How to buy and live green–by John Raleigh

Today the Green movement is still in transition but many elements have become mainstream, primarily due to global warming. Ironically, in the 1970’s environmentalists were more concerned about global cooling from pollution and not global warming from CO 2.

It is popular to ask these days: "Do you believe in Global Warming?" This is as provocative question, like asking do you believe in God. It is a polarizing question. Implying that you are either an environmentalist or not. Or you either believe man made pollution can affect the climate or not. Unfortunately there is misinformation and hypocrisy on both sides of the issue. There is a religious type zeal on both sides that has alienated a lot of the general public.

Whether you believe the Earth is warming or not, there are major governmental plans to increase the cost of energy use, control fossil fuel use, and promote alternative energy. In fact, in the Bay Area, we are already penalized, with extra fees or fines, for over use. Water rates are 5 times higher for large users compared to basic. In fact a house with a irrigated half acre lot will cost 10 times more for water (in the summer) than for a house in Sacramento (they have no meters) and a thousand times more than an Agricultural user for the same size area. PGE rates for electricity are $.36/KWH for the higher tier user and only $.11KWH for the basic user. Indiana electricity users pay $.06/KWH (one sixth of what a homeowner in a 3000sf home would pay in the Bay Area and half of what a basic users pays/KWH). We also pay about 10% more for gasoline and diesel and about 50% more for natural gas than the lower cost areas, like Texas. Nationally, a carbon tax or a cap and trade tax is proposed in Congress. In the Bay Area we already pay a tax because our rates are more than double the National rates. If the carbon tax is fair, the coal burning states like Indiana would pay more and we would pay less. More than likely, Congress will come up with a plan that makes us all pay more.

What can YOU do to reduce global warming and live GREEN?

There are voluntary plans of action that will save energy, decrease use of foreign oil, and save you money.

Below, I’m providing a list of things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint, live greener, and make you feel good about helping save the planet or just ways to save money. One list shows inexpensive things you can do, and the other shows more expensive ways. If you just try some of the inexpensive suggestions, you can save 20% of your energy and water usage. A 75% reduction in you energy and water usage is possible if you try all of these suggestions. Carbonfootprint.com will help you measure your usage of energy and water. Using their calculator will help you figure out what are the most effective ways to save resources and money.

Inexpensive things you can do:

Here are some inexpensive ways, some specific to the Bay Area, to save energy, water and money:
– Use CFL light bulbs, motion sensors, unplug energy vampires like TV’s, computers and chargers;
– Buy local, sustainable, green products, shop with your own cloth bag, only buy what you need;
– Recycle, buy recycled or used products, support Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and/or support your local farmers markets;
– Buy a programmable thermostat set it at 68 in winter, 78 in summer. Turn the heat/AC off when you are sleeping;
– Cut down on unnecessary car trips. When you get to your destination, park in the first spot you find. Don’t drive forever to find a closer parking space;
– Use public transportation, use a rental car service like Zipcar and you can eliminate one or all the cars you own. Even an inexpensive car can cost $5,000/year to own and maintain.
– Walk or bike to school or work. Live near your job.
– Live in a concentrated dense urban area (Most Europeans live in cities and use half the energy we do)
– Use less water, drink tap water not bottled, plant local drought resistant plants instead of lawns, or let your lawn dry out in the summer. Pumping water uses massive amounts of energy.
– Vacation locally. Take 1 long vacation instead of several short ones and save a lot of driving.
– Use low VOC paints. Paint your roof white with special roof paint
http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jul/15/business/fi-cool-roof15
– Chalk and seal your house
– Buy or rent a smaller house
– Use regular instead of premium gas (try it, if the engine doesn’t ping it’ll run fine). Don’t wait to warm up your engine. Modern cars don’t need a warm up.
– Change your oil every 15,000 miles, like the manufacturer says, not every 3,000 miles — like in the old days
– Set your pool pump to run at night–7 hours a night in the summer and 1 hour in the winter. Buy a pool cover
– If you have a new PGE smart meter, do your laundry at night, and use only cold water. Lower your hot water heater temperature to 110 degrees.

TRUE “GREENY” ways to save the Planet

Now, if you are a TRUE and dedicated "Greeny", dry your laundry on a clothesline and try the following things:
– Plant your own vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees. In a smaller garden only plant lettuces, herbs, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and dwarf fruit trees. Many vegetables can be planted that grow in the winter rainy season that will require little or no watering. Examples are lettuces, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, spinach. Because domestic water is so expensive, squash, corn, melons, potatoes, cucumbers, beans and other water hungry plants are more efficiently grown commercially and are not cost effective in a home garden.
– Compost, buy organic food (conventional fertilizer and pesticides use a lot of energy), raise your own chickens, put in a beehive.
– Eat less meat. Beef takes 2500 gal of water/pound to produce. Animals produce methane and use more water and energy than plants to produce the same amount of calories.
– Use gray water for yard irrigation. Take 2 min. showers. Share bath water. Turn your pool into a water retention cistern.
– Use energy saving tips from the Government
http://www1.eere.energy.gov/consumer/tips/pdfs/energy_savers.pdf
– Measure your carbon footprint: http://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx or http://www.nature.org/initiatives/climatechange/calculator/
– Sustainable living info http://www.recycleworks.org/greenbuilding/index.html

Somewhat expensive things you can do to help the Planet

– Buy a hybrid or electric car (Pay off time is 10 years – probably longer than the car will last)
– Buy or build a passive solar house or install Photovoltaic active solar panels (Pay off time is 8-10 years);
– Replace your windows with dual pane or better (Pay off time is 10-25 years);
– Insulate more or put in a thermo barrier in attic (Pay off time is 3-5 years);
– Attic fan for cooling, Reversible ceiling fans can help heat and cool (Pay off time is 1-3 years);
– Remodel with "Green" certified products (Pay off time is 10-20 years);
– Solar and/or on demand hot water (Pay off time is 5-10 years);
– Solar pool heater (Pay off time is 3-5 years);
– Buy "Green" appliances, plumbing fixtures and HVAC (Pay off time is 3-8 years);
– Replace your lawn with an artificial lawn (Pay off time is 5-10 years);
– Invest in new clean technology companies;
– Buy carbon credits

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My take on the latest market trends

Happy New Year Everybody,

I haven’t written in a while and now I am back. I always try to show an optimistic view of the real estate market. Last year was not a good year for real estate, in general. We however had a great year, focusing primarily on condos working for buyers and sellers. We also recently helped a buyer on the purchase of a large house in San Carlos.

The one bright spot, locally, was the high end of the market–$5m and above. In fact, there are even spec. builders in that market. It is good to be in the top 1%. This year things seem better. Unemployment is going down, the stock market survived intact after a lot of volatility, it is an election year–often a bullish sign. Rents are up 13% in SF and SJ, interest rates are at all time lows, and most houses in the Bay Area are priced below replacement costs–all bullish signs for rising home values.

There has never been a better time to buy. If you buy below comparable rents and below replacement costs the risks of buying are very low in many parts of the Bay Area. The fence sitters and permanent renters are still pessimistic. They worry about losing their job, having to move, earthquakes, loss of flexibility, home maintenance, loss of tax deductions and a million other ‘what ifs’?

For future buyers the old rules still apply. This is a good article to read: WSJ Online Buy when it works best for your own personal situation. Don’t buy something you can’t afford. Buy planning to stay for a minimum of 5 years. If you have to move, make sure the house will rent at a positive cash flow (or an affordable negative out flow), you’ll will feel safer if you do lose your job or have to relocate. Get a 30 year fixed loan for piece of mind. Buy a property that could have a potential in-law rental or guest cottage to rent out for extra income. Buy something new or remodeled if you are worried about maintenance.

I think the Real Estate bright spot in the coming year will be condos (including townhouses). There is shortage of SFH’s. In fact if they are in good shape and priced right, they get multiple offers. The cost difference between condos and SFH’s has reached an all time high. Low interest rates and high HOA fees have artificially driven down condo prices. Plus apartment rents are skyrocketing. In many cases condos are cheaper to buy than rent. Most first time buyers just can’t afford houses in the RBA (RealBayArea — the peninsula cities with schools that have API scores of over 900). Condos are the only choice for young families that want to be in the RBA. Condos are also going to attractive to the sellers that are downsizing and want to stay in the area. Remember the condo boom of the 1970’s?–many of the buyers were older. That trend will be echoed by the Baby Boomer generation. After all many can pay cash for a condo and not have to worry about rent increases.

There is talk, nationally, of selling many more REO’s in bulk to investors. This has been going on locally for 3 years. It will help us in the Bay Area by taking the low end properties off market and stabilizing the low end. There will be more rental housing available, but since there is so much rent demand, rents will still go up. In fact rents are so high that the big developers are now building rental units instead of condos. 4500 units will be built in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties(mostly in San Jose) in the next 3 years. They cost close to $400/sf and will rent for over $3/sf/month for these luxury apartments. The shortage of affordable housing will continue to drive up low end rents.

We Serve Clients, not just Locations

Economic Update – March 21, 2011

Last Week in the News


Retail sales rose 0.1% for the week ending March 12, according to the ICSC-Goldman Sachs index. On a year-over-year basis, retailers saw sales increase 3.1%.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo housing market index rose one point in March to 17. An index reading below 50 indicates negative sentiment about the housing market.

The Mortgage Bankers Association said its seasonally adjusted composite index of mortgage applications for the week ending March 11 fell 0.7%. Refinancing applications increased 0.9%. Purchase volume fell 4%.

The combined construction of new single-family homes and apartments in February fell 22.5% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 479,000 units. Single-family starts decreased 11.8%. Multifamily starts dropped 46.1%. Applications for new building permits, seen as an indicator of future activity, fell 8.2% to an annual rate of 517,000 units.

The producer price index, which tracks wholesale price inflation, rose 1.6% in February after a revised 0.7% increase in January. Core prices — excluding food and fuel — rose 0.2% in February.

Consumer prices rose a seasonally adjusted 0.5% in February, following a 0.4% increase in January. For the year, seasonally adjusted consumer prices are up 2.2%.

Industrial production at the nation’s factories, mines and utilities fell 0.1% in February, following a revised 0.3% increase in January. Compared to a year ago, industrial production is up 5.6%. Capacity utilization was 76.3% in February.

Initial claims for unemployment benefits fell by 16,000 to 385,000 for the week ending March 12. Continuing claims for the week ending March 5 fell by 80,000 to 3.7 million.

Economic Update – March 14, 2011

Last Week in the News


The Mortgage Bankers Association said its seasonally adjusted composite index of mortgage applications for the week ending March 4 rose 15.5%. Refinancing applications increased 17.2%. Purchase volume rose 12.5%.

Wholesale inventories were at their highest level since November 2008, increasing 1.1% to $436.88 billion in January. This followed a revised 1.3% rise in December. Sales at the wholesale level rose 3.4% in January, the largest gain since November 2009.

Retail sales rose 1% to $387.1 billion in February after a 0.7% increase in January. It was the eighth straight monthly gain. On a year-over-year basis, retail sales rose 8.9%.

According to the Federal Reserve, consumer credit debt rose in January by $5.01 billion for a total credit level of $2.41 trillion. Figures for December were revised from an initial gain of $6.1 billion to a gain of $4.1 billion. Revolving debt, which includes credit cards, fell by $4.25 billion. Non-revolving debt, including loans for cars, rose by $9.26 billion.

The trade deficit increased 15.1% to $46.3 billion in January from $40.3 billion in December. Economists had expected a trade deficit of $40 billion. Exports rose 2.7% to $167.7 billion. Imports increased 5.2% to $214.1 billion.

Total business inventories rose 0.9% in January to $1.45 trillion, up 9.1% from a year ago. Total business sales increased 2% to $1.17 trillion in January, up 10.8% from a year ago.

Initial claims for unemployment benefits rose by 26,000 to 397,000 for the week ending March 5. Continuing claims for the week ending February 26 fell by 20,000 to 3.77 million.

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Should you pay off the house?

An increasing number of homeowners are considering paying off their mortgage early.  While paying off debt generally is a sound strategy, homeowners also are aware that mortgage interest is tax-deductible, so paying off a mortgage early may not be in the best interest for all homeowners.

MAKING SENSE OF THE STORY

  • Homeowners with credit card debt, and those who aren’t contributing the maximum amount to a 401(k), are advised to make those the first priority.  It is also important that homeowners have at least six months’ worth of living expenses in cash.
  • Retirees, and those close to retirement, who are contemplating a lump-sum payoff, need to ensure they have enough liquid savings to handle emergencies and unexpected medical expenses.
  • Homeowners planning to move to a larger home or downsize to a smaller one within five years are not advised to put extra money toward a mortgage.
  • Those who itemize deductions on a tax return can figure out the amount of money saved on mortgage interest by multiplying the mortgage interest paid last year by their tax rate (federal plus state).  For example, a couple in the 28 percent tax bracket, with a $200,000 loan at 5 percent, will save $2,781 in taxes the first year of a loan.  It’s important to remember that tax savings decline further into the life of the loan, as more money is applied toward the principal.
  • For many retirees, and those nearing retirement, who are close to the end of the mortgage, the interest deduction may not be considerable enough to avoid paying off the loan, especially since retirees often end up in a lower tax bracket.

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Economic Update – March 7, 2011

Last Week in the News


Initial claims for unemployment benefits fell by 20,000 to 368,000 for the week ending February 26. Continuing claims for the week ending February 19 fell by 59,000 to 3.77 million. The monthly unemployment rate fell to 8.9% in February from 9% in January.

The Institute for Supply Management reported that the monthly composite index of manufacturing activity rose to 61.4 in February after a revised 60.8 in January. A reading above 50 signals expansion. It was the 19th straight month of expansion and the highest reading in almost seven years.

The National Association of Realtors reported that its pending home sales index, a forward-looking indicator based on signed contracts, fell 2.8% in January after a revised 3.2% decrease in December. On a year-over-year basis, pending sales are down 1.5%.

Total construction spending fell 0.7% to $791.8 billion in January, following a revised 1.6% decrease in December. Economists had anticipated a decrease of 0.8% in January.

The Mortgage Bankers Association said its seasonally adjusted composite index of mortgage applications for the week ending February 25 fell 6.5%. Refinancing applications decreased 6.5%. Purchase volume fell 6.1%.

The Institute for Supply Management reported that the monthly composite index of non-manufacturing activity rose to 59.7 in February from 59.4 in January. A reading above 50 signals expansion. It was the 14th straight month of expansion in the services sector and the fastest pace since August 2005.

Factory orders rose 3.1% in January to a seasonally adjusted $445.6 billion, following a revised 1.4% increase in December. Excluding the volatile transportation sector, orders rose 0.7%.

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Five signs that say “buy”

Home buyers sitting on the fence wondering if now is the right time to buy should consider five factors when making this decision: Jobs, recent sales activity, construction, mortgage availability, and anecdotal evidence. Each of these issues can help consumers make the best choice for their situation and financial circumstance.

Jobs: Although many areas of the country were deeply impacted by the recession, some areas were less affected by job loss. If employment stability is a concern, prospective buyers should review job-growth data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics at http://www.bls.gov. The data provided by the Bureau is approximately one month old and shows the direction of the local economy.

Recent Sales Activity: Housing inventory and sales volume should be taken into consideration while house hunting. A large inventory of homes with few actual transactions can be a negative indicator. On the other hand, if inventory is falling and transactions are rising, that is a good sign. In January, the CALIFORNIA ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®’ Unsold Inventory Index stood at 6.7 months, up from 5 months in December 2010, but down from 5.7 months in January 2010. The index indicates the number of months needed to deplete the supply of homes on the market at the current sales rate.

Construction: Staying up-to-date on the number of building permits issued for local builders is useful for gauging builder sentiment and the future of housing activity. The California Building Industry Association recently announced that California homebuilders pulled 2,920 total housing permits in January, registering a 5-percent decline compared with a year ago and a 56-percent decline compared with December. However, the Construction Industry Research Board is projecting 62,000 total permits will be pulled in 2011, an increase of 38 percent compared with 2010’s total of 44,893 permits.

Mortgage Availability: Home buyers hoping to be approved for a mortgage should monitor local lending patterns. Following the financial crisis, most national banks tightened lending standards; however, some local banks haven’t been impacted as much as large lenders and are more willing to lend, even for higher-priced homes.

Anecdotal Evidence: Although buyers can access home listings online, one of the best ways to monitor the local housing market is to work with a REALTOR® and gather intelligence using their expertise and guidance.

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Maslenitsa – Celebrate the Russian Mardi Gras with Maslenitsa

Mardi Gras, Carnival, Carnaval, Karneval . . . that’s Maslenitsa by any other name. If you haven’t heard of it, it wasn’t celebrated to much extent for 85 years in Russia. However, Maslenitsa is back in full force. Since 2002 it’s been officially organized in Moscow and is becoming a mainstay of Moscow’s holiday calendar. It is celebrated during the last week before Great Lent – that is, the seventh week before Orthodox Easter.

Maslenitsa 2011 takes place between February 28 and March 6th.

The old word for Maslenitsa, ‘Myasopust’ means “empty of meat;” the Orthodox Church, however, which dislikes people enjoying themselves too much, calls it ‘Cheese Week,’ because the meatless diet still allows cheese, butter and cream, which are also then forbidden during the seven weeks of Lent.

As Russian traditions are observed and people eat their fill of blini (Pancakes) the festivals help to bid farewell to winter.  “Blini” are Russian pancakes, and they are essential to the celebration of Maslenitsa. Said to symbolize the sun—being warm, round, and golden—they are an appropriate warning to the lingering cold weather. Blini are given to friends and family all through the week and are topped with caviar, mushrooms, jam, sour cream, and of course, lots of butter.

Maslenitsa week began as a pagan ritual and has since been absorbed into the Eastern Orthodox religion. As it stands, Maslenitsa serves many purposes. Maslenitsa signals the exit of winter and heralds the coming of spring. The idea is to dispel the cold with symbols of spring: golden pancakes that represent the sun and an effigy – a Man of Straw that is burned on the last day of festivities to welcome warmer weather. Sledding, group fist fights, and troika rides are other traditional Maslenitsa activities.

As a part of pre-Lenten celebrations, it is also a pre-emptive strike to the upcoming fast. Because meat and dairy would traditionally be forbidden, Maslenitsa is the time for feasting (especially on pancakes). The name of the festival has its roots in the Russian word for butter, “maslo.”

The 7 Days of Pancakes Week

Monday – Meeting
Together with the grown-ups, children made a Maslenitsa doll out of straw and old women’s clothes. They set it on a pole and carried it around, singing. Then it was placed at the top of the snow hill, from where people were sliding down.

Tuesday – Games
Most of the amusement activities began on this day. Groups of friends drove around in sledges. Petrushka the clown was making people laugh in the wooden entertainment pavilions (balagan). Mummers visited homes in groups and surprised everybody with spontaneous concerts. Men were allowed to kiss any passing woman on the streets during this day.

Wednesday – Feasting
This day opened the feast in all homes, when pancakes and other delicacies were prepared in quantities. Each housewife had her own pancake recipe and kept it a secret. Pancakes were made in a great variety – from wheat, buckwheat, fine-ground barley and oats. Street stalls were opened, selling ‘sbiten,’ a hot toddy (from honey, water and spices), nuts, honey cakes, tea and pancakes. This day sons-in-law went to their mothers-in-laws’ to eat bliny.

Thursday – Revelry, the Broad Thursday
Entertainment was at its most extreme. This is the day when fisticuffs happened everywhere. Many strict rules applied: “Never hit a man when he is down” goes the Russian proverb, and it comes from Maslenitsa. Violations of the rules were punished. Rules, of course, are made to be broken – a Dr. Collins, in Moscow during the mid-17th century, recorded that more than 200 men were killed on this day.

Friday – Mother-in-law’s Eve
Mothers-in-law were invited by their sons-in-law to a gathering with pancakes. Newlywed couples put on their best clothes and rode on decorated sledges. This was a day to visit all those who had been the guests at a wedding.

Saturday – Sister-in-law’s Gathering
Sisters-in-law and other relatives were invited for dinner by a young wife, where she was supposed to distribute gifts. After strolls and round dances, when darkness arrived Maslenitsa dolls were burnt in ritual fires, with cries and laughter. Pancakes were thrown into the fire with the words: “Burn, pancake, burn, Maslenitsa!”

Sunday – Forgiveness Day
People went to cemeteries and left pancakes on the graves of their ancestors. Everybody asked one another for forgiveness and bowed with the words, “God will forgive you.” All the food that was left was eaten, along with a piece of rye bread and salt, as a reminder of the coming Lent.

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Is a Tankless Water Heater Right for You?

Tankless water heaters became popular in Europe and Asia after World War II because of space constraints and a greater need for energy efficiency. Today, virtually all homes in Japan use tankless water heaters.

Tankless water heaters conserve energy because they only heat the water as it is used. Traditional water heaters store a supply of hot water whether it’s in use or not. Tankless water heaters also heat water 20% to 30% more efficiently.

Compared to conventional water heaters, tankless water heaters can save the average family about 30% on water-heating expenses annually. According to Consumer Reports, that translates into a savings of $70 to $80 per year.

Is a tankless water heater right for you? That depends. Tankless water heaters are more than double the cost of standard water heaters. And the average installation cost is $1,200, compared with $300 for conventional models.

But tankless water heaters have additional benefits: They last twice as long, on average 20 years. And they provide a constant stream of hot water unlike storage-tank models, which stop providing hot water after heavy usage.

If you’re considering a tankless water heater, it’s best to consult with a plumber to determine your household water flow rate, which is the gallons per minute of water used by your fixtures and appliances. Undersizing the flow rate of a tankless water heater is a common mistake.

Tankless water heaters are available in propane, natural gas or electric models. Gas-powered are the most efficient. Manufacturers of tankless water heaters include Takagi, Paloma, Rheem, Rinnai, Stiebel Eltron and Bosch.