April 2010 Archives

April 30, 2010

Open House Sign Placement: A Science Unto Itself

Every Sunday, the street corners in many U.S. neighborhoods sprout open house signs like mushrooms.

Those signs didn't just appear there on their own, however. I had a chance to ride along with my selling agent on the Sunday morning of our house's first open showing, and got a sense of all the thought and strategy that goes into this seemingly simple routine.

We had six signs to work with, one of which was of course designated for a spot in front of the house. That sounds like a lot until you realize that you may want to pull people in from four directions. We were lucky in that our house was tucked within a square of city blocks boundaried by various major intersections, so we pretty much put one sign at each.

But if that hadn't been true, and a promising major intersection had been farther away, we also would have needed to put some signs at intermediate points or turns. That's to stop people wondering, "Gee, we've been driving a long ways already, did we miss the place? Should we just forget it?" A cardinal rule of sign placement, I learned, is that you don't want to leave anyone hanging, wondering where to go next. 

The serious buyers may have mapped out their route already, so it's not as though the entire success of one's open house rests on sign placement. (Though even the prospective buyers with maps can get a little lost.)

But there are people who don't think about buying a house until they happen to see a tempting one, or who will quickly tell their friends about a "must see." So it's worth also thinking about where the crowds are -- and filling in your realtor, if he or she doesn't know every detail of your local scene. For example, we suggested, and our realtor agreed, to putting up a sign near our local farmer's market.

The following weekend, in fact, we noticed that another realtor, selling a house just across the street from the same farmer's market, actually started the open house early, at the hour at which the market closed. Visitors could finish up their shopping and coffee and wander right over. I don't know who bought the place, but it sold as fast as anything I've seen in that neighborhood lately -- despite an exterior that was rather grim, with barred windows and no landscaping.

And then -- you thought I was done, but no -- there's the matter of actually placing the sign on the street corner. I was ready to plunk the signs down and move on. But my realtor spent a good long time checking on things like lines of sight from various angles. Will that shrub block the view of people coming from that direction? Can drivers read the address from that distance? Which way will most of the traffic be coming from? Would it be better to put the sign across the street?

Yup, it's a science. If there were any more to say on the topic, I might write a book about it.  

April 26, 2010

The Perils of Owning Two Homes While Waiting for One to Sell

If you can swing the financing, moving into your new home before trying to sell the old one offers many distinct advantages. The painters and repair-people have easy access to everything, you can stage the place with select pieces of beautiful furniture and not have to hide the toothbrushes and kitty litter, and real estate agents can bring in prospective buyers at any time of the day (thanks to the magic of the lockbox, where only an agent can access the key).

I recently sold my house this way, and everything turned out great. But that's not to say there weren't some nervous moments in between.

For example, consider the fact that your house will not only be sitting empty, but very obviously empty, full of beautiful things (which, if you've hired a stager, you're probably liable for if they're damaged or stolen).

As if to invite thieves -- who have been known to break in and steal the staging and fixtures --  you'll have a big "For Sale" sign in front, every light turned on to make it welcoming for visitors, and the security system turned off (again, for the sake of those visitors).

Even after we'd asked the Postal Service to forward mail, packages and letters continued to arrive. And of course there were the ubiquitous pizza fliers,and stray bits of trash that came to rest right where they looked the worst.

I took to driving over every morning and evening. (Good thing we'd moved only a mile away.) That gave me a chance to switch the lighting and make the place looked its best. I'd wipe up the footprints of the previous day's visitors (we were selling during the rainy season), deal with cupboard doors that they'd opened or things they'd moved around, and refill the birdbath. (Ok, maybe that was for the sake of the birds as much as for the buyers.)  

Even with all, as the days ticked by, paranoid thoughts infiltrated my brain. How -- or by whose hand -- did that flower get draped over the fence in the back yard? Do the earthquakes happening everywhere on earth else mean that we're due for one -- probably a day before the closing, with us nowhere's near to turn off the water if a pipe bursts? And how long can the place sit vacant before the homeowners' insurance runs out? (It's usually 30 days, but negotiable with your insurance company.)

I breathed a huge sign of relief when closing day came around with no disasters. And you will too. Without the constant driving back and forth, I feel like I've gained hours in my day. But I sometimes find myself thinking I should just swing by the old place to make sure everything is okay . . . .


April 14, 2010

Tired of Spring Lawn Care Already? The Alternatives

At last, your patch of green has emerged from under the snow . . . and it's growing. Before you resign yourself to spending many weekend hours mowing, fertilizing, and watering, however, let's take a look at some alternatives:

1) Buy a better mower. The May 2010 issue of Consumer Reports covers options with features like wider cutting areas and good steering for tight spaces, as well as  environmentally friendly options that run on batteries or electricity. If you're going to be mowing the lawn anyway, you might as well cut down on frustration and energy consumption.

2) Replace your lawn with artificial turf. Yes, what was once known as "Astroturf" is making a comeback, with newly attractive versions in a wide palate of green shades, that last about ten years. It's actually got some environmental credibility, since it reduces pollution from lawn mowers and use of water and pesticides, and is porous enough to let rain water pass through. But the April, 2010 issue of SmartMoney points out some problematic aspects to this new green stuff. It gets awfully hot on the toes in summer weather, it still needs enough raking and other care to make sure that leaves don't pile up and create a new environment for weeds to grow in, and you've got to pick up the dog droppings ASAP or they develop a peculiarly awful smell. What's more, some homeowners' associations ban the artificial turf altogether. And if you decide or are forced to roll yours up and get rid of it, that's a rather large bit of landfill you'll need to occupy. 

3) Replace your lawn with other landscaping. This is the one I'm planning to go for soon -- partly out of necessity, having discovered that keeping a lawn under a California oak tree may kill it, because its roots can't tolerate summer water. But it can be a wise move for any homeowner, offering new opportunities to create a beautiful outdoor landscape that attracts birds and butterflies, while cutting down on all the environmental baddies mentioned above. There's lots of online advice for doing this, from sites like this one in Washington State, this one in Minnesota, and this one in California. 
April 9, 2010

Dog Bites and Homeowners' Insurance

This month's This Old House magazine contains a scary-sounding statistic: that dog bites account for one-third of all homeowners' liability insurance claims.

Taken at muzzle value, that sounds like Fido is more dangerous than we thought. But what does this statistic really mean?

First, notice that it refers only to homeowners' LIABILITY claims, in other words, claims for injuries and medical expenses when someone who visits your home is injured. That's a small part of what your homeowners' insurance policy covers.

Most homeowners' coverage, and most claims, relate to the hazard portion of your policy, such as damages to your house and property from wind, fire, storms, vandalism, theft, and so forth.

Second, I'm no statistician, but it seems like we'd have a fuller picture if we could get some breakdown of liability-claims sources beyond "dogs" and "non-dogs." Unfortunately, no such breakdown exists. I called the Insurance Information Institute, whence this stat apparently originates, and it explained that it hasn't separately studied any category of liability other than dog bites -- though noting that liability claims arise from a wide mix of causes, such as swimming pool drowning, slip and falls, and so forth.

So if we wanted to focus on the biggest problem, we might need a headline saying "Human carelessness accounts for two thirds of homeowners' liability insurance claims!" But that wouldn't have been as eye-catching.

Back to the dogs for a moment, however. I don't want to discount the fact that some inflict serious injuries on largely innocent victims. It's a good reminder to choose and train a dog well before making it part of your family, and to be vigilant about your dog's interactions with visitors to your home.

In particular, don't bring a dog into the home expecting it to behave viciously toward intruders and not toward anyone else -- dogs don't usually know the difference. And finally, check with your homeowners' insurance company about its dog policy. Some insurance carriers won't cover you if you've got a certain breed of dog that's got a bad rap, or one with a personal history of aggressive behavior. The last thing you want is for a visitor to your home to sue you for a dog bite, only to discover that you're not insured for this -- especially given that the average claim is nearly $25,000.  

April 2, 2010

Claim That First-Time Homebuyer's Credit!

It's almost tax time! If you haven't filed already (uh, I certainly haven't), and you've bought a house recently, that means it's time to take a closer look at what's required to get the credit for first-time, and in some cases returning, home buyers.

See my earlier post on this for a rundown of the qualifications, as well as some tips from the IRS.

Also consider buying a copy of your favorite tax software, or picking up paper copies. Because you'll have to provide some documentary proof of the purchase, you CANNOT e-file and claim the credit. (Though you can, if you wish, fill out the forms online, print them out, and send them in.)

For a good rundown of that and other potential pitfalls to avoid when claiming the credit, see The Wall Street Journal's MarketWatch advice.