Neighborhood illness and what to do about it

I just came across a very interesting article in the Chicago Sun-Times.  Apparently, the neighborhood you’re living in could be making you sick.  Health experts are saying that neighborhoods are helping to contribute to ADD, high blood pressure, obesity, lung disease, and more.  And what’s the reason behind this?  That we’re forced to drive everywhere and we’re not doing enough physical activity.  Sure, it makes sense.  Those that live in subdivisions in the suburbs rather than out in the city where it’s easy to walk everywhere can often experience this.  There’s not a place to eat, or grocery shop, or park that’s within walking distance.  So we’re forced to drive.

According to the article, back in 1986, the average person whose height was 5’4″ was less than 10% overweight.  That same person in 2007 was 20 to 24% overweight.  Newer neighborhoods being built are less likely to have intersecting streets that take you to the area school or park.  They just have long and winding streets that spit you out back where you started. 

Dr. Richard Jackson is chairman of the environmental Health Sciences Department at UCLA and co-author of Urban Sprawl and Public Health.  He says that an average mother today spends 75 minutes of her day chauffeuring her children around, whether it be to school, soccer practice, the doctor, etc.  And he says the more time we spend in the car, the fatter we become. 

So this information is very interesting if you’re in the market for a new home.  If you’d like to walk your children to school, consider the entire neighborhood before placing an offer.  Is the school within walking distance?  Is there a park nearby?  Maybe you’re looking for an area that has a downtown area within walking distance, such as Highland Park, Long Grove, or even Antioch.  The new homes in The Glen in Glenview have shops, movies, and restaurants right there.  Same with Arlington Heights.  They’re like mini-downtowns. 

If you have no plans to move, the article suggests some steps you can take to help the neighborhood:

1. Start parking cars along the street instead of only in the garage and driveways.  Make sure your neighborhood doesn’t have a ban on leaving cars out overnight.  Narrower roads lead to slower-moving traffic which can definitely help if there’s kids around. 

2. See if you can add marked bike lanes in your area.  Meanwhile, make sure if you’re out riding to wear a helmet for protection.  No matter how safe you are, you can’t rely on what the cars or other riders are doing.

3. Walk to a destination that is less than a mile away.  I have clients who discovered there was miles of forest preserve practically in their backyard.  They take their baby in the stroller for long walks in the summer.  Have dogs?  Try to walk them around daily.  You’ll get your exercise and they’ll love it, too.

Have a safe and healthy weekend!  Please be sure to visit my Web site at

Tips to hold or add value to your home

With housing prices dropping in almost all areas of the country, now is probably not the best time to try and sell unless you have to.  So why not spend this time investing in the future of your home?  Real estate agents and brokers around the country offer these suggestions on tips that will help you add or hold value in your home.


1. Create space.  If you have rooms that are closed up, see if you can open them by knocking out a wall or even half wall to make them appear larger.  Cut out a wall from the kitchen to the dining room.  Remove a center island if it takes up the majority of your kitchen.  “Right now buyers want a wide open floor plan, the living room right off the kitchen. They are into big spaces,” says Kristin Wellins, Senior Manager of Program Development for ERA Real Estate.

2. Landscape.  Curb appeal is key.  I’ve seen plenty of buyers choose not even to go into the inside of a house because of the way it looks on the outside.  Tame those unruly trees and bushes.  It also helps keep mold out.  Plus, landscaping can bring you a return of 3-4 times what you spend in the cost. 

3. Add or fix your lighting.  Consider motion detector lights outside to not only save money but to keep burglars at bay.  Put in fluorescent bulbs to save money, energy, and they’ll last a lot longer.  Really dark rooms can turn off a buyer.  Make sure that when you’re showing your home that it is as bright as possible.

4. Take care of all maintenance issues.  Before you decide to upgrade anything, make sure that everything is in working order.  The homes going under contract and selling now are the ones that are in great shape.  John Veneris, the regional vice president of the National Association of Realtors in Downers Grove, Illinois, says, “What’s important in this market, now more than ever, because there is so much inventory, the houses that sell are in pristine condition and are priced to the market.”

5. Take care of your front door.  This can be one of the most overlooked parts of a house, but buyers generally decide within the first seven seconds whether they like a house or not.  Make sure the door is clean.  Make sure the doorbell works.  Consider adding an awning or portico if you don’t have a front porch or a way to be covered when you’re waiting at the front door.  It makes a big difference, especially if buyers are out looking in the rain. 

6. Go neutral.  This is very important when painting a room, especially if you plan to sell in the near future.  I’ve had clients decide to paint their home when they were about to sell, but chose bold, bright colors.  They had to start all over from scratch.  If you’re not painting, make sure there are no scratches or chips on the wall.  One coat of paint or a good cleaning can go a long way.

View more tips here. If you have more questions or are ready to sell, please visit me online.

The bank’s going to foreclose – now what?

42-17679037While I’ve talked a lot about the housing bills out of Washington and how they’re designed to help homeowners keep their homes if they’re in foreclosure, there are plenty of homeowners out there who just received notices from their mortgage companies saying they’re going to start foreclosure proceedings.  This is probably the worst news you can get if you’re worried that the recession is going to take your home from you.  AOL Real Estate offers these tips on what to do when you receive that notice in the mail:

1. Remain calm.  Before you go and do something drastic out of anger (like put a hole in your wall), take a second to breathe.  There are plenty of steps you can take to keep your house.  Figure out if your inability to pay is on a short-term scale or a long-term one.  Did you lose your job but you start your new one next week?  Or are you unable to work for months because of a medical problem?  This will help you when you speak to your creditor about your situation.  Do your best to remain calm and composed.

2. Budget.  If it comes down to paying your mortgage or your monthly credit card payments, most loan officers would rather see a late payment on a credit card than a mortgage.  It will help your credit score in the long run.  However, it’s important that you cut out expenses that aren’t absolutely necessary.  Are you regularly watching those HBO and Cinemax channels on your TV?  Get rid of them.  Do you make it to the gym regularly to take advantage of your membership?  Cancel it.  Do you go out to eat for lunch every day at work?  Brown bag it.  Make sure you have the necessities, but cut out the extras.  You’ll be amazed at how much you can save. 

3. Negotiate.  The banks are having as hard of a time as anyone selling homes that go through foreclosure.  They’d prefer it if you could stay in your home, too.  See if you qualify for a loan modification program by getting your interest rate lowered.  See if they’ll postpone the foreclosure date for you until you get back on your feet.  So don’t necessarily just stop paying your mortgage once you receive this notice.  Do your best to make your next payment.  New York Real Estate Attorney Edward A. Mermelstein says, “Know your mortgage rights. Review loan documents so you know what your lender may do if you can’t make payments. Also, research the foreclosure laws and time frames in your state [every state is different] by contacting the State Government Housing Office.”

4. Avoid scams.  I’ve talked about these before.  You should be able to get credit counseling without being charged.  But make sure you speak to a HUD-approved housing counselor before you sign any document or hand out any money. 

I hope these tips will help you if you happen to be in this situation.  If you do have more questions, or need to sell your home to save money, please visit me online. Have a safe and happy Memorial Day.

More important news from Washington

On Wednesday, President Obama signed another law that he’s hoping will help owners get relief on foreclosures.  This law encourages lenders to adjust a mortgage if the homeowner agrees to pay an insurance premium.  Obama said that it cracks down on lenders who take advantage of them.  The second part of the bill extends an increase in deposit insurance with the FDIC from $100,000 to $250,000 through 2013.  barack-obama-for-president

The bill/law is called the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act.  The House approved it 367-54 and the Senate voted 91-5 in favor of the bill.  Once the final version was signed, it was unanimously approved. 

Also in Washington, a recently created FBI team put in place to help get rid of mortgage fraud, is going to be using wiretaps, undercover operations, and computer technology to get their evidence.

The National Mortgage Fraud Team now has 2,400 cases, more than three times what they’ve had in the past few years.  The team is going to try to identify the worst perpetrators of mortgage fraud and determine where more FBI agents are needed.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said, “In addition, sophisticated investigative techniques, such as undercover operations and wiretaps, not only result in the collection of valuable evidence, they provide an opportunity to apprehend criminals in the commission of their crimes, thus reducing loss to individuals and financial institutions.”

And speaking of foreclosures, government-owned homes have now jumped to over 50,000 across the country.  The government is struggling to get rid of these homes and could lose billions of dollars because of it.  According to a USA Today article, The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) lost 39 cents on the dollar for every home it resold last year.  They say that this year’s recovery rates are even worse. 

So hopefully Obama’s new law will protect more homeowners from foreclosures.  Little by little, we might get a jump start on the housing market.  Visit me online for additional info.

Is condo living right for you?

So you’ve made the decision to move forward with a home purchase.  Good for you!  Whether you’re a first time buyer or a seasoned veteran, you might be trying to determine if you want to purchase a condo or a single-family home.  There’s benefits to both, but some first time buyers especially prefer condos for many reasons. 

First of all, price.  Depending on what area you’re looking in, generally a condo is less expensive than a home.  An association handles all of the exterior maintenance like shoveling snow and mowing grass, so if you’re on your own, that might be a better option.  You do pay for it in a monthly fee, but it can be worth it to some.  Some condos have common amenities like tennis courts and pools. 

apartmentnewSo if you’re out shopping and you find a condo you can imagine yourself living in, here are some key questions to ask your Realtor:

1. What is the financial condition of the association?  In Illinois, your attorney should always ask for a recent budget of the association.  It will let you know how much money they have in reserves in case a situation arises that needs to be fixed.  New condo associations might set the monthly fees really low to attract buyers, so you might want to make sure they do have enough money in reserves.  If money is lacking, and there’s a problem, the association could always come back to the homeowners and charge money to fix it.  So be careful.

2. How do these monthly fees compare to other similar buildings?  Obviously, it’s important to you to keep costs at a minimum.  But it might mean something to a buyer down the road when you go to sell your unit if the fees are exorbitantly high.  Also ask exactly what is covered.  Find out if utilities such as heat and water are included.  Usually, fees include snow removal, exterior maintenance, landscaping, common insurance.  But it’s definitely worth finding out exactly what you have to worry about on your own.

3. How good is the sound-proofing?  Try to visit the unit you’re interested in at different times.  Maybe on the first viewing you’ll go in the morning and then if you see it again, go later in the afternoon.  It gives you an idea of what your neighbors will be like.  You’ll be able to determine if you can hear a neighbor’s TV, or people walking on the floor above you.

4. What is the percentage of renters?  Some complexes only allow homeowners to rent out units after they’ve lived there for a certain number of years.  Others don’t have any restrictions.  Absentee owners are not as conscious of what’s going on than people who occupy the units are.  So this might be helpful to know in terms of resale value, also. 

The Chicago Tribune has an article that lists some other questions that you might find important.  Always make sure you ask all of your questions before signing any contract.  If you’re ready to start your condo search, visit me online to get started!

Important questions to ask your home inspector

Now that the housing market is starting to turn around (we hope!) and more buyers are out there buying houses (you’re buying, right?), most buyers will conduct a home inspection on the home they are going to purchase.  I cannot recommend enough that you obtain a home inspection on your soon to be new home, even if it’s new construction.  Better to front the cost upfront than have to deal with lurking issues you never know the home had.  The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development recommends some of these important questions to ask your home inspector before you hire him.


1. What does the inspection cover?  It’s important to find out ahead of time what is included in the inspection.  Most inspectors will not note any cosmetic defects.  Rather, they’re looking for safety issues and whether items are working or not.  If there is something specific you want your inspector to look at, make sure to let him know upfront so you don’t forget. 

2. Are you experienced in residential inspections?  You want to make sure that you’re not having your uncle’s neighbor’s best friend inspecting your home if he has only worked on a construction site.  It’s important that the inspector have experience looking for items specific to home construction.  Make sure that he’s insured and bonded, as well.

3. How long will the inspection take?  Make sure you plan on scheduling this time to be at the inspection.  Don’t just leave it up to the inspector and the Realtor to show up.  It’s important to go through the home with the inspector so he can point issues out to you.  Most home inspections for a single-family home take around 2-4 hours.  For a townhouse or condo, it’s probably less than 2 hours.  Some inspectors have more than one person in the house at a given time which allows them to double-check each other’s work and move more quickly, if necessary.

4. What is the cost?  You’ll also want to know this upfront because most inspectors require payment at the time of the inspection.  Average costs range anywhere from $250-$500 depending on the size of the house and the inspector.  This is a cost you should be able to write off on your taxes, but make sure you consult with an accountant prior to doing so.

5. What is the report like and how soon can I see it?  In Illinois, since we use attorneys to help with closings, a lot of inspectors will send the report directly to the attorney representing the buyer as well as to the buyer and Realtor.  It should arrive within 48 hours to make sure it meets the contingency as called for in the contract. 

If you have other questions, feel free to ask those ahead of time, too.  If you need the name of some good home inspectors, please visit me online.

First time buyers rejoice!

Great news out there for all first-time buyers who haven’t yet purchased a home.  The $8,000 tax credit offered by the government is now allowed to be used as a down payment for a home.  So if you’re strapped for cash and that’s what’s keeping you from making your purchase, now there’s no worries. 

223052548_9f5ff24797HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan stated, “We all want to enable FHA consumers to access the tax credit funds when they close on their home loans so that the cash can be used as a down payment. So FHA will permit trusted FHA-approved lenders and HUD-approved nonprofits, as well as state and local governmental entities to “monetize” the tax credit through short-term bridge loans. We think the policy is a real win for everyone, ensuring that borrowers can tap into the numerous organizations that are already part of the FHA network to receive this additional benefit. FHA will be publishing the details shortly.”  This way the funds can be accessed right at the closing table.

Don’t forget that this credit isn’t limited to just FIRST TIME buyers.  If you haven’t owned property in the past three years, you are also eligible to receive this credit.  If you are married, both you and your spouse can not have owned during the past three years.  If one of you has, unfortunately, you are not eligible. 

Any home purchased as a primary residence qualifies.  This can be a single family detached home, townhome, condo, mobile home, etc.  As long as you are going to live there, it counts.  The credit does not require repayment as long as you remain in the residence for at least three years and is good for all homes purchased before December 1, 2009.  Other questions about the credit can be answered here.

I can’t think of better news to hear this week.  This opens up so many more possibilities for those struggling with the choice of whether to purchase or not to purchase. This is like someone writing you an $8,000 check to put towards a new home and saying, “Don’t worry.  You don’t even have to pay me back!”  So nothing should be stopping you at this point.

Please visit me online to get started with the home buying process. I’d be happy to sit down with you to discuss your wants and needs.

Decorating on the cheap

save-moneySo you’re tired of the same old looks throughout your home.  Or you are trying to sell your home in a tough market, and the feedback you’re getting is that your home is too neutral.  Need some cheap decorating ideas?  A lot of the ideas below can be done for less than $50!  And it’s amazing what a little effort can do.

1. Choose to paint one accent wall in the room in a bright color.  Do something bold like a dark brown, purple, or even a turquoise.  If paint is expensive, ask your local hardware store if they have any “oops” colors.  Ones that the salesmen mixed and didn’t turn out right.  They might sell for cheaper than the rest.  Once your one wall is done, see if you can find a frame, pillow, or candlestick that has the same color in it to draw even more attention to the wall.  You might already have a piece in your home.

2. Remove clutter.  That’s the fastest way to make any room look better.  Get some great organizing pieces at The Container Store, or even Target.  Put things where they belong.  Leave the remotes by the TV, recycle those old magazines, and store your photos in an album.  In the bathroom, hide all your soaps, makeup, gels, and medicine in a medicine cabinet, or under the sink. 

3. Are your countertops too bare?  Add some fresh herbs to some beautiful potters.  Not only will you have something new to look at, but you’ll have herbs ready to go in your dinner, and they’ll taste fresher than the dried varieties you find at the store. 

4. Purchase some fabric or find cute pillows to change up what you already have on your couch.  A lot of fabric stores have a discount bin, so if you can find something to cover your own pillows, you can save even more money!

5. Have some extra frames lying around but no pictures to fill them?   Consider framing a square of wallpaper, placemat or wrapping paper that you like.  Need something for your child’s room?  Cut border wallpaper into pieces that fit easily into frames.

Good Housekeeping has a slideshow of some cheaper decorating pieces and where you can find them. I’d love to hear what other ideas you’ve used or know of.  Leave me a comment or visit me online!

Fannie Mae sinks deeper into debt

fanniemaeMortgage finance company Fannie Mae is asking the government for another $19 billion.  In March, they received a $15 billion bailout.  At that time they had warned the government that the $15 billion probably wasn’t going to be enough and that they may need more money.

Both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac purchase mortgages from banks and creditors and sell them in turn to investors.  Together they own or guarantee almost 31 million home loans throughout the United States for a total of $5.5 TRILLION!  That covers just about half of all the mortgages in the country.

For the last quarter, Fannie Mae posted a loss of $23.2 billion where a year ago that figure was $2.5 billion.  They currently have $145 billion in delinquent loans which is more than 10 times the amount that they had last year.  Freddie Mac will be posting their first quarter results within the next week.  The government has already invested more than $60 billion to help out these two companies.  The new request bumps that number up to $79 billion.

According to The Olympian, the Obama administration is estimating that the taxpayer bill for both companies will hit $147 billion now and could reach $400 billion by the end of September of 2010.  The government is using the companies to help refinance or modify delinquent mortgages throughout the country.  And using them for that purpose has the intention of stabilizing the housing market.  James Lockhart, the head regulator for Fannie and Freddie, said, “Anything that we can do to stabilize the mortgage market will be to the long-term economic good of the two companies.”

So you’re dealing with two evils.  A dwindling housing market and creating a larger debt for the government.  Is one evil the lesser of the two?  Right now the Obama administration is doing what they can to help homeowners stay in their homes.  Is it worth it at the expense of the taxpayers?  What are your thoughts??  Please leave me a comment or visit me online. I’d love to hear what you think.

Treat your mom to an Evanston house walk

evan03gsmith_srch_feed_20090501_11_18_20_10190_h=124&w=165If you’re in the market for a fun Mother’s Day activity this Sunday, The Evanston History Center is offering a house walk of six different homes that were part of Daniel Burnham’s past, an urban planner in Evanston from the late 1800s.  This year’s tour is is in honor of the centennial of the Burnham plan.

Clara Woodyatt home: Clara was Daniel Burnham’s sister.  The house was originally a Gothic Revival-style cottage but a wraparound porch was added and later removed.  Kitchen windows were enlarged and kitchen cabinets were built in the 1930s (which are still in use today).

William L. Brown home: Brown made his fortune in the iron business.  He and his wife were friends of the Burnhams.  His house held his family, a coachman, a cook, and two servants.  A two-story addition was added in 1903 by Burnham’s nephew, Ernest Woodyatt.  They also added a sleeping porch in 1917.

George W. Smith home: This home was only occupied by three families over 120 years.  The current owners have not replaced a single piece of hardware.  Everything is original.  It was one of the first homes to be built in Evanston by Burnham.

The tour begins on Sunday at the Charles Gates Dawes House at 225 Greenwood Street at noon and runs until 5 pm.  Tickets and more information can be found at The Evanston History Center’s Web site.

Have a great weekend and Happy Mother’s Day!  Visit me online if I can help with any real estate needs.