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Ways to Avoid Gobbling Up Energy on Thanksgiving

energy consumptionA few days before Thanksgiving

1. Install a dimmer switch for the dining room chandelier. Every time you dim a bulb’s brightness by 10%, you’ll double the bulb’s lifespan. Most CFLs don’t work with dimmers, but you can create mood lighting with incandescents and LEDs. The dimmer switch will cost you about $10.

2. Plan side dishes that can cook simultaneously with the turkey. If you cook dishes at the same temperature at the same time, you’ll reduce the amount of time the oven has to be running — it’s easier for the cook and saves energy, too.

When you start cooking

3. Lower your house thermostat a few degrees. The oven will keep the house warm. You also can turn on your ceiling fan so it sucks air up, distributing heat throughout the room.

4. Use ceramic or glass pans — you can turn down the oven’s temp by up to 25 degrees and get the same results. That’s because these materials retain heat so well, they’ll continue cooking food even after being removed from the oven.

5. Use your oven’s convection feature. When heated air is circulated around the food, it reduces the required temperature and cooking time. You’ll cut your energy use by about 20%.

6. Cook in the microwave whenever possible. Ditto slow cookers. Microwaves get the job done quickly, and although slow cookers take much longer, they still use less energy than the oven. Resist the urge to peek inside your slow cooker: Each time you remove the lid, it releases heat and can add about 25 minutes of cooking time to your dish.

7. Use lids on pots to retain heat. The food you’re cooking on the stovetop will heat up faster when you use lids.

When it’s cleanup time

8. Scrape plates instead of rinsing with hot water. Unless food is really caked on there, your dishwasher should get the dishes clean without a pre-rinse. Compost your non-meat food waste. Check out these other Thanksgiving clean-up tips.

9. Use your dishwasher. It saves energy and water, so only hand-wash things that aren’t dishwasher-safe. Wait until you’ve got a full load before starting the dishwasher. Be sure to stop the appliance before the heated dry cycle; just open the door and let your dishes air-dry.

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To Buy or Not to Buy? In Austin, Texas

Courtesy of: Austin Business Journal

home for saleIn Austin — even with the dynamic appreciation in home values that has continued for the past two years — it’s 30 percent cheaper to own than rent. That’s the assessment of Trulia, the national real estate Web portal and research company.

In fact in every major U.S. market it’s still cheaper to buy a house than rent over the long term — an average of 38 percent cheaper.

Here’s a link to Trulia’s latest “Rent vs. Buy” report. That statistic, however, assumes a 20 percent down payment on a 30-year loan and a few other factors.

For many first-time homebuyers a 20 percent down payment can be an almost impossible stretch, especially given that the average home price in Austin is $308,514, according to the latest market report by the Austin Board of Realtors. Complicating the local landscape is the fact that land prices across the Austin area are fetching a premium, creating a nearly impossible scenario for homebuilders that would like to provide an inventory of starter homes but just can’t make the numbers pencil out.

The issue of first-time homebuying isn’t exclusive to Austin. It’s a problem everywhere and there may be other cultural factors at play, as Jed Kolko, Trulia’s chief economist points out.

“For a millennial with little savings and no Bank of Mom and Dad, an FHA loan might be the only option. If our hypothetical twentysomething is not in a tax bracket that makes itemizing worthwhile and only stays put five years — those young people are restless — buying ends up costing more than renting in 27 of the largest metros,” Kolko said. “Those 27 include not only pricey coastal markets but also markets like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Colorado Springs.”

And presumably Austin, where the robust young population might not want to leave the city ever but also might not want to stay put very long in the same neighborhood.

The gap between renting and owning is more pronounced in other Texas markets. In Houston it’s 43 percent cheaper to buy, and almost the same in Dallas at 42 percent. In San Antonio the gap is 38 percent.

Consider this: In Detroit the gap is the widest and most striking. It’s 63 percent cheaper to own there than to rent. The gap is smallest in Honolulu at just 17 percent.

By regions, the gap is largest in the Midwest and South, and much smaller in large metro areas in New York and California.

Another interesting statistic from Trulia’s report is that the tipping point for whether to buy or rent in Austin would be if mortgage interest rates hit 8.9 percent — not a likely scenario at the moment, though most real estate experts around the country expect interest rates to rise in 2015 from historical lows.

Three Things to Do Before Buying Real Estate

mortgages1. Time horizon and investment goals: First, as with any investment, you must identify your time horizon. For example, if you are a purchaser, do you plan to flip the house within a year?  If so, you must believe the market will move higher in that time frame. Have you evaluated the risks that might prevent this from happening? Or, on the other hand, will this be your retirement home allowing you to endure real-estate cycles without worrying about short-term fluctuations. Understanding your expectations about the property, along with liquidity needs, will help you evaluate if the property is right for you.

2. Impacts on your financial plan: How does this transaction affect your financial plan?  I always go back to the drawing board with my clients to ensure the home purchase works in their plan.  Can you clearly afford the mortgage, property tax, insurance and home maintenance?  Will you have to reduce your living expenses to purchase this home?  If so, how much?   If you lost your job, could you still afford this home? Will this transaction change your retirement date?   On the other hand, if you were to sell now at a high price, what would you intend to do with the cash? Would you plan to move to a less expensive area and pay all cash so that you don’t have a mortgage?

3. Professional assistance:  A good real-estate agent with extensive experience in your area is worth the expense of the commission.  Do your due diligence in finding an agent that you trust who has your best interests at heart.  Your real-estate agent should have a firm grip on your neighborhood’s market activity so that they can provide comparable market analysis, inventory statistics and a solid recommendation on the timing of the purchase or sale.

By:  Michelle Perry Higgins at Wall Street Journal

9 Things You’ve Got Wrong About Green Homes

Although most folks know green homes pack plenty of eco-friendly benefits, there are some pesky misconceptions that need correcting. Here are 9 myths busted.

1.  Myth: Green Homes are Expensive

Eco-friendly homes come in different types, sizes, and price tags, from a green-minded prefab that can cost less than $150,000 to an eco-urban condo for $690,000 or more. The big difference is in resale value: Eco-friendly homes fetch higher prices compared with conventionally built homes.

2.  Myth: Green Homes Look Kooky

Fact: Not all green homes look like grass-roofed hobbit holes or extra-crunchy Earthships. That’s old school. Eco-friendly abodes being built today can look just like traditional houses — except they may have solar panels or small wind turbines.

3.  Myth: Green Homes are a “California Thing”

Fact: California has the strictest environmental laws in the country, so it would make sense to think green homes are a hot property in the Golden State. But when you add up the number of houses that were certified in 2012 by Energy Star for their energy savings and eco-friendly benefits, Texas is a green home leader, with more than three times the number of Energy Star-certified homes than California.

Energy Star-Certified Homes
California 6,173
Texas 21,351

Plus, both Delaware and Maryland have a higher penetration of Energy Star homes. Both have 40% compared with California’s 23%. (Texas is 27%.)

4.  Myth: Green Homes Use Only Non-Toxic Materials

Fact: Not always. Spray polyurethane foam is a petroleum-based product that’s a controversial green building favorite. Although it’s considered an energy-saving rock star because it creates a tight seal and has a high R-value (insulation), the off-gassing it creates during and shortly after installation can cause serious respiratory issues. The EPA still supports its use, but the Passive House Institute U.S. won’t certify homes insulated with the material because it contributes to global warming.

5.  Myth: Green Homes Require Newfangled Technologies

Fact: Green homes aren’t about gizmos and gadgets. They’re about better construction methods that boost energy efficiency and promote healthy indoor environments. With that said, developing eco-friendly home habits like unplugging vampire devices or mastering how to program a digital thermostat can help to further shrink your home’s carbon footprint.

6.  Myth: Green Homes Need Exotic New Building Materials 

Fact: Nope! New building materials have a negative impact on the planet because they produce greenhouse gases during both manufacturing and shipping. That’s why locally salvaged flooring is considered greener than the bamboo stuff that’s harvested from a sustainable source thousands of miles away.

7.  Myth: Green Homes Need New Energy-Efficient Appliances

Fact: It’s not very green to trash appliances in good working condition, even if they’re not rated for energy efficiency, according to the EPA. With proper maintenance major appliances, such as refrigerators and washing machines, can be useful for 10 to 18 years.

8.  Myth: Green Homes are Needed More in Urban Areas

Fact: In actuality, rural and suburban homes are the ones that need some serious greening. Thanks to walkability, people who live in high-density cities have a smaller carbon footprint since they burn fewer fossil fuels. Bonus: Walkability can actually increase your home’s value.

9.  Myth: Existing Homes Can’t Be Green

Fact: False! Retrofitting an existing home is much greener than building a new one, according to a study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. New green homes take 10 to 80 years to overcome the negative environmental affects of the construction process. Since remodeling older homes requires fewer building materials, retrofitting can leave a much smaller carbon footprint.

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Austin-area home prices set record for September, home sales rebound in September 2014

sept14-page-001According to the September 2014 Multiple Listing Service (MLS) report released today by the Austin Board of REALTORS® (ABoR), Austin-area single-family home prices set a record for the month of September. At the same time, Austin-area single-family home sales rebounded from the last two months of home sales declines, increasing 10 percent from September 2013 to 2,524 home sales.

Bill Evans, 2014 President of the Austin Board of REALTORS®, explained, “September’s 10 percent increase in home sales, despite ongoing issues in housing affordability, is a testament to the strong population and job growth that the Austin area and its economy continue to enjoy. However, these records in home prices also show that area homes continue to become more and more unaffordable for Austin homebuyers. ABoR encourages Austinites to take action on Nov. 4 by voting for City Council candidates who will prioritize housing development and affordability issues in 2015.”

Median price for Austin-area single-family homes increased eight percent year-over-year to $240,000 and average price rose seven percent year-over-year to $308,514 in September 2014. These are the highest figures recorded for both median and average price for the month of September.

At the same time, Austin-area monthly housing inventory slipped back to 2.8 months, despite a year-over-year increase of 0.1 months from September 2013. This is still well below the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University’s balanced housing inventory level of 6.5 months.

While Austin-area homes continue to sell quickly, the average number of days single-family homes spent on the market remained unchanged from September 2013 at 44 days. This is the first time that the average number of days spent on the market remained statistically unchanged year-over-year since September 2011.v In September 2014, active listings increased eight percent year-over-year to 6,469 listings and new listings rose four percent during the same time frame to 2,586 listings. Continued gains in single-family home listings over the last few months are having a positive effect on pending sales, which jumped 11 percent year-over-year in September 2014 to 2,201 pending single-family home sales.

Evans concluded, “Recent reports from a national real estate advertising company have claimed that the Austin-area housing market is overvalued, but local economic experts continue to point to our region’s strong economic and population growth as foundations of a healthy market and indicators that those claims are not true. The 110 people who the City of Austin says move to Austin every day need homes to live in, and the real issue at hand is whether those people can afford those homes.”

September 2014 Statistics

    • 2,524 – Single-family homes sold, 10 percent more than September 2013.


    • $240,000 – Median price for single-family homes, eight percent more than September 2013.


    • $308,514 – Average price for single-family homes, seven percent more than September 2013.


    • 44 – Average number of days single-family homes spent on the market, unchanged from September 2013.


    • 2,586 – New single-family home listings on the market, four percent more than September 2013.


    • 6,469 – Active single-family home listings on the market, eight percent more than September 2013.


    • 2,201 – Pending sales for single-family homes, 11 percent more than September 2013.


    • 2.8 – Months of inventory* of single-family homes, 0.1 months more than September 2013.


  • $778,689,336 – Total dollar volume of single-family properties sold, 18 percent more than September 2013.

The following sections describe trends in other sectors of the Austin-area real estate market.

Townhouses & Condominiums

The volume of townhouses and condominiums (condos) purchased in the Austin area in September 2014 was 245, which is four percent less than September 2013. In the same time period, the median price for condos was $205,500, which is one percent more than the same month last year. These properties spent an average of 41 days on the market, two days fewer than September 2013.


In September 2014, a total of 1,444 properties were leased in Austin, which is eight percent more than September 2013. The median price for Austin-area leases was $1,480, which is 10 percent more than the same month last year.

12 Home Improvements That’ll Boost Your Home’s Value

dining-3With a few simple, low-cost tweaks, you can significantly enhance your house’s curb appeal.

If you’re looking to sell your home quickly and for top dollar, there are some lesser-known words that match the importance of the famous real estate phrase “location, location, location.”

Those all-important words? Curb appeal.  As the saying goes, “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.” When people drive up and first see your house, you want them to think of it immediately as a home that has been maintained and well cared for.  “It’s you putting your best foot forward,” says Christy Biberich, owner of Christy B. Design in Los Angeles who appears on the HGTV show “Brother Vs. Brother.” “We do judge a book by its cover.”

While curb appeal gets buyers in the door, sellers who want to move their homes quickly need to take other steps. The strategy varies by neighborhood and market conditions, but staging a house to appeal to the maximum number of buyers can make difference in how fast the home sells.  “Every property is completely different,” says Cannon Christian, president of Renovation Realty in San Diego, a company that helps sellers make improvements designed to get them top dollar. “The little things that get people through the front door matter first.”

Obviously you don’t want to spend money that you won’t get back. Christian advises seeing what improvements house flippers are making in your neighborhood. Comparing the sales prices of, say, homes with older kitchens to homes with kitchens that have been updated is also a good idea. If you see about a $50,000 difference, a $25,000 remodel is likely a smart investment. If homes with original kitchens are fetching close to the same price as those with renovated ones, save your money, since sometimes “it also depends on how hot the market is,” Christian says.

You should also spend time scoping out the competition by viewing listings and photos of similar homes for sale and attending open houses in your neighborhood.  Once prospective buyers are inside your home, you want to make sure the entire house puts its best foot forward. That starts with cleaning and decluttering, two improvements that cost little money and provide a big return.

Next, focus on low-cost “transformative improvements,” Biberich says. “The No. 1 thing you can do is paint.” She advises using neutral tones, but that doesn’t have to mean just white and beige, as brown and cream are also safe choices.  Since every dollar counts, hold off on pet projects and only devote your time and money to renovations that’ll bring you a return. “If you’re looking to sell, do not do the improvements that you’ve always wanted to do,” Christian says.  If, like most sellers, you have a limited budget, here are a dozen home improvements you can make to sell your house for top dollar.

Improve your landscape. Put down fresh sod, replace tired bushes with new ones and add some color, either with flower beds or potted flowers. “Even just a little bit goes a long way,” Biberich says.

Spruce up your entryway. Buy a new front door or paint the old one. If your house number and mailbox look tired, buy and install new ones.

Change out light fixtures and plumbing fixtures. Gold light fixtures are long outdated, and brass is less popular than brushed nickel. Replacing outdated ceiling fixtures and bathroom faucets can give your home a modern touch for a minimal investment.

Clarify any spaces that might confuse buyers. If you have an odd alcove, add a desk or a dresser – something that will suggest how the space is best used. “Most homes have some funky or dysfunctional things that can be corrected,” Biberich says. Don’t keep would-be buyers guessing.

Do partial renovations. Rather than gutting an old bathroom, for example, consider getting a new vanity and refacing the existing tub. In the kitchen, keep the old cabinets but replace the countertops and the hardware.

Consider removing popcorn ceilings. “Half the folks are going to walk out the front door” as soon as they see those, Christian says. But you need to be careful because the popcorn ceilings of pre-1979 homes are likely to contain asbestos, he says. That means this is far from a do-it-yourself project, and you need someone licensed to remove it. Newer ceilings, on the other hand, can be wet and scraped. Or, if it’s feasible and the ceilings are high enough, just drywall over and create new ceilings.

Remove window treatments, unless they are current and high-end. That cuts the risk of turning off would-be buyers who don’t share your taste. Uncovered windows also let more light into the rooms. “You can never outguess buyers on window coverings,” Christian says. Once you’ve got a contract, you can always offer buyers the ones you took down.

Return rooms to their original uses. If you’re using your dining room as an office, turn it back into a dining room. If your third bedroom is an office, turn it back into a bedroom. You can, however, display a photo of the room’s other potential use.

Replace dirty or worn carpet. You might try cleaning it first, but dirty carpet is always a turnoff for buyers. In some markets, you’re better off removing the carpet if there are hardwood floors underneath.

Depersonalize. That means packing away family photos and taking the children’s drawings (and everything else) off the refrigerator. You want a new family to envision themselves living in the home.

Clean thoroughly. Do a deep cleaning before you put your home on the market so everything shines. Be sure to wash the windows.

Paint. Your daughter may love her purple room, but a prospective buyer probably won’t. Repaint all rooms in neutral colors. A fresh coat of paint also makes the house look newer and more modern.


To-Dos: Your October Home Checklist

It’s a great time to clean your gutters, swap out seasonal clothes and wallow in favorite fall traditions. What’s on your October list?



With the air turning crisp, leaves falling and farmer’s markets overflowing with squash, gourds, apples and potatoes, October is a time to celebrate the harvest — and button up the home and garden for the winter ahead. From raking leaves to sharpening knives, see which of these 13 to-dos make your list this month.


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