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Re-Stringing the Housing HARP

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David Reilly, Wall Street Journal

The government’s latest move to bolster housing marks yet another transfer from savers to borrowers.

Such transfers have been the norm since the Federal Reserve instituted its zero-interest-rate policy in late 2008—shifting funds away from the likes of depositors, bondholders and pension funds to debtors. The latest iteration came Monday, when the Federal Housing Finance Agency unveiled changes to a program meant to make it easier for underwater homeowners who are current on payments to refinance into a lower-rate mortgage.

The thinking is that this will reduce defaults. Or as FHFA said, "Such refinances bring benefits to borrowers, to housing markets, and to [Fannie Maeand Freddie Mac] and taxpayers."

Missing from that winners’ list: investors who finance housing markets by purchasing mortgage-backed bonds. They will fund this new effort. Here is how: As homeowners refinance, investors who bought mortgage bonds will be given back their money and will have little option but to reinvest at far lower yields. The transfer is the difference in yield.

Just how big that will be isn’t clear as it is tough to tell how effective the program will be. The original Home Affordable Refinance Program, or HARP, led to refinancings by 894,000 homeowners in about two years. Estimates for how many borrowers could now take part range from 500,000 to three million, while FHFA said it is "very difficult to project the number of mortgages that may be refinanced." Some mortgage bonds traded lower Monday on news of the plan.

Granted, prepayment risk is inherent to mortgage bonds. There is also likely to be little sympathy for bondholders having to give up money to shore up housing. But that ignores that the government is picking winners and losers. Effectively, it is deciding some losses on some things are acceptable, say on 401(k) retirement plans, yet aren’t on others, namely housing.

The government also potentially undermines its own effort to create a housing-finance market independent of Fannie and Freddie. Many mortgage investors may choose to reinvest elsewhere, ultimately shrinking the pool of lenders available to fund that market. In the short term, the Fed may well take their place. That isn’t the basis, though, for a functioning mortgage market underpinned by private capital.

Another unsettling wrinkle: The FHFA is adding an incentive for borrowers to refinance into shorter-maturity mortgages. But in many cases, this will mean a borrower’s monthly payment, including principal repayment, won’t decline. It may actually rise. That undermines the notion that these borrowers are unable to meet monthly payments and need government assistance.

Banks may also benefit depending on how FHFA decides to limit the risk that they could be forced under some circumstances to repurchase shoddily underwritten mortgages.

The biggest issue, though, isn’t necessarily with HARP or similar programs. It is that both parties in Washington are studiously avoiding any real effort to overhaul housing finance and decide what to do about Fannie and Freddie.

 

 

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October 25, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Lake Erie “Mod Pod” Listed for $19.5M; Was Drop Ceiling Inventor’s Shangri-la

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Laura Vecsey, Zillow

Dobermans released every two hours to patrol the property. Underground streets lined with a restaurant, bars and a barber shop. A private beach and marina sculpted into the shores of Lake Erie. Helicopter pad. Rotating garage floor made of marble so no one had to back out that rare Ducati.

These are just a few of the unique features found in the Waterwood Estate, a fascinating Ohio property owned by the late Don Brown, an inventor who gave the world the drop ceiling.

“It takes four-and-a-half hours to show this property,” said Scott Street of Sotheby’s, the listing agent for the Waterwood Estate, which is now listed on the Vermilion real estate market for $19.5 million.

The property sits on 160 acres, boasts three-quarter miles of frontage on Lake Erie and contains a series of “pods” connected by glass corridors that were navigated by scooters and golf carts.

When Brown and his wife, Shirley, were killed in a plane crash in 2010, their two living sons (their third son, Kevin, died in a speed boat race in 1989) decided to sell the sensationally unique property. But to who?

So far, Street said the listing has attracted a ministry group and a group of Colorado helicopter pilots have expressed interest in turning the property into a fly-in, fly-out resort (Waterwood comes with an FAA-approved helicopter pad). Then there’s a couple who, perhaps like the octogenarian Browns, wants to grow old in an amenity-laden house.

“This was a very forward-thinking house when it was built in 1990 in terms of systems and functionality,” said Randal Darwin, vice president of CB Richard Ellis, the firm brought in to help market Waterwood.

“It was 20 years ahead of its time because of its features and unique characteristics. Mr. Brown literally broke the mold on this house. I know he had the white brick specially fabricated for this project and when it was done, he had the molds destroyed so no one else would ever use them,” Darwin said.

These few details only begin to tell the story of Brown’s Waterwood Estate. One other important fact? The listed size of Brown’s dream house is off — by about 30,000 square feet.

The Inventor and the Architect

“They’ve got the square-footage listed wrong,” said architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen. “It’s not 38,000 square feet. It’s 60,000 square feet. The underground floor is the same size as the main floor. They forgot to count that.”

Jacobsen would know about the true size and intricacy of the Brown estate. The world-acclaimed architect was hired by Brown to deliver the visionary design, just as Jacobsen has done for more than 400 private homes for clients that included Jackie Onassis, Meryl Streep and members of the Mellon family. But the collaboration ended when the secretive Brown fired Jacobsen.

“We were a year-and-a-half into the project and he sacked me. I’ve never been fired before,” Jacobsen said from his Washington D.C. office, still bemused about the turn of events.

“He kept a secret of his life. He thought everyone wanted him. He’d say, ‘Hugh, jealousy is a terrible thing.’ I asked him, ‘Don, do you think I’m jealous of you?’ I think he was offended,” Jacobsen said.

At 81, Jacobsen has been at the forefront of American architecture for sixty years, ever since he attended Yale and apprenticed with Philip Johnson. The rich and famous are Jacobsen’s clients. He delivers uniquely landscaped structures that reference the Quaker-simple lines of the American barn, smokehouses and farmhouses. He has won many awards and published three books cataloging his work, but his first look at the Waterwood Estate came when he saw listing photos after the property was put up for sale.

“About two months before he died, after 20 years since I’d heard from him, he called and said,  ‘I guess you’d like to see the place.’ I said, yes, I’d like to see it. My homes are like my children. But then he died in the crash,” Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen used his trademark “pod” style design to give the design more flexibility and allow it to evolve as Brown wanted other things added. The entire home is a series of 20 castle-like concrete buildings connected by glass corridors and each structure is topped with a slate pyramid.

Marble, Glass, Polar Bears and Dobermans

On the lower level of the house, there are a series of streets built to scale and named after streets in cities like Georgetown, Paris and Savannah.

“There were five bars in the house, one with a full-mounted polar bear. There’s a barber shop with a pole where Don would go every morning for a shave. At one end of the house, he had cages that would open every hour on the hour and two Dobermans trained to run the perimeter of the property would run out. The next hour, another pair would take off,” Jacobsen said.

He also used tons of sand and dirt from the lake shoreline, where cliffs were graded to build a beach and the harbor, to shape hills into the flat, Midwestern terrain. From the road, the house is not visible behind those hills. But from the lake, boaters can see the modernist white castle.

If it sounds wild, Jacobsen disagrees.

“No, it’s not wild. It’s your dream. This house is the house of an inventor. It has a space where, inside eight white columns, there are chairs and a couch. This floor lifts up through the ceiling to a pergola so guests can look out over the lake. The floor also goes down to the ground floor, where there’s a piano so the family can sing Christmas carols,” Jacobsen said.

“Near the main entrance, there is a 10-by-10-foot room behind the closet. You slide the door, remove the clothes’ pole and there’s a fully decorated Christmas tree. The room had its own air filter and air conditioner to keep the dust off the ornaments. He was so embarrassed about having a fake tree he had it sprayed so that it smelled like pine needles,” he said.

What amuses Jacobsen is that despite being fired, his plans were fully executed. Brown brought in another renowned and innovative architect, the late Hideo Sasaki.

“Don told Sasaki, ‘Don’t change Jacobsen’s plan.’ And they didn’t change a thing. Sasaki would call and tell me,” Jacobsen said.

During his lifetime, Don Brown never allowed the property to be photographed. It was a sanctuary for his family, lacking for nothing. Now, with the house listed for sale and photographs to prove its splendid fruition, the architect who designed Don Brown’s house is curious.

“He was building his dream, he had money and he hired me. We bought the furniture, the art, we did the landscape, then I was fired. I’d like to see it, but I’ve  never paid my own airfare to see a home I built for a client,” Jacobsen said.

And if you’re wondering whether the home has a drop ceiling, it does — in a workshop.

 

 

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October 24, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Quiz: Am I Ready to Buy?

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Carla Hill, Yahoo Real Estate

There are lots of eager would-be buyers out there. It’s no wonder why! The market currently offers many ideal buying conditions. Interest rates are still at historic lows (for those with excellent credit). Home prices are extremely affordable when compared to area median incomes. There is a large supply of homes available in most markets (more homes to choose from and buyer advantage at negotiations).

Yet, the questions remains. Are you ready to buy? Take a moment to answer this ten question quiz: Am I Ready to Buy?

1. What is your credit score? (a) less than 620; (b) between 730 and 850; (c) between 620 and 730.

2. Do you have cash for a 20 percent downpayment? (a) how much?; (b) yes; (c) not yet, but we’re working on it.

3. Do you have cash totaling an 8-month emergency fund? (a) I live month to month; (b) we have funds to cover 8 months of expenses; (c) we only have savings to cover a few months.

4. Have you been pre-approved for a mortgage? (a) I figured I’d find the house I like first; (b) Yes, and I have a copy of the letter; (c) I played around with forms online.

5. Is your job: (a) temporary, part-time; (b) full-time and secure; (c) full-time, but our company is experiencing lay-offs.

6. Do you plan on staying in your current city for the next 3 to 5 years? (a) I won’t be here for that long; (b) Yes, most definitely; (c) I’m not sure.

7. Have you worked on buyer budgets? (a) I don’t have time to do friviulous budgets; (b) I have a spreadsheet showing different scenarios; (c) I’ve worked up a few, but haven’t spent much time.

8. How much space do you need? (a) I want a mansion. I’ll take nothing less. (b) We know within about 500 square feet; (c) we’ve given it some thought, but aren’t sure.

9. Are you and your spouse or partner on the same page? (a) it’s my way or the highway; (b) we’ve had several lengthy discussions and agree on most points; (c) we’ve talked, but have very different ideas.

10. Why do you want to buy? (a) I want a place i can show off; (b) I want stability for my family; (c) I want to be able to decorate like I want!

If you answered mostly a’s, then our experts recommend you take some time to get your finances in squeaky clean order before proceeding. Homeownership is a big financial responsibility, and with an unemployment rate over 9.0 across much of the country, it’s important that you have funds in place to take care of yourself and your family before you you buy.

If you answered mostly b’c, congratulations! You sound like a prime candidate for homeownership. Be sure to contact your local Realtor for advice on the next step.

If you answered mostly c’s, you are very close to being ready to buy. Take the next few months to check over your credit report and fix any errors. Talk to banks and lenders and see what rates you qualify for. Start putting buying at the forefront of your mind and your future planning. Make it a priority and it’ll happen!

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October 18, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Persevere, Don’t Abandon Your Dream

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PJ Wade, Yahoo Real Estate

Are you letting global uncertainty extinguish your real estate dreams without full consideration because money is an issue? Sometimes balancing livable compromises against researched options can help you achieve more than you may have believed possible.

Your future should not be entirely defined by what is affordable. When it comes to where you’ll live and how, concentrating on finances alone may short-change you in the long run.

One long-time reader is living proof that adapting your finances to achieve your dreams is a powerful alternative to designing your life around a lack of money.

When two people close to Tina Lowe (identity protected) died prematurely, Lowe promised herself she would not to spend her life sitting at a desk. She wanted to retire at 60 and start enjoying life.

“Friends and family couldn’t understand how I was doing it, but I did it anyway because that is what I wanted to do,” said Lowe, explaining how she achieved home ownership and early retirement without the million dollars that pundits say is essential to a successful future.

Lowe was almost 50 when her 30-year marriage ended, leaving her financially vulnerable. For a few years, Lowe held down two jobs to make ends meet. Eventually, a move to a small, less expensive apartment on the outskirts of town allowed her to quit the part-time weekend job.

Lowe invested time and effort in learning about money. She took advantage of her employer’s shared-contribution program and a loan from a friend to build up her Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP). She also invested time in learning all she could about pensions, indexing, RRSPs, and, later, Tax-Free Savings Accounts (TFSA). From company seminars to reading anything she could find on the principles of investing, Lowe made sure she fully understood how money made money. By the time Lowe left work at 60, her RRSP fund totaled almost C$50,000.

Economic volatility did not shake Lowe’s determination to leave work on schedule. Meticulous planning and appreciation of the rewards of a simple lifestyle maintained her commitment. Creative back-up plans added security.

When Lowe noticed an advertisement for a condominium that could be carried for about what she was paying in rent, she revived the dream of home ownership that had been abandoned in favour of early retirement. Once again Lowes began researching diligently. She learned how condominiums work and what gave them sustainable value. When she discovered that prices increase with the number of amenities, square footage, and the higher in the building you are, she decided to buy at a smaller unit on a lower floor and in a less “lux” building. Lowe bought the location and neighborhood she loved and saved thousands of dollars. Lowe discovered a south-facing, self-contained fifth-floor, 344-square-foot unit with a balcony. Since the small building was free of fancy amenities, monthly maintenance fees remain affordable. The unit increased in value over her pre-construction purchase even before she moved in.

“It will be tight because it has been since day one, but I’m doing it,” said Lowe emphasizing that not smoking or owning a car stretches her income further. “It is important not to let anyone put you down or discourage you. When I first found this place, I had been to [a] real estate seminar and they got me going. Then I had one family member really put me down. Finally, a friend who is an accountant thought it was a good idea and encouraged me, and I thought, ‘I can do this.’ You must use knowledge to survive. It is very tight—I am not going to kid anyone, but I am still very happy I retired at 60.”

Knowledge is power. Take the time to understand which costs may become a challenge in the future. You may decide a part-time job will supplement investment or pension income. Consider housing like co-operatives where contributing skills and “sweat equity” may make the important affordable difference. Perhaps teaming up with friends or relatives will increase your buying power.

Continuing with income-generating projects will be increasingly commonplace, both out of interest and necessity.

Developers realize that they are creating new communities within the subdivision or high-rise they build. Some perceptive developers create work-live options that will provide services for residents while creating income streams for owners.

Churches, legions and other non-profit organizations have become community-builders in a “bricks and mortar” sense of the word by developing housing for their congregations, members and neighbors. Often this housing is below market value.

Communities involve varying numbers of people, but their strength lies in individual resilience, self-actualization and freedom. Property ownership is one outward symbol of these marks of individuality since no two properties – even condominiums, row houses etc. – are identical.

Over the past 20 years, the national home ownership rate has risen steadily. Although low interest rates, increasing disposable incomes, and stable employment conditions are credited with that improvement, the future still holds potential for growth. The wish for continued control over one’s home and life keeps increasing numbers of Canadians intent on investigating their all their options.

Waiting for great times to return is not a strategy, it’s a tragedy. Put your money to work for you in even the smallest ways. Think before you spend—“What else could I do with that money?—so you keep more of what you earn and continually move dreams closer to reality.

Remember, the impossible may take a little longer, but you can make it happen with perseverance. Today’s Local Market Conditions Report.

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October 18, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Something Great for the Kiddies!

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Level Architects: House with Slide[s]

via Design Boom


‘house with slide’ by level architects | all images courtesy level architects

Yokohoma-based atelier level architects has completed ‘house with slide’, a three-story family residence that features a continuous circulation route that utilizes both stairs and the playground equipment. Circumscribing the volume of the house, the playful layout places the living spaces at the core of the house with a number of access points along the course.


living area on the second level

Since the circulation is placed at the outer edge of the design, the interior is largely lit using
vertical openings in the roof. a centrally-placed courtyard with sliding glass doors illuminate
the living room with natural daylight while creating a small play area for the children of the house.
rounded corners of the layout encourages the light to wash around edges to further light the space.


slide exit into the living space


(left) stairs up to the top of the slide

(right) slide

third floor hall way connecting the stairs and slide


living room with light courtyard


(left) light courtyard

(right) washroom with roof light

entrance and slide exit to the right


(left) library

(right) slide and hallway

exterior


circulation diagram

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October 18, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Go Green–with Architecture

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David Lachapelle, Design Boom

Natural Architecture

The natural environment still manages to fill us with a sense
of awe and amazement. despite the amount of scientific
knowledge mankind has gathered, nature still holds great
mysteries that we may never be able to unravel.
this complexity has continually daunted man. in frustration, we
try to control nature by enforcing order. as a result,
we have distanced ourselves from the earth, even though
our survival is completely dependent on it. we are now trying
to regain our close connection to nature.

There is an emerging art movement that is exploring mankind’s
desire to reconnect to the earth, through the built environment.
referred to as ‘natural architecture’, it aims to create a new,
more harmonious, relationship between man and nature by
exploring what it means to design with nature in mind.

The roots of this movement can be found in earlier artistic
shifts like the ‘land art’ movement of the late nineteen sixties.
although this movement was focused on protesting the
austerity of the gallery and the commercialization of art,
it managed to expand the formal link between art and nature.
this has helped develop a new appreciation of nature in all
forms of art and design.

The ‘natural architecture’ movement aims to expand on ‘land art’
by acting as a form of activism rather than protest. this new
form of art aims to capture the harmonious connection we
seek with nature by merging humanity and nature through
architecture. the core concept of the movement is that
mankind can live harmoniously with nature, using it for our
needs while respecting its importance.

The movement is characterized by the work of a number of
artists, designers and architects that express these principles
in their work. the pieces are simple, humble and built using the
most basic materials and skills. because of this, the results
often resemble indigenous architecture, reflecting the desire
to return to a less technological world. the forms are stripped
down to their essence, expressing the natural beauty inherent
in the materials and location. the movement has many forms of
expression that range from location-based interventions to
structures built from living materials. however all of the works
in the movement share a central ethos that demonstrates a
respect and appreciation for nature.

These works are meant to comment on architecture and provide
a new framework to approach buildings and structures.
they aim to infuse new ideas into architecture by subverting
the idea that architecture should shelter nature. instead,
the structures deliberately expose the natural materials used
in the building process. we see the branches, the rocks and
all the materials for what they are. we understand that these
structures won’t exist forever. the materials will evolve over
time, slowly decomposing until no evidence remains.
these features are intentional, provoking viewers to question
the conventions of architecture. the designers aren’t suggesting
that architecture must conform to their vision, they are just
providing ideas that they hope will inspire us all to rethink the
relationship between nature and the built environment.


‘la tonnelle’ by gilles bruni and marc babarit, 1996


‘ash dome’ by david nash, 1977


‘organic highway’ by mikael hansen 1995


‘bridge in moasi, china’ by edward ng, 2005


‘clemson clay nest’ by nils-udo, 2005


‘weidendom’ by sanfte strukturen, 2001


‘reed chamber’ by chris drury, 2002


‘running in circles’ willow and maple saplings, patrick dougherty, 1996


‘toad hall’ by patrick dougherty, 2004


‘fog pad’ by n architects, 2004


cover of ‘natural architecture’ by alessandro rocca, published by princeton architectural
press, 2007 – all the images featured in this article are taken it.

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October 18, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Homes of the Future!

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A Look Ahead at New Homes of 2015

By Erika Riggs, Zillow

If you had asked someone in the 1960s what the home of 2015 would look like, chances are they imagined something akin to The Jetsons’ home complete with Rosie the Robot and other space-age appliances that dressed and fed the family.

But, rather than space-age technology, the biggest thing that is expected to change in future single-family homes is the size.

“Homes will get smaller,” says Stephen Melman, Director of Economic Services at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) in Washington D.C. “We asked builders, ‘what do you anticipate the new home size would be by 2015?’ ”

According to the results of the study, surveyed home builders expect new single-family homes to check in at an average of 2,150 square feet. Current single family homes measure around 2,400 square feet, which is already a decrease from the peak home size in 2007 of 2,521.

While the decrease in home size has a lot to do with the recession, many believe that the real estate changes will stick around even after the economy and home values get back on solid ground.

z_greatroom_v2

This Sherman Oaks, CA home has a great room, encompassing dining, living and family rooms.
Photo: Zillow

“Although affordability is driving these decisions, smaller homes are a positive for builders,” said Melman. “It allows for more creative design, more amenities, better flow. It’s an opportunity to deliver a better home.”

z_control4-7-screen_v2

Home digital control panels can help manage security and energy consumption.
Photo: Control4

Other things that make up the home of 2015? No more living room. According to the survey, 52 percent of builders expect the living room to merge with other spaces and 30 percent believe that it will vanish completely to save on square footage. Instead, expect to see great rooms — a space that combines the family and living room and flows into the kitchen.

Expect to see more:

  • spacious laundry rooms
  • master suite walk-in closets
  • porches
  • eat-in kitchens
  • two-car garages
  • ceiling fans

Expect to see less:

  • mudrooms
  • formal dining rooms
  • four bedrooms or more
  • media or hobby rooms
  • skylights

Many of these changes reflect a desire for builders and consumers going green. Smaller space means more efficient heating and cooling. Ceiling fans distribute heat evenly while skylights, on the other hand, release heat.

However, as builders look to go green, they’ll be installing energy-efficient windows and compact fluorescent and LED lighting, as well as water-efficient appliances and plumbing.

Additionally, many new homes will have the baby boomer population in mind with walk-in showers, ground-floor master bedrooms and grab bars.

“A bigger share of the new homes will be purchased by people 55 or 65 and older,” said Melman. “They’re more likely to have more cash for a down payment, but they’re empty nesters, so they don’t need five bedrooms.”

 

 

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October 13, 2011 at 2:31 pm