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Category Archives: General

Portland Public Schools to Review School Boundaries! No More Lottery Selection in Neighborhood Districts!

Advocacy Update – Courtesy of PMAR (Portland Metro Association of Realtors) Governmental Affairs Director Jane Leo

Portland Public Schools Reviews School Boundaries – All schools up for discussion

PPS is currently in the process of reviewing all school boundaries. We asked Portland Public Schools to provide our members with more details; see the article below for the “why” and “what’s next.” Now more than ever, the information posted in a listing regarding schools can only be “deemed accurate at the time of publication.” If your buyer needs specific information about where their children will go to school or if a boundary will change, they should contact the PPS Enrollment Office at 503-916-3205.

Great Schools for Every PPS Neighborhood Portland Public Schools has a historic opportunity to grow great schools in every neighborhood By Jon Isaacs, Chief of Communications & Public Affairs, Portland Public Schools

In addition to strong and consistent local support for schools and a reviving economy, PPS enrollment is on the rise. Now at 48,500, enrollment is projected to grow by approximately 5,000 students in the next 10 years, returning to levels not seen since the late 1990s.

This growth provides the PPS community an historic opportunity to rebuild programs, reconfigure and right-size schools, while also modernizing school buildings following a decade of declining enrollment and nearly two decades of shrinking program and maintenance budgets.

This is why PPS is currently reviewing all school boundaries, grade configurations, and school building capacities. The decisions that we make as a community and a school district now will serve our children and our city for generations to come.

Why Are We Doing This? Enrollment growth resulting in review of all boundaries

Starting in 1997, PPS enrollment began declining, setting the district on a collision course with the effects of property tax limitation and equalization after several years of spending down the district’s once healthy reserves. In 2002, the annual shortfalls in the PPS budget went from serious to crippling.

To cope, Portland Public Schools took drastic measures. Between 2003 and 2012, the school district closed or consolidated 23 schools. Thirty-two schools experienced boundary change. And, grade configurations were changed at 35 mostly eastside schools, many going from elementary or middle schools to K-8s.

The rationale: consolidate students to allow for sufficient teachers and program offerings at the most schools.

Now, PPS is turning a corner. Portland’s population is growing, and established residents are waiting longer to have children, and are remaining in the city when they do start families. PPS continues to have over 80% of families choosing to send their students to public schools. These factors are driving steady enrollment growth across the school district just as state funding for schools has improved with the economy.

In addition, PPS strengthened neighborhood schools in winter 2015 by ending the use of the lottery system for transfers between neighborhood schools.

The result: an historic opportunity to grow great schools in every neighborhood – for all students.

What Happens Next? Changes beginning Fall 2016

To seize the opportunity we now face across our district, PPS convened a diverse committee of 26 parents, teachers, principals, administrators and technical experts in fall 2014. The committee includes Jane Leo, representing the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors®. Since December 2014, the District-Wide Boundary Review Advisory Committee (DBRAC) has been studying district history, demographic trends and the work of similar school districts. DBRAC is advising PPS staff to develop proposals for such future plans to manage growth such as moving boundaries, converting K-8s into elementary and middle schools, expanding existing schools and reopening schools that were closed. Proposals will be released to the community for feedback in mid-October.

The public is invited to learn about and comment on possible changes to schools and boundaries at a series of community meetings in October and November. An online survey and Twitter and Facebook town halls will round out opportunities for comment. Community feedback will shape the final proposals that the committee sends to Superintendent Carole Smith in early December. Superintendent Smith will take a final proposal to the school board in early January 2016. A board decision is expected in time for the school choice period in February. Growth management plans would begin to be implemented in Fall 2016. For up-to-date information on the boundary changes, visit the PPS website at http://www.pps.k12.or.us/departments/enrollment-transfer/9522.htm.

Posted in General|

Buyer Contingencies in the Oregon Real Estate Contract – PointClickandPack.com

The Oregon Real Estate Sales Contract heavily protects buyers by giving them three standard contingencies, plus an appraisal contingency for financed offers, upon which they can terminate a sale and get a full refund of their earnest money. It’s important to note that once a home is sale pending, the sellers cannot get out of the contract without risking a lawsuit from the buyers for specific performance. Buyers cannot be sued by the seller for specific performance. If a buyer terminates a sale after all of the standard contingencies have been satisfied, then the buyer risks losing his/her earnest money in full as liquidated damages for keeping the seller’s house off the market while waiting for the buyer to perform. Here are the basics of each contingency:

The Seller’s Property Disclosure – 5 Business Days After Receipt of this Document

Prior to listing their home for sale, sellers fill out a five page property disclosure which lists everything they know about their home in check box format. (Ex: Has the roof leaked? Yes or No. If so, has the leak been fixed? Yes or No). Buyers have five business days after receipt of this disclosure to back out of the transaction for any reason (or no reason) whatsoever. This is the buyer’s right of revocation under OR law.  If the seller (typically via the listing agent) does not provide the property disclosure until closing, then the buyers can back out of the purchase, keeping their earnest money, up until closing. Normally though, the disclosure is provided to buyers upon offer acceptance, so this contingency is satisfied within the first five business days of offer acceptance. In my experience, buyers rarely terminate a transaction based on information learned from the property disclosure. If they terminate on disclosure, it’s usually because they have found another home they want to buy instead, or have gotten cold feet about the purchase for some other reason. However, the property disclosure is the first place buyers check when problems arise during the transaction or after closing. And non-disclosure about issues that can be somehow proven that the sellers were aware of but didn’t reveal can lead to lawsuits. For this reason, it is imperative that sellers reveal everything they know about the home, during the time that they’ve lived in the home, on this form.

Home Inspection – 7-10 Business Days After Offer Acceptance

Buyers have the right to have the home inspected unless they specifically waive this right in the contract. The time frame for inspections is most typically 7 or 10 business days after an offer has been accepted. Business days begin the next day. Ex: If an offer is accepted at 8:00 am Monday, the time frame for all contingencies would begin on Tuesday. Additionally, unless stated otherwise, the deadline for all contingencies is 5:00 pm on the final day. Once the buyers have obtained all desired inspections, they have three options: (1) Remove the inspection contingency and proceed to closing without asking the seller for any repairs; (2) Unconditionally disapprove of the inspection and terminate the sale; (3) Write up a repair addendum asking the sellers to make repairs and/or reduce the sales price (or provide a credit towards closing costs) in lieu of repairs. If agreement is not reached on the repair addendum, the buyers have the right to terminate the sale. The sellers do not have the right to terminate. However, they can refuse to do any repairs or provide any closing cost credits or price reductions. They could simply revert back to the original accepted offer and perform accordingly. (Please see my other Blog article about the types of inspections available).

Preliminary Title Report – 5 Business Days for Escrow to Send, and then 5 Business Days for Buyer Review

The preliminary title report (prelim) is generated by the escrow company and is emailed out to all parties in the transaction within five business days of the opening of escrow. This is most typically effectuated within 1-2 business days after offer acceptance and is handled by one or both of the realtors involved in the sale. The prelim shows all of the following information (and more): Liens against the home; Easements affecting the property; Judgments against the buyers and sellers (child support/alimony/court judgments); Taxes due or paid; Codes, Covenants & Restrictions, (CCR’s) and Bylaws for condominium and townhouse complexes; Legal property description; Filed litigation affecting the property, etc. Once the buyers receive the prelim, they have five business days to challenge it. Unlike the property disclosure where the buyer does not need a reason to terminate, if the buyer wants to terminate based on the information learned from the prelim, they must have a reason for doing so and this reason must be one that the seller cannot or will not agree to remedy. For example, if there is a contractor lien on the property and the sellers agree to pay the lien at closing, then this item is considered satisfied and the buyers cannot terminate for this reason. If the sellers do not agree to pay the lien and the buyer does not want to pay it, then the buyers can terminate the sale and get their earnest money back. An example of an issue that the seller would not be able to remedy would be any item featured in the CCR’s for the complex or neighborhood. If the complex does not allow dogs, the seller will not be able to change that issue, so the buyer can choose to terminate at this point if they want to keep their dogs. Utility company or fire hydrant easements are not considered to be valid reasons for termination. Nor would any item that would have been easily recognized or already disclosed prior to offer acceptance (ex: a shared driveway).

Appraisal Contingency

For buyers obtaining a loan to make their purchase, the lender will require a property appraisal. The appraisal is typically the final step in the sales transaction. This report is normally ordered after the inspection contingency has been satisfied. For conventional or FHA loans, it takes approximately 2 1/2 weeks from the date ordered for the appraiser to schedule the appraisal visit, complete the home valuation report and submit it to the lender. VA loans take about 2 weeks longer. If the home appraises at or above the sales price, then the sale moves forward to closing. If the appraisal price comes in below the sales price, then the buyer and seller have the following options; (1) Challenge the appraisal by sending in different comps or disputing information in the original appraisal report in hopes that the appraiser will increase the appraised value to the sales price or higher; (2) The seller can agree to lower the sales price to the appraised value and the sale will continue at the lower price; (3) The buyers can bring in the difference in the appraised value and sales price in addition to their original down payment. For example, if the sales price is $250k but the appraisal comes in at $240k, the buyers can choose to continue with the transaction by bringing in another $10k at closing on top of the down payment needed to fund their loan. If the above options lead to a stalemate by the parties and the appraiser is unwilling or unable to adjust his/her value to meet the original sales price, then the buyers can terminate and get their earnest money refunded.

One final note: Other than the appraisal contingency, the three main contingencies typically run concurrently within 10 business days of offer acceptance. Thus, if buyers want to terminate within the first 10 business days, usually they can get a full refund of their earnest money. However, once all contingencies have been satisfied and the appraisal has come in at or above sales price, then terminating buyers typically forfeit their earnest money to the sellers.

Feel free to contact me with questions about the Sales Contract. You can reach me at Phyllis@PointClickandPack.com or 503-421-2407. I look forward to hearing from you!



Posted in Buyers, General|

PPS School Locations by NeighborhoodHere’s an excellent map of where all 78 schools in the Portland Public School District are located. Kindergarten thru High School are included. PPS offers language immersion programs in grades K-8 in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian & Japanese, as well as focus schools which specialize in areas such as science or the arts. Both of my kids are in the Spanish immersion program and were fluent in Spanish by 2nd grade! Contact me if you’d like more information, 503-421-2407.

Posted in Buyers, General|

Portland Oregon, Lay of the Land

Whether you are new to the Portland area or a local resident, searching for a home can be a tedious task. With over 95 different neighborhoods in the Portland Metro area, deciding where to buy a home or how much a home is worth can be confusing. It is my goal to make your purchase as easy and enjoyable as possible. If you’re new to the area, let me be the first to welcome you to Portland. It will be my pleasure to assist you with all of your real estate needs!
To begin, let me give you a basic idea of the lay of the land. The Portland Metro area consists of 95 different neighborhoods. Most of these neighborhoods have their own park and/or shop and restaurant district. The neighborhoods are divided into 5 sections: North, Northeast, Southeast, Northwest and Southwest.

The east and west sides of the city are divided by the Willamette River. Once you’ve visited here, you’ll understand why one of Portland’s nicknames is the City of Bridges. Each time you cross a bridge, you’ve crossed into either the east side or the west side. The north and south sides of the city are divided by Burnside Street. Burnside is neither north nor south. You will either be on East Burnside or West Burnside depending upon which side of the Willamette you are standing.

As a rule, the east side of Portland is geographically fairly flat and the west side is hilly. The east side is also easier to navigate than the west side because it is mostly set up in a grid pattern. Imagine the Willamette River as being labeled “0 Street.” Almost all streets running parallel to the Willamette (and are thus going in the north/south direction) are numbered. So SE 50th Ave is 50 blocks east of the Willamette River (and also downtown Portland since the downtown district begins immediately on the west side of the river). When you hear neighborhoods being described as “close-in,” this means close-in to downtown Portland. Locals typically think of all homes located west of 82nd Ave as being close-in.

As previously mentioned, the west side is geographically more hilly. Streets tend to dead-end (sometimes for no apparent reason) or curve into other streets. The west side is much more difficult to learn because of these issues.

<h3>Real Estate – East Side vs West Side<h3>

Generally speaking, homes located on flat ground are usually less expensive than homes that are on hillsides. This means that the east side is typically more affordable than the west. Keep in mind though that there are some very pricey neighborhoods on the east side and some fairly affordable neighborhoods on the west despite the geographical factors.

The standard lot size on the east side is 50’ x 100’ or 5,000 sf rectangular lots. Lots on the west side are usually larger, around 6,000 – 8,000 sf, and tend to be irregularly shaped. The larger lot sizes on the west side contribute to the higher prices of homes in this area.

The east side was primarily built from 1910 – 1940’s and home styles tend to include Bungalows, Cape Cods, Old-Portlands (covered front porch and steps leading upstairs that are visible as soon as you enter), Victorians and Traditionals. The west side (other than downtown Portland) was developed in the late 1940’s – 1980’s. Home styles tend to consist of the Ranch, Dayranch (looks like a ranch from the front but sits on a hillside, so from the back, it looks like a 2-story), Split-level and Contemporary. North Portland was the site of the first development and has the smallest and oldest homes. Home styles are similar to those mentioned for east side properties. Due to their small size and age/condition, real estate is typically most affordable here. North Portland is currently experiencing a great deal of gentrification and revitalization and many investors see this area as prime property for flips (purchasing fixer-uppers, renovating them and then reselling for a profit).

Almost all of Metro Portland has an urban feel to it with the exception of some neighborhoods in SW. Most neighborhoods on the east side have sidewalks throughout and are very pedestrian and bike-friendly. Many of the neighborhoods on the west side lack sidewalks and tend to be a bit more difficult for pedestrians and bike riders because of the hills and traffic patterns. Despite these factors, many SW neighborhoods have a somewhat more suburban feel to them.

If suburban living appeals to you, this can be found in the immediate outlying cities of Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin, Hillsboro, Sherwood, Lake Oswego, West Linn, Wilsonville and Gresham. I would be happy to help you find property in all of those cities if they would fit your needs better than Metro Portland and I can provide you with more details of those cities should you choose to want that information.

<h3>Shops and Restaurants and Arts District</h3>

Metro Portland consists of mostly mom & pop shops and restaurants. People who live in the close-in neighborhoods tend to gravitate towards local businesses and artists. There are some pockets of corporate big-box retailers and fast-food restaurants, but these areas are few and far between. There are 2 shopping malls located close-in. Pioneer Place Mall is in the heart of downtown Portland, and Lloyd Center is just east of the Willamette River. Lloyd Center has a large ice-skating rink as its center court. The department stores at these malls are Meier & Frank, Sears, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Ave. The suburban outlying cities mostly consist of corporate retailers and restaurants and have very few locally owned businesses or artist galleries.

The majority of our fine arts district, including the Oregon Symphony and the Center for the Arts, is in downtown Portland. Most rock concerts and our NBA basketball team, the Portland Trailblazers, play at the Rose Quarter stadium, which is located in the Lloyd Center district just east of downtown Portland.
Again, I appreciate the opportunity to work with you on your home purchase. Please let me know how I can best assist with all of your real estate needs!

Posted in General|

Discovering Portland (on the weekend!)

What makes Portland different, unique, and special? Some might say it’s the location. Forty-five minutes from the ski slopes and ninety minutes from the ocean. Others might say it’s the ten bridges crossing the river that bisect our city. Still others might think its Powell’s Books, Voodoo Donuts, the Zoo Bombers or the Rose Festival. But for me it’s the people.

There is a story told that in the mid-19th century, during the largest voluntary migration of humans in world history, Oregon Trail pioneers came upon an unassuming fork in the road located somewhere in Idaho. When the settlers reached this crossroads they had an important choice to make; go left to California, or go straight ahead to the Oregon territory.

A simple decision? Not really.

In California there was the enticement of quick and easy riches that came along with the discovery of gold. However, it was also a considerable gamble because the prospect of failure was a very real and likely possibility. In Oregon there was no gold, but there was the most fertile land this country had ever seen. And it was free for the taking. There would be no quick and easy riches in Oregon, and “making it” would involve a great deal of sweat equity. But the rewards found in the Oregon Territory were only limited by one’s own ambition and hard work.

Those that chose Oregon did so for very specific reasons, and it was these pioneering settlers and their descendants that have made Oregon, and its largest city of Portland, the unique place it is today.

Individualistic, courageous, hearty, natural leaders, hard workers, supporters of the underdog, liberal, fun-loving, outdoorsmen, and weird are just some of the adjectives that have been used to describe Portlanders.

My name is Scott Carlson and I am a 57-year old lifelong resident of Portland. I love history and I love traveling the world to experience firsthand the culture and the history of other people. I also love my hometown of Portland, Oregon. I am a project manager by day and a history buff by night and I have spent my entire life wanting to “be with history” on a daily basis, but never quite knowing how to make it happen. Then one day it came to me. I realized I could combine my love of history with my passion for my own hometown. On that day DiscoverPortland Weekend Walking Tours was born.

Held on weekends from May through September, DiscoverPorltand is far different from other Portland tours where you will be given just the guidebook facts. I call this tour “The Rest of the Story” and my intent is not to sell you on Portland; rather it is to tell you stories of people and events in Portland’s distant and not so distant past that will show you who we are and what makes Portlanders, well, Portlanders.

Have you ever wondered how the nation’s 29th largest city came to be run by a local bartender? Or do you know about the man whose courage and “uncommon” common sense saved the City of Roses from almost certain destruction? Have you any idea the role that “architectural envy” played in the design of a Portland icon? Or how about how our own SW Broadway Street irrefutably proves that Juliet was wrong? Yes that’s Shakespeare’s Juliet I am talking about. I will tell you these stories and more as I introduce you to many of the colorful people and events that make up Portland’s past.

Whether you are a resident or a visitor, please join me starting May 26th for a weekend walk through the heart of downtown and hear for yourself “The Rest of the Story.” Please visit DiscoverPDX.com for more information and to sign up for a tour of my hometown. I can’t wait to show you my Portland.

Posted in General|

Expertise from Real Estate Professionals: Far Better Than an Estimate

Real estate websites serve as an important platform to help buyers find their next home, and certainly help sellers expose their listings to those buyers.

But in our view, real estate websites are a starting point, not the ultimate decision engine.

Accurate data and up-to-date listings are very important, but ultimately, we believe the expertise provided by a real estate professional is a far better indicator of true market value than an estimate derived by machine.

That’s why we only display REAL PRICES on homes for sale on REALTOR.com®. Real prices that have been established between a seller and the listing broker, not a mechanized estimate.

Estimates may be OK if they’re used as a reference point to gather general information, but we feel placing mechanized estimates on an active listing that’s been priced by a local professional familiar with the market is misleading.

At best, these estimates are confusing to consumers. At worst, they create the perception of market conditions that don’t accurately reflect reality.

That’s why we don’t do it.

The real estate market is not a “paint-by-numbers” animal. Local market conditions can vary drastically from zip code to zip code, neighborhood to neighborhood, and can change at a moments notice.

Foreclosures and short sales – or the removal of distressed inventory all impact what’s actually happening.

Estimates that are placed on listings that already have an established sale price not only create a recipe for inaccurate information, they also create a strain on real sellers and a strain on the agents who work hard to create CMAs and pricing strategies based on what’s actually happening.

Sellers deserve better than that. Buyers deserve better than that.

Lost in the machinations and histrionics that permeate the discussion about listings and accurate data is the one thing that should be crystal clear:

Real Estate is NOT a game.

It’s a serious business with significant financial and emotional ramifications for the parties involved in every transaction.

And at REALTOR.com®, we have a responsibility to provide accurate information and accurate representations of what’s actually happening in the market – so consumers get the REAL story about what’s happening in their market.

And we do this by displaying real prices from real professionals in every market we serve.

That’s the thing that can really help consumers get a flavor of what’s happening locally, and that’s what we deliver.

Posted in Buyers, General, Sellers|

Do NOT Use Zillow to Determine your Market Value!

The Fuzzy Math of Home Values
By Alyssa Abkowitz | SmartMoney

SmartMoney Magazine: The calculations behind online estimates are adding confusion to an already tricky housing market.

Jason Gonsalves worked hard to turn his 6,500-square-foot stucco-and-stone home in the suburbs of Sacramento into the ultimate grown-up party pad. Inside are the game room, home theater and custom wine cellar. Outside, there’s the recently added piece de resistance — a wood-burning pizza oven, kegerator and searing station, all flanking an infinity-edge pool that overlooks the lapping waters of Folsom Lake. A spread like that doesn’t come cheap, of course, so when interest rates fell recently, Gonsalves, who runs a lobbying firm, looked into refinancing his $750,000 mortgage. That’s when he got some startling news — even as he was putting the finishing touches on his home, it had dropped more than $200,000 in value over a seven-month stretch.

Or at least, that’s what one popular real estate website told him. Another valued Gonsalves’s pad at a jaw-droppingly low $640,500. And these online estimates left him all the more confused when a real-life appraiser, assessing the house for the refi loan, pinned its value at $1.5 million. “I have no idea how those numbers could be so different,” Gonsalves says.

[Click here to check home loan rates in your area.]

Right or wrong, they’re the numbers millions of consumers are clamoring for. In a housing market that’s been mostly a cause for gloom, so-called home-valuation technology has become one of the few sources of excitement. After years of real estate pros holding all the informational cards in the home-sale game, Web-driven companies like Zillow, Homes.com and Realtor.com are offering to reshuffle the deck. They’ve rolled out at-your-fingertips technology via laptop and smartphone to give shoppers and owners an estimate of what almost any home is worth. And people have flocked to the data in startling numbers: Together, four of the biggest websites that offer home-value estimates get 100 million visits a month, and one, Homes.com, saw traffic jump 25 percent in the three months after it launched a value estimator in May. “Consumers used to use us for home buying and move on,” says Jason Doyle, vice president of Homes.com. “Now we can stay engaged with them.”

Real estate voyeurism aside, the stakes are high for many of the sites’ visitors. Homebuyers use the estimates to get a feel for what’s on the market and, later on, to figure out whether their bid will entice a seller to play ball. Vigilant homeowners like Gonsalves check their values to help decide whether it’s worth the hassle of refinancing, while others who are ready to sell use them to gauge if they’re priced right for the market. Real estate agents, meanwhile, say they’re increasingly resigned to spending more time answering questions — or arguing — about the estimates. “It’s an evolution for consumers,” says Gary Painter, director of research at the Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southern California. Banks and other lenders are piggybacking on the trend as well, with some even showcasing the upstarts’ estimates on their own websites. While lenders say they don’t use the estimates to make final decisions about loans, they say Zillow in particular has become a go-to tool for their preliminary research on homes. “I use it every day,” says Zach Rohelier, a mortgage banker at LendingTree.

But for figures that carry such weight, critics say, the estimates can be far rougher than most consumers realize. Indeed, if the websites were dart throwers, they’d seldom hit the bull’s-eye, and they’d sometimes miss the board entirely: Valuations that are 20, 30 or even 50 percent higher or lower than a property’s eventual sale price are not uncommon. The estimates frequently change, too, for reasons that aren’t always easy for homeowners to discern. According to the companies themselves, some quotes have swung by hundreds of thousands of dollars in as little as a month as new data gets plugged into the algorithms the sites rely on. (Those algorithms also change, as happened this summer when Zillow made adjustments that affected all of the 100 million homes in its database.) And while the sites say it’s probably rare that individual homeowners (or real estate agents, for that matter) game the system, they do acknowledge that people can enter information that might push estimates higher. Put it all together, say pros, and you’ve got numbers that have become head-scratching legends in one community after another: a Hollywood Hills aerie losing 47 percent of its value in one month (with no earthquakes or mud slides to explain the drop); a century-old home in Louisville, Ky., that, according to local lore, served as the inspiration for Daisy’s home in The Great Gatsby, quadrupling in value over 30 days; and one townhouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., listed now for $5 million, valued at a whopping $31 million in the midst of the real estate crash — at least according to Zillow.

Zillow says the Brooklyn valuation was an error that it subsequently corrected. And make no mistake, all of the competitors go out of their way to make it clear their numbers are guesstimates, not gospel. “A Trulia estimate is just that — an estimate,” says a disclaimer on that site’s new home-value tool. Zillow deploys similar language and goes a step further, publishing precise numbers about how imprecise its estimates can be. And every major site urges home-price hunters to “always consult with a real estate agent or house appraisal specialist,” in the words of Homes.com. Indeed, these sites say they have strong relationships with the real estate business in general; they get a significant share of their revenue from the industry, in the form of advertising and subscriptions.

[Click here to buy or sell a home.]

But when the real estate version of Pandora’s box is opened, homeowners don’t necessarily pay attention to disclaimers. Consumers and pros alike say many Web surfers put enough faith in the estimates to sway the way they shop and sell. “I’m constantly explaining to clients that those numbers don’t come from a person,” says Mindy Chanaud, a real estate agent in Greenwich, Conn., who launched into what she calls her Zillow spiel when shown a Zestimate of one of her listings. Frank and Sue Parks, former owners of the Gatsby house in Louisville, watched as the site put a $331,000 value on the dwelling in May; by July it had climbed to $1.5 million. (Zillow says the lower estimate reflected errors in its statistical model.) The couple got some potential buyer referrals from the site, but they had to fend off a stream of lowball offers before they sold their place this fall. They’re convinced that the estimate roller coaster accounted for some of that. Says Sue, “It really affected our ability to move the place.”

For most of real estate history, of course, determining a home’s value has been an appraiser’s job. Appraisal involves gathering data on recently sold homes in the area and comparing them with the “subject property” on matters like size, condition and characteristics, before coming up with an estimate of the home’s worth. If the property has, say, a swimming pool, but most recently sold homes don’t, the appraiser might add a premium to the sale value. Still, the exercise involves as much art as science, as appraisers acknowledge. The more unique or luxurious a property, the harder it is to accurately value. “Imported marble and a view of the ocean are going to be more or less valuable depending on market conditions,” says Susan Allen, a vice president at CoreLogic, a data and analysis provider in California. And critics have accused a few appraisers of inflating the value of properties or rubber-stamping other people’s estimates to ensure that deals went through.

The response, beginning in the late 1980s, was the rise of the machines. Economists started developing automated valuation models, or AVMs; instead of having a person visit the property and crunch calculations, these computer models sync the math with data about comparable sales, square footage, number of bedrooms and the like, all in a matter of seconds. Rob Walker, a managing director at AVM purveyor Lender Processing Services, says the models sped up the approval process for second mortgages and home-equity loans; indeed, for years, the tools were mostly reserved for in-house nerds at lending banks. It wasn’t until 2006 that Zillow took them to the masses, with its Zestimate. The company runs data on more than 100 million homes through its own algorithms that recognize relationships between property characteristics, tax assessments and recent transactions. “Humans don’t make these decisions,” says Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow.

Scores like these have helped build successful business models for some companies — Seattle-based Zillow, for one, just raised $69 million in an initial public offering. And they’ve become weapons in the arsenal of consumers like Terence Avella, an attorney in Eastchester, N.Y. After he and his wife became enamored of a four-bedroom Victorian with an asking price of $650,000, Avella consulted Zillow, finding a much lower valuation: $510,000. He says the Zestimate reinforced his belief that the house would need extensive renovations — and he put up a lowball bid. By the time the process was over, Avella had settled on an offer of just $580,000 (though the negotiations later fell through). Indeed, in a market where listing prices often reflect hope more than reality, some agents and consumers say that online tools are a useful reality check. Simms Jenkins, an Atlanta marketing executive, says he’s recently relied on sites like these to both buy and sell homes. “I can’t imagine 25 years ago, when people would just go out and spend their entire Saturday looking at homes,” Jenkins says. “You don’t have to do that now.”

But what’s a godsend to Jenkins is an ongoing mystery to Mike Battaglia. Battaglia lives in a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired mansion in Louisville, on a historic street, across from a lush park. But his neighborhood is decidedly eclectic — homes like his sit near much smaller starter homes — making it a challenge, local appraisers and agents say, to figure out how much each home is worth. Among the online estimates, that difficulty plays out in real time. Homes.com valued the manor at $761,700, but that figure dropped $85,000 in a month. Zillow pinned its worth at $1.1 million in December 2010, then posted no Zestimates at all for several months — only to peg its value at $327,000 in May, a 70 percent haircut. By fall, it was back up to $1 million.

Battaglia, a business consultant, says he knows the numbers are only estimates, but he still thinks that notion doesn’t register with people: “It’s the perception of value that affects people’s psychology.” Zillow says its wide range of estimates was a result of volatility in the local market. Homes.com’s Doyle declined to comment specifically on Battaglia’s house, but says that a home in a neighborhood like his could definitely be vulnerable to inaccuracies. “If there’s a transaction next door and someone just gave away a house, it will throw off the model,” Doyle says.

Indeed, appraisers and real estate consultants say that those models veer off target with alarming frequency. Typically, data for valuation models come from two sources: records from tax assessors and listing data for recent sales. Middleman companies — the dominant ones are CoreLogic and Lender Processing Services — gather this data from more than 3,000 U.S. counties and license them out to the Web sites and other model-builders. Collection is itself a challenge, because not every county tracks properties the same way. In North Carolina’s high-tech Research Triangle, anyone can get data directly from the Wake County website, while in rural Wright County, Mo., tax rolls are available only on paper. The size of a home could be reported by square footage or by the size of each bedroom and bathroom, so data companies must “scrub” the data to make it uniform. Even then, the data isn’t always useful in the field, say real estate pros. County assessors often use AVMs in newer subdivisions where floor plans don’t vary much. But with custom homes or neighborhoods going through gentrification, the models can go haywire. “You cannot use a computer model in certain areas and expect the value to come out right,” says John May, the former assessor of Jefferson County, Ky.

Some properties’ data can be too tough a nut for any computer model to crack. On a quiet street in one of Brooklyn’s grander old neighborhoods stands the brownstone that, according to Zillow, was worth $31 million in 2007. “I don’t even know if there’s ever been a home in Brooklyn worth that much,” says a spokeswoman for The Corcoran Group, the agency that now lists the property on the market, for $5 million. Zillow declined to discuss why its earlier estimate was so high, but a look at the house’s records suggests one potential reason for the enormous spread: Although the address is a two-family townhouse, the current owners use the entire house, giving them square footage that’s off-the-charts big by New York City standards.

Public records are hardly the only problem. Automated models aren’t designed to account for the unique details that often make or break a deal — something their designers readily acknowledge. AVMs usually can’t capture data that determines the condition of a property, such as whether there’s been a ton of wear and tear. Is a home right next to the railroad tracks or a golf course or a landfill? AVMs can’t always answer those questions, say industry pros, though GPS technology is improving things on that score. Models also can’t decipher the motivations of a buyer or seller, says Leslie Sellers, a past president of The Appraisal Institute. A couple who’s going through a nasty divorce, for example, may have taken the first offer that came along just to unload the property. For all these reasons, says Lee Kennedy, managing director of AVMetrics, a firm that audits and tests industrial-grade AVMs, the models that banks use often add a “confidence score” to their value estimates, with a low score signaling that it’s best to send in a human appraiser.

Consumers, however, don’t get to see a confidence score; instead, they get disclaimers, some of which are eye-opening. Zillow surfers who read the “About Zestimates” page find out that the site’s overall median error rate — the amount the estimates vary from the actual fair value — is 8.5 percent, and that about one-fourth of the estimates wind up being at least 20 percent off the properties’ eventual sale price. In some places, the numbers are far more dramatic: Gibson County, home of the West Tennessee Strawberry Festival, has a 57 percent error rate; in Hamilton County, Ohio, where the Cincinnati Bengals play, it’s 82 percent. Site users are always one click away from this data, but agents say few homebuyers read it (on Zillow’s homepage, the font for the “About Zestimates” link is slightly smaller than the main home-data type — and quite a bit fainter).

The sites argue that, over time, edits and corrections will help them perfect their numbers — and many of the corrections will come from their customers. On Homes.com, for example, anyone who knows certain specifics, like a homeowner’s surname and the year the home was last purchased, can edit the details to reflect, say, a sprawling two-bedroom addition. Zillow also allows site visitors to modify its property details, and in four years, it has accepted revisions on 25 million homes — perhaps the strongest testament to how seriously consumers take the estimates. Today, Zestimates are helpful enough, says the site, to give consumers an accurate sense of any home’s value. In the meantime, says Humphries, the company’s economist, “We’re always tweaking the algorithm or building a new one.”

But in the eyes of some skeptics, that tweaking only increases the potential for off-base estimates. Steve Levine, a real estate agent in Shrewsbury, Mass., says he recently changed his home description on one site, adding the fact that he has a finished basement. Over the next six months, his home rose from $516,000 to $558,000 — a healthy 8 percent — while a neighbor’s nearly identical home sank in value. Levine says he has no way to tell how big an impact his update made, “but being able to change the facts is one more tool for manipulating the system.” The sites say they believe intentionally wrong changes are rare, but acknowledge they can only go so far policing those tweaks. “It’s not 100 percent bulletproof,” says Homes.com’s Doyle.

In the end, some critics say, the sites’ business models may pose a bigger problem for consumers than their algorithms. Even their flaws help to sustain the buzz around the estimates, drawing curious visitors. The online firms earn significant revenues from advertising, and the more traffic they get, the greater that ad revenue is. Zillow says 57 percent of its revenue comes from display ads from the likes of home-supply store Lowe’s, realty franchisor Century 21 and builder KB Home. Realtor.com’s parent company, Move Inc., generates 42 percent of its sales from listings by local agents, while Homes.com says advertising is its fastest growing revenue area. Trulia expects its traffic to grow now that it has launched a beta version of an online estimator, says head of communications Ken Shuman; after all, he adds, “consumers asked for it.” As long as they keep asking, say industry insiders, stumbles in reliability aren’t especially important. “It’s not about being accurate or precise; it’s about being sticky,” says Kennedy, of AVMetrics. For their part, the sites say stickiness matters to their business plans, but that they take the estimates very seriously; otherwise, as a Zillow spokesperson put it, “we wouldn’t have a team of Ph.D.s trying to make them better all the time.” They depict the estimates as an ongoing experiment that is likely to achieve a very high degree of accuracy — someday. (At least for now, one site is deferring to agents in the home-value game: Realtor.com says it removes its estimates from homes once they actually go on the market.)

In the future, of course, homeowners may look at today’s estimates the way they look at those enormous console televisions from the 1940s — as an awkward early phase for what became a ubiquitous, reliable technology. But in the meantime, many are content to use them, flaws and all, whether in earnest or as entertainment. In an exurb outside Phoenix, Mike Lang, a commercial-property manager, has seen his home jump almost 20 percent in value on Zillow in the past few months — he’s not sure why. Though he’s not moving any time soon, he’s enjoying his time at the top of the real estate heap. “I’ve got the most expensive house in the neighborhood,” Lang says.

Posted in General, Market|

Forbes Magazine names Portland as One of America’s Best Downtowns!

By John Giuffo, Forbes Contributor

I travel, I look for good food when I do, and I write about both.

When it comes to cities, Portland, Ore., is a unique urban playground of high-end culture, green living and DIY arts scenes. But for a taste of Portland’s best, natives point to the city’s downtown area. There’s independent live theater, beautiful parks, the largest independent and used bookstore in the country and some of the best doughnut shops on the Pacific Coast (not to mention a plethora of Portland’s celebrated food trucks).

We located the country’s most alluring downtowns with the help of travel experts from Frommer’s and Livability, a travel and analysis site that focuses on mid-sized or smaller towns. While Livability’s own list of best downtowns helped us narrow down the playing field, we ultimately considered a wide variety of factors including attractiveness, accessibility, diversity of offerings, shops, restaurants, proximity of parks and cultural options.

“We embraced the subjectivity that is inherent in a list like this, while still striving for benchmarks and criteria that we think make a great downtown,” said John Hood, a Livability spokesman. Among those criteria they considered: entertainment options, navigability, attractive architecture and a thriving downtown.

Some cities, like Santa Monica, made the list because they both offer a lively downtown and have the luck of being located in a beautiful setting. Located on one of the most enviable stretches of the California coastline, Santa Monica has a strong concentration of high-end shops and inventive restaurants that help lure residents and visitors away from shore. But it’s not just the rich and famous that can enjoy Santa Monica’s downtown – there are enough single-family homes and apartments spread out through the area to ensure that a lively mix of people can live and work near the downtown area. “All of Santa Monica is pretty walkable and compact,” says Jason Clampet, senior online editor for Frommers.com. “And it has some of the best views in the Los Angeles area of the ocean.”

There are smaller towns on the list as well, and they often earn their spot due to easily navigable downtown areas and unparalleled attractiveness. In Georgia, Savannah’s stately mansions, historic downtown area, and restored Victorian-era homes draw in millions of tourists who wander through the downtown streets, often hopping on or off the trolley, or touring the cobblestones by horse-drawn carriage. Yes, there are charming restaurants and attractive shops, but its architecture, often partially obscured by moss-covered old trees, that pulls the crowds in with their magnetic southern charm.

As for a downtown among the country’s biggest cities, none come close to Chicago for its range of offerings and combination of stunning architectural monuments, waterside views, shopping options and recreational opportunities. Stare up at the austere exactitude of Mies van der Rohe’s buildings (such as the black tower of the IBM Plaza), wander through the packed halls of the Chicago Institute of Art to view its impressive collection, or catch a speedboat off Navy Pier to tour the Lake Michigan waterfront. Endless things to do and places to eat, all in a walk-friendly area, make it one of the best downtowns in the United States.

Posted in General|

Improve Your Home’s Safety Features

Nobody wants to be a crime victim. Here are some easy do-it-yourself weekend projects to make your Portland, OR home safer from intruders.

  1. Install dead bolts on all locks.
  2. Install motion-detector lights in the driveway and/or on the front porch. Pathway lighting is also an effective deterrent. Remember that it’s more risky to break-in to a well-lit house than a dark house.
  3. If you are going to be away from your home for an extended time frame, add timers to some of your interior lights. Timers will turn particular lights on and off at specified times each day and will give anyone who is watching your house the appearance that someone is home.
  4. Trim large shrubs at the bottom to make them less likely hiding spots.
  5. Install a peep hole in your front door so you always know who’s on the other side before opening.
  6. Purchase a locking screen door and keep this door locked if you want to leave your front main door open to get some fresh air in the house during the summer months.
  7. Leave a car in the driveway if you will be away on vacation. It gives the appearance that someone is home.
  8. After purchasing a new home, change all of the locks. You never know to whom the previous owner gave a key and then forgot that person had it.
Posted in General|