opinion. As well, there are other ways to keep your hand in real estate as an investment, like by investing in shares of a real estate investment trust, which are traded publicly on the same markets as other stocks and bonds. Talk with your financial adviser to learn more.

That said, there are significant tax consequences to liquidating a rental property, and there are a number of planning strategies you can implement in advance to minimize them. Talk to a real estate attorney and/or an accountant before you make the decision to sell, so they can help you understand the tax implications and engage in a more deliberate plan of action around selling, if necessary.

2. Talk to an agent — without further ado. Without knowing the full scope of information about what outcomes you can expect from selling, you can’t really know how to move forward. Don’t wait to talk with an experienced local listing agent. You’ll want to work with her to fully understand:

  • what you can expect to get for the home — with and without the work;
  • what work does (and doesn’t) need to be done if you decide to sell the place after some improvements; and
  • what design and finish material choices will appeal to the broadest spectrum of local buyers who are in the market for a home like yours.

You might be surprised at what you can expect to get for the place with just new paint and carpet. Or you might decide, after talking to the agent and a real estate attorney, to rent the place out for another couple of years. Or you might decide to just sell it immediately, but try to do so using seller financing, to manage the timing with which you have to pay capital gains taxes.

My point is, you won’t have the information to even know how to make this decision until you’ve talked with these professionals. So get to talking!

3. Consider whether hiring a contractor — or a property manager — might make sense. I detect a theme running through your concerns: the theme of feeling overwhelmed, out of your element or that you lack the ability, know-how or other resources to take on the various issues this home creates, whether as a landlord or as a home-prepping seller. You might be overlooking the fact that both landlording and prepping a home for sale are relatively easy and beneficial to outsource.

If you decide to continue to own the place but feel underqualified to be a landlord, why not hire a property manager who is a professional at finding and screening tenants, is well-versed in local landlord-tenant laws and has his own crew to manage the property maintenance issues? If you decide to sell the place, ask the listing agent if she has contractor or handyman relationships that she can bring to bear to get the property ready to sell.

Often, the folks who help agents get places in market-ready condition are skilled at bringing large crews to do the most important work for making a good presentation to buyers — and only that work — in a fast and cost-effective way. Don’t go it alone — there are many providers out there who can help you be the best landlord or seller you can be.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is a real estate broker, attorney and the author of two critically acclaimed books on real estate. Tara also speaks and writes on the art and science of life transformation at RETHINK7.com.

                                                   

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Don’t let expertise cost you listings

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Read Part 1.

Eric Berne’s "The Games People Play" has powerful implications for how you conduct your real estate business, especially when it comes to the issue of resolving conflict. The question is, "Which games are you playing?"

Berne identified three different styles in which you can approach a "transaction" (i.e., a communication between two different people.) The three different approaches are "Adult," "Parent" and "Child."

Challenges are most easily resolved when both parties in the communication/negotiation approach it from an "Adult-Adult" approach. Part 1 identified what happens when the seller elects to respond to an "Adult" communication from his agent with a "Child" response. The example below illustrates what happens when the Agent acts as the "Adult" and the client acts as the "Parent."

Sally Agent: "John, properties with amenities similar to yours in this area have closed and qualified for a loan at $124 to $158 per square foot. The properties that have closed for more than $150 per square foot were all built in the last five years. Properties built 15 years ago have been selling for $135 to $145 per square foot."

John: "So that comes to $290,000. No way that his property isn’t worth at least $350,000! We did all these upgrades and this property is built better than that crummy new construction over in that other subdivision. Also, look at all this beautiful landscaping. They’re lucky if they have one single tree on those lots in that area."

Sally Agent: "John, I would like nothing better than to help you obtain a price of $350,000. Do you have any comparable sales or additional data that supports the purchase price?"

John: "I know what you are trying to do. If you can list this property really low, then you can make a quick commission. This property is worth at least $350,000."

Sally Agent: "John, even though the market is strong, the comparable sales support a price no higher than $290,000. If you want to list your home for $350,000, I’m not the right agent to represent you. Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the marketing of your property. I wish you the best in obtaining the price you hope to achieve."

In the example above, when Sally elects to walk away from the listing, she does so using an "Adult" approach. John is using a "Parent" approach. First, he tells her that he knows more about the prices than she does. At this point, he is treating Sally as a child.

Sally then stays with the "Adult" approach when she asks about other sales that might support John’s position. John’s next response is to once again move to the "Parent" approach and scold Sally as if she is a child who is lying about the situation. The "Adult" response is to walk away from this listing because John will probably continue to treat her as a child and may even become emotionally abusive as well.

Where the greatest likelihood of a serious conflict occurs is when both parties decide to go into Parent mode. Here’s another example.

Sally Agent: "John, properties with amenities similar to yours in this area have closed and qualified for a loan at $124 to $158 per square foot. The properties that have closed for more than $150 per square foot were all built in the last five years. Properties built 15 years ago, have been selling for $135 to $145 per square foot." 

John: "That comes to $290,000? You have got to be kidding me. This property is worth way more than those crummy shacks they’re building up the road. The area is devoid of character, no one has any trees, the developer didn’t even use insulation, and the cabinets and other fixtures are really cheap."

Sally Agent: "I’ve been in the business here for 20 years and have sold plenty of those houses in that other subdivision. You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. The developer used top-grade insulation in every house. The fixtures are all a top name brand and the cabinets are all hardwood rather than the paint-grade cabinets you have in this place. With the condition this house is in, you’ll be lucky to see $275,000!"

John: "You’re wrong. I’m calling your manager to tell him you are totally rude and incompetent!"

Sally Agent: "Be my guest. There’s no way you’re selling for more than $275,000. I’m out of here."

John: "Good riddance!"

Parent-Parent interactions often escalate into full-blown conflicts. The challenge here is that John will not only call Sally’s manager, chances are he will post negative information about Sally online, on social media websites, as well as telling virtually everyone he knows about his experience with Sally.

The bottom line here is that as the "Adult" in the transaction, avoid making your clients wrong about their choices — that puts you in a Parent-Child interaction. The moment you find yourself proclaiming that you’re the expert or that you know more than your clients do, remember that you are creating a Parent-Child transaction that will most likely create a poor outcome.

A better approach is to ask questions, provide alternatives, and if the client is being unreasonable, thank him for the opportunity to discuss doing business with him and then very politely walk away. Always remember, let the "Adult" stay in control no matter which version of the "Parent" or "Child" you may encounter.

Bernice Ross, CEO of RealEstateCoach.com, is a national speaker, trainer and author of the National Association of Realtors’ No. 1 best-seller, "Real Estate Dough: Your Recipe for Real Estate Success." Hear Bernice’s five-minute daily real estate show, just named "new and notable" by iTunes, at www.RealEstateCoachRadio.com. You can contact her at Bernice@RealEstateCoach.com or @BRoss on Twitter.

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More MLS data troubles for agent matching site HomeLight

At the behest of a local California Realtor association, the recently launched agent matching site HomeLight has pulled multiple listing service data from a Central Coast MLS previously displayed on the site.

The move follows a similar request from the Kirkland, Wash.-based Northwest Multiple Listing Service (NWMLS) last week.

HomeLight is a referral-based site that claims to match homebuyers and sellers with unbiased real estate agent recommendations based on transaction performance data.

The site launched out of beta on Nov. 14 with $1.5 million in funding in hand from Google Ventures (the venture capital arm of search giant Google), Crosslink Capital, Innovation Endeavors, and several undisclosed angel investors.

Cindy Doll, association executive of the Grover Beach, Calif.-based Pismo Coast Association of Realtors, said she contacted the San Francisco-based site last week after receiving complaints about the use of MLS data on HomeLight.com. The Pismo Coast AOR, which has about 650 members, is one of eight member associations that own the 2,806-member Central Coast Regional MLS (CCRMLS).

"After reviewing the site, I contacted the broker member and asked that he remove our MLS data that is being used to generate statistics, agent photos, etc., on his site because it fails to comply with our MLS rules," Doll said.

"Following my initial review, the site and his membership do not appear to be in compliance with the MLS rules, but I’ve not yet had an opportunity to make any further determinations. It will soon be carefully reviewed."

Doll said the broker member, Drew Uher, HomeLight’s co-founder and CEO, agreed to take down all of CCRMLS’ data from the site by end of the day Tuesday, with the exception of data provided by individual agents who had contacted HomeLight.

Doll said she told Uher that he was "not authorized to use the data to create this secondary product and therefore you need to take the data down."


HomeLight screen shot taken Tuesday.

As of this morning, HomeLight had not stopped recommending agents in the CCRMLS coverage area, but had taken down agent photos and some transaction data.


HomeLight screen shot taken today.

"We have made sure that we’re not displaying any transaction data or pictures sourced from their MLS. We’ve submitted an (Internet Data Exchange) agreement to them and are continuing to have a dialogue," Uher said.

 
HomeLight screen shot taken today

"Our product benefits traditional agents (and therefore local associations) by allowing them to showcase their skills to the world. We are eager to work with MLSs and the rest of the industry to create a product that benefits everyone.

"But regardless of how MLSs respond to us, we can continue to operate. Since agents are eager to sign up for HomeLight, we can get data directly from them. Until now, we haven’t focused on agent sign-ups in the Pismo Coast area since it is a smaller market, but we expect to have the bulk of top agents in the area signed up by the end of the week."

This morning, Doll said she had not had a chance to see the changes implemented by HomeLight. 

Last week, HomeLight stopped recommending agents in central and western Washington state after NWMLS objected to the site’s use of its MLS data without a licensing agreement in place.

On Tuesday, Doll said Pismo Coast Association of Realtors has two issues with HomeLight’s display of CCRMLS data.

First, although Uher is a broker member of CCRMLS, Doll is not sure he meets the definition of an eligible member, based on information in his membership application and guidelines maintained by the National Association of Realtors.

Secondly, even if Uher is qualified to be a participant in the MLS, he needs to apply for either a licensing agreement or an IDX agreement in order to display MLS data online or create a secondary product from the data, Doll said.

A 2008 settlement between NAR and the U.S. Department of Justice revised the definition of a qualified MLS participant to require that an individual or firm "offer or accept cooperation and compensation to and from other participants," or be licensed as an appraiser. Previously, the definition had required only that they "be capable" of offering or accepting compensation.

"Mere possession of a broker’s license is not sufficient to qualify for MLS participation," the definition now states. An MLS participant "actively endeavors during the operation of its real estate business to list real property of the type listed on the MLS and/or to accept offers of cooperation and compensation made by listing brokers or agents in the MLS."

When asked whether referral sites were eligible to be MLS participants, NAR’s General Counsel Laurie Janik said NAR’s position is that individual MLSs should make that decision.

"In order to qualify to be a participant in the MLS, a broker must actively endeavor to list or sell properties of the type listed in the MLS," Janik said. "The local MLS is in the best position to make that determination with respect to applicants."

"Even if a broker qualifies to be a participant, the MLS may adopt rules that impose reasonable restrictions on the broker’s use of the listings."

Doll said she has yet to make a final determination about Uher’s membership. Regardless, she said, membership does not authorize him to extract data from the MLS database.

She’s not sure how he’s extracting the data, she said, but authorization requires him to submit paperwork to access the data through the normal channels, either a Real Estate Transaction Standard (RETS) server or a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) account.

Doll declined to comment on whether she had received an IDX agreement from Uher.


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Pros’ guide to patching driveway cracks

Q: We bought our house in 1980, and it was built in 1939. I don’t know how old our concrete driveway is, but it has many cracks that weeds are growing from. Over the years the cracks have gradually gotten bigger. Money is tight and we would rather not have to replace the entire driveway. Is there a way to repair those cracks? I’m not looking for a perfect solution. Any advice you can give will be most appreciated.

A: No need to replace the driveway. Patching the cracks will slow down the deterioration and give your driveway many more years of useful life.

The main reason for fixing concrete cracks, aside from looks, is to help keep moisture from leaching into the soil causing expansion and contraction that further damages the concrete.

Before you begin the repair, scope out the general area and try to get a feel for what caused the crack. Tree roots and standing water are two common causes. Before you begin fixing the actual crack, try to identify and eliminate the source. That could mean cutting out an offending tree root or filling a depression in the concrete.

Preparation

Regardless of the size of the crack, job one is preparation. It’s critical to clean and perhaps widen the crack to create clean surfaces that are ready to bond with the repair material you choose. You’ve got weeds, so first use a herbicide to kill them — "roots and all" as one popular brand says. Spray the weeds and give them a week or so to die.

Begin preparing the crack by breaking off any loose pieces of concrete with a cold chisel. The goal is to get a solid surface to bind to the patching material.

After the chiseling is done, use a wire brush to loosen any remaining debris.

Remove as much loose debris from the crack as possible. The gold standard is to use an air compressor, but if you don’t have one available, use a shop vac to vacuum out the crack. Your goal is to clean out all of the dust and chips.

Fixing cracks less than 1/2 inch

Textured caulk, concrete sealer or pourable concrete grout are options for repairing small cracks. Choose a product that is flexible. It should give a little with earth movement. Read the labels and ask the salesperson at the home center for recommendations.

Whichever product you choose, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Completely fill the crack and use a pointing trowel or your thumb to push the grout or sealer into the crack.

Fixing larger concrete cracks

For cracks wider than 1/2 inch, use a cold chisel to undercut the crack to make sure that the crack is wider below the surface than at the surface. This will keep the patching material from popping out of the crack as the concrete expands and contracts.

If using pourable concrete grout, apply it in 1/4-inch increments. Another alternative is to partially fill the crack with damp sand leaving 1/2 inch to the surface of the crack to be filled with the grout. Either way, multiple applications are required to allow for proper drying and shrinkage. Overfill the final coat to compensate for the slight shrinkage the grout will experience as it dries.

If using vinyl concrete patch, mix only as much as you can use within the pot life of the product, usually less than 20 minutes. Begin by wetting the crack with a spray bottle or hose. Spread the patch material into the crack forcing it into the crack with a pointing trowel or your finger. Again, fill the crack in layers no thicker than 1/4 inch to account for shrinkage. Again, damp sand can be used to raise the depth of the crack to 1/2 inch.

If using textured caulk, it has to be applied to a dry surface. If the crack you’re repairing is deeper than 3/8 inch, fill the crack with sand or foam backer board. Cut off the tip of the applicator to a size that matches your crack, not exceeding 1/4 inch (refer to the caulk manufacturer’s guidelines). In addition to completely filling the crack, apply some overfill to account for shrinkage as the caulk dries.

When finishing each of these options blend the final patch material with the surrounding concrete to form a good seal of the crack. A small brush, a broom or even a block of wood rubbed across the patch will do the trick.

                                     

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3 attitude adjustments everyone should make now

Book Review
Title: "Get Your Shift Together: How to Think, Laugh, and Enjoy Your Way to Success in Business and in Life"
Author: Steve Rizzo
Publisher: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2012; 224 pages; $25

A friend of mine has two remarkable little girls, ages 5 and 8, and they have very different personalities. The youngest is spritely, whimsical and exuberant. The oldest is brilliant, methodical and mightily capable. She taught me how to tie a square knot. She’s wont to say things like, "Tara, I can row from this side of the bay to that one, in a boat the size of a bathtub. By myself." And she can.

But she’s young and well-parented, so she has not let her pragmatism dim the high priority she places on fun — not in the least. In fact, she’s somehow managed to find a perfect marriage between the two. After she pulled me out of some brooding moment with a silly story about a caper she pulled off with her schoolmates, she took the occasion of my laughter to say: "You know, every time you laugh, it adds two months to your life."

I don’t know whether that’s true. Research uncovered in my Google search says that it does boost your immune system and your chances of survival, should serious disease strike — it also suggests that laughter adds life to the years we do have.

But in any event, there’s one person I’m certain would agree with my little friend’s assessment: comedian-turned-motivator Steve Rizzo, whose new book "Get Your Shift Together: How to Think, Laugh, and Enjoy Your Way to Success in Business and in Life" launches right after Christmas.

Rizzo starts out by telling a series of stories — one about his own life as a Hollywood comedian opening for the likes of Eddie Murphy, Rodney Dangerfield and Jerry Seinfeld before he had the epiphany that his true calling was to motivate people, not "making it big" in the traditional sense. He tells another about his brother, who lost nearly all his intestines in Vietnam and has lived a full, wonderful life despite doctor’s foreboding prognoses.

Rizzo’s stories remind us that our circumstances impact our lives, but our attitudes and our responses create our final outcomes.

The rest of the book is broken into three parts, broken down to cover buckets of the "shifts" referenced in the title, laughter-drive attitude adjustments Rizzo says hold the potential to change your business and your life:

1. The shift to a happier mindset. Rizzo encourages readers to adopt the viewpoint that happiness is a choice, one they must consciously and constantly make if they truly want to have happy lives. He also makes a good case that most of us who are on a success path fail to enjoy the process — of achieving our goals and of daily living — and, thus, fail to enjoy the bulk of our lives.

The stress and other chronic negative emotions so many people live with on their way to reaching distant goals also hinder productivity and creativity, according to Rizzo, who prescribes personal choice as the key to shifting into everyday happiness and achieving your goals and dreams.

Advocating that happiness is a "personal right" we should simply, aggressively claim all through every day, at work and at home, Rizzo proclaims that "there is absolutely no reason why you can’t plan for the future, set goals, undergo your daily routine, deal with the unexpected and still make conscious choices to enjoy yourself while you do so."

2. The instant shifting power of humor. Here, Rizzo focuses on helping readers practice their most important superpower: the power of choosing to think about the things that take place in their lives in a way that is positive, optimistic and happiness-promoting. He provides methodical guidance for learning how to shift your beliefs and feel better any time you need to.

Finding and focusing on the humor in tough situations is one of the key cures for negativity that Rizzo recommends, here and throughout "Get Your Shift Together."

3. Shifts away from fear and the "big mouth in your head." Rizzo, whose motivational stage name is The Attitude Adjuster, devotes the last section of the book to his insights on how to conquer fear ("the emotion from which anger, worry, guilt, self-doubt and all other negative emotions derive") and something he calls the "Big Mouth in Your Head," an "inner voice" that "plays off your deep-rooted fears and keeps you in a state of constant turmoil.

Laughter is, again, Rizzo’s go-to cure for these darkest emotions. He writes that "the moment you become aware of the deceiving ways of the Big Mouth and allow yourself to laugh in the face of fear, you enter into a higher state of consciousness."

"Get Your Shift Together" is not a hard-hitting, step-by-step, chart-laden, personal growth book. Rather, it’s an entertaining, easy, yet inspiring read for those who are ready to start taking their happiness seriously.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is a real estate broker, attorney and the author of two critically acclaimed books on real estate. Tara also speaks and writes on the art and science of life transformation at RETHINK7.com.

                                                   

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Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate enters Kansas

Prudential Kansas City Realty, an independently owned and operated 425-agent firm with more than $1 billion in annual sales, has reaffiliated with Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate LLC, the companies announced today.

Based in Overland, Kan., the six-office brokerage will now do business as Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Kansas City Homes. It’s the 15th brokerage to join the Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate franchise network this year and the first franchisee for the brand in Kansas.

By representing 3,102 closed transaction sides in 2011, Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Kansas City Homes was one of the largest brokerages in the Kansas City area, according to Real Trends. In the last 12 months, the company reports, the firm has closed more than $1 billion in sales.

"We are pleased to expand our brand presence into Kansas City, a flagship market in the Midwest," said Sherry Chris, president and CEO of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, in a statement.

David Cooper, president and CEO of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Kansas City Homes, said that "of all the many options that we had to choose from, it was clear to us that adding the power of the well-established Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate name and franchise network was the best long-term move for our company, our agents and our clients."

It’s not the first time the Realogy Holdings Corp. subsidiary has recruited a Prudential Real Estate-branded brokerage into its network. In June, the franchisor, now 8,350 agents and 258 offices strong in 26 U.S. states and Canada, signed up Houston-based Gary Greene Realtors, one of the 60 largest brokerages in the U.S.

Prudential Real Estate maintained a strong presence in the Houston market when Anderson Properties, a brokerage that had affiliated with Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate in March 2010, merged its operations with Alvin, Texas-based Prudential Reyes-Planka Realtors. The resulting firm, operating as Prudential Anderson Properties, has 10 offices in the Greater Houston area, Austin and Lubbock.


Sherry Chris

In September 2010, Prudential Real Estate lost one of its biggest brokerages — Pleasanton, Calif.-based Mason-McDuffie Real Estate Inc. — to Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate. Prudential Real Estate immediately announced a new affiliation with San Ramon, Calif.-based brokerage Prudential California Realty Pearson Properties, a firm that’s since doubled in size to more than 500 agents.  

The Prudential Real Estate brand has changed ownership twice in the last year. In December 2011, Brookfield Residential Property Services acquired Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services for $110 million.

In October, Brookfield RPS’ parent company, Brookfield Asset Management, facilitated billionaire Warren Buffett’s entry into real estate franchising by selling a majority interest in the Prudential Real Estate and Real Living brands to Berkshire Hathaway Inc. affiliate HomeServices of America Inc.

HomeServices of America has formed a joint venture with Brookfield, HSF Affiliates LLC, to operate the Real Living and Prudential Real Estate affiliate networks, whose member brokers employ 53,000 sales associates and closed more than $72 billion in home sales last year.

HSF Affiliates will roll out a new franchise brand next year, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, while continuing to operate the Prudential Real Estate and Real Living Real Estate networks and brands. Brookfield’s relocation business, Brookfield Global Relocation Services, remains wholly owned by Brookfield.

Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate has been on a steady growth path since its parent company, real estate giant Realogy, paved the way for the brand in 2007 by entering a 50-year licensing agreement with Meredith Corp. to own, operate and franchise the Better Homes and Gardens brand.

This year, Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, which launched in 2008 with Sherry Chris at the helm, has been on a growth tear.

  • In February, it added brokerages in Georgia, South Carolina and Texas.
  • In April, it grew in Arizona, Texas and New York City.
  • In May, another South Carolina brokerage signed on.
  • In June, Gary Greene Realtors in Houston came on board.
  • In August, Carefree, Ariz.-based Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Sonoran Desert Lifestyles joined.
  • In September, the franchisor added a southwest Missouri brokerage, its first in the state.
  • In November, the brand entered Kentucky with the addition of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Bluegrass Connection in Lexington. Also joining the network in November was Winchester, Mass.-based brokerage The Shanahan Group and IBR Realty, a Minnesota brokerage serving St. Paul, Minn., and surrounding areas.

With its entry into Kansas, Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate is now in 26 states: Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.


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North Carolina association re-ups with Rapattoni

A local Realtor trade group based in Wilmington, N.C., will soon have a new website that allows its members ready access to a Rapattoni Corp. multiple listing service system the group has decided to keep for years to come.

The Wilmington Regional Association of Realtors, which has about 1,700 members, signed a multiyear contract extension for Rapattoni MLS this week. The association also signed a new contract for Rapattoni’s Integrated Website Service, which launched on May 1.


Wilmington Regional’s current website home page  

The service allows association staff to create a website whose articles, menus, styles, colors and other content are customizable. Document management, social media tools, calendars, member forums, online member polling, and blogging are also included, the company said.


Rapattoni IWS home page for the Ventura County Coastal Association of Realtors  

The website will integrate with Rapattoni MLS as well as Rapattoni NetMagic, the company’s association management software which includes a feature that allows association members to pay their dues, register for classes and otherwise interact with the association online.

Rapattoni MLS serves about 200,000 users nationwide. It is compatible with the Internet Explorer and Firefox Web browsers, and can be operated natively on PCs and Mac computers; it also works on most popular tablet devices and has a touch-based interface, the company said.

"We are pleased to extend our contract for the Rapattoni MLS. The easy-to-use graphical interface with customizable features makes it easy for us to provide our members with the powerful tools they need," said Jerry Panz, CEO of Wilmington Regional, in a statement.

Wilmington Regional has had a relationship with Simi Valley, Calif.-based Rapattoni Corp. for more than a decade, said Ralph Hoover, Rapattoni’s senior vice president and chief operations officer, in a statement.

"We are looking forward to bringing their members many exciting new features, including our mobile interface in early 2013," he said.


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