Recently in Green living Category

May 13, 2011

Real Estate Agents Developing Specialties

bottles4_exb_HSTR2103.jpgJust as with flavors and caffeine levels of soda pop, the choices to be made among real estate agents has expanded over the years -- despite, or maybe because of, the down economy.

As Marilyn Kennedy Melia points out in her article, "1. Change, 2. Choices," you can now find agents to help with short sales, foreclosures, buying or selling a "green" home, and more.

Meanwhile, other agents have (according to seemingly good authority within the article -- namely me!) packed up their offices and headed for careers with less uncertainty and competition.

Marilyn also quotes me as saying it's worth asking agents about their negotiating style before signing them up. Indeed, carefully observing an agent's personal style and trying to get a handle on how he or she will represent you in front of the other party is particularly important for both buyers and sellers, because negotiations can get contentious.

Buyers have leverage in today's market, and they know it. Many deal have fallen apart over amounts of money both large and small, for example because the buyer negotiated hard over repair costs after the home inspection. It's all too common for either the seller or the buyer -- or both -- to start to "take a stand" on mere principle, forgetting that the ultimate goal is to transfer the house.

WIthout a skilled agent to smooth relations with the other party, not to mention provide a voice of reason when you yourself most need it, a deal that looked rosy one day can simply wilt and die the next.

By the way, I've got a whole list of other questions you might want to ask agents before signing them up -- you'll find it in the article "Choosing Your Real Estate Agent."
November 17, 2010

Builder Concept Home 2010: It's Cute!

Check out this year's "Builder Concept Home," the National Association of Home Builder's annual model of what Americans want and need today. It's compact! It's got rooms that look like normal squares, instead of giant foyers and open areas with staircases meant for Scarlett O'Hara! They're calling it a "New Home for the New Economy."

Personally, I think it's a good idea. I've been a houseguest in some of the McMansions of the past, and they're usually drafty (hard to heat), full of vast areas that no one uses, and no doubt take forever to vacuum. And according to Carla Fried of MoneyWatch, I'm not the only one to think smaller is better -- here's her article, "Is the McMansion Era Gone for Good?"
November 8, 2010

Homeowner Tip: Prune Trees Now, When No Birds Are Nesting

I know someone who left the tree pruning business because of his horror, one day, at watching a nest of baby birds fall from a tree after he'd unwittingly cut the branch. Birds are clever at hiding their nests, so even though he and other arborists are watchful, tree pruning done during the nesting months, particularly spring, summer, and in some areas early autumn, is risky.

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Late fall and winter, when trees are dormant, is the safest time to prune trees and large shrubs -- in many cases, for the tree's sake as well as the birds'. Then you can enjoy watching bird families make use of your trees next spring!

August 25, 2010

Condo Owners' Rights When the Neighbors Smoke?

This is one of those issues you'd think would have been settled by now: Does a condo owner have a right to expect that his or her unit will be free of secondhand smoke from nearby units? And if so, can the owner demand a remedy, perhaps that the condo association pay to seal off their unit (which may be impossible) or that the neighbors simply stop smoking in their home?

Given the wide range of other things that condo associations typically govern, from the size of owners' dogs to the color of their house paint, you might even expect that smoking rules would be written into the typical Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs; the government document for homeowner associations).

Apparently not. In fact, as described in the article, "Battle Over Smoking in Condos Catches Fire in Florida," by I.M. Stackel of the Daily Business Review , the issue is just making its way to the forefront of public attention -- mostly via the court system.

Until it's resolved, both condo buyers and sellers need to put it high on their list of issues to address before the sale is finalized. Buyers who want to either avoid neighbors' smoke or have the right to smoke themselves should carefully read the CC&Rs, ask questions of the sellers, and talk to the neighbors' about others' experiences there.

Sellers who know that their unit is subject to the entry of secondhand smoke will want to disclose this to buyers. Yes, it might turn some buyers off, but as we explain in detail in Selling Your House in a Tough Market, that's better than facing a lawsuit later.
July 9, 2010

Will Trees Improve Your Home's Value and Livability?

The National Association of Realtors recently reminded its members that each tree a person plants around a home can add an estimated $630 to the home's value. (That's according to a 2002 study by the USDA Forest Service.) And trees can save on energy costs, too. The U.S. Department of Energy says that, due to shading of the home in summer and protecting it from winds and weather in winter, well-planted trees can save homeowners between $100 and $250 a year.

Personally, what I like best about trees is the pleasant view they create out the window, with filtered light and sneak peaks into the lives of birds, squirrels, and occasionally the cats who chase them.

So if you've got the space to plant some trees, here's the best news of all: Buying a tree doesn't have to break the bank. By joining the Arbor Day Foundation, you become eligible to receive ten free trees, specially selected to grow well in your geographic area. 

But before you start planting, a few cautions apply. For starters, it's important to do your research on how fast your chosen tree will grow -- sometimes it's faster than you think -- and what that will mean for both your own property and any neighboring ones. In some common interest developments, for example, the rules forbid you to block another neighbor's view.

Also check on whether the particular species of tree's roots are known for invading, say, concrete plumbing pipes. And you might want to avoid trees with special needs, like the Coast live oak in my back yard, which can't be watered all summer -- meaning nothing else in my yard can be, either.

Tree placement is another important consideration. For example, a tree that loses its leaves  shouldn't be put too close to the house if you don't want to be cleaning out the gutters frequently. And if you plant a tree near your property line, and the trunk grows over the boundary, the law says that your neighbor will then own part of the tree. Even if the trunk doesn't grow this wide, realize that other tree issues -- falling leaves, ownership of overhanging fruit, and dropped limbs -- are a common source of neighbor disputes. To help forestall or deal with these, see the free "Trees and Neighbors FAQ" on Nolo's website, or buy the excellent, plain-English reference, Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise, by Cora Jordan and Emily Doskow (Nolo).  
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. 
March 23, 2009

Be the First Green Advocate on Your Co-Op Board?

Own a co-op? Then you probably won't be happy to know (or remember) that residential buildings are a major offender when it comes to releases of carbon dioxide emissions. But as you also know too well, doing something about it will require enthusiasm, or at least buy-in, from other owners. For inspiration and advice, check out Mireya Navarro's article, "It's Not Easy Turning Co-Op Boards Green," in the March 26, 2009 issue of the New York Times.

One of the most interesting factoids was that you don't need to go all out with solar panels to have an effect on the bottom line -- the greatest bang for the buck comes from simple conservation measures like insulating pipes and weather-stripping doors.

Another interesting suggestion comes up in the article "Start Greening Your Building," from The Cooperator: The Co-Op and Condo Monthly: installing a device that measures every owner's individual energy usage -- that can certainly wake up some people who weren't too concerned about energy costs when they were spread among all owners.

And for more information for New York City residents, check out the website of Green Home NYC, a volunteer-run organization whose mission is to facilitate the adoption of sustainable building methods and materials by owners of small residential and commercial buildings in New York City.
March 11, 2009

I Bought a House! (for the birds)

IMG_1207.jpgThat's right, I'm now the owner of a new (but old, made of recycled wood), Audubon-specification-compliant wren house.

Actually, I think I spent more time with this choice than with the house I'm living in. As with human houses, the particular bird houses I was checking out were all unique, made by Berkeley Rustic Birdhouses. I had to carefully consider price range, size (the entry, in particular, can't be too big if you want to attract wrens), aesthetics, and -- trying to get into the mindset of a small bird here -- which one might feel like "home." Sound familiar?

Mounting it became another lesson in home ownership -- there's nothing so valuable as a friendly neighbor with power tools! (Thanks, Joe.)

Now I'm suddenly shifting into the mindset of a home seller. Will any birds take a look? Will they peer inside in delight and say, "This is it!" or just look for signs to the next open house? I'm told it could take a year or more (for one thing, the birds need to feel sure I'm not going to move this new object tomorrow), but of course I want some to move in right now...
January 8, 2009

Don't Give Up on Buying Green

With the economy down, you might assume you can no longer afford the "luxury" of a home built using green construction techniques and materials. But the latest reports show that other buyers who've done the math are still convinced that the energy-saving features of green construction make it a good deal.

See, for example, this article by Mari Saito in the Philadelphia Business Journal, describing one condo buyer's shock that her monthly electricity bill went from about $280 per month in her former loft to just $76.

And in a related article by Diane M. Fiske, the Journal describes how one local developer is coming up with efficient ways to build homes that are both affordable and energy-saving. An important part of the strategy is the use of SIPS, or "standard insulated panels." These panels are made of wood (either young farmed trees or leftover wood flakes) and a foam insulating material. They're precut to the designer's specifications and put together on site, like a giant puzzle. They're getting high reviews for environmental friendliness (like reduced wood waste) and tight, heat-conserving qualities.

By the way, if you're building your own house, SIPS might be a good option as well. For more information on SIPS, see:
November 14, 2008

Quiz Your Knowledge of Environmentally Friendly Cooking

paint rags.jpgSettling into your new kitchen and curious about things like whether to buy a plastic or wooden chopping board? Here's a fun quiz from the Sierra Club -- I scored pretty well, but still learned more than usually comes standard in the average "green" article.

And while we're talking green, let me throw in a tip of my own. I just painted the bedroom and was finally able to justify having saved all those old bedspreads, sheets, and towels -- you know, the ones that are too ratty to give to charity -- just like my Lithuanian refugee mother taught me. The box of rags was starting to feel like its own kind of clutter, but I was able to cover the floor and all the furniture that was too big to move out, without having to buy any tarps. Very satisfying.