Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Don't Fence Me In...

Don’t Fence Me In….

 Home ownership is a funny thing.  There are few things in life that people take greater pride in than owning a home.  However, this is where an interesting dichotomy comes in.  After moving in, people tend to want to do two things to their home.  First, they want to show it off.  Like a newborn baby, they want all their friends and relatives to share in their newfound joy.  After that, though, many people look for ways to secure their privacy.  And what is the easiest way to do that?  Fences.
As homebuilding has increased through the years (with the exception of the last 6 years or so), landowners have gotten smart.  They keep raising the price of their land, causing builders and developers to find ever increasing ways to maximize the home density on their acreage.  This, in turn, has resulted in most homes having no more than 10’ to 15’ of separation between properties.  As a result, there are numerous neighbors that now have fabulous views of side and rear neighbor backyards and porches.  Unfortunately, considering yourself the master of your own domain does not always feel so good when you are sharing that domain with the prying eyes of others.  This causes the natural reaction of people to want to protect and maintain their privacy with fences.  Easy right?  Well…. not so fast.

There are some communities where landscape maintenance is handled by the homeowner’s association.  While this is not prevalent in most single family communities, it is very common in active adult communities.  In these cases, many communities do not allow backyard fencing.  The reason for this is pure economics.  Without fences, landscape maintenance companies can have their equipment move freely from one lot to the next, keeping costs low for the community.  With fences in place, both access and ease of maintenance are reduced, causing costs to be greater.  It is the tradeoff that many of these homeowner’s make to live in relatively maintenance free communities.

However, most other communities leave landscaping to the devices of the individual homeowner.  In these instances, fencing issues are more important that one may realize.  Remember, a fence is both a construction as well as an aesthetic issue.  Remember when I said that communities are becoming more and more dense (housing wise, not people wise – you make your own judgment on the intellectual capacity of your own neighbors).  Well, that means that there is a tighter margin of error for property swales.  These are the areas on the property lines that allow drainage to move off the property and appropriately flow to the community drainage inlets, preventing your lot and home from becoming an unwanted community water feature.  It also means that fence placement is problematic, since you do not want to block or modify the flow of water through these drainage areas.

Then, you have aesthetic issues.  Woe be the community that has no fencing guidelines and restrictions.  Remember, one of the reasons why we choose to live where we do is the appearance of the neighborhood.  Now, think of how that community feels if one neighbor has a landscape hedge, another has decorative fencing, a third has wood shadowbox fencing and a fourth has chain link.  Then imagine if all these different fencing types were next to and attached to each other.  Not necessarily the image of visual harmony that you were looking for.

The important factor here is to make sure that your community has fencing guidelines.  Just like with community housing, you want to make sure that your fencing requirements and restrictions are consistent throughout the community.  It is a fair question to ask prior to your home purchase, especially in newer communities where limited construction may be completed prior to your moving in.  Personally, I like fencing that is required to be softened by landscaping.  It is amazing what shrubbery does to soften the impact of community fencing.  However, that is just one person’s opinion.

So, remember, a home may be your castle, but a yard and a fence represent the edges of your kingdom.  Make sure they all adhere to the same quality standards and guidelines.

Until next time…

Keep kicking the dirt.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

You can huff and you can puff, but does it really matter?

You can huff and you can puff, but does it really matter?

Here in the Sunshine State of Florida, we are known for many things.  Sunny skies, warm weather, beautiful beaches and some minor weather disruptions called hurricanes.  Over the years, and partially in response to the damage caused from hurricanes, Florida building codes have been continually strengthened and improved.  That does not mean that homes have become immune to the effects of Mother Nature, but at least they are built better than they have been in the past.

Another interesting phenomenon that has been occurring in Florida ever since Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992 has been the growth throughout the state of block housing construction.  While block housing had always been popular in South Florida, it has steadily been replacing frame construction in most parts of the state as the construction method of choice. 

One of the interesting side bars to the spread of block construction over frame construction is the belief that block construction is better than frame construction because it will provide better protection during a hurricane.  Sounds reasonable, right?  If the wind is blowing at 100 mph, it would stand to reason that block would do better than frame construction.  Seemed to work for the three pigs.

The funny thing is, the answer is not so obvious.  In reality, the concern over hurricane force winds are that they will get into the truss system and rip the roof off the house.  Luckily, building codes have changed to increase the hurricane tie down and strapping requirements so that this is not the same issue as it had been in the past.  Outside of flying debris or falling trees that can break windows and cause structural damage, one of the greatest hurricane risks to homes is flooding.  And, no, I am not talking about rising water flooding.  I am talking about driving rain flooding your home.  If your home floods because it is in a flood plain, it does not matter how your home is built.  Rising water floods all homes equally.

I know.  You think I am a bit crazy.  How will driving rain flood a home.  Isn’t that what roofs are there for, to stop water from coming into a home?  Yes, and no.  I agree that homes are built really well to stop rain water falling down from the skies from flooding your home.  However, a solid roof does little to stop rain that is blowing sideways and pelting the side of your home.  This is actually what caused a tremendous amount of the water intrusion problems from the back to back to back to back (you get the idea) hurricane season of 2004.  And this is also where block construction does not do as well as frame.  In block, construction, you typically have lathe and stucco placed on top of the exterior block.  While creating a nice finish to your home, it is still a porous substance.  The reason for this is that your home needs to breathe.  If it does not breathe, you can have moisture and mold issue (DISCLOSURE ALERT:  I am not an attorney.  I refuse to be dragged into a mold discussion here.  For those of you looking to get rich quick off of perceived mold in your home, please consult your local yellow pages for appropriate legal counsel.)  When you combine a porous substance with driving rain, guess what happens?  The concrete block soaks up the rain like a sponge.  Eventually, that water will seep through the block, run down the walls and soak your floors.  Viola! Water and flooding in the home.  The interesting thing is that frame construction is usually wrapped with a product called Tyvek.  This material, while not allowing water to penetrate it, is still a breathable substance to prevent the growth of moisture and mold.  No, I don’t know how it works.  It just does.

Hmm.  OK, let’s recap.  The concrete block, solid as a rock, home can soak up driving rain water like a sponge and soak your flooring.  The wood frame house with Tyvek, or comparable exterior wrapping, however, prevents driving water from penetrating the home.  And both home construction techniques have hurricane code tie downs on the roof to prevent the roof from blowing away.  Kind of creates a bit of a perception versus reality dilemma, doesn’t it.  So, next time someone tries to tell you that a concrete block home provides better hurricane protection than a home with frame construction, check around to see if there are any little pigs.  It is just possible that the pig in the frame home may be quite a bit drier than the pig in that big old block house.

Until next time.

Keep kicking the dirt.

Friday, May 10, 2013

When a Low Purchase Price is a Bad Purchase Price

When a low purchase price is a bad purchase price

 First, I would like to thank Mohom for supplying the full poem referenced in my last blog.  It just proves that with the internet, for every question there is, indeed, an answer.

On to today’s discussion.  Over the past few years, it can be easily said that homebuyers have been more interested in finding a foreclosure, distressed, or short sale “deal” than they have been in other forms of real estate transactions.  With falling prices over this time period, everyone has been concerned about overpaying for a home.  In this regard, there is a general logical position that being able to profit off of someone else’s misfortune is a sure way to make sure you are getting a good deal.  I guess that whole Goodwill Towards Your Fellow Man thing never really made it to the real estate industry.
Anyway, what if I were to be able to convince you that the lowest price is not always the best price and that a low purchase price is not always the singular best way to evaluate a real estate purchase decision?  Would you be intrigued?  Would you say I don’t know what I am talking about?  Would you be persuaded to continue to read the blog and recommend it to friends? (That, by the way, is the answer I am looking for.)

Let’s look at the general category of a distressed sale for a moment.  By its nature, you probably have a home that is no longer being maintained properly.  Let’s be honest, once a family decides that their home is seriously underwater, they will most likely not be putting in the appropriate time for upkeep and repairs.  What does this mean?  Well, for starters, the house may need to be repainted – both inside and out.  Flooring may need to be replaced.  Cabinets and countertops may need refinishing or replacement.  Appliances may be outdated.  As these homes are often sold as-is, where-is, there may be less visible issues as well.  The mechanical systems, predominantly air conditioning and hot water heaters may be in poor condition.  Roofs may be reaching the end of their useful lives.  And, if the house is over 30 years old, it may not be too far away from needing a full re-plumb (this may just be a personal issue for me, but I don’t think so).  This does not even begin to address the energy efficiency (or lack thereof) associated with the original construction of the home. 

Now, let’s consider a new home.  First of all, everything is NEW and the home comes with a WARRANTY.  Paint, flooring, appliances, mechanicals, and so on.  You are not replacing anything.  Chances are, you also had the ability to select everything you wanted.  Second, new homes are much more energy efficient.  That $300 - $400 energy bill in the distressed property may be more than twice what you would pay in a new home.  Some homes even have solar panel systems that take away your electric bill entirely. 

What I am getting at here is the difference between cost of purchase and cost of ownership.  Too many people get hung up on the purchase price.  Unfortunately, they forget that a home is not like a television.  It is not a one and done expense.  The older a home gets, the more money that needs to be put into repairs and upkeep on an annual basis.  Let’s say you could save over $300/mo in cost of ownership expenses with a new home over a distressed older home.  Now, you may be saying “Hold on, there is no way an older home will cost me that much more!”  Really.  Let’s take a quick look.  First, you will definitely have utility savings in the new home.  A conservative utility savings of $150/mo is not unreasonable based on the age of the older distressed home you are considering.  Next, let’s look at any upgrades you need to do to the house.  A new high efficiency washer and dryer alone will easily put you over $1,000, averaging almost $100/mo.  This is before any painting, landscaping flooring and other upgrades you may wish to put into the house on a yearly basis.  Viola!  Over $300/mo in extra expenses.  OK, so what does $300/mo mean.  Well, at a 4% interest rate, $300/mo equates to almost $65,000 in mortgage value.  Plus, a newer home versus an older home in a comparable location will probably hold its value much better.

Now, this is not to say that there have not been good values in the distressed marketplace.  However, before that home with the tilted shutters, mildewed roof and missing appliances becomes the home of your dreams, take the time to sharpen your pencil and see if a new home, while costing a bit more money up front, may actually save you a boatload of money in the long term.  (As a side note, it is ok to negotiate the purchase price of a new home.  The worst you will be told is no.)

Until next time,

Keep kicking the dirt.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

I think that I shall never see...

I think that I shall never see….

 There is a poem that starts off  “I think that I shall never see, I thing as lovely as a tree…”.  I have to admit, that is all I remember of the poem.  However, the line does ring a very strong bell of truth as it relates to community development.

Oftentimes, people will drive through various communities and pass comments on how one community will feel better than another without ever really being able to put their finger on why it feels better.  Sometimes, the answer lies in more sophisticated planning techniques involving curvilinear streets, common area sight views, pocket parks, house and roof color separation and the like.  Other times, it is as simple as street trees and sidewalks.

 Next time you are out, pay attention to areas where you see sidewalks and street trees.  These do not need to be in newly planned communities.  In fact, I would encourage you to check out older neighborhoods first.  These are where trees have had the ability to mature for 20, 30 even 50 years or so.  They create magnificent shade canopies over the streets and provide both shade and character to the neighborhood.  Next, look to see if sidewalks are present.  In these areas, you are now fostering outdoor community involvement by creating walking venues for residents.  Of a lesser noticed, but no less important benefit, streets with sidewalks may have a wider street right of way.  In these cases, where the property line does not begin until after the house side of the sidewalk, the driveways will typically (hopefully) run 20’ back from the sidewalk so that a parked car can sit in the driveway without blocking the sidewalk.  The front of the home, especially those with front porches, may be closer to the property line, but the point here is the impact of the cars to the aesthetics of the street.  The scenery is much more pedestrian and resident friendly when you see street tree, sidewalk, then parked car, instead of just roadway and parked car.

 Are there trade offs by having street trees and sidewalks?  Of course there are.  Development costs are higher as are maintenance costs, especially when the trees begin to mature and push up the sidewalks.  However, I believe these expenses are more than offset by the increased aesthetic value being brought to the community.  And, make no mistake, this does translate into higher home values.  Think of it this way.  I think everyone can remember a situation where they have commented on how beautiful an area looked because of the foliage.  On the contrary, I don’t believe anyone (or at least very few) have ever commented on the natural beauty of a bare streetscape without trees and sidewalks.

So, next time you are in a mature neighborhood that brings a smile to your face, think of the poem that begins, “I think that I shall never see, a think as lovely as a tree…” and try to remember the rest of the poem.
Until next time,

Keep kicking the dirt!